By Jon Burroughs
“William, are you still there?”
Maude Fraley gave a tap at the door to the dressing room, and the door creaked slightly open. Seated in front of a mirror sat an actor still in makeup, his dressing gown loosely wrapped about him. He was staring transfixed, his eyes focused on the looking glass before him, seemingly oblivious to anything else in the world.
“William, are you all right?” Maude took a single step into the room. She had been working with this American thespian for a little more than two months, yet still found him to be somewhat mysterious in his ways. Each evening, she would portray Alice Faulkner to his Sherlock Holmes to a filled house at the Lyceum Theatre. Each evening, in the final moments on the boards, he would declare, “I suppose – indeed I know – that I love you. I love you. But I know, as well, what I am.” Holmes knew who he was, but what secrets do you possess, Mr. Gillette?, she wondered.
The floor creaked at her footfall, and that simple act seemed to be what was needed to bring William Gillette out of his trance.
“Oh, Maude, forgive me. I was deep in thought,” he apologized.
“Louise, Fuller, and I have decided to go out for a late night drink at a pub,” explained the actress. “We wondered if you wanted to come, too?” Louise was the actress Louise Collins, who portrayed The’rese. Fuller Mellish played the part of Sidney Price.
“Not tonight, thank you, dear lady.”
“Very well. Don’t stay too late,” she cautioned. “It’s starting to get a bit nippy outside. It may snow.”
“I shall take your sage advice.”
However, after she had gone, the actor stared into the mirror. Something strange had happened this evening, and he wasn’t quite sure what it was. All through the performance of Sherlock Holmes, he had felt himself under the critical stare of someone.
Someone is watching you? Gillette struggled to keep from laughing as he peered at his reflection. Of course, you old fool – you’re the lead actor in critically acclaimed drama. Of course people are watching you!
There had been a good house this evening. The audience predictably laughed in all the right spots, watched with fear at the correct moments, and burst forth with wild applause when the play had ended and he had stepped forward during the curtain calls. No one had missed a cue or botched his lines.
Why in the name of God is this evening’s performance bothering you?
Another creak of the floor outside his door. William looked up as a figure edged his way past the threshold. It was an elderly fellow, shaggy white hair falling haphazardly about his ears, sporting a matching mustache that did all but obscure any view of his lips. He was wearing thick spectacles, balanced on his bulbous nose, dressed in rumpled clothes, and sporting a broom. William immediately surmised that this was the late-night cleaning man.
“Pardon me, Guv’nor. Just cleaning up. I’ll go away if you need more time to yourself.”
William shook his head. “No . . . please. Come in. I’ll just finish cleaning up and be on my way.” He reached for a wash cloth to remove the makeup and began the transformation from Sherlock Holmes, detective, to William Gillette, gentleman actor and playwright.
“I watched your performance tonight, sir,” remarked the old gentleman.
“Did you like the play?”
“Some of it.” The thin narrow fingers wrapped themselves about the broom and began sweeping.
“Just some of it?” asked William, slightly irritated that the old duffer had not even bothered to lie and say how good it was.
“You are a fine actor, sir, but there are some things I would change if I were you.”
William felt his ire rising. “So you do? Tell me, sir, have you had much experience on stage other than pushing a broom?”
“I have trod the boards in my day . . . yes . . . on several occasions . . .”
“Very well. What suggestions would you offer me?”
The gentleman set the broom against the wall and sat down as William began to change out of his dressing gown and the Holmes attire beneath.
“First, I believe you put in too much emotion when dealing with Professor Moriarty. Holmes should be a bit colder, but less emotional sounding when dealing with the Napoleon of Crime. Emotion reveals weaknesses.”
“Very well — anything else?” asked William slipping out of his shirt.
“And the way you address Watson. A tad bit too condescending.”
“I gather you are an expert on the Great Detective?” mused Gillette, an edge to his voice now. He glanced over to the figure, and to his surprise, the stooped figure was now standing fully erect and taller than William had first considered him.
“You might say that.”
William changed into a fresh shirt and reached for his trousers. Despite his best efforts to remain cool and calm, he felt uneasiness creeping through him.
“Arthur and I discussed his character quite thoroughly before I ever put pen to paper regarding this play,” he told the old man.
“There are some things Mr. Doyle may not be aware of regarding Mr. Holmes.”
William Gillette gave the old man a long glance. He could have sworn that he had detected a change of voice coming from the figure. “May I ask just what makes you such an authority on the detective . . . Mr. Uhh . . . what did you say your name was?”
“Didn’t give it. Nowadays, they just call me Old Snuffy.”
The old man was being evasive. William wondered if there was still one of the stage hands in the building who might come at a call if trouble erupted.
“The ending really must go,” continued the old man. “Sherlock Holmes in love? How ludicrous.”
His remark was punctuated by the old man’s hand pulling off the mustache.
“Just . . . just who are you?” William demanded.
The mustache was tossed onto the dressing table, followed moments later by a white wig and fake eyebrows. A narrow hand reached out and wiped away false aging lines. In still another alarming action, the man standing before him peeled away the phony nose to reveal a thinner, more sharply beaked real one.
“I think you know.” A slight smile formed at the lips.
“But . . . you’re dead!” exclaimed William. “Watson wrote about your death on the falls . . .”
A broader smile. “As one of your own countrymen, Mr. Twain has written. ‘The reports of my death have been somewhat exaggerated.’”
“Why have you come here this evening – really?”
“Simply to make some suggestions. That’s all.” The figure moved back to the door.
“Sir, I’m honored . . .”
“One more thing, Mr. Gillette . . .”
“Certainly . . . anything . . .”
“Lose the deerstalker. I wore it only on a few cases out in the country.”
And with that, the figure had gone, and William Gillette found himself once more alone in his dressing room.