A PROLOGUE TO BE SPOKEN BY BETSY
Our scene is the wind-swept coast of Devon. By day there is a wide stretch of ocean far below, and the abutments of our stage arise from a dizzy cliff.
The time is remote, and ships of forgotten build stand out from Bristol in full sail for the mines of India. But we must be loose and free of precise date lest our plot be shamed by broken fact. A thousand years are but as yesterday. We make but a general gesture to the dim spaces of the past.
The village of Clovelly climbs in a single street—a staircase, really—and it is fagged and out of breath half way. But far above, on a stormy crag, clinging by its toes, there stands a pirates' hut. To this topmost ledge fishwives sometimes scramble by day; but when a wind shall search the crannies of the night, then no villager would dare to climb so high.
You will seek today in vain the pirates' cabin. Since the adventure of our play a thousands tempests have snarled across these rocks. You must convince your reason that these pinnacles of yesteryear, toppled down by storm, lie buried in the sea.
We had hoped that our drama's scene might lie on a pirate ship at sea. We had wished for a swaying mast, full-set with canvas—a typhoon to smother our stage in wind. We had hoped to walk a victim off the plank, with the sea roaring in the wings. But our plot deals stubbornly with us. Alas, our pirates grow old and stiff. They have retired, as we say, from active practice and live in easy luxury on shore. Yet we shall see that their villany still thrives.
How shall we select a name for our frightful play? There is a wharf in London that is known as Wapping. In these days that we call the present it has sunk to common use and its rotten timbers are piled with honest unromantic merchandise. But once a gibbet stood on Wapping Wharf, and pirates were hanged upon it. It was the first convenient harborage for inbound ships to dispose of this dirty deep-sea cargo. So it was the somber motif of a pirate's life—his moment of reflection after he had slit his victim's throat.
Tonight, although your beards grow long and Time has marked its net of wrinkles—tonight, the years spin backwards. Only the young in heart will catch the slender meaning of our play.
We are too quick to think that childhood passes with the years—that its fine fancy is blunted with the practice of the world. Too long have we been taught that the clouds of glory fade in the common day. If a man permits, a child keeps house within his heart.
Our prologue outstays its time. Already the captain of our pirates puts on his hook. The evil Duke limps for practice on his wooden leg. Presently our curtain will rise. We shall see the pirates' cabin, with the lighthouse in the distance, Flint's lantern and the ladder to the sleeping-loft. We shall hear a storm unparalleled—thunder, lightning and a rush of wind, if it can be managed.
Then our candles burn to socket. Our pasteboard cabin grows dark. The blustering ocean, the dizzy cliffs of Devon, melt like an unsubstantial pageant....