By Charles Reade
EARLY in the last century, two young women were talking together in a large apartment, richly furnished. One of these was Susan, cousin and dependent of Mrs. Anne Oldfield; the other was a flower-girl, whom that lady had fascinated by her scenic talent. The poor girl was but one of many persons over whom Mrs. Oldfield had cast a spell; and yet this actress had not reached the zenith of her reputation.
The town, which does not always know its own mind about actors, applauded one or two of her rivals more than her, and fancied it admired them more.
Oldfield was the woman (there is always one) who used the tones of nature upon the stage, in that day; she ranted at times like her neighbors, but she never ranted out of tune like them; her declamation was nature, alias art--thundering; theirs was artifice--raving. Her treatment of words was as follows: she mastered them in the tone of household speech; she then gradually built up these simple tones into a gorgeous edifice of music and meaning; but, though dilated, heightened, and embellished, they never lost their original truth. Her rivals started from a lie, so, the higher they soared, the further they left truth behind them;--they do the same thing now, pretty universally.
The public is a very good judge; and no judge at all of such matters. I will explain.
Let the stage voice and the dramatic voice--the artificial and the artistic--the bastard and the legitimate--the false and the true--be kept apart upon separate stages, and there is no security that the public will not, as far as hands go, applaud the monotone, or lie, more than the melodious truth. But set the lie and the truth side by side, upon fair terms, and the public becomes what the critics of this particular art have never been--a critic; and stage bubbles, that have bubbled for years, are liable to burst in a single night.
Mrs. Oldfield was wise enough, even in her generation, to know that the public's powers of comparison require that the things to be compared shall be placed cheek by jowl before it; and this is why she had for some time maneuvered to play, foot to foot, against Mrs. Bracegirdle, the champion of the stage.
Bracegirdle, strong in position, tradition, face, figure, and many qualities of an actor, was by no means sorry of an opportunity to quench a rising rival; and thus the two ladies were to act together in "The Rival Queens," within a few days of our story.
Roxana . . . . MRS. BRACEGIRDLE.
Statira . . . . MRS. OLDFIELD.
The town, whose heart at that epoch was in the theater, awaited this singular struggle in a state of burning excitement we can no longer realize.
Susan Oldfield, first cousin of the tragedian, was a dramatic aspirant. Anne's success having traveled into the provinces, her aunt, Susan's mother, said to Susan, who was making a cream-cheese, "You go an' act too, lass!"
"I will," said Susan, a making of cream-cheese.
Anne's mother remonstrated, "She can't do it."
"Why not, sister?" said Susan's mother sharply.
Then ensued some reasoning.
"Anne," said the tragedian's mother, "was born clever. I can't account for it. She was always mimicking. She took off the exciseman, and the farmers, and her grandmother, and the very parson--how she used to make us laugh! Mimicking! why, it was like a looking-glass, and the folks standing in front of it, and speaking behind it, all at one time. Once I made her take me off; she was very loath, poor lass, I think she knew she could not do it so well as the rest; it wasn't like, though it made them all laugh more than the others;. but the others were as like as fagot to fagot. Now, Susan, she can't take off nothing, without 'tis the scald cream from the milk, and I've seen me beat her at that; I'm not bragging."
To this piece of ratiocination, Susan's mother opposed the following:
"Talent is in the blood," said she. (This implies that great are all the first cousins of the great.)
Anne's mother might have weakened this by examples at her own door, to wit, the exciseman, who was a clever fellow, and his son an ass. But she preferred keeping within her own line of argument, and as the ladies floated, by a law of their nature, away from that to which lawyers tend, an issue, they drifted divaguely over the great pacific ocean of feminine logic. At last a light shot into Anne's mamma. She found terra firma, i.e., an argument too strong for refutation.
"Besides, Jane," said she, "I want your Susan to churn! So there's an end!"
Alas! she had underrated the rival disputant. Susan's mother took refuge in an argument equally irrefragable. She packed up the girl's things that night, and sent her off by coach to Anne next morning.
Susan arrived, told her story and her hopes on Anne's neck. Anne laughed, and made room for her on the third floor. The cousins went to the theater that evening, the aspirant in front.
Susan passed through various emotions, and when Belvidera "gazed, turned giddy, raved, and died," she ran to the stage door, with some misgivings whether she might not be wanted to lay her cousin out. In Anne's dressing-room she found a laughing dame, who, while wiping off her rouge, told her she was a fool and asked her rather sharply, "how it went."
"The people clapped their hands! I could have kissed them," said Susan.
"As if I could not hear that, child," said Anne. "I want to know how many cried where you were--"
"Now, how can I tell you, cousin, when I could not see for crying myself?"
"You cried--did you? I am very glad of that!"
"It does not prove much, but it proves more than their clapping of hands. You shall be my barber's block--you don't understand me--all the better--come home to supper."
At supper, the tragedian made the dairymaid tell her every little village event; and, in her turn, recalled all the rural personages; and, reviving the trick of her early youth, imitated their looks, manners and sentiments to the life.
She began with the exciseman and ended with the curate--a white-headed old gentleman, all learning, piety and simplicity. He had seen in this beautiful and gifted woman only a lamb that he was to lead up to heaven--please God.
The naughtiest things we do are sure to be the cleverest, and this imitation made Susan laugh more than the others.
But in the midst of it the mimic suddenly paused, and her eye seemed to turn inward. She was quite silent for a moment.
Ah! Oldfield, in that one moment I am sure your heart has drunk many a past year. It is away to the banks of Trent, to grass and flowers, and days of innocence, to church-bells and a cottage porch, and your mother's bosom, my poor woman--princess of the stage.
She faltered out: "But he was a good man. Oh, yes! yes! yes! he was a good man; he admired me more then than he would now! None like him shine on my path now." And she burst into a fit of crying.
Susan cried with her, without in the least knowing what was the matter. And these most dissimilar beings soon learned to love one another. The next day Anne took the gauge of Susan's entire intellects; and, by way of comment on the text of Susan, connected her with dramatic poetry, as Mrs. Oldfield's dresser.
Susan then had been installed about three months, when she was holding that conversation with the flower-girl, which I have too long interrupted.
"It is an odd thing to say, but I think you are in love with my cousin Anne."
"I don't know," was the answer. "I am drawn to her by something I cannot resist. I followed her home for three months before I spoke to you. Will she not be angry at my presumption?"
"La! Of course not. It is not as if you were one of these impudent men that follow her about, and slip notes into every mortal thing--her carriage, her prayer book."
Now Susan happened to be laying out the new dress for Statira, which had just come in; and, in a manner singularly apropos, no less than two nice little notes fell out of it as she spoke.
The girls looked at them, as they lay on the floor, like deer looking askant at a lap-dog.
"Oh!" said the votary of Flora; "they ought to be ashamed."
"So they ought," cried Susan. "I'd say nothing," added she, "if some of them were for me. But I shall have them when I am an actress."
"Are you to be that? Ah! you will never be like her!"
"Why not? She is only my mother's sister's daughter, bless you. Anne was only a country lass like me, at first starting, and that is why my mother sent me here, because, when talent is in a family, don't let one churn all the butter, says she."
"But can you act?" interposed the other.
"Can't I?" was the answer.
"His fame survives the world in deathless story,
Nor heaven and earth combined can match his glory."
These lines, which in our day would be thought a leetle hyperbolical, Susan recited with gestures equally supernatural.
"Bless you," added she, complacently. "I could act fast enough, if I could but get the words off. Can you read?"
"Handwriting? Tell the truth, now!"
"Yes! I can indeed."
"Handwriting is hard, is it not?" said Susan; "but a part beats all. Did ever you see a part?"
"Well, I'll tell ye, girl! there comes a great scratch, and then some words. But don't you go for to say those words, because they belong to another gentleman, and he mightn't like it. Then you come in, and then another scratch. And I declare it would puzzle Old Scratch to clear the curds from the whey--"
Susan suddenly interrupted herself, for she had caught sight of a lady slowly approaching from an adjoining room, the door of which was open. "Hush!" cried Susan; "here she is! alack, she is not well! Oh, dear! she is far from well!" And, in point of fact, the lady slowly entered the apartment, laboring visibly under a weight of disease. The poor flower-girl, naturally thinking this no time for her introduction, dropped a bouquet on the table and retreated precipitately from the den of the sick lioness.
Then the lady opened her lips, and faltered forth the following sentence: "I go no further, let me rest here, Oenone!"
"Do, cousin!" said Susan, consolingly.
"I droop, I sink, my strength abandons me!" said the poor invalid.
"Here's a chair for y', Anne," cried Susan. "What is the matter?"
On this, the other, fixing her filmy eyes upon her, explained, slowly and faintly, that, "'Her eyes were dazzled with returning day; her trembling limbs refused their wonted stay.'
"Ah!" sighed she, and tottered toward the chair.
"She's going to faint--she's going to faint!" cried poor Susan. "Oh, dear! Here, quick! smell to this, Anne."
"That will do, then," said the other, in a hard, unfeeling tone. "I am fortunate to have satisfied your judgment, madam," added she.
Susan stood petrified, in the act of hurrying with the smelling-bottle.
"That is the way I come on in that scene," explained Mrs. Oldfield, yawning in Susan's sympathetic face.
"Acting, by jingo!" screamed Susan. "You ought to be ashamed; I thought you were a dead woman. I wish you wouldn't," cried she, flying at her like a hen; "tormenting us at home, when there's nobody to see."
"It is my system--I aim at truth. You are unsophisticated, and I experiment on you," was the cool excuse.
"Cousin, when am I to be an actress?" inquired Susan.
"After fifteen years' labor, perhaps," was the encouraging response.
"Labor! I thought it was all in--spi--ration!"
"Many think so, and find their error. Labor and Art are the foundation--Inspiration is the result."
"Oh, Anne," cried Susan, "now do tell me your feelings in the theater."
"Well, Susan, first, I cast my eyes around, and try to count the house."
"No, no, Anne, I don't mean that."
"Well, then, child, at times upon the scene--mind, I say at times--the present does fade from my soul, and the great past lives and burns again; the boards seem buoyant air beneath me, child; that sea of English heads floats like a dream before me, and I breathe old Greece and Rome. I ride on the whirlwind of the poet's words, and wave my scepter like a queen--ay, and a queen I am!--for kings govern millions of bodies, but I sway a thousand hearts! But, to tell the truth, Susan, when all is over, I sink back to woman--and often my mind goes home, dear, to our native town, where Trent glides so calmly through the meadows. I pine to be by his side, far from the dust of the scene, and the din of life--to take the riches of my heart from flatterers, strangers, and the world, and give them all, all, to one faithful heart, large, full, and loving as my own!--Where's my dress for Statira, hussy?" She snapped this last with a marvelous quick change of key and a sudden sharpness of tone peculiar to actresses when stage-dresses are in question.
"Here it is. Oh, isn't it superb?"
"Yes, it is superb," said Oldfield dryly; "velvet, satin, and ostrich feathers for an Eastern queen. The same costume for Belvidera, Statira, Olytemnestra, and Mrs. Dobbs. Oh, prejudice! prejudice! The stage has always been fortified against common sense! Velvet Greeks, periwigged Romans--the audience mingling with the scene--past and present blundered together!--English fops in the Roman forum, taking snuff under a Roman matron's nose (that's me), and cackling out that she does it nothing like (no more she does)--nothing like Peggy Porteous--whose merit was that she died thirty years ago, whose merit would have been greater had she died fifty years ago, and much greater still had she never lived at all."
Here Susan offered her half a dozen letters, including the smuggled notes; but the sweet-tempered soul (being for the moment in her tantrums) would not look at them. "I know what they are," said she; "vanity, in marvelous thin disguises; my flatterers are so eloquent, that they will persuade me into marrying poor old Mannering--every morning he writes me four pages, and tells me my duty; every evening he neglects his own, and goes to the theater, which is unbecoming his age, I think."
"He looks a very wise gentleman," observed Susan.
"He does," was the rejoinder, "but his folly reconciles me in some degree to his wisdom; so, mark my words, I shall marry my silly sage. There, burn all the rest but his--no! don't burn the letter in verse!"
"Yes! I won't have him burned either--for he loves me, poor boy! Find it, Susan; he never misses a day. I think I should like to know that one."
"I think this is it," said Susan.
"Then read it out expressively, while I mend this collar. So then I shall estimate your progress to the temple of Fame, ma'am."
It is not easy to do justice on paper to Susan's recitative; but, in fact, she read it much as school-boys scan, and what she read to her cousin for a poet's love hopped thus:
"'Excuse--me dear--est friend--if I--should appear
Too press--ing but--at my--years one--has not
Much time--to lose--and your--good sense--I feel--'"
"My good sense!" cried Mrs. Oldfield, "how can that be poetry?"
"It is poetry, I know," remonstrated Susan. "See, cousin, it's all of a length."
"All of a length with your wit--that is the Mannering prose."
"Drat them, if they write in lines, how is one to know their prose from their verse?" said Susan, spitefully.
"I'll tell you, Susan," said the other, soothingly; "their prose is something as like Mannering as can be, their verse is something in this style:
"You were not made to live from age to age;
The dairy yawns for you--and not the stage!"
She found what she sought, and, reading out herself the unknown writer's verses, she said, with some feminine complacency, "Yes! this is a heart I have really penetrated."
"I've penetrated one, too," said Susan.
"Indeed!" was the reply; "how did you contrive that--not with the spit, I hope?"
Thus encouraged, Susan delivered herself most volubly of a secret that had long burned in her. She proceeded to relate how she had observed a young gentleman always standing by the stage-door as they got into their chariot, and when they reached home, somehow, he was always standing there too. "It was not for you, this one," said Susan hastily, "because you are so wrapped up he could not see you." Then she told her cousin how, once, when they were walking separately, this same young gentleman had said to her, most tenderly, "Madam, you are in the service of Mrs. Oldfield?" and, on another occasion, he had got as far as, "Madam," when unfortunately her cousin looked round and he vanished. Susan, then, throwing off the remains of her reserve, and clasping her hands together, confessed she admired him as much as he did her. Susan gave this reason for her affection: "He is, for all the world, like one of the young tragedy princes, and you know what ducks they are."
"I do, to my cost," was the caustic reply. "I wish, instead of talking about this silly lover of yours, who must be a fool, or he would have made a fool of you long ago, you would find out who is the brave young gentleman who risked his life for me last month. Now, I think of it, I am quite interested in him."
"Risked his life!--and you never told me, Anne!"
"Robert told you, of course."
"Did he not?--then I will tell you the whole story. You have heard me speak of the Duchess of Tadcaster?"
"No, cousin, never!"
"I wonder at that! Well, she and Lady Betsy Bertie and I used to stroll in Richmond Park with our arms round one another's waists, like the Graces, more or less, and kiss one another, ugh! and swear a deathless friendship, like liars and fools as we are. But her Grace of Tadcaster had never anything to do, and I had my business, so I could not always be plagued with her; so for this the little idiot now aspires to my enmity, and, knowing none but the most vulgar ways of showing a sentiment, she bids her coachman drive her empty carriage against mine, containing me. Child, I thought the world was at an end. The glasses were broken, the wheels locked, and all my little sins began to appear such big ones to me; and the brute kept whipping the horses, and they plunged so horribly, when a brave young gentleman sprang to their heads, tore them away, and gave her nasty coachman such a caning." Here Oldfield clinched a charming white fist; then, lifting up her eyes, she said tenderly, "Heaven grant no harm befell him afterward, for I drove off, and left him to his fate!"
Charming sensibility! an actress's!
In return for this anecdote, Susan was about to communicate some further particulars on the subject which occupied all her secret thoughts, when she was interrupted by a noise and scuffle in the anteroom, high above which were heard the loud, harsh tones of a stranger's voice exclaiming, "But I tell ye I will see her, ye saucy Jack."
Before this personage bursts upon Mrs. Oldfield, and the rest of us, I must go back and take up the other end of my knot in the ancient town of Coventry.
Nathan Oldworthy dwelt there; a flourishing attorney; he had been a clerk; he came to be the master of clerks; his own ambition was satisfied, but his son Alexander, a youth of parts, became the center of a second ambition. Alexander was to embrace the higher branch of the legal profession: was to be, first pleader, then barrister, then king's counsel--lastly, a judge; and contemporaneously with this final distinction, the old attorney was to sing "Nunc Dimittis," and "Capias "no more.
Bystanders are obliging enough to laugh at such schemes; but why? The heart is given to them, and they are no laughing matter to those who form them. Such schemes destroyed, the flavor is taken out of human lives.
When Nathan sent his son to London, it was a proud, though a sad day for him; hitherto he had looked upon their parting merely as the first step of a glorious ladder; but when the coach took young Alexander out of sight, the father found how much he loved him, and paced very, very slowly home, while Alexander glided contentedly on toward London.
Now "London" means a different thing to every one of us; to one, it is the Temple of Commerce; to another, of Themis; to a third, of Thespis; and to a fourth, of the Paphian Venus; and so on, because we are all much narrower than men ought to be. To Nathan Oldworthy it was the sacred spot where grin the courts of law. To Alexander it was the sacred spot where (being from the country) he thought to find the nine Muses in bodily presence--his favorite Melpomene at their head. Nathan knew next to nothing about his own son, a not uncommon arrangement. Alexander, upon the whole, rather loathed law, and adored poetry. In those days youths had not learned "to frown in a glass, and write odes to despair," and be dubbed a duck by tender beauty confounding sulks with sorrow. Alexander had to woo the Muse clandestinely, and so wooed her sincerely. He went with a manuscript tragedy in his pocket called "Berenice," which he had rewritten and reshaped three several times; with a head full of ideas, and a heart turned to truth, beauty, and goodness. Arrived there, he was installed in the neighborhood, and under the secret surveillance of his father's friend, Timothy Bateman, Solicitor of Gray's Inn.
If you had asked Alexander Oldworthy, upon the coach, who is the greatest of mankind, his answer would have been instantaneous, a true poet! But the first evening he spent in London, raised a doubt of this in his mind, for he discovered a being brighter, nobler, truer, greater, than even a poet.
At four Alexander reached London. At five he was in his first theater.
That sense of the beautiful which belongs to genius made him see beauty in the semicircular sweep of the glowing boxes; in gilt ornaments glorious with light; and, above all, in human beings gayly dressed and radiant with expectation. And all these things are beautiful; only gross, rustic senses cannot see it, and blunted town senses can see it no longer.
Before the play began, music attacked him on another side; and all combined with youth and novelty to raise him to a high key of intellectual enjoyment; and when the ample curtain rose slowly and majestically upon Mr. Otway's tragedy of "Venice Preserved," it was an era in this young life.
Poetry rose from the dead before his eyes this night. She lay no longer entombed in print. She floated around the scene, ethereal, but palpable. She breathed and burned in heroic shapes, and godlike tones, and looks of fire.
Presently there glided among the other figures one that by enchantment seized the poet's eye, and made all that his predecessors had ever writ in praise of grace and beauty seem tame by comparison.
She spoke, and his frame vibrated to this voice. All his senses drank in her great perfections, and he thrilled with wonder and enthusiastic joy, that this our earth contained such a being. He seemed to see the Eve of Milton, with Madonna's glory crowning her head, and immortal music gushing from her lips.
The lady was, in point of fact, Mrs. Oldfield--the Belvidera of the play. Alexander thought he knew "Venice Preserved" before this; but he found, as the greatest wits must submit to discover, that in the closet a good play is but the corpse of a play; the stage gives it life. (The printed words of a play are about one-third of a play; the tones and varying melodies of beautiful and artful speech are another third; and the business, gesture, and that great visible story, the expression of the speaking, and the dumb play of the silent actors, are another third.)
Belvidera's voice, full, sweet, rich, piercing, and melodious, and still in its vast compass true to the varying sentiment of all she uttered, seemed to impregnate every line with double meaning and treble beauty. Her author dilated into giant size and godlike beauty at the touch of that voice. And when she was silent she still spoke to Alexander's eye, for her face was more eloquent than vulgar tongues are. Her dumb-play from the first to the last moment of the scene was in as high a key as her elocution. Had she not spoken one single word, still she would have written in the air by the side of Otway's syllables a great pictorial narrative, that filled all the chinks of his sketch with most rare and excellent colors of true flesh-tint, and made that sketch a picture.
Here was a new art for our poet; and as, by that just arrangement which pervades the universe, "acting" is the most triumphant of all the arts, to compensate it for being the most evanescent, what wonder that he thrilled beneath its magic, and worshiped its priestess?
He went home filled with a new sense of being--all seemed cold, dark, and tame, until he could return and see this poetess-orator-witch and her enchantments once more.
In those days they varied the entertainments in London almost as they do in the provinces now; and Alexander, who went to the theater six nights a week, saw Mrs. Oldfield's beauty and talent in many shapes. Her power of distinct personation was very great. Her Andromache, her Ismena, and Belvidera were all different beings. Also each of her tragic personations left upon the mind a type. One night young Oldworthy saw majesty, another tenderness, another fiery passion personified and embodied in a poetic creation.
But a fresh surprise was in store for him. The next week comedy happened to be in the ascendant; and Mrs. Oldfield, whose entr&eacuate;e in character was always the keynote of her personation, sprang upon the stage as Lady Townley, and in a moment the air seemed to fill with singing birds that chirped the pleasures of youth, beauty, and fashion, in notes that sparkled like diamonds, stars, and prisms. Her genuine gushing gayety warmed the coldest and cheered the forlornest heart. Nor was she less charming in the last act, where, Lady Townley's good sense being at last alarmed and her good heart touched, she bowed her saucy head and begged her lord's pardon, with tender, unaffected penitence. The tears stood thick in Alexander's eyes during that charming scene, where in a prose comedy the author has had the courage and the beauty to spread his wings and rise in a moment into verse with the rising sentiment.
To this succeeded Maria in "The Conjuror," and Indiana in what the good souls of that day were pleased to call the comedy of "The Conscious Lovers," in the course of which comedy Indiana made Alexander weep more constantly, continuously, and copiously than in all the tragedies of the epoch he had as yet witnessed.
So now Alexander Oldworthy lived for the stage; and, as the pearl is the disease of the oyster, so this Siren became Alexander's disease. The enthusiast lost his hold of real life. Real life became to him an interlude, and soon that followed which was to be expected. The poor novice, who had begun by adoring the artist, ended by loving the woman, and he loved her like a novice and a poet; he looked into his own heart, confounded it with hers, and clothed her with every heroic quality. He believed her as great in mind and as good in heart as she was lovely in person, and he would have given poems to be permitted to kiss her dress, or to lay his neck for a moment under her foot. Burning to attract her attention, yet too humble and timid to make an open attempt, he had at last recourse to his own art. Every day he wrote verses upon her, and sent them to her house. Every night after the play he watched at the stage door for a glimpse of her as she came out of the theater to her carriage, and, being lighter of foot than the carriage-horses of his century, he generally managed to catch another glimpse of her as she stepped from her carriage into her own house.
But all this led to no results, and Alexander's heart was often very cold and sick. While he sat at the play he was in Elysium; but when, after seeing this divinity vanish, he returned to his lodgings and looked at his attachment by the light of one candle, despondency fell like a weight of ice upon him, and he was miserable till he had written her some verses. The verses writ, he was miserable till play-time.
One night he stood as usual at the stage door after the performance, watching for Mrs. Oldfield, who, in a general way, was accompanied by her cousin Susan. This night, however, she was alone; and, having seen her enter her chariot, Alexander was about to start for her house to see her get down from it, when suddenly another carriage came into contact with Mrs. Oldfield's. The collision was violent, and Mrs. Oldfield screamed with unaffected terror, at which scream Alexander sprang to the horses of the other carriage, and, seizing one of them just above the curb, drew him violently back. To his surprise, instead of co-operating with him, the adverse coachman whipped both his horses, and, whether by accident or design, the lash fell twice on Alexander. Jehu never made a worse investment of whipcord. The young man drew himself back upon the pavement, and sprang with a single bound upon the near horse's quarters; from thence to the coach-box. Contemporaneously with his arrival there, he knocked the coachman out of his seat on the roof of his carriage, and then seizing his whip, broke it in one moment into a stick, and belabored the prostrate charioteer till the blood poured from him in torrents. Then, springing to the ground with one bound, he turned the horses' heads, belabored them with the mutilated whip, and off they trotted gently home.
Alexander ran to Mrs. Oldfield's carriage window, his cheeks burning, his eyes blazing. "They are gone, madam," said he, with rough timidity. The actress looked at him, and smiled on him, and said, "So I see, sir, and I am much obleeged to you." She was then about to draw back to her corner, but suddenly she reflected, and, half beckoning Alexander, who had drawn back, she said, "My dear, learn for me whose carriage that was." Alexander turned to gain the information, but it was volunteered by one of the bystanders.
"It is the Duchess of Tadcaster's, Mrs. Oldfield."
"Ah!" cried Mrs. Oldfield, "the little beast!" (this polite phrase she uttered with a most majestic force of sovereign contempt); "thank you, sir; bid Robert drive me home, my child" (this to Alexander); on which a bystander sang out, "You are to drive home, Robert--Buckingham Gate, the corner house."
At this sally Mrs. Oldfield smiled with perfect composure, but did not look at the speaker. As the carriage moved, she leaned gently forward and kissed her hand like a queen to Alexander, then nestled into her corner and went to sleep.
Alexander did nothing of the sort that night. He went home on wings. He could not go in. He walked up and down before his door three hours before he could go to so vulgar a thing as bed. As a lover will read over fifty times six lines of love from the beloved hand, so Alexander acted over and over the little scene of this night, and dwelt on every tone, word, look and gesture of the great creature who had at last spoken to him, smiled on him, thanked him. Oh, how happy he was! he could hardly realize his bliss. "My dear"--but had not his ears deceived him--had she really called him "my dear," and what was he to understand by so unexpected an address? was it on account of the service he had just done her, or might he venture to hope she had noticed his face in the theater, sitting, as he always did, at one place, at the side of the second row of the pit? but no! he rejected that as impossible. Whatever she meant by it, his blood was at her service as well as his heart. He blessed her with tears in his eyes for using such heavenly words to him in any sense--"my dear," "my child." He framed these words in his heart.
Alas! he little thought that "my dear" meant literally nothing; he was not aware that calling every living creature "my dear" is one of the nasty little tricks of the stage--like their swearing without anger, and their shoveling snuff into the nose without intermission, in the innocent hope of making every sentence intellectual, by a dirty thing done mechanically, and not intellectually. As for "my child," that was better--that was at least a trick of the lady's own, partly caught from her French acquaintances.
For some days Alexander was in heaven. He fell upon his tragedy, he altered it by the light the stage had given him; above all, he heightened and improved the heroine, he touched her and retouched her with the colors of Oldfield--and this done, with trembling hands he wrapped it in brown paper, addressed it, and left it at her own house, and no sooner had Susan's hand touched it than he fled like a guilty thing. You see it was his first love--and she he loved seemed more than mortal to him.
And now came a reaction. Days and days rolled by, and no more adventures came, no means of making acquaintance with one so high above his reach.
He was still at the stage door, but she did not seem to recognize him, and he dared not recall himself to her recollection. His organization was delicate--he began to fret and lose his sleep, and at last his pallor and listlessness attracted the not very keen eye of Timothy Bateman. Mr. Bateman asked him twenty times if anything was the matter--twenty times he answered, No! Attest good, worthy, commonplace Bateman, after dinner and deep thought, said one day, "Alexander, I've found out what it is." Alexander started.
"Money melts in London, yours is gone quicker than you thought it would--my poor lad, don't you fret. I've got twenty pounds to spare, here 'tis. Your father will never know. I've been young as well as you." Alexander grasped the good old fellow's hand and pressed it to his heart. He never looked at the note, but he looked half tenderly, half wildly into the old man's eyes.
Bateman read this look aright. "Ay, out with it, young man," he cried, "never keep a grief locked up in your heart, while you have a friend that will listen to it; that is an old man's advice."
On this poor Alexander's story gushed forth. He told Bateman the facts I have told you, only his soul, and all the feelings he had gone through, gushed from his heart of hearts. They sat till one in the morning, and often as the young heart laid bare its enthusiasm, its youth, its anguish, the dry old lawyer found out there was a soft bit left in his own, that sent the woman to the door of his eyes; for Alexander told his story differently, and I think on the whole better than I do. I will just indicate one difference between us two as narrators--he told it like blood and fire, I tell it like criticism and ice, and be hanged to me.
Perhaps, had Alexander told the tale as I do, Bateman, man of the world, would have sneered at him, or sternly advised him to quit this folly and whim; but as it was, Bateman was touched, and mingled pity with good, gentle, but firm advice, and poor Alexander was grateful. The poet revered the commonplace good man, as a poet ought, and humbly prayed him to save him by his wisdom. He owned that he was mad; that he was indulging a hopeless passion; that he knew the great tragedian, courted by the noble and rich of the land, would never condescend even to an acquaintance with him. And bursting into a passion of tears, "Oh, good Mr. Bateman!" cried he, "the most unfortunate hour of my life was that in which I first saw her, for she will be my death, for she will never permit me to live for her, and without her life is intolerable to me."
This last feature decided Timothy Bateman; the next morning he wrote to Nathan Oldworthy a full account of all. "Come up and take him home again, for Heaven's sake."
It fell like a thunderbolt on the poor father, but he moved promptly; in two hours he was on the road to London.
Arrived there, he straight invaded Alexander. The poet, luckily for himself, was not at home. He then went to Bateman; he was in a towering passion.
The old Puritanical leaven was scotched, but not killed, in Coventry.
In a general way, Nathan looked on love as no worse than one of the Evil One's many snares, to divert youth from law--but love of an actress! If you had asked Coventry whether the Play-House or the Public-House ruins the manners, morality, and intellect of England, Coventry was capable of answering, "The Play-House." He raged against the fool and the jade, as he succinctly, and not inaptly, described a dramatic poet and an actress.
His friend endeavored to stop the current of his wrath, in vain; the attempt only diverted its larger current from Alexander to the Siren who had fascinated him. In vain Bateman assured him that affairs had proceeded to no length between the parties; the other snubbed him, called him a fool, said he knew nothing of the world, and assured him that, if anything came of it, she should have nothing from the Oldworthys but thirty pence per week, the parish allowance (Nathan's ideas of love were as primitive as Alexander's were poetic), and lastly, bouncing up, he announced that he was going to see the hussy, and force her to give up her Delilah designs.
At this poor Bateman was in dismay; he represented to this mad bull that Mrs. Oldfield was "on the windy side of the law," that, there were no proofs she had done anything more than every woman would do if she was clever enough, viz., turn every man's head; he next reminded him of her importance, and implored him at least to be prudent. "My dear friend," said he, "there are at least a score of gentlemen in this town, who would pass their swords through an old attorney, as they would through a mad dog, only to have a smile or a compliment from this lady."
This last argument was ill chosen. The old Puritan was game to the backbone; he flung Mrs. Oldfield's champions a grim grin of defiance, and marched out to invade that lady, and save his offspring.
Now, the said Mrs. Oldfield, wishing to be very quiet, because she was preparing to play for the championship of the stage, and was studying Statira, had given her footman orders to admit no living soul, upon any pretense.
Oldworthy, who had heard in Coventry that people in London are always at home if their servants say they are out, pushed past the man; the man followed him remonstrating. When they reached the antechamber, he thought it was time to do more, so he laid his hand on the intruder's collar;--then ensued a short but very brisk scuffle; the ladies heard, to their dismay, a sound as of a footman falling from the top to the bottom of a staircase; and the next moment, in jackboots, splashed with travel, an immense hat of a fashion long gone by, his dark cheek flushed with anger, and his eyes shooting somber lightning from under their thick brows, Nathan Oldworthy strode like wildfire into the room.
Susan screamed, and Anne turned pale, but, recovering herself, she said, with a wonderful show of spirit, "How dare you intrude on me?--Keep close to me, stupid!" was her trembling aside to Susan.
"I'm used to enter people's houses, whether they will or not," was the gruff reply.
"Your business, sir?" said Mrs. Oldfield, with affected calmness.
"It is not fit for that child to hear," was the answer.
Anne Oldfield was wonderfully intelligent, and even in this remark she saw the man, if a barbarian, was not a ruffian at bottom. She looked toward Susan.
Susan, interpreting her look, declined to leave her alone "with, with--"
"A brute, I suppose," said Nathan, coarsely.
The artist measured the man with her eye.
"He who feels himself a brute is on the way to be a man," said she, with genuine dignity; so saying, she dismissed Susan with a gesture.
"You are the play acting woman, aren't you?" said he.
"I am the tragedian, sir," replied she, "whose time is precious."
"I'll lose no time--I'm an attorney--the first in Coventry. I'm Nathan Oldworthy. My son's education has been given him under my own eye--I taught him the customs of the country, and the civil law. He is to be a sergeant-at-law, and a sergeant-at-law he shall be--"
"I consent, for one," said Oldfield, demurely.
"And then we can play into one another's hands, as should be."
"I have no opposition to offer to this pretty little scheme of the Old Somethings--father and son."
"Oldworthys! no opposition! when he hasn't been once to Westminster, and every night to the play-house."
"Oh!" said the lady, "I see! the old story."
"The very day the poor boy came here," resumed Nathan, "there was a tragedy play; so, because a woman sighed and burned for sport, the fool goes home and sighs and burns in earnest, can't eat his victuals, flings away his prospects, and thinks of nothing but this Nance Oldfield."
He uttered this appellation with rough contempt; and had the actress been a little one, this descent to Nance Oldfield would have mortified or enraged her. But its effect on the great Oldfield was different, and somewhat singular; she opened her lovely eyes on him. "Nance Oldfield!" cried she; "oh, sir! nobody has called me that name since I left my little native town."
"Haven't they, though?" said the rough customer, more gently, responding to her heavenly tones, rather than to the sentiment, which he in no degree comprehended.
"No!" said Oldfield, with an ill-used Æolian-harp note.
Here the attorney began to suspect she was diverting him from the point, and with a curl of the lip, and a fine masculine contempt for all subterfuges not on sheepskin--"You had better say you do not know all this," cried he.
"Not I," was the reply. "My good sir, your son has left you to confide to me the secret of his attachment. You have discharged the commission, Sir Pandarus of Troy," added she, with a world of malicious fun in her jewel-like eye.
"Nathan Oldworthy of Coventry, I tell ye!" put in the angry sire.
"And it is now my duty to put some questions to you," resumed the actress. "Is your son handsome?" said she, in a sly half-whisper.
"Is not he?" answered gaunt simplicity, "and well built too--he is like me, they say."
"There is a point on which I am very particular. Has he nice teeth?--upon your honor, now."
"White as milk, ma'am; and a smile that warms your heart up; fresh color; there's not such a lad in Coventry," Here the old boy caught sight of a certain poetical epistle, which, if you remember, was in Mrs. Oldfield's hands.
"And pray, madam," said he, with smooth craft, "does Alexander Oldworthy never write to you?"
"Never!" was her answer.
"She says never!" thundered Nathan, "and there is his letter in her very hand--a superb handwriting; what a waste of talent to write to you with it, instead of engrossing; what does the fool say?" and he snatched the letter rudely from her, and read out poor Alexander, with the lungs of a Stentor.
Gracious me! if I was puzzled to show the reader how Susan read the Mannering prose, how on earth shall I make him hear and see Oldworthy Père read Oldworthy Fils, his rhymes; but I will attempt a faint adumbration, wherein, Glorious Apollo! from on high befriend us!
"My soul hangs trembling"--(full stop.) "On that magic voice, grieves with your woe"--(full stop.) "Exults when you rejoice. A golden chain"--(Here he cast a look of perplexity.) "I feel but cannot see"--(here he began to suspect Alexander of insanity.) "Binds earth to Heaven"--(of impiety, ditto.) "It ties my heart to thee like a sunflower." And now the reader wore the ill-used look of one who had been betrayed into a labyrinth of unmeaning syllables; but at this juncture, thanks to his sire, Alexander Oldworthy began to excite Mrs. Oldfield's interest.
"And that poetry is his?" said the actress.
"Poetry? no! How could my son write poetry? I'll be hanged if it isn't though, for all the lines begin with a capital letter."
Oldfield took the paper from him. "Listen," said she, and, with a heavenly cadence and expression, she spoke the lines thus:
"My soul hangs trembling on that magic voice,
Grieves with your woe, exults when you rejoice;
A golden chain I feel, but cannot see,
Binds earth to heaven--it ties my heart to thee,
Like a sunflower, etc., etc.
"What do you call that, eh?"
"Why, honey dropping from the comb," said the astounded lawyer, to whom the art of speech was entirely unknown, until that moment, as it is to millions of the human race. "It is honey dropping from the comb," repeated Nathan. "I see, he has been and bought it ready made, and it has cost him a pretty penny, no doubt. So now his money's going to the dogs, too."
"And these sentiments, these accents of poetry and truth, that have reached my heart, this daily homage, that would flatter a queen, do I owe it to your son? Oh, sir!"
"Good gracious heavens!" roared the terrified father; "don't you go and fall in love with him; and, now I think on't, that is what I have been working for ever since I came here. Out it short. I came for my son, and I will have him back, if you please. Where is he?"
"How can I know?" said the lady, pettishly.
"Why, he follows you everywhere."
"Except here, where he never will follow me, unless his father teaches him housebreaking under the head of civil law."
At this sudden thrust, Oldworthy blushed. "Well, ma'am!" stammered he, "I was a little precipitate; but, my good lady, pray tell me, when did you last see him?"
"I never saw him at all, which I regret," added she, satirically; "because you say he resembles his father." Nathan was a particularly ugly dog.
"She is very polite," thought Nathan. "But," objected he, civilly, "you must have learned from his letters."
"That they are not signed!" said she, handing the poetical epistle to him, with great significance.
Mr. Nathan Oldworthy began now to doubt whether he was sur le bon terrain in his present proceedings; and the error in which he had detected himself made him suddenly suspect his judgment and general report on another head. "What an extraordinary thing!" said he, bluntly. "Perhaps you are an honest woman after all, ma'am!"
"Sir!" said Oldfield, with a most tragic air.
"I ask your pardon, ma'am! I ask your pardon!" cried the other, terrified by the royal pronunciation of this monosyllable. "Country manners, ma'am! that is all! We do speak so straightforward down in Coventry."
"Yes! but if you speak so straightforward here, you will be sent to Coventry."
"I'll take care not, madam! I'll take great care not!" said the other, hastily. Then he paused--a light rose gradually to his eyes. "Sent to Coventry! ha! haw! ho! But, madam, this love will be his ruin. It will rob him of his profession, which he detests, and of a rich heiress whom he can't abide! Since I came here, I think better of play-actors; but consider, madam, we don't like our blood to come down in the world!"
"It would be cruel to lower an attorney," replied the play-actress, looking him demurely in the face.
"You are considerate, madam!" replied he, gratefully. He added, with manly compunction, "More so, I fear, than I have deserved."
"Mais! il me désarme cet homme!" cried the sprightly Oldfield, ready to scream with laughter.
"Are you speaking to me, ma'am?" said Nathan, severely.
"No, that was an 'aside.' Go on, my good soul!"
"Then forgive the trouble, the agitation, of a father. His career, his happiness, is in danger."
"Now, why did you not begin with that? it would have saved your time and mine. Favor me with your attention, sir, for a moment," said the fine lady, with grave courtesy.
"I will, madam," said the other, respectfully.
"Mr. Oldworthy, first you are to observe that I have, by the constitutions of these realms, as much right to fall in love with your son, or even with yourself, as he or you have to do with me."
"So you have, I never thought of that; but don't ye do it, for Heaven's sake, if 'tisn't done already."
"But I should have been inclined, even before your arrival, to waive that right, out of regard for my own interest and reputation, especially the former. And now you have won my heart, and I enter into your feelings, and place myself at your service--"
"You are very good, madam! Now, why do they go and run play-actors down so?"
"You are aware, sir, that we play-actors have not an idea of our own in our skulls. Our art is to execute beautifully the ideas of those who think. Now, you are a man of business; you will therefore be pleased to give me your instructions, and you shall see those instructions executed better than they are down in Coventry. You want me to prevent your son from loving me! I consent. Tell me how to do it."
"Madam!" said Nathan; "you have put your finger on the very point! What a lawyer you would have made! Madam, I thank you! Very well, then you must--but, no, that will make him worse, perhaps. And again, you can't leave off playing, can you? because that is your business you know--dear me! Ah! I'll tell you how to bring it about. Let me see--no!--yes!--no! drat it!"
"Your instructions are not sufficiently clear, sir!" suggested Mrs. Oldfield.
"Well, madam! it is not so easy as I thought, and I don't see what instructions I am to give you, until--until--"
"Until I tell you what to tell me--that's fair. Well, give me a day to think. I am so busy now. I must play my best tonight!"
"But he'll be there," said Nathan, in dismay; "you'll play your best. You'll burn him to a cinder. I'll go to him." He ran to the window, informing his companion that, for the first time in his life, he was going to take a coach. But he had no sooner arrived at the window, than he made a sudden point, and beckoned the lady to him, without removing his eyes from some object on which he glared down, with a most singular expression of countenance. She came to his side. He directed her eyes to the object. "Look there, ma'am! look there!" She peeped, and, standing by a hosier's shop, at the corner of the street, she descried a young man, engaged as follows. His hat was in his hand, and on the hat was a little piece of paper. He was alternately writing on this, and looking upward for inspiration.
"Is that he?" whispered Mrs. Oldfield.
"Yes! that's your man--bareheaded, looking up into the sky, and doesn't see how it rains."
"But he's very handsome, Mr. Oldworthy, and you said he was like--hem! yes, he is very handsome."
"Isn't he, madam!"
He was handsome--his rich chestnut curls flowed down his neck in masses; his face was oval; his eyes full of color and sentiment; and in him the purple light of youth was brightened by the electric light of expression and charming sensibility.
The strangely assorted pair in our scene held on by one another, the better to inspect the young poet, who little thought what a pair of critics were in store for him.
"What a bright, intelligent look the Billy goose has!" said the actress.
"Hasn't he? the dear--idiot!" said the parent.
"Is he waiting for you, sir?" said she, with affected simplicity.
"No," replied he, with zeal; "it's you he is waiting for. "
Alexander began to walk slowly past the house, looking up to heaven every now and then for inspiration, and then looking down and scribbling a bit, like a hen drinking, you know; and, thus occupied, he stalked to and fro, passing and repassing beneath the criticising eyes--at sight of which pageant a father's fingers began to work, and, "Madam," said he, with a calmness too marked to be genuine, "do let me fling one little--chair at his silly head."
"A pillow, then?"
"Oh, Lud, no!--you don't know these boys, sir! he would take that as an overture of affection from the house. Stay. Will you obey me, or will you not?"
"Of course I will!--how can I help?" and he grinned with horrible amiability.
"Then I will cure your son."
"You will, you promise me?"
"On the honor of--a play-actor!" and she offered him, with a world of grace, the loveliest hand going at that era.
"Of an angel, I think," said the subjugated barbarian.
Mrs. Oldfield then gave him a short sketch of the idea that had occurred to her. "Your son, sir," said she, "is in love by the road of imagination and taste--he has seen upon the stage a being more like a poet's dream than any young woman down in Coventry--and he overrates her; I will contrive that in ten minutes he shall underrate her. I will also find means to wound his vanity, which is inordinate in all his sex, and gigantic in the versifying part of it; and then, sir, I promise you that your son's love, so fresh, so fiery, so lofty, so humble, will either turn to hatred or contempt, or else quietly evaporate like a mist, and vanish like a morning dream. Ah!"--(and she could not help sighing a little). Susan was then called, and directed to show Mr. Nathan Oldworthy out the back way, that he might avoid the encounter of his son. The said Nathan, accordingly, marched slap away, in four great strides; but the next moment the door burst open, and he returned in four more--he took up a position opposite his fair entertainer, and, with much gravity, executed a solemn, but marvelously grotesque bow, intended to express gratitude and civility; this done, he recovered body, and strode away again, slap-dash.
Spirits like Alexander's are greatly depressed and greatly elevated without proportionate change in the external causes of joy and grief. It is theirs to view the same set of facts, rose-color one day, lurid another. Two days ago, Alexander had been in despondence; to-day hope was in the ascendant, and his destiny appeared to him all bathed in sunshine. He was rich in indistinct but gay hopes; these hopes had whispered to him that, after all, an alliance between a dramatic poet and a tragedian was a natural one--that perhaps, on reflection, she he loved might not think it so very imprudent. He felt convinced she had read "Berenice"--she would see the alterations in the heroine's part, and that love had dictated them. She would find there was one being that comprehended her. That, and his verses, would surely plead his cause. Then he loved her so--who could love her as he did? Some day she would feel that no heart could love her so--and then he would say to her, "I am truth and nature--you are beauty and music; united, we should conquer the world, and be the world to one another." Poor boy!
He was walking and dreaming thus beneath her window, when his ear caught the sound of that window opening; he instantly cowered against the wall, hoping this happy day to see the form he loved, himself unseen, when, to his immeasurable surprise, a beautiful girl put her head out of the window, and called softly to him. He took no notice, because it was inaudible. She had to repeat the call before he could realize his good fortune; the signal, however, was unmistakable, and soon after the door opened, and there was pretty Susan, blushing. Alexander ran to her, she opened the door wider, he entered, believing in magic for the first time. Susan took him upstairs--he said nothing--he could not--she did not speak, because she thought he ought to. At last they reached a richly furnished room, where Statira's dress lay upon a chair, and a theatrical diadem upon a table. Alexander's heart leaped at sight of these; he knew, then, where he was; he turned hot and cold and trembled violently. The first word Susan said did not calm his agitation. "There is a lady here," said she, "who has something to say to you."
Now it must be remembered that Susan considered Alexander her undoubted property; and when she was told to introduce him, she could not help thinking how kind it was of her cousin to take her part, and bring to the point a young gentleman who, charming in other respects, appeared to her sadly deficient in audacity. "Sit down," said Susan, smiling.
Oh, no! he could not sit down here! Susan pitied his timidity and his discomposure; and, to put both him and herself out of pain the sooner, she left him and went to announce his presence to her cousin and guardian, as she now considered her.
Alexander was left alone, to all appearance; in reality, he was in a crowd--a crowd of "thick-coming fancies." He was to breathe the same air as she, to be by her side, whom the world adored at a distance; he was to see her burst on him like the sun, and to feel more strongly than ever how far his verse fell short of the goddess who inspired it; he half wished to retreat from his too great happiness. Suddenly a rustle in the apartment awakened him from his rich reverie; he looked up, and there was a lady with her eyes fixed on him.
The lady had on what might, without politeness, but with truth, be called a dressing-gown; it was ostentatiously large everywhere, especially at the waist. The lady's hair, or what seemed her hair, was rough, and ill done up, and a great cap of flaunty design surmounted her head. On her feet were old slippers.
"Good-day, sir!" said she dryly.
Alexander bowed. "Madam, I wait Mrs. Oldfield."
"Tête-à-tête with your muse." Alexander's poetical works were in her hand.
"She is my muse, madam!" replied he; "she alone. Are you not proud of her, madam? for I see by your likeness that you are some relation."
The lady burst out laughing. "That's a compliment to my theatrical talent; I am the party."
"You Mrs. Oldfield! the great Mrs. Oldfield!"
"Why not? What, you come from the country, I suppose, and think we are to be always on the stilts, when we are not paid for it. You look as if you were afraid of me."
"Oh, no, madam; and, as you say, it shows how great your talent is."
"You want to speak to me, my lad."
Alexander blushed to the temples. "Yes, madam!" faltered he, "you have divined my ambition. I have been presumptuous--but I saw you on the tragic scene--the admiration you inspired--I fear I have importuned you--but my hope, my irresistible desire--"
"There, I know what you mean," said she, with an affectation of vulgar good nature, "you want an order for the pit?"
"I want an order for the pit?" gasped Alexander faintly.
"Well, ain't I going to give you one," answered she, as sharp as a needle; "but mind, you must--" here she imitated vehement applause.
"Oh, madam! I need no such injunction," cried Alexander; "each of your achievements on the stage seems to be greater than the last." Then, trembling, blushing, and eloquent as fire, he poured out his admiration of her, and her great art: "The others are all puppets, played by rule around you, the queen of speech and poetry; your pathos is so true, your sensibility so profound; yours are real tears; you lead our sorrow in person; you fuse your soul into those great characters, and art becomes nature. You are the thing you seem, and it is plain each lofty emotion passes through that princely heart on its way to those golden lips!"
Oldfield, with all her self-command, could not quite resist the eloquence of the heart and brain. She, too, now blushed a little, and her lovely bosom heaved slowly, but high, as the poet poured the music of his praise into her ears; then she stole a look at him from under her long lashes, and sipped his beauty and his freshness. She could not help looking at this forbidden fruit. As she looked, she did feel how hard, how cruel it was, that she was not to be allowed to play with this young, fresh heart; to see it throb with hopes and fears, and love, jealousy, anguish, joy, and finally to break it, and fling the pieces to the Devil; but she was a singular character--she was the concentrated essence of female in all points, except one. She was a woman of her word, or, as some brutes would say, no woman at all in matters of good faith. She stood pledged to the attorney, and therefore, recovering herself, she took up Alexander thus:
"No, thank you, emotions pass through my--what's the name--well, you are green--you don't come from the country--you are from Wales. I must enlighten you; sit down, sit down, I tell you. The tears, my boy, are as real as the rest--as the sky, and that's pasteboard--as the sun, and he is three candles, smirking upon all nature, which is canvas--they are as real as ourselves, the tragedy queens, with our cries, our sighs, and our sobs, all measured out to us by the five-foot rule. Reality, young gentleman, that begins when the curtain falls--and we wipe off our profound sensibility along with our rouge, our whiting, and our beauty spots."
"Impossible!" cried the poet; "those tears, those dew-drops on the tree of poetry!"
He was requested not to make her "die of laughing" with his tears; his common sense was appealed to. "Now, my good soul, if I was to vex myself night after night for Clytemnestra & Co., don't you see that I should not hold together long? No, thank you! I've got 'Nance Oldfield' to take care of, and what's Hecuba to her? For my part," continued this frank lady, "I don't understand half the authors give us to say."
"Oh, yes, you do! you write upon our eyes and ears more than half of all the author gains credit for--the noblest sentiments gain more from your tongue than the pen, great as it is, could ever fling upon paper--I am unworthy to be your companion!"
"Nonsense! do you really think I am like those black parrots of tragedy?--fine company I should be!--he, he! No, we are like other women, you can court us without getting a dagger stuck into you." She then informed him that the representatives of Desdemona, Belvidera, Cordelia, and Virgin Purity in general had all as many beaux as they could lay their hands on--that she had twenty at the present moment; that he could join that small but select band, if he chose, secure of this, that, whether a fortunate or unfortunate lover, there would be companions of his fate. Then, suddenly interrupting her disclosures, she offered him a snuff-box, and said dryly, "D'ye snuff?"
Alexander's eye dilated with horror. She observed him, and explained, "There's no doing without it, in our business, we get so tired!" Here she yawned as only actresses yawn--like one going out of the world in four pieces. "We get so tired of the whole concern; this is the real source of our inspiration," said she, taking a pinch, "or how should we ever rise to the poet's level, and launch all those awful execrations they love so? as, for instance--Ackishoo!--God bless you!"
Alexander groaned aloud.
"Poor boy!" thought his tormentor, "how he takes it to heart!"
"Why, ma'am, a fall from heaven to earth is a considerable descent."
"You look pale, my child," resumed the tormentor. "No breakfast, perhaps. I'd offer you some in a minute, but the fact is, you must forgive me; but I look to every penny; when the rainy day comes I shall be ready;" and she brought both hands down upon her knees, in a way the imitated vulgarity of which would have made any one scream with laughter that had seen her game; but it was all genuine to our poor poet, and crushed him.
Having opened this vein of self-depreciation, she proceeded to work it. She poked him with one finger, and, looking slyly with half-shut eye at him, she announced herself the authoress of some very curious calculations, the object of which was to discover, by comparing the week's salary with the lines in the night's performance, the exact value of poetical passages, generally supposed to be invaluable. "Listen," said she:
"'Come! come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here!'
They are just worth tenpence!"
Alexander, who had been raised by the poetry was depressed greatly by its arithmetic. She recommenced:
"That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, Hold! hold!--Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!"
Making the point on "Great Glamis," at Macbeth's entrance, not on "Hold," which is done nowadays, and is too cruel silly.
"Ah! you are yourself again," cried the poet.
"Yes; I am myself again!" was the dry answer. "Those bring me in 2s. 8d. every time."
And this was the being he had adored! He had invested this creature with his own prismatic hues, and taken her for a rainbow.
Mrs. Oldfield told afterward that she felt herself cutting his heart away from her at every sentence. "But it was to be done." She continued: "So now you know my trade, tell me what is yours?"
"One I used to despise--an advocate."
"Ah! a little long robe; they are actors, too, only bad ones; but tell me," said she, with a silly coquettish manner, borrowed from the comedy of the day, "what do you want of me? You have not followed me so perseveringly for nothing! Speak, what have you to tell me?"
Alexander blushed; he had no longer the stimulus to tell her all he had felt and hoped; he hesitated and stammered. At last he bethought him of his tragedy; so he said: "I sent you a tragedy, madam!"
"What, do they do that in Warwickshire?"
"Yes, madam! I composed it by stealth in my father's office."
Alexander continued: "It is called, from the heroine of the play, Berenice!"
"Berenice!" cried the actress, with a start.
Now this tragedy had pleased Mrs. Oldfield more than any manuscript she had seen these three years; but, above all, the part of "Berenice" had charmed her; it fitted her like a glove, as she poetically expressed herself; it was written in Alexander's copperplate hand, so she had not identified it with the author of her diurnal verses.
"Berenice! is it possible?"
"A queen, madam, who, captured by the Romans--"
"What, sir! you the author of that work?" said she, with sudden respect.
"Favor me with your opinion," said the sanguine poet.
Tremble, Nathan, you had only her womanly weakness to dread hitherto; but now the jade's interest is against you. Strange to say, her promise carried the day; she was true as steel to Nathan, and remorseless as steel to Alexander. She saw at once that no middle course was now tenable; so she turned on the poor poet, not without secret regret, and, with a voice of ice, she said: "The town is tired of Romans, my good sir, you had better go into Tartary; besides," added she, jumping at the commonplaces of dramatic censure, "your fable does not march, your language wants fire; let me give you a word of advice, or rather a line of advice, 'Plead, Alexander, plead, and rhyme no more!'" She then added hastily, in a very different tone and manner, "Forgive me, my poor child, you will make more money, and be more respected."
The reason of this rapid change of manner was this: when we have given dreadful pain, more pain than we calculated on, and see it, we are apt to try and qualify it with a little weak, empty good-nature. Now at her verdict, and her witty line, Alexander had turned literally as pale as ashes! The drop of oil she poured on the deadly wounds she had given was no comfort to him; he rose, he tried to speak to her, but his lip trembled so violently he could not articulate; at last he gasped out: "Thank you for undeceiving me; you have taught me your own v--value; and m--mine, forgive me the time I have made you waste upon a d--dunce." And then, in spite of all he could do, the tears forced themselves through the poor boy's eyes, and casting one look of shame and half-reproach upon her, he put his hand to his brow and went disconsolately from the room, and out of the house.
Poor fellow! she had made him ten years older than when, ten minutes before, he entered that room, all faith, and poetry, and hope, and love.
Slowly and disconsolately, he dragged his heavy steps and heavy heart home. His father followed, and entered his small apartment without ceremony. Nathan found his son sitting with his eyes fixed on the ground; in a few abrupt words he told him he knew all about his amorous folly, and had come up to cure it.
"It is cured," said Alexander; "she has cured me herself."
"Then she is an honest woman," cried Nathan. "So now, since that nonsense is over, take my arm and we will go down to Westminster."
They went to Westminster; they entered a court of law, and were so fortunate as to hear an interesting trial. Counsel for the plaintiff was just opening a crim. con. case.
The advocate dwelt upon the sacred feelings outraged by the seducer, on the irremediable gap that had been made in a house and in a human heart; the pitiable doubt that had been cast over those sacred parental affections, which were all that now remained to the bereaved husband. He painted the empty chamber, the vacant place by the hearth, and the father dagger-struck by little voices lisping, "Papa, where is mamma gone?" and all that sort of thing. His speech was rich in topic and point, and as for emphasis, it was all emphasis. He concluded in this wise: "Such injuries as these can never be compensated by money; it is ridiculous to talk of money where a man has been laid desolate, and therefore I hope, gentlemen of the jury, you will give my unfortunate client three thousand pounds damages at the very least."
At each point the orator made, Nathan nudged Alexander, as if to say, "That is how you must do it some day."
As they returned homeward, Attorney asked Poet how he had been charmed by Mr. Eitherside's eloquence.
"Eloquence," said Alexander, waking from his reverie. "I heard no eloquence."
"No eloquence! why, he worked the defendant like a man beating a carpet."
Nathan recapitulated Mr. Eitherside's points.
"Well, father," was the languid reply, "this shows me that people who would speak about the heart should speak from the heart. I heard something like a terrier dog barking, that is all I remember."
"A terrier dog! one of the first counsel in the land! But there, you come to your dinner. I won't be in a passion with you, if I can help, because--you'll be better after dinner."
Nathan's satisfaction at his son's sudden cure was soon damped. Alexander was not better after dinner. To be sure this might have been owing to his having eaten none; he could not eat, and never volunteered a word, only, when spoken to three times, he shook himself and answered with a visible effort, and then nestled into silence again. The next and following days matters were worse. Spite of all Nathan could do to move him, he sank into a cold, listless melancholy. About five o'clock (play-time) he used to be very restless and nervous for a little while, and then relapse into stone. And now Nathan began to ask himself what the actress had done to his son during that short interview between them. He began greatly to doubt the wonderful cure, or rather to fear that the first poison had been attacked by a stronger, in the way of antidote, which had left his son in worse case than before.
Hitherto he had thought it wisest to avoid the subject, and silently expel the boy's folly by taking him and shaking him, and keeping him from thinking of it. But now one evening, as he looked at Alexander's pallid, listless countenance, his anxiety got the better of his plan, and he could not help facing the obnoxious topic.
After a vain attempt or two to interest the poet in other matters, he suddenly burst out: "What is the matter, Alexander? What has she done to you now?"
"Tell me, my boy," said Nathan, more gently.
"She has deceived me. She has robbed my heart of all its wealth. Oh, I would rather have gone on believing her all that is great and good, though inaccessible to me! But to find my divinity a mean, heartless slattern. To find that I have poured all my treasures away forever upon an unworthy object. Oh, father! I do not grieve so much that she is worthless, but that I thought her worthy. To me she was the jewel of the earth. I know her now for a vile counterfeit, and I have wasted my affections on this creature, and now I have none left for any worthy object; scarcely for my father. See my conduct to you all this week. Heaven forgive me--and you forgive me, sir. I feel I am no son to you. I am lost! I am lost!"
"Alexander, don't be a fool," roared Nathan, "get up off your knees, or I'll kee--kee--kick you into the fi--fire!" gulped he; "that is right--that's a dear boy. Now tell me what has the poor lady done? I can't think she is such a very bad one."
"She has robbed herself and me of the tints with which I had invested her, and shown herself to me in her true colors."
"Why, you mustn't tell me she paints her face, without 'tis with cold water."
"Oh, no! not that, but off the stage she is a mean, vulgar, bad woman."
"I can't think that of her, Alexander."
"Father, I have no words to tell you her vulgarity, her avarice, her stupidity--as for her beauty, it is all paint and artifice, father. I saw her this day se'night in her own house; she is vulgar, and dirty, and almost ugly."
"Oh, you deceitful young rascal, you know she is beautiful as an angel!"
"Isn't she, sir!--ah! you have only seen her on the stage--"
"I see her on the stage! What, do you tell me I go to the playhouse! I never was in a playhouse in my life."
"Then how do you know she is beautiful? Where have you seen her, if not on the stage?"
Mr. Oldworthy senior hesitated. He did not choose his son to know he had visited the play-actress, and enlisted her in his cause.
Alexander saw his hesitation, and misinterpreted it ludicrously.
"Ah, father," cried he, "do not be ashamed of it."
"I am not--ashamed of what?"
"Would I were worthy of all this affection!"
"That you have for the unfortunate,"
"I have no affection for the unfortunate; it's always their own fault."
"If you know how I honor you for this, you would not deny or be ashamed of it."
"Of what? Are we talking riddles?"
"Do not attempt to disguise what gives you a fresh title to my gratitude--it was curiosity to see my destroyer drew you thither. Ah, it must have been the day before yesterday. I remember you disappeared after dinner. Well, father," continued Alexander, with a sad, sweet, melancholy accent, "you saw her play 'Monimia' that night, and having seen her you can forgive my infatuation."
"No! I can't forgive your infatuation, obstinate toad! that will tell me I have been to the playhouse--to the Devil's own shop parlor, that is."
"You have seen her--you call her beautiful, therefore it is clear you have seen her at the theater, for at home she is anything but beautiful or an angel."
"Alexander, you will put me in a passion; but I won't be put in a passion." So saying, the old gentleman, who was in a passion, marched slap out of the house into the moonlight and cooled himself therein.
On his return he found his son sitting in a sort of collapse by the fire, and all his endeavors to draw him from brooding over his own misery proved unavailing. The next day he was worse, if possible; and when play-time had come and gone, and Nathan was in the middle of a long law-case that he was relating for his son's amusement, Alexander, who had not spoken for hours, quietly asked Nathan what he thought about suicide, and whether it was really a crime to die when hope was dead and life withered forever. Nathan gave a short, severe answer to this query; but it troubled him.
He began to be frightened. He consulted Bateman. Bateman was equally puzzled; but at last the latter hit upon an idea. "Go to the actress again," said he; "it seems she can do anything with him. She made him love her--she made him hate her; ask her to make him to do something between the two."
"Why, you old fool!" was the civil retort, "you are as mad as he is. No! she almost bewitched me, for as old as I am; and I won't go near her again."
But Alexander got worse and worse. He drooped like a tender flower. He had lost appetite and sleep; and without them the body soon gives way.
His grief was of the imagination. But the distinction muddleheads draw between real and imaginary griefs is imaginary. Whatever robs a human unit of rest, nourishment, and life, is as real to him as anything but eternity itself is real.
The old men saw a subtle disorder creeping over the young man. It was incomprehensible to them; and after ridiculing it awhile, they began to be more frightened at it than if they had comprehended it.
At last, one fine morning, a new phase presented itself. A great desire for solitude consumed our poor poet. All human beings were distasteful to him, and, his mind being in a diseased state, Nathan and Timothy bored him like red-hot gimlets--the truth must be told. Well, this particular morning they would not let him alone--and so he wanted just to be left in peace--and partly from nervousness, partly from irritation, partly from misery, the poet lost all self-command, and, I am sorry to say, cursed and swore, and vowed he would kill himself, and called his friends his tormentors, and wept and raved and cursed the hour he was born. And at the end of this most unbecoming tirade he was for dashing out of the house; but his father caught him by the collar, and whirled him back into his room, and locked him into it. Alexander fell into a chair, and buried his face in his hands; presently he heard something that made him feel how selfish his grief had been. He heard a deep sigh just outside the door, and then a heavy step went down the stair.
"Father!" cried he, "forgive me! oh, forgive me!"
It was too late. All who give a parent pain repent; but how often it is too late!
The poor old man was gone, as unhappy as his son, and with more solid reason. He went into the street, without knowing what he should do or where he should go.
It happened at this moment that Bateman's advice came into his head. He was less disposed to scout it now.
"It can do no harm," thought he, "and I am quite at a loss. She has a good heart, I think, and at all events she seems to know how to work on him, and I don't. I'll risk it."
So, hanging his head, with no very good will, he slowly wended his way toward Mrs. Oldfield's house.
When Alexander left Mrs. Oldfield, that lady took off her vulgar cap and the old wig with which she had disguised her lovely head, and, throwing herself into a chair, laughed at the piece of comedy she had played off on our poor poet.
Her laugh, however, was not sincere; it soon died away into something more like a sigh.
The next morning there was no letter in verse, and she missed it. She had become used to them, and was vexed to think she had put an end to them. On returning from the theater she looked from her carriage to see if he was standing as usual by the stage door. No, he was not there; no more letters--no more Alexander. She felt sorry she had lost so genuine an admirer; and the moment the sense of his loss touched herself, she began to pity him and think what a shame it was to deceive him so.
"I could have liked him better than all the rest," said she.
But this lady's profession is one unfavorable to the growth of regrets, or of affection for any object not in sight. She had to rehearse from ten till one, then to come home, then to lay out her clothes for the theater, then to dine, then to study, then to go to the theater, then to dress, then to act with all the intoxications of genius, light, multitude, and applause, then to undress, sup, etc.; and all this time she was constantly flattered and courted by dozens of beaux and wits. Had she been capable of a deep attachment, it could not have monopolized her as Alexander's did his. However, she did thus much for our poor poet; when she found she had succeeded in banishing him, she went into her tantrums, and snapped at and scratched everybody else that was kind to her. She also often invited Susan to speak of him, and after a while snubbed her and forbade the topic.
To-day, then, as Mrs. Oldfield sat studying "The Rival Queens," suddenly she heard a sob, and there was Susan, with the tears quietly and without effort streaming from her eyes, like the water running through a lock-gate. Susan had just returned from a walk.
"What have you done?" whined Susan. "I have just met him, and he said to me, 'Ah, madam!' he always calls me madam, and he has lost his beautiful color--he is miserable--and I am miserable."
"Well!" snapped Anne, "and am I not miserable too! Why, Susan," cried she, for a glimmering of light burst on her, "surely you are not such a goose as to fancy yourself in love with my Alexander."
My Alexander--good! She has declined him for herself, but she will not let you have him any the more for that--other women!
"Your Alexander! No! I am too fond of my own! Here's your one's book;" and Susan thrust a duodecimo toward her cousin.
"My one's book," said Mrs. Oldfield, with a mystified air.
"Yes! Robert says it belongs to the young gentleman who saved you from the duchess's carriage; he picked it up after the battle."
Mrs. Oldfield opened the book with interest; judge her surprise when the first page discovered verses in Alexander's well-known hand. In the next page was a spirited drawing of Mrs. Oldfield as "Sophonisba"; under it was written, in gold letters, "Not one base word of Carthage on thy soul"--a line the actress used to speak with such majesty and fire that the audience always burst into a round of applause. And so on, upon every page, poetry or picture. The verses were more tender than those he had sent her by letter. The book was his secret heart!
It was Alexander, then, who had saved her--his love surrounded her. And how had all his devotion been repaid? She became restless--bit her lips; the book she held became a book of mist, and she said to Susan, in bitter accents: "They had better not let the poor boy come near me again, or they will find I am a woman, in spite of my nasty blank verse and bombast. Oh! oh! oh!" and the tragedian whimpered a little, much as a housemaid whimpers; it was not at all like the "real tears" that had so affected Alexander.
On the fly-leaf of this little book was written: "Alexander Oldworthy! Should I die--and I think I shall not live, for my love consumes me--I pray some good Christian to take this book to the great Mrs. Oldfield; it will tell her what I shall never dare to tell her. And if departed spirits are permitted to watch those they have loved, it is for her sake I shall revisit this earth, which, but for her, I should leave without regret."
"I am a miserable woman!" cried the dealer in fictitious grief. "This is love! I never was loved before, and mine must be the hand to stab him; they make me turn his goddess to a slut--his love to contempt; and I do it, madwoman that I am! For what? to rob myself of the solace Heaven had sent to my vacant heart--of the only real treasure the earth contains;" and she burst into a passion of tears.
At this Susan's tears dried themselves; the grief of the greater mind swallowed up her puny sorrow, as the river absorbs the brook that joins it. Anne frightened her, and at last she stole from the room in dismay. Her absence, however, was short; she returned in about ten minutes, and announced a visitor.
"I will not see him!" said Mrs. Oldfield, almost fiercely, looking off the part she had begun to study.
"It is the rough gentleman," said Susan.
"What! Alexander's father? Admit him. He is come to thank me, and well he may. Cruel wretches that we both are!"
Nathan entered, but with a face so rueful, that Mrs. Oldfield saw at once gratitude had not brought him there.
"What have you done, madam?" was his first word.
"Kept my word to you, like a fool," was the answer; "I hope you are come to reproach me--it would not be complete without that!" And the Oldfield shed a few tears, which this time were half bitter vexation, half fiction.
Nathan had come with that intention, but he was now terror-struck and afraid to do anything of the kind. He proceeded, however, in mournful tones, to tell her that Alexander had fallen into a state of despondency and desperation which had made him--the father--regret that more innocent madness he had hitherto been so anxious to cure.
"He says he will kill himself," said Nathan. "And if he does he will kill me. Poor boy! all his illusions are kicked head over heels; so he says, however."
"A good job, too!" said Mrs. Oldfield.
"How can you say a good job, when it will be a job for Bedlam?"
"Yes; he is mad!"
"What makes you think he is mad?"
"He says you are not beautiful! 'She has neither heart, grace, nor wit,' says he. In a word, he is insane. I reasoned calmly with him," continued the afflicted father. "I told him he was an idiot; but, I am sorry to say, he answered my affectionate remonstrance with nonsense and curses, and a lot of words, without head or tail to them. He is mad! "
"You cruel old man!" cried Mrs. Oldfield : "have you done nothing to soothe the poor child?"
"Oh, yes!" said the cruel old man, resenting the doubt cast upon his tenderness; "I shoved him into a room, and double-locked him in; and came straight to you for advice about him, you are so clever."
"So it seems!" said she; "I have made everybody unhappy--you, Alexander, and most of all myself." And tears began to well out of her lovely eyes.
"Oh, dear!--oh, dear!--oh, dear!--don't you vex yourself so, my lamb."
But the lamb, alias crocodile, insisted upon putting her head gracefully upon Nathan's shoulder, and crying meekly awhile. On this (a man's heart being merely a lump of sugar that melts when woman's eye lets fall a drop of warm water upon it) Nathan loved her. It was intended he should.
"I would give my right arm if you would make him love you again; at all events a little--a very little indeed. Poor Alexander, he is a fool, a scatter-brain, and, for aught I know, a versifier. But he is my son. I have but him. If he goes mad or dies, his father will lie down and die too."
"Sir!" said the actress, with sudden cheerfulness, and drying her eyes with suspicious rapidity. "Bring him to me; and" (patting him slyly on the arm) "you shall see me make him love me more than ever--ten times more, if you approve, dear sir!"
"Here! he won't come; he rails at you; you are his aversion. Oh, he is mad! my son is deprived of reason. This comes of those cursed rhymes."
A pause ensued. Oldfield broke it. "I have it!" cried she. "He is an author. They are all alike!" (What did she mean by that?) "Speak to him of 'Berenice.'"
"Whom am I to talk to him about?"
"What, is he after another woman now?"
"Ah! I forgot," said she, coolly. "You are not in the secret; he composed it by stealth in your office." She then seated herself at a side-table, and wrote a note with theatrical rapidity.
"Give him this," said she.
Receiving no answer, she looked up, a little surprised, and there was Nathan apoplectic with indignation; his two cheeks, red as beet-root, were puffed out; paternal tenderness was in abeyance. Finally he exploded in: "So, this was how my brief-paper went!" and marched off impetuously, throwing down a chair.
"Where are you going?" remonstrated his companion.
"He is an author," was the reply, "he is no son of mine. I'll unlock him and kick him into the wide world."
"What, for consecrating your brief-paper to the Muse?"
"Yes; did you ever know a decent, respectable character write poetry?"
"No! that you never did! Who, now?"
"David! he wrote Hebrew poetry--the Psalms; and very beautiful poetry, too."
Poor Nathan! he was like a bull, which, in the middle of a gallant charge, receives a bullet in a vital part, and so pulls up, and looks mighty stupid for a moment ere he falls.
But Nathan did not fall; he glared reproach on Mrs. Oldfield for having said a thing, which, though it did not exactly admit of immediate confutation, was absurd as well as profane, thought he, and resolved to serve Alexander out for it; he told her as much. So then ensued a little piece of private theatricals: Mrs. Oldfield, clasping her hands together, began to go, gracefully, down on her knees, an inch at a time (nothing but great practice enabled her to do it), and remind Nathan that he was a father--that his son's life was more precious than anything--that to be angry with the unhappy was cruel--"Save him! save him!"
Poor Nathan took all this stage business for an unpremeditated effusion of the heart; and, with a tear in his eye, raised the queen of the crocodiles, and with a hideously amiable grin, "I'll forgive him!" said he. "To please you, I'd forgive Old Nick."
With this virtuous resolve and equivocal compliment, he vanished from the presence chamber and hurried toward Alexander's retreat.
Oldfield retired hastily to her bedroom, and, having found "Berenice," ran hastily through it once more, and began to study a certain scene which she thought could be turned to her purpose. Having what is called a very quick study, she was soon mistress of the twenty or thirty lines. She then put on a splendid dress, appropriate (according to the ideas of the day) to an Eastern queen. That done, she gave herself to Statira, the part she was to play upon this important evening; but Susan observed a strange restlessness and emotion in her cousin.
"What is the matter, Anne?" said she.
"It is too bad of these men," was the answer. "I ought to be all Statira to-day; and, instead of a tragedy-queen, they make me feel like a human being! This will not do. I cannot have my fictitious feelings, in which thousands are interested, endangered for such a trifle as my real ones;" and, by a stern effort, she glued, her eyes to her part, and was Statira.
Meanwhile Nathan had returned to Alexander; and, giving him Mrs. Oldfield's note, bade him instantly accompany him to her house.
Alexander had no sooner read the note, than the color rushed into his pale face and his eye brightened; but on reflection he begged to be excused from going there. But his father, who had observed the above symptoms, which proved to him the power of this benevolent enchantress, would take no denial; so they returned together to her house. It was all very well the first part of the road; but at sight of the house poor Alexander was seized with a combination of feelings that made it impossible for him to proceed.
"I feel faint, father."
"Lean on me."
"Pray excuse me--I will go back to Coventry with you--to the world's end--but don't take me to that house."
"Come along, ye soft-hearted--"
"Well, then, you must assist me, for my limbs fail me at the idea."
"Mine shall help you"--and he put an arm under his son's shoulder, and hoisted him along in an undeniable manner. And so, in a few minutes more, the attorney was to be seen half drawing, half dragging the poet into the abode of the Siren, which he had first entered (breathing fire and fury against play-actors) to drag his son out of. It was, indeed, a curious reversal of sentiments in a brace of bosoms.
"No, father! no!" sighed Alexander, as his father pulled him into her saloon.
"But I tell you it is for your tragedy," remonstrated the parchment to the paper hero. "It's business," said he, reproachfully. "Now 'tis writ, let us sell it--to greater fools than ourselves--if we can find them."
The tone in which he uttered the last sentence conveyed no very sanguine hope, on his part, of a purchaser.
"Why did you bring me here, dear father?" sighed the désillusioné. "It was here my idol descended from her pedestal. Oh, reality! you are not worth the pain of living--the toil of breathing."
"Poor boy!" thought Nathan; "he is in a bad way--the toil of breathing!--well, I never!--Your tragedy, lad, your tragedy," insinuated he, biting his lips not to be in a rage.
"Ah!" said Alexander, perking up, "it is the last tie that holds me to life. She says in this note that she took it for another, and that mine has merit."
"No doubt'! no doubt!" said the other, humoring the absurdity. "How came the Muse (that is the wench's name, I believe) into my office?"
"She used ever to come in," began he, in rapt tones, "when you went out," he added, mighty dryly.
Alexander's next casual observation was to this effect--that once he had a soul, but that now his lyre was broken.
"That's soon mended," said his rough comforter; "well, since your liar is cracked--"
"I said broken, father--and for me the business of life is ended."
"Well," said the parent, whose good-humor at this crisis appears to have been inexhaustible, "since your liar is broken--smashed, I hope--and your business done, or near it, turn to amusement a bit, my poor lad."
Alexander looked at him, surveyed him from top to toe.
"Amusement!" whinnied the inconsolable one, with a ghastly chuckle--"amusement! Where can broken hearts find amusement?"
"IN THE LAW!" roared Nathan, with cheerful, hopeful, healthy tone and look. "I do," added he; then, seeing bitter incredulity on the poet, he explained, sotto voce, "'Tisn't as if we were clients, ye fool."
"Never!" shrieked Alexander.
Poor Nathan had commanded his wrath till now, but this energetic "Never!" set him in a blaze.
"Never! you young scamp," shouted he; "but--but--don't put me in a passion--when I tell ye the exciseman's daughter won't have you on any other terms."
"And I won't have her on any terms--she is a woman."
"Well, she is on the road to it--she is a girl, and a very fine one, and you are to make her a woman--and she will make a man of you, I hope."
"No more women for me," objected the poet. He then confided to an impatient parent his future plan of existence. It was simple, very simple; he purposed to live in a garret in London, hating and hated; so this brought matters to a head.
"I have been too good to you! you are mad! and, by virtue of parental authority, I seize your body, young man."
But the body had legs, and, for once, an attorney failed to effect a seizure.
He slipped under his father's arm, and, getting a table between them, gave vent to his despair.
"Since you are without pity," cried he, "I am lost. Farewell forever!" and he rushed to the door, which opened at that instant.
The father uttered a deprecatory cry, which died off into a semiquaver of admiration; for, at this moment, a lady of dazzling beauty, arrayed in a glorious robe that swept the ground, crossed the poet's path, before he could reach the door, and, with a calm, but queen-like gesture, rooted him to the spot.
She uttered but one word, but that word, as she spoke it, seemed capable of stilling the waves of the sea.
No louder than you and I speak, reader, but irresistibly. Such majesty and composure came from her, upon them, with this simple monosyllable. They stood spellbound. Alexander thought no more of flight; nor Nathan of pursuit.
At last, by one of those inspirations that convey truth more surely than human calculation is apt to, the poet cried out:
"This is herself, the other was a personation!"
"Berenice " took no notice of this exclamation. She continued, with calm majesty:
"Listen to a queen, whose steadfast will
In chains is royal, in Rome unconquered still;
O'er my bowed head though wares of sorrow roll,
I still retain the empire of my soul."
Her two hearers stood spellbound. And then did Alexander taste the greatest pleasure earth affords--to be a poet, and to love a great actress, and to hear the magic lips he loved speak his own verse. Love, taste, and vanity were all gratified at once. With what rich flesh and blood she clothed his shadowy creation; the darling of his brain was little more than a skeleton. It was reserved for the darling of his heart to complete the creation. And then his words, oh, what a majesty and glory they took from her heavenly tongue! They were words no more--they were thunderbolts of speech, and sparks of audible soul. He wondered at himself and them.
Oldfield spoke this line,
"O'er my bowed head though waves of sorrow roll,"
with a grand, though plaintive swell, like the sea itself. It was really wonderful.
Alexander had no conception he or any man had ever written so grand a line as "O'er my bowed head though waves of sorrow roll." He was in heaven. A moment like this is beyond the lot of earth, and compensates the smart that is apt to be in store, all in good time, for the poet that loves a great actress, that is to say, a creature with the tongue of an angel, the principles of a weasel, and the passions of a fish!
"And have those lips graced words of mine?" gasped Alexander. "My verses, father!"
"His verses! no!" said Nathan, addressing the actress; "can he write like the sound of a trumpet?"
"Yes! Alexander, I like your play, particularly a scene where this poor queen sacrifices her love to the barbarous prejudices of her captors."
"My favorite scene! my favorite scene! Father, she likes my favorite scene!"
"Gentlemen, be so good as to lend yourselves to the situation a moment. Here, Susan!" In came Susan, her eyes very red; she had been employed realizing that Alexander was not to be hers.
"You, sir!" continued Mrs. Oldfield, addressing Nathan, "are the Consul--the inexorable father."
"Oh, am I?"
"Yes! you must stand there--on that flower--like a marble pillar--deaf to all my entreaties. You are about to curse your son."
"I curse my boy? Never!"
"Father, for Heaven's sake, do what she bids you."
"Dress the scene," continued she--"farther off, Susan--this is tragedy, don't huddle together as they do in farce."
"But I am in such trouble, Anne."
"Of course you are--you are Tibulla--you are jealous. You spy all our looks, catch all our words. Now, mind your business. The stage is mine. I speak to my Tiberius." She kicked her train adroitly out of the way, and flowed like a wave on a calm day toward Tiberius, who stood entranced, almost staggering under the weight of his own words, as they rolled over him:
"Obey the mandate of unfeeling Rome;
Make camps your hearth, the battlefield your home;
Fly vain delights, fight for a glorious name,
Forget that e'er we met, and live for Fame.
(In this last line she began to falter a little.)
"Alas! I, whom lost kingdoms could not move,
Am mistress of myself no more.
I love! I love you, yet we part;--my race proscribe,
My royal hand disdain this barbarous tribe.
This diadem, that all the nations prize,
Is an unholy thing in Roman eyes."
She did not merely speak, she acted these lines. With what a world of dignity and pathos she said, "My royal hand disdain!" and in speaking of the "diadem" she slowly raised both hands, one somewhat higher than the other, and pointed to her coronet, for one instant. The pose would have been invaluable to Sculptor or Painter.
"We are in the wrong," began Nathan, soothingly, for the Queen had slightly indicated him as one of "the barbarous tribe." "A lady like you.--The Romans are fools-asses-dolts-and-beasts," cried Nathan, running the four substantives into one.
"Hush! father!" cried the author, reproachfully.
"And you, young maid, kill not my wounded heart,
Ah! bid me not from my Tiberius part."
(Tears seemed to choke her utterance.)
"Oh, no! cousin," drawled out Susan, "sooner than you should die of grief--it is a blow, but I give him up--"
"Hold your tongue, Susan! you put me out."
"Now it is too melting," whined Nathan ; "leave off--there, do ye leave off--it is too melting."
"Isn't it?" said Alexander, rayonnant. "Go on! go on! You whose dry eye--you whose dry eye, Mrs. Oldfield."
Mrs. Oldfield turned full on Nathan, and, sinking her voice into a deeper key, she drove the following lines, slowly and surely, through and through his poor, unresisting, buttery heart:
"You whose dry eye looks down on all our tears,
Pity yourself--ah! for yourself have fears.
Alone upon the earth some bitter day,
You'll call your son your trembling steps to stay.
Old man! regret, remorse, will come too late;
In vain you'll pity then our sad, sad fate."
"But, my good sir, you don't bear me out by your dumb play--you are to be the unrelenting sire--"
"Now, how ca-ca-ca-can I, when you make me blubber?" gulped out he "whose dry eyes," etc.
"And me!" whined Susan.
"Aha!" cried Alexander, with a hilarious shout, "I've made them cry with my verses!"
A smile, an arch smile, wreathed the Tragic Queen's countenance.
Alexander caught it, and, not being yet come to his full conceit, pulled himself up short. "No," cried he, "no! it was you who conquered them with my weak weapon; you whose face is spirit, and whose voice is music. Enchantress--"
Now Alexander, who was gracefully inclining toward the charmer, received a sudden push from the excited Nathan, and fell plump on his knees.
"Speak again," cried he, "for you are my queen. I love you. What is to be my fate?"
"Alexander," said Anne, fluttering as she had never fluttered before, "you have so many titles to my esteem. Oh, no! that won't do. See, sir, he does it almost as well as I do.
"Live, for I love you;
My life is his who saved that life from harm;
This pledge attests the valor of your arm.
And she returned him his pocket-book.
"His pocket-book!" said Nathan, his eyes glazed with wonder. "Why, how did his tragedy come in his pocket-book? I mean, his pocket-book in his tragedy? which is the true part, and which is the lie? Oh, dear! the dog has made his father cry, and, now I have begun, I don't like to leave off somehow." Then, before his several queries could be answered, he continued, "So this is play-acting, and it's a sin! Well, then, I like it." And he dried his eyes, and cast a look of brilliant satisfaction on all the company.
He was then silent, but Alexander saw him the next minute making signals to him to put more fire and determination into his amorous proposals.
Before he could execute these instructions, a clock on the chimney-piece struck three.
The actress started, and literally bundled father and son out of the house, for in those days plays began at five o'clock.
Mrs. Oldfield, however, invited them to sup with her, conditionally; if she was not defeated in "The Rival Queens." "If I am," said she, "it will be your interest to keep out of my way; for of course I shall attribute it to the interruptions and distractions of this morning."
She said this with an arch, and, at the same time, rather wicked look, and Alexander's face burned in a moment.
"Oh!" cried he, "I should be miserable for life."
"Should you?" said Anne.
"You know I must."
"Well then" (and a single gleam of lightning shot from her eyes), "I must not be defeated."
At five o'clock, the theater was packed to the ceiling, and the curtain rose upon "The Rival Queens," about which play much nonsense has been talked. It is true there is bombast in it, and one or two speeches that smack of Bedlam; but there is not more bombast than in other plays of the epoch, and there is ten times as much fire. The play has also some excellent turns of language and some great strokes of nature; in particular the representation of two different natures agitated to the utmost by the same passion, jealousy, is full of genius.
"The Rival Queens" is a play for the stage, not the closet. Its author was a great reader, and the actors who had the benefit of his reading charmed the public in all the parts, but in process of time actors arose who had not that advantage, and "Alexander the Great" became too much for them. They could not carry off his smoke, or burn with his fire. The female characters, however, retained their popularity for many years after the death of the author, and of Betterton, the first "Alexander." They are the two most equal female characters that exist in tragedy. Slight preference is commonly given by actors to the part of "Roxana;" but when Mrs. Bracegirdle selected that part, Mrs. Oldfield took "Statira" with perfect complacency.
The theater was full, the audience in an unusual state of excitement.
The early part of the first act received but little attention. At length Statira glided on the scene. She was greeted with considerable applause; in answer to which she did not duck and grin, according to rule, but, sweeping a rapid, yet dignified courtesy, she barely indicated her acknowledgments, remaining Statira.
"Give me a knife, a draught of poison, flames!
Swell, heart! break, break, thou stubborn thing!"
Her predecessors had always been violent in this scene. Mrs. Oldfield made distress its prominent sentiment. The critics thought her too quiet, but she stole upon the hearts of the audience, and enlisted their sympathy on her side before the close of the act.
Mrs. Bracegirdle, who stood at the wing during the scene, turned round to her toady, and said, shrugging her shoulders: "Oh, if that is all the lady can do! "
In the third act Mrs. Bracegirdle made her entrée with great spirit, speaking, as she came on, the line,
"Oh, you have ruined me! I shall be mad!"
She was received with great applause, on which she instantly dropped Roxana, and became Mrs. Bracegirdle, all wreathed in smiles; the applause being ended, she returned to Roxana as quickly as it is possible to do after such a deviation. She played the scene with immense spirit and fire, and the applause was much greater than Statira had obtained in the first act.
Applause is the actor's test of success.
The two queens now came into collision, and their dialogue is so dramatic that I hope I may be excused for quoting it, with all its faults:
Roxana. Madam, I hope you will a queen forgive;
Roxana weeps to see Statira grieve;
How noble is the brave resolve you make,
To quit the world for Alexander's sake!
Vast is your mind, you dare thus greatly die,
And yield the king to one so mean as I;
'Tis a revenge will make the victor smart,
And much I fear your death will break his heart.
Statira. You counterfeit, I fear, and know too well
How much your eyes all beauties else excel:
Roxana, who, though not a princess born,
In chains could make the mighty victor mourn.
Forgetting power when wine had made him warm,
And senseless, yet even then you knew to charm
Preserve him by those arts that cannot fail,
While I the loss of what I love bewail.
Roxana. I hope your majesty will give me leave
To wait you to the grove, where you would grieve
Where, like the turtle, you the loss will moan
Of that dear mate, and murmur all alone.
Statira. No, proud triumpher, o'er my falling state,
Thou shalt not stay to fill me with my fate;
Go to the conquest which your wiles may boast,
And tell the world you left Statira lost.
Go seize my faithless Alexander's hand,
Both hand and heart were once at my command
Grasp his loved neck, die on his fragrant breast,
Love him like me whose love can't be expressed,
He must be happy, and you more than blest,
While I in darkness hide me from the day,
That with my mind I may his form survey,
And think so long, till I think life away.
Roxana. No, sickly virtue, no,
Thou shalt not think, nor thy love's loss bemoan,
Nor shall past pleasures through thy fancy run;
That were to make thee blest as I can be;
But thy no thought I must, I will decree;
As thus, I'll torture thee till thou art mad.
And then no thought to purpose can be had.
Statira. How frail, how cowardly, is woman's mind!
We shriek at thunder, dread the rustling wind,
And glittering swords the brightest eyes will blind;
Yet when strong jealousy inflames the soul,
The weak will roar, and calms to tempests roll.
Rival, take heed, and tempt me not too far;
My blood may boil, and blushes show a war.
Roxana. When you retire to your romantic cell,
I'll make thy solitary mansion hell!
Thou shalt not rest by day, nor sleep by night,
But still Roxana shall thy spirit fright;
Wanton in dreams if thou dar'st dream of bliss,
Thy roving ghost may think to steal a kiss;
But when to his sought bed thy wandering air
Shall for the happiness it wished repair,
How will it groan to find thy rival there?
How ghastly wilt thou look when thou shalt see,
Through the drawn curtains, that great man and me,
Wearied with laughing joys shot to the soul,
While thou shalt grinning stand, and gnash thy teeth, and howl!
Statira. O barbarous rage! my tears I cannot keep,
But my full eyes in spite of me will weep.
Roxana. The king and I in various pictures drawn,
Clasping each other, shaded o'er with lawn,
Shall be the daily presents I will send,
To help thy sorrow to her journey's end:
And when we hear at last thy hour draws nigh,
My Alexander, my dear love, and I,
Will come and hasten on thy lingering fates,
And smile and kiss thy soul out through the grates.
Statira. 'Tis well, I thank thee; thou hast waked a rage,
Whose boiling now no temper can assuage;
I meet thy tides of jealousy with more,
Dare thee to duel, and dash thee o'er and o'er.
Roxana. What would you dare?
Statira. Whatever you dare do,
My warring thoughts the bloodiest tracks pursue;
I am by love a fury made, like you;
Kill or be killed, thus acted by despair.
Roxana. Sure the disdained Statira does not dare!
Statira. Yes, towering proud Roxana, but I dare!
Roxana. I tower indeed o'er thee;
Like a fair wood, the shade of kings I stand,
While thou, sick weed, dost but infest the land.
Statira. No, like an ivy I will curl thee round,
Thy sapless trunk of all its pride confound,
Then, dry and withered, bend thee to the ground.
What Sysigambis' threats, objected fears,
My sister's sighs, and Alexander's tears,
Could not affect, thy rival rage has done;
My soul, whose start at breach of oaths begun,
Shall to thy ruin violated run.
I'll see the king in spite of all I swore,
Though cursed, that thou mayst never see him more.
In this female duel Statira appeared to great advantage. She exhibited the more feminine character of the two. The marked variety of sentiment she threw into each speech contrasted favorably with the other's somewhat vixenish monotony; and every now and then she gave out volcanic flashes of great power, all the more effective for the artful reserve she had hitherto made of her physical resources. The effect was electrical when she, the tender woman, suddenly wheeled upon her opponent with the swords, "Rival, take heed," etc. And now came the climax; now it was that Mrs. Bracegirdle paid for her temporary success. She had gone to the end of her tether long ago, but her antagonist had been working on the great principle of Art--Climax. She now put forth the strength she had economized; at each speech she rose and swelled higher, and higher, and higher. Her frame dilated, her voice thundered, her eyes lightened, and she swept the audience with her in the hurricane of her passion. There was a moment's dead silence, and then the whole theater burst into acclamations, which were renewed again and again ere the play was offered to proceed. At the close of the scene Statira had overwhelmed Roxana; and, as here she had electrified the audience, so in the concluding passage of the play she melted them to tears--the piteous anguish of her regret at being separated by death from her lover--
"What, must I lose my life, my lord, forever?"
And then her pitying tenderness for his sorrow; and then her prayer to him to live; and, last, that exquisite touch of woman's love, more angelic than man's--
"Spare Roxana's life;
'Twas love of you that caused her give me death";
and her death, with no thought but love, love, love, upon her lips;--all this was rendered so tenderly and so divinely, that no heart was untouched, and few eyes were dry now in the crowded theater. Statira died; the other figures remained upon the stage, but to the spectators the play was over; and when the curtain fell there was but one cry, "Oldfield!" "Oldfield!"
In those days people conceived opinions of their own in matters dramatic, and expressed them then and there. Roma locuta est, and Nance Oldfield walked into her dressing-room the queen of the English stage.
Two figures in the pit had watched this singular battle with thrilling interest. Alexander sympathized alternately with the actress as well as the queen. Nathan, to tell the truth, after hanging his head most sheepishly for the first five minutes, yielded wholly to the illusion of the stage, and was "transported out of this ignorant present" altogether; to him Roxana and Statira were bona fide queens, women and rivals. The Oldworthys were seated in Critics' Row; and after a while, Nathan's enthusiasm and excitement disturbed old gentlemen who came to judge two actresses, not to drink poetry all alive O.
His neighbors proposed to eject Nathan; the said Nathan on this gave them a catalogue of actions, any one of which, he said, would re-establish his constitutional rights, and give him his remedy in the shape of damages; he wound up with letting them know he was an attorney at law. On this they abandoned the idea of meddling with him as hastily as boys drop the baked halfpence in a scramble provided by their philanthropical seniors. So now Mrs. Oldfield was queen of the stage, and Alexander had access to her as her admirer, and Nathan had a long private talk with her, and then with some misgivings went down to Coventry.
A story ought to end with a marriage: ought it not? Well, this one does not, because there are reasons that compel the author to tell the truth! The poet did not marry the actress, and beget tragedies and comedies. Love does not always end in marriage, even behind the scenes of a theater. But it led to a result, the value of which my old readers know, and my young ones will learn --it led to a very tender and lifelong friendship. And, oh, how few out of the great aggregate of love affairs lead to so high, or so good, or so affectionate a permanency as is a tender friendship!
One afternoon Mrs. Oldfield wrote rather a long letter thus addressed in the fashion of the day:
To Mr. Nathan Oldworthy,
Attorney at Law,
In the Town of Coventry,
At his house there in the Market Street.
This, with all dispatch.
Nathan read it, and said, "God forgive me for thinking ill of any people, because of their business!" and his eyes filled.
The letter described to Nathan an interview the actress had with Alexander. That interview (several months after our tale) was a long, and, at some moments, a distressing one, especially to poor Alexander; but it had been long meditated, and was firmly carried out; in that interview this generous woman conferred one of the greatest benefactions on Alexander one human being can hope to confer on another. She persuaded a Dramatic Author to turn Attorney. He was very reluctant then; and very grateful afterward. These two were never to one another as though all had never been. They were friends as long as they were on earth together. This was not so very long. Alexander lived to eighty-six ; but the great Oldfield died at forty-seven. While she lived, she always consulted her Alexander in all difficulties. One day she sent for him; and he came sadly to her bedside; it was to make her will. He was sadder than she was. She died. She lay in state like a royal queen; and noblemen and gentlemen vied to hold her pall as they took her to the home she had earned in Westminster Abbey. Alexander, faithful to the last, carried out all her last requests; and he tried, poor soul, to rescue her fame from the cruel fate that a waits the great artists of the scene--oblivion. He wrote her epitaph. It is first-rate of its kind; and prime Latin for once in a way--
There, brother, I have done what I can for your sweetheart, and I have reprinted your Epitaph, after one hundred years.
But neither you nor I, nor all our pens, can fight against the laws that rule the Arts. Each of the great arts fail in something, is unapproachably great in others (of that anon). The great Artists of the Scene are paid in cash; they cannot draw bills at fifty years' date.
They are meteors that blaze in the world's eye--and vanish.
We are farthing candles that cast a gleam all around four yards square, for hours and hours.
Alexander lived a life of business, honest, honorable, and graceful too; for the true poetic feeling is ineradicable; it colors a man's life--is not colored by it. And when he had reached a great old age, it befell that Alexander's sight grew dim, and his spirit was weary of the great city, and his memory grew weak, and he forgot parchments, and dates, and reports, and he began to remember, as though it was yesterday, the pleasant fields, where he had played among the lambs and the buttercups in the morning of his days. And the old man said calmly, "Vixi! Therefore now I will go down, and see once more those pleasant fields; and I will sit. in the sun a little while; and then I will lie beside my father in the old churchyard."
And he did so. It is near a hundred years ago now.
So Anne Oldfield sleeps in Westminster Abbey, near the poets whose thoughts took treble glory from her, while she adorned the world. And Alexander Oldworthy lies humbly beneath the shadow of the great old lofty spire in the town of Coventry.
Requiescat in pace!
"And all Christian souls, I pray Heaven."
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