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During the garden scene, Mr. Vane had begged Mrs. Woffington to let him accompany her. She peremptorily refused, and said in the same breath she was going to Triplet, in Hercules Buildings, to have her portrait finished.
Had Mr. Vane understood the sex, he would not have interpreted her refusal to the letter; when there was a postscript, the meaning of which was so little enigmatical.
Some three hours after the scene we have described, Mrs. Woffington sat in Triplet's apartment; and Triplet, palette in hand, painted away upon her portrait.
Mrs. Woffington was in that languid state which comes to women after their hearts have received a blow. She felt as if life was ended, and but the dregs of existence remained; but at times a flood of bitterness rolled over her, and she resigned all hope of perfect happiness in this world--all hope of loving and respecting the same creature; and at these moments she had but one idea--to use her own power, and bind her lover to her by chains never to be broken; and to close her eyes, and glide down the precipice of the future.
"I think you are master of this art," said she, very languidly, to Triplet, "you paint so rapidly."
"Yes, madam," said Triplet, gloomily; and painted on. "Confound this shadow!" added he; and painted on.
His soul, too, was clouded. Mrs. Woffington, yawning in his face, had told him she had invited all Mr. Vane's company to come and praise his work; and ever since that he had been morne et silencieux.
"You are fortunate," continued Mrs. Woffington, not caring what she said; "it is so difficult to make execution keep pace with conception."
"Yes, ma'am;" and he painted on.
"You are satisfied with it?"
"Anything but, ma'am;" and he painted on.
"Cheerful soul!--then I presume it is like?"
"Not a bit, ma'am;" and he painted on.
Mrs. Woffington stretched.
"You can't yawn, ma'am--you can't yawn."
"Oh, yes, I can. You are such good company;" and she stretched again.
"I was just about to catch the turn of the lip," remonstrated Triplet.
"Well, catch it--it won't run away."
"I'll try, ma'am. A pleasant half-hour it will be for me, when they all come here like cits at a shilling ordinary--each for his cut."
"At a sensitive goose!"
"That is as may be, madam. Those critics flay us alive!"
"You should not hold so many doors open to censure."
"No, ma'am. Head a little more that way. I suppose you can't sit quiet, ma'am?--then never mind!" (This resignation was intended as a stinging reproach.) "Mr. Cibber, with his sneering snuff-box! Mr. Quin, with his humorous bludgeon! Mrs. Clive, with her tongue! Mr. Snarl, with his abuse! And Mr. Soaper, with his praise!--arsenic in treacle I call it! But there, I deserve it all! For look on this picture, and on this!"
"Meaning, I am painted as well as my picture!"
"Oh, no, no, no! But to turn from your face, madam--on which the lightning of expression plays, continually--to this stony, detestable, dead daub!--I could-- And I will, too! Imposture! dead caricature of life and beauty, take that!" and he dashed his palette-knife through the canvas. "Libelous lie against nature and Mrs. Woffington, take that!" and he stabbed the canvas again; then, with sudden humility: "I beg your pardon, ma'am," said he, "for this apparent outrage, which I trust you will set down to the excitement attendant upon failure. The fact is, I am an incapable ass, and no painter! Others have often hinted as much; but I never observed it myself till now!"
"Right through my pet dimple!" said Mrs. Woffington, with perfect nonchalance. "Well, now I suppose I may yawn, or do what I like?"
"You may, madam," said Triplet, gravely. "I have forfeited what little control I had over you, madam."
So they sat opposite each other, in mournful silence. At length the actress suddenly rose. She struggled fiercely against her depression, and vowed that melancholy should not benumb her spirits and her power.
"He ought to have been here by this time," said she to herself. "Well, I will not mope for him. I must do something. Triplet," said she.
She sat gently down again, and leaned her head on her hand, and thought. She was beautiful as she thought!--her body seemed bristling with mind! At last, her thoughtful gravity was illumined by a smile. She had thought out something excogitaverat.
"Triplet, the picture is quite ruined!"
"Yes, madam. And a coach-load of criticism coming!"
"Triplet, we actors and actresses have often bright ideas."
"Yes, ma am."
"When we take other people's!"
"He, he!" went Triplet. "Those are our best, madam!"
"Well, sir, I have got a bright idea."
"You don't say so, ma'am!"
"Don't be a brute, dear!" said the lady gravely.
"When I was in France, taking lessons of Dumesnil, one of the actors of the Theatre Francais had his portrait painted by a rising artist. The others were to come and see it. They determined, beforehand, to mortify the painter and the sitter, by abusing the work in good set terms. But somehow this got wind, and the patients resolved to be the physicians. They put their heads together, and contrived that the living face should be in the canvas, surrounded by the accessories; these, of course, were painted. Enter the actors, who played their little prearranged farce; and, when they had each given the picture a slap, the picture rose and laughed in their faces, and discomfited them! By the by, the painter did not stop there; he was not content with a short laugh, he laughed at them five hundred years!"
"Good gracious, Mrs. Woffington!"
"He painted a picture of the whole thing; and as his work is immortal, ours an April snow-flake, he has got tremendously the better of those rash little satirists. Well, Trip, what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose; so give me the sharpest knife in the house."
Triplet gave her a knife, and looked confused, while she cut away the face of the picture, and by dint of scraping, cutting, and measuring, got her face two parts through the canvas. She then made him take his brush and paint all round her face, so that the transition might not be too abrupt. Several yards of green baize were also produced. This was to be disposed behind the easel, so as to conceal her.
Triplet painted here, and touched and retouched there. While thus occupied, he said, in his calm, resigned way: "It won't do, madam. I suppose you know that?"
"I know nothing," was the reply: "life is a guess. I don't think we could deceive Roxalana and Lucy this way, because their eyes are without colored spectacles; but, when people have once begun to see by prejudices and judge by jargon what can't be done with them? Who knows? do you? I don't; so let us try."
"I beg your pardon, madam; my brush touched your face."
"No offense, sir; I am used to that. And I beg, if you can't tone the rest of the picture up to me, that you will instantly tone me down to the rest. Let us be in tune, whatever it costs, sir."
"I will avail myself of the privilege, madam, but sparingly. Failure, which is certain, madam, will cover us with disgrace."
"Nothing is certain in this life, sir, except that you are a goose. It succeeded in France; and England can match all Europe for fools. Besides, it will be well done. They say Davy Garrick can turn his eyes into bottled gooseberries. Well, Peg Woffington will turn hers into black currants. Haven't you done? I wonder they have not come. Make haste!"
"They will know by its beauty I never did it."
"That is a sensible remark, Trip. But I think they will rather argue backward; that, as you did it, it cannot be beautiful, and so cannot be me. Your reputation will be our shield."
"Well, madam, now you mention it, they are like enough to take that ground. They despise all I do; if they did not--"
"You would despise them."
At this moment the pair were startled by the sound of a coach. Triplet turned as pale as ashes. Mrs. Woffington had her misgivings; but, not choosing to increase the difficulty, she would not let Triplet, whose self-possession she doubted, see any sign of emotion in her.
"Lock the door," said she, firmly, "and don't be silly. Now hold up my green baize petticoat, and let me be in a half-light. Now put that table and those chairs before me, so that they can't come right up to me; and, Triplet, don't let them come within six yards, if you can help it. Say it is unfinished, and so must be seen from a focus."
"A focus! I don't know what you mean."
"No more do I; no more will they, perhaps; and if they don't they will swallow it directly. Unlock the door. Are they coming?"
"They are only at the first stair."
"Mr. Triplet, your face is a book, where one may read strange matters. For Heaven's sake, compose yourself. Let all the risk lie in one countenance. Look at me, sir. Make your face like the Book of Daniel in a Jew's back parlor. Volto Sciolto is your cue."
"Madam, madam, how your tongue goes! I hear them on the stairs. Pray don't speak!"
"Do you know what we are going to do?" continued the tormenting Peggy. "We are going to weigh goose's feathers! to criticise criticism, Trip--"
A grampus was heard outside the door, and Triplet opened it. There was Quin leading the band.
"Have a care, sir," cried Triplet; "there is a hiatus the third step from the door."
"A gradus ad Parnassum a wanting," said Mr. Cibber.
Triplet's heart sank. The hole had been there six months, and he had found nothing witty to say about it, and at first sight Mr. Cibber had done its business. And on such men he and his portrait were to attempt a preposterous delusion. Then there was Snarl, who wrote critiques on painting, and guided the national taste. The unlucky exhibitor was in a cold sweat. He led the way, like a thief going to the gallows.
"The picture being unfinished, gentlemen," said he, "must, if you would do me justice, be seen from a--a focus; must be judged from here, I mean."
"Where, sir?" said Mr. Cibber.
"About here, sir, if you please," said poor Triplet faintly.
"It looks like a finished picture from here," said Mrs. Clive.
"Yes, madam," groaned Triplet.
They all took up a position, and Triplet timidly raised his eyes along with the rest. He was a little surprised. The actress had flattened her face! She had done all that could be done, and more than he had conceived possible, in the way of extracting life and the atmosphere of expression from her countenance. She was "dead still!"
There was a pause. Triplet fluttered. At last some of them spoke as follows:
These interjections are small on paper, but as the good creatures uttered them they were eloquent; there was a cheerful variety of dispraise skillfully thrown into each of them.
"Well," continued Soaper, with his everlasting smile.
Then the fun began.
"May I be permitted to ask whose portrait this is?" said Mr. Cibber slyly.
"I distinctly told you, it was to be Peg Woffington's," said Mrs. Clive. "I think you might take my word."
"Do you act as truly as you paint?" said Quin.
"Your fame runs no risk from me, sir!" replied Triplet.
"It is not like Peggy's beauty! Eh?" rejoined Quin.
"I can't agree with you," cried Kitty Clive. "I think it a very pretty face; and not at all like Peg Woffington's."
"Compare paint with paint," said Quin. "Are you sure you ever saw down to Peggy's real face?"
Triplet had seen with alarm that Mr. Snarl spoke not; many satirical expressions crossed his face, but he said nothing. Triplet gathered from this that he had at once detected the trick. "Ah!" thought Triplet, "he means to quiz them, as well as expose me. He is hanging back; and, in point of fact, a mighty satirist like Snarl would naturally choose to quiz six people rather than two."
"Now I call it beautiful!" said the traitor Soaper. "So calm and reposeful; no particular expression."
"None whatever," said Snarl.
"Gentlemen," said Triplet, "does it never occur to you that the fine arts are tender violets, and cannot blow when the north winds--"
"Blow!" inserted Quin.
"Are so cursed cutting?" continued Triplet.
"My good sir, I am never cutting!" smirked Soaper. "My dear Snarl," whined he, "give us the benefit of your practiced judgment. Do justice to this ad-mirable work of art," drawled the traitor.
"I will!" said Mr. Snarl; and placed himself before the picture.
"What on earth will he say?" thought Triplet. "I can see by his face he has found us out."
Mr. Snarl delivered a short critique. Mr. Snarl's intelligence was not confined to his phrases; all critics use intelligent phrases and philosophical truths. But this gentleman's manner was very intelligent; it was pleasant, quiet, assured, and very convincing. Had the reader or I been there, he would have carried us with him, as he did his hearers; and as his successors carry the public with them now.
"Your brush is by no means destitute of talent, Mr. Triplet," said Mr. Snarl. "But you are somewhat deficient, at present, in the great principles of your art; the first of which is a loyal adherence to truth. Beauty itself is but one of the forms of truth, and nature is our finite exponent of infinite truth."
His auditors gave him a marked attention. They could not but acknowledge that men who go to the bottom of things like this should be the best instructors.
"Now, in nature, a woman's face at this distance--ay, even at this short distance-- melts into the air. There is none of that sharpness; but, on the contrary, a softness of outline." He made a lorgnette of his two hands; the others did so too, and found they saw much better--oh, ever so much better! "Whereas yours," resumed Snarl, "is hard; and, forgive me, rather tea-board like. Then your chiaro scuro, my good sir, is very defective; for instance, in nature, the nose, intercepting the light on one side the face, throws, of necessity, a shadow under the eye. Caravaggio, Venetians generally, and the Bolognese masters, do particular justice to this. No such shade appears in this portrait."
"'Tis so, stop my vitals!" observed Colley Cibber. And they all looked, and, having looked, wagged their heads in assent--as the fat, white lords at Christie's waggle fifty pounds more out for a copy of Rembrandt, a brown levitical Dutchman, visible in the pitch-dark by some sleight of sun Newton had not wit to discover.
Soaper dissented from the mass.
"But, my dear Snarl, if there are no shades, there are lights, loads of lights."
"There are," replied Snarl; "only they are impossible, that is all. You have, however," concluded he, with a manner slightly supercilious, "succeeded in the mechanical parts; the hair and the dress are well, Mr. Triplet; but your Woffington is not a woman, not nature."
They all nodded and waggled assent; but this sagacious motion was arrested as by an earthquake.
The picture rang out, in the voice of a clarion, an answer that outlived the speaker: "She's a woman! for she has taken four men in! She's nature! for a fluent dunce doesn't know her when he sees her!"
Imagine the tableau! It was charming! Such opening of eyes and mouths! Cibber fell by second nature into an attitude of the old comedy. And all were rooted where they stood, with surprise and incipient mortification, except Quin, who slapped his knee, and took the trick at its value.
Peg Woffington slipped out of the green baize, and, coming round from the back of the late picture, stood in person before them; while they looked alternately at her and at the hole in the canvas. She then came at each of them in turn, more dramatico.
"A pretty face, and not like Woffington. I owe you two, Kate Clive."
"Who ever saw Peggy's real face? Look at it now if you can without blushing, Mr. Quin."
Quin, a good-humored fellow, took the wisest view of his predicament, and burst into a hearty laugh.
"For all this," said Mr. Snarl, peevishly, "I maintain, upon the unalterable principles of art--" At this they all burst into a roar, not sorry to shift the ridicule. "Goths!" cried Snarl, fiercely. "Good-morning, ladies and gentlemen," cried Mr. Snarl, avec intention, "I have a criticism to write of last night's performance." The laugh died away to a quaver. "I shall sit on your pictures one day, Mr. Brush."
"Don't sit on them with your head downward, or you'll addle them," said Mr. Brush, fiercely. This was the first time Triplet had ever answered a foe. Mrs. Woffington gave him an eloquent glance of encouragement. He nodded his head in infantine exultation at what he had done.
"Come, Soaper," said Mr. Snarl.
Mr. Soaper lingered one moment to say: "You shall always have my good word, Mr. Triplet."
"I will try -- and not deserve it, Mr. Soaper," was the prompt reply.
"Serve 'em right," said Mr. Cibber, as soon as the door had closed upon them; "for a couple of serpents, or rather one boa-constrictor. Soaper slavers, for Snarl to crush. But we were all a little too hard on Triplet here; and, if he will accept my apology--"
"Why, sir," said Triplet, half trembling, but driven on by looks from Mrs. Woffington, "'Cibber's Apology' is found to be a trifle wearisome."
"Confound his impertinence!" cried the astounded laureate. "Come along, Jemmy."
"Oh, sir," said Quin, good-humoredly, "we must give a joke and take a joke. And when he paints my portrait--which he shall do--"
"The bear from Hockley Hole shall sit for the head!"
"Curse his impudence!" roared Quin. "I'm at your service, Mr. Cibber," added he, in huge dudgeon.
Away went the two old boys.
"Mighty well!" said waspish Mrs. Clive. "I did intend you should have painted Mrs. Clive. But after this impertinence--"
"You will continue to do it yourself, ma'am!"
This was Triplet's hour of triumph. His exultation was undignified, and such as is said to precede a fall. He inquired gravely of Mrs. Woffington, whether he had or had not shown a spirit. Whether he had or had not fired into each a parting shot, as they sheered off. To repair which, it might be advisable for them to put into friendly ports.
"Tremendous!" was the reply. "And when Snarl and Soaper sit on your next play, they won't forget the lesson you have given them."
"I'll be sworn they won't!" chuckled Triplet. But, reconsidering her words, he looked blank, and muttered: "Then perhaps it would have been more prudent to let them alone!"
"Incalculably more prudent!" was the reply.
"Then why did you set me on, madam?" said Triplet, reproachfully.
"Because I wanted amusement, and my head ached," was the cool answer, somewhat languidly given.
"I defy the coxcombs!" cried Triplet, with reviving spirit. "But real criticism I respect, honor, and bow to. Such as yours, madam; or such as that sweet lady's at Mr. Vane's would have been; or, in fact, anybody's who appreciates me. Oh, madam, I wanted to ask you, was it not strange your not being at Mr. Vane's, after all, to-day?"
"I was at Mr. Vane's, Triplet."
"You were? Why, I came with my verses, and she said you were not there! I will go fetch the verses."
"No, no! Who said I was not there?"
"Did I not tell you? The charming young lady who helped me with her own hand to everything on the table. What wine that gentleman possesses!"
"Was it a young lady, Triplet?"
"Not more than two-and-twenty, I should say.
"In a traveling-dress?"
"I could not see her dress, madam, for her beauty--brown hair, blue eyes, charming in conversation--"
"Ah! What did she tell you?"
"She told me, madam-- Ahem!"
"Well, what did you tell her? And what did she answer?"
"I told her that I came with verses for you, ordered by Mr. Vane. That he admired you. I descanted, madam, on your virtues, which had made him your slave."
"Go on," said Mrs. Woffington, encouraging him with a deceitful smile. "Tell me all you told her."
"That you were sitting to me for your portrait, the destination of which was not doubtful. That I lived at 10, Hercules Buildings."
"You told that lady all this?"
"I give my honor. She was so kind, I opened my heart to her. But tell me now, madam," said Triplet, joyously dancing round the Woffington volcano, "do you know this charming lady?"
"I congratulate you, madam. An acquaintance worthy even of you; and there are not many such. Who is she, madam?" continued Triplet, lively with curiosity.
"Mrs. Vane," was the quiet, grim answer.
"Mrs. Vane? His mother? No--am I mad? His sister! Oh, I see, his--"
"His wife! Why, then, Mr. Vane's married?"
"Oh, look there!--Oh, look here now! Well, but, good Heavens! she wasn't to know you were there, perhaps?"
"But then I let the cat out of the bag?"
"But, good gracious! there will be some serious mischief!"
"No doubt of it."
"And it is all my fault?"
"I've played the deuce with their married happiness?"
"And ten to one if you are not incensed against me too?"
Mrs. Woffington replied by looking him in the face, and turning her back upon him. She walked hastily to the window, threw it open, and looked out of it, leaving poor Triplet to very unpleasant reflections. She was so angry with him she dared not trust herself to speak.
"Just my luck," thought he. "I had a patron and a benefactress; I have betrayed them both." Suddenly an idea struck him. "Madam," said he, timorously, "see what these fine gentlemen are! What business had he, with a wife at home, to come and fall in love with you? I do it forever in my plays--I am obliged--they would be so dull else; but in real life to do it is abominable."
"You forget, sir," replied Mrs. Woffington, without moving, "that I am an actress--a plaything for the impertinence of puppies and the treachery of hypocrites. Fool! to think there was an honest man in the world, and that he had shone on me!"
With these words she turned, and Triplet was shocked to see the change in her face. She was pale, and her black, lowering brows were gloomy and terrible. She walked like a tigress to and fro, and Triplet dared not speak to her. Indeed she seemed but half conscious of his presence. He went for nobody with her. How little we know the people we eat and go to church and flirt with! Triplet had imagined this creature an incarnation of gayety, a sportive being, the daughter of smiles, the bride of mirth; needed but a look at her now to see that her heart was a volcano, her bosom a boiling gulf of fiery lava. She walked like some wild creature; she flung her hands up to heaven with a passionate despair, before which the feeble spirit of her companion shrank and cowered; and, with quivering lips and blazing eyes, she burst into a torrent of passionate bitterness.
"But who is Margaret Woffington," she cried, "that she should pretend to honest love, or feel insulted by the proffer of a stolen regard? And what have we to do with homes, or hearts, or firesides? Have we not the playhouse, its paste diamonds, its paste feelings, and the loud applause of fops and sots--hearts?--beneath loads of tinsel and paint? Nonsense! The love that can go with souls to heaven--such love for us? Nonsense! These men applaud us, cajole us, swear to us, flatter us; and yet, forsooth, we would have them respect us too."
"My dear benefactress," said Triplet, "they are not worthy of you."
"I thought this man was not all dross; from the first I never felt his passion an insult. Oh, Triplet! I could have loved this man--really loved him! and I longed so to be good. Oh, God! oh, God!"
"Thank Heaven, you don't love him!" cried Triplet, hastily. "Thank Heaven for that!"
"Love him? Love a man who comes to me with a silly second-hand affection from his insipid baby-face, and offers me half, or two-thirds, or a third of his worthless heart? I hate him! and her! and all the world!"
"That is what I call a very proper feeling," said poor Triplet, with a weak attempt to soothe her. "Then break with him at once, and all will be well."
"Break with him? Are you mad? No! Since he plays with the tools of my trade I shall fool him worse than he has me. I will feed his passion full, tempt him, torture him, play with him, as the angler plays a fish upon his hook. And, when his very life depends on me, then by degrees he shall see me cool, and cool, and freeze into bitter aversion. Then he shall rue the hour he fought with the Devil against my soul, and played false with a brain and heart like mine!"
"But his poor wife? You will have pity on her?"
"His wife! Are wives' hearts the only hearts that throb, and burn, and break? His wife must defend herself. It is not from me that mercy can come to her, nor from her to me. I loathe her, and I shall not forget that you took her part. Only, if you are her friend, take my advice, don't you assist her. I shall defeat her without that. Let her fight her battle, and I mine.
"Ah, madam! she cannot fight; she is a dove."
"You are a fool! What do you know about women? You were with her five minutes, and she turned you inside out. My life on it, while I have been fooling my time here, she is in the field, with all the arts of our sex, simplicity at the head of them."
Triplet was making a futile endeavor to convert her to his view of her rival, when a knock suddenly came to his door. A slovenly girl, one of his own neighbors, brought him a bit of paper, with a line written in pencil.
"'Tis from a lady, who waits below," said the girl.
Mrs. Woffington went again to the window, and there she saw getting out of a coach, and attended by James Burdock, Mabel Vane, who had sent up her name on the back of an old letter.
"What shall I do?" said Triplet, as soon as he recovered the first stunning effects of this contretemps. To his astonishment, Mrs. Woffington bade the girl show the lady upstairs. The girl went down on this errand.
"But you are here," remonstrated Triplet. "Oh, to be sure, you can go into the other room. There is plenty of time to avoid her," said Triplet, in a very natural tremor. "This way, madam!"
Mrs. Woffington stood in the middle of the room like a statue.
"What does she come here for?" said she, sternly. "You have not told me all."
"I don't know," cried poor Triplet, in dismay; "and I think the Devil brings her here to confound me. For Heaven's sake, retire! What will become of us all? There will be murder, I know there will!"
To his horror, Mrs. Woffington would not move. "You are on her side," said she slowly, with a concentration of spite and suspicion. She looked frightful at this moment. "All the better for me," added she, with a world of female malignity.
Triplet could not make head against this blow; he gasped, and pointed piteously to the inner door. "No; I will know two things: the course she means to take, and the terms you two are upon."
By this time Mrs. Vane's light foot was heard on the stair, and Triplet sank into a chair. "They will tear one another to pieces," said he.
A tap came to the door.
He looked fearfully round for the woman whom jealousy had so speedily turned from an angel to a fiend; and saw with dismay that she had actually had the hardihood to slip round and enter the picture again. She had not quite arranged herself when her rival knocked.
Triplet dragged himself to the door. Before he opened it, he looked fearfully over his shoulder, and received a glance of cool, bitter, deadly hostility, that boded ill both for him and his visitor. Triplet's apprehensions were not unreasonable. His benefactress and this sweet lady were rivals!
Jealousy is a dreadful passion, it makes us tigers. The jealous always thirst for blood. At any moment when reason is a little weaker than usual, they are ready to kill the thing they hate, or the thing they love.
Any open collision between these ladies would scatter ill consequences all round. Under such circumstances, we are pretty sure to say or do something wicked, silly, or unreasonable. But what tortured Triplet more than anything was his own particular notion that fate doomed him to witness a formal encounter between these two women, and of course an encounter of such a nature as we in our day illustrate by "Kilkenny cats."
To be sure Mrs. Vane had appeared a dove, but doves can peck on certain occasions, and no doubt she had a spirit at bottom. Her coming to him proved it. And had not the other been a dove all the morning and afternoon? Yet, jealousy had turned her to a fiend before his eyes. Then if (which was not probable) no collision took place, what a situation was his! Mrs. Woffington (his buckler from starvation) suspected him, and would distort every word that came from Mrs. Vane's lips.
Triplet's situation was, in fact, that of Aeneas in the storm.
"Olim et haec meminisse juvabit--" "But, while present, such things don't please any one a bit."
It was the sort of situation we can laugh at, and see the fun of it six months after, if not shipwrecked on it at the time.
With a ghastly smile the poor quaking hypocrite welcomed Mrs. Vane, and professed a world of innocent delight that she had so honored his humble roof.
She interrupted his compliments, and begged him to see whether she was followed by a gentleman in a cloak.
Triplet looked out of the window.
"Sir Charles Pomander!" gasped he.
Sir Charles was at the very door. If, however, he had intended to mount the stairs he changed his mind, for he suddenly went off round the corner with a businesslike air, real or fictitious.
"He is gone, madam," said Triplet.
Mrs. Vane, the better to escape detection or observation, wore a thick mantle and a hood that concealed her features. Of these Triplet debarrassed her.
"Sit down, madam;" and he hastily drew a chair so that her back was to the picture.
She was pale, and trembled a little. She hid her face in her hands a moment, then, recovering her courage, "she begged Mr. Triplet to pardon her for coming to him. He had inspired her with confidence," she said; "he had offered her his services, and so she had come to him, for she had no other friend to aid her in her sore distress." She might have added, that with the tact of her sex she had read Triplet to the bottom, and came to him, as she would to a benevolent, muscular old woman.
Triplet's natural impulse was to repeat most warmly his offers of service. He did so; and then, conscious of the picture, had a misgiving.
"Dear Mr. Triplet," began Mrs. Vane, "you know this person, Mrs. Woffington?"
"Yes, madam," replied Triplet, lowering his eyes, "I am honored by her acquaintance."
"You will take me to the theater where she acts?"
"Yes, madam; to the boxes, I presume?"
"No! oh, no! How could I bear that? To the place where the actors and actresses are."
Triplet demurred. This would be courting that very collision, the dread of which even now oppressed him.
At the first faint sign of resistance she began to supplicate him, as if he was some great, stern tyrant.
"Oh, you must not, you cannot refuse me. You do not know what I risk to obtain this. I have risen from my bed to come to you. I have a fire here!" She pressed her hand to her brow. "Oh, take me to her!"
"Madam, I will do anything for you. But be advised; trust to my knowledge of human nature. What you require is madness. Gracious Heavens! you two are rivals, and when rivals meet there's murder or deadly mischief."
"Ah! if you knew my sorrow, you would not thwart me. Oh, Mr. Triplet! little did I think you were as cruel as the rest." So then this cruel monster whimpered out that he should do any folly she insisted upon. "Good, kind Mr. Triplet!" said Mrs. Vane. "Let me look in your face? Yes, I see you are honest and true. I will tell you all." Then she poured in his ear her simple tale, unadorned and touching as Judah's speech to Joseph. She told him how she loved her husband; how he had loved her; how happy they were for the first six months; how her heart sank when he left her; how he had promised she should join him, and on that hope she lived. "But for two months he had ceased to speak of this, and I grew heart-sick waiting for the summons that never came. At last I felt I should die if I did not see him; so I plucked up courage and wrote that I must come to him. He did not forbid me, so I left our country home. Oh, sir! I cannot make you know how my heart burned to be by his side. I counted the hours of the journey; I counted the miles. At last I reached his house; I found a gay company there. I was a little sorry, but I said: 'His friends shall be welcome, right welcome. He has asked them to welcome his wife.'"
"Poor thing!" muttered Triplet.
"Oh, Mr. Triplet! they were there to do honor to ----, and the wife was neither expected nor desired. There lay my letters with their seals unbroken. I know all his letters by heart, Mr. Triplet. The seals unbroken--unbroken! Mr. Triplet."
"It is abominable!" cried Triplet fiercely. "And she who sat in my seat--in his house, and in his heart--was this lady, the actress you so praised to me?"
"That lady, ma'am," said Triplet, "has been deceived as well as you."
"I am convinced of it," said Mabel.
"And it is my painful duty to tell you, madam, that, with all her talents and sweetness, she has a fiery temper; yes, a very fiery temper," continued Triplet, stoutly, though with an uneasy glance in a certain direction; "and I have reason to believe she is angry, and thinks more of her own ill-usage than yours. Don't you go near her. Trust to my knowledge of the sex, madam; I am a dramatic writer. Did you ever read the 'Rival Queens'?"
"I thought not. Well, madam, one stabs the other, and the one that is stabbed says things to the other that are more biting than steel. The prudent course for you is to keep apart, and be always cheerful, and welcome him with a smile--and--have you read 'The Way to keep him'?"
"No, Mr. Triplet," said Mabel, firmly, "I cannot feign. Were I to attempt talent and deceit, I should be weaker than I am now. Honesty and right are all my strength. I will cry to her for justice and mercy. And if I cry in vain, I shall die, Mr. Triplet, that is all."
"Don't cry, dear lady," said Triplet, in a broken voice.
"It is impossible!" cried she, suddenly. "I am not learned, but I can read faces. I always could, and so could my Aunt Deborah before me. I read you right, Mr. Triplet, and I have read her too. Did not my heart warm to her among them all? There is a heart at the bottom of all her acting, and that heart is good and noble."
"She is, madam! she is! and charitable too. I know a family she saved from starvation and despair. Oh, yes! she has a heart--to feel for the poor, at all events."
"And am I not the poorest of the poor?" cried Mrs. Vane. "I have no father nor mother, Mr. Triplet; my husband is all I have in the world--all I had, I mean."
Triplet, deeply affected himself, stole a look at Mrs. Woffington. She was pale; but her face was composed into a sort of dogged obstinacy. He was disgusted with her. "Madam," said he, sternly, "there is a wild beast more cruel and savage than wolves and bears; it is called 'a rival,' and don't you get in its way."
At this moment, in spite of Triplet's precaution, Mrs. Vane, casting her eye accidentally round, caught sight of the picture, and instantly started up, crying, "She is there!" Triplet was thunderstruck. "What likeness!" cried she, and moved toward the supposed picture.
"Don't go to it!" cried Triplet, aghast; "the color is wet."
She stopped; but her eye and her very soul dwelt upon the supposed picture; and Triplet stood quaking. "How like! It seems to breathe. You are a great painter, sir. A glass is not truer."
Triplet, hardly knowing what he said, muttered something about "critics and lights and shades."
"Then they are blind!" cried Mabel, never for a moment removing her eye from the object. "Tell me not of lights and shades. The pictures I see have a look of paint; but yours looks like life. Oh, that she were here, as this wonderful image of hers is. I would speak to her. I am not wise or learned; but orators never pleaded as I would plead to her for my Ernest's heart." Still her eye glanced upon the picture; and I suppose her heart realized an actual presence, though her judgment did not; for by some irresistible impulse she sank slowly down and stretched her clasped hands toward it, while sobs and words seemed to break direct from her bursting heart. "Oh, yes! you are beautiful, you are gifted, and the eyes of thousands wait upon your very word and look. What wonder that he, ardent, refined, and genial, should lay his heart at your feet? And I have nothing but my love to make him love me. I cannot take him from you. Oh, be generous to the weak! Oh, give him back to me! What is one heart more to you? You are so rich, and I am so poor, that without his love I have nothing, and can do nothing but sit me down and cry till my heart breaks. Give him back to me, beautiful, terrible woman! for, with all your gifts, you cannot love him as his poor Mabel does; and I will love you longer perhaps than men can love. I will kiss your feet, and Heaven above will bless you; and I will bless you and pray for you to my dying day. Ah! it is alive! I am frightened! I am frightened!" She ran to Triplet and seized his arm. "No!" cried she, quivering close to him; "I'm not frightened, for it was for me she-- Oh, Mrs. Woffington!" and, hiding her face on Mr. Triplet's shoulder, she blushed, and wept, and trembled.
What was it had betrayed Mrs. Woffington? A tear!
During the whole of this interview (which had taken a turn so unlooked for by the listener) she might have said with Beatrice, "What fire is in mine ears?" and what self-reproach and chill misgiving in her heart too. She had passed through a hundred emotions, as the young innocent wife told her sad and simple story. But, anxious now above all things to escape without being recognized--for she had long repented having listened at all, or placed herself in her present position-- she fiercely mastered her countenance; but, though she ruled her features, she could not rule her heart. And when the young wife, instead of inveighing against her, came to her as a supplicant, with faith in her goodness, and sobbed to her for pity, a big tear rolled down her cheek, and proved her something more than a picture or an actress.
Mrs. Vane, as we have related, screamed and ran to Triplet.
Mrs. Woffington came instantly from her frame, and stood before them in a despairing attitude, with one hand upon her brow. For a single moment her impulse was to fly from the apartment, so ashamed was she of having listened, and of meeting her rival in this way; but she conquered this feeling, and, as soon as she saw Mrs. Vane too had recovered some composure, she said to Triplet, in a low but firm voice:
"Leave us, sir. No living creature must hear what I say to this lady!"
Triplet remonstrated, but Mrs. Vane said, faintly:
"Oh, yes, good Mr. Triplet, I would rather you left me."
Triplet, full of misgivings, was obliged to retire.
"Be composed, ladies," said he piteously. "Neither of you could help it;" and so he entered his inner room, where he sat and listened nervously, for he could not shake off all apprehension of a personal encounter.
In the room he had left there was a long, uneasy silence. Both ladies were greatly embarrassed. It was the actress who spoke first. All trace of emotion, except a certain pallor, was driven from her face. She spoke with very marked courtesy, but in tones that seemed to freeze as they dropped one by one from her mouth.
"I trust, madam, you will do me the justice to believe I did not know Mr. Vane was married?"
"I am sure of it!" said Mabel, warmly. "I feel you are as good as you are gifted."
"Mrs. Vane, I am not!" said the other, almost sternly. "You are deceived!"
"Then Heaven have mercy on me! No! I am not deceived, you pitied me. You speak coldly now; but I know your face and your heart--you pity me!"
"I do respect, admire, and pity you," said Mrs. Woffington, sadly; "and I could consent nevermore to communicate with your--with Mr. Vane."
"Ah!" cried Mabel; "Heaven will bless you! But will you give me back his heart?"
"How can I do that?" said Mrs. Woffington, uneasily; she had not bargained for this.
"The magnet can repel as well as attract. Can you not break your own spell? What will his presence be to me, if his heart remain behind?"
"You ask much of me."
"Alas! I do."
"But I could do even this." She paused for breath. "And perhaps if you, who have not only touched my heart, but won my respect, were to say to me, 'Do so,' I should do it." Again she paused, and spoke with difficulty; for the bitter struggle took away her breath. "Mr. Vane thinks better of me than I deserve. I have--only--to make him believe me--worthless--worse than I am--and he will drop me like an adder--and love you better, far better--for having known--admired--and despised Margaret Woffington."
"Oh!" cried Mabel, "I shall bless you every hour of my life." Her countenance brightened into rapture at the picture, and Mrs. Woffington's darkened with bitterness as she watched her.
But Mabel reflected. "Rob you of your good name?" said this pure creature. "Ah, Mabel Vane! you think but of yourself."
"I thank you, madam," said Mrs. Woffington, a little touched by this unexpected trait; "but some one must suffer here, and--"
Mabel Vane interrupted her. "This would be cruel and base," said she firmly. "No woman's forehead shall be soiled by me. Oh, madam! beauty is admired, talent is adored; but virtue is a woman's crown. With it, the poor are rich; without it, the rich are poor. It walks through life upright, and never hides its head for high or low."
Her face was as the face of an angel now; and the actress, conquered by her beauty and her goodness, actually bowed her head and gently kissed the hand of the country wife whom she had quizzed a few hours ago.
Frailty paid this homage to virtue!
Mabel Vane hardly noticed it; her eye was lifted to heaven, and her heart was gone there for help in a sore struggle.
"This would be to assassinate you; no less. And so, madam," she sighed, "with God's help, I do refuse your offer; choosing rather, if needs be, to live desolate, but innocent--many a better than I hath lived so--ay! if God wills it, to die, with my hopes and my heart crushed, but my hands unstained; for so my humble life has passed."
How beautiful, great, and pure goodness is! It paints heaven on the face that has it; it wakens the sleeping souls that meet it.
At the bottom of Margaret Woffington's heart lay a soul, unknown to the world, scarce known to herself--a heavenly harp, on which ill airs of passion had been played--but still it was there, in tune with all that is true, pure, really great and good. And now the flush that a great heart sends to the brow, to herald great actions, came to her cheek and brow.
"Humble!" she cried. "Such as you are the diamonds of our race. You angel of truth and goodness, you have conquered!"
"Oh, yes! yes! Thank God, yes!"
"What a fiend I must be could I injure you! The poor heart we have both overrated shall be yours again, and yours for ever. In my hands it is painted glass; in the luster of a love like yours it may become a priceless jewel." She turned her head away and pondered a moment, then suddenly offered to Mrs. Vane her hand with nobleness and majesty; "Can you trust me?" The actress too was divinely beautiful now, for her good angel shone through her.
"I could trust you with my life!" was the reply.
"Ah! if I might call you friend, dear lady, what would I not do--suffer--resign--to be worthy that title!"
"No, not friend!" cried the warm, innocent Mabel; "sister! I will call you sister. I have no sister."
"Sister!" said Mrs. Woffington. "Oh, do not mock me! Alas! you do not know what you say. That sacred name to me, from lips so pure as yours. Mrs. Vane," said she, timidly, "would you think me presumptuous if I begged you to--to let me kiss you?"
The words were scarce spoken before Mrs. Vane's arms were wreathed round her neck, and that innocent cheek laid sweetly to hers.
Mrs. Woffington strained her to her bosom, and two great hearts, whose grandeur the world, worshiper of charlatans, never discovered, had found each other out and beat against each other. A great heart is as quick to find another out as the world is slow.
Mrs. Woffington burst into a passion of tears and clasped Mabel tighter and tighter in a half-despairing way. Mabel mistook the cause, but she kissed her tears away.
"Dear sister," said she, "be comforted. I love you. My heart warmed to you the first moment I saw you. A woman's love and gratitude are something. Ah! you will never find me change. This is for life, look you."
"God grant it!" cried the other poor woman. "Oh, it is not that, it is not that; it is because I am so little worthy of this. It is a sin to deceive you. I am not good like you. You do not know me!"
"You do not know yourself if you say so!" cried Mabel; and to her hearer the words seemed to come from heaven. "I read faces," said Mabel. "I read yours at sight, and you are what I set you down; and nobody must breathe a word against you, not even yourself. Do you think I am blind? You are beautiful, you are good, you are my sister, and I love you!"
"Heaven forgive me!" thought the other. "How can I resign this angel's good opinion? Surely Heaven sends this blessed dew to my parched heart!" And now she burned to make good her promise and earn this virtuous wife's love. She folded her once more in her arms, and then, taking her by the hand, led her tenderly into Triplet's inner room. She made her lie down on the bed, and placed pillows high for her like a mother, and leaned over her as she lay, and pressed her lips gently to her forehead. Her fertile brain had already digested a plan, but she had resolved that this pure and candid soul should take no lessons of deceit. "Lie there," said she, "till I open the door: then join us. Do you know what I am going to do? I am not going to restore you your husband's heart, but to show you it never really left you. You read faces; well, I read circumstances. Matters are not as you thought," said she, with all a woman's tact. "I cannot explain, but you will see." She then gave Mrs. Triplet peremptory orders not to let her charge rise from the bed until the preconcerted signal.
Mrs. Vane was, in fact, so exhausted by all she had gone through that she was in no condition to resist. She cast a look of childlike confidence upon her rival, and then closed her eyes, and tried not to tremble all over and listen like a frightened hare.
It is one great characteristic of genius to do great things with little things. Paxton could see that so small a matter as a greenhouse could be dilated into a crystal palace, and with two common materials--glass and iron--he raised the palace of the genii; the brightest idea and the noblest ornament added to Europe in this century--the koh-i-noor of the west. Livy's definition of Archimedes goes on the same ground.
Peg Woffington was a genius in her way. On entering Triplet's studio her eye fell upon three trifles--Mrs. Vane's hood and mantle, the back of an old letter, and Mr. Triplet. (It will be seen how she worked these slight materials.) On the letter was written in pencil simply these two words, "Mabel Vane." Mrs. Woffington wrote above these words two more, "Alone and unprotected." She put this into Mr. Triplet's hand, and bade him take it down stairs and give it Sir Charles Pomander, whose retreat, she knew, must have been fictitious. "You will find him round the corner," said she, "or in some shop that looks this way." While uttering these words she had put on Mrs. Vane's hood and mantle.
No answer was returned, and no Triplet went out of the door.
She turned, and there he was kneeling on both knees close under her.
"Bid me jump out of that window, madam; bid me kill those two gentlemen, and I will not rebel. You are a great lady, a talented lady; you have been insulted, and no doubt blood will flow. It ought--it is your due; but that innocent lady, do not compromise her!"
"Oh, Mr. Triplet, you need not kneel to me. I do not wish to force you to render me a service. I have no right to dictate to you."
"Oh, dear!" cried Triplet, "don't talk in that way. I owe you my life, but I think of your own peace of mind, for you are not one to be happy if you injure the innocent!" He rose suddenly, and cried: "Madam, promise me not to stir till I come back!"
"Where are you going?"
"To bring the husband to his wife's feet, and so save one angel from despair, and another angel from a great crime."
"Well, I suppose you are wiser than I," said she. "But, if you are in earnest, you had better be quick, for somehow I am rather changeable about these people."
"You can't help that, madam, it is your sex; you are an angel. May I be permitted to kiss your hand? you are all goodness and gentleness at bottom. I fly to Mr. Vane, and we will be back before you have time to repent, and give the Devil the upper hand again, my dear, good, sweet lady!"
Away flew Triplet, all unconscious that he was not Mrs. Woffington's opponent, but puppet. He ran, he tore, animated by a good action, and spurred by the notion that he was in direct competition with the fiend for the possession of his benefactress. He had no sooner turned the corner than Mrs. Woffington, looking out of the window, observed Sir Charles Pomander on the watch, as she had expected. She remained at the window with Mrs. Vane's hood on, until Sir Charles's eye in its wanderings lighted on her, and then, dropping Mrs. Vane's letter from the window, she hastily withdrew.
Sir Charles eagerly picked it up. His eye brightened when he read the short contents. With a self-satisfied smile he mounted the stair. He found in Triplet's house a lady who seemed startled at her late hardihood. She sat with her back to the door, her hood drawn tightly down, and wore an air of trembling consciousness. Sir Charles smiled again. He knew the sex, at least he said so. (It is an assertion often ventured upon.) Accordingly Sir Charles determined to come down from his height, and court nature and innocence in their own tones. This he rightly judged must be the proper course to take with Mrs. Vane. He fell down with mock ardor upon one knee.
The supposed Mrs. Vane gave a little squeak.
"Dear Mrs. Vane," cried he, "be not alarmed; loveliness neglected, and simplicity deceived, insure respect as well as adoration. Ah!" (A sigh.)
"Oh, get up, sir; do, please. Ah!" (A sigh.)
"You sigh, sweetest of human creatures. Ah! why did not a nature like yours fall into hands that would have cherished it as it deserves? Had Heaven bestowed on me this hand, which I take--"
"Oh, please, sir--"
"With the profoundest respect, would I have abandoned such a treasure for an actress?--a Woffington! as artificial and hollow a jade as ever winked at a side box!"
"Is she, sir?"
"Notorious, madam. Your husband is the only man in London who does not see through her. How different are you! Even I, who have no taste for actresses, found myself revived, refreshed, ameliorated by that engaging picture of innocence and virtue you drew this morning; yourself the bright and central figure. Ah, dear angel! I remember all your favorites, and envy them their place in your recollections. Your Barbary mare--"
"Of course I meant hen; and Gray Gillian, his old nurse--"
"No, no, no! she is the mare, sir. He! he! he!"
"So she is. And Dame--Dame--"
"Ah! I knew it. You see how I remember them all. And all carry me back to those innocent days which fleet too soon--days when an angel like you might have weaned me from the wicked pleasures of the town, to the placid delights of a rural existence!"
"You sigh. It is not yet too late. I am a convert to you; I swear it on this white hand. Ah! how can I relinquish it, pretty fluttering prisoner?"
"Stay a while."
"No! please, sir--"
"While I fetter thee with a worthy manacle." Sir Charles slipped a diamond ring of great value upon his pretty prisoner.
"La, sir, how pretty!" cried innocence.
Sir Charles then undertook to prove that the luster of the ring was faint, compared with that of the present wearer's eyes. This did not suit innocence; she hung her head and fluttered, and showed a bashful repugnance to look her admirer in the face. Sir Charles playfully insisted, and Mrs. Woffington was beginning to be a little at a loss, when suddenly voices were heard upon the stairs.
"My husband!" cried the false Mrs. Vane, and in a moment she rose and darted into Triplet's inner apartment.
Mr. Vane and Mr. Triplet were talking earnestly as they came up the stair. It seems the wise Triplet had prepared a little dramatic scene for his own refreshment, as well as for the ultimate benefit of all parties. He had persuaded Mr. Vane to accompany him by warm, mysterious promises of a happy denouement; and now, having conducted that gentleman as far as his door, he was heard to say:
"And now, sir, you shall see one who waits to forget grief, suspicion--all, in your arms. Behold!" and here he flung the door open.
"You flatter me!" said Pomander, who had had time to recover his aplomb, somewhat shaken, at first, by Mr. Vane's inopportune arrival.
Now it is to be observed that Mr. Vane had not long ago seen his wife lying on her bed, to all appearance incapable of motion.
Mr. Vane, before Triplet could recover his surprise, inquired of Pomander why he had sent for him. "And what," added he, "is the grief, suspicion, I am, according to Mr. Triplet, to forget in your arms?"
Mr. Vane added this last sentence in rather a testy manner.
"Why, the fact is--" began Sir Charles, without the remotest idea of what the fact was going to be.
"That Sir Charles Pomander--" interrupted Triplet.
"But Mr. Triplet is going to explain," said Sir Charles, keenly.
"Nay, sir; be yours the pleasing duty. But, now I think of it," resumed Triplet, "why not tell the simple truth? it is not a play! She I brought you here to see was not Sir Charles Pomander; but--"
"I forbid you to complete the name!" cried Pomander.
"I command you to complete the name!" cried Vane.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen! how can I do both?" remonstrated Triplet.
"Enough, sir!" cried Pomander. "It is a lady's secret. I am the guardian of that lady's honor."
"She has chosen a strange guardian of her honor!" said Vane bitterly.
Gentlemen!" cried poor Triplet, who did not at all like the turn things were taking, "I give you my word, she does not even know of Sir Charies's presence here!"
"Who?" cried Vane, furiously. "Man alive! who are you speaking of?"
"My wife!" cried Vane, trembling with anger and jealousy. "She here! and with this man?"
"No!" cried Triplet. "With me, with me! Not with him, of course."
"Boaster!" cried Vane, contemptuously. "But that is a part of your profession!"
Pomander, irritated, scornfully drew from his pocket the ladies' joint production, which had fallen at his feet from Mrs. Woffington's hand. He presented this to Mr. Vane, who took it very uneasily; a mist swam before his eyes as he read the words: "Alone and unprotected--Mabel Vane." He had no sooner read these words, than he found he loved his wife; when he tampered with his treasure, he did not calculate on another seeking it.
This was Pomander's hour of triumph! He proceeded coolly to explain to Mr. Vane, that, Mrs. Woffington having deserted him for Mr. Vane, and Mr. Vane his wife for Mrs. Woffington, the bereaved parties had, according to custom, agreed to console each other.
This soothing little speech was interrupted by Mr. Vane's sword flashing suddenly out of its sheath; while that gentleman, white with rage and jealousy, bade him instantly take to his guard, or be run through the body like some noxious animal.
Sir Charles drew his sword, and, in spite of Triplet's weak interference, half a dozen passes were rapidly exchanged, when suddenly the door of the inner room opened, and a lady in a hood pronounced, in a voice which was an excellent imitation of Mrs. Vane's, the word, "False!"
The combatants lowered their points.
"You hear, sir!" cried Triplet.
"You see, sir!" said Pomander.
"Mabel! -- wife!" cried Mr. Vane, in agony. "Oh, say this is not true! Oh, say that letter is a forgery! Say, at least, it was by some treachery you were lured to this den of iniquity! Oh, speak!"
The lady silently beckoned to some person inside.
"You know I loved you--you know how bitterly I repent the infatuation that brought me to the feet of another!"
The lady replied not, though Vane's soul appeared to hang upon her answer. But she threw the door open and there appeared another lady, the real Mrs. Vane. Mrs. Woffington then threw off her hood, and, to Sir Charles Pomander's consternation, revealed the features of that ingenious person, who seemed born to outwit him.
"You heard that fervent declaration, madam?" said she to Mrs. Vane. "I present to you, madam, a gentleman who regrets that he mistook the real direction of his feelings. And to you, sir," continued she, with great dignity, "I present a lady who will never mistake either her feelings or her duty."
"Ernest! dear Ernest!" cried Mrs. Vane, blushing as if she was the culprit. And she came forward all love and tenderness.
Her truant husband kneeled at her feet of course. No! he said, rather sternly, "How came you here, Mabel?"
"Mrs. Vane," said the actress, "fancied you had mislaid that weathercock, your heart, in Covent Garden, and that an actress had seen in it a fit companion for her own, and had feloniously appropriated it. She came to me to inquire after it."
"But this letter, signed by you?" said Vane, still addressing Mabel.
"Was written by me on a paper which accidentally contained Mrs. Vane's name. The fact is, Mr. Vane--I can hardly look you in the face--I had a little wager with Sir Charles here; his diamond ring--which you may see has become my diamond ring"--a horrible wry face from Sir Charles-- "against my left glove that I could bewitch a country gentleman's imagination, and make him think me an angel. Unfortunately the owner of his heart appeared, and, like poor Mr. Vane, took our play for earnest. It became necessary to disabuse her and to open your eyes. Have I done so?"
"You have, madam," said Vane, wincing at each word she said. But at last, by a mighty effort, he mastered himself, and, coming to Mrs. Woffington with a quivering lip, he held out his hand suddenly in a very manly way. "I have been the dupe of my own vanity," said he, "and I thank you for this lesson." Poor Mrs. Woffington's fortitude had well-nigh left her at this.
"Mabel," he cried, "is this humiliation any punishment for my folly? any guaranty for my repentance? Can you forgive me?"
"It is all forgiven, Ernest. But, oh, you are mistaken." She glided to Mrs. Woffington. "What do we not owe you, sister?" whispered she.
"Nothing! that word pays all," was the reply. She then slipped her address into Mrs. Vane's hand, and, courtesying to all the company, she hastily left the room.
Sir Charles Pomander followed; but he was not quick enough. She got a start, and purposely avoided him, and for three days neither the public nor private friends saw this poor woman's face.
Mr. and Mrs. Vane prepared to go also; but Mrs. Vane would thank good Mr. Triplet and Mrs. Triplet for their kindness to her.
Triplet the benevolent blushed, was confused and delighted; but suddenly, turning somewhat sorrowful, he said: "Mr. Vane, madam, made use of an expression which caused a momentary pang. He called this a den of iniquity. Now this is my studio! But never mind."
Mr. Vane asked his pardon for so absurd an error, and the pair left Triplet in all the enjoyment which does come now and then to an honest man, whether this dirty little world will or not.
A coach was called and they went home to Bloomsbury. Few words were said; but the repentant husband often silently pressed this angel to his bosom, and the tears which found their way to her beautiful eyelashes were tears of joy.
This weakish, and consequently villainous, though not ill-disposed person would have gone down to Willoughby that night; but his wife had great good sense. She would not take her husband off, like a school-boy caught out of bounds. She begged him to stay while she made certain purchases; but, for all that, her heart burned to be at home. So in less than a week after the events we have related they left London.
Meantime, every day Mrs. Vane paid a quiet visit to Mrs. Woffington (for some days the actress admitted no other visitor), and was with her but two hours before she left London. On that occasion she found her very sad.
"I shall never see you again in this world," said she; "but I beg of you to write to me, that my mind may be in contact with yours."
She then asked Mabel, in her half-sorrowful, half-bitter way, how many months it would be ere she was forgotten.
Mabel answered by quietly crying. So then they embraced; and Mabel assured her friend she was not one of those who change their minds. "It is for life, dear sister; it is for life," cried she.
"Swear this to me," said the other, almost sternly. "But no. I have more confidence in that candid face and pure nature than in a human being's oath. If you are happy, remember you owe me something. If you are unhappy, come to me, and I will love you as men cannot love."
Then vows passed between them, for a singular tie bound these two women; and then the actress showed a part at least of her sore heart to her new sister; and that sister was surprised and grieved, and pitied her truly and deeply, and they wept on each other's neck; and at last they were fain to part. They parted; and true it was, they never met again in this world. They parted in sorrow; but when they meet again, it shall be with joy.
Women are generally such faithless, unscrupulous and pitiless humbugs in their dealings with their own sex--which, whatever they may say, they despise at heart-- that I am happy to be able to say, Mrs. Vane proved true as steel. She was a noble-minded, simple-minded creature; she was also a constant creature. Constancy is a rare, a beautiful, a godlike virtue.
Four times every year she wrote a long letter to Mrs. Woffington; and twice a year, in the cold weather, she sent her a hamper of country delicacies that would have victualed a small garrison. And when her sister left this earthly scene--a humble, pious, long-repentant Christian-- Mrs. Vane wore mourning for her, and sorrowed over her; but not as those who cannot hope to meet again.
My story as a work of art--good, bad or indifferent--ends with that last sentence. If a reader accompanies me further, I shall feel flattered, and he does so at his own risk.
My reader knows that all this befell long ago. That Woffington is gay, and Triplet sad, no more. That Mabel's, and all the bright eyes of that day, have long been dim, and all its cunning voices hushed. Judge then whether I am one of those happy story-tellers who can end with a wedding. No! this story must wind up, as yours and mine must--to-morrow--or to-morrow--or to-morrow! when our little sand is run.
Sir Charles Pomander lived a man of pleasure until sixty. He then became a man of pain; he dragged the chain about eight years, and died miserably.
Mr. Cibber not so much died as "slipped his wind"--a nautical expression that conveys the idea of an easy exit. He went off, quiet and genteel. He was past eighty, and had lived fast. His servant called him at seven in the morning. "I will shave at eight," said Mr. Cibber. John brought the hot water at eight; but his master had taken advantage of this interval in his toilet to die!--to avoid shaving?
Snarl and Soaper conducted the criticism of their day with credit and respectability until a good old age, and died placidly a natural death, like twaddle, sweet or sour.
The Triplets, while their patroness lived, did pretty well. She got a tragedy of his accepted at her theater. She made him send her a copy, and with her scissors cut out about half; sometimes thinning, sometimes cutting bodily away. But, lo! the inherent vanity of Mr. Triplet came out strong. Submissively, but obstinately, he fought for the discarded beauties. Unluckily, he did this one day that his patroness was in one of her bitter humors. So she instantly gave him back his manuscript, with a sweet smile owned herself inferior in judgment to him, and left him unmolested.
Triplet breathed freely; a weight was taken off him. The savage steel (he applied this title to the actress's scissors) had spared his purpurei panni. He was played, pure and intact, a calamity the rest of us grumbling escape.
But it did so happen that the audience were of the actress's mind, and found the words too exuberant, and the business of the play too scanty in proportion. At last their patience was so sorely tried that they supplied one striking incident to a piece deficient in facts. They gave the manager the usual broad hint, and in the middle of Triplet's third act a huge veil of green baize descended upon "The Jealous Spaniard.'
Failing here, Mrs. Woffington contrived often to befriend him in his other arts, and moreover she often sent Mr. Triplet what she called a snug investment, a loan of ten pounds, to be repaid at Doomsday, with interest and compound interest, according to the Scriptures; and, although she laughed, she secretly believed she was to get her ten pounds back, double and treble. And I believe so too.
Some years later Mrs. Triplet became eventful. She fell ill, and lay a dying; but one fine morning, after all hope had been given up, she suddenly rose and dressed herself. She was quite well in body now, but insane.
She continued in this state a month, and then, by God's mercy, she recovered her reason; but now the disease fell another step, and lighted upon her temper--a more athletic vixen was not to be found. She had spoiled Triplet for this by being too tame, so when the dispensation came they sparred daily. They were now thoroughly unhappy. They were poor as ever, and their benefactress was dead, and they had learned to snap. A speculative tour had taken this pair to Bristol, then the second city in England. They sojourned in the suburbs.
One morning the postman brought a letter for Triplet, who was showing his landlord's boy how to plant onions. (N. B.-- Triplet had never planted an onion, but he was one of your a priori gentlemen, and could show anybody how to do anything.) Triplet held out his hand for the letter, but the postman held out his hand for a half crown first. Trip's profession had transpired, and his clothes inspired diffidence. Triplet appealed to his good feeling.
He replied with exultation, "That he had none left." (A middle-aged postman, no doubt.)
Triplet then suddenly started from entreaty to King Cambyses' vein. In vain!
Mrs. Triplet came down, and essayed the blandishments of the softer sex. In vain! And, as there were no assets, the postman marched off down the road.
Mrs. Triplet glided after him like an assassin, beckoning on Triplet, who followed, doubtful of her designs. Suddenly (truth compels me to relate this) she seized the obdurate official from behind, pinned both his arms to his side, and with her nose furiously telegraphed her husband.
He, animated by her example, plunged upon the man and tore the letter from his hand and opened it before his eyes.
It happened to be a very windy morning, and when he opened the letter an inclosure, printed on much finer paper, was caught into the air and went down the wind. Triplet followed in kangaroo leaps, like a dancer making a flying exit.
The postman cried on all good citizens for help. Some collected and laughed at him; Mrs. Triplet explaining that they were poor, and could not pay half a crown for the freight of half an ounce of paper. She held him convulsively until Triplet reappeared.
That gentleman on his return was ostentatiously calm and dignified. "You are, or were, in perturbation about half a crown," said he. "There, sir, is a twenty-pound note, oblige me with nineteen pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence. Should your resources be unequal to such a demand, meet me at the 'Green Cat and Brown Frogs,' after dinner, when you shall receive your half-crown, and drink another upon the occasion of my sudden accession to unbounded affluence."
The postman was staggered by the sentence and overawed by the note, and chose the "Cat and Frogs," and liquid half-crown.
Triplet took his wife down the road and showed her the letter and inclosure. The letter ran thus:
"SIR--We beg respectfully to inform you that our late friend and client, James Triplet, Merchant, of the Minories, died last August, without a will, and that you are his heir.
"His property amounts to about twenty thousand pounds, besides some reversions. Having possessed the confidence of your late uncle we should feel honored and gratified if you should think us worthy to act professionally for yourself.
"We inclose twenty pounds, and beg you will draw upon us as far as five thousand pounds, should you have immediate occasion.
"We are, sir,
"Your humble servants,
"JAMES AND JOHN ALLMITT."
It was some time before these children of misfortune could realize this enormous stroke of compensation; but at last it worked its way into their spirits, and they began to sing, to triumph, and dance upon the king's highway.
Mrs. Triplet was the first to pause, and take better views. "Oh, James!" she cried, "we have suffered much! we have been poor, but honest, and the Almighty has looked upon us at last!"
Then they began to reproach themselves.
"Oh, James! I have been a peevish woman--an ill wife to you, this many years!"
"No, no!" cried Triplet, with tears in his eyes. "It is I who have been rough and brutal. Poverty tried us too hard; but we were not like the rest of them--we were always faithful to the altar. And the Almighty has seen us, though we often doubted it."
"I never doubted that, James."
So then the poor things fell on their knees upon the public road, and thanked God. If any man had seen them, he would have said they were mad. Yet madder things are done every day by gentlemen with faces as grave as the parish bull's. And then they rose and formed their little plans.
Triplet was for devoting four-fifths to charity, and living like a prince on the remainder. But Mrs. Triplet thought the poor were entitled to no more than two-thirds, and they themselves ought to bask in a third, to make up for what they had gone through; and then suddenly she sighed, and burst into tears. "Lucy! Lucy!" sobbed she.
Yes, reader, God had taken little Lucy! And her mother cried to think all this wealth and comfort had come too late for her darling child.
"Do not cry. Lucy is richer, a thousand times, than you are, with your twenty thousand pounds."
Their good resolutions were carried out, for a wonder. Triplet lived for years, the benefactor of all the loose fish that swim in and round theaters; and, indeed, the unfortunate seldom appealed to him in vain. He now predominated over the arts, instead of climbing them. In his latter day he became an oracle, as far as the science of acting was concerned; and, what is far more rare, he really got to know something about it. This was owing to two circumstances: first, he ceased to run blindfold in a groove behind the scenes; second, he became a frequenter of the first row of the pit, and that is where the whole critic, and two-thirds of the true actor, is made.
On one point, to his dying day, his feelings guided his judgment. He never could see an actress equal to his Woffington. Mrs. Abington was grace personified, but so was Woffington, said the old man: and Abington's voice is thin, Woffington's was sweet and mellow. When Jordan rose, with her voice of honey, her dewy freshness, and her heavenly laugh, that melted in along with her words, like the gold in the quartz, Triplet was obliged to own her the goddess of beautiful gayety; but still he had the last word: "Woffington was all she is, except her figure. Woffington was a Hebe; your Nell Jordan is little better than a dowdy."
Triplet almost reached the present century. He passed through great events, but they did not excite him; his eye was upon the arts. When Napoleon drew his conquering sword on England, Triplet's remark was: "Now we shall be driven upon native talent, thank Heaven!" The storms of Europe shook not Triplet. The fact is, nothing that happened on the great stage of the world seemed real to him. He believed in nothing where there was no curtain visible. But even the grotesque are not good in vain. Many an eye was wet round his dying bed, and many a tear fell upon his grave. He made his final exit in the year of grace 1799. And I, who laugh at him, would leave this world to-day to be with him; for I am tossing at sea--he is in port.
A straightforward character like Mabel's becomes a firm character with years. Long ere she was forty, her hand gently but steadily ruled Willoughby House, and all in it. She and Mr. Vane lived very happily; he gave her no fresh cause for uneasiness. Six months after their return, she told him what burned in that honest heart of hers, the truth about Mrs. Woffington. The water rushed to his eyes, but his heart was now wholly his wife's; and gratitude to Mrs. Woffington for her noble conduct was the only sentiment awakened.
"You must repay her, dearest," said he. "I know you love her, and until to-day it gave me pain; now it gives me pleasure. We owe her much."
The happy, innocent life of Mabel Vane is soon summed up. Frank as the day, constant as the sun, pure as the dew, she passed the golden years preparing herself and others for a still brighter eternity. At home, it was she who warmed and cheered the house, and the hearth, more than all Christmas fires. Abroad, she shone upon the poor like the sun. She led her beloved husband by the hand to Heaven. She led her children the same road; and she was leading her grandchildren when the angel of death came for her; and she slept in peace.
Many remember her. For she alone, of all our tale, lived in this present century; but they speak of her as "old Madam Vane"--her whom we knew so young and fresh.
She lies in Willoughby Church--her mortal part; her spirit is with the spirits of our mothers and sisters, reader, that are gone before us; with the tender mothers, the chaste wives, the loyal friends, and the just women of all ages.
I come to her last, who went first; but I could not have stayed by the others, when once I had laid my darling asleep. It seemed for a while as if the events of our tale did her harm; but it was not so in the end.
Not many years afterward, she was engaged by Mr. Sheridan, at a very heavy salary, and went to Dublin. Here the little girl, who had often carried a pitcher on her head down to the Liffey, and had played Polly Peachum in a booth, became a lion; dramatic, political and literary, and the center of the wit of that wittiest of cities.
But the Dublin ladies and she did not coalesce. They said she was a naughty woman, and not fit for them morally. She said they had but two topics, "silks and scandal," and were unfit for her intellectually.
This was the saddest part of her history. But it is darkest just before sunrise. She returned to London. Not long after, it so happened that she went to a small church in the city one Sunday afternoon. The preacher was such as we have often heard; but not so this poor woman, in her day of sapless theology, ere John Wesley waked the snoring church. Instead of sending a dry clatter of morality about their ears, or evaporating the Bible in the thin generalities of the pulpit, this man drove God's truths home to the hearts of men and women. In his hands the divine virtues were thunderbolts, not swans' down. With good sense, plain speaking, and a heart yearning for the souls of his brethren and his sisters, he stormed the bosoms of many; and this afternoon, as he reasoned like Paul of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, sinners trembled--and Margaret Woffington was of those who trembled.
After this day, she came ever to the narrow street where shone this house of God; and still new light burst upon her heart and conscience. Here she learned why she was unhappy; here she learned how alone she could be happy; here she learned to know herself; and, the moment she knew herself, she abhorred herself, and repented in dust and ashes.
This strong and straightforward character made no attempt to reconcile two things that an average Christian would have continued to reconcile. Her interest fell in a moment before her new sense of right. She flung her profession from her like a poisonous weed.
Long before this, Mrs. Vane had begged her to leave the stage. She had replied, that it was to her what wine is to weak stomachs. "But," added she, "do not fear that I will ever crawl down hill, and unravel my own reputation; nor will I ever do as I have seen others--stand groaning at the wing, to go on giggling and come off gasping. No! the first night the boards do not spring beneath my feet, and the pulse of the public beat under my hand, I am gone! Next day, at rehearsal, instead of Woffington, a note will come, to tell the manager that henceforth Woffington is herself--at Twickenham, or Richmond, or Harrow-on-the-Hill, far from his dust, his din, and his glare--quiet, till God takes her. Amid grass, and flowers, and charitable deeds."
This day had not come. It was in the zenith of her charms and her fame that she went home one night after a play, and never entered a theater, by the front door or back door, again. She declined all leave-taking and ceremony.
"When a publican shuts up shop and ceases to diffuse liquid poison, he does not invite the world to put up the shutters; neither will I. Actors overrate themselves ridiculously," added she; "I am not of that importance to the world, nor the world to me. I fling away a dirty old glove instead of soiling my fingers filling it with more guineas, and the world loses in me, what? another old glove, full of words; half of them idle, the rest wicked, untrue, silly, or impure. Rougissons, taisons-nous, et partons."
She now changed her residence, and withdrew politely from her old associates, courting two classes only, the good and the poor. She had always supported her mother and sister; but now charity became her system. The following is characteristic:
A gentleman who had greatly admired this dashing actress met one day, in the suburbs, a lady in an old black silk gown and a gray shawl, with a large basket on her arm. She showed him its contents--worsted stockings of prodigious thickness--which she was carrying to some of her proteges.
"But surely that is a waste of your valuable time," remonstrated her admirer. "Much better buy them."
"But, my good soul," replied the representative of Sir Harry Wildair, "you can't buy them. Nobody in this wretched town can knit worsted hose except Woffington."
Conversions like this are open to just suspicion, and some did not fail to confound her with certain great sinners, who have turned austere self-deceivers when sin smiled no more. But this was mere conjecture. The facts were clear, and speaking to the contrary. This woman left folly at its brightest, and did not become austere. On the contrary, though she laughed less, she was observed to smile far oftener than before. She was a humble and penitent, but cheerful, hopeful Christian.
Another class of detractors took a somewhat opposite ground. They accused her of bigotry for advising a young female friend against the stage as a business. But let us hear herself. This is what she said to the girl:
"At the bottom of my heart, I always loved and honored virtue. Yet the tendencies of the stage so completely overcame my good sentiments that I was for years a worthless woman. It is a situation of uncommon and incessant temptation. Ask yourself, my child, whether there is nothing else you can do, but this. It is, I think, our duty and our wisdom to fly temptation whenever we can, as it is to resist it when we cannot escape it."
Was this the tone of bigotry?
Easy in fortune, penitent, but cheerful, Mrs. Woffington had now but one care--to efface the memory of her former self, and to give as many years to purity and piety as had gone to folly and frailty. This was not to be! The Almighty did not permit, or perhaps I should say, did not require this.
Some unpleasant symptoms had long attracted her notice, but in the bustle of her profession had received little attention. She was now persuaded by her own medical attendant to consult Dr. Bowdler, who had a great reputation, and had been years ago an acquaintance and an admirer. He visited her, he examined her by means little used in that day, and he saw at once that her days were numbered.
Dr. Bowdler's profession and experience had not steeled his heart as they generally do and must do. He could not tell her this sad news, so he asked her for pen and paper, and said, I will write a prescription to Mr. ----. He then wrote, not a prescription, but a few lines, begging Mr. ---- to convey the cruel intelligence by degrees, and with care and tenderness. "It is all we can do for her," said he.
He looked so grave while writing the supposed prescription, that it unluckily occurred to Mrs. Woffington to look over him. She stole archly behind him, and, with a smile on her face--read her death warrant.
It was a cruel stroke! A gasping sigh broke from her. At this Dr. Bowdler looked up, and to his horror saw the sweet face he had doomed to the tomb looking earnestly and anxiously at him, and very pale and grave. He was shocked, and, strange to say, she, whose death-warrant he had signed, ran and brought him a glass of wine, for he was quite overcome. Then she gave him her hand in her own sweet way, and bade him not grieve for her, for she was not afraid to die, and had long learned that "life is a walking shadow, a poor, poor player, who frets and struts his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more."
But no sooner was the doctor gone than she wept bitterly. Poor soul! she had set her heart upon living as many years to God as she had to the world, and she had hoped to wipe out her former self.
"Alas!" she said to her sister, "I have done more harm than I can ever hope to good now; and my long life of folly and wickedness will be remembered--will be what they call famous; my short life of repentance who will know, or heed, or take to profit?"
But she soon ceased to repine. She bowed to the will of Heaven, and set her house in order, and awaited her summons. The tranquillity of her life and her courageous spirit were unfavorable to the progress of disease, and I am glad to say she was permitted to live nearly three years after this, and these three years were the happiest period of her whole life. Works of piety and love made the days eventful. She was at home now--she had never been at home in folly and loose living. All her bitterness was gone now, with its cause.
Reader, it was with her as it is with many an autumn day; clouds darken the sun, rain and wind sweep over all--till day declines. But then comes one heavenly hour, when all ill things seem spent. There is no more wind, no more rain. The great sun comes forth--not fiery bright indeed, but full of tranquil glory, and warms the sky with ruby waves, and the hearts of men with hope, as, parting with us for a little space, he glides slowly and peacefully to rest.
So fared it with this humble, penitent, and now happy Christian.
A part of her desire was given her. She lived long enough to read a firm recantation of her former self, to show the world a great repentance, and to leave upon indelible record one more proof, what alone is true wisdom, and where alone true joys are to be found.
She endured some physical pain, as all must who die in their prime. But this never wrung a sigh from her great heart; and within she had the peace of God, which passes all understanding.
I am not strong enough to follow her to her last hour; nor is it needed. Enough that her own words came true. When the great summons came, it found her full of hope, and peace, and joy; sojourning, not dwelling, upon earth; far from dust and din and vice; the Bible in her hand, the Cross in her heart; quiet; amid grass, and flowers, and charitable deeds.
"NON OMNEM MORITURAM."
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