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James Triplet, water in his eye, but fire in his heart, went home on wings. Arrived there, he anticipated curiosity by informing all hands he should answer no questions. Only in the intervals of a work, which was to take the family out of all its troubles, he should gradually unfold a tale, verging on the marvelous--a tale whose only fault was, that fiction, by which alone the family could hope to be great, paled beside it. He then seized some sheets of paper fished out some old dramatic sketches, and a list of dramatis personae, prepared years ago, and plunged into a comedy. As he wrote, true to his promise, he painted, Triplet-wise, that story which we have coldly related, and made it appear, to all but Mrs. Triplet, that he was under the tutela, or express protection of Mrs. Woffington, who would push his fortunes until the only difficulty would be to keep arrogance out of the family heart.
Mrs. Triplet groaned aloud. "You have brought the picture home, I see," said she.
"Of course I have. She is going to give me a sitting."
"At what hour, of what day?" said Mrs. Triplet, with a world of meaning.
"She did not say," replied Triplet, avoiding his wife's eye.
"I know she did not," was the answer. "I would rather you had brought me the ten shillings than this fine story," said she.
"Wife!" said Triplet, "don't put me into a frame of mind in which successful comedies are not written." He scribbled away; but his wife's despondency told upon the man of disappointments. Then he stuck fast; then he became fidgety.
"Do keep those children quiet!" said the father.
"Hush, my dears," said the mother; "let your father write. Comedy seems to give you more trouble than tragedy, James," added she, soothingly.
"Yes," was his answer. "Sorrow comes somehow more natural to me; but for all that I have got a bright thought, Mrs. Triplet. Listen, all of you. You see, Jane, they are all at a sumptuous banquet, all the dramatis personae, except the poet."
Triplet went on writing, and reading his work out: "Music, sparkling wine, massive plate, rose-water in the hand-glasses, soup, fish--shall I have three sorts of fish? I will; they are cheap in this market. Ah! Fortune, you wretch, here at least I am your master, and I'll make you know it-- venison," wrote Triplet, with a malicious grin, "game, pickles and provocatives in the center of the table; then up jumps one of the guests, and says he--"
"Oh dear, I am so hungry."
This was not from the comedy, but from one of the boys.
"And so am I," cried a girl.
"That is an absurd remark, Lysimachus," said Triplet with a suspicious calmness. "How can a boy be hungry three hours after breakfast?"
"But, father, there was no breakfast for breakfast."
"Now I ask you, Mrs. Triplet," appealed the author, "how I am to write comic scenes if you let Lysimachus and Roxalana here put the heavy business in every five minutes?"
"Forgive them; the poor things are hungry."
"Then let them be hungry in another room," said the irritated scribe. "They shan't cling round my pen, and paralyze it, just when it is going to make all our fortunes; but you women," snapped Triplet the Just, "have no consideration for people's feelings. Send them all to bed; every man Jack of them!"
Finding the conversation taking this turn, the brats raised a unanimous howl.
Triplet darted a fierce glance at them. "Hungry, hungry," cried he; "is that a proper expression to use before a father who is sitting down here, all gayety" (scratching wildly with his pen) "and hilarity" (scratch) "to write a com--com--" he choked a moment; then in a very different voice, all sadness and tenderness, he said: "Where's the youngest--where's Lucy? As if I didn't know you are hungry."
Lucy came to him directly. He took her on his knee, pressed her gently to his side, and wrote silently. The others were still.
"Father," said Lucy, aged five, the germ of a woman, "I am not tho very hungry.
"And I am not hungry at all," said bluff Lysimachus, taking his sister's cue; then going upon his own tact he added, "I had a great piece of bread and butter yesterday!"
"Wife, they will drive me mad!" and he dashed at the paper.
The second boy explained to his mother, sotto voce: "Mother, he made us hungry out of his book."
"It is a beautiful book," said Lucy. "Is it a cookery book?"
Triplet roared: "Do you hear that?" inquired he, all trace of ill-humor gone. "Wife," he resumed, after a gallant scribble, "I took that sermon I wrote."
"And beautiful it was, James. I'm sure it quite cheered me up with thinking that we shall all be dead before so very long."
"Well, the reverend gentleman would not have it. He said it was too hard upon sin. 'You run at the Devil like a mad bull,' said he. 'Sell it in Lambeth, sir; here calmness and decency are before everything,' says he. 'My congregation expect to go to heaven down hill. Perhaps the chaplain of Newgate might give you a crown for it,' said he," and Triplet dashed viciously at the paper. "Ah!" sighed he, "if my friend Mrs. Woffington would but drop these stupid comedies and take to tragedy, this house would soon be all smiles."
"Oh James!" replied Mrs. Triplet, almost peevishly, "how can you expect anything but fine words from that woman? You won't believe what all the world says. You will trust to your own good heart."
"I haven't a good heart," said the poor, honest fellow. "I spoke like a brute to you just now."
"Never mind, James," said the woman. "I wonder how you put up with me at all--a sick, useless creature. I often wish to die, for your sake. I know you would do better. I am such a weight round your neck."
The man made no answer, but he put Lucy gently down, and went to the woman, and took her forehead to his bosom, and held it there; and after a while returned with silent energy to his comedy.
"Play us a tune on the fiddle, father."
"Ay, do, husband. That helps you often in your writing."
Lysimachus brought him the fiddle, and Triplet essayed a merry tune; but it came out so doleful, that he shook his head, and laid the instrument down. Music must be in the heart, or it will come out of the fingers--notes, not music.
"No," said he; "let us be serious and finish this comedy slap off. Perhaps it hitches because I forgot to invoke the comic muse. She must be a black-hearted jade, if she doesn't come with merry notions to a poor devil, starving in the midst of his hungry little ones."
"We are past help from heathen goddesses," said the woman. "We must pray to Heaven to look down upon us and our children."
The man looked up with a very bad expression on his countenance.
"You forget," said he sullenly, "our street is very narrow, and the opposite houses are very high."
"How can Heaven be expected to see what honest folk endure in so dark a hole as this?" cried the man, fiercely.
"James," said the woman, with fear and sorrow, "what words are these?"
The man rose and flung his pen upon the floor.
"Have we given honesty a fair trial-- yes or no?"
"No!" said the woman, without a moment's hesitation; "not till we die, as we have lived. Heaven is higher than the sky; children," said she, lest perchance her husband's words should have harmed their young souls, "the sky is above the earth, and heaven is higher than the sky; and Heaven is just."
"I suppose it is so," said the man, a little cowed by her. "Everybody says so. I think so, at bottom, myself; but I can't see it. I want to see it, but I can't!" cried he, fiercely. "Have my children offended Heaven? They will starve--they will die! If I was Heaven, I'd be just, and send an angel to take these children's part. They cried to me for bread--I had no bread; so I gave them hard words. The moment I had done that I knew it was all over. God knows it took a long while to break my heart; but it is broken at last; quite, quite broken! broken! broken!"
And the poor thing laid his head upon the table, and sobbed, beyond all power of restraint. The children cried round him, scarce knowing why; and Mrs. Triplet could only say, "My poor husband!" and prayed and wept upon the couch where she lay.
It was at this juncture that a lady, who had knocked gently and unheard, opened the door, and with a light step entered the apartment; but no sooner had she caught sight of Triplet's anguish, than, saying hastily, "Stay, I forgot something," she made as hasty an exit.
This gave Triplet a moment to recover himself; and Mrs. Woffington, whose lynx eye had comprehended all at a glance, and who had determined at once what line to take, came flying in again, saying:
"Wasn't somebody inquiring for an angel? Here I am. See, Mr. Triplet;" and she showed him a note, which said: "Madam, you are an angel. From a perfect stranger," explained she; "so it must be true."
"Mrs. Woffington," said Mr. Triplet to his wife. Mrs. Woffington planted herself in the middle of the floor, and with a comical glance, setting her arms akimbo, uttered a shrill whistle.
"Now you will see another angel--there are two sorts of them."
Pompey came in with a basket; she took it from him.
"Lucifer, avaunt!" cried she, in a terrible tone, that drove him to the wall; "and wait outside the door," added she, conversationally.
"I heard you were ill, ma'am, and I have brought you some physic -- black draughts from Burgundy;" and she smiled. And, recovered from their first surprise, young and old began to thaw beneath that witching, irresistible smile. "Mrs. Triplet, I have come to give your husband a sitting; will you allow me to eat my little luncheon with you? I am so hungry." Then she clapped her hands, and in ran Pompey. She sent him for a pie she professed to have fallen in love with at the corner of the street.
"Mother," said Alcibiades, "will the lady give me a bit of her pie?"
"Hush! you rude boy!" cried the mother.
"She is not much of a lady if she does not," cried Mrs. Woffington. "Now, children, first let us look at--ahem--a comedy. Nineteen dramatis personae! What do you say, children, shall we cut out seven, or nine? that is the question. You can't bring your armies into our drawing-rooms, Mr. Dagger-and-bowl. Are you the Marlborough of comedy? Can you marshal battalions on a turkey carpet, and make gentlefolks witty in platoons? What is this in the first act? A duel, and both wounded! You butcher!"
"They are not to die, ma'am!" cried Triplet, deprecatingly "upon my honor," said he, solemnly, spreading his bands on his bosom.
"Do you think I'll trust their lives with you? No! Give me a pen; this is the way we run people through the body." Then she wrote ("business." Araminta looks out of the garret window. Combatants drop their swords, put their hands to their hearts, and stagger off O. P. and P. S.) "Now, children, who helps me to lay the cloth?"
"And I!" (The children run to the cupboard.)
Mrs. Triplet (half rising). "Madam, I--can't think of allowing you."
Mrs. Woffington replied: "Sit down, madam, or I must use brute force. If you are ill, be ill--till I make you well. Twelve plates, quick! Twenty-four knives, quicker! Forty-eight forks quickest!" She met the children with the cloth and laid it; then she met them again and laid knives and forks, all at full gallop, which mightily excited the bairns. Pompey came in with the pie, Mrs. Woffington took it and set it before Triplet.
Mrs. Woffington. "Your coat, Mr. Triplet, if you please."
Mr. Triplet. "My coat, madam!"
Mrs. Woffington. "Yes, off with it-- there's a hole in it--and carve." Then she whipped to the other end of the table and stitched like wild-fire. "Be pleased to cast your eyes on that, Mrs. Triplet. Pass it to the lady, young gentleman. Fire away, Mr. Triplet, never mind us women. Woffington's housewife, ma'am, fearful to the eye, only it holds everything in the world, and there is a small space for everything else--to be returned by the bearer. Thank you, sir." (Stitches away like lightning at the coat.) "Eat away, children! now is your time; when once I begin, the pie will soon end; I do everything so quick."
Roxalana. "The lady sews quicker than you, mother."
Woffington. "Bless the child, don't come so near my sword-arm; the needle will go into your eye, and out at the back of your head."
This nonsense made the children giggle.
"The needle will be lost--the child no more--enter undertaker--house turned topsy-turvy--father shows Woffington to the door--off she goes with a face as long and dismal as some people's comedies--no names--crying fine chan-ey oranges."
The children, all but Lucy, screeched with laughter.
Lucy said gravely:
"Mother, the lady is very funny."
"You will be as funny when you are as well paid for it."
This just hit poor Trip's notion of humor, and he began to choke, with his mouth full of pie.
"James, take care," said Mrs. Triplet, sad and solemn.
James looked up.
"My wife is a good woman, madam," said he; "but deficient in an important particular."
"Yes, my dear. I regret to say you have no sense of humor; nummore than a cat, Jane."
"What! because the poor thing can't laugh at your comedy?"
"No, ma'am; but she laughs at nothing."
"Try her with one of your tragedies, my lad."
"I am sure, James," said the poor, good, lackadaisical woman, "if I don't laugh, it is not for want of the will. I used to be a very hearty laugher," whined she; "but I haven't laughed this two years."
"Oh, indeed!" said the Woffington. "Then the next two years you shall do nothing else."
"Ah, madam!" said Triplet. "That passes the art, even of the great comedian."
"Does it?" said the actress, coolly.
Lucy. "She is not a comedy lady. You don't ever cry, pretty lady?"
Woffington (ironically). "Oh, of course not."
Lucy (confidentially). "Comedy is crying. Father cried all the time he was writing his one."
Triplet turned red as fire.
"Hold your tongue," said he. "I was bursting with merriment. Wife, our children talk too much; they put their noses into everything, and criticise their own father."
"Unnatural offspring!" laughed the visitor.
"And when they take up a notion, Socrates couldn't convince them to the contrary. For instance, madam, all this morning they thought fit to assume that they were starving."
"So we were," said Lysimachus, "until the angel came; and the devil went for the pie."
"There--there--there! Now, you mark my words; we shall never get that idea out of their heads--"
"Until," said Mrs. Woffington, lumping a huge cut of pie into Roxalana's plate, "we put a very different idea into their stomachs." This and the look she cast on Mrs. Triplet fairly caught that good, though somber personage. She giggled; put her hand to her face, and said: "I'm sure I ask your pardon, ma'am."
It was no use; the comedian had determined they should all laugh, and they were made to laugh. Then she rose, and showed them how to drink healths a la Francaise; and keen were her little admirers to touch her glass with theirs. And the pure wine she had brought did Mrs. Triplet much good, too; though not so much as the music and sunshine of her face and voice. Then, when their stomachs were full of good food, and the soul of the grape tingled in their veins, and their souls glowed under her great magnetic power, she suddenly seized the fiddle, and showed them another of her enchantments. She put it on her knee, and played a tune that would have made gout, cholic and phthisic dance upon their last legs. She played to the eye as well as to the ear, with such a smart gesture of the bow, and such a radiance of face as she. looked at them, that whether the music came out of her wooden shell, or her horse-hair wand, or her bright self, seemed doubtful. They pranced on their chairs; they could not keep still. She jumped up; so did they. She gave a wild Irish horroo. She put the fiddle in Triplet's hand.
"The wind that shakes the barley, ye divil!" cried she.
Triplet went hors de lui; he played like Paganini, or an intoxicated demon. Woffington covered the buckle in gallant style; she danced, the children danced. Triplet fiddled and danced, and flung his limbs in wild dislocation: the wineglasses danced; and last, Mrs. Triplet was observed to be bobbing about on her sofa, in a monstrous absurd way, droning out the tune, and playing her hands with mild enjoyment, all to herself. Woffington pointed out this pantomimic soliloquy to the two boys, with a glance full of fiery meaning. This was enough. With a fiendish yell, they fell upon her, and tore her, shrieking, off the sofa. And lo! when she was once launched, she danced up to her husband, and set to him with a meek deliberation that was as funny as any part of the scene. So then the mover of all this slipped on one side, and let the stone of merriment - roll--and roll it did; there was no swimming, sprawling, or irrelevant frisking; their feet struck the ground for every note of the fiddle, pat as its echo, their faces shone, their hearts leaped, and their poor frozen natures came out, and warmed themselves at the glowing melody; a great sunbeam had come into their abode, and these human motes danced in it. The elder ones recovered their gravity first, they sat down breathless, and put their hands to their hearts; they looked at one another, and then at the goddess who had revived them. Their first feeling was wonder; were they the same, who, ten minutes ago, were weeping together? Yes! ten minutes ago they were rayless, joyless, hopeless. Now the sun was in their hearts, and sorrow and sighing were fled, as fogs disperse before the god of day. It was magical; could a mortal play upon the soul of man, woman and child like this? Happy Woffington! and suppose this was more than half acting, but such acting as Triplet never dreamed of; and to tell the honest, simple truth, I myself should not have suspected it; but children are sharper than one would think, and Alcibiades Triplet told, in after years, that, when they were all dancing except the lady, he caught sight of her face--and it was quite, quite grave, and even sad; but, as often as she saw him look at her, she smiled at him so gayly--he couldn't believe it was the same face.
If it was art, glory be to such art so worthily applied! and honor to such creatures as this, that come like sunshine into poor men's houses, and tune drooping hearts to daylight and hope!
The wonder of these worthy people soon changed to gratitude. Mrs. Woffington stopped their mouths at once.
"No, no!" cried she; "if you really love me, no scenes; I hate them. Tell these brats to kiss me, and let me go. I must sit for my picture after dinner; it is a long way to Bloomsbury Square."
The children needed no bidding; they clustered round her, and poured out their innocent hearts as children only do.
"I shall pray for you after father and mother," said one.
"I shall pray for you after daily bread," said Lucy, "because we were tho hungry till you came!"
"My poor children!" cried Woffington, and hard to grown-up actors, as she called us, but sensitive to children, she fairly melted as she embraced them.
It was at this precise juncture that the door was unceremoniously opened, and the two gentlemen burst upon the scene!
My reader now guesses whom Sir Charles Pomander surprised more than he did Mrs. Woffington. He could not for the life of him comprehend what she was doing, and what was her ulterior object. The nil admirari of the fine gentleman deserted him, and he gazed open-mouthed, like the veriest chaw-bacon.
The actress, unable to extricate herself in a moment from the children, stood there like Charity, in New College Chapel, while the mother kissed her hand, and the father quietly dropped tears, like some leaden water god in the middle of a fountain.
Vane turned hot and cold by turns, with joy and shame. Pomander's genius came to the aid of their embarrassment.
"Follow my lead," whispered he. "What! Mrs. Woffington here!" cried he; then he advanced business-like to Triplet. "We are aware, sir, of your various talents, and are come to make a demand on them. I, sir, am the unfortunate possessor of frescoes; time has impaired their indelicacy, no man can restore it as you can."
"Augh! sir! sir!" said the gratified goose.
"My Cupid's bows are walking-sticks, and my Venus's noses are snubbed. You must set all that straight on your own terms, Mr. Triplet."
"In a single morning all shall bloom again, sir! Whom would you wish them to resemble in feature? I have lately been praised for my skill in portraiture." (Glancing at Mrs. Woffington.)
"Oh!" said Pomander, carelessly, "you need not go far for Venuses and Cupids, I suppose?"
"I see, sir; my wife and children. Thank you, sir; thank you."
Pomander stared; Mrs. Woffington laughed.
Now it was Vane's turn.
"Let me have a copy of verses from your pen. I shall have five pounds at your disposal for them."
"The world has found me out!" thought Triplet, blinded by his vanity.-- "The subject, sir?"
"No matter," said Vane--"no matter."
"Oh, of course it does not matter to me," said Triplet, with some hauteur, and assuming poetic omnipotence. "Only, when one knows the subject, one can sometimes make the verses apply better."
"Write then, since you are so confident, upon Mrs. Woffington."
"Ah! that is a subject! They shall be ready in an hour!" cried Trip, in whose imagination Parnassus was a raised counter. He had in a teacup some lines on Venus and Mars which he could not but feel would fit Thalia and Croesus, or Genius and Envy, equally well. "In one hour, sir," said Triplet, "the article shall be executed, and delivered at your house."
Mrs. Woffington called Vane to her, with an engaging smile. A month ago he would have hoped she would not have penetrated him and Sir Charles; but he knew her better now. He came trembling.
"Look me in the face, Mr. Vane," said she, gently, but firmly.
"I cannot!" said he. "How can I ever look you in the face again?"
"Ah! you disarm me! But I must strike you, or this will never end. Did I not promise that, when you had earned my if esteem, I would tell you--what no mortal knows--Ernest, my whole story? I delay the confession. It will cost me so many blushes, so many tears! And yet I hope, if you knew all, you would pity and forgive me. Meantime, did I ever tell you a falsehood?"
"Why doubt me then, when I tell you that I hold all your sex cheap but you? Why suspect me of Heaven knows what, at the dictation of a heartless, brainless fop--on the word of a known liar, like the world?"
Black lightning flashed from her glorious eyes as she administered this royal rebuke. Vane felt what a poor creature he was, and his face showed such burning shame and contrition, that he obtained his pardon without speaking.
"There," said she, kindly, "do not let us torment one another. I forgive you. Let me make you happy, Ernest. Is that a great favor to ask? I can make you happier than your brightest dream of happiness, if you will let yourself be happy."
They rejoined the others; but Vane turned his back on Pomander, and would not look at him.
"Sir Charles," said Mrs. Woffington gayly; for she scorned to admit the fine gentleman to the rank of a permanent enemy, "you will be of our party, I trust, at dinner?"
"Why, no, madam; I fear I cannot give myself that pleasure to-day." Sir Charles did not choose to swell the triumph. "Mr. Vane, good day!" said he, rather dryly. "Mr. Triplet--madam--your most obedient!" and, self-possessed at top, but at bottom crestfallen, he bowed himself away.
Sir Charles, however, on descending the stair and gaining the street, caught sight of a horseman, riding uncertainly about, and making his horse curvet, to attract attention.
He soon recognized one of his own horses, and upon it the servant he had left behind to dog that poor innocent country lady. The servant sprang off his horse and touched his hat. He informed his master that he had kept with the carriage until ten o'clock this morning, when he had ridden away from it at Barnet, having duly pumped the servants as opportunity offered.
"Who is she?" cried Sir Charles.
"Wife of a Cheshire squire, Sir Charles," was the reply.
"His name? Whither goes she in town?"
"Her name is Mrs. Vane, Sir Charles. She is going to her husband."
"Curious!" cried Sir Charles. "I wish she had no husband. No! I wish she came from Shropshire," and he chuckled at the notion.
"If you please, Sir Charles," said the man, "is not Willoughby in Cheshire?"
"No," cried his master; "it is in Shropshire. What! eh! Five guineas for you if that lady comes from Willoughby in Shropshire.
"That is where she comes from then, Sir Charles, and she is going to Bloomsbury Square."
"How long have they been married?"
"Not more than twelve months, Sir Charles."
Pomander gave the man ten guineas instead of five on the spot.
Reader, it was too true! Mr. Vane--the good, the decent, the churchgoer--Mr. Vane, whom Mrs. Woffington had selected to improve her morals--Mr. Vane was a married man!
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