HIS MAJESTY’S WELL-BELOVED
A Story of the Time of the Merrie Monarch
I WAS for hurrying away, thinking that my presence would be irksome both to the lady and to my friend; but an unmistakable pressure of Mr. Betterton’s hand on my arm caused me to stay where I was. As for the lady, she appeared not to care whether I stayed or went, for immediately she retorted:
“My commands, Sir Actor? They are that you at once and completely do reparation for the wrong which you are trying to do to an innocent man.”
She looked proud and commanding as a queen, locking through the veil of her lashes at Mr. Betterton as if he were a supplicating slave rather than the great artist whom cultured Europe delighted to honor. Never did I admire my friend so much as I did then. His self-possession was perfect: his attitude just the right balance ’twixt deference due to a beautiful woman and the self-assurance which comes of conscious worth. He looked splendid, too, diessed in the latest fashion and with unerring taste. The fantastic cut of his modish clothes became his artistic personality to perfection: the soft shade of mulberry of which his coat was fashioned made an harmonious note of colour in the soft grey mist of this late winter’s morning. The lace at his throat and wrists was of unspeakable value, filmy and gossamer-like in texture as a cobweb; and in his cravat glittered a diamond, a priceless gift to the great English artist from the King of France.
Indeed, the Lady Barbara Wychwoode might look the world-famous actor up and down w'ith well-studied superciliousness: she might issue her commands to him as if she wrere his royal mistress and he but a menial set there to obey her behests. But whatever she did, she could not dwarf his personality. He had become too great, for disdain or sneers ever to touch him again; and the shafts of scorn aimed at him by those who would set mere birth above the claims of genius, would only find their points broken or blunted against the impenetrable armour of his glory and his fame.
r?OR the nonce, I think that he was ready enough to *■ parley with the Lady Barbara. He had not to my knowledge spoken with her since that never forgotten day last September; and I, not understanding the complex workings of an artist’s heart, knew not if his love for her had outlived the crying outrage, or had since then turned to hate.
In answer to her peremptory command, he assumed an air of innocent surprise.
“I?” he queried. “Your Ladyship is pleased to speak in riddles.”
“Nay,” she retorted. “’Tis you, sir, who choose not to understand. But I’ll speak more plainly, an you wish. I am a woman, Mr. Actor, and I love the Earl of Stour. Now, you know just as well as I do that his Lordship’s honour has of late been impugned in a manner that is most mysterious. His friends accuse him of treachery: even mere acquaintances prefer to give him the cold shoulder. And this without any definite indictment being levelled against him. Many there are who will tell you that they have not the faintest conception of what crime my Lord Stour stands accused. Others aver that they’ll not believe any slander that may be levelled against so high-souled a gentleman. Nevertheless, the slander continues. Nay! it gathers volume as it worms its way from one house to another, shedding poison in its wake as it drifts by; and more and more people now affect to look another way when the Earl of Stour comes nigh them and to be otherwise engaged when he desires to shake them by the hand.” She paused for a moment, obviously to regain her composure, which was threatening to leave her. Her cheeks were pale as ashes, her breath came and went in quick, short gasps. The picture which she herself had drawn of her lover’s plight caused her heart to ache with bitterness. She seemed for the moment to expect something—a mere comment, perhaps, or a word of sympathy, from Mr. Betterton. But none came.
SYNOPSIS—This is the story of Thomas Betterton, a famous actor, and Joyce Saunderson, as told by John Honeywood, clerk to Theophilus Baggs, a lawyer. Betterton is infatuated with Lady Barbara Wychwoode. His attentions to her are resented by her brother, and by Lord Stour, her lover, and they hire some ruffians to make a dastardly attack on him. They refuse to accept Betterton’s challenge to a duel, considering him as beneath their notice. Baggs, Stour and Lord Douglas Wychwoode are engaged in a plot to seize and dethrone King Charles IL, and Honeywood is ordered to make copies of a treasonable document in connection with the plot. To avenge Betterton, Honeywood discloses the plot to Lady Castlemaine, the favorite of the King. They are arrested and, at the request of Betterton, Lady Castlemaine secures the pardon of Stour. Betterton then spreads the rumor that Stour’s release is the result of his having turned King’s evidence, and men begin to shun him. Betterton and Stour meet and the latter agrees to fight him, but Betterton now refuses. As he moves away he meets Lady Barbara.
He stood there, silent and deferential, with lips firmly set, his slender hand clutched upon the gold knob of his stick, till the knuckles shone, creamywhite like ivory. He regarded her with an air of detachment rather than sympathy, and though by her silence she appeared to challenge him now, he did not speak, and after awhile she resumed more calmly:
“My Lord of
Stour himself is at his wits’ ends how to interpret the attitude of his friends. Nothing tangible in the way of a spoken calumny hath as yet reached his ears. And his life has been rendered all the more bitter that he feels that he is being struck by a persistent but mysterious foe in what he holds dearer than aught else on earth, his integrity and his honour.”
“ ’Tis a sad case,” here rejoined Mr. Betterton, for her ladyship had paused once more. “But, by your leave, I do not see in what way it concerns me.”
“Nay! but I think you do, Sir Actor,” Lady Barbara riposted harshly. “Love and hate, remember, see clearly where mere friendship and indifference are blind. Love tells me that the Earl of Stour’s integrity is unstained, his honor unsullied. But the hatred which you bear to him,” added her Ladyship almost fiercely, “makes me look to you for the cause of his disgrace.”
TOTHING, however, could have looked more utterly astonished, more bland and uncomprehending, than
Mr. Betterton did at that moment. He put up his hand and regarded the lady with an indulgent smile such as one would bestow on a hot-headed child.
“Nay, your Ladyship!” he said courteously. “T fear that you are attributing to an humble mountebank a power he doth not possess. To disgrace a noble gentleman?” he exclaimed with well-feigned horror. “I ?—a miserable variet—an insolent cur whom one thrashes if he dares to bark!”
“Ah!” she broke in, with a swift exclamation. “Then I have guessed the truth! This is your revenge ?”
“Revenge?” he queried blandly. “For what?”
“You hate the Earl of Stour,” she retorted.
Once more his well-shaped hand w:ent up, as if in gentle protest, and he uttered a kind and deprecating “Oh!”
“You look upon the Earl of Stour as your enemy!” she insisted.
“I have so many, your Ladyship,” he riposted with a smile.
“ ’Twas you who obtained his pardon from my Lady Castlemaine.”
“The inference is scarcely logical,” he retorted. “A man does not as a rule sue for pardon for his enemy.
“I think,” she rejoined slowly, “that in this case Mr. Betterton did the illogical thing.”
“Then I do entreat your Ladyship,” he protested with mock terror, “not to*repeat this calumny. I, accused of a noble action ! Tom Betterton pardoning his enemies! Why, my friends might believe it, and it is so difficult these days to live down a good reputation.”
“You choose to sharpen your wit at my expense, Sir Actor,” the lady rejoined with her former haughtiness, “and to evade the point.”
“What is the point, your Ladyship?” he queried blandly.
“That you set an end to all these calumnies which are levelled against the Earl of Stour.”
“How can we stay the sun in his orbit?” he retorted; “or the stars in their course?”
“You mean that your campaign of slander has already gone too far? But remember this, Mr. Betterton: that poisoned darts sometimes wound the hand that throws them. You may pursue the Earl of Stour with your hatred and your calumnies, but God will never allow an innocent man to suffer unjustly.”
JUST for a few seconds Mr. Betterton was silent.
He was still regarding the lady with that same indulgent smile which appeared to irritate her nerves. To me, the very air around seemed to ring as if with a clash of ghostly arms—the mighty clash of two wills and two temperaments, each fighting for what it holds most dear: she for the man whom she loved, he for his dignity which had been so cruelly outraged.
“God will never allow,” she reiterated with slow emphasis, “an innocent man to suffer at the hands of a slanderer.”
“Ah?” riposted Mr. Betterton suavely. “Is your Ladyship not reckoning •ver-eonfidently on divine interference?"
“I also reckon," she retorted, “on H i s Majesty’s sense of justice—and on the Countess of Castlemaine, who must know the truth of the affair.”
“H is Majesty’s senses are very elusive,” he rejoined drily,
“and are apt to play him some wayward tricks when under the influence of the Counte s s of Castlemaine.
The Earl of Stour, it seems, disdained the favors which that Lady was willing to bestow on him. He preferred the superior charms and intellect of the Lady Barbara Wychwoode. A very natural preference, of course,” he added, with elaborate gallantry. “But I can assure your Ladyship that, as helpmeets to heavenly intorferenoe, neither His Majesty nor the Countess of Castlemaine are to be reckoned with.”
She bit her lip and
cast her eyes to the ground. I could see that her lovely face expressed acute disappointment and that she was on the verge of tears. I am not versed in the ways of gentle folk nor yet in those of artists, but I could have told the Lady Barbara Wychwoode that if she wanted to obtain sympathy or leniency from Mr. Betterton, ■he had gone quite the wrong way to work.
Even now, I think if she had started to plead.....
but the thought of humbling herself before a man whom ■he affected to despise was as far from this proud woman’s heart as are thoughts of self-glorification from mine.
A second or two later she had succeeded in forcing back Hie tears which had welled to her eyes, and she was able once more to look her adversary straight in the face.
“And will you tell me, Sir Actor,” she queried with cold aloofness, “how far you intend to carry on this infamy ?”
And Mr. Betterton replied, equally coldly and deliberately :
“To the outermost limits of the kingdom, Madam.”
“What do you mean?” she riposted.
HE drew a step or two nearer to her. His face too was pale by now, his lips trembling, his eyes aglow with passion masterfully kept under control. His perfect vetee rose and fell in those modulated cadences which we have all learned to appreciate.
“Only this, your Ladyship,” he began quite slowly. “For the present, the history of the Earl of Stour’s treachery is only guessed at by a few. It is a breath of scandal, born as you say somewhat mysteriously, wafted through palaces and noble mansions to-day— dead, mayhap, to-morrow. But I have had many opportunities for thought of late,” he continued; and it Beemed to me as if in his quivering voice I could detect a tone of threat as well as of passion, “and have employed my leisure moments in writing an epilogue wbieh I propose to speak to-morrow, after the play, His Majesty and all the Court being present, and aaay gentlemen and ladies of high degree as well as
burgesses and merchants of the city, and sundry clerks and other humbler folk. A comprehensive assembly, what? and an attentive one; for that lowborn mountebank Tom Betterton will be appearing in a newplay and the playhouse will be filled to the roof in order to do him honor. May I hope that the Lady Barbara Wychwoode herself—”
“A truce on this foolery, sir,” she broke in harshly. “I pray you come to the point.”
She tried to look brave and still haughty, but I knew that she was afraid—knew it by the almost unearthly pallor of her skin and the weird glitter in her eyes as she regarded him, like a bird fascinated by a snake.
“The point is the epilogue, my Lady,” Mr. Betterton replied blandly. “And after I have spoken it tomorrow, I shall speak it again and yet again, until its purport is known throughout the length and breadth of the land. The subject of that epilogue, Madam, will be the secret history of a certain aborted conspiracy, and how it was betrayed in exchange for a free pardon by one of our noblest gentlemen in England. Then, I pray your Ladyship to mark what will happen,” he continued, and his melodious voice became as hard and trenchant as the clang of metal striking metal. “After that epilogue has been spoken from the stage half a dozen times, after His Majesty has heard it and shrugged his shoulders, after my Lady Castlemaine has laughed over it and my Lord of Rochester aped it in one of his pasquinades, there will be a man whose name will be a by-word for everything that is most infamous and most false—a name that will be bandied about in taverns and in drinking booths, quipped, decried, sneered at, anathematized; a name that will be the subject of every lampoon and every scurrilous rhyme that finds over-ready purchasers—a name, in fact, that will for ever after be whispered with bated breath or bandied about in a drunken brawl, whenever there is talk of treachery and of dishonor!”
At this, she—great lady to her finger tips—threw up her head proudly, still defying him, still striving to hide her fears and unwilling to acknowledge defeat.
“It will be your word against his,” she said with a disdainful curl of her perfect lips. “No one would listen to such calumnies.”
And he—the world-famed artist—at least as proud as any high-born gentleman in the land, retorted, equally haughtily:
“When Tom Betterton speaks upon the stage, my Lady, England holds her breath and listens spellbound.”
I would I could render the noble accent of his magnificent voice as he said this. There was no self-glorification in it, no idle boasting: it was the accent of transcendent worth conscious of its power.
A ND it had its effect upon the Lady Barbara Wych^ woode. She lowered her eyes, but not before I had perceived that they were full of tears; her lips were trembling still, but no longer with disdain, and her hands suddenly dropped to her side with a pathetic gesture of discouragement and of anguish.
The next moment, however, she was again looking the great actor fully in the face. A change had come over her, quite suddenly methought—a great change, which had softened her mood and to a certain extent lowered her pride. Whether this was the result of Mr. Betterton’s forceful eloquence or of her own will-power, I could not guess; but I myself marvelled at the tone of entreaty which had crept into her voice.
“You will not speak such falsehoods in public, Sir,” she said with unwonted softness. “You will not thus demean your art—the art which you love and hold in respect. Oh! there must be some nobility in you! else you were not so talented. Your soul must in truth bo filled with sentiments which are neither ignoble nor base.”
“Nay!” he exclaimed, and this time did not strive to conceal the intense bitterness which, as I knew well enough, had eaten into his very soul; “but your Ladyship is pleased to forget. I am ignoble and base! There cannot be nobility in me. I am only the lowborn lout! Ask my Lord of Stour; ask your brother!^ They will tell you that I have no feelings, no pride, no manhood—that I am •nly a despicable varlet, whom every gentleman may mock and insult and whip like a dog. To you and to your caste alone belong nobility, pride and honour. Honour!!!”—and he broke into a prolonged laugh, which would have rent your heart to hear—“Honour! Your false fetish! Your counterfeit God!! Very well then, so be it!! That very honour which he hath denied to me, I will wrench from him. And since he denied me satisfaction by the sword, I turn to my own weapon—my art—and with it I will exact fi'om him to the uttermost fraction, outrage for outrage —infamy for infamy.”
His wonderful voice shook, broke almost into a sob at the last. I felt a choking sensation in my throat and my eyes waxed hot with unshed tears. As if through a mist, I could see the exquisite Lady Barbara Wychwoode before me, could see that she too was moved, her pride crushed, her disdain yielding to involuntary sympathy.
"But he is innocent!” she pleaded, with an accent verging on despair.
"And so was I!” was his calm retort.
"He—” she entreated, “he loves me !—”
"And so do I!” he exclaimed, with a depth of passion which brought the hot fcleod to her pale cheeks. "I would have given my life for one smile from your lips."
Whereupon, womanlike, she shifted her ground, looked him straight between the eyes, and oh ! I could have blushed to see the wiles she used in order to weaken his resolve.
"You love me?” she queried softly, and there was now a tone of almost tender reproach in her voice. “You love me! yet you would drag the man who ia dearer to me than life to dishonour and to shame. You trap him, like a fowler does a bird, then crush him with falsehoods and calumnies! No, no!” she exclaimed—came a step or two nearer to him and clasped her delicate hands together in a gesture that was akin to prayer. “I’ll not believe it! You will tell the truth, Mr. Betterton, prôliely, and clear him. . . . You will . . . You will ! For my sake—since
you say that you love me.”
But the more eager, the more appealing she grew, the calmer and more calcinating did he seem. Now it was his turn to draw away from her, to measure her, as it were, with a cold, appraising look.
“For your sake?” he said with perfect quietude, almost as if the matter had beeome outside himself. I cannot quite explain the air of detachment which he assumed—for it was an assumption, on that I would have staked my life at the moment. I, who knew him so well, felt that deep down within his noble heart there still burned the fierce flames of an ardent passion; but whether of love or hate, I could not then have told you.
She had recoiled at the coolness of his tone, and he went on, still speaking with that strange, abnormal calm:
"Yes!” he said slowly, “for your love I would do what you ask. ... I would forego that feast of satisfaction, the thought of which hath alone kept me ■ane these past few months. . . . Yes! for the love of Lady Barbara Wychwoode I could bring myself to forgive even his Lordship of Stour for the irreparable wrong which he hath done to me. I would restore t® him his honour, which now lies, a forfeit, in my hands: for I should then have taken something from him which he holds well-nigh as dear.”
HE paused, and met with the same calm relentlessness the look of herror and of scorn wherewith she regarded him.
“For my love?” she exclaimed, and once more the warm blood rushed up to her face, flooding her wan cheeks, her pale forehead, even her delicate throat wltk crimson. “You mean that I? . . . Oh! .... what infamy! . ... So,
Mr. Actor, that was your reckoning!” «he went on with supreme disdain. “It was not the desire for vengeance that prompted you to slander the Earl of St*«r, but the wish to entrap me into hewing your wife. You are not con-
tent wflth your laurels. You want a coat of arms. . . . and hoped to barter one against your calumnies!”
“Nay, your Ladyship!” he rejoined simply; “in effect, I was actually laying a name famed throughout the cultured world humbly at your feet. You made an appeal to my love for you—and I laid a test for your sincerity. Mine I have placed beyond question, seeing that I was prepared to drag my genius in the dust before your pride and the arrogance of your caste. An artist is the slave of his sensibilities, and I feel that if, in the near future, I could see a vision of j-our perfect hand resting content in mine, if, when you pleaded again for my Lord Stour, you did so as my promised wife—not his—I would do all that you asked.”
She drew herself up to her full height and glanced at him with all the pride which awhile ago had seemed crushed beyond recall.
“Sir Actor,” she said coldly, “shame had gripped me by the throat, or I should not have listened so long to such an outrage. The bargain you propose is an infamy and an insult.”
And she gathered up her skirts around her, as if their very contact with the soil on which he trod were a pollution. Then she half-turned as if ready to go, cast a rapid glance at the shrubberies close by, no doubt in search of her attendant. Why it was that she did not actually go, I could not say, but guessed that, mayhap, she would not vacate the field of contention until quite sure that there was not a final chance to soften the heart of her enemy. She had thrown down yet another challenge when she spoke of his proposed bargain as an infamy; but he took up the gage with the same measured calm as before.
“As you will,” he said. “It was in your Ladyship’s name that the Earl of Stour put upon me the deadliest insult which any man hath ever put on man before. Since then, every fibre within me has clamoured for satisfaction. My work hath been irksome to me. . . . I scarce could think. . . My genius lay writhing in an agony of shame. But now the hour is mine—for which I have schemed and lied—aye, lied!—like the low-born cur you say I am. A thousand devils of rage and of hate are unchained within me. I cannot grapple with them alone. They would only yield—to your kiss.”
“Oh!” she cried in uttermost despair, “this is horrible!”
“Then let the man you love,” he rejoined coldly, “look to himself.”
“Conscious of his innocence, my Lord Stour and I defy you!”
“Ah, well!” he said imperturbably, “the choice is still with your Ladyship. Remember that I do not speak my epilogue until to-morrow. When I do, it will be too late. I have called my phantasy ‘The Comedie of Traitors’.”
Whereupon he bowed low before her, in the most approved fashion. But already she was fleeing up the path in the direction of Westminster. Soon her graceful figure was lost to our sight behind an intervening clump of laurels. Here no doubt her iadyship’s attendant was waiting for her Mistress, for anon I spied two figures hurrying out of the park.
F'OR a long time, Mr. Betterton remained standing just where he was, one hand still clutching the knob of his stick, the other thrust in the pocket of his capacious coat. I could not see his face, since his back was turned towards me, and I did not dare move lest I should be interrupting his meditations. But to me, even that back was expressive. There was a listlessness, hardly a stoop, about it, so unlike my friend’s usually firm and upright carriage. How could this be otherwise, seeing what he had just gone through—emotions that would have swept most men off their mental balance. Yet he kept his, had never once lost control of himself. He had met disdain with disdain in the end, had kept sufficient control over his voice to discuss with absolute calm, that bargain which the Lady Barbara had termed infamouB. There had been a detachment about his final ultimatum, a “take it or leave it” air, which must have been bitterly gallingto the proud lady who had stooped to entreat. He was holding the winning hand and did not choose to yield.
And it was from his attitude on that day that I, dear mistress, drew an unerring inference. Mr. Betterton had no love for the Lady Barbara, no genuine, lasting affection such as, I maintain, he has never ceased to feel for you. Passion swayed him, because he has above all that unexplainable artistic temperament which cannot be measured by every-day standards. Pride, bitterness, vengefulness—call it what you will; but there was not a particle of love in it all. I verily believe that his chief desire, whilst he stood pondering there at the bridge-head, was to humiliate the Lady Barbara Wychwoode by forcing her into a marriage which she had affected to despise. He was not waiting for her with open, loving arms, ready to take her to his heart, there to teach her to forget the past in the safe haven of his love. He was not waiting to lay his service at her feet, and to render her happy as the cherished wife and helpmate of the great artist whom all England delighted to honour. He was only waiting to make her feel that she had been subjected to his will and her former lover brought down to humiliation, through the power of the miserable mountebank whom they had both deemed less than a man.
THUS meditating, I stood close to my friend, until chance or a fleeting thought brought him back to the realities of life. He sighed and looked about him, as a man will who hath just wakened from a dream. Then he spied me, and gave me his wonted kindly smile and glance.
“Good old John!” he said, with a selfdeprecating shrug of the shoulders. “’Twas not an edifying scene you have witnessed, eh?”
“ ’Twas a heartrending one,” I riposted, almost involuntarily.
“Heartrending?” he queried, in a tone of intense bitterness, “to watch a fool crushing every noble instinct within him for the sake of getting even with a man whom he neither honours nor esteems?”
He sighed again, and beckoned to me to follow him.
“Let us home, good Honeywood,” he said. “I am weary of all this wrangle, and pine to find solace among the poets.”
Nor did he mention the name of the Lady Barbara again to me, and I was left to ponder what was going on in his mind and whether his cruelly vengeful scheme for the final undoing of my Lord Stour would indeed come to maturity on the following day. I knew that a great and brilliant representation of the late Mr. William Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night” was to be given at the Duke’s Theatre, with some of the new scenery and realistic scenic effects brought over last autumn from Paris by Mr. Betterton. His Majesty had definitely promised that he would be present and so had the Countess of Castlemaine, and there would doiibtless be a goodly and gorgeous company present to applaud the great actor, whose performance of Sir Toby Belch was one of the marvels of histrionic art, proclaiming as it did his wonderful versatility, by contrast with his equally remarkable exposition of the melancholy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
That I now awaited that day with sorrow in my heart and with measureless anxiety, you, dear Mistress, will readily imagine. Until this morning I had no idea of the terrible thunderbolt which my friend had in preparation for those who had so shamefully wronged him; and I still marvelled whether in his talk with the Lady Barbara there had not lurked some idle threats rather than a serious warning. How could I think of the man whom I had learned to love and to reverence as one who would nurture such cruel schemes? And yet, did not the late Mr. Shakespeare warn us that “Pleasure and revenge have ears more deaf than adders to the voice of any true decision?”
Ah, me. but I was sick at heart.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Ruling Passion I
AND now, dear Mistress, I come to that memorable evening wherein happened that which causes you so much heart-ache at this hour.
We spoke but little together that day on our way heme from the park. Mr. Betterton was moody, and I silent. We took our dinner in quietude. There being no performance at the theatre that day, Mr. Betterton settled down to his desk in the afternoon, telling me that he had some writing to do.
I too had some of his correspondence to attend to, and presently repaired to my room, my heart still aching with sorrow. Did I not guess what work was even now engrossing the attention of my friend? He was deep in the composition of that cruel lampoon which he meant to speak on the stage to-morrow, in the presence of His Majesty and of a large and brilliant assembly. Strive as I might, I could not to myself minimize the probable effect of the lampoon upon the mind of the public. It is not for me, dear Mistress, to remind you of the amazing popularity of Mr. Betterton—a popularity which hath never been equalled ere this by any actor, artist or poet in England. Whatever he spoke from the stage would be treasured and reiterated and commented upon, until every citizen of London and Westminster became himself a storehouse of mud that would be slung at the unfortunate Earl of Stour. And the latter, by refusing to fight Mr. Betterton when the latter had been the injured party, had wilfully cast aside any weapon of redress which he might after this have called to his aid.
Well! we all know the effect of scurrilous quips spoken from the stage; even the great Mr. Dryden or the famous Mr. Wycherley have not been above interpolating some in their plays, for the confusion of their enemies; and many a gentleman’s or a lady’s reputation "has been made to suffer through the vindictiveness of a noted actor or playwright. But, as you know, Mr. Betterton had never hitherto lent himself to such scandalmongering: he stood far above those petty quarrels betwixt gentlemen and poets that could be settled by wordy warfare across the footlights. All the more weight, therefore, would the public attach to an epilogue specially written and spoken by him on so great an occasion. And, alas! the mud-slinging was to be of a very peculiar and very clinging nature.
“Then let the man you love look to himself!” the outraged artist had said coldly, when confronted for the last time by the Lady Barbara’s disdain. And in my mind I had no doubt that for good or for evil, if Tom Betterton set out to do a thing, he would carry it through to its bitter end.
V\rHEN, having finished my work, I » V went into Mr. Betterton’s study, I found him sitting beside his desk, though no longer writing. He was leaning back against the cushions of his chair with eyes closed, his face set and hard. Some loose papers, covered with his neat, careful caligraphy, lay in an orderly heap upon the desk.
His work was evidently finished. Steeped in bitterness and in vengeance, his pen had laboui'ed and was now at rest. The eloquence of the incomparable actor would now do the rest.
As I entered the room, the tower clock of Westminster was just striking seven. The deep bay window which gave on a solitary corner of St. James’s Park, was wide open, and through it there came from afar, wafted upon the evening breeze, the strains of a masculine voice, warm and mellow, singing to the accompaniment of one of those stringed instruments which have been imported of late from Italy.
The voice rose and fell in pleasing «agences, and some of the words of the aong reached mine ear.
Continued on page 87
Continued from page 40
“You are my life. You ask me why? Because my hope is in your love.’*
Whether Mr. Betterton heard them or not, I could not say. He sat there so «till, his slender hands—white and tapering, the veritable hands of an artist —rested listlessly upon the arms of his chair.
‘Trtirough gloomy clouds to sunlit skies.
To rest in faith and your dear eyes.”
SO sang the sweet minstrel out there in the fast gathering gloom. I went up to the window and gazed out into the open vista before me. Far away I could ■ee the twinkling lights from the windows of St. James’s Palace, and on my right those of White Hall. The singer I could not see. He appeared to be some distance away. But despite the lateness of the hour, the park was still alive with people. And indeed, as I leaned my head further out of the window, I was struck by the animated spectacle which it presented.
No doubt that the unwonted mildness of this early spring evening had induced young maids and gallants, as well as more sober folk and gentlemen, to linger out in the open. The charm of the minstrel and his song, too, must have served as an additional attraction, for as I watched the people passing to and fro, I heard snatches of conversation, mostly in praise of the singer or of the weather.
Anon I espied Sir William Davenant walking with Mr. Killigrew, and my Lord of Rochester dallying with a pretty damsel: one or two more gentlemen djd I recognize as I gazed on the moving sight, until suddenly I saw that which caused me to draw my head back quickiy from the window and to gaze with added anxiety on the listless figure of nv friend.
What I had seen down belotv had indeed filled my heart with dread. It was the figure of my Lord Stour. I could have sworn to it, even though his Lordship was wrapped in a mantle from he&d .to foot and wore a broad-rimmed hat, both of which would indeed have disguised his person completely before all eyes save those of love, of hate, or of SB abiding friendship.
What was my Lord Stour doing at this hour, and in disguise, beneath the window of his bitterest foe? My anxiety was further quickened by the certainty which I had that neither he nor the Lady Barbara would allow Mr. Betterton’s schemes to mature without another struggle. Even as I once more thrust my head out of the window, in order to catch another glimpse of the moody and solitary figure which I had guessed to be Lord Stour, methought that close by the nearest shrubbery I espied the figure of the Lady Barbara, in conversation with her attendant. Both women were wrapped in dark mantles and wore thick veils to cover their hair.
A dark presentiment of evil now took possession of my soul. I felt like a watch-dog scenting danger from afar. The man whom I loved better than any other on earth was in peril of his life, at the hands of an enemy driven mad by an impending doom—of that I felt suddenly absolutely convinced. And somehow I felt equally convinced at the moment that we—I, the poor, insignificant clerk, as well as my illustrious friend—were standing on the brink of *n overwhelming catastrophe.
I had thought to warn him then and there, yet dared not do so in so many words. Men in the prime of life and the plenitude of their mental powers are wont to turn contemptuous and obstinate if told to be on their guard against a lurking enemy. And I feared that, in his utter contempt for his roe, Mr. Betterton might be tempted to do something that was both unconmdered and perilous.
CO I contented myself for the nonce . with turning to my friend, and, seei»g that he had wakened from his reverie and was regarding me with that
look of confidence and kindliness which always warmed my heart when I was conscious of it, I merely remarked quite casually:
“The park is still gay with ladies and gallants. ’Tis strange at this late hour. But a minstrel is discoursing sweet music somewhere in the distance. Mayhap people have assembled in order to listen to him.”
And, as if to confirm my supposition, a merry peal of laughter came ringing right across the park, and we heard as it were the hum and murmur of pedestrians moving about. And through it all the echo of the amorous ditty still lingering upon the evening air:
"For you are love—and I am yours 1”
“Close that window, John,” Mr. Betterton said, with an impatient little sigh. “I am in no mood for sentimental ballads.”
I did as he desired, and whilst in the act of closing the window, I said guardedly:
“I caught sight of my Lord Stour just now, pacing the open ground just beneath this window. He appeared moody and solitary, and was wrapped from head to foot in a big mantle, as if he wished to avoid recognition.”
“I too am moody and solitary, good Honeywood,” was Mr. Betterton’s sole comment on my remark. Then he added with a slight shiver of his whole body: “I prithee, see to the fire. I am
perished with the cold.”
I went up to the hearth and kicked the dying embers into a blaze; then found some logs and threw them on the fire.
“The evening is warm, sir,” I said; “and you complained of the heat awhile ago.”
“Yes,” he rejoined wearily. “My head is on fire and my spine feels like ice.”
IT was quite dark in the room now, save for the flickering and ruddy firelight. So I went out and bade the servant give me the candles. I came back with them myself and set them on the desk. As I did so, I glanced at Mr. Betterton. He had once more taken up his listless attitude; his head was leaning against the back of his chair, and I could not fail to note how pallid his face looked and how drawn, and there was a frown between his brows which denoted wearying and absorbing thoughts. Wishing to distract him from his brooding melancholy, I thought of reminding him of certain artistic and social duties which were awaiting his attention.
“Will you send an answer, ^ sir,” I asked him with well-assumed indifference, “to the chancellor? It is on the subject of the benefit performance in aid of the indigent poor of the City of Westminster. His Lordship again sent a messenger this afternoon.”
“Yes!” Mr. Betterton replied readily enough, and sought amongst his papers for a letter which he had apparently written some time during the day. “If his Lordship’s messenger calls again, let him have this note. I must arrange for the benefit performance, of course. But I doubt if many members of the company will care to give their services.”
“I think that Mr. Robert Noakes would be willing,” I suggested. “Also Mr. Lilleston.”
“Perhaps, perhaps!” he broke in listlessly. “But we must have actresses too, and they—”
He shrugged his shoulders, and I rejoined with great alacrity:
“Oh! I feel sure that Mistress Saunderson would be ready to join in any benevolent scheme for the betterment of the poor.”
“Ah! but she is an angel!” Mr. Betterton exclaimed. And, believe me, dear Mistress, that those words came as if involuntarily to his lips, out of the fulness of his heart. And even when he had spoken, a look of infinite sadness swept over his face and he rested his head against his hand, shading his eyes from the light of the candles lest I should read the thoughts that were mirrored therein.
“There came a messenger, too, this afternoon,” I reminded him, “from Paris, with an autograph letter from His Majesty the King of France.”
“Yes,” he replied, and nodded his head, I thought, uneomprehendingly.
“Also a letter from the University of Stockholm. They propose that you should visit the city in the course of the summer and—”
“Yes, yes! I know!” he rejoined impatiently. “I will attend to it all another time. . . . But not to-night, good Honeywood,” he went on almost appealingly, like a man wearied with many tasks. “My mind is like a squeezed orange to-night.”
Then he held out his hand to me— that beautiful, slender hand of his which I had so often kissed in the exJ cess of my gratitude—and added with gentle indulgence:
“Let me be to-night, good friend. Leave me to myself. I am such poor company and am best alone.”
I TOOK his hand. It was burning hot, as if with inward fever. All my friendship for him, all my love, was at once on the alert, dreading the ravages of some inward, disease, brought on mayhap by so much soul-worry.
“I do not relish leaving you alone tonight,” I said, with more gruffness than I am wont to display. “This room is easy of access from the park.”
He smiled, a trifle sadly.
“Dost think,” he asked, with a light shrug of the shoulders, “that a poor mountebank would tempt a midnight robber?”
“No!” I replied firmly. “But tny Lord Stour, wrapped to the eyes in his mantle, hath prowled beneath these windows for an hour.” Then, as he made no comment, I continued with some fervour : “A determined man;
who hates another, can easily climb up to a first floor window—”
“Tush, friend!” he broke in sharply.
“I am not afraid of his lordship.....
I am afraid of nothing to-night, my good Honeywood,” he added softly, “except of myself.”
A/OU certainly will not wonder, dear Mistress, that after that I did not obey his commands to leave him to himself. I am nothing of an eavesdropper, God knows, nor yet would I pry into the secrets of the soul of the one man whom I reverence above all others. But, t en as I tuived reluctantly away from him in order to go back to my room, I resolved that, unless he actually shut the door jn my face, I would circumvent him and would remain on the watch, like a faithful dog who scents danger for his master. In this I did not feel that I was doing any wrong. God saw in my heart and knew that my purpose was innocent. I thank Him on my knees in that He strengthened me in my resolve. But for that resolve, I should not have been cognizant of all the details of those events which culminated in such a dramatic climax that night, and I would not have been able to speak with authority when placing all the facts before you. Let me tell you at once that I was there, in Mr. Betterton’s room, during the whole of the time that the incidents occurred which I am now about to relate.
He had remained sitting at his desk, and I went across the room in the direction of the communicating door which gave on my own study. But I did not go through that door. I just opened and shut it noisily, and then slipped stealthily behind the tall oaken dresser, which stands in a dark angle of the room. From this point of vantage I could watch closely and ceaselessly, and at the slightest suspicion of immediate danger to my friend I would be free to slip out of my hiding-place and to render him what assistance he required. I had to squat there in a cramped position, and I felt half-suffocated with the closeness of the atmosphere behind so heavy a piece of furniture; but this ! did not mind. From where I was I could command a view of Mr. Betterton at his desk, and of the window, which I wished now that I had taken the precaution to bar and bolt ere I retired to my corner behind the dresser.
For awhile, everything was silent in the room; only the great clock ticked loudly in its case, and now and again the blazing logs gave an intermittent crackle. I just could see the outline of Mr. Betterton’s shoulder and arm silhouetted against the candle light. He sat forward, his elbow resting upon the desk, his head leaning against his hand, and so still that presently I fell to thinking that he must have dropped to sleep.
But suddenly he gave that quick, impatient sigh of his, which I had learned to know so well, pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. Whereupon he began pacing up and down the room, in truth like some poor, perturbed spirit that is denied the solace of rest.
Then he began to murmur to himself. I know that mood of his and believe it to be peculiar to the artistic temperament, which when it feels itself untramelled by the presence of others, gives vent to its innermost thoughts in mumbled words.
From time to time I caught snatches of what he said—wild words for the most part, which showed the perturbation of his spirit. He, whose mind was always well-ordered, whose noble calling had taught him to co-ordinate his thoughts and to subdue them to his will, was now murmuring incoherent phrases, disjointed sentences that would have puzzled me had I not known the real trend of his mood.
“Barbara !....” he said at one time. “Beautiful, exquisite, innocent Lady Babs; the one pure crystal in that laboratory of moral decomposition, the Court of White Hall . . . . ” Then he paused, struck his forehead with his hand, and added with a certain fierce
contempt: “But she will yield.....
she is ready now to yield. She will cast aside her pride, and throw herself into the arms of a man whom she hates, all for the sake of that young coxcomb, who is not warthy to kiss the sole of her shoe !”
Again he paused, flung himself back into the chair, and once more buried his face in his hand?
“Oh, Woman, Woman!” I could hear him murmuring. “What an enigma! How can the mere man attempt to understand thee?” Then he laughed. Oh ! I could not bear the sound of that laugh : there was naught but bitterness in it. And he said slowly, muttering between his teeth :
“The philosopher alone knows that women are like melons: it is only after having tasted them that one knows if they are good.”
Of course, he said a great deal more during the course of that dreary, restless hour, which seemed to me' like a slice out of eternity. His restlessness was intense. Every now and then he would jump up and walk up and down, up and down, until his every footstep found its echo in the violent beatings of my heart. Then he would fling himself into a chair and rest his head against the cushions, closing his eyes as if he were in bodily pain, or else beat his forehead with his fists.
Of course he thought himself unobserved; for Mr. Betterton is, as you know, a man of great mental reserve. Not even before me—-his faithful and devoted friend—would be wittingly have displayed such overmastering • ¡motion. To say that an equally overwhelming sorrow filled my heart would be but to give you, dear Mistress, a feeble statement of what I really felt. To see a man of Mr. Betterton’s mental and physical powers so utterly crushed by an insane passion was indeed heartrending. Had he not everything at his feet that any man could wish for?— Fame, honours, the respect and admiration of all those who mattered in the world. Women adored him, men vied with one another to render him the sincerest flattery by striving to imitate his gestures, his mode of speech, the very cut of his clothes. And, above all— aye! I dare assert it, and you, beloved Mistress, will I know forgive me—above all, he had the love of a pure and good woman, of a talented artist—yours, dear lady, an inestimable boon for which many a man would thank his Maker on his knees.
Ah ! he was blind then, had been blind since that fatal hour when the Lady Barbara Wychwoode crossed his path. I could endorse the wild words which he had spoken to her this forenoon. A thousand devils were indeed unchained within him ; but ’tis not to her kiss that they would yield, but rather to the gentle ministration of exquisite Mistress Saunderson.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN More Deaf Than Adders
T FELT so cramped and numb in my narrow hiding'-place that I verily believe I must have fallen into a kind of trance-like slumber.
From this I was suddenly awakened by the loud clang of our front door bell followed immediately by the footsteps of the serving man upon the landing and then by a brief colloquy between him and the belated visitor.
Seriously, at the moment, I had no conception of who this might be, until I glanced at Mr. Betterton. And then I guessed. Guessed, just as he had already done. Every line of his tense and expectant attitude betrayed the fact that he had recognized the voice upon the landing, and that its sound had thrilled his very soul and brought him back from the land of dreams and nightmare where he had been wandering this past hour.
You remember, dear lady, the last time Mr. Betterton played in a tragedy called Hamlet, wherein there is a play within a play, and the melancholy Prince of Denmark sets a troupe of actors to enact a representation of the terrible crime whereof he accuses both his uncle and his mother. It is a scene which, when played by Mr. Betterton, is wont to hold the audience enthralled. He plays his part in it by lying full length on the ground his body propped up by his elbow and his chin supported in his hand. His eyes—those wonderful, expressive eyes of his—he keeps fixed upon the guilty pair: his mother and his uncle. He watches the play of every emotion upon their faces—fear, anger and then the slowly creeping, enveloping remorse; and his rigid, stern features expi’ess an intensity of alertness and of expectancy which is so poignant as to be almost painful.
Just such an expression did my dear friend’s face wear at this moment. He had pushed his chair back slightly, so that I had a fuller view of him, and the flickering light of the wax candles illuminated his clear-cut features and his eyes, fixed tensely upon the door.
THE next moment the serving man threw open the door and the Lady Barbara walked in. I could not see her until she had advanced further into the middle of the room. Then I beheld her in all her loveliness. Nay! I’ll not deny it. She was still incomparably beautiful, with in addition that marvellous air of breeding and of delicacy, which rendered her peerless amongst her kind. I hated her for the infinite wrong which she had done to my friend, but I could not fail to admire her. Her mantle was thrown back from her shoulders and a dark, filmy veil resembling a cloud, enveloped her fair hair. Beneath her mantle she wore a dress of something grey that shimmered like steel in the candle light. A few tendrils of her ardent hair had escaped from beneath her veil, and they made a kind of golden halo around her face. She was very pale, but of that transparent, delicate pallor that betokens emotion rather than ill-health, and her eyes looked to me to be as dark as sloes, even though I knew them to be blue.
For the space of one long minute, which seemed like eternity, these two remained absolutely still, just looking at one another. Methought that I could hear the very heartbeats within my breast. Then the lady said, with a queer little catch in her throat and somewhat hesitatingly:
“You are surprised to see me, sir, no doubt. . . . but. . . .”
She was obviously at a loss how to begin. And* Mr. Betterton, aroused no doubt by her voice, from his absorption, rose quickly to his feet and made her a deep and respectful obeisance.
“The angels from Heaven sometimes descend to Earth,” he said slowly; “yet the earth is more worthy of their visit than is the humble artist of the presence of his muse.” Then he added more artlessly: “Will you deign to sit?”
He drew a chair forward for her, but she did not take it, continued to speak with a strange, obviously forced gaiety and in a halting manner.
“I thank you, sir,” she said. “That is......no.....not yet.....I like to look about me.”
To be continued,