HIS MAJESTY’S WELL-BELOVED
A Story of the Time of the Merrie Monarch
Author of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel,” etc.
HE was standing in the bay of the window, and his figure, silhouetted against the light in the room, must have been plainly visible to the crowd outside. That a number of people had assembled by now was apparent by the hum and hubbub which came to us from below. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I, too, approached the open casements and peered out into the gloom. Just as I thought, quite a crowd had collected down there, some of whom were making ready to climb up to the window by way of the gutter-pipes or the solid stems of the ivy, whilst others were trooping down the narrow little alley which connects Tothill Street with the Park at the base of Mr. Betterton’s house. There was a deal of talking, laughing and shouting. “Tom Betterton is up to some prank,” I heard more than one person say.
DERHAPS you will wonder what was my Lord’s attitude during the few minutes—it was less than five—which elapsed between the instant when Mr. Betterton first threw open the casements and that when the crowd, headed by Sir William Davenant and Mr. Killigrew, trooped down the alley on their way to this house. To me he seemed at first wholly uncomprehending, like a man who has received a blow on the head—just as I did from his fist a moment ago —and before whose eyes the walls of the room, the furniture, the people, are all swimming in an ocean of stars. I imagine that at one time the thought flashed as lightning through his mind that this was but the culminating outrage wherewith his enemy meant to pillory him and his bride before a jeering public. That was the moment when he turned to her ladyship and, uttering a hoarse cry, called to her by name. She was, just then, leaning in semi-consciousness against the angle of the bay. She did not respond to his call, and Mr. Betterton, quick in his movements, alert now like some feline on the prowl, stepped immediately in front of her, facing my Lord and screening her against his approach.
“Stand back, man,” he commanded. “Stand back, I tell you! You shall not come nigh her save on bended knees, with head bowed in the dust, suing for pardon in that you dared to insult her.”
Everything occurred so quickly, movements, events, high words, threatening gestures from both sides, followed one another in such rapid succession, that I, overcome with agitation and the effect of the stunning blow which I had received, was hardly able to take it all in. Much less is it in my power to give you a faithful account of it all. These five minutes were the most spirit-stirring ones I have ever experienced throughout my life—every second appeared surcharged with an exciting fluid which transported me to supernal regions, to lands of unrealities akin to vivid dreams.
At one moment, I remember seeing my Lord Stour make a rapid and furtive movement in the direction of his sword, which lay some little distance from him on the ground, but Mr. Betterton was quicker even than his foe, more alert, and with one bound he had reached the weapon, ere my Lord’s hand was nigh it, had picked it up and, with a terrific jerk, broke it in half across his knee. Then he threw the mangled hilt in one direction, the point in another, and my Lord raised his fists, ready methinks to fly at his throat.
But, as I have already told you, dear mistress, the whole episode stands but as a confused mirage before my mind; and through it all I seemed to see a mere vision of her Ladyship, pale and ethereal, leaning against the angle of the bay; one delicate hand was clutching the heavy curtain, drawing it around her as it were, as if in a pathetic and futile desire to shield herself from view.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN I
IN the meanwhile, the crowd all round the house had visibly swelled. Some people were still standing immediately beneath the bow-window, whilst others had swarmed into Tothill Street; the foremost amongst the latter had given a vigorous tug at the bell-pull, and the front door being opened for them by the bewildered servant, they had made a noisy irruption into the house. We could hear them clattering up the stairs to the accompaniment of much laughing and talking and the oft-reiterated refrain: “Tom Betterton is up to some prank! Hurrah!!”
Some few again, more venturesome and certainly more impudent than most, had indeed succeeded in scrambling up to the window, and, one after another, heads and shoulders began to appear in the framework of the open casements.
Her Ladyship had no doubt realized from the first that escape became impossible within two minutes of Mr. Betterton’s first summons to the public. Just at first, perhaps, if my Lord had preserved his entire presence of mind, he might have taken her by the hand and fled with her out of the house, before the unruly crowd had reached Tothill Street. But my Lord, blinded by jealous rage, had not thought of her quickly enough, and now the time was past and he remained impotent, gasping with fury, hardly conscious of his actions. He had been literally swept off his feet by Mr. Betterton’s eaglewinged coup de main, which left him puzzled and the prey to a nameless terror as to what was about to follow.
Now, when he saw a number of gentlemen trooping in by the door, he could but stare at them in utter bewilderment. Most of these gallants were personally known to him: Sir William Davenant was in the
forefront with Mr. Thomas Killigrew of the King’s Theatre, and the Earl of Rochester was with them as well as Mr. Wycherley. I also recognized Sir Charles Sedley and old Sir John Denham, as well as my Lord Roscommon among the crowd.
They had all rushed in through the door, laughing and jesting, as was the wont of all these gay and courtly sparks; but at sight of the Lady Barbara, they halted. Gibes and unseemly jokes broke upon their lips, and for the most part their heads went up to their hats and they made her Ladyship a deep obeisance. Indeed, just then she looked more like a wraith than a living woman, and the light of the candles which flickered wildly in the draught accentuated the weirdness of her appearance.
“What is it, Tom? What is amiss?” Sir William Davenant was thus the first to speak.
“We thought you were playing some prank.”
“You did call from that window, did you not, Tom?” my Lord Rochester insisted.
And one or two of the gentlemen nodded somewhat coldly to my Lord Stour.
“Yes. I did call,” Mr. Betterton replied, quite firmly. “But ’twas no whim on my part thus to drag you into my house. It was not so much my voice that you heard as the trumpet blast of truth.”
At this, my Lord Stour broke into one of these harsh, mirthless fits of laughter which betokened the perturbation of his spirit.
“The truth!” he exclaimed with a cutting sneer. “From you?”
“Aye! the truth!” Mr. Betterton rejoined with perfect calm, even whilst his friends glanced puzzled and enquiring from my Lord Stour to him and thence to her Ladyship’s pale face and even to me. “The truth,” he added with a deep sigh as of intense relief: “The truth, at last!”
He stood in the centre of the room, with one hand resting upon the desk, his eyes fixed fearlessly upon the sea of faces before him. Not the slightest tremor marred the perfect harmony of his voice or the firm poise of his manly figure. You know as well as I do, dear mistress, tjie marvellous magnetism of Mr.
Betterton’s personality, the way he hath of commanding the attention of a crowd whenever he chooseth to speak. Think of him then, dear Lady, with head thrown back, his exquisite voice rising and falling in those subtle and impressive cadences wherewith he is wont to hold an audience enthralled. Of a truth, no experienced manager in stage-craft could have devised so thrilling an effect as the picture which Mr. Betterton—the greatest actor of this or of any time— presented at that moment, standing alone, facing the crowd which was awed into deadly silence, and with the wraith-like figure of that exquisitely beautiful woman as a foil to his own self-possessed, virile appearance.
“Gentlemen,” he began, with slow, even emphasis, “I pray you, bear with me; for what I have to say will take some time in telling. Awhile ago, his Lordship of Stour put upon me such an insult as the mind of man can hardly conceive. Then, on the pretence that I was not a born gentleman as he was, he refused me satisfaction by the sword. For this I hated him and swore that I would be even with him, that I would exact from his arrogance, outrage for outrage and infamy for infamy.” He then turned to my Lord Stour and spoke to him directly. “You asked me just now, my Lord, if my revenge was satisfied. My answer to that is: not yet! Not until I see you on your bended knees here, before these gentlemen—my friends and yours—receiving from the miserable mountebank whom you mocked, the pitiful cur whom you, thrashed, that which you hold—or should hold— more precious than all the treasures of this earth : your honor and the good name of the Lady who honors you with her love! Gentlemen!” he went on, and once more faced the crowd, “you know the aspersions which have been cast on my Lord Stour’s loyalty. Rumors have been current that the late aborted conspiracy was betrayed by him to the Countess of Castlemaine and that she obtained his1 pardon, whilst all or most of his associates were driven into exile or perished on the scaffold. Well, gentlemen, 'twas I who begged for my Lord’s pardon from the Countess of Castlemainc. His degradation, his obloquy, was the revenge which I had studiously planned. Nay! I
pray you, hear me unto the e n d,” he continued, as a loud murmur of horror and indignation followed on this selfaccusation. “M y Lord Stour is no traitor, save to her whom he loves and whom i n h i s thoughts he hath dared to outrage. The Lady Barbara Wychwoode deigned to plead with me for the man whom she honored with her love. She pleaded with me this afternoon, in the Park, in sight of
but I in my obstinacy and
many passers-by; arrogance would not, God forgive me, listen to her.”
IJE paused, and I could see the beads of perspiration glittering upon his forehead, white now like Italian alabaster. They all stood before him, subdued and silent. Think of Sir William Davenant, dear Mistress, and his affection for Mr. Betterton: think of my Lord Roscommon and of Sir Charles Sedley and his Lordship of Rochester, whose admiration for Mr. Betterton’s talent was only equalled by their appreciation for his worth! It was before them all, before all these fastidious gentlemen, that the great and sensitive artist had elected to humble his pride to the dust.
But you shall judge.
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Betterton went on after a brief while, “we all know that love is a game at which one always cheats. I loved the Lady Barbara Wychwoode. I had the presumption to dream of her as my future wife. Angered at her scorn of my suit, I cheated her into coming here to-night, luring her with the hope that I would consent to right the man for whose sake she was willing to risk so much, for whom she was ready to sacrifice even her fair name. Now I have learned to my hurt that love, the stern little god, will not be trifled with. When we try to cheat him, he cheats us worse at the last; and if he makes kings of us, he leaves us beggars in the end. When my Lord Stour, burning with sacrilegious jealousy, made irruption into my room, the Lady Barbara had just succeeded in wringing from me an avowal which proclaimed his integrity and my shame. She was about to leave me, humbled and crushed in my pride, she herself pure and spotless as the lilies, unapproachable as the stars. That, my Lord Stour,” concluded the great actor with the full resonance of his magnificent voice, “that is the truth. On your knees, man, on your knees! The low-born mountebank has vindicated your honor, and righted the wrong you did to the most selfless and most loving woman that ever lived. Look into her eyes and sue for forgiveness, and may the thunderbolt of heaven kill you where you stand, if you dare again to wrong her in your thoughts!”
AyfR. BETTERTON had ceased speaking for some time; nevertheless, silence profound reigned in the dark, wainscoted room for many seconds after the final echo of that perfect voice had ceased to reverberate. Indeed, dear Mistress, I can assure you that though there were at least fifty persons present in the room, including those unknown to me who were swarming around the framework of the casements, you might have heard the proverbial pin drop just then. A tense expression rested on every face. Can you wonder that I scanned them all with the eagerness born of my love for the great artist who had thus besmirched his own fair name in order to vindicate that of his bitterest foe?
That I read condemnation of my friend in many a glance, I’ll not deny, and this cut me to the quick.
True! Mr. Betterton’s scheme of vengeance had been reprehensible if measured by the high standards of Christian forbearance. But remember how he had been wronged, not once but repeatedly; and even when I saw the frown on my Lord Roscommon’s brow, the look of stern reproof in Sir Charles Sedley's face, there arose before mine eyes the vision of the great and sensitive artist, of the high-souled gentle-
man, staggering beneath the blows dealt by a band of hired ruffians at the bidding of this young coxcomb whose very existence was as naught in the eyes of the cultured world beside the genius of the inimitable Mr. Betterton.
I said that the silence was tense. Meseemed that no one dared to break it. Even to those idly curious who had swarmed up the rainpipes of this house in order to witness one of
witness one of
Tom Betterton’s pranks, felt awed by the revelation of this drama of a great man’s soul. Indeed, the silence became presently oppressive. I, for one, felt a great buzzing in mine ears. The lights from the candles assumed weird and phantasmagoric proportion's till they seared my aching eyes.
Then slowly my Lord Stour approached her Ladyship, sank on his knees before her and raised the hem of her robe to his lips. A sob broke from her throat; she tried to smother it by pressing her handkerchief into her mouth. It took her a second or two to regain her composure. But breeding and pride came to her aid. I saw the stiffening of her figure, the studied and deliberate movement wherewith she readjusted her mantle and her veil.
My Lord Stour was still on his knees. At a sign from her Ladyship he rose. He held out his left arm and she placed her right hand on it, then together they went out of the room. The crowd of gentlemen parted in order to make way for the twain, then when they had gone through, some of the gentlemen followed them immediately; others lingered for awhile, hesitating. Sir William Davenant, Mr. Killigrew, my Lord Rochester, all of Mr. Betterton’s friends, appeared at first inclined to remain in order to speak with him. They even did me the honour of consulting me with a look, asking of my experience of the great actor whether they should stay. I slowly shook my head, and they wisely acted on my advice. I knew that my friend would wish to be alone. He, so reserved, so proud, had laid his soul bare before the public, who was wont to belaud and to applaud him. The humiliation and the effort must have been a terrible strain, which only time and solitude could
He had scarce moved from his position beside the desk, still stood there with one slender hand resting upon it, his gaze fixed vaguely upon the door through which his friends were slowly filing out.
Within two minutes or less after the departure of my Lord Stour and her Ladyship, the last of the crowd of gentlemen and of idlers had gone. Anon I went across the room and closed the door behind them. When I turned again, I saw that the knot of quidnuncs no longer filled the casements, and a protracted hum of voices, a crackling of ivy twigs and general sound of scrimmage and of scrambling outside the window, proclaimed the fact that even they had had the sense and the discretion to retire quietly from this spot, hallowed by the martyrdom of a great man’s soul.
'T'HUS I was left alone with my friend.
He had drawn his habitual chair up to the desk and sat down.
Just for a few moments he rested both his elbows on the desk and buried his face in his hands. Then, with that familiar, quick little sigh of his, he drew the candles closer to him and, talcing up a book, he
began to read. I knew what it was that he was reading, or rather, studying. He had been absorbed in the work many a time before now, and had expressed his ardent desires to give public readings of it one day when it was completed. It was the opening canto of a great epic poem, the manuscript of which had been entrusted to Mr. Betterton for perusal by the author, Mr. John Milton, who had but lately been liberated from prison through the untiring efforts of Sir William Davenant on his behalf. Mr. Milton hoped to complete the epic in the next half dozen years. Its title is “Paradise Lost.”
I remained standing beside the open window, loath to close it as the air was peculiarly soft and refreshing. Below me, in the Park, the idle, chattering crowd had already dispersed. From far away, I still coulç5 hear the sweet, sad strains of the amorous song, and through the stillness of the evening, the words came to mine ear, wafted on the breeze:
"You are my Faith, my Hope, my All I “What e’er the Future may unfold,
"No trial too great—no Thing too small,
"Your whispered Words shall make me bold "To win at last for Your dear Sake"A worthy Place in Future's World.”
I felt my soul enwrapt in a not unpleasant reverie; an exquisite peace seemed to have descended on my mind, lately so agitated by thoughts of my dear, dear friend.
Suddenly a stealthy sound behind me caused me to turn, and in truth I am not sure even now if what I saw was reality, or the creation of mine own dreams.
The i^ady Barbara had softly and surreptitiously re-entered the room. She walked across it on tiptoe, her silken skirts making just the softest possible frou-frou as she walked. Her cloud-like veil wrapped her head entirely, concealing her fair hair and casting a grey shadow over her eyes. Mr. Betterton did not hear her, or if he did, he did not choose to look up. When her Ladyship was quite close to the desk, I noticed that she had a bunch of white roses in her hand such as are grown in the hothouses of rich noblemen.
For a few seconds she stood quite still. Then she raised the roses slowly to her lips, and laid them down, without a word, upon the desk.
After which, she glided out of the room as silently, as furtively, as she came.
AND thus, dear Mistress, have I come to the end of ^ my long narrative. I swear to you by the living God that everything which I have herein related is the truth and nought but the truth.
There were many people present in Mr. Betterton’s room during that memorable scene when he sacrificed his pride and his revenge in order to right the innocent. Amongst these witnesses there were some whom malice and envy would blind to the sublimity of so noble an act. Do not listen to them, honoured
Mistress, but rather to the promptings of your own heart and to
that unerring judgment of men and of events which is the attribute of good and pure women.
Mr. Betterton hath never forfeited your esteem by any act or thought. The infatuation which momentarily dulled his vision to all save to the beauty of the Lady Barbara, hath ceased to exist. Its course was ephemeral and hath gone without a trace of regret or bitterness in its wake. The eminent actor, the high-souled artist, whom all cultured Europe doth reverence and admire, stands as high to-day in that same world’s estimation as he did before a young and arrogant coxcomb dared to measure his own worth against that of a man as infinitely above him as are the stars. But, dear Mistress, Mr. Betterton now is lonely and sad. He is like a man who hath been sick and weary, and is still groping after health and strength. Take pity on his loneliness, I do conjure you. Give him back the inestimable boon of your goodwill and of your friendship, which alone could restore to him that peace of mind so necessary for the furtherance of his art.
And if, during the course of my
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narrative, I have seemed to you overpresumptuous, then I do entreat your forgiveness. Love for my friend and reverence for your worth have dictated every word which I have written. If, through my labours, I have succeeded in turning away some of the just anger which had possessed your soul against the man whom, I dare aver, you still honour with your love, then indeed I shall feel that even so insignificant a life as mine hath not been wholly wasted.
I do conclude, dear and honoured Mistress, with a prayer to Almighty God for your welfare and that of the man whom I love best in all the world. I am convinced that my prayer will find favour before the throne of Him who is the Father of us alL And He who. reads the innermost secrets of every heart, knows that your welfare is coincident with that of my friend. Thus am I content to leave the future in His hands, and I myself do remain, dear mistress,
Your humble and obedient servant, John Honeywood.
RING down the curtain. The play is ended. The actors have made their final bow before you and thanked you for your plaudits. The chief player—a sad and lonely man—has for the nonce spoken his last upon the
All is silence and mystery now. The lights are out. And yet the audience lingers on, loath to bid farewell to the great artist and to his minor satellites who have helped to wile away a few pleasant hours. You, dear public, knowing so much about them, would wish to know more. You wish to know —and I am not mistaken—whether the labour of love wrought by good Master Honeywood did in due course bear its fruitfulness. You wish to know—or am I unduly self-flattered?—whether the play of passion, of love and of revenge, set by the worthy clerk before you, had an epilogue—one that would satisfy your sense of justice and of mercy.
Then, I pray you, turn to the pages
of history, of which Master Honeywood’s narrative forms an integral and pathetic part. One of these pages will reveal to you that which you wish to know. Thereon you will see recorded the fact that, after a brief and distinguished visit during that summer to Sie city and university of Stockholm, where honours without number were showered upon the great English actor, Mr. Betterton came back to England, to the delight of an admiring public, for he was then in the very plenitude of his powers.
Having read of the artist’s triumph, I pray you then to turn over the pages of the faithful chronicle of his career, and here you will find a brief chapter which deals with his private life and with his happiness. You will see that at the end of this self-same year 1662, the Register of St. Giles’, Cripplegate, contains the record of a marriage between Thomas Betterton, actor, of the parish of St. Margaret’s, Westminster,
and Mary Joyce Saunderson of the aforesaid parish of St. Giles’.
That this marriage was an exceptionally happy one we know from innumerable data, minutes and memoranda supplied by Downes and others: that Master John Honeywood was present at the ceremony itself we may be allowed to guess. Those of us who understand and appreciate the artistic temperament, will readily agree with the worthy clerk when he said that it cannot be judged by ordinary standards. The long and successful career of Thomas Betterton and of Mistress Saunderson his wife, testify to the fact that their art in no waysuffered, while their souls passed through the fiery ordeal of passion and of sorrow; but rather that it became ennobled and purified until they themselves took their place in the heart and memory of the cultured world among the immortals.