Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 10
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER XIX. IS THEATRICAL.
The manager of the Theatre Royal, Long Acre, was not a very nice man. He had followed a good many other professions before he took to trading in theatrical entertainments. If moss be not gathered by the rolling stone, certainly a good deal of dirt adheres to it in the course of its revolutions. A man who has been through several businesses must have something of a soil from each left on his fingers; and if he did not primarily start with very clean hands, of course the result at the end is all the more grimy in effect. Labour-stains are very honourable if the labour has been sufficiently honest. But we have no occasion, as we have no temptation, to dig down to the roots of the career of Mr. Grimshaw, the lessee and manager of the Theatre Royal, Long Acre. All diggers do not meet with ore. Some often turn up less agreeable matters in the course of their toils. Let us accept, as the public did, Mr. Grimshaw as a blown manager, and not trouble ourselves about his bud period. Who cares to ponder over ugly chrysalis antecedents when the butterfly is fluttering about in full magnificence?
He was quite the man to succeed as a manager. In the first place, he wasn’t an actor, and had never dreamt, amidst all his changes of life, of becoming one: he was wary enough to know what not to do or to be. He did not take the theatre to assume the important parts that no one else would allot to him; to wake the dreary echoes of the empty house by his own dismal performance of Macbeth; he did not propose to start as an eminent tragedian on his own account, to end on some one else’s, a hopeless insolvent, proffering a fearful schedule to a wrathful commissioner. He took the Long Acre (it had been long empty: he got it cheap) to prosper his pocket rather than indulge his vanity. The Town said he was enterprising. He was in a condition which compels people to be enterprising: he could not suffer by speculation. He was without money, without character, without even credit, which sometimes survives the absence of the others. How could he lose? What could he lose? On the contrary, he seemed to be in such a situation that he must win; because any change must be for the better. He opened the theatre. He pawned his watch and sold his great-coat (the warm weather was coming on, so he did not feel the loss much) to pay for his placards. He was manager of the T. R., Long Acre! To his own surprise and everybody's besides, he found money enough in the treasury on Saturday night to pay his way. The Town lauded him extravagantly: he was the only man who had made the theatre remunerative! On the strength of this applause he was able to borrow money at a rate not much exceeding sixty per cent—of course taking part of the advance in cases of champagne. Certainly he was clever. He made even the wine available! He gave a grand supper to his employés. The thing was well noticed by the press, and advanced the theatre wonderfully. All that is ever wanted, it seems, in such matters, is reputation for success. Of course, a manager who gives champagne to his supernumeraries must be successful, and the theatre was crowded nightly. It was admitted that a low comedian, criticising the liquor, had declared a decided preference for "shandygaff;" but he was voted coarse, and put down. Altogether, the corps suffered much less than might have been expected. There was no coroner's inquest. Some actors' stomachs must be as strong as their lungs.
"The secret of my success as a manager," said Grimshaw once in a confidential moment, and when perhaps his habitual caution had been carried away by a tide of hot gin-and-water, then running very high indeed, " the secret of my success as a manager lies in the billing. People say it's novelty, but it isn't. I like novelty, of course, when I can get it, but I can't always; and the fact is, that with proper billing you may make an old thing look like a new one. You may make almost anything pass for a novelty. I'm very particular about my billing. I ride through the town once a week regularly to take stock of my playbills. I keep my eye on the shops that put them boldly out at the front, so that they must strike the passer-by. I defy him to avoid them. And I note those as smuggle 'em up in the back shop, or perhaps use them to wrap up parcels, or what not. I've known it done. And I look how the placards are wearing, and try to find new pitches for them; and I try to invent a new system of advertising. That's the thing with the public; keep it up, stick to them, bully them: they'll defy you at first, chaff you, swear at you perhaps; but in the end you'll find them all taking dress-circle tickets for themselves and every member of their families, and the house Crammed to suffocation every night, and a mere stock piece placing after all, perhaps. And if you can do this with an old thing, what can't you do with a new one?"
It has been said that he was not a very nice man. He did not take the T. R., Long Acre, because he had any regard for the drama, or because he respected anything or anybody. There was no purpose in his management beyond his own advantage.
"It don't matter to me, you know, a morsel, what's played," he said, as he drained his sixth tumbler, nearly swallowing a slab of lemon that had whilom been floating in the liquor, but was now quite stranded or knocking about in the glass in a dry, useless way. "I'll put up anything they'll come and see. Is it Billy Shakspeare you want?—you shall have him, hot and strong, and plenty of him—only pay your money at the door fust, please. Or will you have hopera? All right. I'll give you the best of singing birds, or bally, or 'orses, or the hacrobats, or the helephants—anythink you like, it don't matter to me, blesh you, only say the word. Glasses round again, gentlemen; or, what do you say, will you have a bottle of sham?" &c., &c.
Certainly, it was all the same to Mr. Grimshaw what he " put up," as he phrased it, and he would have played Shakspeare as soon as anything else, if he had thought he could have made it pay, and sooner, if he could have made a "novelty," or got a "sensation" out of it (the word wasn't in use then; but never mind, it fits just as well the circumstances of which I am narrating). Above all, if he could have engaged a trained gorilla, and been able to cast him for the part of Romeo! He had made a great bit with an accomplished troup of dogs and monkeys—a poodle who danced a naval hornpipe in appropriate costume, having by his cleverness held London enthralled for months. But a trained gorilla as Romeo! What houses! What a draw! if the thing was only tolerably billed!
He was always looking out for novelty of whatever kind. He was always attentive to what was passing on other stages, at home and abroad—he was not above borrowing the ideas of his neighbours when there was occasion. Business was beginning to flag a little. The public was certainly hard to please. The performing wild beasts were exceedingly clever—they had eaten a stage carpenter entirely, and enjoyed several mouthfuls of a call-boy—and yet the houses were not nearly so good as might have been expected. He heard on several sides that a new dancer—Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury—was exciting attention—"creating a furore" was the exact expression—at Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, Milan, &c.
"I might do worse than engage her, you know," said Grimshaw; "they tell me, you know, she's a good-looking woman, and a very plucky dancer. There hasn't been a regular right-down good bally in London for some years. I wonder whether she'd come—cheap?"
In a few days a very elaborate system of billing commenced. An envelope, that appeared to contain a telegraphic message, was left by a boy in a uniform at the door of every private house in the Court Guide; and the nobility, gentry, and public were respectfully informed that the Lessee and Manager of the T. R., Long Acre, had secured at an enormous outlay, exclusively for that grand and national establishment, the services of the renowned Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury, première danseuse of the San Carlo, at Naples, La Scala, Milan, and all the chief cities of Europe: whose extraordinary talents had been the theme of admiration of the entire continental press for a very considerable time past. Her first appearance, it was stated, would take place almost immediately, in the new, grand, romantic ballet, in six tableaux, "L'Aérolithe; ou, La Fille du Firmament:" music by Signor Strepito—with entirely new scenery, dresses, and appointments, upon which the whole strength of the establishment had been employed for many months past. Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury would be supported by Mesdames Celine, Julie, Blondette, Brown, Estelle, O'Callaghan, Schmidt, &c. MM. Anatole, Renaud, Pierre, W. H. Sims, Raphael, and McNish, and one hundred coryphées. Immediate application was to be made for seats. The box-office was open daily from 10 to 5, under the direction of Mr. Clark, &c., &c.
Mr. Grimshaw had managed very adroitly with Mademoiselle Boisfleury and her friends. The "enormous outlay" was, of course, supposititious. He found the lady anxious, for various reasons, to visit London. He immediately reduced his proposals to a minimum. In fact he did not care about the thing at all, he said; he had made other arrangements; he had so many other matters pending. But if she liked to come to Long Acre, and dance for a week for nothing, he would engage her for two months afterwards, at a salary of fifteen pounds a week, with liberty to him to terminate the engagement at a week's notice. He added that he would "mount" the ballet for her, first-rate, and would throw in the clear half of a ticket benefit. Upon these not high terms the services of Mademoiselle Boisfleury were eventually secured for the great national establishment in Long Acre.
Mademoiselle Boisfleury was a great success.
"We're pulling in the money now, sir, like bricks," Mr. Grimshaw informed his intimates, ordering glasses round after his manner. "We shall be able to run the bally right up to the pantomine, if we take care, and get through the year splendidly."
Indeed, out of the profit accruing from the engagement of Mademoiselle Boisfleury, he was able to avert altogether a bankruptcy that had been long impending, to compound with his creditors, and to commune with himself whether the surplus was not sufficient to justify the carrying into execution of a scheme he had long been plotting, for the leasing of two other theatres, and the purchase of three music halls, a circus, five public houses, and a chapel. It was the dream of Grimshaw to possess all these properties: the field for billing that then would be open to him seemed to him grand and glorious indeed.
"I should be able to turn round then; a fellow ain't got elbow room at the Long Acre. It's as easy to manage four theatres as one. If you know how to drive, a four in hand isn't harder, while it's much pleasanter, than one 'orse—isn't it, old follow, you know about 'orses? Will you have a private box for the missus, for Toosday? I'd give any money if I could get respectable people into my private boxes. However, we can't have everything—at the pit we turn away money every night."
I have always admired very much the first, second, and third gentlemen whom Shakspeare has now and then brought upon his scene; who are so bland, and amiable, and courteous, and convey so much information to each other and the audience; particularly the audience. What very agreeable background figures are these gentlemen, filling up chinks and crannies in the narrative; keeping out the draught, as it were, and yet, like the gilded leather we nail round the doors to make our rooms snug and comfortable in the winter time, useful the while they are ornamental. In a court of justice how important are those scraps of evidence which seem so trivial in themselves, and yet which form the links binding the big manacles together very tightly round the prisoner's wrists. I should like to summon indifferent but respectable witnesses to give the kind of "putty" evidence that fills up the chinks of the history. But I know that I cannot expect "first, second, and third gentlemen" to perform such an office for me, so far as this portion of my narrative is concerned. Of course, Nec deus intersit, &c. All know the line; if only from meeting with it so constantly in newspaper articles. It is very well for the first, second, and third gentlemen to give information touching the execution of a Duke of Buckingham, or the coronation of a Lady Anne, but may we question them concerning the performances of a Mademoiselle Boisfleury at the T. R., Long Acre, under the management of Mr. Grimshaw? Fie! It is true they may discuss such matters; but they would do so in their private apartments, or in the smoking-room of their club j we are not members probably, and may not listen and report, even if we are. But they would not talk over Mademoiselle Stephanie for half an hour in the public streets. Yet there are some people who do this kind of thing, and so will serve our turn as well. They form almost a class, yet they have no distinctive title. The word "gent" was at one time suggested as applicable to an individual of this class; and he has been termed a "snob;" but the latter was found to be of so elastic a significance that it could be stretched to comprehend the whole universe almost. The former was preferable principally on the ground of its being a diminutive; to designate something considerably less than a gentleman, the word gent has certainly its recommendations. But we have a want of something like the Italian method of arriving at a diminutive. Taking "swell" as a starting point, we desire to reach some such word as swellino, or swelletto, to signify a cheap or little swell. There is a sense of endearment, almost of a nursery character, implied in such a termination as we find in the word swellikin, which at once renders it unfit for our purpose. Perhaps we might follow the system of musical nomenclature; and as quaver is diminished into semi-quaver and demi-semiquaver, we might reduce the power of the word swell by making it occasionally, semi-swell and demi-semi-swelL Any one who, by his cheapness and littleness, is stayed from rising even to this last humble level, must, I think, regard himself as too far removed from the original distinction to have any, the remotest title to it whatever.
It is not necessary for me to describe the semi, and the demi-semi, swell. Many specimens of the genera are about. Let it be said that they are generally young in years, and—to their credit—clean in person. But their taste in dress, in cigars, in language, is not to be commended. They may be useful citizens between ten and four; behaving tolerably, writing good hands, and altogether doubtless of some value to their employers. They are not of the old race of clerks, who worked very hard, and took snuff, and wore dress-coats, and passed the greater part of their lives on the tops of very high stools. They are born probably of the modern system of commerce—shifting responsibility—public companies,—limited liability, &c. I don't desire to be caustic in reference to these compatriots of mine. As Folly occasionally flies my way, I may try to have a flick at her with a light whip, without strong feeling or a very muscular arm. I disclaim the task of those determined satirists who are ever going out with pickled rods, and like the old woman in the shoe story, whipping all their subjects soundly and sending them to bed. Still I desiderate improvement in the taste, and amelioration in the morale, of the small swell. Perhaps, too, he does go a little too often half-price to the pit of the T. R., Long Acre.
Two demi-semi swells discuss the merits of Mademoiselle Boisfleury.
"Hullo, Charley—seen the new woman at Long Acre?"
"Rather. I should think so. Saw her the first night."
"Well, she ain't bad."
"Yes, she's Pretty; but she ain't young." (This, I find, is a very ordinary observation to make in reference to women. It's very easy, and it looks like information. A man has often got a reputation for knowingness by no more difficult means. Disparagement indeed, as a rule, is not difficult. Of course the person disparaging mounts at once to a platform very superior to that enjoyed by the person disparaged. What could Charley know about the age of Mademoiselle Boisfleury? He sat at the back of the pit, without an opera glass; and the Long Acre pit is not a small one, as everybody knows.)
"The bally good? What does she do?"
"Stunning. Swings in the air, with the electric light on her. Screaming effect."
"What is an Aërolite? Sort of thunderbolt, ain't it?"
"Something of that sort, I believe."
"It's worth going to see, then?"
"Oh certainly. She's an out and out dancer—comes right away down from the back of the stage to the footlights on the points of her toes—first-rate."
"Good scenery by Blister?"
"Tol-lol. Part of what they had in the pantomime last year—only one new scene."
"Come and have some beer," &c., &c. (Demi-semi swells enter public house.)
The town was certainly well billed. In all directions the eye met placards setting forth in colossal capitals (scarlet on a saffron ground,) the talent of Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury.
A well-dressed man, wearing gold spectacles, was reading one of these bills very attentively. He did not perceive that he had thus become in his turn an object of attention. A stout man, buttoned up to the throat in a long brown overcoat, was watching the reader smilingly.
"Hullo, Mossoo," cried the stout man at last.
The reader started back, looking round him eagerly. The reader was Monsieur Chose.
"Thinking of going to the play?" the stout man continued. "Why, who'd have thought of seeing you here, Mossoo—"
"Hush, don't mention names, my friend, it is better not. Ah! cher Inspector, it is long since we have met."
"I was with you in the case of that banker, you know. He came over here to take ship from Liverpool."
"Yes, I remember! What a fool he was. But the criminal is always fool—is he not, cher Inspector? He goes on rob, rob, for years and years, and yet never arranges a plan for his safety and escape. How that is imprudent! How different we should manage! Yes, I remember. We caught the little runaway banker, thanks to you. It was well done. I did not know this country1 so well then as now I know it. We were! much obliged to you."
The Inspector, as Monsieur Chose called him, was a very broad-shouldered, good-tempered looking Englishman, with bright hazel eyes and a very massive jaw. He was dose shaven, with the exception of a little triangular tuft of hair, red-brown in hue, left standing on the summit of either cheek probably as a sort of sample of the whiskers he was capable of producing, if they were required of him; just as a tailor shows a scrap of cloth, a specimen of the much larger piece he can exhibit when called upon. He had a hearty, pleasant manner with him, and a fragrance as of a combination of beer and snuff hung about him.
"Here on business?" asked the Inspector, in an off-hand way.
"No, not precisely," replied Monsieur Chose. "I may say that I came on a little private matter; but as I am here, I keep my eye on one or two people, just to amuse myself. You have many of our suspects here, I notice."
The Inspector glanced for a moment curiously at his companion, as though he did not deem the remark wholly satisfactory. Then, after filling his blunt nose with as much snuff as it could possibly contain, even with the most adroit packing, he remarked:
"If I can help you in any way, I shall be very happy, I'm sure."
"Mon ami, you are most kind; I thank you."
And Monsieur Chose removed his hat and bowed with singular grace and fervour to the Inspector, but did not seem disposed to be any further communicative.
"I've been down at Liverpool," said the Inspector, perhaps by way of setting an example of confidence, " busy with a very nice little matter. But we can't make much of it at present. You see the conduct of the thing rests with a board of directors, and when that's the case, there's sure to be a mess. They can never make up their minds what they'll do: whether they'll hush it up or expose it all, and take the chance of being damaged by it. Of course they lose all the best time. Then they go in suddenly, and when it's almost too late. They'll make an example, they declare; they'll pay anything rather than the cove should escape justice—offering rewards and advertising, and having a heap of detectives round them, sitting at the board-room table, and drinking sherry with the chairman, and that sort of thing. That's just this case. I'm not regularly in it yet. I'm waiting instructions. Meanwhile I'm keeping watch. I know where my party is; I know all about him, in fact, every hair of his head almost; when the time comes, and he's wanted, why, I'm all there, you know, and can put my hands upon him at a very short notice."
"A large amount?"
"Pretty tidy. Some twelve thousand or so. A common case; a gent in a public company; awfully trusted and looked up to; board swearing by him, and that sort of thing. Suddenly some one lights upon a little scratching out in one of his books: and my gentleman bolts. The company is let in to the tune of twelve thousand, more or less, spread over a good many years."
"But the case is not difficult?" Monsieur Chose imagined.
"Oh, dear, no;" the Inspector answered, "nothing of the kind—very simple—happens every day nearly. I know the sort of thing by heart. It's only to get at a few facts. What was the party's particular fancy? How did he spend his money? Was he Stock Exchangey? Did he speculate? No! Then his weakness was 'orses; or the bally; or else religious institootions. On those scents you must find him."
"And this one loves the ballet—Is it not so?"
"Right you are, Mossoo," quoth the Inspector, laughing. "We shall find him at the Long Acre this evening, looking at the girl dancing. Are you going?"
"It is possible. But I have seen her before: at Vienna, Milan, Naples, wherever she has played, in effect."
"You like her, then, Mossoo?" and the Inspector laughed. He fancied, perhaps, he had found a weak place in the armour of his French friend.
"I think that Mademoiselle Boisfleury is charming," said Monsieur Chose, quite seriously.
The Inspector did not appear to be able to appreciate or comprehend abstract admiration.
"Perhaps you think there is some danger in her grand scene," he suggested. "But, bless you, these things are safe enough—they are only made to look like danger; that's all. I've been on a rope myself, I was thinner then, of course; and, with the pole in your hand, it's no more than going across Oxford Street."
"The accident comes some day," Monsieur Chose observed, philosophically, "only one is never on the spot to see it. Many, years ago there was a man—not here, but abroad—an artiste, very clever; he put his head into wild beast mouths, and so on. Well, I was young,—I was struck. I wanted to see the end. For two months I follow that man—let him go where he please. I was there to see him put his head into wild beast mouths. Nothing happen—he is secure—the band play the preghiera from Moise—the audience cry huzza! and so on. One day I have my dinner—excellent dinner—and afterwards, (it was not in this country,) I had demi-bouteille of Hochheimer. I am fond of Hochheimer. Especially when I cannot have the wines of my country. I sit over my wine, like an English. Ah well! meanwhile" (Monsieur Chose joined his hands at the wrists, keeping his palms as wide apart as possible) "the hair of the artiste had tickled the throat of the lion. He closed his mouth so" (Monsieur Chose brought his large white hands together with a loud clap). "It was all over. The artiste was dead. And I had not assisted at the representation! I had missed it by a demi-bouteille of Hochheimer."
"What a pity!" said the Inspector, sincerely, taking snuff.
"It is as I say, the accident happens, but one is not there to see. Tell me, if you please, Monsieur, who is that person? There—just passing us."
"The tall party—pale, with a black beard?"
"Yes, he lives in the quartier Soho."
"Don't know him; at least I don't think I do," the Inspector added cautiously. "You see, beards make such a difference—it's all the harder lines for us. A man has but to shave clean, now-a-days, and he looks like a new creature. For that party, he's an artist, perhaps, or a sculptor,—might be,—looks uncommon like a sculptor,—or he may be literary; he has got a queer look about him: only I think I should have known him, certainly, if he'd been literary. He's not a reporter. I know all that lot."
Monsieur Chose mused for a few moments. Suddenly he said:
"Let us see together this Mademoiselle Boisfleury."
"With all my heart," said the Inspector, stoutly; "I am on the free list; I've known Grimshaw for many a long day. He's a rum card, if you like."
"Let us dine," cried Monsieur Chose, "let us drink many toasts and healths: is not that your English fashion? We are bound by many ties; we are both members of the executive of two very grand nations. We will drink to our success—to the prosperity of our two systems. It will be a grand fête of the entente cordiale—it will be superb!"
"I'm afraid our liquors ain't the same," said the Inspector, laughing.
"I will eat of your English biffsteck with the sauce of oysters. I will drink of your English haf-naf, or of the stout! Mon ami, allons! It will be a réunion full of charm, of grace, of spirit: and afterwards the theatre!"
"Come along, then, I know a crib close at hand that will suit us—the very thing."
"We will go to this—what you call—creeb, and after, the Theatre Long Acre!"
"Strange!" cried Wilford Hadfield, starting suddenly, as he hurried along; "am I mad? I am haunted with this idea! I see this name, Boisfleury, written everywhere—staring me in the face on all sides. Is my brain going?"
He stopped, turned, rubbed his eyes, then gazed steadfastly at a hoarding he was passing, lie smiled almost in spite of himself as he discovered his error. It was no dream that was bewildering him. He had simply come upon a shoal of the Boisfleury placards. He went on his way.
How Grimshaw, had he been present and noticed this incident, would have congratulated himself upon this triumphant manifestation of his admirable system of billing! The secret of his management and his success.
CHAPTER XX. A REVELATION CONTINUED.
"Come in, my dear Wil, I've been longing to see you for these past two days. Why have you kept away? Lord, how your hand burns! Come in and sit down, and make yourself comfortable, and tell me presently what you have been doing with yourself."
And Martin, with kind force, drew Wilford into the Temple chambers, and made him sit down in the easiest chair.
"I will tell you, Martin, soon," said Wilford; "indeed I have much to tell you."
He was too much occupied to perceive that Martin was excited, even agitated—that he only restrained himself by a violent effort from permitting this to be unmistakeably evident.
"I have been suffering very much since we last met, Martin. I have been torturing myself with all sort3 of doubts and alarms. I have been thinking until my mind has almost abandoned me. I have overtasked my brain until it seemed to be burning in my head like a live coal. But I have arrived at a determination at last: for indeed I can bear the present state of things no longer. I shall go mad if I do not speak to some one, and reveal the cause of my suffering. I come down here to-day to complete what I left unfinished some days ago. Cost what it will, I must speak now. Give me your patience first. God knows whether, when you have heard me, I shall have a right to ask aught further of you! May I go on?"
Martin signified assent.
He bent his eyes on the ground; he concealed the lower half of his face, leaning his chin on his hand. Wilford resumed.
"You remember the story I began to tell the other day?
"I loved the girl Regine, or believed that I did. On the part of the Pichots, no arts were wanting to encourage that belief. I shudder as I think of the shameful avidity with which I accepted the coarse adulation of these creatures. My only excuse can be that at the time I was a mere boy, badly brought up, nurtured in the idea of a false superiority over others; the heir to an old! name and a great estate, easily betrayed by the cunning of this man and woman into the opinion that I had a claim to the love of Regine that could not be gainsaid. My admiration excited, they hastened to inflame my vanity, and to play upon these until my boyish sentiments were wrought to the idea that I loved the girl Regine passionately, and that I had but to declare myself to discover that my love was returned. In a moment of insane recklessness I avowed to Regine my feeling for her. She treated my suit with scorn the most complete. But my vanity and my passion were not quenched I by this unlooked for coldness; they seemed but to burn the more intensely. I was not cured of my folly. I grew mad with rage. I swore that I would make her mine. I revealed to the Pichots what had passed, imploring their aid. It was rendered in hot haste. The influence they possessed over Regine, when once they chose to exert it, was extraordinary. By what means they ruled her so absolutely I shall never know. Previously they had been content with attempts to persuade her; to dazzle her with the idea of my wealth and importance, by appealing to her pride, and by placing my admiration for her in the strongest light possible. Now this was changed. They had an angry, virulent conference with her. Shortly afterwards, Madame Pichot bade me seek Regine again, and renew my suit I did so. I found her sullen, silent, indifferent. I went over again the story of my love for her. When she quitted me I was her accepted suitor. Let me say at once that no dishonourable condition was contained in my suit. My passion was fierce, violent; but it had all the honesty, the unselfishness, that a boy's passion ever has. To the woman that I believed I loved, I offered marriage. It is only maturer life that is bold enough and bad enough to proffer, in one breath, both lore and insult.
"One word as to the object of the Pichots. It was plainly this—my uncle's money; to be secured through their daughter, and the power they would through her obtain, and continue to hold, over me. They had made more than one attempt already to induce my uncle to execute a will by which they should benefit; but this he had continually deferred doing. Failing a will, his fortune would go to my father, as the nearest relative, and of course, through him, would descend in great part to me, as his eldest son. In this case the Pichots perceived their advantage; and especially if I married their putative daughter. If my uncle made a will, why, of course, their chances of profit were very good—they might benefit under it directly as legatees; or their daughter might; or if I was made sole heir—as was possible—then, again, they had claims as the parents of my wife, supposing the projected marriage to be carried into effect. It may be as well to state here what was the ultimate disposition of my uncle's property. His will was made, it appeared afterwards, when he was at Grilling Abbots, shortly before his death. He had been an invalid for some time, and the Pichots had been in constant attendance upon him. He was not himself; he had been, it seemed to every one, imbecile for some months preceding his death, incapable of making a valid will. Still, after his funeral, the will was produced—a common printed form, filled up by Madame Pichot, but signed, apparently, by my uncle, and witnessed by two of the servants at the Grange. By this will he bequeathed the whole of his property, of whatever description, to the separate use of Madame Pichot. It was said that a sealed letter to her address was folded up with the will, and that this letter contained a request that she would consider the bequest as upon trust for the benefit of a natural child of the testator. I know not on what foundation this rumour rested. My father, I know, was urged to contest the will, on the ground of the insanity of his brother, and his incapacity to make a valid disposition of his property. But he steadily declined. Whether he ever saw the letter to Madame Pichot, whether he ever suspected that a natural daughter of the colonel's existed, I know not. 'He was my brother,' he said, rather angrily; 'his money was his own, earned by himself; he did not inherit it, it did not spring from the family property—the Hadfield lands; he had a right to do what he liked with it—to fling it into the dirt if he thought fit—he has chosen to give it all to his servants. Perhaps I don't think so highly of them as he did, but that makes no difference. Sane or insane, the terms of bis will shall be carried out to the letter. I'll have no lawyers feasting on my poor brother's property, like so many crows on carrion. I'll not have the newspaper people printing the history of an old family, and the private life of a noble soldier and worthy gentleman, for fools to grin over at breakfast time. These Pichots shall have the money, and much good may it do them. Let them go and spend it as quick as they like, only let the infernal mulatto and his wife take their ugly faces out of the Grange, and away from Grilling Abbots—it makes me sick to look at them.' Madame Pichot was put into possession of my late uncle's property, and, with her husband Dominique, quitted the Grange.
"Let me come at once to the most sad—the most shameful part of this history."
He stopped, trembling all over. Then in a faint, faltering voice—his breathing very quick, and his heart beating with a painful violence—he said:—
"Time went on: and I—married the girl—Regine Stephanie Pichot!"
"Married her?" cried Martin, starting up.
"Bear with me!" and Wilford held out his hands imploringly. "Think if this is dreadful for you to hear, how dreadful it must be for me to tell. I married her. The utmost secrecy was observed. The Pichots were the only witnesses. The ceremony was performed at Calais. Years ago there was an English clergyman residing there, prevented by his debts and his dissolute habits from returning to England. This man—half intoxicated—officiated: in a crumpled, dingy surplice, his voice thick, his hands shaking, his eyes bloodshot, he invoked the blessing of Heaven upon a union which made this Regine Stephanie Pichot, my wife!"
"And this marriage is valid?"
"Unquestionably. It is not possible to doubt it."
"And this Regine is—dead?"
"No, she still lives."
Martin turned very pale. In strange, constrained tones, he said slowly:—
"Then Violet Fuller is not your wife?"
He read an answer in the expression of wild despair he found on Wilford's worn face.
"O God!" cried Martin, with a great emotion, " but this is very awful."
Then he turned to Wilford almost savagely.
"How could you commit this dreadful sin?"
Wilford cowered down, covering his face.
There was a dead silence for several minutes.
"Spare me, Martin," he said, at length, in a feeble voice, "do not judge me yet. There is more to be told. Perhaps there is some extenuation for my sin. Let me go on."
"Go on," said Martin coldly.
"I will be as brief as possible. This marriage, completed under such auspices, arranged so strangely—the wife sullenly consenting without even the affectation of feeling—to marry the wretched boy who wooed her,—this marriage was not likely to result in much happiness. There was no happiness—there was no semblance of it even. Regine never loved me; never even pretended to love me. My vanity was hurt—my pride was deeply outraged; yet I consoled myself with the thought that time would work a change, and that as I did all that man could do to make her happy, so in the end she would appreciate my endeavours, and give me her affection. I bore with her angry silence, her repulse of my love, her apathy, her strange coldness, sustained by this hope. You know that I quarrelled with my father?"
"I have heard so—I know no particulars," said Martin gloomily.
"My marriage was clandestine, as you have heard. It was known but to the Pichots, and the clergyman who performed the ceremony; to not one other living soul. From my father and the other members of my family it was, of course, kept a profound secret. But he began to suspect my frequent absence from the Grange. He obtained some clue, how I know not, to the circumstances of my life in London. He tasked me finally with maintaining a degrading connection. He lost all command over his temper. He was carried by his rage beyond all bounds. He heaped insults upon the woman who was my wife, though he did not know it. He called her shameful names. It was more than I could bear. Then, in a paroxysm of passion, he struck me. I did not return the blow. But be sought to seize me by the throat; to avoid this, I thrust him from me, with some violence it may be, and endeavoured to escape from the room. His foot caught in the hearth-rug, he stumbled and fell heavily; his head struck against the fender, and the wound so inflicted bled profusely. I was driven from the Grange, to return after an absence of seven years, to be cursed anew—to see my father die, and learn that I was still unpardoned, cast off—disinherited.
"And for what—for whom had been our dreadful quarrel? For Regine—my wife! My wife!" (he laughed with a wild scorn.) "I quitted the Grange to discover that Regine was false to me—had been long carrying on a correspondence with another. The reason of her coldness was made apparent. I found letters, not of recent date, the terms of which admitted of no doubt. Her conduct had been shameful. She fled. The discovery tore the veil from my eyes. My love sunk down dead: it was mastered by my rage, my contempt, my despair. I let her go. The Pichots came to me. They asked me to provide lest their daughter should come to want: the while they professed to condemn her conduct in the strongest terms. I gave them nearly all the money I possessed to be silent, and to keep out of my sight. Judge that I made some sacrifices to effect this object, to bind these people to secrecy, though they were ever renewing their claims upon me. When I received intelligence of my father's serious illness, I was living in a garret at Brussels, trying to earn a living by teaching languages. It was only by selling all I had that I was enabled to provide means for my journey to Grilling Abbots."
"And Regine?" Martin asked.
"For more than seven years I had heard nothing of her. Pray believe me, Martin, when I tell you that when I married Violet Fuller I felt assured that Regine had long been dead. I had made great efforts to trace her. I forbear to relate to you all I learnt concerning her. Finally I found she had been a prisoner in St. Lazare, condemned with two others for a conspiracy to defraud. Further inquiry ceased, for I was told at St. Lazare that she had died in prison, quite suddenly, some months before her term of punishment had expired."
"And you believed this?"
"I did, Martin. I swear to you that I did. Heaven knows I would not knowingly have brought this great sin upon my head. I would not willingly have wrought this cruel wrong to Violet. I may no more call her wife!"
"If this be so——"
"Indeed, indeed it is—on my soul it is!"
"Perhaps there is excuse for you, my poor friend!"
"You don't know how precious to me are those words, Martin."
"And Violet Fuller has known nothing of this early love—this fatal marriage!"
"Nothing. Not one syllable. Could I pollute her ears with a narrative of all the folly, the shame, the sin of those years of my life which I believed hidden forever, and past all human finding out? Could I depreciate the love which seemed of value in her eyes, by telling her how of old it had been profligately lavished upon this woman—this Regine. Let me remember that she is still lawfully my wife, when I prepare to heap abuse upon her head."
"And you are certain that she still lives."
"Certain. I have seen her within these few hours—spoken with her. She is now here, in London, with the woman Pichot and her son. It was ho who left the letter here the other day. The father, Dominique Pichot, it seems, is a convict at the galleys. There is no doubt, Martin. All is too dreadfully, too certainly true. She lives—under an assumed name. Why should I hide anything from you?" (He took a paper from his pocket; it had been given him by Madame Boisfleury). "Learn all. Read this play-bill. The Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury who dances at the theatre in Long Acre is Regine Stephanie Pichot—the wife of Wilford Hadfield."
There was silence for some minutes. At length Martin spoke, but with evident effort. It was then only in reference to a question of detail. Men will often in such cases select to discuss what is apparently but a small part of a subject, either to gain time to form a conclusion upon the whole, or to shrink altogether from pronouncing a judgment.
"And the name of this clergyman at Calais?" he asked.
"I can tell you if you wish it, Martin; if you think it of importance,"
"Certainly. If this man was not really in orders, had been unfrocked or suspended by his bishop—if he could not legally perform the ceremony, might not the marriage be invalidated?"
Milford shook his head, mournfully. He appeared to derive but little hope from this suggestion, but he gave the required information. Martin, with a trembling hand, made a note in his pocket-book.
"I will make it my business to inquire into this. In such a case, it is necessary to avail ourselves of every, the slightest chance. Still, Wilford, I should do wrong to hold out to you any serious encouragement. I confess——"
"I know what you would say, Martin. I believe beforehand that there is no hope. That I am fast bound, hand and foot, by this first early marriage. How can I hope to evade the consequences of the shame of my youth? Is it given to any one to sin with impunity? Is not wickedness ever its own Nemesis? I must bare my back to the lash—I must submit, though Heaven knows, my punishment is severe! The madman I have been! Why did I not bear my dishonour and suffering, as I had planned, away from the world, caring for and cared for by none. However deep my disgrace, it would have been then solely my own: it could not have tainted others, it could not have been shared by one whom I love a thousand times dearer than life. Violet! how can I expiate this sin against you, how can I hope to be forgiven the wrong I have inflicted upon you—yes—and upon our child? To dream that I could come from a pest-house and not bring infection with me; that I could mingle with the good and pure, and yet not soil and corrupt their goodness and purity! I should have shrunk from Violet, hurried from her sweet presence as an evil creature from an angel of light! But I saw her. I listened to her. I could not but love her. I tried, as it were, to cheat my way back to heaven! I loved her. I asked her to be mine. And I have brought this cruel ruin upon her!"
He had spoken these words in a delirium of emotion. Now his voice trembled and broke, and the tears stood in his parched looking eyes. Very pale, and with compressed lips, Martin turned away to the window.
"Think, Martin," said Wilford, after a pause, and in a calmer tone; "it was hard to act rightly—very hard for me—broken, and penitent, and hopeless. I know that she loved me! She has paid dearly for her madness. But could I turn from that love?"
"You knew that she loved you, Wilford?"
"I know it. I could not shut my eyes or my ears to that knowledge. It lifted me out of my unworthiness. Think how happy a future it opened to me—Violet's love!"
"It is all very sad, very dreadful," and Martin's voice trembled as he spoke. "As I have said, Wilford, there are excuses to be made for you. It would indeed be hard to turn from the love of Violet Fuller." He stopped for a moment. "I know few men who, placed in your situation, would have forborne to act as you have acted. Can I say more? Forgive me, Wilford, if my conduct has seemed to you wanting in friendship, needlessly harsh and cold—if I have appeared to shrink from your history, to withhold from you the support you had a right to look for at my hands. It is difficult to hold one's feelings always well in check. Who am I that I should condemn you? On what pinnacle of goodness do I stand, that I should look down frowningly upon your failings? If my sympathy, my pity, my friendship are of avail to you, be assured that they arc yours, now and always. There is a lesson for all in the errors of one. It is easy to judge severely; it is, as I have said, hard—very hard—always to act rightly."
Wilford wrung his friend's hand warmly.
"And for the future, Martin, what am I to do?"
"What can you do, Wilford? The past cannot be recalled: yet it may be atoned for."
"Atonement!" said Wilford, very mourn fully. "What atonement can I offer?"
"By the side of a great wrong all possible expiation seems very little indeed. Stay, tell me: when did you learn that your first wife—I must call her so—was still living?"
"Do you remember, a few days back, my coming here with you, after dining at home?" He shuddered, the word seemed now so painful, so full of sorrow to him. "I left suddenly, shortly afterwards. You thought me ill. I had just been reading a letter taken by chance from my pocket to light a cigar with."
"I remember it all, of course, perfectly."
"That letter was from Madame Pichot. In it she demanded an interview. She informed me that my wife, Regine, was living—was in London—with the writer of the letter, in Stowe Street, Strand. You may judge that I was startled, terrified by that letter, as though a bolt from heaven had fallen at my feet."
"What did you do?"
"I was strangely bewildered. I tried to doubt the information conveyed by the letter j but I could not. Assurances of its truth seemed to be again and again rung loudly in my ear. I returned homo. Yet I felt that, Regine still living, I was guilty of a crime if I remained in the presence of Violet, assuming to be her husband. I made excuses: pretended that I had undertaken a mission to Paris which would keep me from her for some days. I left her that night entirely unsuspicious of the real cause of my absence. I have not seen her since. I have been living since at an hotel in Covent Garden, exploring this dreadful secret. Now, all hope is over. I have seen Regine. Violet is no longer my wife. Heaven pity her!"
"You have not seen Violet since?" Martin asked eagerly.
"No. I have not dared to meet her," Wilford answered with anguish. "I could not see her. I could not even write to her."
Martin watched him for a few moments.
"No," he muttered. "I cannot tell him. I must not. It would be more than he could bear."
"For the future——?" he asked.
"Tell me, Martin," cried Wilford, piteously. "What must I do?"
"I know what your first thought has been, my poor friend; a natural one perhaps, a human one certainly; to preserve the present at all cost; to conceal and tide over, if possible; to yield to the demands made upon you; to buy the silence of these Pichots, and the absence of your first wife, at any sacrifice. Upon these terms you think you can be sure of happiness now, and are content to take your chance as to that happiness being again. disturbed by-and-by."
"I have thought this," said Wilford, humbly.
Martin, with evident effort, continued.
"It is not for me to censure such views. There are many men who would be found to indorse such a plan with their approval, as, under all circum stances, the wisest, the safest, the most fitting, the most likely to secure the peace of mind of Violet and yourself, and the future of your child. The secret is known to very few; death may at any time diminish their number; may remove the whole cause of your unhappiness. Regine dead, the claims of her relatives upon you become of small consideration. The secret may never be known; there are many secrets that are never known, that, humanly speaking, never can be known. It is for you to decide."
"Yet there would be no real happiness in this," cried Wilford. "Could I hear such a weight of wrongdoing? Could I support by Violet's side a life that would be a perpetual lie—a ceaseless dread?"
"It is in trials like this," said Martin. solemnly, "we feel the need of support from Heaven! How to act rightly! It is the problem of our lives. I am but a blind guide, Wilford. Yet it seems to me your first impulse was the true one; to spring from some innate perception God has planted in our souls, and which teaches us to distinguish the good and true. There has been wrongdoing enough, but it has the palliation that it was unconscious wrong. Violet is not your wife. You are guilty of a deliberate crime if you now try to trick her into the belief that she is; if you ask her any more to regard you as her husband. Let the truth be told:—there will be sorrow, but there will be no sin; there will be cause for her anger-none for her contempt. You are a gentleman-a Hadfield. Be just and fear not. You will part from her for ever. You will have wronged her cruelly, but she is a woman—she loves you—she will pardon you."
"It will kill her!"
"But she will die with a prayer for you upon her lips."
"And our child?"
"It is hers; do not think to part her from it. She will love you ever through her child. If she sinks down under this great trial, she will bequeath to you the care of her child—a sacred trust-which you will, I am sure, Wilford, respect as it merits. For the rest, you must trust in Heaven. You will have made all the atonement that is possible."
"I will do this: for it is right. God bless you, Martin; thank you for your good counsel. I have been groping my way to the light; your kind hand has led me into the true path. All shall be as you say."
"But do nothing rsshly. Wait yet, until every doubt is cleared up. Do not see Violet yet; promise me this."
"I promise, Martin."
"Have I done rightly?" Martin asked himself, as he stood once more alone, very pale, and with a strange light in his eyes. "Has there been any i false leaven in my counsel? Has this love in my heart betrayed me—turned me false to him? Has any dream,—any insane jealous fancy prompted me to part this man and wife? Have I built any shameful hope upon that separation? Heaven for give me if this has been so! Let me think think! No. I cannot be guilty of this systematic villany. It must be right that they should part. I am brought no nearer to her; it may be that I shall never even see her again. Perhaps it will be better so. No. I could not wrong my friend, or her, by counselling a course which severs them from happiness for ever, which will bring upon her a grief almost more than she can bear. Poor Violet! No, my love is hopeless now as it has ever been. I do not profit by this sorrow. She must know her dreadful doom. We must be just before all things: yet I would die willingly to spare her the pain of To know that she is not Wilford's wife—that another has a better claim to that title—and that child, of whom she is so proud, upon whom she lavishes all a mother's rapture and fondness, that child is——! It is too dreadful! That quiet, peaceful home wrecked forever! It will kill her!"
He started up.
"What am I thinking about? She may know all this already! What was it that man, Phillimore, told me in Freer Street last night? That she had gone! His Madonna, as he called her. Can she have known, suspected anything of Wilford's story? I dared not speak to him of this; it was more than he could bear. If he goes to Freer Street to find that Violet has already left him! I must see to this. Yet there are other things to look to." (He opened his pocket-book.) "This clergyman, too, must be traced out. How? What if the marriage should be invalid? But even if this man had been suspended would that fact necessarily invalidate any marriage he might solemnize? It is a question of ecclesiastical law, I suppose. How rusty one's learning grows on these subjects! Yet the chance—every chance—must be seen to. I suppose the thing is provided for in the Church Discipline Act, though I'm sure I don't recollect its provisions. If necessary I must consult my friend Jordan, the solicitor."
Then his eye fell upon the playbill. He began reading it aloud.
"Mademoiselle Stephanie Boisfleury, première danseuse, &c. &c."
With a care that was half unconscious he went through the programme of the entertainment at the Theatre Royal, Long Acre, from the first line to the last.
"I have a great curiosity to see this woman," he said, musingly.