What Will He Do With It? (Belford)/Book 1/Chapter II

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CHAPTER II.

The Historian takes a view of the British Stage as represented by the Irregular Drama, the Regular having (ere the date of the events to which this narrative is restricted) disappeared from the Vestiges of Creation.

They entered the little theatre, and the Cobbler with them; but the last retired modestly to the threepenny row. The young gentlemen were favored with reserved seats, price one shilling. "Very dear," murmured Vance, as he carefully buttoned the pocket to which he restored a purse woven from links of steel, after the fashion of chain mail. Ah, Messieurs and Confrères, the dramatic authors, do not flatter yourselves that we are about to give you a complacent triumph over the Grand Melodrame of "The Remorseless Baron and the Bandit's Child." We grant it was horrible rubbish, regarded in an æsthetic point of view, but it was mighty effective in the theatrical. Nobody yawned; you did not even hear a cough, nor the cry of that omnipresent baby who is always sure to set up a Vagitus ingens, or unappeasable wail, in the midmost interest of a classical five-act piece, represented for the first time on the metropolitan boards. Here the story rushed on per fas aut nefas, and the audience went with it. Certes, some man who understood the stage must have put the incidents together, and then left it to each illiterate histrio to find the words—words, my dear confrères, signify so little in an acting play. The movement is the thing. Grand secret! Analyze, practice it, and restore to grateful stars that lost Pleiad, the British Acting Drama.

Of course the Bandit was an ill-used and most estimable man. He had some mysterious rights to the Estate and Castle of the Remorseless Baron. That titled usurper, therefore, did all in his power to hunt the Bandit out in his fastnesses, and bring him to a bloody end. Here the interest centred itself in the Bandit's child, who, we need not say, was the little girl in the wreath and spangles, styled in the playbill "Miss Juliet Araminta Waife;" and the incidents consisted in her various devices to foil the pursuit of the Baron and save her father. Some of these incidents were indebted to the Comic Muse, and kept the audience in a broad laugh. Her arch playfulness here was requisite. With what vivacity she duped the High Sheriff, who had the commands of his king to take the Bandit alive or dead, into the belief that the very Lawyer employed by the Baron was the criminal in disguise, and what pearly teeth she showed when the lawyer was seized and gagged; how dexterously she ascertained the weak point in the character of the "King's Lieutenant" (jeune premier), who was deputed by his royal master to aid the Remorseless Baron in trouncing the Bandit; how cunningly she learned that he was in love with the Baron's ward (jeune amoureuse), whom that unworthy noble intended to force into a marriage with himself on account of her fortune; how prettily she passed notes to and fro, the Lieutenant never suspecting that she was the Bandit's child, and at last got the king's soldier on her side, as the event proved. And oh how gayly, and with what mimic art, she stole into the Baron's castle, disguised herself as a witch, startled his conscience with revelations and predictions, frightened all the vassals with blue lights and chemical illusions, and venturing even into the usurper's own private chamber while that tyrant was tossing restless on the couch, over which hung his terrible sword, abstracted from his coffer the deeds that proved the better rights of the persecuted Bandit. Then, when he woke before she could escape with her treasure, and pursued her with his sword, with what glee she apparently set herself on fire, and skipped out of the casement in an explosion of crackers. And when the drama approached its denouement, when the Baron's men, and the royal officers of justice, had, despite all her arts, tracked the Bandit to the cave, in which, after various retreats, he lay hidden, wounded by shots, and bruised by a fall from a precipice—with what admirable by-play she hovered around the spot, with what pathos she sought to decoy away the pursuers—it was the sky-lark playing round the nest. And when all was vain—when, no longer to be deceived, the enemies sought to seize her, how mockingly she eluded them, bounded up the rock, and shook her slight finger at them in scorn.

Surely she will save that estimable Bandit still! Now, hitherto though the Bandit was the nominal hero of the piece, though you were always hearing of him—his wrongs, virtues, hair-breadth escapes—he had never been seen. Not Mrs. Harris, in the immortal narrative, was more quoted and more mythical. But in the last scene there was the Bandit, there in his cavern, helpless with bruises and wounds, lying on a rock. In rushed the enemies, Baron, High Sheriff, and all, to seize him. Not a word spoke the Bandit, but his attitude was sublime—even Vance cried "Bravo;" and just as he is seized, halter round his neck, and about to be hanged, down from the chasm above leaps his child, holding the title-deeds, filched from the Baron, and by her side the King's Lieutenant, who proclaims the Bandit's pardon, with due restoration to his honours and estates, and consigns, to the astounded Sheriff, the august person of the Remorseless Baron. Then the affecting scene, father and child in each other's arms; and then an exclamation, which had been long hovering about the lips of many of the audience, broke out, "Waife, Waife!" Yes, the Bandit, who appeared but in the last scene, and even then uttered not a word, was the once great actor on that itinerant Thespian stage, known through many a Fair for his exuberant humor, his impromptu jokes, his arch eye, his redundant life of drollery, and the strange pathos or dignity with which he could suddenly exalt a jester's part, and call forth tears in the startled hush of laughter; he whom the Cobbler had rightly said, "might have made a fortune at Covent Garden." There was the remnant of the old popular mime!—all his attributes of eloquence reduced to dumb show! Masterly touch of nature and of art in this representation of him—touch which all, who had ever in former years seen and heard him on that stage, felt simultaneously. He came in for his personal portion of dramatic tears. "Waife, Waife!" cried many a village voice, as the little girl led him to the front of the stage. He hobbled; there was a bandage round his eyes. The plot, in describing the accident that had befallen the Bandit, idealized the genuine infirmities of the man—infirmities that had befallen him since last seen in that village. He was blind of one eye; he had become crippled; some malady of the trachea or larynx had seemingly broken up the once joyous key of the old pleasant voice. He did not trust himself to speak, even on that stage, but silently bent his head to the rustic audience; and Vance, who was an habitual play-goer, saw in that simple salutation that the man was an artistic actor. All was over, the audience streamed out affected, and talking one to the other. It had not been at all like the ordinary stage-exhibitions at a village Fair. Vance and Lionel stared at each other in surprise, and then, by a common impulse, moved toward the stage, pushed aside the curtain, which had fallen, and in that strange world which has so many reduplications, fragments of one broken mirror, whether in the proudest theatre, or the lowliest barn—nay, whether in the palace of kings, the cabinet of statesmen, the home of domestic life—the world we call "Behind the Scenes."