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

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CHAPTER III.

Striking illustrations of lawless tyranny and infant avarice exemplified in the social conditions of Great Britain.—Superstitions of the Dark Ages still in force among the Trading Community, furnishing valuable hints to certain American journalists, and highly suggestive of reflections humiliating to the national vanity.

The Remorseless Baron, who was no other than the managerial proprietor of the stage, was leaning against a side-scene, with a pot of porter in his hand. The King's Lieutenant might be seen on the background, toasting a piece of cheese on the point of his loyal sword. The Bandit had crept into a corner, and the little girl was clinging to him fondly, as his hand was stroking her fair hair. Vance looked round, and approached the Bandit—"Sir, allow me to congratulate you; your bow was admirable. I have never seen John Kemble—before my time; but I shall fancy I have seen him now—seen him on the night of his retirement from the stage. As to your grandchild, Miss Juliet Araminta, she is a perfect chrysolite."

Before Mr. Waife could reply, the Remorseless Baron stepped up in a spirit worthy of his odious and arbitrary character. "What do you do here, Sir? I allow no gents behind the scenes earwigging my people."

"I beg pardon respectfully: I am an artist—a pupil of the Royal Academy; I should like to make a sketch of Miss Juliet Araminta."

"Sketch! nonsense."

"Sir," said Lionel, with the seasonable extravagance of early youth, "my friend would, I am sure, pay for the sitting—handsomely!"

"Ha!" said the manager, softened, "you speak like a gentleman, Sir; but, Sir, Miss Juliet Araminta is under my protection—in fact, she is my property. Call and speak to me about it to-morrow, before the first performance begins, which is twelve o'clock. Happy to see any of your friends in the reserved seats. Busy now, and—and—in short—excuse me—servant, Sir—servant, Sir."

The Baron's manner left no room for further parley. Vance bowed, smiled, and retreated. But, meanwhile, his young friend had seized the opportunity to speak both to Waife and his grandchild; and when Vance took his arm and drew him away, there was a puzzled, musing expression on Lionel's face, and he remained silent till they had got through the press of such stragglers as still loitered before the stage, and were in a quiet corner of the sward. Stars and moon were then up—a lovely summer night.

"What on earth are you thinking of, Lionel? I have put to you three questions, and you have not answered one."

"Vance," answered Lionel, slowly, "the oddest thing! I am so disappointed in that little girl—greedy and mercenary!"

"Precocious villain! how do you know that she is greedy and mercenary?"

"Listen: when that surly old manager came up to you, I said something—civil, of course—to Waife, who answered in a hoarse, broken voice, but in very good language. Well, when I told the manager that you would pay for the sitting, the child caught hold of my arm hastily, pulled me down to her own height, and whispered, 'How much will he give?' Confused by a question so point-blank, I answered at random, 'I don't know; ten shillings, perhaps.' You should have seen her face!"

"See her face! radiant, I should think so. Too much by half!" exclaimed Vance. "Ten shillings! spendthrift!"

"Too much! she looked as you might look if one offered you ten shillings for your picture of 'Julius Cæsar considering whether he should cross the Rubicon.' But when the manager had declared her to be his property, and appointed you to call to-morrow—implying that he was to be paid for allowing her to sit—her countenance became overcast, and she muttered sullenly, 'I'll not sit; I'll not!' Then she turned to her grandfather, and something very quick and close was whispered between the two; and she pulled me by the sleeve, and said in my ear—oh, but so eagerly!—'I want three pounds; oh, three pounds! if he would give three pounds! And come to our lodgings—Mr. Merle, Willow Lane. Three pounds—three!' And with those words hissing in my ear, and coming from that fairy mouth, which ought to drop pearls and diamonds, I left her," added Lionel, as gravely as if he were sixty, "and lost an illusion."

"Three pounds!" cried Vance, raising his eyebrows to the highest arch of astonishment, and lifting his nose in the air towards the majestic moon—"three pounds! a fabulous sum! Who has three pounds to throw away? Dukes, with a hundred thousand a year in acres, have not three pounds to draw out of their pockets in that reckless profligate manner. Three pounds! what could I not buy for three pounds? I could buy the Dramatic Library, bound in calf, for three pounds; I could buy a dress-coat for three pounds (silk lining not included); I could be lodged for a month for three pounds! And a jade in tinsel, just entering on her teens, to ask three pounds for what? for becoming immortal on the canvas of Francis Vance! bother!"

Here Vance felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned round quickly, as a man out of temper does under similar circumstances, and beheld the swart face of the Cobbler.

"Well, master, did not she act fine?—how d'ye like her?"

"Not much in her natural character; but she sets a mighty high value on herself."

"Anan, I don't take you."

"She'll not catch me taking her! Three pounds!—three kingdoms."

"Stay," cried Lionel to the Cobbler; "did not you say she lodged with you? Are you Mr. Merle?"

"Merle's my name, and she do lodge with me—Willow Lane."

"Come this way, then, a few yards down the road—more quiet. Tell me what the child means, if you can!" and Lionel related the offer of his friend, the reply of the manager, and the grasping avarice of Miss Juliet Araminta.

The Cobbler made no answer; and when the young friends, surprised at his silence, turned to look at him, they saw he was wiping his eyes with his sleeves.

"Poor little thing!" he said at last, and still more pathetically than he had uttered the same words at her appearance in front of the stage; "'tis all for her grandfather; I guess—I guess."

"Oh," cried Lionel, joyfully, "I am so glad to think that. It alters the whole case, you see, Vance."

"It don't alter the case of the three pounds," grumbled Vance. "What's her grandfather to me, that I should give his grandchild three pounds, when any other child in the village would have leaped out of her skin to have her face upon my sketch-book and five shillings in her pocket. Hang her grandfather!"

They were now in the main road. The Cobbler seated himself on a lonely milestone, and looked first at one of the faces before him, then at the other; that of Lionel seemed to attract him the most, and in speaking it was Lionel whom he addressed.

"Young master," he said, "it is now just four years ago when Mr. Rugge, coming here, as he and his troop had done at Fair time ever sin' I can mind of, brought with him the man you have seen to-night, William Waife; I calls him Gentleman Waife. However that man fell into such straits—how he came to join such a caravan, would puzzle most heads. It puzzles Joe Spruce uncommon; it don't puzzle me."

"Why?" asked Vance.

"Cos of Saturn!"

"Satan?"

"Saturn—dead agin his Second and Tenth House, I'll swear. Lord of Ascendant, mayhap in combustion of the sun—who knows?"

"You're not an astrologer?" said Vance, suspiciously, edging off.

"Bit of it—no offence."

"What does it signify?" said Lionel, impatiently; "go on. So you called Mr. Waife 'Gentleman Waife;' and if you had not been an astrologer you would have been puzzled to see him in such a calling."

"Ay, that's it; for he warn't like any as we ever see on these boards hereabouts; and yet he warn't exactly like a Lunnon actor, as I have seen 'em in Lunnon, either, but more like a clever fellow who acted for the spree of the thing. He had such droll jests, and looked so comical, yet not commonlike, but always what I calls a gentleman—just as if one o' ye two were doing a bit of sport to please your friends. Well, he drew hugely, and so he did, every time he came, so that the great families in the neighbourhood would go to hear him; and he lodged in my house, and had pleasant ways with him, and was what I call a scollard. But still I don't want to deceive ye, and I should judge him to have been a wild dog in his day. Mercury ill-aspected—not a doubt of it. Last year it so happened that one of the great gents who belong to a Lunnon theatre was here at fair-time. Whether he had heard of Waife chanceways, and come express to judge for hisself, I can't say; like eno'. And when he had seen Gentleman Waife act, he sent for him to the inn—Red Lion—and offered him a power o' money to go to Lunnon—Common Garden. Well, sir, Waife did not take to it all at once, but hemmed and hawed, and was at last quite coaxed into it, and so he went. But bad luck came on it; and I knew there would, for I saw it all in my crystal."

"Oh," exclaimed Vance, "a crystal, too; really it is getting late, and if you had your crystal about you, you might see that we want to sup."

"What happened?" asked Lionel, more blandly, for he saw the Cobbler, who had meant to make a great effect by the introduction of the crystal, was offended.

"What happened? why, just what I foreseed. There was an accident in the railway 'tween this and Lunnon, and poor Waife lost an eye, and was a cripple for life—so he could not go on the Lunnon stage at all; and what was worse, he was a long time atwixt life and death, and got summat bad on his chest wi' catching cold, and lost his voice, and became the sad object you have gazed on, young happy things that ye are."

"But he got some compensation from the railway, I suppose?" said Vance, with the unfeeling equanimity of a stoical demon.

"He did, and spent it. I suppose the gentleman broke out in him as soon as he had money, and, ill though he was, the money went. Then it seems he had no help for it but to try and get back to Mr. Rugge. But Mr. Rugge was sore and spiteful at his leaving; for Rugge counted on him, and had even thought of taking the huge theatre at York, and bringing out Gentleman Waife as his trump card. But it warn't fated, and Rugge thought himself ill-used, and so at first he would have nothing more to say to Waife. And truth is, what could the poor man do for Rugge? But then Waife produces little Sophy."

"You mean Juliet Araminta?" said Vance.

"Same—in private life she be Sophy. And Waife taught her to act, and put together the plays for her. And Rugge caught at her; and she supports Waife with what she gets; for Rugge only gives him four shillings a week, and that goes on 'baccy and suchlike."

"Suchlike—drink, I presume!" said Vance.

"No—he don't drink. But he do smoke, and he has little genteel ways with him, and four shillings goes on 'em. And they have been about the country this spring, and done well, and now they be here. But Rugge behaves shocking hard to both on 'em: and I don't believe he has any right to her in law, as he pretends,—only a sort of understanding which she and her grandfather could break if they pleased; and that's what they wish to do, and that's why little Sophy wants the three pounds."

"How!" cried Lionel, eagerly. "If they had three pounds could they get away? and if they did, how could they live? Where could they go?"

"That's their secret. But I heard Waife say—the first night they came here—'that if he could get three pounds, he had hit on a plan to be independent like. I tell you what put his back up: it was Rugge insisting on his coming on the stage again, for he did not like to be seen such a wreck. But he was forced to give in; and so he contrived to cut up that play-story, and appear hisself at the last without speaking."

"My good friend," cried young Lionel, "we are greatly obliged to you for your story; and we should much like to see little Sophy and her grandfather at your house to-morrow,—can we?"

"Certain sure you can, after the play's over; to-night, if you like."

"No, to-morrow: you see my friend is impatient to get back now; we will call to-morrow."

"'T is the last day of their stay," said the Cobbler. "But you can't be sure to see them safely at my house afore ten o'clock at night; and not a word to Rugge! mum!"

"Not a word to Rugge," returned Lionel; "good-night to you."

The young men left the Cobbler still seated on the milestone, gazing on the stars and ruminating. They walked briskly down the road.

"It is I who have had the talk now," said Lionel, in his softest tone. He was bent on coaxing three pounds out of his richer friend, and that might require some management. For amongst the wild youngsters in Mr. Vance's profession, there ran many a joke at the skill with which he parried irregular assaults on his purse; and that gentleman, with his nose more than usually in the air, having once observed to such scoffers "that they were quite welcome to any joke at his expense," a wag had exclaimed, "At your expense! Don't fear; if a joke were worth a farthing, you would never give that permission."

So when Lionel made that innocent remark, the softness of his tone warned the artist of some snake in the grass, and he prudently remained silent. Lionel, in a voice still sweeter, repeated,—"It is I who have all the talk now!"

"Naturally," then returned Vance, "naturally you have, for it is you, I suspect, who alone have the intention to pay for it, and three pounds appear to be the price. Dearish, eh?"

"Ah, Vance, if I had three pounds!"

"Tush; and say no more till we have supped. I have the hunger of a wolf."

Just in sight of the next milestone the young travellers turned a few yards down a green lane, and reached a small inn on the banks of the Thames. Here they had sojourned for the last few days, sketching, boating, roaming about the country from sunrise, and returning to supper and bed at nightfall. It was the pleasantest little inn,—an arbour, covered with honeysuckle, between the porch and the river,—a couple of pleasure-boats moored to the bank; and now all the waves rippling under the moonlight.

"Supper and lights in the arbour," cried Vance to the waiting-maid, "hey, presto, quick! while we turn in to wash our hands. And hark! a quart jug of that capital whiskey-toddy."