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   Chapter 3 No.3

Peg Woffington By Charles Reade Characters: 22953

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


YES, Sir Charles was after Mrs. Woffington. I use that phrase because it is a fine generic one, suitable to different kinds of love-making.

Mr. Vane's sentiments were an inexplicable compound; but respect, enthusiasm, and deep admiration were the uppermost.

The good Sir Charles was no enigma. He had a vacancy in his establishment-a very high situation, too, for those who like that sort of thing-the head of his table, his left hand when he drove in the Park, etc. To this he proposed to promote Mrs. Woffington. She was handsome and witty, and he liked her. But that was not what caused him to pursue her; slow, sagacious, inevitable as a beagle.

She was celebrated, and would confer great eclat on him. The scandal of possessing her was a burning temptation. Women admire celebrity in a man; but men adore it in a woman.

"The world," says Philip, "is a famous man; What will not women love so taught?"

I will try to answer this question.

The women will more readily forgive disgusting physical deformity for Fame's sake than we. They would embrace with more rapture a famous orang-outang than we an illustrious chimpanzee; but when it comes to moral deformity the tables are turned.

Had the queen pardoned Mr. Greenacre and Mrs. Manning, would the great rush have been on the hero, or the heroine? Why, on Mrs. Macbeth! To her would the blackguards have brought honorable proposals, and the gentry liberal ones.

Greenacre would have found more female admirers than I ever shall; but the grand stream of sexual admiration would have set Mariaward. This fact is as dark as night; but it is as sure as the sun.

The next day "the friends" (most laughable of human substantives!) met in the theater, and again visited the green-room; and this time Vane determined to do himself more justice. He was again disappointed; the actress's manner was ceremoniously polite. She was almost constantly on the stage, and in a hurry when off it; and, when there was a word to be got with her the ready, glib Sir Charles was sure to get it. Vane could not help thinking it hard that a man who professed no respect for her should thus keep the light from him; and he could hardly conceal his satisfaction when Pomander, at night, bade him farewell for a fortnight. Pressing business took Sir Charles into the country.

The good Sir Charles, however, could not go without leaving his sting behind as a companion to his friend. He called on Mr. Vane and after a short preface, containing the words "our friendship," "old kindness," "my greater experience," he gravely warned him against Mrs. Woffington.

"Not that I would say this if you could take her for what she is, and amuse yourself with her as she will with you, if she thinks it worth her while. But I see you have a heart, and she will make a football of it, and torment you beyond all you have ever conceived of human anguish."

Mr. Vane colored high, and was about to interrupt the speaker; but he continued:

"There, I am in a hurry. But ask Quin, or anybody who knows her history, you will find she has had scores of lovers, and no one remains her friend after they part."

"Men are such villains!"

"Very likely," was the reply; "but twenty men don't ill-use one good woman; those are not the proportions. Adieu!"

This last hit frightened Mr. Vane, he began to look into himself; he could not but feel that he was a mere child in this woman's hands; and, more than that, his conscience told him that if his heart should be made a football of it would be only a just and probable punishment. For there were particular reasons why he, of all men, had no business to look twice at any woman whose name was Woffington.

That night he avoided the green-room, though he could not forego the play; but the next night he determined to stay at home altogether. Accordingly, at five o'clock, the astounded box-keeper wore a visage of dismay-there was no shilling for him! and Mr. Vane's nightly shilling had assumed the sanctity of salary in his mind.

Mr. Vane strolled disconsolate; he strolled by the Thames, he strolled up and down the Strand; and, finally, having often admired the wisdom of moths in their gradual approach to what is not good for them, he strolled into the green-room, Covent Garden, and sat down. When there he did not feel happy. Besides, she had always been cold to him, and had given no sign of desiring his acquaintance, still less of recognition.

Mr. Vane had often seen a weathercock at work, and he had heard a woman compared to it; but he had never realized the simplicity, beauty and justice of the simile. He was therefore surprised, as well as thrilled, when Mrs. Woffington, so cool, ceremonious and distant hitherto, walked up to him in the green-room with a face quite wreathed in smiles, and, without preliminary, thanked him for all the beautiful flowers he had sent her.

"What, Mrs. Woffington-what, you recognize me?"

"Of course, and have been foolish enough to feel quite supported by the thought I had at least one friend in the house. But," said she, looking down, "now you must not be angry; here are some stones that have fallen somehow among the flowers. I am going to give you them back, because I value flowers, so I cannot have them mixed with anything else; but don't ask me for a flower back," added she, seeing the color mount on his face, "for I would not give one of them to you, or anybody."

Imagine the effect of this on a romantic disposition like Mr. Vane's.

He told her how glad he was that she could distinguish his features amid the crowd of her admirers; he confessed he had been mortified when he found himself, as he thought, entirely a stranger to her.

She interrupted him.

"Do you know your friend Sir Charles Pomander? No! I am almost sure you do; well, he is a man I do not like. He is deceitful, besides he is a wicked man. There, to be plain with you, he was watching me all that night, the first time you came here, and, because I saw he was watching me I would not know who you were, nor anything about you."

"But you looked as if you had never seen me before."

"Of course I did, when I had made up my mind to," said the actress, naively.

"Sir Charles has left London for a fortnight, so, if he is the only obstacle, I hope you will know me every night."

"Why, you sent me no flowers yesterday or to-day."

"But I will to-morrow."

"Then I am sure I shall know your face again; good-by. Won't you see me in the last act, and tell me how ill I do it?"

"Oh, yes!" and he hurried to his box, and so the actress secured one pair of hands for her last act.

He returned to the green-room, but she did not revisit that verdant bower. The next night, after the usual compliments, she said to him, looking down with a sweet, engaging air:

"I sent a messenger into the country to know about that lady."

"What lady?" said Vane, scarcely believing his senses.

"That you were so unkind to me about."

"I, unkind to you? what a brute I must be!"

"My meaning is, you justly rebuked me, only you should not tell an actress she has no heart-that is always understood. Well, Sir Charles Pomander said she married a third in two months!"

"And did she?"

"No, it was in six weeks; that man never tells the truth; and since then she has married a fourth."

"I am glad of it!"

"So am I, since you awakened my conscience."

Delicious flattery! and of all flattery the sweetest, when a sweet creature does flattery, not merely utters it.

After this, Vane made no more struggles; he surrendered himself to the charming seduction, and as his advances were respectful, but ardent and incessant, he found himself at the end of a fortnight Mrs. Woffington's professed lover.

They wrote letters to each other every day. On Sunday they went to church together in the morning, and spent the afternoon in the suburbs wherever grass was and dust was not.

In the next fortnight, poor Vane thought he had pretty well fathomed this extraordinary woman's character. Plumb the Atlantic with an eighty-fathom line, sir!

"She is religious," said he, "she loves a church much better than a playhouse, and she never laughs nor goes to sleep in church as I do. And she is breaking me of swearing-by degrees. She says that no fashion can justify what is profane, and that it must be vulgar as well as wicked. And she is frankness and simplicity itself."

Another thing that charmed him was her disinterestedness. She ordered him to buy her a present every day, but it was never to cost above a shilling. If an article could be found that cost exactly tenpence (a favorite sum of hers), she was particularly pleased, and these shilling presents were received with a flush of pleasure and brightening eyes. But when one day he appeared with a diamond necklace, it was taken very coldly, he was not even thanked for it, and he was made to feel, once for all, that the tenpenny ones were the best investments toward her favor.

Then he found out that she was very prudent and rather stingy; of Spartan simplicity in her diet, and a scorner of dress off the stage. To redeem this she was charitable, and her charity and her economy sometimes had a sore fight, during which she was peevish, poor little soul.

One day she made him a request.

"I can't bear you should think me worse than I am, and I don't want you to think me better than I am."

Vane trembled.

"But don't speak to others about me; promise, and I will promise to tell you my whole story, whenever you are entitled to such a confidence.

"When shall I be entitled to it?"

"When I am sure you love me."

"Do you doubt that now?"

"Yes! I think you love me, but I am not sure.

"Margaret, remember I have known you much longer than you have known me.

"No!"

"Yes! Two months before we ever spoke I lived upon your face and voice.

"That is to say you looked from your box at me upon the stage, and did not I look from the stage at you?"

"Never! you always looked at the pit, and my heart used to sink."

"On the 17th of May you first came into that box. I noticed you a little, the next day I noticed you a little more; I saw you fancied you liked me, after a while I could not have played without you."

Here was delicious flattery again, and poor Vane believed every word of it.

As for her request and her promise, she showed her wisdom in both these. As Sir Charles observed, it is a wonderful point gained if you allow a woman to tell her story her own way.

How the few facts that are allowed to remain get molded and twisted out of ugly forms into pretty shapes by those supple, dexterous fingers!

This present story cannot give the life of Mrs. Woffington, but only one great passage therein, as do the epic and dramatic writers; but since there was often great point in any sentences spoken on important occasions by this lady, I will just quote her defense of herself. The reader may be sure she did not play her weakest card; let us give her the benefit.

One day she and Kitty Clive were at it ding-dong; the green-room was full of actors, male and female, but there were no strangers, and the ladies were saying things which the men of this generation only think; at last Mrs. Woffington finding herself roughly, and, as she thought, unjustly handled, turned upon the assembly and said: "What man did ever I ruin in all my life? Speak who can!"

And there was a

dead silence.

"What woman is there here at as much as three pounds per week even, that hasn't ruined two at the very least?"

Report says there was a dead silence again, until Mrs. Clive perked up, and said she had only ruined one, and that was his own fault!

Mrs. Woffington declined to attach weight to this example. "Kitty Clive is the hook without the bait," said she; and the laugh turned, as it always did, against Peggy's antagonist.

Thus much was speedily shown to Mr. Vane, that, whatever were Mrs. Woffington's intentions toward him, interest had at present nothing to do with them; indeed it was made clear that even were she to surrender her liberty to him, it would only be as a princess, forging golden chains for herself with her own royal hand.

Another fortnight passed to the mutual satisfaction of the lovers. To Vane it was a dream of rapture to be near this great creature, whom thousands admired at such a distance; to watch over her, to take her to the theater in a warm shawl, to stand at the wing and receive her as she came radiant from her dressing-room, to watch her from her rear as she stood like some power about to descend on the stage, to see her falcon-like stoop upon the said stage, and hear the burst of applause that followed, as the report does the flash; to compare this with the spiritless crawl with which common artists went on, tame from their first note to their last; to take her hand when she came off, feel how her nerves were strung like a greyhound's after a race, and her whole frame in a high even glow, with the great Pythoness excitement of art.

And to have the same great creature leaning her head on his shoulder, and listening with a charming complacency, while he purred to her of love and calm delights, alternate with still greater triumphs; for he was to turn dramatic writer, for her sake, was to write plays, a woman the hero, and love was to inspire him, and passion supply the want of pencraft. (You make me laugh, Mr. Vane!)

All this was heavenly.

And then with all her dash, and fire, and bravado, she was a thorough woman.

"Margaret!"

"Ernest!"

"I want to ask you a question. Did you really cry because that Miss Bellamy had dresses from Paris?"

"It does not seem very likely."

"No, but tell me; did you?"

"Who said I did?"

"Mr. Cibber."

"Old fool!"

"Yes, but did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Cry!"

"Ernest, the minx's dresses were beautiful."

"No doubt. But did you cry?"

"And mine were dirty; I don't care about gilt rags, but dirty dresses, ugh!"

"Tell me, then."

"Tell you what?"

"Did you cry or not?"

"Ah! he wants to find out whether I am a fool, and despise me."

"No, I think I should love you better. For hitherto I have seen no weakness in you, and it makes me uncomfortable."

"Be comforted! Is it not a weakness to like you!"

"You are free from that weakness, or you would gratify my curiosity."

"Be pleased to state, in plain, intelligible English, what you require of me."

"I want to know, in one word, did you cry or not?"

"Promise to tease me no more then, and I'll tell you."

"I promise."

"You won't despise me?"

"Despise you! of course not."

"Well, then-I don't remember!"

On another occasion they were seated in the dusk, by the side of the canal in the Park, when a little animal began to potter about on an adjacent bank.

Mrs. Woffington contemplated it with curiosity and delight.

"Oh, you pretty creature!" said she. "Now you are a rabbit; at least, I think so."

"No," said Vane, innocently; "that is a rat."

"Ah! ah! ah!" screamed Mrs. Woffington, and pinched his arm. This frightened the rat, who disappeared. She burst out laughing: "There's a fool! The thing did not frighten me, and the name did. Depend upon it, it's true what they say-that off the stage, I am the greatest fool there is. I'll never be so absurd again. Ah! ah! ah! here it is again" (scream and pinch, as before). "Do take me from this horrid place, where monsters come from the great deep."

And she flounced away, looking daggers askant at the place the rat had vacated in equal terror.

All this was silly, but it pleases us men, and contrast is so charming! This same fool was brimful of talent-and cunning, too, for that matter.

She played late that night, and Mr. Vane saw the same creature, who dared not stay where she was liable to a distant rat, spring upon the stage as a gay rake, and flash out her rapier, and act valor's king to the life, and seem ready to eat up everybody, King Fear included; and then, after her brilliant sally upon the public, Sir Harry Wildair came and stood beside Mr. Vane. Her bright skin, contrasted with her powdered periwig, became dazzling. She used little rouge, but that little made her eyes two balls of black lightning. From her high instep to her polished forehead, all was symmetry. Her leg would have been a sculptor's glory; and the curve from her waist to her knee was Hogarth's line itself.

She stood like Mercury new lighted on a heaven-kissing hill. She placed her foot upon the ground, as she might put a hand upon her lover's shoulder. We indent it with our eleven undisguised stone.

Such was Sir Harry Wildair, who stood by Mr. Vane, glittering with diamond buckles, gorgeous with rich satin breeches, velvet coat, ruffles, pictcae vestis et auri; and as she bent her long eye-fringes down on him (he was seated), all her fiery charms gradually softened and quivered down to womanhood.

"The first time I was here," said Vane, "my admiration of you broke out to Mr. Cibber; and what do you think he said?"

"That you praised me, for me to hear you. Did you?"

"Acquit me of such meanness."

"Forgive me. It is just what I should have done, had I been courting an actress."

"I think you have not met many ingenuous spirits, dear friend."

"Not one, my child."

This was a phrase she often applied to him now.

"The old fellow pretended to hear what I said, too; and I am sure you did not-did you?"

"Guess."

"I guess not."

"I am afraid I must plead guilty. An actress's ears are so quick to hear praise, to tell you the truth, I did catch a word or two, and, 'It told, sir-it told.'"

"You alarm me! At this rate, I shall never know what you see, hear or think, by your face."

"When you want to know anything, ask me, and I will tell you; but nobody else shall learn anything, nor even you, any other way."

"Did you hear the feeble tribute of praise I was paying you, when you came in?" inquired Vane.

"No. You did not say that my voice had the compass and variety of nature, and my movements were free and beautiful, while the others when in motion were stilts, and coffee-pots when in repose, did you?"

"Something of the sort, I believe," cried Vane, laughing.

"I melted from one fine statue into another, I restored the Antinous to his true sex.-Goose!-Painters might learn their art from me (in my dressing-room, no doubt), and orators revive at my lips the music of Athens, that quelled mad mobs and princes drunk with victory.-Silly fellow!-Praise was never so sweet to me," murmured she, inclining like a goddess of love toward him; and he fastened on two velvet lips, that did not shun the sweet attack, but gently parted with a heavenly sigh; while her heaving bosom and yielding frame and swimming eyes confessed her conqueror.

That morning Mr. Vane had been dispirited, and apparently self-discontented; but at night he went home in a state of mental intoxication. His poetic enthusiasm, his love, his vanity, were all gratified at once. And all these, singly, have conquered Prudence and Virtue a million times.

She had confessed to him that she was disposed to risk her happiness on him; she had begged him to submit to a short probation; and she had promised, if her confidence and esteem remained unimpaired at the close of that period-which was not to be an unhappy one-to take advantage of the summer holidays, and cross the water with him, and forget everything in the world with him, but love.

How was it that the very next morning clouds chased one another across his face? Was it that men are happy but while the chase is doubtful? Was it the letter from Pomander announcing his return, and sneeringly inquiring whether he was still the dupe of Peg Woffington? or was it that same mysterious disquiet which attacked him periodically, and then gave way for a while to pleasure and her golden dreams?

The next day was to be a day of delight. He was to entertain her at his own house; and, to do her honor, he had asked Mr. Cibber, Mr. Quin and other actors, critics, etc.

Our friend, Sir Charles Pomander, had been guilty of two ingenuities: first, he had written three or four letters, full of respectful admiration, to Mrs. Woffington, of whom he spoke slightingly to Vane; second, he had made a disingenuous purchase.

This purchase was Pompey, Mrs. Woffington's little black slave. It is a horrid fact, but Pompey did not love his mistress. He was a little enamored of her, as small boys are apt to be, but, on the whole, a sentiment of hatred slightly predominated in his little black bosom.

It was not without excuse.

This lady was subject to two unpleasant companions-sorrow and bitterness. About twice a week she would cry for two hours; and after this class of fit she generally went abroad, and made a round of certain poor or sick proteges she had, and returned smiling and cheerful.

But other twice a week she might be seen to sit upon her chair, contracted into half her size, and looking daggers at the universe in general, the world in particular; and on these occasions, it must be owned, she stayed at home, and sometimes whipped Pompey.

Pompey had not the sense to reflect that he ought to have been whipped every day, or the esprit de corps to be consoled by observing that this sort of thing did his mistress good. What he felt was, that his mistress, who did everything well, whipped him with energy and skill; it did not take ten seconds, but still, in that brief period, Pompey found himself dusted and polished off.

The sacred principle of justice was as strong in Mrs. Woffington as in the rest of her sex; she had not one grain of it. When she was not in her tantrums, the mischievous imp was as sacred from check or remonstrance as a monkey or a lap-dog; and several female servants left the house on his account.

But Nemesis overtook him in the way we have hinted, and it put his little black pipe out.

The lady had taken him out of great humanity; he was fed like a game-cock, and dressed like a Barbaric prince; and once when he was ill his mistress watched him, and nursed him, and tended him with the same white hand that plied the obnoxious whip; and when he died, she alone withheld her consent from his burial, and this gave him a chance black boys never get, and he came to again; but still these tarnation lickings "stuck in him gizzard." So when Sir Charles's agent proposed to him certain silver coins, cheap at a little treachery, the ebony ape grinned till he turned half ivory, and became a spy in the house of his mistress.

The reader will have gathered that the good Sir Charles had been quietly in London some hours before he announced himself as paulo post futurum.

Diamond cut diamond; a diplomat stole this march upon an actress, and took her black pawn. One for Pomander! (Gun.)

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