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   Chapter 6 No.6

Peg Woffington By Charles Reade Characters: 21518

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


MACHIAVEL entered the green-room, intending to wait for Mrs. Woffington, and carry out the second part of his plan.

He knew that weak minds cannot make head against ridicule, and with this pickax he proposed to clear the way, before he came to grave, sensible, business love with the lady. Machiavel was a man of talent. If he has been a silent personage hitherto, it is merely because it was not his cue to talk, but listen; otherwise, he was rather a master of the art of speech. He could be insinuating, eloquent, sensible, or satirical, at will. This personage sat in the green-room. In one hand was his diamond snuffbox, in the other a richly laced handkerchief; his clouded cane reposed by his side.

There was an air of success about this personage. The gentle reader, however conceited a dog, could not see how he was to defeat Sir Charles, who was tall, stout, handsome, rich, witty, self-sufficient, cool, majestic, courageous, and in whom were united the advantages of a hard head, a tough stomach, and no heart at all.

This great creature sat expecting Mrs. Woffington, like Olympian Jove awaiting Juno. But he was mortal, after all; for suddenly the serenity of that adamantine countenance was disturbed; his eye dilated; his grace and dignity were shaken. He huddled his handkerchief into one pocket, his snuff-box into another, and forgot his cane. He ran to the door in unaffected terror.

Where are all his fine airs before a real danger? Love, intrigue, diplomacy, were all driven from his mind; for he beheld that approaching, which is the greatest peril and disaster known to social man. He saw a bore coming into the room!

In a wild thirst for novelty, Pomander had once penetrated to Goodman's Fields Theater; there he had unguardedly put a question to a carpenter behind the scene; a seedy-black poet instantly pushed the carpenter away (down a trap, it is thought), and answered it in seven pages, and in continuation was so vaguely communicative, that he drove Sir Charles back into the far west.

Sir Charles knew him again in a moment, and at sight of him bolted. They met at the door. "Ah! Mr. Triplet!" said the fugitive, "enchanted-to wish you good-morning!" and he plunged into the hiding-places of the theater.

"That is a very polite gentleman!" thought Triplet. He was followed by the call-boy, to whom he was explaining that his avocations, though numerous, would not prevent his paying Mr. Rich the compliment of waiting all day in his green-room, sooner than go without an answer to three important propositions, in which the town and the arts were concerned.

"What is your name?" said the boy of business to the man of words.

"Mr. Triplet," said Triplet.

"Triplet? There is something for you in the hall," said the urchin, and went off to fetch it.

"I knew it," said Triplet to himself; "they are accepted. There's a note in the hall to fix the reading." He then derided his own absurdity in having ever for a moment desponded. "Master of three arts, by each of which men grow fat, how was it possible he should starve all his days!"

He enjoyed a natural vanity for a few moments, and then came more generous feelings. What sparkling eyes there would be in Lambeth to-day! The butcher, at sight of Mr. Rich's handwriting, would give him credit. Jane should have a new gown.

But when his tragedies were played, and he paid! El Dorado! His children should be the neatest in the street. Lysimachus and Roxalana should learn the English language, cost what it might; sausages should be diurnal; and he himself would not be puffed up, fat, lazy. No! he would work all the harder, be affable as ever, and, above all, never swamp the father, husband, and honest man in the poet and the blackguard of sentiment.

Next his reflections took a business turn.

"These tragedies-the scenery? Oh, I shall have to paint it myself. The heroes? Well, they have nobody who will play them as I should. (This was true!) It will be hard work, all this; but then I shall be paid for it. It cannot go on this way; I must and will be paid separately for my branches."

Just as he came to this resolution, the boy returned with a brown-paper parcel, addressed to Mr. James Triplet. Triplet weighed it in his hand; it was heavy. "How is this?" cried he. "Oh, I see," said he, "these are the tragedies. He sends them to me for some trifling alterations; managers always do." Triplet then determined to adopt these alterations, if judicious; for, argued he, sensibly enough: "Managers are practical men; and we, in the heat of composition, sometimes (sic?) say more than is necessary, and become tedious."

With that he opened the parcel, and looked for Mr. Rich's communication; it was not in sight. He had to look between the leaves of the manuscripts for it; it was not there. He shook them; it did not fall out. He shook them as a dog shakes a rabbit; nothing!

The tragedies were returned without a word. It took him some time to realize the full weight of the blow; but at last he saw that the manager of the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, declined to take a tragedy by Triplet into consideration or bare examination.

He turned dizzy for a moment. Something between a sigh and a cry escaped him, and he sank upon a covered bench that ran along the wall. His poor tragedies fell here and there upon the ground, and his head went down upon his hands, which rested on Mrs. Woffington's picture. His anguish was so sharp, it choked his breath; when he recovered it, his eye bent down upon the picture. "Ah, Jane," he groaned, "you know this villainous world better than I!" He placed the picture gently on the seat (that picture must now be turned into bread), and slowly stooped for his tragedies; they had fallen hither and thither; he had to crawl about for them; he was an emblem of all the humiliations letters endure.

As he went after them on all-fours, more than one tear pattered on the dusty floor. Poor fellow! he was Triplet, and could not have died without tingeing the death-rattle with some absurdity; but, after all, he was a father driven to despair; a castle-builder, with his work rudely scattered; an artist, brutally crushed and insulted by a greater dunce than himself.

Faint, sick, and dark, he sat a moment on the seat before he could find strength to go home and destroy all the hopes he had raised.

While Triplet sat collapsed on the bench, fate sent into the room all in one moment, as if to insult his sorrow, a creature that seemed the goddess of gayety, impervious to a care. She swept in with a bold, free step, for she was rehearsing a man's part, and thundered without rant, but with a spirit and fire, and pace, beyond the conception of our poor tame actresses of 1852, these lines:

"Now, by the joys Which my soul still has uncontrolled pursued, I would not turn aside from my least pleasure, Though all thy force were armed to bar my way; But, like the birds, great Nature's happy commoners, Rifle the sweets-"

"I beg-your par-don, sir!" holding the book on a level with her eye, she had nearly run over "two poets instead of one."

"Nay, madam," said Triplet, admiring, though sad, wretched, but polite, "pray continue. Happy the hearer, and still happier the author of verses so spoken. Ah!"

"Yes," replied the lady, "if you could persuade authors what we do for them, when we coax good music to grow on barren words. Are you an author, sir?" added she, slyly.

"In a small way, madam. I have here three trifles-tragedies."

Mrs. Woffington looked askant at them, like a shy mare.

"Ah, madam!" said Triplet, in one of his insane fits, "if I might but submit them to such a judgment as yours?"

He laid his hand on them. It was as when a strange dog sees us go to take up a stone.

The actress recoiled.

"I am no judge of such things," cried she, hastily.

Triplet bit his lip. He could have killed her. It was provoking, people would rather be hanged than read a manuscript. Yet what hopeless trash they will read in crowds, which was manuscript a day ago. Les imbeciles!

"No more is the manager of this theater a judge of such things," cried the outraged quill-driver, bitterly.

"What! has he accepted them?" said needle-tongue.

"No, madam, he has had them six months, and see, madam, he has returned them me without a word."

Triplet's lip trembled.

"Patience, my good sir," was the merry reply. "Tragic authors should possess that, for they teach it to their audiences. Managers, sir, are like Eastern monarchs, inaccessible but to slaves and sultanas. Do you know I called upon Mr. Rich fifteen times before I could see him?"

"You, madam? Impossible!"

"Oh, it was years ago, and he has paid a hundred pounds for each of those little visits. Well, now, let me see, fifteen times; you must write twelve more tragedies, and then he will read one; and when he has read it, he will favor you with his judgment upon it; and when you have got that, you will have what all the world knows is not worth a farthing. He! he! he!

'And like the birds, gay Nature's happy commoners,

Rifle the sweets'-mum-mum-mum."

Her high spirits made Triplet sadder. To think that one word from this laughing lady would secure his work a hearing, and that he dared not ask her. She was up in the world, he was down. She was great, he was nobody. He felt a sort of chill at this woman-all brains and no heart. He took his picture and his plays under his arms and crept sorrowfully away.

The actress's eye fell on him as he went off like a fifth act. His Don Quixote face struck her. She had seen it before.

"Sir," said she.

"Madam," said Triplet, at the door.

"We have met before. There, don't speak, I'll tell you who you are. Yours is a face that has been good to me, and I never forget them."

"Me, madam!" said Triplet, taken aback. "I trust I know what is due to you better than to be good to you, madam," said he, in his confused way.

"To be sure!" cried she, "it is Mr. Triplet, good Mr. Triplet!" And this vivacious dame, putting her book down, seized both Triplet's hands and shook them.

He shook hers warmly in return out of excess of timidity, and dropped tragedies, and kicked at them convulsively when they were down, for fear they should be in her way, and his mouth opened, and his eyes glared.

"Mr. Triplet," said the lady, "do you remember an Irish orange-girl you used to give sixpence to at Goodman's Fields, and pat her on the head and give her good advice, like a good old soul as you were? She took the sixpence."

"Madam," said Trip, recovering a grain of pomp, "singular as it may appear, I remember the young person; she was very engaging. I trust no harm hath befallen her

, for methought I discovered, in spite of her brogue, a beautiful nature in her."

"Go along wid yer blarney," answered a rich brogue; "an' is it the comanther ye'd be putting on poor little Peggy?"

"Oh! oh gracious!" gasped Triplet.

"Yes," was the reply; but into that "yes" she threw a whole sentence of meaning. "Fine cha-ney oranges!" chanted she, to put the matter beyond dispute.

"Am I really so honored as to have patted you on that queen-like head!" and he glared at it.

"On the same head which now I wear," replied she, pompously. "I kept it for the convaynience hintirely, only there's more in it. Well, Mr. Triplet, you see what time has done for me; now tell me whether he has been as kind to you. Are you going to speak to me, Mr. Triplet?"

As a decayed hunter stands lean and disconsolate, head poked forward like a goose's, but if hounds sweep by his paddock in full cry, followed by horses who are what he was not, he does, by reason of the good blood that is and will be in his heart, dum spiritus hoss regit artus, cock his ears, erect his tail, and trot fiery to his extremest hedge, and look over it, nostril distended, mane flowing, and neigh the hunt onward like a trumpet; so Triplet, who had manhood at bottom, instead of whining out his troubles in the ear of encouraging beauty, as a sneaking spirit would, perked up, and resolved to put the best face upon it all before so charming a creature of the other sex.

"Yes, madam," cried he, with the air of one who could have smacked his lips, "Providence has blessed me with an excellent wife and four charming children. My wife was Miss Chatterton; you remember her?"

"Yes! Where is she playing now?"

"Why, madam, her health is too weak for it."

"Oh!-You were scene-painter. Do you still paint scenes?"

"With the pen, madam, not the brush. As the wags said, I transferred the distemper from my canvas to my imagination." And Triplet laughed uproariously.

When he had done, Mrs. Woffington, who had joined the laugh, inquired quietly whether his pieces had met with success.

"Eminent-in the closet; the stage is to come!" and he smiled absurdly again.

The lady smiled back.

"In short," said Triplet, recapitulating, "being blessed with health, and more tastes in the arts than most, and a cheerful spirit, I should be wrong, madam, to repine; and this day, in particular, is a happy one," added the rose colorist, "since the great Mrs. Woffington has deigned to remember me, and call me friend."

Such was Triplet's summary.

Mrs. Woffington drew out her memorandum-book, and took down her summary of the crafty Triplet's facts. So easy is it for us Triplets to draw the wool over the eyes of women and Woffingtons.

"Triplet, discharged from scene-painting; wife, no engagement; four children supported by his pen-that is to say, starving; lose no time!"

She closed her book; and smiled, and said:

"I wish these things were comedies instead of trash-edies, as the French call them; we would cut one in half, and slice away the finest passages, and then I would act in it; and you would see how the stage-door would fly open at sight of the author."

"O Heaven!" said poor Trip, excited by this picture. "I'll go home, and write a comedy this moment."

"Stay!" said she; "you had better leave the tragedies with me."

"My dear madam! You will read them?"

"Ahem! I will make poor Rich read them."

"But, madam, he has rejected them."

"That is the first step. Reading them comes after, when it comes at all. What have you got in that green baize?"

"In this green baize?"

"Well, in this green baize, then."

"Oh madam! nothing-nothing! To tell the truth, it is an adventurous attempt from memory. I saw you play Silvia, madam; I was so charmed, that I came every night. I took your face home with me-forgive my presumption, madam-and I produced this faint adumbration, which I expose with diffidence."

So then he took the green baize off.

The color rushed into her face; she was evidently gratified. Poor, silly Mrs. Triplet was doomed to be right about this portrait.

"I will give you a sitting," said she. "You will find painting dull faces a better trade than writing dull tragedies. Work for other people's vanity, not your own; that is the art of art. And now I want Mr. Triplet's address."

"On the fly-leaf of each work, madam," replied that florid author, "and also at the foot of every page which contains a particularly brilliant passage, I have been careful to insert the address of James Triplet, painter, actor, and dramatist, and Mrs. Woffington's humble, devoted servant." He bowed ridiculously low, and moved toward the door; but something gushed across his heart, and he returned with long strides to her. "Madam!" cried he, with a jaunty manner, "you have inspired a son of Thespis with dreams of eloquence, you have tuned in a higher key a poet's lyre, you have tinged a painter's existence with brighter colors, and-and-" His mouth worked still, but no more artificial words would come. He sobbed out, "and God in heaven bless you, Mrs. Woffington!" and ran out of the room.

Mrs. Woffington looked after him with interest, for this confirmed her suspicions; but suddenly her expression changed, she wore a look we have not yet seen upon her-it was a half-cunning, half-spiteful look; it was suppressed in a moment, she gave herself to her book, and presently Sir Charles Pomander sauntered into the room.

"Ah! what, Mrs. Woffington here?" said the diplomat.

"Sir Charles Pomander, I declare!" said the actress.

"I have just parted with an admirer of yours.

"I wish I could part with them all," was the reply.

"A pastoral youth, who means to win La Woffington by agricultural courtship-as shepherds woo in sylvan shades."

"With oaten pipe the rustic maids," quoth the Woffington, improvising.

The diplomat laughed, the actress laughed, and said, laughingly: "Tell me what he says word for word?"

"It will only make you laugh."

"Well, and am I never to laugh, who provide so many laughs for you all?"

"C'est juste. You shall share the general merriment. Imagine a romantic soul, who adores you for your simplicity!"

"My simplicity! Am I so very simple?"

"No," said Sir Charles, monstrous dryly. "He says you are out of place on the stage, and wants to take the star from its firmament, and put it in a cottage."

"I am not a star," replied the Woffington, "I am only a meteor. And what does the man think I am to do without this (here she imitated applause) from my dear public's thousand hands?"

"You are to have this" (he mimicked a kiss) "from a single mouth, instead."

"He is mad! Tell me what more he says. Oh, don't stop to invent; I should detect you; and you would only spoil this man."

He laughed conceitedly. "I should spoil him! Well, then, he proposes to be your friend rather than your lover, and keep you from being talked of, he! he! instead of adding to your eclat."

"And if he is your friend, why don't you tell him my real character, and send him into the country?"

She said this rapidly and with an appearance of earnest. The diplomatist fell into the trap.

"I do," said he; "but he snaps his fingers at me and common sense and the world. I really think there is only one way to get rid of him, and with him of every annoyance."

"Ah! that would be nice."

"Delicious! I had the honor, madam, of laying certain proposals at your feet."

"Oh! yes-your letter, Sir Charles. I have only just had time to run my eye down it. Let us examine it together."

She took out the letter with a wonderful appearance of interest, and the diplomat allowed himself to fall into the absurd position to which she invited him. They put their two heads together over the letter.

"'A coach, a country-house, pin-money'-and I'm so tired of houses and coaches and pins. Oh! yes, here's something; what is this you offer me, up in this corner?"

Sir Charles inspected the place carefully, and announced that it was "his heart."

"And he can't even write it!" said she. "That word is 'earth.' Ah! well, you know best. There is your letter, Sir Charles."

She courtesied, returned him the letter, and resumed her study of Lothario.

"Favor me with your answer, madam," said her suitor.

"You have it," was the reply.

"Madam, I don't understand your answer," said Sir Charles, stiffly.

"I can't find you answers and understandings, too," was the lady-like reply. "You must beat my answer into your understanding while I beat this man's verse into mine.

'And like the birds, etc.'"

Pomander recovered himself a little; he laughed with quiet insolence. "Tell me," said he, "do you really refuse?"

"My good soul," said Mrs. Woffington, "why this surprise! Are you so ignorant of the stage and the world as not to know that I refuse such offers as yours every week of my life?"

"I know better," was the cool reply. She left it unnoticed.

"I have so many of these," continued she, "that I have begun to forget they are insults."

At this word the button broke off Sir Charles's foil.

"Insults, madam! They are the highest compliments you have left it in our power to pay you."

The other took the button off her foil.

"Indeed!" cried she, with well-feigned surprise. "Oh! I understand. To be your mistress could be but a temporary disgrace; to be your wife would be a lasting discredit," she continued. "And now, sir, having played your rival's game, and showed me your whole hand" (a light broke in upon our diplomat), "do something to recover the reputation of a man of the world. A gentleman is somewhere about in whom you have interested me by your lame satire; pray tell him I am in the green-room, with no better companion than this bad poet."

Sir Charles clinched his teeth.

"I accept the delicate commission," replied he, "that you may see how easily the man of the world drops what the rustic is eager to pick up."

"That is better," said the actress, with a provoking appearance of good-humor. "You have a woman's tongue, if not her wit; but, my good soul," added she, with cool hauteur, "remember you have something to do of more importance than anything you can say."

"I accept your courteous dismissal, madam," said Pomander, grinding his teeth. "I will send a carpenter for your swain. And I leave you."

He bowed to the ground.

"Thanks for the double favor, good Sir Charles."

She courtesied to the floor.

Feminine vengeance! He had come between her and her love. All very clever, Mrs. Actress; but was it wise?

"I am revenged," thought Mrs. Woffington, with a little feminine smirk.

"I will be revenged," vowed Pomander, clinching his teeth.

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