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   Chapter 11 THE LION'S DEN.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 19458

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"Welcome to the Lion's Den!" spoke the man Wylde, as he threw open the door of a room which he had unlocked, and kicking a smouldering log upon the hearth, evoked a cheery blaze, by the aid of which he lighted a lamp that swung over a table littered with books, papers, and quills.

Grey stepped within the threshold, and looked about him with curious eyes. The house they had entered a few minutes before was a tall and narrow one in Harpe Alley, leading from Shoe Lane. It was not an old house, for it came within the area of the great fire of fifty years back, and had been rebuilt, like the whole of the surrounding buildings, with greater speed than discretion. Grey had once come across Sir Christopher Wren in his other life, and had talked with him of the short-sighted policy observed in the rebuilding of the city. The great architect declared that had his plans been carried out, London would have been the finest city in the world: but the haste and false economy of the citizens and city companies had thwarted his plans, and the old lines of narrow and crooked streets were kept as before, to the cost of succeeding generations.

This house had been hastily run up, like those surrounding it, and the tempest from without rattled and shook the walls and windows as though to drive them in. But the room itself, though no more than an attic, bore an air of comfort very pleasant to the eyes of the homeless Grey, whose own quarters only contained the barest necessities of life; for there were some rough shelves full of books in one corner, and a rug before the fire gave a look of comfort to the place. Two armchairs of rude pattern, but furnished with down cushions, seemed to invite repose; and everything was scrupulously clean, even to the boards of the floor.

"'A poor thing, but mine own,'" spoke the Old Lion, with his grim smile, as he motioned to Grey to take one chair, and he himself pulled up the other. "I have dwelt here two years and more now, and I have not been unhappy; albeit I never thought to end my days in a garret, as belike I shall do now."

"Fortune has been hard upon you," spoke Grey earnestly. "You have the gifts and the powers; it is cruel that your limbs should have become crippled."

"We must take the rough and the smooth of life as we find it," answered the other. "I have had my moments of rebellion-I have them still; but I seek the consolations of philosophy; and I have never yet wanted for bread or shelter. But there be times when the future looks dark before me. Those who remember me, and pity my misfortunes, drop away one by one. I lacked not for patrons at the first. When I could not longer tread the boards, I was ofttimes engaged to make men laugh or weep at some gay rout at a nobleman's house. Then, too, my jests and quips were in request at gay supper-parties, and I was paid to set the table in a roar, which in all sooth was not difficult when the wine-bottle was going round and round. Oh, I knew gay times for many a year after my stage career closed. But patrons have died off one by one. I am more crippled than I was, and the young wits are pushing to the front, whilst the Old Lion has been crowded out. My pen still serves me in a measure. I can turn an epigram, or write a couplet, or even make shift to pen a sonnet that lacks not the true ring. Grist yet comes to the mill, but more and more slowly. There come moments when I wonder what will be the end of the Old Lion's career-the poorhouse, or a death by slow starvation in some garret!"

"No, no," cried Grey almost fiercely; "that would be shame indeed. Surely, if nothing better turn up, there must be places of refuge for fallen genius. Have not almshouses been built, again and again, by the well-disposed for such men as sickness has laid aside? You smile, but in sooth it is so."

"Ay, and how many are there to claim the benefits of pious founders? Yet no matter. I brought you not here to talk of my troubles, but of yours. That romance of which you speak-"

"It would seem the world cares little for such things. I did hear the same tale everywhere. Was it a pamphlet I had to give them, a lampoon upon some great man, an attack against the Tories, the Whigs, the Dissenters? If so, they would read it; for there was great eagerness amongst the people to read such things, and no matter what side was attacked, there were hundreds eager to buy and to read. But a romance-no; that was a mistake altogether. A writer of successful pamphlets might perhaps find readers for a merry tale, or even a romance; but for an unknown aspirant to fame-no, that was another matter. No one would buy it; no one would even read it; though there were one or two who took it and glanced through some pages, praised the style and the easy flow of words, and advised me to take to pamphleteering, promising that they would read anything like that."

"That is it, that is it!" cried the Old Lion, rising and pacing up and down the room with his halting stride. "Write a filthy lampoon, a scurrilous libel, a fiery diatribe against any great or notable man, and all the world will read and set themselves agog to know the writer. Look at Swift, with his 'Tale of a Tub;' look at De Foe, with his crowd of pamphlets-men of talent, I do not doubt or deny, but full of gall and bitterness. Yet they are read by all the world. Fame, if not fortune, has come to them, and fortune will doubtless follow. The late King, they say, would have made Swift a bishop. The Queen will not: his ribald wit disgusts her; but he has admirers and patrons everywhere. It is the bold and unscrupulous who flourish like the grass of the field. True poetry and literary beauty are not asked, or even desired. A pen dipped in gall is a pen dipped in gold in these days of party strife. And the genius that wields not this bitter pen sits in dust and ashes, asking bread, and that well-nigh in vain."

"How should I write these party diatribes-I who know little of their cries? Whig or Tory, Tory or Whig-what care I? The Tory of one Parliament is the Whig of the next. Have not Lords Marlborough and Godolphin gone over to the Whigs? The Queen herself, they say, is changing slowly."

"Nay, the Queen herself will never change!" cried Wylde, with an emphatic gesture. "The Duchess has changed, and she seeks to use her influence with the Queen to make her change also, and give up her Tory advisers altogether. But she will not succeed. The Queen may be timid and gentle, but she has all her father's tenacity and obstinacy. Let my Lady of Marlborough look to it! She may strain the cord to breaking point. Already they say that the new favourite, Mrs. Masham, is ousting her kinswoman, the Duchess, from the foremost place in the Queen's affections. Favourites have fallen ere this through too great arrogance. The victories of Ramillies and Oudenarde, and the successes that have followed, make the Duke the idol of the nation and the favourite of the Queen yet; but the day may come when this may change, and then the high Tories may come in once more with a rush."

"I should be sorry for the Duke to lose favour," spoke Grey thoughtfully. "I did see him once, and had speech with him after the battle of Ramillies, and a more gracious and courtly gentleman it has never been my lot to meet."

Suddenly the Old Lion's eyes flashed fire.

"You have seen and had speech with the Duke on the field of Ramillies? You saw the battle, or something of it? Speak! Tell me all! I must hear this tale. It may mean much to us both."

"In sooth it is little I can tell you of the battle, for I was in the thick of it myself. It was by accident that my servant and I came upon the rival armies; and another happy accident gave me the chance of doing a small service for the Duke. After the battle, when we were hard by Louvain, he called me to him, and spoke many gracious words. I would fain hope that some day I may see him again."

"You had speech with him? You saw his manner and his port? Tell me-show me-how did he carry himself?"

Grey rose to his feet, laughing. He humoured the whim of the old actor. He was not lacking in the histrionic gift, and threw himself into his part with good will. He uttered quick commands, as though to his officers; he threw out his arms, as though directing one man here, another there. He recalled numbers of words spoken by the General, and these he reproduced faithfully and with an excellent imitation of Marlborough's polished, courteous, yet commanding air. Then he let his face soften, and addressed the old man as he himself had been addressed, with words of thanks and with promises of friendship. Finally, throwing off the mask, he broke into a laugh, and was astonished at the eager change which had come upon the Old Lion.

"Boy!" he cried, with a new access of energy, "I trow I see for both of us a way to fame and fortune."

Grey's eyes lighted as he eagerly asked his meaning.

"That is soon told. Have you heard how, after the victory of Blenheim, none could be found to hymn the praises of the great General till the poet Addison was introduced to notice, and penned his immortal lines? Now, since the victory of Ramillies, I have burned with desire to show the world by somewhat more than verse alone the power and genius of England's mighty soldier. See here!"

The old man rose and crossed to his table, where he fetched from a drawer a scroll covered with writing, which he put in the hands of his companion. Grey saw that it was a dialogue cast in dramatic form, and though he could not read it then and there, he could see, by casting his eyes over it, that there were many very fine periods in it, and that it was filled with descri

ptive passages of some great battle, and the energy and glory of the General in command. He raised his eyes inquiringly to the impassioned face of the author, which was working with excitement.

"See you not something of the form? It is a dramatic interlude. It should be played upon the stage during the intervals of the play. Time sits aloft, aged and grim, his scythe in his hand, his hour-glass beside him, and he speaks of the decay of mankind-that the world's greatness is vanishing, its men of genius growing ever fewer and fewer. That is my part. I take the r?le of Time. To him then enters one in the guise of youth-one in the flush of manhood's prime-one who has seen great and doughty deeds, and comes to rehearse the same in the ears of old Time, to bid him change his tune, to tell him that giants yet live upon the earth. This youth comes with songs of victory; he speaks of what he has seen; he describes in burning words and glowing colours that last great fight wherein England's General put to flight the hosts of the haughty monarch of France. For months has this been written; for months have I gone about seeking the man to take the part of youth and manhood. But I have sought in vain. All those whom I would have chosen have other work to do, and did but laugh at me. Those who would gladly do my bidding, I will none of. You saw how they did mouth and rant to-night, thinking to show their talent, when they only displayed their imbecile folly. But here have I found the very man for whom I have long waited. You have youth, beauty-that manly beauty which transcends, to my thinking, the ephemeral loveliness of woman; you have the gift; you have seen the great hero: you have caught the very trick of his words and speech. Oh, I know it! Once did I hear him address the House of Lords, and when you spoke I seemed to see and hear him again. The great world of fashion will go mad over you. We shall draw full houses; we shall succeed. I know it! I feel it! The Old Lion is not dead yet! He shall roar again in his native forest. Say, boy, will you be my helper in this thing? And in the gains which we shall make we will share and share alike."

It was a very different sort of fame from anything Grey had pictured for himself, and for a moment he hesitated; for he realized that were this dramatic sketch to take hold of the imagination of the town, and draw fashionable audiences, he could scarcely avoid recognition, disguise himself as he might. But as against this there was the pressing need of the moment. He was well-nigh penniless; his romance seemed likely to be but so much waste paper. He was hiding now even from Dick, who periodically visited London to see him, lest the honest fellow should insist upon maintaining him from his own small hoard. Here was an opening, as it seemed, to something like prosperity; and the alternative of being drafted into the army as a pauper recruit was scarcely sufficiently attractive to weigh in the balance. Moreover, there was something so earnest and pathetic in the glance bent upon him by the Old Lion that he had not the heart to say him nay, and he held out his hand with a smile.

"I will be your helper; and as for the gains, let them be yours, and you shall give me what wage I merit. The play is yours, the thought is yours: it is for you to reap the harvest. I am but the labourer-worthy of his hire, and no more."

The compact was sealed, and the old man then insisted that Grey should take his bed for the night, as he must sit up and remodel his play upon lines indicated by the young man, who had seen the field of Ramillies and the disposition of troops. Grey furnished him with sundry diagrams and notes, and left him perfectly happy at his task, which would doubtless occupy him during the night, whilst the weary guest slumbered peacefully upon the humble bed in the little alcove beyond the larger room.

When Grey awoke next morning, the sun was shining; a frugal but sufficient meal was spread upon the table; a fire was blazing cheerily upon the hearth; and there was the Old Lion, with his manuscript before him, muttering beneath his breath, and throwing out his hand in telling gesture, making so fine a picture with his leonine face and shaggy mane of hair that Grey watched him awhile in silence before advancing.

"Good-morrow, and welcome to you, my son," was the greeting be received. "I have had a beautiful night. The muse was hot upon me. The rounded periods seemed to flow from my pen without effort. Let us to breakfast first; then shall you read what I have written, and together we will amend it, if need be. But first shall you remove hither from that unsavoury lodging of which you did speak. Here is money: pay your reckoning, and bring hither any goods and chattels you may value. We must dwell together these next weeks. We will work hard, and before the week closes I will have some manager here to listen to our rendering of this scene. We will have the world crowding to see and hear us yet!-King Fortune, I salute thee, and I thank thee from my heart that thou didst send this goodly youth to me, and didst prompt my heart from the first to take note of him and seek his friendship."

The removal of Grey's simple belongings took but little time, and lucky did he feel himself to be able to call this comfortable abode his home. A small attic upon the same floor of the house made him a sleeping chamber at very small cost, and his days were spent in the sunny south garret, which was called the Lion's Den; and there they studied, and wrote, and rehearsed this eulogy upon the Duke, and the prowess of the English arms, the old man introducing here and there allusions and innuendoes which Grey scarcely understood, but which Wylde declared would bring down thunders of applause from the house-as, indeed, proved to be the case.

Grey had a faint misgiving at the first that no manager might be forthcoming to admit the dialogue to his boards; but there the old actor knew his ground. He succeeded in inviting two of the most successful managers to listen to a performance in the attic, without the accessories which would add much to the effect upon the stage; and even so the scene proved so telling, the acting of the Old Lion was so superb in its quiet dignity, and Grey (who had learned and studied patiently and diligently) went through his part with such spirit, such power, such dramatic energy, that even his instructor was surprised at his success, and the managers exchanged glances of astonishment and pleasure.

It was just the sort of piece to catch the public favour at this juncture. Marlborough was still the idol of the nation, and might be expected home some time before the winter closed-perhaps before Christmas itself. The nation was discussing how to do him honour, and would flock to see a piece wherein his praises were so ably sung.

"With a wig such as the Duke wears, and with military dress, Mr. Grey could be made to look the very image of the great General," cried one.

"He has something the same class of face-handsome, regular features, grace of action and bearing. He does but want to be transformed from fair to dark, and his acting of the Duke will bring down veritable thunders of applause from all."

And then began a gratifying rivalry as to terms, in which the Old Lion sustained his part with dignity and firmness. Both managers desired to secure this interlude for their respective theatres, and at the last it was settled that the performance was to be given two nights a week at Drury Lane, and two at Sadler's Wells, the astute old actor retaining the right to make his own terms at private houses upon the two remaining nights of the working week. The costumes were to be provided by the managers, but were to be the property of the actors, who would undertake to replace them should any harm befall them at private representations.

When these matters had been satisfactorily settled, and certain other details arranged, the great men took their leave in high good humour; and the Old Lion, shaking back his mane of shaggy hair, grasped Grey by the hands, his eyes sparkling in his head.

"Your fortune is made, young man! your fortune is made! You will never need to fear poverty again. What life so grand as that of the man who can sway the multitude, make men laugh or weep at his bidding, hold them suspended breathless upon his lips, move them to mirth, or rouse them to the highest realm of passion? Ah, that is life! that is life! Have I not tasted it? Do I not know? And that life lies before you, my son. I will be your guide and mentor; you have but to use patience and discretion, and with your gifts and with your person you shall hold all men in thrall. Ay, and you shall write, too-Cibber shall find a rival. Men shall sing your praise. The world shall lie at your feet. And I shall see it-I, who have found and taught you, who have discerned your powers with pen and tongue. I shall be content. I ask nothing better of fortune. Ah, my son, it was indeed a providence which made our paths to cross!"

Grey smiled, and was silent. The life of an actor was not the life of his ambition, and he doubted if it would enthrall him as it had enthralled the Old Lion. But it would be at least a new experience. He was ready and willing to make trial of it. As matters now stood with him, he had scarce a choice. He would go through with this thing that was planned, and with the future he would not immediately concern himself.

So he smiled back at the old man, and took his hand, saying simply,-

"I am well pleased that I have acquitted myself to your liking. I will seek to do you credit in the eyes of the world."

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