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   Chapter 13 THE HERO OF THE HOUR.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 21372

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Grey's heart was beating to suffocation as he put the finishing touches to his toilet. The Old Lion sat beside the fire in his costume of Father Time, bending forward to the blaze, but giving vent from time to time to a hollow cough, which at a less all-engrossing moment might have caused Grey some uneasiness. But to-night his head was filled with other thoughts. He was about to start for Lord Romaine's house. The representation of "Time and the Youth" was to be given there before a large and fashionable assembly. She would be there! That was his first thought. She would watch the performance. He might even be able to pick her out from crowded audience, and feast his eyes upon her pure, pale beauty. At least for an hour he would be near her. That alone was enough to set his heart beating in tumultuous fashion. She would be there. At Lord Romaine's own house it was impossible it should be otherwise. Their eyes might meet; and though she would know him not-better that she should not, indeed-he would gaze upon those features which were dearest to him out of all the world. And whether for weal or woe, Grey knew by this time that the love of his whole being was centred in Lady Geraldine Adair, though he was schooling himself to the thought of seeing her and knowing her to be another man's wife. To him she could only be as a star in the firmament of heaven-as a benignant influence guiding him to higher and nobler paths. That was how he must ever learn to regard her, for her world and his were poles asunder. And what had he to offer to any woman-he whose future lay all uncertain before him, and whose fortunes were yet in the clouds?

A message from below warned them that the coach which was to convey them to Lord Romaine's house was now at the door.

"You are tired, sir," spoke Grey, suddenly waking from his reverie and turning to the old man, who rose with an air of lassitude which his strong will could not entirely conceal; "I fear me you are not quite yourself to-night. This constant acting is something too great a strain upon you."

"Ay, my boy, I am growing old," answered the other, with a note of pain in his voice; "I feel it as I never felt it before. My triumph has come just a little too late. I am too old to take up the threads of the past again. The Old Lion has risen once again to roar in the forest, but he must needs lay him down soon in his den-to die."

Over Grey's face there passed a quick spasm of anxiety and pain.

"Nay, nay; say not so. I have never heard you speak in such vein before. What ails you to-night, dear master?"

"No matter, boy, no matter; heed not my groanings," answered Wylde, assuming more of his usual manner, though he held tightly to Grey's arm as they descended the stairs. "I have been somewhat out of sorts these last few days, and you know how they did tell me at the theatre that my voice was not well heard the other night-"

"Ah, but you had that rheum upon you. It is better now. Yesterday your notes rang forth like those of a clarion."

"Ah yes, that may be; but what has happened once may chance again. Boy, did you observe a gray-headed man standing in the slips and watching my every action, his lips following mine as I spoke my part?"

"I did. I thought he seemed to know every word by heart himself. He had the face of an actor, methought."

"He is one, and a favourite with the people-Anthony Frewen is his name. He and I have held many an audience spellbound ere now. What think you he was there for?"

"Nay, I know not, save to watch and learn and admire."

"Ay, truly, to watch and learn, that he may step into Father Time's part, should the day come when I can hold my throne no longer."

A violent fit of coughing here interrupted the old man's words, seeming to give a point to his speech that otherwise it might have lacked.

Grey supported him tenderly whilst the paroxysm lasted; but he sat aghast, thinking what might be coming upon his master and friend. If, indeed, he were to be laid aside by illness, how could the successful dramatic interlude be carried on, save by another actor? And did it not look as though theatre managers were foreseeing this contingency, and preparing for it?

"Could they, indeed, supersede you, sir?" he asked at length. "Have they the right to do so, since the thing was written by you? Must they not rather wait for you to take up your part again, should the cold seize upon you, and for a time render you unfit for your part?"

"Nay, nay, they will not do that; and they have purchased the rights to produce the piece as long as they will. I could not complain. I could only submit." He stopped and drew his breath rather hard, and then broke out with something of his old fire: "But what matter? what matter? It is nature's law! The old must give way to the young. I have lived my life. I have shown men what I can do. I have aroused me from sleep, and shone like a meteor in the sky ere my long eclipse shall come. I am content. I ask no more. Let Elisha take up the mantle which falls from Elijah. My work will be remembered when the hand that penned it is dust."

Grey was almost horrified by these words. It seemed to him as though the Old Lion were almost making up his mind to some approaching calamity; and at the thought of losing his one friend, the young man's heart stood still. He had become greatly attached to Wylde; but he knew that amid those of his own profession he had many enemies. Nor had he been many weeks amongst actors before he had learned the jealousies and emulations that burned so fiercely amongst them, and how eagerly every vacant place was snapped up by one of a crowd of eager aspirants. Who knew but that somebody might even now be studying his part of the Youth, ready to step into his shoes should any untoward event occur to incapacitate him? He had constantly seen the handsome but unsteady Lionel Field hanging about the theatre, and once or twice he had come to see them in their lodgings, and had asked the Old Lion to speak a good word for him, declaring that he had resolved upon turning over a new leaf, and becoming steady and sober again. Grey remembered now how many questions he had put about the Duke of Marlborough, asking how Grey had become so well acquainted with his person and voice and gestures. These he himself had imitated, not without success, for the young man had considerable natural gifts, and far more training than Grey could boast, although he had won so great success through the close instructions of an able master.

The young man knew perfectly by this time that Wylde was somewhat feared in dramatic circles for his keen criticisms, his autocratic temper, and his scathing powers of retort. He knew, likewise, that he was regarded as something of an interloper-a man who had risen suddenly into notice by what might be called "back-stair" influence. Grey was fully aware himself that he had served no apprenticeship to his present calling, that he had stepped into success simply and solely through a series of happy accidents. He could not wonder that to others he should seem to be something of an impostor and a fraud. Whilst under the Old Lion's immediate patronage, nobody dared to flout or insult him; but he was sometimes conscious of an undercurrent of hostile jealousy directed against him, which increased with his increasing popularity with the public. He could not doubt that if some mischance were to befall him or his patron, his fall would be acclaimed in many circles with delight, as making room for another to fill his vacant place. And Grey, looking at the hollow cheeks and the gaunt frame of the Old Lion, hearing from time to time his painful coughing, began to fear that he, indeed, would not long be able to face the world or fight his own battle; and doubtful, indeed, did he feel of his own power and ability to fight that battle for himself single-handed.

The hero of the hour (page 251).

These fears and misgivings, however, though somewhat dismal at the moment, were all driven away as the carriage rolled under the archway of Lord Romaine's house, and he found himself at his journey's end, and so close to the object of his heart's desire.

The actors were not, of course, taken into any of the thronged drawing-rooms; the day for the reception of dramatists as honoured guests at the houses of the nobility was not yet. They were, however, respectfully conducted to a small apartment and offered refreshments, which they partook of sparingly, and then conducted through the garden to a large temporary structure, which Lady Romaine had insisted on having run up, so that she might invite a very large audience to her house for the occasion.

There was a well-arranged stage for the actors, and the scenery, such as it was, had been well painted, in imitation of that at the theatres; Father Time's throne was a very fine erection, and all the arrangements were excellent. The old man seemed to throw off his lassitude as he made his observations, and the fire came back to his eyes and the power to his voice. Grey forgot his uneasiness in the excitement of the moment, and in the realization of where he was and who might at any moment appear before his eyes, and he was resolved that this representation should be the finest which had ever been seen heretofore.

In the grand reception-rooms of the Countess, Geraldine stood apart as one who dreams. She saw the throng of fashionable persons assembling; she heard delighted exclamations about the wonders of the little theatre which all had heard of. It had been brought from Spring Gardens, and the moving of it had been quite a small excitement for the fashionable world, who declared that Lady Romaine was the cleverest and most delightful of women, and that it was quite too charming to be able to witness this representation, of which all the town was talking, without the crush and fatigue of attending the theatres.

Geraldine heard as in a dream all this hubbub and clatter. She herself was as eager as any to witness the dramatic interlude, but from a motive different from that of the rest of the world. There was an unwonted flush upon her cheeks, a brilliance in her dreamy eyes. Many persons, who had scarcely noticed her before, or had passed her by with the epithet, "a maid of ice," "a snow-queen," now regarded her with greater attention, and said one to another that the Lady Geraldine was a more beautiful creature than they had fancied before.

Lord Sandford, pushing his way through the throng towards her, felt a peculiar thrill of triumph run through him as his eyes dwelt upon her face.

"She is a splendid woman

-just fit to be the future Lady Sandford, the mother of those who shall come after me! My wooing shall not last much longer. I know the mind of her mother, and though her father promises nothing, he wishes me well. He will not have her coerced, nor would I. She must come to me willingly; but come she shall. She has no mind towards marriage, as other maids and damsels. Better so, better so. I would not have my mistress one of those whose ears are greedy for the flattery of all the world-one who looks upon each man as he appears in the light of a possible suitor. No, I would have my white lily just as she is-pure, spotless, calm, cold. It is for me to kindle the fire, for me to unlock the heart; and I will not grumble if the task be something hard, for better is the prize for which we have toiled and sweated, than the one which drops into our hands at the first touch."

So thinking, he pushed his way till he stood by Geraldine's side, and met the clear, steady glance of her eyes.

"Fair lady, I give you greeting. You are not going to absent yourself from the representation this night? We never know in our garish world where the Lady Geraldine will appear, or what places she will illumine with the light of her countenance. I rejoice to see you here to-night."

"I have a great desire to see this spectacle of which I have heard so much," answered Geraldine quietly; "I would fain have gone to the theatre, if so be that my mother had not arranged this representation here. I have heard of the Old Lion of the stage, though never have I seen him. There is something grand in the story I have heard of his talent, his early successes, and his bravely endured eclipse and poverty. I am right glad he has lived again to taste success and the plaudits of the people."

Lord Sandford laughed at her earnestness.

"You are a philanthropist in sooth, Lady Geraldine, to interest yourself in the affairs of such persons as these."

"Are they not of our own flesh and blood, my lord?" she asked.

"Faith, I know not, and I care not! At least, they are not of our world, which is more to the point in these days."

Geraldine turned away with a look upon her face which roused the hot blood of Lord Sandford; he was not used to scorn.

"Lady Geraldine," he began; but a sudden stir and as sudden a hush in the great rooms brought his words to an abrupt stop. The Duchess of Marlborough herself was making her formal entry, and there was almost the same respect paid to her as though royalty itself were appearing. They were only waiting for her to troop through the covered way into the theatre; and Geraldine, taking advantage of the movement and the confusion incident to this, escaped from Lord Sandford, who would have given her his arm, made her way rapidly downstairs by a private way, and took up a position in the theatre where he was quite unable to get near her.

She had decided beforehand where she would sit-near to a side-door into the garden, which, standing half-open, let in a current of cool air into the heated place. It had been warmed beforehand, and was dimly lighted by a number of small lanterns overhead, such as were used in the gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh.

Her heart was beating almost to suffocation as the curtain went up, and she saw the often-described figure of Time upon his throne. But it was not of his rounded periods nor his telling gestures that she had been dreaming; and though she listened and watched with a sense of fascination, she knew that she was waiting-waiting-waiting for the next actor, with a sense almost of suffocation in her throat.

Why had she thought this thing? Why had it seemed to her no impossibility that Sir Grey Dumaresq, vanished utterly from his old world, should be masquerading now in this part of the Youth? She could not have answered even to herself these questions, yet her heart was all in a tumult. Had he not once said to her, as he plucked a white rosebud and gave it her, "Why was my name not White instead of Grey? Then it would be like unto you"? Was that enough to build upon? Hardly, but yet she could not help it. Did not men speak of his grace, dignity, manly beauty? and did not many say of him that his face seemed familiar in some sort, yet none could say who he was? And now a thunder of new applause rent the air. For a moment her vision grew dim and she could not see. Then it cleared, and her heart gave a great bound. Clear silver tones fell upon her ear, and the ring of a voice that she knew. His face for the moment was turned away. He was addressing himself to Father Time; but as he turned towards the house and gazed full upon the audience sitting in spellbound silence, the foot-lights fell full upon his face, and she knew him!

She knew him-that was enough! What he said or did, she knew not-cared not. She sat with her gaze fastened full upon him. She recked not why that alone seemed enough. A strange trance that was half dream fell upon her. She gazed, and gazed, and gazed.

"Good lack, but the fellow is the very mirror of my husband! I had not believed it, had I not seen it with mine own eyes." The voice of the Duchess was clearly heard above the clarion notes of the actor. She was not one to hush her tones, and she was not a little astonished by the performance. Pleasure, gratification, and surprise were all written upon the hard but handsome features of the Queen's favourite; and every now and again she would tap her long ivory fan with some vehemence upon the back of the seat in front, and would exclaim aloud,-

"Vastly good! Vastly well done! Faith, but he is a pretty fellow, and knows what he is about. I must have speech with him. I would learn more of this. Beshrew me, but the Duke must see this when he returns!"

This loud-voiced praise could not but reach the ears of the actors, and they could not fail to know who it was that spoke. All knew that the Duchess was to be present, as a special mark of good will and condescension, and that she should speak such open praise seemed to set a seal upon the success of the entertainment. Lady Romaine could scarce contain herself for delight.

Geraldine still sat as in a maze of bewildered happiness. It was not till just as the performance was closing that she was awakened from her trance, and that somewhat rudely. The last words of the interlude were being spoken. Father Time and the Youth were standing together making their last speeches to the audience, and she was gazing with all her eyes into the face of one whom she alone out of all the company had recognized, when one of the lanterns overhead, insecurely fastened, burnt its way loose, and fell flaring and blazing upon the light train of her dress. Instantly she was in a blaze. The flames shooting up made a glare all over the house, and a hundred piercing shrieks attested the terror of the ladies at the sight.

But one had seen even before the flames shot up. Already the young actor had leaped like a deer to the floor of the house; in a moment he had reached the side of the lady. He had caught up in his hands a great rug which was picturesquely flung over the throne of Father Time, and before any other person in the room had recovered presence of mind sufficient to stir, he had the flaming figure wrapped round in this rug, and had borne it out through the half-open door into the safety of the grassy garden without, where, laying his burden down upon the ground tenderly, despite his haste, he was quickly able to stifle the flames and extinguish the last spark.

He bent over her, his face white and ghastly in the moonlight.

"You are not hurt-say you are not hurt!"

"I think not; you were so quick-so quick. How can I thank you?"

Her eyes looked into his; it was just one moment before the people came rushing out upon them in a frantic crowd. But that moment was their own. They looked into each other's eyes, and a thrill passed from heart to heart that never could be forgotten. Out rushed Lord Romaine, frantic with anxiety; out followed a motley crowd-some weeping, some gasping, some exclaiming, some even laughing in hysterical excitement. Grey stood up suddenly, and slipped away like a wraith in the moonlight.

Lord Romaine bent tenderly over his daughter, who was struggling to her feet, still encumbered by the folds of the great rug. She was dishevelled, her dress was torn and burnt, she held the folds of the covering wrap about her still; but her voice was only a little tremulous as she clung to her father's arm.

"I am not hurt; no, I am sure I am not. The hot breath of the fire just scorched for a moment; but then it was crushed out.. Please send the people away. I do not want to be stared at. I am not hurt. Please take me in, and let me go to my own room."

"Bless me, but what a pretty kettle of fish!" cried a loud and imperious voice. "Let me see the child and be sure she is all safe. Ha, there you are, my pretty white bird! A nice scare you gave us all wrapped about in a ring of fire like-who was the woman?-Brynhild, or some such outlandish name. But it was a fine ending to the drama. We have not quite lost our heroes yet. My faith, how he leaped down! He must have seen it before any of the rest of us. Well, well, well; it is a good thing that his fine show of bravery was not all in words. He is a mettlesome youth, and deserves the praise of the town. He will be more the hero of the hour than ever. Where is the boy? I would have speech of him myself."

The Duchess looked about her; but no one like the Youth was to be seen. He had vanished altogether; but, doubtless, he would be somewhere on the place, and could be fetched to receive the thanks of the parents and the compliments of the Duchess.

It was too cold to stand out in the moonlight, and there was a general move towards the house, Geraldine still clinging to her father's arm, avoiding the shrill questions, comments, and congratulations of the company, and shrinking back especially when Lord Sandford would have approached.

"The luck was not for me to-night," he said; "nevertheless, give me the chance, Lady Geraldine, and you shall see what I will do. But that actor chap shall not lose his reward for his promptitude. I will see to that."

She started as though she had been stung.

"My lord, do not insult him!"

He stared at her in amaze; but she slipped away and vanished like a wraith. He strode moodily about the rooms, joining in the general inquiry after the young actor whom the Duchess had sent for; but the servants came back after some time to say that the young man could not be found. He seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

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