MoboReader> Literature > Fallen Fortunes

   Chapter 14 FICKLE FORTUNE.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 22043

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Grey had a double reason for his rapid disappearance from the scene of his recent exploit. For one thing, he had recognized amid the audience assembled by Lady Romaine to witness the performance quite a number of men whom he had known with more or less intimacy in the former days, and whom he now desired to avoid. He knew that both his flowing wig and his fine clothes had received some injury from the fire, and moreover he quickly felt that his hands and one of his arms had suffered from the flames. If he were to be taken possession of by friendly or compassionate persons, to have these matters looked to, there was no end to the possible complications which might arise. The sensitive pride of the young man of gentle birth rose in arms against being unmasked in the midst of old associates. He pictured the laugh with which Lord Sandford would make the discovery that the youthful baronet, his whilom friend, was playing upon the boards of the theatre for a livelihood. That was a thing he could not and would not endure. And he had fled hastily from the coming crowd, so soon as he had been assured that Lord Romaine was on the spot to take care of his daughter.

Again, he was frightened by the intensity of his own feelings. When he held Geraldine in his arms, and when their eyes met, and he knew himself recognized, the flood of emotion which surged over him had well-nigh mastered him and led him into some wild act of folly. He had had much ado to stay the burning words which rushed like a torrent to his lips. He dared not trust himself to look again upon Geraldine's fair face. He was frightened at the immensity of the temptation which had assailed him to break into some wild declaration of love.

But when he had reached the waiting coach which was to convey him and his companion back to town, his thoughts were directed into quite another channel by the frightened faces of the servants who stood by.

"You had better get Master Wylde home without delay," spoke one, "and have a leech for him. He was taken with bleeding at the mouth almost as soon as he left the stage. He has only spoken once, and that was to ask for you. He should be got to bed as quick as may be, and kept there till he is better."

With a pale and anxious face Grey threw himself into the coach where the Old Lion was sitting, leaning back feebly against the cushions, his face ghastly, his hand holding to his mouth a kerchief stained and spotted with blood. In a great fright the young actor bade the man drive fast, and stop on his way at the residence of one of the many physicians, or quacks, who drove so brisk a trade in these times, each having some wonderful nostrum of his own for the cure of all ills under the sun, and some of them thriving so mightily that they drove four or six horses in their coaches, and had lackeys in scarlet and silver lace running beside them and distributing small leaflets, in which the wonders their master had performed were set forth.

Grey had heard of some of these men, and that they performed wonderful cures; and he cared not what he paid, at that moment, so that his master and friend might be relieved and healed.

With no small trouble he got him up the stairs to their attic, and put him to bed. But more than once the hacking cough brought back the dreaded bleeding; and by the time that the leech arrived, pompous and haughty, and none too well pleased at being summoned from the convivial gathering of friends whither he had betaken himself, he looked more like a corpse than a living man.

Grey was in a fever of anxiety, and listened with earnest heed to the words of the leech, and his instructions for the relief of the patient. He bought every suggested medicament, regardless of the cost, and made no hesitation in handing the exorbitant fee demanded by the great man for his valuable services. He cared for nothing, so that his master should recover; and the leech, finding that gold was plentiful in this humble abode, and rather interested in the discovery that he was attending the actor whose Father Time had made such talk in the town, really began to take some interest in the case, and to put forth his best skill; so that before very long the death-like hue of the patient's face changed to something more natural, and the hemorrhage was for the time being checked.

"He must be kept perfectly quiet. On no account must he exert his voice, or leave his bed, or take any liberties. Nature must be humoured, my dear sir; nature must be helped and aided. She is a kind mother to her obedient and reasonable children, but she has many a rod for the backs of those who despise her warnings. Our worthy friend has been tendering a deaf ear to her counsels; therefore has she chastened him somewhat severely. But let him show himself mild and docile under her rod, and it may be that she will restore him to favour again, and that the world will once more pay to him its tribute of admiration and praise."

So saying the leech took his departure, promising to come at any hour of the day or night that he might be sent for; and Grey was left alone with his patient, who had been soothed off to a quiet sleep by a draught administered. And it must be said in justice to these men-half physician, half quack-who flourished at this time, that some of their remedies were of no small value when properly applied. They used herbs and concoctions brewed from the leaves and roots of plants far more freely than has since become fashionable. Many purchased their nostrums from old women, who went forth into the fields and lanes, and distilled from their spoil mixtures which they regarded as remedies of infallible potency. Much ignorance prevailed as to the action of these simples upon the human body; but many of them were of no small value in sickness, and when used in cases where it chanced to be the thing required, worked wonders in rapid healing, and became at once the favourite elixir of the moment amongst those who had known of the cure.

So the Old Lion was at least soothed to quiet sleep, and in the warm atmosphere of the attic his breathing was sensibly relieved. Grey was able now to strip off his own finery, rather aghast at the sorry state of his coat, the total destruction of his costly ruffles, and the singed condition of his wig.

"These must be made good quickly, or I shall not be fit to appear on the boards on Monday night," he mused, as he looked at them. Luckily as this was Saturday night, he felt as though there were breathing time before him. "I must send word to Mr. Butler of what has befallen. Anthony Frewen, or some other, must needs play Father Time for a score of performances at least, I fear me. It will be a loss: I shall earn but the half of what was given us before. Still it will suffice to keep us, and I trust and hope that it will not be long ere he recover, to take his place once more."

A troubled look came over Grey's face as he looked towards the bed, and noted the patient's sunken cheek and cavernous eyes. He wondered that he had not before seen how thin and shrunken the old man was getting; but there was always so much fire about him that it deceived even those who saw him oftenest and loved him best.

"It has been too much for him," mused Grey, as he sat beside the fire, pain of body and anxiety of mind precluding all thought of sleep. His hands were becoming increasingly painful, and he had forgotten to ask the leech for any medicament for them. However, he applied linen rag steeped in oil; and the burning smart lessened somewhat, though he had no disposition to seek sleep.

"It hath been too much for him-the triumph, the adulation, the excitement of taking again his old place before the world. It meant so much to him, this play. It was like the child of his old age. It brought him his final triumph; but it took much out of him also. The fires of life blazed up too fiercely. Now they seem sinking down to ashes. Heaven grant that we may feed them yet, that he may recover him of this sickness. Yet will he ever be able to face the world again as heretofore? It is hard that his trumpet voice should be taken-the last of those attributes which made him the idol of the stage. Oh, it has been hard how one thing has followed another with him! Some men seem born to success and triumph, whilst others with equal gifts and powers are doomed to misfortune and sorrow."

Grey fell into a reverie of a sombre nature. "Was he fated to be one of those luckless mortals, ever falling lower and lower in fortune's favour, till perhaps a pauper's grave should at last close over him?

"What has life given me heretofore? A good old name, which I may not use for very pride; an estate so burdened and crippled that it is none of mine, save in name. I have had my days of glory and happiness; but what lies before me now? If my master dies, or lies sick and helpless, what will become of us in the future? I may play the part of the Youth with Anthony Frewen or some other till the world tires of it; but what then? Shall I join the crowd of cringing, hollow-eyed men, crowding the taverns and the stage doors of the theatres, and begging for some inferior part upon the boards? Shall I go vaunting my powers, or chaffering my wares in a market already overstocked, that wants none of me? No. Whatever happens, I will have none of that. I have tasted of the life, but it hath no charms for me. Rather would I gird my sword upon my thigh, and go forth as a soldier in foreign lands; and, indeed, were I alone in the world, methinks I would hesitate no longer, but offer myself for this."

As he spoke, his eyes turned to the bed where the old man lay, and a softer look came over his face.

"I cannot leave him. With him I must stay till he recover, or till he die. He took me in in my hour of need. To desert him in his would be base beyond all words. I will play the part of son to him so long as he needs me; and for his sake will I go through my part as before, though without him the joy will be gone. But it will bring us the needful gold; and we are not without our hoard, as it is. Truly my master was wise when he decided not to leave these rooms-not to live like rich men on the strength of our earnings. We have sufficient gold laid by against a rainy day. Ere that is spent, doubtless there will come some change to our fortunes."

But with the dawn of another day Grey found himself in very sorry plight. Great blisters had risen over his hand and arm, and the fingers were so swollen and painful that he could scarcely move them. He was forced to contrive a sling in which to carry his left hand and arm, and he could only just use his right sufficiently for the needful attendance upon the sick man, and that not without considerable pain. He began to feel feverish and weak himself from the effects of pain and shock.

It began to come over him with more and more conviction that he himself would be unfit to appear upon the stage on the morrow.

And as soon as the morning light had fully come, he sent the servant of the house wherein they lodged to the rooms occupied by Mr. Butler of the Drury Lane theatre management, asking him to come at once to see him upon a matter of importance.

Mr. Butler was part proprietor of the theatre, and the practical stage manager, and he listened with great interest and concern to Grey's tale, looking earnestly at the sick man muttering to himself upon the bed, but taking no notice of what went on about him, and bending over him not untenderly, to see if could elicit some response. But the Old Lion unclosed his dim eyes for a few moments, looked into his face, and then turned restlessly and began the mutterings as before, interrupted sometimes by fits of coughing, which left him visibly exhausted, although there was no return of the hemorrhage.

"I have had my fears of this," spoke Mr. Butler, turning back to Grey. "He is scarce fit for the strain of the past weeks. He uses himself up too fast. The fires burn within too fiercely; and his long illness, though seeming only to cripple his limbs, has told upon him. I have feared it might be so, therefore we are not altogether unprovided."

"I know," answered Grey quietly. "I was going to say as much. Anthony Frewen has the part of Father Time at his fingers' ends. He can play it for Mr. Wylde till this illness be overpassed."

"That is true. I am glad you should know. He is ready at any time to take the part. It will be for him a great opportunity. But it would be well for you to rehearse with him ere appearing before the public. Shall we arrange for this to-morrow forenoon? As for this dress, it must be given at once into the hands of tailor and perruquier. But there should be no difficulty in having it repaired in time. A few guineas will set that matter to rights."

"At my cost," answered Grey promptly. "Let that be understood. It is in the bond; though I shall be grateful if you will see to the matter for me. As for the rehearsal, and even the performance to-morrow and the next few nights, I am not certain if I myself shall be able to go through my part. See here!" and Grey drew from the sling his maimed and stiffened hand, showing even a greater extent of injury in the daylight than he had observed before. His white face and drawn brows showed that he was suffering considerable pain; and Mr. Butler whistled in dismay.

"This is serious," he said, with a look of perplexity on his face.

"Yet methinks there is a way out of the difficulty," spoke Grey, with some eagerness. "Could you find and send to me the young actor Lionel Field, who has lodgings somewhere in these regions, for he comes and goes at the theatre, and has visited us often, albeit he has never told me where he dwells?"

"I could find the fellow, doubtless," was the answer; "but do you know your man? A fellow sober one day, drunk the next, upon whom no reliance can be placed, though his talent is considerable, and he has caught the public taste before now."

"Ay, and adversity has something sobered and tamed him," answered Grey eagerly. "I have a sort of liking for the fellow, though he has a jealous feeling towards me, in that I have stepped into a place without serving apprenticeship thereto. But believe me, he could act this part of mine. I am sure of it. He has studied it, I know. He has sat many a time in that chair whilst I have been going through my paces before my master. I have seen him watching and following all. Send him hither to me. I will undertake that he shall be ready to act for me till I am my own man again. Let him have the chance. I am sure he will remain sober. He has been steadier for long; and this, he knows, may give him just that lift for which he has been waiting and longing. It may be the beginning for him of better things; and since we are much of the same height, and he is only something broader and more stoutly built, there will be little trouble with the dress. Let him play the Youth for one week at least in my place, and I will give my time to my sick friend yonder, and let my injured hands recover their strength and suppleness."

The manager had been studying Grey's face with some attention. He saw that it would be impossible for the young man to act for some days to come. There was a look of fever about him, and the state of his hands was quite prohibitive. He spoke with a note as of warning in his voice.

"Do you know what it is that you would do?" he asked. "Have you heard the tale of the countryman who warmed a viper at his hearth, which afterwards did him to death?"

"The fable I know," answered Grey with a smile, "but I do not see the application in the present."

"Perchance you may have reason to understand it, if you do as you purpose towards Lionel Field. A man consumed by vanity and envy is not the safest wearer of one's discarded shoes."

"But is there any other?" asked Grey. "I know of none."

"No, nor I, i' faith. We have feared that the old man might break down-he has been growing so gaunt and hollow-eyed of late; but we had never thought of such a thing as the Youth failing us. We have no substitute for you, Mr. White. If you fall ill, the interlude must cease; and it were pity too, for it still draws us crowded houses."

"No, it need not cease," spoke Grey with energy. "Send me only Lionel Field this day, and I will undertake that by to-morrow forenoon he shall be fit for the rehearsal with Anthony Frewen in the theatre. Let him take my place till I am ready to fill it again. He will do it better than I, with these maimed hands, and with my heart so full of anxious fears for Mr. Wylde."

"Then so be it," answered the manager, with audible relief in his tones. He had no wish to withdraw the piece whilst it was still so high in favour. No one knew how soon the capricious public might tire of it; but for the moment, with the Duke of Marlborough the popular idol, and expected home week by week, nothing that gave him praise and honour could fail to catch the popular taste. The house filled double as full on those nights on which Time and the Youth were to appear as it did on the others. Grey knew this, and would not for the world have had the performances to cease on his account. He had no petty jealousy of an understudy. He simply desired that a man he had come to pity sincerely should have the chance he so coveted; and when Lionel Field stood before him, flushed, excited, filled with strenuous desire to succeed-to fill the part as ably as it had been filled before-Grey's only desire was to help him to this end.

It was a strange day that was passed in that upper chamber. On the bed lay the sick man, for the most part lying in the lethargy of weakness, but from time to time rousing up, watching with sudden feverish eagerness the actions of the young men, and occasionally in whispering tones giving some fragment of keen criticism or dramatic suggestion. At the other end of the room stood Lionel, going through his part again and yet again, with an unwearied energy and with increasing grip and power; whilst Grey, white-faced and exhausted, but still bent on the task before him, sat beside the fire watching, listening, instructing, rising every now and again to show how a certain trick of manner or of voice must be managed, to recall the great Duke to those who knew him. The master was in earnest; the pupil was eager and resolved to excel. Lionel had never lacked talent. What he had lacked was the power of self-restraint, whilst vanity had led him into the snare of thinking himself invaluable. A bitter lesson had followed, and he had learned wisdom by experience. His chance had now come to him most unexpectedly. He meant to use it well. He was grateful to Grey for selecting him at this juncture. He did not consciously meditate doing him an ill turn, but he resolved in his heart that this opportunity should be used to the uttermost. It would bring him once more before the public which once had favoured him. He would take care he did not sink into obscurity again.

It was dusk before he left with his part perfect, and everything learned that Grey could teach him. As his footsteps clattered down the wooden stairs, Grey sank back exhausted into his chair, closing his eyes in utter lassitude. It was more than an hour before he moved, and then nothing but the necessity for giving food to Wylde would have roused him.

The Old Lion was awake now, and his breathing, though very rapid, was somewhat easier. He was excessively weak; but the quiet day spent in the warm attic and without any exertion on his part had not been without effect, and there was more comprehension in the gaze now bent upon Grey's face than he had seen there since the previous night, when the old man had been taken suddenly ill.

"What is the matter, boy, and what have you been doing all day? Who was that went out at dusk? Methought it looked like young Lionel Field."

"It was he, sir. He came to learn-or rather to perfect-the part of the Youth. You and I are to take a week's holiday, and enjoy a rest together. Your cough is too bad for you to go abroad, and I have burnt my hands and must needs get them healed ere I step the boards again. Anthony Frewen and Lionel Field will take our places for the nonce; and after we are restored to our former health, and strength, the public will welcome us back the more gladly for our absence."

The Old Lion's eyes flashed suddenly from beneath their heavy lids. He half raised himself in his bed.

"I shall never tread the boards again. My acting days are done. I murmur not. I have had my heart's desire. I can now depart in peace. But you, boy-you! Why have you given up the place that was yours? I hear the knell tolling for you too. Not for your life-nay, you will live after these limbs are laid in the grave; but for your triumph-for your fame. You have given up your birthright to the supplanter. You will never take your rightful place again-never-never!"

Grey smiled at the sorrowful intensity with which these words were spoken. He laid the old man down, and spoke to him soothingly.

"Nay, do not fear; do not let such thoughts trouble you. I have seen Mr. Butler. All will be well. My place will be kept for me till my return. When I am able for it, I shall play the 'Youth' again; and we will live upon the proceeds till you are hale and strong; and then you shall write a great play which shall hold the whole world captive and enthralled. But now trouble not yourself of these matters. Only rest, and all will be well."

"Well, well; yes, for me all will soon be well," was the old man's dreamy answer. "But for you, my son-for you, what will befall? Fickle Fortune did smile at you; but her smile has changed to a frown. The open door is closing in your face, and where will you find another?"

Grey smiled and answered not. At the present moment he was too worn out in mind and body even to care what the future might hold.

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