Break a Heart and Make an Actor
BREAK A HEART AND MAKE AN ACTOR
IT is a brisk Midwinter afternoon. In front of Button's Coffee-House a man and woman meet. She gently detains him by a skirt of his rusty coat as he would enter the door. At this, he turns in a fashion of surprise, for, with his weak eyes, he has not noticed her approach.
"Samuel," says the woman, "I came for a little money."
The man is heavy, full-browed, ugly, of age, say, thirty-three; the woman, gross, shapeless, but with a wise, kindly face withal, is even less comely. Her years are roundly fifty-nine.
For all the twenty-six years' difference, the two are husband and wife. She houses herself cheaply near the Tower; he has a garret off Fleet street. It is no want of love which separates them; it is poverty that holds them apart.
When the shapeless old wife asks for money, the rusty husband blinks at her in a mood of thick, sluggish affection. He fumbles in his pockets, and, at last, fishes forth a guinea.
"I had it from Dodsley," says he, as he bestows it upon her. Then, with a sour smile: "It should irk a man of letters to borrow from a once footman. But Dodsley is also a poet, and a rich publisher. I forget the footman when I borrow of Dodsley; I borrow only of Dodsley, the publisher."
"You may be sure, however," responds the wife, "that he grants your requests as Dodsley, the footman. The humble are ever more generous than the high. Dodsley, the publisher, would give you nothing." Then, she ties the guinea in a corner of her kerchief. "It shall board and lodge and warm me for a month."
The gross, unshapely wife turns homeward, while her seedy mate goes into Button's.
As he enters, a thin, hawkish voice is raised in salutation.
"And how fares our worthy Samuel Johnson?"
The thin voice comes from a dwarfish old gentleman with a crooked back and long legs, thinner, these latter, than the voice. This misshapen one is clothed, at vast expense, with full wig and suit of best black velvet, against which his ruffles make a brave display.
"The worthy Samuel Johnson does very well," responds the coming Rambler. "And how fares it with the good Mr. Pope, of Twickenham? Your fourth 'Dunciad' would show no fading of your genius. Egad! you smote old Colley Cibber hip and thigh."
"And have you read his letter of retort?" asks Pope. "It is but just come out; you should get it, if only for the varlet's baseness."
Pope is twenty-one years the senior of Johnson. He is rich, powerful, the accepted critic of the age. Also, he was the first to discover Johnson's genius, and has striven to gain for him his degree as a Master of Arts. Wherefore Johnson, who loves power and station when they work to do him good, is become a mighty partisan of the English Homer.
Pope, while vain, and as spiteful as a wasp, would seem to have owned a good heart under his long-flapped, satin waistcoat. It was he who upheld Gay in the old day; it was also he who found poetry in the footman Dodsley, and set him to printing books in Pall Mall, and to writing his play of "Cleone."
Pope draws Johnson forward to a seat with the group whereof he is the chief.
The proud fashion of two of these dismays the threadbare Johnson, who is forever on his knees before eminence when linked to wealth. One of this formidable pair is the wit, Chesterfield, high-shouldered, harsh-faced, and forbidding. He is seven years younger than Pope, but double the age of young Horace Walpole, his table mate, who now, at twenty-five, shines forth, the most insufferable coxcomb of the town. Young Walpole sips his wine with a confident patronage toward all the world, an air which would have worn him better, perhaps, were he truly the son of the great Sir Robert, instead of being offspring of that Carr Lord Hervey, to whom court rumor makes oath as his parent.
There be a trio of inconsequent younglings hanging about to hear what Pope and Chesterfield and the perfumed Walpole will say. One is Fielding, who will later write "Tom Jones," but is now emptying theatres with his tragedies. Another, he of the freckles and sandy hair, is Tobias Smollett. This gentleman lives by tying arteries, and does an occasional amputation, and is not yet ripe for "Roderick Random." The pale, whey-faced, silent one is the poet Young, who is about to give us "Night Thoughts."
As one casts his eye over the coffee-room, with its not too cleanly walls and ceiling of darkened wood, one knows it for the same old room it was when Addison first brought there the wits and the wags of Will's. But Addison and Congreve and Steele and Gay and Garth are dead and done, and Swift, over three-score years and ten, with clouded mind, is dying, as he himself puts it, "like a rat in a trap," in Ireland; and, of that ancient guard, none now save Pope remains. The presence, however, of Chesterfield and the adorable Walpole, who already conceives himself to unite the wisdom of Fontanelle with the pen-graces of Anthony Hamilton, proves Button's to have in no part diminished of an olden vogue.
Nor are these the whole of our good company. At nigh hand sits another smaller group. He of the austere, conceited brow is Warburton, the bishop. That burly, bluff, hard-headed man is old Quin, the Covent Garden actor, last of the stilted school of Betterton, Barton Booth and Wilks. The dissolute young blade of the green-and-silver suit, gilt sword, bouquet and eye of insolence, is Foote, a student of the Middle Temple. Soon he will drive folk wild with his mimicries at the Hay-market; finally, he will be crushed by that she-fiend, the Duchess of Kingston, whom he first blackmails and then satirizes.
In a distant corner, belonging to neither group, drinking his wine by himself, sits a rarely handsome man. The others would appear to know him, but they avoid his eye as though from fear. No one there is better clad, no one of more elegant manner; he is the son of a dean, too, and the brother of a clergyman. Why, then, do our fine gentlemen so miss his glance, and yet so plainly shrink from offering him offense? Why, because our gallant is the redoubtable Jemmy MacLean, cut-purse and highwayman. Jemmy is in the fashion himself, has his rooms in St. James's street, and, while he drinks wine in Button's this bright afternoon, his horse waits in the stable to the rear, bridled, bitted, saddled, pistols in holsters, ready with the earliest shadows of the night to be off with his dashing master for the heaths of Bagshot, to look out for fobs and purses. Jemmy will be hanged, presently, at Tyburn for the theft of a parti-colored waistcoat. But he will make his last fling bravely, and in ribbons and posies; and a mighty crowd will cheer him, and morbid George Selwyn—now starving in Paris as a youth of twenty-two, whose close-fisted father holds him down to groats and farthings—will ride in the carriage with him, and catch his last syllable, and witness his last kick.
"I met Garrick up the street," remarks Johnson, gruffly. "He was too busy for talk, and hurrying, he said, to a rehearsal. Garrick is become vastly the peacock with his stage success; he would remind one not at all of the wine-merchant of three years ago, or that Garrick who walked into London from Lichfield with me, and not so much silver in his pocket as should serve to fright the fiends away." Johnson says this bitterly, and one may tell how he envies, in his lean poverty, the prosperous Garrick.
"When does your volatile Garrick wed the Woffington?" This from Pope. "Gossip makes it that he and our fair Lass from the Liffey are to trip altarward within the week."
"Davy will never wed Peg," responds Johnson, but without his usual gruffness. "He is turned too much puffed up. Such an alliance he now thinks would be beneath him, and a sheer sacrifice of himself."
"Doubtless, however," says Pope, "he has promised the girl. One may rely upon his promise, I take it."
"One may rely on nothing," returns Johnson, "so much as Garrick's selfishness. You may be sure he regards his present dainty self as far too good to keep that promise."
"To-night, by the way, Garrick will give us his first London performance of 'Lear,'" observes Chesterfield. "And the Woffington is to be Cordelia."
"Garrick?" pipes up young Walpole, in high, intolerant tones. "I see nothing great in this Garrick. I was among the earliest to invade that savage region known as Goodman Fields to look on him, and I may tell you, sirs, I lost my time. As for Woffington—a mere bad actress, an Irish-faced girl! But she has life, sirs, the jade has life."
Walpole takes snuff loftily after this. He cannot foresee how, within three years, his own sister's son will wed the sister of "the jade;" and how, when the earl, his brother-in-law, remonstrates with the jade for permitting the match, the jade will retort: "It is I who should complain, my lord. With my sister single, I had but one beggar to support; now that she marries your curate of a son, I shall have two." And the wedding took place, and nine children came of it. But the super-fine young Walpole has no forebode of this, and sneers on with his snuff at the "Irish-faced jade."
"Some one," says Chesterfield, "should instruct Garrick before he essays Lear. I warrant you now he mouths the words as though he cried 'Oysters!' in the street." Then, turning to Johnson: "You, I believe, are a close friend of Garrick; you have a great respect for him as a player."
"I, respect a player?" cries Johnson, with deep disdain. "Sir, I respect Garrick the man, but not Garrick the player! I, respect a player—a fellow who exhibits himself for a shilling—who claps a lump on his back and a lump on his leg, and shouts, 'I am Richard the Third!' Sir, I'll have a wiser use for my respect."
"Gentlemen," observes Pope, and he shakes his plumage-like wig as one who delivers judgment, "Garrick has no competitor. I have seen Betterton, Booth, Wilks; I still see Quin. There has been none so good as Garrick; there is none, and there will be none to match him. As for the Woffington, she is the equal of Oldfield at her best."
Walpole, whose vanity seems nettled by the rebuke, is about to make retort, when the uproar of high debate comes swelling from the other table.
"No marvel, sir, you stand for Pope," roars Quin to Warburton; "he made you a bishop."
"And if he did," breaks in the airy Foote, "Warburton made Pope a Christian, so that score is settled."
"I'll have no quarreling over me, gentlemen," observes Pope across, in his rasping cackle; "I'm not worthy of it."
Warburton would now change the subject, and find one more agreeable to the irascible Quin. He speaks of his intention to edit Shakespeare, and asks Quin what he thinks of the idea.
"I think," returns that testy tragedian, "that you dominies might better stick to your own Bible, and let ours alone." Then, Quin calls over to Chesterfield: "Your lordship, I learn, is to be viceroy of Ireland. I trust you will give it better government than we have here."
"What is that?" cries Warburton, in dudgeon. He is sore with Quin's attack upon his plans for the improvement of Shakespeare. "What is that? Do you call this a bad government?"
"Sir," retorts Quin, "I call it no government at all. With the purblind king and his German harpy, Walmoden, giving drawing-rooms at St. James, and our drunken Prince Frederick fiddling and fuddling twice a week at Norfolk House, you Tories would call this a government!"
"Man!" observes the scandalized bishop—a stanch Tory, is he—"man, one would think you held our king in disrepute."
"I hold him," returns Quin, stoutly, "and all other kings, alive or dead or yet to be born, in contempt. I am a republican. I would have hanging on the walls of every royal palace for the perusal of your kings, a picture of that Whitehall block and axe which took the head of Charles the First."
Strange to relate, Warburton and the burly Johnson are the only persons present to be in least degree shocked by this outburst. Pope grins, Walpole takes complacent snuff, and even the coming lord-lieutenant is highly patient. As for the cynical Foote, he fairly beams, while bold Jemmy MacLean, the hero of the Bagshot road, beats on his table and shouts, "Hear!"
"And do you justify the regicides?" cries the horror-bitten churchman. "And if you do, by what law, then?"
"By every law the false Charles left them," responds Quin.
Walpole, years after, will tell the story, and avow this reply of Quin to be of all possible the most sweeping and complete.
"I would have you to notice, sir," responds Warburton, warmly, "that every man Jack of the regicides met with a violent death. Call you not that a judgment of heaven?"
"I should not advise you to urge the inference," says Quin, drily, "for, if I mistake not, the same thing might be said of the twelve first followers of the Saviour."
The discomfited bishop sits wordless now, and discussion drifts to politics.
"Many blame my father, the good Sir Robert," observes Walpole, a talk wanders afield, "for the recent war. But what could he do? The Commons forced him into it."
"Sir Robert," returns Chesterfield, "could not prevent a war. He wanted no war; but, sir, as you say, he couldn't help himself. The head of a party is like the head of a snake; it is carried forward by the tail."
A lumbering carriage draws up to the door. A footman in a noble and recognized livery enters, and whispers a word in the ear of Foote, while a patrician face, "beautiful as ever red paints can make it," as Walpole puts it, peers forth from the carriage door.
The Temple student listens to the footman; then, he smirks and gives himself strutting graces as he makes ready to join his fair one for a drive. As he passes Johnson on his way, Foote says:
"Do not the beauteous Peg and our friend Garrick pour a tea to-day? Should you go there, say I'll look in before all is done. I shall, if I escape from that dragoness outside."
PEG POURS TEA
While our worthies wrangle over their wine at Button's, Peg Woffington sits thoughtful and alone in the drawing-room of that house in Bow street where she and Garrick have their home. Peg, at twenty-three, with her sweet face and her genius, is an Irish Nell Gwynn without the king to love her. This latter, when one reflects on how the reigning monarch is no one better than our pudgy, unclean German, George the Second, stands the good fortune of Peg.
Maugre her youth and her beauty, Peg's brow wears that look of wise responsibility which will come upon one who must think for another as well as for herself. Peg holds a letter in her hand; it is from Polly, her sister, a girl still at school, and to whom Peg despatched recent word to come and dwell with her. Polly will come, too, and later wed that poor earl's son, the exquisite Walpole's nephew, as recounted.
"Polly cannot come to me as I am," reflects Peg. "David and I must become husband and wife, or separate. Polly shall find a clean hearthstone to sit down by."
The servant enters, and hangs the kettle in the wide fireplace. The copper kettle has the burnish of gold. It is a complacent and tractable kettle, and, straightway, sets up its steamy song.
The servant arranges a tea equipment on a side table. Evidently, from the elaborate preparation, a dozen callers are looked for. With the last of it, she lights the wax candles bristling from certain silver sconces which branch from the carved oaken breast of the chimney. Even though it be in mid-radiance of afternoon, the lights are needed. The windows are small, the diamond panes of a dullish glass, and even the little light to filter dimly through them is half-smothered by the brocade hangings.
Peg's bright, deep eyes go roving over the room. It is an apartment of some majesty; high ceilings and wainscots and floor of polished oak. It is comfortable, too, in a high-backed way, with its stiff chairs and prim settles, and prints on the walls, and mirrors here and there. Peg owns a use for these last, having a notion to see her pretty face reflected as often as she may, being vain, as maidens should be.
Peg's glance takes in chair and print and mirror—every corner of the place. As she gazes, her face clouds with a fond sorrow. Peg is looking on that scene of pleasant comfort for the last time, and feels some forecast of it.
"David must decide to-night," whispers Peg to herself as she again sits brooding over her sister's letter. "And what will he decide? He will decide nothing. He willand promise and put off. We are not to marry, I know that. David is too vain and holds himself too fine for an Irish actress whose conduct, to say the least, has been much too careless. However, I must bring on the last act of our love drama. Polly must be thought of. I shall say, 'To-night;' David will say nothing. And then," muses Peg, "and then, I shall end it; I shall go."
There is a quick step, and nimble, small, sharp of feature and decisively the fop in dress, Garrick springs into the room. Garrick is of even years with young Horace Walpole, and as gaudily the macaroni; but, being somewhat the peasant in emanation, he lacks of that confidence of caste which so shines in the high face of the other.
While Garrick enters with a skip and a spring, it is from no lightness of the spirit. Jealousy darkens his forehead; he has come across fresh dulcet traces of one of those love-affairs which will ever distinguish the exuberant Peg.
"When did you last see Hanbury Williams?" Garrick bursts forth. Both flush, for when all is in, what are they save a boy and a girl in love? "When did you last talk with him?"
Peg waxes crafty; considering how she will that day tell Garrick he should marry her, she resolves upon concealment.
"Hanbury Williams?" repeats Peg, arching a brow of wondrous innocence. "I haven't seen him nor talked with him for, for an age."
"Madame," retorts Garrick, indignantly, "I wish I might believe you. But I have proof how you saw him here, while I was at rehearsal, and not an hour ago."
"And is not that an age?" asks Peg, pretending a modest droop of her lids. Being discovered, Peg will be brazen and take refuge in her wit.
Garrick fumes up and down, and knows not what to say. In his soul, he loves Peg—loves her almost as well as he loves his precious self. He does not love her well enough to wed her, truly, but he could not see her with another and miss a pang.
Peg speaks to shift the subject.
"And how did your rehearsal go? Who read my part of Cordelia?"
"The prompter read your part," grumbles Garrick. "The rehearsal went well enough." Then, forgetting Hanbury Williams in his ardor over the coming production of "Lear": "I have been studying madness from a real lunatic. Do you recall how that father in Tavistock Row let his child fall from a window, and saw it dashed on the stones below? That was last week. He has raved like Bedlam ever since. I was with him for an hour. I studied him until I can mimic his rolling eye, his brow of anguish, his arm-toss of despair, his shriek as the broken little one dies in his arms. Mark you, my Lear will be a triumph; it will be a picture of the true."
There is a creaking at the stair-head; it is from a step stiffened of age. The latch lifts, and old Colley Cibber enters, leading a little, old lady who, with her four-score years, and leaning on a crutched cane, is almost a decade older than the wrinkled laureate himself.
"And where do you suppose now Bracey took me?" asks old Colley, as he and the once great actress, Mrs. Bracegirdle, beam greetings on Peg and Garrick. "The idea, too, of a lady of eighty years, and a gentleman who soon will be, trotting about to graveyards and afternoon teas in dead Winter! But where should you think now Bracey made me go? To Saint Clement's Danes; she must needs leave flowers to freeze on the tomb of poor Will Mountford, though out and gone he is these even fifty years."
"And why not?" demands Mrs. Bracegirdle. "Where should be the hardship? I went in my chair, and came here in my chair. The day is not cold."
"It was I who dragged her here," says old Colley. "She would take me to Saint Clement's Danes, so I made the bargain. 'Bracey,' says I, 'if I go to the churchyard with you and your flowers for Will, you must run round t©o Peg's with me, and warm yourself with a cup of tea.'"
"Do not believe him, child," says Mrs. Bracegirdle. "One might think, to hear Cibber, I didn't want to come. Indeed, it was I who proposed it. 'Cibber,' I said, 'I will call on Mistress Woffington. It shall be for a compliment. The oldest actress will call upon the greatest.'"
"Egad! Bracey," breaks in old Colley, who is clicking about the room in his high-heeled shoes, shaking now and then a cloud of powder from his luxuriant wig, "egad! Bracey, that was prettily said. On my soul, it was! And, Davy, you needn't look so glum. Bracey and I agreed as we came along that you were a fairly clever fellow enough."
"But this Will Mountford," cries Peg, who has been striving to edge in a word, and is each time overpowered by these vivacious old folk, "who will be your Will Mountford? Was he a sweetheart, madame?" Peg looks quite tender and feels quite tender, too; for Peg is susceptible, and would fain scent a love-affair of the long ago. "Was he your lover, madame?"
"No, child; no lover," responds Mrs. Bracegirdle. "But this is an anniversary. It was just fifty years ago to-day when, not two squares from here, Lord Mohun, with a coach and a band of Mohocks, tried to kidnap me as I was returning from playing at the theatre. Will Mountford defended me, and Lord Mohun ran him through with his sword, and killed him. Poor Will! a great actor he was, too! And so, once a year, I go and place flowers on Will's grave. No, child; Will was no lover of mine."
"Bracey never had a lover," breaks in old Cibber. "She was an example for Diana, was Bracey. And beautiful! You should have seen Bracey at thirty! A flower was a fool to her! The peerage knelt before her—gad! the nobility sighed round Bracey's foot-stool by the scores. Yes, forsooth! even the great Congreve loved the cruel Bracey, but she drove him from her. Do you remember his lines, madame?" This to Mrs. Bracegirdle: "How did they run?
"'Would I were free from this restraint,
Or else had power to win her;
Would she could make of me a saint,
Or I of her a sinner.'
"A very pretty quatrain, that," concludes old Cibber, oracularly, "and told Congreve's case exactly."
Mrs. Bracegirdle smiles on old Cibber, as though to hear of her aforetime lovers is not distasteful, even though she turned a deaf ear to their sorrows in their day.
The room begins to fill. Macklin, who gave us Shylock as he should be, and not as that vulgar buffoon he had been, arrives; the heavy Johnson comes in not far behind; and then appears the lively Foote, who, it would seem, escaped from his "dragoness" of the carriage; and, after Foote, a dozen others, among them Reynolds, the portrait-painter.
Tea and talk go merrily forward, and all save Garrick are gay. Garrick is dull, and a bit pensive. This want of flash is laid by the others at the door of Lear, whom Garrick must personate this night. Being his first London Lear, the critics and wits are sharpening tooth and claw to rend him. Mayhap, it is this pending peril of the critics to make serious the eye of Garrick.
Old Cibber, himself in dotard fashion in love with Peg, hangs about her dear elbows as she pours the tea. With his wrinkled hatchet face and voluminous wig, he looks not unlike an aged crested bird of prey.
Foote makes a smart remark upon old Cibber's devotion to Peg.
"I heard them say," suggests Foote, "as you and old Owen Swiney would dangle about our Peg in wrinkled rivalry, that the three of you reminded folk of Suzanna and the Elders."
Old Colley snorts fiercely, and makes scornful remarks upon the unripe Foote.
"What would you give," retorts Foote, willing to jeer a little at old Cibber's years since now the latter jeers at his, "what would you give to be as young as I?"
"Why, then," responds the oldster, with a gleam, "I'd consent to be as great a fool."
This costs Foote a laugh all round. The porous Johnson takes advantage of the general mirth to win for himself his ninth cup of tea.
"You are hard upon me, sir," says Foote, feigning humility. "You would treat me better had you heard me defend you when the caustic Mr. Pope—who said he saw it thirty years ago—assailed your comedy of 'Cinna.'"
"'Cinna,' sir," responds old Cibber, interested in spite of himself, "'Cinna' is a tragedy, not a comedy."
"Indeed!" says Foote, assuming mild amazement. "Now, see how one may be trapped into error! I supposed 'Cinna' must be a comedy because Mr. Pope declared how he laughed at it from beginning to end."
It is now old Cibber who falls forfeit to a common peal of mirth. Even he, the old victim, is himself seen to grin.
"Your wit, young sir," says he to Foote, "will take you far. Have a care that it does not take you over Holborn Hill in a cart."
Old Cibber and Foote make up their differences with snuff from the former's diamond-encrusted mull.
Macklin and Johnson fall to controversy concerning the art of the actor. Johnson, albeit the pacific Reynolds tries to lead away the talk to gentler fields, cannot repress his customary harshness.
"A player," cries Johnson, in rumbling insolence, "and what is he? Sir, a ballad-singer is a higher man, for he does two things: he recites and he sings, there is both recitation and music in his performance. Your player only recites."
"And yet, sir," says old Cibber, who thinks better of Johnson than Johnson does of him, "and yet, sir, Garrick tells me how you, yourself, have written a tragedy. If you have it by you, it would give me prodigious pleasure to read it."
"It is the tragedy of 'Irene,'" responds Johnson, his face beginning to glow. "I shall have the honor, sir, to send it to your house in the morning. It has not been acted."
"But it shall be acted," breaks in Garrick, "so soon as ever I call a stage my own."
Johnson and Garrick exchange looks; to one quick to perceive, it is plain how beneath the vanity of the one and the morose envy of the other, each for each carries sincere affection.
GARRICK DOES "KING LEAR"
The tea-drinking guests depart, while Peg and Garrick make ready for their short journey to Drury Lane where Lear must walk before his judges of the pit. Now they be alone, Garrick turns bitterly solemn; Peg dons a grave, sweet look.
As Garrick is ready for the street. Peg draws him to a seat beside her on a great, oaken settle that stands in the corner of the chimney.
"What is it, love?" asks Garrick, a trifle disturbed by Peg's gravity.
Peg collects herself; she knows the end is at hand.
"David, when is it to be?"
"Of what do you speak?" he replies. Then comes a flush, for he understands how it is their marriage she asks about.
"When are we to wed, David?"
"Let us put off this talk," says Garrick, a sudden irritation in his tones. "It may unstring the both of us; it may spoil my Lear to-night." This last he gets off in real terror.
"No, we will not put by this talk," returns Peg, firmly. "It has been put by too long as it is. As for your Lear, should I bind your heart to the rack, and torture it till it breaks, you'll but play the better for it. David, we must be wed to-night or not at all; I'll wait no longer."
"Peg," he replies, nervously, "don't be unreasonable. You know I love you."
"To-night it must be, or not at all," she repeats.
"Dear, it would be foolish."
"You have said enough, David." Peg's face is whiter now. "And yet, I knew it." Her great eyes fill up, and a sob catches in her throat. "After all," Peg continues, "it is better thus. Surely, it is good to know at last and truly where we stand with each other."
"I shall speak of this after the theatre," says Garrick, still in a flutter.
"Do you think so?" asks Peg, in a queer voice.
"And you, yourself, will look at it in another light to-morrow."
"Perhaps," says Peg.
It is a night when the taverns, the coffee-houses and the clubs give up their last man in favor of the theatre. Box and gallery, pit and stall, are packed; the high and the low are come. It is a throng much mixed; the noble rubs elbows with the nameless, St. James jostles St. Giles, and the butchers of Clare Market bicker for places with the beaux of Mayfair. If there be common ground in British taste where prince and peasant meet, it lies in this British passion for the play. And London town turns out to-night, for its fresh favorite, the young Garrick, and the beloved Woffington, will present "King Lear."
Garrick, for himself, was never more upon a strain; his talk with Peg burns him. Vaguely, he can tell how a calamity is pending, and how he stands within the shadow of disaster. In his shaken soul, he recalls the recent scene. Peg's manner was a threat of itself. What did she mean? What will she do? These, are the queries that set Garrick to be torn at by the wolves of long-toothed apprehension. His fear of unformed somethings that he cannot name, now drives him cold and hot.
Garrick's is a shallow nature, all ripple and sparkle and flash; Peg's currents flow more deeply, and Garrick cannot fathom them. To his vanity, there comes no thought how Peg may take herself from out his hands, and doom him to oaken loneliness in Bow street. That she should leave him is incredible; no such grim answer to his query of "What will she do?" once knocks at the door of his conceit. Nervous, irritable, morally as well as physically timid, our weak Garrick will fret himself into a very flame of wretchedness.
Garrick thinks on Peg and his coming Lear in one and the same breath. How will he play the part now that these love-doubts are crowding on his heart? His fears for a mighty failure begin to mount.
The curtain goes up.
Garrick is smitten of terrors and tremblings. But he finds Peg's words come true; though his heart be on the rack, he plays the better for it. Never has he so felt the surge and sweeps of genius to carry him along. Now is the mad old Lear a mad old Lear in very truth; and the critical pit, commonly so guarded and cold, is as much thrilled and played upon as ever the most darkened corner of the galleries.
Nor is our brilliant Peg one whit behind. The gentle, sweet Cordelia was never so gentle or so sweet as now when the great Woffington portrays her; and, when Garrick, as Lear, in mad simplicity puts wondering finger to her cheek, with the line, "Be these tears wet?—yes, faith!" it shocks him like a knife-stab to find on the face of Peg the wet, real tears, indeed.
Surely, for all the victory, there be acrid ones to carp, and hairsplit, and vent a spleen.
"He does not enter into the infirmities of a man four-score and upward," drawls Walpole, turning a languid eye on Chesterfield.
"The pit finds no fault, at least," responds the other, as he looks down upon the critics tossing in a storm of approbation.
"And he lacks dignity," continues the ineffable Walpole; "and his voice is too loud, and wants in sympathy. Now, the Irish jade does better, though her voice is worse than his. In the curse, too, he begins too low and ends too high."
Thus, vapidly, proceeds young Walpole in a dawdle of pretended criticism, until the crook-backed Pope comes into the box, and puts him to flight with the word that, in all his years, he has seen nothing to be the equal of that Lear.
"The dog is clever, Bracey," says old Colley, as he aids the ancient Mrs. Bracegirdle to call her chair at the close. "Yes, zooks! the dog has genius!"
"But the girl, Cibber," returns Mrs. Bracegirdle. "It was real grief she gave us, and a soul pierced through and through. I tell you that now, in my eightieth year, I've seen the true empress of the theatres."
"Davy is great," observes Johnson to Reynolds, as, taking the painter's arm, the two move away together. "Davy is assuredly great. And, while I look upon his acting, it strikes home to me how there is that to a great player, whether it be art or nature, which is beyond me either to grasp, appreciate or comprehend."
When, with the last curtain, Garrick is off the stage, he casts anxious, haggard eyes about for Peg. He hardly hears, and only half responds to, the commendations which break upon him like a tempest.
Where is his Peg? Not in the greenroom, truly; while a message to her dressing-room brings no response save the word that it is empty.
"She will be home before me," murmurs Garrick, in a flash of hope. "How deeply shall I congratulate her for to-night!"
Then, for the earliest time, a cold thought creeps about his heart like a snake; she may be lost to him.
Garrick hurries to their Bow-street house. He meets nothing save the lonesome, oaken rooms. These would seem to mock him, since no Peg is there. He wrings his hands, and tosses to and fro about the place. He calls Peg's name.
"Where is she?" he cries.
Far away in quiet Teddington, Peg is crying herself to sleep. This is hidden from Garrick; he knows only that he has lost her.
Will she return to him?
If the echoes be honest echoes, they will answer, "Never."
Broken and alone, Garrick sinks into Peg's chair, and weeps as for ruined hopes and dreams destroyed, The candles burn out in darkness; the fire dies on the hearth, and leaves the room as cheerless as his heart, And so, throughout the night, Garrick sits unhappy, mourning for his lost one; the hour of greatest triumph is the hour of his mightiest desolation.