"In society I have met Sheridan frequently; he was superb!" So said Byron, who had met him often and heard him quiz De Staël and snub Coleman, and who said that "Sheridan could soften even an attorney." "Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do," says Byron, "has been par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy ('School for Scandal'), the best drama ... the best farce ... and the best address (monologue on Garrick), and to crown all, delivered the very best oration (the famous Begum speech) ever conceived or heard in this country."
A wit rather than a humorist, an orator more than a statesman, a brilliant writer of comedy and farce, Sheridan was equally at home in the salons of the great, in the repartee of the clubs, in the badinage and persiflage of the green-room, or in the debates and conflicts of the House of Commons.
Born of a mother of whom Dr. Parr said, "I once or twice met his mother, she was quite celestial," and of a father who was a man of letters, the instructor of Wedderburne, and the manager of a theatre, he yet started in life without means or powerful friends, and rose to be—alas for him!—the friend of princes, in whom he put his trust, and more fortunately the support of Fox and the Whig party, and their finest orator. He lived to give to the stage a comedy so bright and witty, so graceful and mirthful, that it keeps its popularity to this day, and he added the weight of his genius to the persecution of Warren Hastings in a speech which worked an assembly, already excited by the eloquent imagery of Burke, into a frenzy of enthusiasm.
This man, with all his genius, wit, eloquence, and fascinating manners, with inherited and acquired abilities, who had overcome all obstacles, and stood in the first rank in society and in the House of Commons, died poor, worn out by debauchery, and with bailiffs about him. Nevertheless, in recognition of the purity of his political life, in admiration of his splendid talents, when he passed away he was carried, with the consent of the nation, to that Abbey to lie wherein is the secret hope of all our great men.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1731; his grandfather was a scholar and the friend of Swift; his father was an actor of some celebrity in his day, a rival of Garrick, a teacher of elocution, and the author of a well-known pronouncing dictionary; his mother was the authoress of several plays, novels, and other works now wholly forgotten. At nine years of age Brinsley was brought over to England and placed at Harrow, where Moore tells us that "he was remarkable only as a very idle, careless boy, who contrived to win the affections and even admiration of the whole school, both masters and pupils, by the mere charm of his frank, genial manners, and by the occasional gleams of superior intellect which broke through all the indolence and indifference of his character." At Harrow his scholastic education may be said to have commenced and ended, for his father's circumstances were not sufficiently flourishing to admit of his being sent to a university, and in his twentieth year we find him an idler in Bath society—in which city his father was acting at the time—writing, in conjunction with a schoolfellow named Halked, a three-act farce, which no manager would accept, translating the "Epistles of Aristænetus," publishing a miscellany, which never went, beyond the first number, and projecting other things which they fondly hoped would bring them fame and fortune, but which nobody appreciated except themselves. Some of the poems, however, that young Sheridan composed at this time, addressed to the reigning favorites of the pump-room, were far above mediocrity, although his invocations to Delia, and the complaints of Syl vio, would not be at all to modern taste.
Every one knows what the Bath of that day was like; it was the resort of valetudinarian reputations as well as of impaired constitutions, of gamblers, adventurers, fortune-hunters, scandal-mongers—and much worse. It was not a healthy atmosphere for a good-looking, fascinating, clever young fellow of twenty, who, his mother being dead, and his father being continually engaged in professional duties, was left to do very much as he liked and one of the least reprehensible things he did was to fall in love with the most beautiful and accomplished woman he met. This was the daughter of the well-known composer, Elizabeth Linley, the famous singer—called by some the fair maid of Bath, by others St. Cecilia—with whom every man was in love, including Brinsley's friend Halked, his own brother Charles, rich Mr. Long, Sir Thomas Clarges, and one Captain Matthews, a fashionable roué, a married man, who had known her from her childhood. The latter, a man of fortune and intellect, was a welcome and respected visitor at her father's house, and took advantage of his position to endeavor to entangle her affections. But young Sheridan won the victory over all his rivals, and to him Miss Linley told the story of Captain Matthews's persecutions—how he had sworn to destroy himself upon her refusing to see him; how, terrified by these threats, her resolution had given way; how, as soon as he entered the room where she was, he had drawn a pistol from his pocket and, after locking the door, threatened to shoot himself before her eyes if she did not bind herself to see him again upon his return from London; and how, when he found her inexorable to his base proposals, he had vowed to destroy her reputation. Brinsley, who knew the man well, instead of playing the part of a chivalric lover, insinuated himself into Matthews's confidence, in order to obtain proofs of his true designs—for Miss Linley, womanlike, was too apt to believe in the sincerity of his ravings. On the very evening that he brought her certain letters which placed the roué's villainous intentions beyond a doubt, he found her dangerously ill from a dose of poison which she had swallowed while in a state of distraction.
Antidotes being promptly applied, the young lady recovered, but so great was her mortification that she protested she would not remain in Bath another day, and Sheridan offered to escort her to France, and there place her in a convent. Having every confidence in his honor she consented, and, while her father and brother were engaged at a concert, she and her lover, accompanied by a maid, were dashing along the London road in a postchaise. Upon arriving in the metropolis he took her to a friend of his family's, who was no other than Charles Lamb's uncle, the tallow-chandler and theatre-goer, whom Elia has immortalized in one of his delightful essays, and who offered the runaways a passage on board one of his own ships that was just about to sail for Dunkirk. Soon after they arrived in France, Miss Linley became Mrs. Sheridan.
In the mean time Brinsley had received a copy of the Bath Chronicle, in which there was a furious attack upon himself by Matthews, and a threat to inflict public chastisement upon him the first time they met. No man of honor could live under such an insult in those days, and our young Benedick at once returned to England, challenged his calumniator, and a meeting was arranged in Hyde Park. The weapons were to be swords; the hour arranged was six in the evening; the spot the Ring, the Rotten Row of that time. Upon arriving there, however, Matthews objected to certain persons who were loitering about, and it was mutually agreed that the combatants should proceed to a coffee-house. After being refused accommodation at the Bedford they adjourned to a private room of the Castle Tavern, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. In a letter to Captain Knight, Matthews's second, Sheridan thus describes what followed: "Almost immediately on entering the room we engaged. I struck Mr. Matthews's point so much out of the line, that I stepped up and caught hold of his wrist, or the hilt of his sword, while the point of mine was at his breast. You ran in and caught hold of my arm exclaiming, 'Don't kill him.' I struggled hard to disengage my arm, and said his sword was in my power. Mr. Matthews called out twice or thrice, 'I beg my life.' We were parted ... Mr. Matthews then hinted that I was rather obliged to your interposition for the advantage; you declared that 'before you did so, both the swords were in Mr. Sheridan's power.' Mr. Matthews still seemed resolved to give it another turn, and observed that he had never quitted his sword. Provoked at this, I then swore that he should either give up his sword, and I would break it, or go to his guard again. He refused—but, on my persisting, either gave it into my hand, or flung it on the table or the ground (which, I will not absolutely affirm). I broke it, and flung the hilt to the other end of the room. He exclaimed at this. I took a mourning sword from Mr. Ewart, and presenting him with mine, gave my honor that what had passed should never be mentioned by me, and that he might now right himself again, He replied that he 'would never draw a sword against the man who had given him his life.'" After much altercation, and with very ill-grace, Matthews tendered an apology. But, according to Sheridan, this did not prevent his giving to the world a garbled account of the duel—which the reader will perceive was very far from being en règle. So a second meeting took place near Bath, with much the same result as the first. Both swords breaking at the first lunge, the two men grappled, fell to the ground, and rolling over and over hacked at each other with the pieces; the seconds looking quietly on.
After this Sheridan became the hero of the day; it was his first step to fame. At the time of her marriage Miss Linley was only eighteen years of age, and under articles of apprenticeship which bound her to her father until her twenty-first year. Yet she was not penniless; on the contrary, she was the possessor of £3,000, gained under the following curious circumstances. Of all her suitors the one most favored by her parents was naturally the very rich Mr. Long; but on being informed by her own lips that she could never give him her love, he, very magnanimously, not only renounced his pretensions, but settled the aforesaid sum upon her. Whether or not Mr. Linley approved of his daughter's matrimonial arrangements, he had to accept them as a fait accompli; but the young couple did not live together until the following year. On the 13th of April, 1773, the marriage ceremony was repeated in London, and the happy pair retired to a cottage at East Burnham. It is worthy of record, as displaying Sheridan's character in a highly favorable light, that, although his wife was engaged to sing at the Worcester Festival for several seasons at a remuneration of one thousand pounds for twelve performances, and although he at the time did not possess as many shillings, he steadily refused to allow her again to appear in public. Many in the present day will consider such scruples overstrained, yet none can deny their magnanimity. Another singular instance of this indifference to money, when opposed to principle, upon the part of a man who was ever in need of it, was related to Lady Morgan by Joseph Lefanu. Sheridan, he told her, once missed a legacy of £10,000 because he refused to go and see a relative in his last illness, lest his motives should be thought mercenary.
Probably the period passed in the little East Burnham cottage was the purest and happiest of all that chequered existence; often thereafter in his most brilliant days he looked back upon it with tender regret. But love in a cottage could not long content the restless and aspiring Brinsley. He returned to London, and entered himself as a barrister in the Middle Temple, while both he and his wife wrote for the periodicals. By-and-by, with the help of her £3,000, they set up a fashionable establishment in Orchard Street, Portman Square, gave dinners and parties, to which the attractions of the once fair maid of Bath, and the fame of her gallant young husband drew some of the best of London society. Indeed Mrs. Sheridan's soirées were one of the things of the season. Of course it was all done upon credit, and it first opened that abyss of debt which he was never throughout his life to succeed in closing again.
Reared in the atmosphere of the theatre, it was the most natural thing in the world that Brinsley should turn his thoughts in that direction, and, as the actor's art had no attraction for him, that he should write a play. Not at all favorable was the reception of his first venture, for "The Rivals," produced at Covent Garden on the 17th of January, 1775, was, on the first night, a decided failure. This was attributed to the bad acting of the Sir Lucius O'Trigger, and to the great length of the work. An old magazine of the period, in criticising the piece, informs us that "after a pretty warm contest towards the end of the last act, it was suffered to be given out for the ensuing night." It also hints that the friends of the author had expected that "it would meet with opposition from a certain quarter, as it was thought by many to have a close connection with a certain affair at Bath, in which the celebrated Miss Linley (now Mrs. Sheridan) was the subject of rivalship." This view seems to be borne out by the fact that sounds of disapprobation were heard even during the prologue, which was spoken by the favorite actor, Woodward. The piece was admirably cast—Shuter was the Sir Anthony; Quick, the Acres; Lewis, Falkland; Woodward, the Captain; Mrs. Green, Mrs. Malaprop. It was withdrawn, however, pruned, and a new Sir Lucius found, and from that time entered upon that career of public favor which has never been interrupted unto the present day. Contemporary criticism was not enthusiastic in its praise. It complained that the characters were not new—and certainly Mrs. Malaprop has a more than family likeness to Miss Tabitha Bramble, while Falkland bears a strong resemblance to Valentine in Wycherly's "Love in a Wood"—and that the work contained "many low quibbles and barbarous puns that disgrace the very name of comedy,"—what would the writer say to our modern productions?—that the acts were long, and in many parts uninteresting and tedious. The latter stricture was well applied to those dreary, sentimental scenes between Julia and Falkland, of which the modern playgoer has been much relieved by the stage-manager's pruning-knife. But if there was not something very excellent in the work it would not be as green and fresh to an audience of 1880 as it was to our forefathers of a hundred years ago. Mrs. Malaprop's "nice derangement of epitaphs," Captain Absolute's delicious impudence, and Bob Acres's newly invented oaths are as delightful as ever, and ever will be while a taste for true wit and humor survives, let the critics say what they will.
In the May of 1775, Sheridan brought out at Covent Garden a two-act farce entitled "St. Patrick's Day: or, the Scheming Lieutenant," written for Clinch, the second representative of Sir Lucius, in recognition of his admirable performance of that character; and on the 21st of the following November, one of his most popular works, "The Duenna," was first performed, and ran seventy-five nights to overflowing houses. There may be those yet living who remember its latest revival, with Vestris as Carlos; it had some delightful music— partly composed by Linley and partly borrowed from Rauzzini, Harrington, and old Irish melodies—wedded to charming words; many of the couplets are still quoted by those who probably never heard of the opera.
Garrick had always taken an interest in Sheridan, and the young man owed many of his best introductions to the great actor's favor. Upon the retirement of the latter from the management of Drury Lane in 1776, Brinsley, in partnership with Dr. Ford and his father-in-law, Linley, acquired Garrick's share of the patent for the sum of £35,000. Moore says that "the mode by which he conjured up at this time the money for the first purchase of the theatre remains, as far as I can learn, a mystery to this day." The money he had made by "The Rivals" and "The Duenna" must have gone long before, as sops to stop the mouths of clamorous creditors, yet without a sixpence he could call his own, he contrived to find £10,000. Verily Moore might well say, "There was something mysterious and miraculous about all his acquisitions—whether in love, in learning, in wit, or in wealth." Garrick might have assisted him, although there is no evidence to support the supposition.
The commencement of his managerial campaign was most disastrous: It opened with his alteration of Vanbrugh's "Relapse," which he rechristened " A Trip to Scarborough." It was the first attempt at Bowdlerizing the old comedies, and Sheridan was one of the first to discover that their wit evaporated with their grossness. It was emphatically damned the first night. The production of a mangled version of "The Tempest" fared scarcely better. The prospects of the new management were gloomy indeed. But in the mean time Sheridan was hard at work upon a new comedy that was destined to retrieve the fortunes of the theatre, and to constitute an era in the annals of dramatic literature. On the 6th of May, 1777, was first performed "The School for Scandal." The cast was exceptionally strong. Walpole says, "There were more parts admirably performed in 'The School for Scandal' than I almost ever saw in any play." King, Smith, Palmer, Parsons, Dodd, Baddeley, Yates, Mrs. Abington, Miss Pope, were seen in characters that fitted each like a glove. The success of the production was never for an instant doubtful, it rose with each act until it culminated in the inimitable screen-scene. "On the first night of 'The School for Scandal,' " writes George Frederick Reynolds, in his "Memoirs," "returning from Lincoln's Inn Fields about nine o'clock, and passing through the pit passage from Vinegar Yard to Brydges Street, I heard such a tremendous noise over my head, that, fearing the theatre was proceeding to fall about it, I ran for my life; but found, the next morning, that the noise did not arise from the falling of the house, but from the falling of the screen in the fourth act; so violent and tumultuous were the applause and laughter." Many years afterwards Sheridan told Byron that on that night he was knocked down and put into the watchhouse for making a row in the street, and being found intoxicated by the watchman.
The first sketch of this comedy, of which Moore gives a long account in his biography of Sheridan, was quite different to the finished play; there was neither a Sir Peter nor Lady Teazle, nor Mrs. Candour nor any other member of the scandalous coterie, save Lady Sneerwell, who was then called Lady Timewell; while Charles Surface had half-a-dozen different names before he settled down to his immortal cognomen. Nor does it contain any suggestion of the screen-scene. In a second sketch, the Teazles and Sir Oliver, here called Sir Roland Harpur, are brought in. The condensed and polished wit that now sparkles in every line was the effect of immense labor. "There is not a page," writes Moore, "that does not bear testimony to the fastidious care with which he selected and arranged and moulded his language so as to form it into the transparent channel of his thoughts which it is at present." Every part, with one exception, was re-written and re-polished sometimes six or seven times, and then with interlineations. The exception was the last act, which was not written until the play was announced for representation. On the last leaf of the original MS. was scribbled "Finished at last, thank God!" to which the prompter added, "Amen.— W. Hopkins!"
Every one is so familiar with "The School for Scandal," that it would be almost impertinent in so brief a sketch as the present to descant upon its merits. The screen-scene is probably the finest situation in the whole range of comedy, ancient or modern. But Sheridan, like Molière, took his property wherever he found it, and he found much of his "School for Scandal" in "Le Misanthrope," and more in Wycherly's "Plain Dealer;" while it has been suggested, very plausibly, that Tom Jones and Blifil suggested Charles and Joseph. The dialogue was certainly moulded upon that of Wycherly and Congreve; but, brilliant as it is, it does not equal that of the author of "Love for Love."
It was his last dramatic work of any importance. Michael Kelly once told him he would never write another comedy, as he was afraid of the author of "School for Scandal." But among his posthumous papers were found several sketches: one of a piece founded upon "The Vicar of Wakefield;" another of a comedy entitled "Affectation," in which he proposed to satirize all the forms of that folly. But he never went beyond a few memoranda, the names of three characters, and some detached sentences of dialogue which promised to equal in wit the utterances of the famous scandal-mongers.
But to return to our narrative. Such a success as that of "The School for Scandal" could not possibly escape the envy of rivals and enemies, who invented all kinds of stories to rob the author of his glory. One reported that the comedy was written by a young lady who had left the MS. at the stage door, and who died of consumption before it was performed. It is certainly very like the production of a consumptive young lady! Another assigned the authorship to Mrs. Sheridan. For years afterwards it was pointed out as a significant fact, by the supporters of these theories, that Sheridan, although several times offered a large sum, would never sell the copyright. Consequently there is no edition of the play authenticated by him; that now used by the theatres having been printed from a manuscript which he lent his sister, who obtained £100 from the manager of the Dublin Theatre for its use. The secret of this reticence is contained in the following sentence—a reply to one of the many applications he received from publishers: "I have been endeavoring for nineteen years to satisfy myself with the style of 'The School for Scandal,' and have not succeeded yet."
In 1778 he purchased another share of the Drury Lane patent. But notwithstanding this voluntary increase of his liabilities—for which again no one knew how he obtained the money—and the success of his comedy, Sheridan was overwhelmed with debt, and the management of the theatre was disgraceful. Salaries were unpaid, even in the most menial departments; actors refused to perform, in consequence of which the audience were frequently disappointed; the scenery and dresses would have disgraced a fifth-rate theatre; letters, sometimes of momentous importance, some even containing bank-notes, were unopened, accumulated in heaps, and were then burned to save the trouble of reading. Such was the condition of his affairs within the first two years of his lesseeship. But bad as was the beginning, as we shall presently see, worse remained behind.
On October 30, 1778, he brought out the still famous burlesque of "The Critic," written to ridicule Cumberland—who figures as Sir Fretful Plagiary—and his tragedies. Two days before the night of performance the last scene of the piece was not written. In vain did King, then stage-manager, remonstrate, entreat; Sheridan's invariable answer was that he was just going home to finish it. As a last resource Linley ordered a night rehearsal, and that day made his dilatory son-in-law dine with him; after dinner he proposed they should stroll to the theatre. There they found Ford. Presently King came up and, requesting a few words, led the way into the small greenroom, where there were a good fire, a comfortable armchair, a table upon which were pens, ink, paper, two bottles of claret, a dish of anchovy toast, and the unfinished manuscript of "The Critic." As soon as Sheridan was in the room, King went out and locked the door behind him; then Linley and Ford avowed their intention of keeping him prisoner until the piece was concluded. And, rather enjoying the joke, Sheridan at once set to work and performed his task.
He was now a man of fashion; his genius and incomparable wit procured him admission into the highest circles, he was the associate of Burke and Townshend, the boon companion of the Prince of Wales, Fox, and Selwyn; and the time that should have been devoted to his business, was spent in the pleasures and dissipations of society. In 1780 he entered Parliament as member for Stafford. The first speech delivered by one who was destined to be one of the most brilliant orators that ever declaimed the English language, was so great a failure that Woodfall counselled him to speak no more. "But it is in me," replied Sheridan, nothing daunted, "and by God it shall come out!" How he worked to attain this end is well described by a by no means friendly biographer, Lord Brougham. "With an ample share of literary and dramatic reputation, hut not certainly of the kind most auspicious for a statesman; with the most slender provision of knowledge at all likely to be useful in political affairs; with a position by birth and profession little suited to command the respect of the most aristocratic country in Europe—the son of an actor, the manager himself of a theatre—he came into that Parliament which was enlightened by the vast and various knowledge, as well as fortified and adorned by the more choice literary fame of a Burke, and which owned the sway of consummate orators like Fox and Pitt. ... What he wanted in acquired learning and in natural quickness, he made up by indefatigable industry: within given limits, towards a present object, no labor could daunt him; no man could work for a season with more steady and unwearied application. ... By constant practice in small matters, or before private committees, by diligent attendance upon all debates, by habitual intercourse with all dealers in political wares, from the chiefs of parties and their more refined coteries to the providers of daily discussion for the public and the chroniclers of Parliamentary speeches, he trained himself to a facility of speaking absolutely essential to all but first-rate genius, and all but necessary even to that; and he acquired what acquaintance with the science of politics he ever possessed, or his speeches ever betrayed." But of his eloquence little more than the tradition remains to us. The most famous of all his speeches was that against the Begum, princess of Oude (1787), which held the House of Commons entranced during five hours and a half, which Burke declared to be the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit combined of which there was any record or tradition, of which Fox said that all he had ever heard or read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, which even his political opponent, Pitt, pronounced to surpass all the eloquence of ancient or modern times. It must be confessed, however, that the shorthand notes which have come down to posterity scarcely bear out this unqualified praise, and that Sheridan himself was doubtful of the effect it would produce upon a calm perusal is indicated by the fact that he refused a thousand pounds for its publication. Brougham was of opinion that it owed a portion of its success "to the artist-like elaboration and beautiful delivery of certain fine passages, rather than to the merits of the whole. ... His worst passages by far were those which he evidently preferred himself: full of imagery often far-fetched, often gorgeous, and loaded with point that drew the attention of the hearer away from the thoughts to the words; and his best by far were those where he declaimed, with his deep, clear voice, though somewhat thick utterance, with a fierce defiance of some adversary, or an unappeasable vengeance against some oppressive act; or reasoned rapidly, in the like tone, upon some plain matter of fact, or exposed as plainly to homely ridicule some puerile sophism; and in all this his admirable manner was aided by an eye singularly piercing, and a countenance which, though coarse, and even in some features gross, was yet animated and expressive, and could easily assume the figure of both rage and menace, and scorn." But whether his powers of oratory were or were not overrated the effect they produced upon his auditors is indisputable, and during the trial of Warren Hastings, not even the speeches of Burke and Fox created so much interest and expectancy as did that of Sheridan. When he spoke the court was crowded to suffocation, and as much as fifty guineas was offered for a ticket of admission.
His political career would require an article to itself, and it would not be an interesting one; he was simply an orator, and Brougham's comment that "as a statesman he is without a place in any class, or of any rank ... he was no statesman at all," is not perhaps too emphatic. As a politician he ranged with the Liberal party, and, upon the breaking out of the French Revolution, with that section led by Fox; but after the rise of Napoleon patriotic feelings reasserted themselves, and breaking with the admirers of the despot he went over to the more constitutional division of the Whigs. He was always an ardent supporter of the Prince of Wales, with whom he lived upon terms of the closest intimacy, and he did him good service in the debates upon the Regency Bill, 1789,—to prove thereafter the proverbial ingratitude of princes.
But while he was every day becoming more world-famous as a politician, orator, and man of fashion, his domestic affairs were growing more and more hopelessly embarrassed. His father undertook for a short time the management of the theatre, but very soon wearied of the terrible task and retired. Only Sheridan himself, thanks to his marvellous powers of fascination, could have possibly fended off during so many years the ever-impending catastrophe. Unpaid actors, servants, tradespeople, all yielded to that magic influence. Fannie Kemble in her "Records" gives, from her mother's recollections, a sad picture of the state of the employés of the theatre—how on Saturday mornings, when salaries had not been paid for some time, the workpeople would assail Sheridan on the way to the treasury with, "For God's sake, Mr. Sheridan, pay us our salaries. For heaven's sake, Mr. Sheridan, let us have something this week." "Certainly, certainly, my good people," he would reply, "you shall be attended to directly." "Then he would go into the treasury, sweep it clean of the whole week's receipts (the salaries of the principal actors, whom he dared not offend, or could not dispense with, being, if not wholly, partially paid), and going out of the building another way, leave the poor people, who had cried to him for their arrears of wages, baffled and cheated of their labors for another week." Yet a day or two afterwards he had but to appear among them with a smile, a few kindly words and promises, and they would be as eager to serve him as ever.
Bunn, in "The Stage," tells the following capital story in illustration of his powers of softening a creditor. Sheridan's coal-merchant, one Robert Mitchell, had a heavy demand against him for coals, which he could not get settled. One day, having lost all patience, he attacked the great manager mercilessly, and swore he would not leave the house without the whole of his money, which amounted to several hundred pounds. Sheridan had not so many shillings in his possession at the time. "It's very true, my dear Bob, all that you say," replied Sheridan; "I'm really very sorry, but I say, Bob, you don't want it all to-day, hey? won't a part do?" "No, sir," retorted the enraged creditor, "it won't. I must have it, 1 will have it; I daren't go home without every farthing of it. My wife is distracted, my house is beset with creditors, and, by G—d, I won't leave this room without the money." "Wouldn't half do to-day," pleaded the manager, "and a bill for the remainder?" No, the coal-merchant would have his bond to the utmost farthing. Then Sheridan paused, and in a voice of deep emotion exclaimed: "Then would to heaven I could assist you! I cannot; but" (diving a hand into his pocket) "one thing I can, I will, I ought to do—there," grasping Mitchell's hand, "never let it be said that while Sheridan had a guinea in his pocket he refused it to his friend, Bob Mitchell." Mitchell stood aghast for a moment, then, pocketing the guinea, rushed out of the house, and to the latest hour of his life he never tired of displaying the last guinea that his friend Sheridan had in the world.
Michael Kelly relates another story as good. During the time that he was acting manager of Drury Lane, the narrator became responsible for a debt he had contracted for the theatre, and Sheridan, as usual, failing to meet it, Kelly was arrested. Sheridan at once sent for the hard-hearted creditor, remonstrated with him upon his cruelty, reasoned with him upon the hardship of the law of imprisonment for debt, pointed out that he had acted in an arbitrary, unchristian manner, until he had so thoroughly softened and convinced him that before the man left the house, Sheridan had borrowed two hundred pounds of him, and left upon his mind an impression that he had been highly favored by the great manager deigning to accept the favor. A creditors' levee was held daily in his house; his library, parlor, butler's room, and even the staircase were every morning filled with a motley crowd, anxiously listening for the sound of his footstep. When at last he came, elegantly dressed, all smiles and urbanity, shaking hands with one, nodding to another, he seemed to cast a charm over all; fellows that had been raging like tigers a few minutes before, could scarcely summon the courage to state their errand, while others seemed actually to forget what brought them there. Byron relates in his journals, how he once found Sheridan at his lawyer's, and learned that he had come to stave off an action from his wine-merchant: "I can vouch," says Byron, "that my attorney is by no means the tenderest of men, or particularly accessible to any kind of impression out of the statute or record; and yet Sheridan in half an hour had found the way to soften and subdue him in such a manner, that I almost think he would have thrown his client (an honest man with all the laws, and some justice on his side) out of the window, had he come in at that moment." His cool assurance never failed him in an extremity. One night he was stopped by footpads in company with Challie, the wine-merchant. "My friend can accommodate you," he said to the fellows, "and as for myself, I tell you what I can do, I can give you my note of hand."
Another story of the same kind, told by Byron, is yet better. Writing to Moore (1815) he says: "Perhaps you heard of a late answer of Sheridan to the watchman, who found him bereft of that 'divine particle of air' called reason. He, the watchman, who found Sherry in the street fuddled and bewildered, and almost insensible: 'Who are you, sir?' No answer. 'What's your name?'—a hiccup. 'What's your name?' Answer, in a slow, deliberate, impressive tone: 'Wilberforce!'"
While treasurer of the navy he gave a banquet to the Prince of Wales at Somerset House. But, fearful of an execution being levied, he had neither furniture nor decorations for the rooms, and had to borrow these from the Drury Lane property-room, while certain friendly bailiffs were put in possession, and, dressed in handsome liveries, waited upon the guests.
Godlike in giving—a devil to pay,
wrote Tom Moore. For he was as generous as he was unjust, and would fre quently give away to a person in distress the money of which another to whom it was due was equally in want.
In 1792 his wife died. "I never," says Michael Kelly in his "Reminiscences," "beheld more poignant grief than Mr. Sheridan felt for his beloved wife; and though the world which knew him only as a public man, will perhaps scarcely credit the fact, I have night after night seen him sit and cry like a child, while I sang to him, at his desire, a pathetic little song of my composition,—
They bore her to a grassy grave."
There is something infinitely charming in this touch of tenderness, coming like a note of sweet music in the midst of this worldly, artificial life. I am afraid poor "St. Cecilia," notwithstanding the social advantages of being the wife of the famous Mr. Sheridan, might have often regretted that trip to France and its consequences. She was an excellent partner, however, who assisted him in all his pursuits: kept his accounts, read the plays submitted to the theatre, made extracts from State papers for his speeches, and entered heart and soul into everything.
He married again three years after wards. His second wife was a Miss Ogle, a daughter of the Dean of Winchester. The story of the courtship and marriage is a curious one. They first met at a party at Devonshire House; years of dissipation had sadly disfigured his once handsome features, and only his brilliant eyes were left to redeem a nose and cheeks too purple in hue for beauty. "What a fright!" exclaimed Miss Ogle, loud enough for him to hear. Instead of being annoyed by the remark, he at once engaged her in conversation, put forth all his powers of fascination, and resolved to make her not only reverse her opinion, but to fall in love with him. At their second meeting she thought him ugly, but extremely fascinating. A week or two afterwards, he had so far succeeded in his design that she declared she could not live without him. Her father refused his consent unless Sheridan could settle £15,000 upon her, and, in his usual miraculous way, he found the required sum. But they were totally unsuited to one another, and the marriage was by no means a happy one.
In 1799 he brought out his last dramatic work, "Pizarro," an adaptation from Kotzebue. Many will still remember Charles Kean's revival of this ranting, stilted, bombastic tragedy but it suited the taste of the day, and the political significance of several of the speeches, more especially that of Rolla, the Peruvian hero, who in his address to the soldiers institutes a comparison between the Spaniards and Peruvians that the audience eagerly applied to France and England, secured it enormous popularity. But his usual dilatoriness imperilled its success on the night. When the curtain rose he was in his room writing the last act, which, with the most profuse apologies, was sent down bit by bit to be studied by Kemble and Mrs. Siddons, during their waits in the early part of the play. The receipts of the first sixty nights' performances amounted to £60,000, and he received as much as £2,000 for the copyright.
But the inevitable Nemesis that sooner or later overtakes all such men, was now close upon his heels. On the 24th of February, 1809, Drury Lane Theatre, which had been rebuilt only ten years previously at a cost of £150,000, was burned to the ground. There is a story which relates how, while the theatre was burning, Sheridan was coolly sitting in a tavern close by, sipping his wine, and, upon some one remonstrating with him, he replied, with inimitable sang-froid, "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside." Michael Kelly, however, who was his acting manager at the time, and present at the catastrophe, tells a very different tale. He says that there was no performance on that night, and that Sheridan was at the House when the news was brought him. Out of respect to him a motion of adjournment was made, but he opposed it, saying, that "Whatever might be the extent of his private calamity, he hoped it would not be allowed to interfere with the affairs of the nation," moved that the debate should be proceeded with, and calmly kept his seat.
The directors of the theatre were naturally desirous to get rid of a manager who by his recklessness was grievously depreciating their property, and it was agreed that Sheridan should be bought out for £28,000, which sum was not to be paid until the house was rebuilt. Whitbread, the brewer, who started the proposition and undertook to carry it out, had the perhaps not enviable distinction of being the only man who was ever known to resist Sheridan's powers of persuasion; in vain did the fallen genius entreat him to advance a portion of the money which was his due before the stipulated time had expired, in order that he might meet his election expenses at Stafford. The man of beer was inexorable, and Sheridan lost his seat. This was the last blow. His furniture, his jewels, his pictures, all he possessed, were seized by his creditors, and he himself consigned to a sponging house.
Moore, in his "Life of Sheridan," as well as in the scathing monody on his death, bitterly denounces the "velvet friends" who forsook him in his distress,
Who could bask in that spirit's meridian career,
And yet leave it thus lonely and dark at its close,
and more especially the prince, whose cause he had so well served in the early days of the regency. A writer, however, in the Edinburgh Review, soon after the publication of the biography, endeavored to place the prince's conduct in a more favorable light by stating that he sent his unfortunate friend £4,000 towards paying his liabilities, which amounted in all to only £5,000, but that the money was either attached by the creditors, or dissipated in such a manner that it was useless to him. Neither his wife—a lymphatic creature, with very little heart—nor her friends gave him any assistance, although, as we have seen, he settled £15,000 upon her; and gradually he sank into penury and misery.
At the beginning of the year 1816, when his last illness had just come upon him, a paragraph, supposed to have been penned by Moore, appeared in the Morning Post, calling attention to his condition. "Nothing could be more wretched than the home in which he lay dying," says an eye-witness: "there were strange-looking people in the hall; the parlor seemed dismantled; on the table lay a bit of paper thrown carelessly and neglected—it was a prescription." In his last moments a sheriff's officer arrested him, and would have carried him away in the blankets to a sponging-house, had not the physician in attendance threatened to make the fellow responsible should the patient die in consequence.
His death occurred on the 17th of July, 1816, he being then in the sixty-fifth year of his age. He died at his house in Saville Row, but the body was conveyed to the house of his friend, Mr. Peter Moore, in Great George Street, as being more convenient for a walking funeral to the Abbey. The Dukes of York and Sussex were mourners; the Duke of Bedford, the Earl of Lauderdale, Earl Mulgrave, Lord Holland, the Bishop of London, and Lord Spencer, were pall-bearers.
How proud they can press to the fun'ral array
Of one whom they shunned in his sickness and sorrow;
How bailiffs may seize his last blanket to-day,
Whose pall shall be held up by nobles tomorrow!
- His valet used to relate that, one morning upon throwing open his master's bedroom windows, he found them stuffed up with papers, among which were several bank-notes: there had been a high wind in the night, the windows had rattled, and for want of something better he had stuffed the hank-notes into the casement, and being intoxicated at the time never missed them.
- Historical Sketches of the Statesmen of the Time of George III.