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 DURING the garden scene, Mr. Vane had begged Mrs. Woffington to let him accompany her. She peremptorily2 refused, and said in the same breath she was going to Triplet, in Hercules Buildings, to have her portrait finished.  
Had Mr. Vane understood the sex, he would not have interpreted her refusal to the letter; when there was a postscript4, the meaning of which was so little enigmatical.
Some three hours after the scene we have described, Mrs. Woffington sat in Triplet's apartment; and Triplet, palette in hand, painted away upon her portrait.
Mrs. Woffington was in that languid state which comes to women after their hearts have received a blow. She felt as if life was ended, and but the dregs of existence remained; but at times a flood of bitterness rolled over her, and she resigned all hope of perfect happiness in this world—all hope of loving and respecting the same creature; and at these moments she had but one idea—to use her own power, and bind5 her lover to her by chains never to be broken; and to close her eyes, and glide6 down the precipice7 of the future.
“I think you are master of this art,” said she, very languidly, to Triplet, “you paint so rapidly.”
“Yes, madam,” said Triplet, gloomily; and painted on. “Confound this shadow!” added he; and painted on.
His soul, too, was clouded. Mrs. Woffington, yawning in his face, had told him she had invited all Mr. Vane's company to come and praise his work; and ever since that he had been morne et silencieux.
“You are fortunate,” continued Mrs. Woffington, not caring what she said; “it is so difficult to make execution keep pace with conception.”
“Yes, ma'am;” and he painted on.
“You are satisfied with it?”
“Anything but, ma'am;” and he painted on.
“Cheerful soul!—then I presume it is like?”
“Not a bit, ma'am;” and he painted on.
Mrs. Woffington stretched.
“You can't yawn, ma'am—you can't yawn.”
“Oh, yes, I can. You are such good company;” and she stretched again.
“I was just about to catch the turn of the lip,” remonstrated8 Triplet.
“Well, catch it—it won't run away.”
“I'll try, ma'am. A pleasant half-hour it will be for me, when they all come here like cits at a shilling ordinary—each for his cut.”
“At a sensitive goose!”
“That is as may be, madam. Those critics flay9 us alive!”
“You should not hold so many doors open to censure10.”
“No, ma'am. Head a little more that way. I suppose you can't sit quiet, ma'am?—then never mind!” (This resignation was intended as a stinging reproach.) “Mr. Cibber, with his sneering11 snuff-box! Mr. Quin, with his humorous bludgeon! Mrs. Clive, with her tongue! Mr. Snarl12, with his abuse! And Mr. Soaper, with his praise!—arsenic in treacle13 I call it! But there, I deserve it all! For look on this picture, and on this!”
“Meaning, I am painted as well as my picture!”
“Oh, no, no, no! But to turn from your face, madam—on which the lightning of expression plays, continually—to this stony14, detestable, dead daub!—I could—And I will, too! Imposture15! dead caricature of life and beauty, take that!” and he dashed his palette-knife through the canvas. “Libelous lie against nature and Mrs. Woffington, take that!” and he stabbed the canvas again; then, with sudden humility16: “I beg your pardon, ma'am,” said he, “for this apparent outrage17, which I trust you will set down to the excitement attendant upon failure. The fact is, I am an incapable18 ass19, and no painter! Others have often hinted as much; but I never observed it myself till now!”
“Right through my pet dimple!” said Mrs. Woffington, with perfect nonchalance20. “Well, now I suppose I may yawn, or do what I like?”
“You may, madam,” said Triplet, gravely. “I have forfeited21 what little control I had over you, madam.”
So they sat opposite each other, in mournful silence. At length the actress suddenly rose. She struggled fiercely against her depression, and vowed22 that melancholy23 should not benumb her spirits and her power.
“He ought to have been here by this time,” said she to herself. “Well, I will not mope for him. I must do something. Triplet,” said she.
“No, madam.”
She sat gently down again, and leaned her head on her hand, and thought. She was beautiful as she thought!—her body seemed bristling24 with mind! At last, her thoughtful gravity was illumined by a smile. She had thought out something excogitaverat.
“Triplet, the picture is quite ruined!”
“Yes, madam. And a coach-load of criticism coming!”
“Triplet, we actors and actresses have often bright ideas.”
“Yes, ma am.”
“When we take other people's!”
“He, he!” went Triplet. “Those are our best, madam!”
“Well, sir, I have got a bright idea.”
“You don't say so, ma'am!”
“Don't be a brute25, dear!” said the lady gravely.
Triplet stared!
“When I was in France, taking lessons of Dumesnil, one of the actors of the Theatre Francais had his portrait painted by a rising artist. The others were to come and see it. They determined26, beforehand, to mortify27 the painter and the sitter, by abusing the work in good set terms. But somehow this got wind, and the patients resolved to be the physicians. They put their heads together, and contrived28 that the living face should be in the canvas, surrounded by the accessories; these, of course, were painted. Enter the actors, who played their little prearranged farce29; and, when they had each given the picture a slap, the picture rose and laughed in their faces, and discomfited30 them! By the by, the painter did not stop there; he was not content with a short laugh, he laughed at them five hundred years!”
“Good gracious, Mrs. Woffington!”
“He painted a picture of the whole thing; and as his work is immortal31, ours an April snow-flake, he has got tremendously the better of those rash little satirists. Well, Trip, what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose; so give me the sharpest knife in the house.”
Triplet gave her a knife, and looked confused, while she cut away the face of the picture, and by dint34 of scraping, cutting, and measuring, got her face two parts through the canvas. She then made him take his brush and paint all round her face, so that the transition might not be too abrupt35. Several yards of green baize were also produced. This was to be disposed behind the easel, so as to conceal36 her.
Triplet painted here, and touched and retouched there. While thus occupied, he said, in his calm, resigned way: “It won't do, madam. I suppose you know that?”
“I know nothing,” was the reply: “life is a guess. I don't think we could deceive Roxalana and Lucy this way, because their eyes are without colored spectacles; but, when people have once begun to see by prejudices and judge by jargon37 what can't be done with them? Who knows? do you? I don't; so let us try.”
“I beg your pardon, madam; my brush touched your face.”
“No offense38, sir; I am used to that. And I beg, if you can't tone the rest of the picture up to me, that you will instantly tone me down to the rest. Let us be in tune39, whatever it costs, sir.”
“I will avail myself of the privilege, madam, but sparingly. Failure, which is certain, madam, will cover us with disgrace.”
“Nothing is certain in this life, sir, except that you are a goose. It succeeded in France; and England can match all Europe for fools. Besides, it will be well done. They say Davy Garrick can turn his eyes into bottled gooseberries. Well, Peg40 Woffington will turn hers into black currants. Haven't you done? I wonder they have not come. Make haste!”
“They will know by its beauty I never did it.”
“That is a sensible remark, Trip. But I think they will rather argue backward; that, as you did it, it cannot be beautiful, and so cannot be me. Your reputation will be our shield.”
“Well, madam, now you mention it, they are like enough to take that ground. They despise all I do; if they did not—”
“You would despise them.”
At this moment the pair were startled by the sound of a coach. Triplet turned as pale as ashes. Mrs. Woffington had her misgivings42; but, not choosing to increase the difficulty, she would not let Triplet, whose self-possession she doubted, see any sign of emotion in her.
“Lock the door,” said she, firmly, “and don't be silly. Now hold up my green baize petticoat, and let me be in a half-light. Now put that table and those chairs before me, so that they can't come right up to me; and, Triplet, don't let them come within six yards, if you can help it. Say it is unfinished, and so must be seen from a focus.”
“A focus! I don't know what you mean.”
“No more do I; no more will they, perhaps; and if they don't they will swallow it directly. Unlock the door. Are they coming?”
“They are only at the first stair.”
“Mr. Triplet, your face is a book, where one may read strange matters. For Heaven's sake, compose yourself. Let all the risk lie in one countenance43. Look at me, sir. Make your face like the Book of Daniel in a Jew's back parlor44. Volto Sciolto is your cue.”
“Madam, madam, how your tongue goes! I hear them on the stairs. Pray don't speak!”
“Do you know what we are going to do?” continued the tormenting45 Peggy. “We are going to weigh goose's feathers! to criticise46 criticism, Trip—”
Hush47! hush!”
A grampus was heard outside the door, and Triplet opened it. There was Quin leading the band.
“Have a care, sir,” cried Triplet; “there is a hiatus the third step from the door.”
“A gradus ad Parnassum a wanting,” said Mr. Cibber.
Triplet's heart sank. The hole had been there six months, and he had found nothing witty48 to say about it, and at first sight Mr. Cibber had done its business. And on such men he and his portrait were to attempt a preposterous50 delusion51. Then there was Snarl, who wrote critiques on painting, and guided the national taste. The unlucky exhibitor was in a cold sweat. He led the way, like a thief going to the gallows52.
“The picture being unfinished, gentlemen,” said he, “must, if you would do me justice, be seen from a—a focus; must be judged from here, I mean.”
“Where, sir?” said Mr. Cibber.
“About here, sir, if you please,” said poor Triplet faintly.
“It looks like a finished picture from here,” said Mrs. Clive.
“Yes, madam,” groaned53 Triplet.
They all took up a position, and Triplet timidly raised his eyes along with the rest. He was a little surprised. The actress had flattened54 her face! She had done all that could be done, and more than he had conceived possible, in the way of extracting life and the atmosphere of expression from her countenance. She was “dead still!”
There was a pause. Triplet fluttered. At last some of them spoke56 as follows:
Soaper. “Ah!”
Quin. “Ho!”
Clive. “Eh!”
Cibber. “Humph!”
These interjections are small on paper, but as the good creatures uttered them they were eloquent57; there was a cheerful variety of dispraise skillfully thrown into each of them.
“Well,” continued Soaper, with his everlasting58 smile.
Then the fun began.
“May I be permitted to ask whose portrait this is?” said Mr. Cibber slyly.
“I distinctly told you, it was to be Peg Woffington's,” said Mrs. Clive. “I think you might take my word.”
“Do you act as truly as you paint?” said Quin.
“Your fame runs no risk from me, sir!” replied Triplet.
“It is not like Peggy's beauty! Eh?” rejoined Quin.
“I can't agree with you,” cried Kitty Clive. “I think it a very pretty face; and not at all like Peg Woffington's.”
“Compare paint with paint,” said Quin. “Are you sure you ever saw down to Peggy's real face?”
Triplet had seen with alarm that Mr. Snarl spoke not; many satirical expressions crossed his face, but he said nothing. Triplet gathered from this that he had at once detected the trick. “Ah!” thought Triplet, “he means to quiz them, as well as expose me. He is hanging back; and, in point of fact, a mighty59 satirist32 like Snarl would naturally choose to quiz six people rather than two.”
“Now I call it beautiful!” said the traitor60 Soaper. “So calm and reposeful61; no particular expression.”
“None whatever,” said Snarl.
“Gentlemen,” said Triplet, “does it never occur to you that the fine arts are tender violets, and cannot blow when the north winds—”
“Blow!” inserted Quin.
“Are so cursed cutting?” continued Triplet.
“My good sir, I am never cutting!” smirked62 Soaper. “My dear Snarl,” whined63 he, “give us the benefit of your practiced judgment64. Do justice to this ad-mirable work of art,” drawled the traitor.
“I will!” said Mr. Snarl; and placed himself before the picture.
“What on earth will he say?” thought Triplet. “I can see by his face he has found us out.”
Mr. Snarl delivered a short critique. Mr. Snarl's intelligence was not confined to his phrases; all critics use intelligent phrases and philosophical65 truths. But this gentleman's manner was very intelligent; it was pleasant, quiet, assured, and very convincing. Had the reader or I been there, he would have carried us with him, as he did his hearers; and as his successors carry the public with them now.
“Your brush is by no means destitute66 of talent, Mr. Triplet,” said Mr. Snarl. “But you are somewhat deficient67, at present, in the great principles of your art; the first of which is a loyal adherence68 to truth. Beauty itself is but one of the forms of truth, and nature is our finite exponent69 of infinite truth.”
His auditors70 gave him a marked attention. They could not but acknowledge that men who go to the bottom of things like this should be the best instructors71.
“Now, in nature, a woman's face at this distance—ay, even at this short distance—melts into the air. There is none of that sharpness; but, on the contrary, a softness of outline.” He made a lorgnette of his two hands; the others did so too, and found they saw much better—oh, ever so much better! “Whereas yours,” resumed Snarl, “is hard; and, forgive me, rather tea-board like. Then your chiaro scuro, my good sir, is very defective72; for instance, in nature, the nose, intercepting73 the light on one side the face, throws, of necessity, a shadow under the eye. Caravaggio, Venetians generally, and the Bolognese masters, do particular justice to this. No such shade appears in this portrait.”
“'Tis so, stop my vitals!” observed Colley Cibber. And they all looked, and, having looked, wagged their heads in assent74—as the fat, white lords at Christie's waggle fifty pounds more out for a copy of Rembrandt, a brown levitical Dutchman, visible in the pitch-dark by some sleight75 of sun Newton had not wit to discover.
Soaper dissented76 from the mass.
“But, my dear Snarl, if there are no shades, there are lights, loads of lights.”
“There are,” replied Snarl; “only they are impossible, that is all. You have, however,” concluded he, with a manner slightly supercilious77, “succeeded in the mechanical parts; the hair and the dress are well, Mr. Triplet; but your Woffington is not a woman, not nature.”
They all nodded and waggled assent; but this sagacious motion was arrested as by an earthquake.
The picture rang out, in the voice of a clarion78, an answer that outlived the speaker: “She's a woman! for she has taken four men in! She's nature! for a fluent dunce doesn't know her when he sees her!”
Imagine the tableau79! It was charming! Such opening of eyes and mouths! Cibber fell by second nature into an attitude of the old comedy. And all were rooted where they stood, with surprise and incipient80 mortification81, except Quin, who slapped his knee, and took the trick at its value.
Peg Woffington slipped out of the green baize, and, coming round from the back of the late picture, stood in person before them; while they looked alternately at her and at the hole in the canvas. She then came at each of them in turn, more dramatico.
“A pretty face, and not like Woffington. I owe you two, Kate Clive.”
“Who ever saw Peggy's real face? Look at it now if you can without blushing, Mr. Quin.”
Quin, a good-humored fellow, took the wisest view of his predicament, and burst into a hearty82 laugh.
“For all this,” said Mr. Snarl, peevishly83, “I maintain, upon the unalterable principles of art—” At this they all burst into a roar, not sorry to shift the ridicule85. “Goths!” cried Snarl, fiercely. “Good-morning, ladies and gentlemen,” cried Mr. Snarl, avec intention, “I have a criticism to write of last night's performance.” The laugh died away to a quaver. “I shall sit on your pictures one day, Mr. Brush.”
“Don't sit on them with your head downward, or you'll addle86 them,” said Mr. Brush, fiercely. This was the first time Triplet had ever answered a foe87. Mrs. Woffington gave him an eloquent glance of encouragement. He nodded his head in infantine exultation88 at what he had done.
“Come, Soaper,” said Mr. Snarl.
Mr. Soaper lingered one moment to say: “You shall always have my good word, Mr. Triplet.”
“I will try—and not deserve it, Mr. Soaper,” was the prompt reply.
“Serve 'em right,” said Mr. Cibber, as soon as the door had closed upon them; “for a couple of serpents, or rather one boa-constrictor. Soaper slavers, for Snarl to crush. But we were all a little too hard on Triplet here; and, if he will accept my apology—”
“Why, sir,” said Triplet, half trembling, but driven on by looks from Mrs. Woffington, “'Cibber's Apology' is found to be a trifle wearisome.”
“Confound his impertinence!” cried the astounded89 laureate. “Come along, Jemmy.”
“Oh, sir,” said Quin, good-humoredly, “we must give a joke and take a joke. And when he paints my portrait—which he shall do—”
“The bear from Hockley Hole shall sit for the head!”
“Curse his impudence90!” roared Quin. “I'm at your service, Mr. Cibber,” added he, in huge dudgeon.
Away went the two old boys.
“Mighty well!” said waspish Mrs. Clive. “I did intend you should have painted Mrs. Clive. But after this impertinence—”
“You will continue to do it yourself, ma'am!”
This was Triplet's hour of triumph. His exultation was undignified, and such as is said to precede a fall. He inquired gravely of Mrs. Woffington, whether he had or had not shown a spirit. Whether he had or had not fired into each a parting shot, as they sheered off. To repair which, it might be advisable for them to put into friendly ports.
“Tremendous!” was the reply. “And when Snarl and Soaper sit on your next play, they won't forget the lesson you have given them.”
“I'll be sworn they won't!” chuckled93 Triplet. But, reconsidering her words, he looked blank, and muttered: “Then perhaps it would have been more prudent94 to let them alone!”
“Incalculably more prudent!” was the reply.
“Then why did you set me on, madam?” said Triplet, reproachfully.
“Because I wanted amusement, and my head ached,” was the cool answer, somewhat languidly given.
“I defy the coxcombs!” cried Triplet, with reviving spirit. “But real criticism I respect, honor, and bow to. Such as yours, madam; or such as that sweet lady's at Mr. Vane's would have been; or, in fact, anybody's who appreciates me. Oh, madam, I wanted to ask you, was it not strange your not being at Mr. Vane's, after all, to-day?”
“I was at Mr. Vane's, Triplet.”
“You were? Why, I came with my verses, and she said you were not there! I will go fetch the verses.”
“No, no! Who said I was not there?”
“Did I not tell you? The charming young lady who helped me with her own hand to everything on the table. What wine that gentleman possesses!”
“Was it a young lady, Triplet?”
“Not more than two-and-twenty, I should say.
“In a traveling-dress?”
“I could not see her dress, madam, for her beauty—brown hair, blue eyes, charming in conversation—”
“Ah! What did she tell you?”
“She told me, madam—Ahem!”
“Well, what did you tell her? And what did she answer?”
“I told her that I came with verses for you, ordered by Mr. Vane. That he admired you. I descanted, madam, on your virtues96, which had made him your slave.”
“Go on,” said Mrs. Woffington, encouraging him with a deceitful smile. “Tell me all you told her.”
“That you were sitting to me for your portrait, the destination of which was not doubtful. That I lived at 10, Hercules Buildings.”
“You told that lady all this?”
“I give my honor. She was so kind, I opened my heart to her. But tell me now, madam,” said Triplet, joyously97 dancing round the Woffington volcano, “do you know this charming lady?”
“I congratulate you, madam. An acquaintance worthy98 even of you; and there are not many such. Who is she, madam?” continued Triplet, lively with curiosity.
“Mrs. Vane,” was the quiet, grim answer.
“Mrs. Vane? His mother? No—am I mad? His sister! Oh, I see, his—”
“His wife!”
“His wife! Why, then, Mr. Vane's married?”
“Oh, look there!—Oh, look here now! Well, but, good Heavens! she wasn't to know you were there, perhaps?”
“But then I let the cat out of the bag?”
“But, good gracious! there will be some serious mischief99!”
“No doubt of it.”
“And it is all my fault?”
“I've played the deuce with their married happiness?”
“And ten to one if you are not incensed100 against me too?”
Mrs. Woffington replied by looking him in the face, and turning her back upon him. She walked hastily to the window, threw it open, and looked out of it, leaving poor Triplet to very unpleasant reflections. She was so angry with him she dared not trust herself to speak.
“Just my luck,” thought he. “I had a patron and a benefactress; I have betrayed them both.” Suddenly an idea struck him. “Madam,” said he, timorously101, “see what these fine gentlemen are! What business had he, with a wife at home, to come and fall in love with you? I do it forever in my plays—I am obliged—they would be so dull else; but in real life to do it is abominable102.”
“You forget, sir,” replied Mrs. Woffington, without moving, “that I am an actress—a plaything for the impertinence of puppies and the treachery of hypocrites. Fool! to think there was an honest man in the world, and that he had shone on me!”
With these words she turned, and Triplet was shocked to see the change in her face. She was pale, and her black, lowering brows were gloomy and terrible. She walked like a tigress to and fro, and Triplet dared not speak to her. Indeed she seemed but half conscious of his presence. He went for nobody with her. How little we know the people we eat and go to church and flirt103 with! Triplet had imagined this creature an incarnation of gayety, a sportive being, the daughter of smiles, the bride of mirth; needed but a look at her now to see that her heart was a volcano, her bosom104 a boiling gulf105 of fiery106 lava107. She walked like some wild creature; she flung her hands up to heaven with a passionate108 despair, before which the feeble spirit of her companion shrank and cowered109; and, with quivering lips and blazing eyes, she burst into a torrent110 of passionate bitterness.
“But who is Margaret Woffington,” she cried, “that she should pretend to honest love, or feel insulted by the proffer111 of a stolen regard? And what have we to do with homes, or hearts, or firesides? Have we not the playhouse, its paste diamonds, its paste feelings, and the loud applause of fops and sots—hearts?—beneath loads of tinsel and paint? Nonsense! The love that can go with souls to heaven—such love for us? Nonsense! These men applaud us, cajole us, swear to us, flatter us; and yet, forsooth, we would have them respect us too.”
“My dear benefactress,” said Triplet, “they are not worthy of you.”
“I thought this man was not all dross112; from the first I never felt his passion an insult. Oh, Triplet! I could have loved this man—really loved him! and I longed so to be good. Oh, God! oh, God!”
“Thank Heaven, you don't love him!” cried Triplet, hastily. “Thank Heaven for that!”
“Love him? Love a man who comes to me with a silly second-hand113 affection from his insipid114 baby-face, and offers me half, or two-thirds, or a third of his worthless heart? I hate him! and her! and all the world!”
“That is what I call a very proper feeling,” said poor Triplet, with a weak attempt to soothe115 her. “Then break with him at once, and all will be well.”
“Break with him? Are you mad? No! Since he plays with the tools of my trade I shall fool him worse than he has me. I will feed his passion full, tempt49 him, torture him, play with him, as the angler plays a fish upon his hook. And, when his very life depends on me, then by degrees he shall see me cool, and cool, and freeze into bitter aversion. Then he shall rue116 the hour he fought with the Devil against my soul, and played false with a brain and heart like mine!”
“But his poor wife? You will have pity on her?”
“His wife! Are wives' hearts the only hearts that throb117, and burn, and break? His wife must defend herself. It is not from me that mercy can come to her, nor from her to me. I loathe118 her, and I shall not forget that you took her part. Only, if you are her friend, take my advice, don't you assist her. I shall defeat her without that. Let her fight her battle, and I mine.
“Ah, madam! she cannot fight; she is a dove.”
“You are a fool! What do you know about women? You were with her five minutes, and she turned you inside out. My life on it, while I have been fooling my time here, she is in the field, with all the arts of our sex, simplicity119 at the head of them.”
Triplet was making a futile120 endeavor to convert her to his view of her rival, when a knock suddenly came to his door. A slovenly121 girl, one of his own neighbors, brought him a bit of paper, with a line written in pencil.
“'Tis from a lady, who waits below,” said the girl.
Mrs. Woffington went again to the window, and there she saw getting out of a coach, and attended by James Burdock, Mabel Vane, who had sent up her name on the back of an old letter.
“What shall I do?” said Triplet, as soon as he recovered the first stunning122 effects of this contretemps. To his astonishment123, Mrs. Woffington bade the girl show the lady upstairs. The girl went down on this errand.
“But you are here,” remonstrated Triplet. “Oh, to be sure, you can go into the other room. There is plenty of time to avoid her,” said Triplet, in a very natural tremor124. “This way, madam!”
Mrs. Woffington stood in the middle of the room like a statue.
“What does she come here for?” said she, sternly. “You have not told me all.”
“I don't know,” cried poor Triplet, in dismay; “and I think the Devil brings her here to confound me. For Heaven's sake, retire! What will become of us all? There will be murder, I know there will!”
To his horror, Mrs. Woffington would not move. “You are on her side,” said she slowly, with a concentration of spite and suspicion. She looked frightful125 at this moment. “All the better for me,” added she, with a world of female malignity126.
Triplet could not make head against this blow; he gasped127, and pointed128 piteously to the inner door. “No; I will know two things: the course she means to take, and the terms you two are upon.”
By this time Mrs. Vane's light foot was heard on the stair, and Triplet sank into a chair. “They will tear one another to pieces,” said he.
A tap came to the door.
He looked fearfully round for the woman whom jealousy129 had so speedily turned from an angel to a fiend; and saw with dismay that she had actually had the hardihood to slip round and enter the picture again. She had not quite arranged herself when her rival knocked.
Triplet dragged himself to the door. Before he opened it, he looked fearfully over his shoulder, and received a glance of cool, bitter, deadly hostility131, that boded132 ill both for him and his visitor. Triplet's apprehensions133 were not unreasonable135. His benefactress and this sweet lady were rivals!
Jealousy is a dreadful passion, it makes us tigers. The jealous always thirst for blood. At any moment when reason is a little weaker than usual, they are ready to kill the thing they hate, or the thing they love.
Any open collision between these ladies would scatter137 ill consequences all round. Under such circumstances, we are pretty sure to say or do something wicked, silly, or unreasonable. But what tortured Triplet more than anything was his own particular notion that fate doomed138 him to witness a formal encounter between these two women, and of course an encounter of such a nature as we in our day illustrate139 by “Kilkenny cats.”
To be sure Mrs. Vane had appeared a dove, but doves can peck on certain occasions, and no doubt she had a spirit at bottom. Her coming to him proved it. And had not the other been a dove all the morning and afternoon? Yet, jealousy had turned her to a fiend before his eyes. Then if (which was not probable) no collision took place, what a situation was his! Mrs. Woffington (his buckler from starvation) suspected him, and would distort every word that came from Mrs. Vane's lips.
Triplet's situation was, in fact, that of AEneas in the storm.
“Olim et haec meminisse juvabit—” “But, while present, such things don't please any one a bit.”
It was the sort of situation we can laugh at, and see the fun of it six months after, if not shipwrecked on it at the time.
With a ghastly smile the poor quaking hypocrite welcomed Mrs. Vane, and professed140 a world of innocent delight that she had so honored his humble141 roof.
She interrupted his compliments, and begged him to see whether she was followed by a gentleman in a cloak.
Triplet looked out of the window.
“Sir Charles Pomander!” gasped he.
Sir Charles was at the very door. If, however, he had intended to mount the stairs he changed his mind, for he suddenly went off round the corner with a businesslike air, real or fictitious142.
“He is gone, madam,” said Triplet.
Mrs. Vane, the better to escape detection or observation, wore a thick mantle143 and a hood130 that concealed144 her features. Of these Triplet debarrassed her.
“Sit down, madam;” and he hastily drew a chair so that her back was to the picture.
She was pale, and trembled a little. She hid her face in her hands a moment, then, recovering her courage, “she begged Mr. Triplet to pardon her for coming to him. He had inspired her with confidence,” she said; “he had offered her his services, and so she had come to him, for she had no other friend to aid her in her sore distress145.” She might have added, that with the tact146 of her sex she had read Triplet to the bottom, and came to him, as she would to a benevolent147, muscular old woman.
Triplet's natural impulse was to repeat most warmly his offers of service. He did so; and then, conscious of the picture, had a misgiving41.
“Dear Mr. Triplet,” began Mrs. Vane, “you know this person, Mrs. Woffington?”
“Yes, madam,” replied Triplet, lowering his eyes, “I am honored by her acquaintance.”
“You will take me to the theater where she acts?”
“Yes, madam; to the boxes, I presume?”
“No! oh, no! How could I bear that? To the place where the actors and actresses are.”
Triplet demurred148. This would be courting that very collision, the dread136 of which even now oppressed him.
At the first faint sign of resistance she began to supplicate149 him, as if he was some great, stern tyrant150.
“Oh, you must not, you cannot refuse me. You do not know what I risk to obtain this. I have risen from my bed to come to you. I have a fire here!” She pressed her hand to her brow. “Oh, take me to her!”
“Madam, I will do anything for you. But be advised; trust to my knowledge of human nature. What you require is madness. Gracious Heavens! you two are rivals, and when rivals meet there's murder or deadly mischief.”
“Ah! if you knew my sorrow, you would not thwart151 me. Oh, Mr. Triplet! little did I think you were as cruel as the rest.” So then this cruel monster whimpered out that he should do any folly152 she insisted upon. “Good, kind Mr. Triplet!” said Mrs. Vane. “Let me look in your face? Yes, I see you are honest and true. I will tell you all.” Then she poured in his ear her simple tale, unadorned and touching153 as Judah's speech to Joseph. She told him how she loved her husband; how he had loved her; how happy they were for the first six months; how her heart sank when he left her; how he had promised she should join him, and on that hope she lived. “But for two months he had ceased to speak of this, and I grew heart-sick waiting for the summons that never came. At last I felt I should die if I did not see him; so I plucked up courage and wrote that I must come to him. He did not forbid me, so I left our country home. Oh, sir! I cannot make you know how my heart burned to be by his side. I counted the hours of the journey; I counted the miles. At last I reached his house; I found a gay company there. I was a little sorry, but I said: 'His friends shall be welcome, right welcome. He has asked them to welcome his wife.'”
“Poor thing!” muttered Triplet.
“Oh, Mr. Triplet! they were there to do honor to ——, and the wife was neither expected nor desired. There lay my letters with their seals unbroken. I know all his letters by heart, Mr. Triplet. The seals unbroken—unbroken! Mr. Triplet.”
“It is abominable!” cried Triplet fiercely. “And she who sat in my seat—in his house, and in his heart—was this lady, the actress you so praised to me?”
“That lady, ma'am,” said Triplet, “has been deceived as well as you.”
“I am convinced of it,” said Mabel.
“And it is my painful duty to tell you, madam, that, with all her talents and sweetness, she has a fiery temper; yes, a very fiery temper,” continued Triplet, stoutly154, though with an uneasy glance in a certain direction; “and I have reason to believe she is angry, and thinks more of her own ill-usage than yours. Don't you go near her. Trust to my knowledge of the sex, madam; I am a dramatic writer. Did you ever read the 'Rival Queens'?”
“I thought not. Well, madam, one stabs the other, and the one that is stabbed says things to the other that are more biting than steel. The prudent course for you is to keep apart, and be always cheerful, and welcome him with a smile—and—have you read 'The Way to keep him'?”
“No, Mr. Triplet,” said Mabel, firmly, “I cannot feign155. Were I to attempt talent and deceit, I should be weaker than I am now. Honesty and right are all my strength. I will cry to her for justice and mercy. And if I cry in vain, I shall die, Mr. Triplet, that is all.”
“Don't cry, dear lady,” said Triplet, in a broken voice.
“It is impossible!” cried she, suddenly. “I am not learned, but I can read faces. I always could, and so could my Aunt Deborah before me. I read you right, Mr. Triplet, and I have read her too. Did not my heart warm to her among them all? There is a heart at the bottom of all her acting55, and that heart is good and noble.”
“She is, madam! she is! and charitable too. I know a family she saved from starvation and despair. Oh, yes! she has a heart—to feel for the poor, at all events.”
“And am I not the poorest of the poor?” cried Mrs. Vane. “I have no father nor mother, Mr. Triplet; my husband is all I have in the world—all I had, I mean.”
Triplet, deeply affected156 himself, stole a look at Mrs. Woffington. She was pale; but her face was composed into a sort of dogged obstinacy157. He was disgusted with her. “Madam,” said he, sternly, “there is a wild beast more cruel and savage158 than wolves and bears; it is called 'a rival,' and don't you get in its way.”
At this moment, in spite of Triplet's precaution, Mrs. Vane, casting her eye accidentally round, caught sight of the picture, and instantly started up, crying, “She is there!” Triplet was thunderstruck. “What likeness159!” cried she, and moved toward the supposed picture.
“Don't go to it!” cried Triplet, aghast; “the color is wet.”
She stopped; but her eye and her very soul dwelt upon the supposed picture; and Triplet stood quaking. “How like! It seems to breathe. You are a great painter, sir. A glass is not truer.”
Triplet, hardly knowing what he said, muttered something about “critics and lights and shades.”
“Then they are blind!” cried Mabel, never for a moment removing her eye from the object. “Tell me not of lights and shades. The pictures I see have a look of paint; but yours looks like life. Oh, that she were here, as this wonderful image of hers is. I would speak to her. I am not wise or learned; but orators160 never pleaded as I would plead to her for my Ernest's heart.” Still her eye glanced upon the picture; and I suppose her heart realized an actual presence, though her judgment did not; for by some irresistible161 impulse she sank slowly down and stretched her clasped hands toward it, while sobs162 and words seemed to break direct from her bursting heart. “Oh, yes! you are beautiful, you are gifted, and the eyes of thousands wait upon your very word and look. What wonder that he, ardent163, refined, and genial164, should lay his heart at your feet? And I have nothing but my love to make him love me. I cannot take him from you. Oh, be generous to the weak! Oh, give him back to me! What is one heart more to you? You are so rich, and I am so poor, that without his love I have nothing, and can do nothing but sit me down and cry till my heart breaks. Give him back to me, beautiful, terrible woman! for, with all your gifts, you cannot love him as his poor Mabel does; and I will love you longer perhaps than men can love. I will kiss your feet, and Heaven above will bless you; and I will bless you and pray for you to my dying day. Ah! it is alive! I am frightened! I am frightened!” She ran to Triplet and seized his arm. “No!” cried she, quivering close to him; “I'm not frightened, for it was for me she—Oh, Mrs. Woffington!” and, hiding her face on Mr. Triplet's shoulder, she blushed, and wept, and trembled.
What was it had betrayed Mrs. Woffington? A tear!
During the whole of this interview (which had taken a turn so unlooked for by the listener) she might have said with Beatrice, “What fire is in mine ears?” and what self-reproach and chill misgiving in her heart too. She had passed through a hundred emotions, as the young innocent wife told her sad and simple story. But, anxious now above all things to escape without being recognized—for she had long repented166 having listened at all, or placed herself in her present position—she fiercely mastered her countenance; but, though she ruled her features, she could not rule her heart. And when the young wife, instead of inveighing167 against her, came to her as a supplicant168, with faith in her goodness, and sobbed169 to her for pity, a big tear rolled down her cheek, and proved her something more than a picture or an actress.
Mrs. Vane, as we have related, screamed and ran to Triplet.
Mrs. Woffington came instantly from her frame, and stood before them in a despairing attitude, with one hand upon her brow. For a single moment her impulse was to fly from the apartment, so ashamed was she of having listened, and of meeting her rival in this way; but she conquered this feeling, and, as soon as she saw Mrs. Vane too had recovered some composure, she said to Triplet, in a low but firm voice:
“Leave us, sir. No living creature must hear what I say to this lady!”
Triplet remonstrated, but Mrs. Vane said, faintly:
“Oh, yes, good Mr. Triplet, I would rather you left me.”
Triplet, full of misgivings, was obliged to retire.
“Be composed, ladies,” said he piteously. “Neither of you could help it;” and so he entered his inner room, where he sat and listened nervously170, for he could not shake off all apprehension134 of a personal encounter.
In the room he had left there was a long, uneasy silence. Both ladies were greatly embarrassed. It was the actress who spoke first. All trace of emotion, except a certain pallor, was driven from her face. She spoke with very marked courtesy, but in tones that seemed to freeze as they dropped one by one from her mouth.
“I trust, madam, you will do me the justice to believe I did not know Mr. Vane was married?”
“I am sure of it!” said Mabel, warmly. “I feel you are as good as you are gifted.”
“Mrs. Vane, I am not!” said the other, almost sternly. “You are deceived!”
“Then Heaven have mercy on me! No! I am not deceived, you pitied me. You speak coldly now; but I know your face and your heart—you pity me!”
“I do respect, admire, and pity you,” said Mrs. Woffington, sadly; “and I could consent nevermore to communicate with your—with Mr. Vane.”
“Ah!” cried Mabel; “Heaven will bless you! But will you give me back his heart?”
“How can I do that?” said Mrs. Woffington, uneasily; she had not bargained for this.
“The magnet can repel171 as well as attract. Can you not break your own spell? What will his presence be to me, if his heart remain behind?”
“You ask much of me.”
Alas172! I do.”
“But I could do even this.” She paused for breath. “And perhaps if you, who have not only touched my heart, but won my respect, were to say to me, 'Do so,' I should do it.” Again she paused, and spoke with difficulty; for the bitter struggle took away her breath. “Mr. Vane thinks better of me than I deserve. I have—only—to make him believe me—worthless—worse than I am—and he will drop me like an adder—and love you better, far better—for having known—admired—and despised Margaret Woffington.”
“Oh!” cried Mabel, “I shall bless you every hour of my life.” Her countenance brightened into rapture173 at the picture, and Mrs. Woffington's darkened with bitterness............
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