Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxix.

In London.

In this way we came to town, where my first night was full of dreadful dreams, and my sleep troubled with the sight of the poor prisoners marching along the road amid the derision and the hootings of the mob. But at the end of the road there was a black scaffold and a gibbet beside it, with hanging ropes; a block, and a man with an axe: and beside me stood no other than my maid, Jenny Lee, saying, as she pointed to Tom, ‘Great name; great blame,’ as she had said on the Eve of St. John.

The place where I was lodged was in a street near Drury Lane, called Great Wyld Street, at the house of one John Purdy, a cousin of John Purdy, the Bamborough blacksmith, himself born at Lucker, but come to London to seek his fortune in that trade, and knowing me very well when I was little. He was married to a buxom young London woman, and had a family of four or five children, being a thriving tradesman. His wife, a decent, kind-hearted body, though a stickler for the Protestant Succession, and of the Independent sect, was curious at first to look upon the sister of the General Forster of whose doings everyone had lately heard so much (the people, I know not why, called him the ‘Man under the Rose,’ and he was popularly supposed to be the chief mover and agent in the whole affair).

‘Sometimes,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘popular beliefs make history. Can it be that Catiline was only an instrument, and Spartacus a tool? Will his honour, the dupe of crafty and designing men, go down to posterity as the fabricator of the whole business?’

In the morning the good woman made a hundred excuses to come into my room: she had a log of ship-timber fresh come up from Deptford; she would ask my pleasure concerning dinner and supper; she could get me some fine fresh fish —— and always with something

about the prisoners. ‘They were followed with shouting and curses,’ she said, in her desire to comfort me, ‘all through the town and as far as the Tower, where they have placed the lords; they sang songs running along beside them, and dangled warming-pans out of the windows. As for Lord Derwentwater, they say he is as handsome as the day, and never lowered his head or made the least sign that he heard a word; he might have been going to his wedding instead of his death, the poor young gentleman! As for the gentlemen, some of them are in Newgate. ’Tis a pity! Mercy, they say, will be shown to none, but all will be hanged. Oh dear! Yes, hanged, drawn, and quartered, and their legs and heads set up on Temple Bar. A thousand pities, to be sure!’

It was cold comfort, indeed, that this good woman gave me. Her husband, however, was better. He came to offer me his best services, and if there was anything he could do for his honour or for me, to let him know; he said that, of course, he recognised Mr. Hilyard in his disguise as a countryman, for which he supposed there was good reason; but he was a North-countryman, and knew the respect due to the Forsters, and how to keep a quiet tongue in his head, especially where his wife was concerned.

Early next morning Mr. Hilyard himself came to see me. He was now transformed again, feeling as much pleasure in this, his second disguise, as a child feels in a new toy. He was, if you please, a physician, with an immense great wig, a black coat, and sword —— very grave, but with nose in the air; he rode in a hackney-coach, because, he said, no one regardeth a physician who walks; besides, it was sixteen years and more since he had sat in a glass-coach. I do not know that there was any necessity for this careful disguise, seeing that no one in London knew him, and that all who were with him in the rebel army were dispersed or prisoners. But he thought so, and it gave him confidence. Besides, he felt himself a secret agent or officer of Lord Crewe, and therefore bound, I suppose, to spend his money.

‘My Lord Bishop,’ he said, ‘will approve of this disguise when he hears of it. Money cannot be better laid out than in artifices which prevent suspicion. Until our plan is completed and we are ready for action, we must lie quiet and snug, and take care to give no occasion for talk.’

He then sat down and proceeded with his news. But first I remarked in him a great vivacity and air of enjoyment. He said that it was the noise of the London streets and the smell of the London air which raised and exhilarated his spirits, so that he felt an uncommon lightness of heart, although the circumstances of this return to his native air were so unhappy.

‘And now,’ he said, ‘I must tell you that his honour is lodged in Newgate, with seventy or eighty of the gentlemen, and the rest are in the Fleet and Marshalsea, except the lords, who are all in the Tower. So much I learned in the coffee-house on Ludgate Hill, whither I repaired after buying these clothes at second-hand in the Minories. The talk is of nothing but the rebels and the prisoners. It is sixteen years and more since last I smelt the tobacco and the coffee. I hope you like this wig; it cost me three guineas, and was the property of a great physician now deceased. All the talk, I say, is of the prisoners. They say the insults of the mob were incredible. The mob is now fired with a noble zeal for the Protestant Succession, and hath grown mighty pious. It is a religious fervour which is too hot to last, but may yet prove disastrous to our friends. I have found a lodging in Great Queen Street, not far from here and convenient for Drury Lane Theatre, where I can lie snug. I have told the landlady, who is a respectable widow woman, that I am a physician from the country, come to town on business. I have paid her a fortnight in advance to prevent questions being asked. And now comes another piece of news which will indeed astonish you. Last night I went to the theatre to divert myself.’

‘To divert yourself! Oh, Mr. Hilyard! did you come to London to divert yourself?’

‘Nay —— nay —— but, believe me, when nothing can be done, it is good to relieve the mind. We must not think of one thing only, or we might presently fall into a melancholy, a lethargy, and so be able to effect nothing. Consider, pray, how long and painful hath been the journey to London, and with what sad thoughts and gloomy forebodings we lengthened the miles. Believe me, Miss Dorothy, not for the pleasure of the acting did I go, but as medicine or physic to the soul.’

He spoke so earnestly that one could not but forgive him. Besides, it was sixteen years since the poor man had seen the theatre.

‘The piece was the “Cobbler of Preston.” But never mind the piece, although it was, for that matter, admirably played. Yet more fire might have been expressed by him who played —— but, I forget; my news has nothing to do with the play. I would you had been in the house to see the brave show, the beaux and the modish ladies. I could have wept to think of the old times when I used to go there whenever I could find a sixpence for the gallery, or a shilling for the pit. The house quite full, and the talk about nothing but the brave bearing of the prisoners. Mostly my Lord Derwentwater was commended, because of all he seems to have the poorest chance of escape. They have already begun to hang them in Liverpool, it is said,’

‘But your news —— your news, Mr. Hilyard!’

‘It is that the principal female character was played —— you will never guess! It was played —— you were never so surprised in all your life —— and played with so great a fire, such justness of gesture and looks, such perfect command of the part and knowledge of the lines as astonished me —— by none other, if you please, than your own maid —— Jenny Lee!’

‘Why,’ I said, ‘I heard that she had joined the players. There is no reason, that I see, for surprise. She was a clever girl, and I hope she has remained good.’

‘Oh!’ he said. ‘Are you not surprised? Should you wonder if I, beginning as a humble curate, were to become Archbishop of Canterbury? Or if a lad who sweeps out the chambers of a barrister were to become Lord Chancellor? Or if a drummer-boy should grow to command the army? Yet, believe me, this is what Jenny Lee has done. Among actresses she is a Bishop, a General, a Lord Chancellor. Indeed she deserves her good fortune, if ever woman did.’

‘By reason of her good conduct?’

‘Nay; what matters her conduct, good or bad? On the stage she is Calista, Almeria, Celinda, what you will; off the stage we have nothing to say or think of her, any more than of any other woman. I mean that she hath become a most accomplished and wonderful actress. But this is not all. After the play was over I went to the stage-door, and begged that a letter might be taken to Mistress Lee from an old friend. It was but a line that I wrote, asking that an old friend from Northumberland might see her. Now be prepared for a new surprise. She came down in a few minutes, but knew me not, so that I had to whisper my name; and then, without saying a word, she took my hand and led me to her own coach. “Come,” she said, “and have supper with me, and tell me all.”’

‘Her own coach? Jenny Lee’s coach?’

‘Why, I said, did I not, that she is a queen among actresses? Of course she has her coach, and coachman too. She lives in Red Lion Square, a very convenient and fashionable part of town, though somewhat far from the theatre. I found in her lodgings no other person than Mr. Frank Radcliffe.’

‘I think,’ I said, ‘that a gentleman of his birth might be more choice in his company. Did he, too, go to the theatre, or to sup with a play-actress, to divert his mind?’

‘But,’ he repeated, ‘she is a very great actress indeed. However, there is not much diversion for Mr. Frank. To begin with, I saw clearly that the poor young gentleman is melancholy mad in love with Jenny. She can do with him what she pleases. You remember the strange thing you saw at Dilston. She orders and he obeys. Yet he looks little like a lover, and is so worn and thin that you would not know him. He says that had he known of the rising he would have hurried to the north to join his brother, but he had no hint or suspicion of it. The poor young gentleman, with his hacking cough, would have been killed in a week. I told him that, so far as I could learn, the Earl had no hint or suspicion of it either, and that, for his own sake, his friends were well pleased that he had not joined that unfortunate enterprise. I then explained the cause of my coming to London, and the manner, which greatly affected Jenny (whose heart, I am sure, is good, though she be an actress). She shed tears, and inquired if in any way she might help us in our business.’

‘Why,’ I said, ‘the Forsters must be sunk low indeed, if they must stoop to seek the aid of an actress who was once a servant-maid.’

Mr. Hilyard replied nothing.

‘To be sure,’ I went on, ‘you yourself seem infatuated with the girl. Is it not intolerable that she should steal away the senses of a young gentleman with her sorceries? And you would have me, her former mistress, go to her for counsel and aid?’

‘Forgive me,’ he replied, humbly. ‘As for her sorceries, I doubt if they are now, whatever they were once, other than any woman can exercise with black eyes and pretty face, and such a wit as Jenny hath. ’Tis true she was your maid; but she is so no longer. All things must have a beginning. Why, I was myself but the son of a vintner, and have, if the truth be told, sat at the spigot when a boy and filled the measures. Yet was I thought worthy to be enrolled among the gentlemen volunteers, and to fight beside Lord Derwentwater himself at Preston. Jenny was once your maid; but she is now a great and wonderful actress.’

‘Say no more of her, Mr. Hilyard,’ I replied.

‘Alas!’ he said, ‘will the day ever come when ladies will look upon actors as they have long since looked upon painters and poets, and hold them in equal honour? But fear not, Miss Dorothy; Jenny, poor girl, shall not, as she desires, pay her respects to you. Yet she wept, thinking of your kindness towards her.’

He forbore at the time to tell me more, but afterwards I learned what passed. It seems that, like Mrs. Bracegirdle, Mrs. Oldfield, and other great actresses, Jenny was continually besieged by troops of lovers and gallants, who swarmed after her like flies in August. I do not know what magic charm there is in her profession and calling which causeth men to run after an actress; but this I am assured is the case with all of them who are young and pretty. Among Jenny’s courtiers were some of rank and high in office, whose names (though I learned them) must not be mentioned here. But she would have nothing to say to any of them, being resolved upon nothing less than marrying Frank Radcliffe, who loved her with a kind of madness, and on keeping her reputation unspotted for his sake. Because she was an actress, there were stories told about her, and if these were true (but they were not) she must have been the worst of women. She promised Mr. Hilyard at that supper that she would consider, from her knowledge of the town, what was best to be done, and how she should work among those great gentlemen who dangled after her, for Mr. Forster. As for the Earl, he, she said, was altogether game too high for her: he would command a host of friends, and it depended on nothing but the King’s clemency or his revenge. But, as for a plain country gentleman, why, perhaps —— she could not say —— and he was the General, which made it difficult —— but she would consult with a certain great man about the Court. All this from an actress and a gipsy girl, who had been my maid! But strange things happen still in London! All this she would do, and more if she could, for Miss Dorothy’s sake, and for no other’s; unless it might be for Mr. Hilyard himself, who first taught her to act.

‘Her supper was noble,’ Mr. Hilyard continued. ‘After the meals we have taken on the road, it was a feast of Belshazzar. But Mr. Frank touched nothing, coughing grievously. After supper we had whisky punch, the first I have tasted since we left the north. Alas! shall I ever drink it again with his honour in the Manor House?’ Here his eyes overflowed. ‘It cannot be but we will somehow get him off —— either by interest or else by the golden key.’

I confess that I was at first humiliated and shamed at the thought of owing anything to the backstairs influence of Jenny Lee, and I rejoice still to think that in the end it was not needed. I do not share Mr. Hilyard’s admiration of the actor’s art, nor do I find anything admirable, unless shamelessness be admirable, in standing up before a thousand people to recite verses, dressed up in a gilt crown and a silk gown. But I was sorry to hear the bad news concerning Frank Radcliffe, whom I resolved upon seeing as soon as possible. Meantime, for a few days, nothing could be done, Mr. Hilyard said, except to seek out such friends as might help us. Now, so unhappy were we, that of all our friends and cousins —— who are legion —— there was not one who was on the other side, excepting only Lady Cowper.

In the afternoon of that day, Mr. Hilyard took me abroad, to see some of the sights of London. First, he led me to Drury Lane; where he pointed out the great theatre, the house where Nell Gwynne lived, the place where Lord Craven, who married Princess Elizabeth, had his palace, and many other curious places. Through by-lanes and narrow passages filled with shops and people he next led me into the Strand, which is truly a wonderful thoroughfare, with, on the south side, Somerset House and the site of the old Savoy (now in ruins), Buckingham House, Northumberland House, and many others. The day was very cold, but the ladies were abroad, some in coaches and some walking, the latter mostly attended by gentlemen. Then Mr. Hilyard showed me the Park and Spring Gardens, but I cannot understand how any can call them beautiful. Perhaps, when the leaves are on the trees, the long straight alleys may look well.

‘You should see them,’ said my guide, ‘in June, when the trees are green, and beneath the trees the fine ladies and the beaux. That is, indeed, a sight to make one dream of heaven.’

From the Park he led me to Westminster Abbey. Here, as the day was growing dark, we wandered in the dim and awful twilight among the monuments, while our footsteps echoed in the lofty roof, and our voices resounded overhead in gentle thunder.

‘It is a place for prayer and meditation,’ I said. ‘Surely in so great a city there must be many unhappy.’

‘I doubt it not,’ replied Mr. Hilyard. ‘The city hath thousands of poor wretches.’

‘Do they come here,’ I asked, ‘to pray and repent?’

He shook his head.

‘The Church of England,’ he replied, ‘keeps these great cathedrals for the spiritual benefit of the better sort. For the baser kind, and to further and encourage their prayers and repentance, there are mercifully provided the whipping-post, the pillory, Bridewell, where the lash is not spared, and Newgate, with its gaol-fever, its chains, its greedy warders, and the Reverend Ordinary who also goeth in the cart to Tyburn with those who are to be hanged.’

Let me here set down a strange thing, which I thought a freak of Mr. Hilyard’s; yet to which I consented, because one would not throw away a chance: and in the long-run, it helped me much, and perhaps assured me safety, as you will hear.

He was always full of mystery about his plans, sometimes throwing out hints of an armed rescue by means of a Jacobite mob; and at other times dwelling on the necessity of caution, and secret corruption of persons in trust. Once, I remember, he proposed seriously a forged pardon and order from the King to let Mr. Forster go free.

‘If,’ he said, ‘it was a tragedy we were writing, I should say that no better plot could be devised than the escape of the prisoner, on the morning of his execution, by means of a forged pardon. But I doubt whether the difficulty of deceiving the Governor, and the uncertainty as to the proper form of signature —— whether paper or parchment, how to be worded, how sent to the prison —— would not prove fatal to the design.’

And so with many other notable designs.

One day, however, he informed me that he had considered the subject carefully, and was of opinion that steps should be taken to throw suspicion, after the escape, in a false direction; that he had already learned, from a certain source, of a sea captain of Wapping, reported to be an extraordinary villain and most treacherous dog, making it his practice to bargain with gentlemen, highwaymen, cutthroats, and others, who might desire to change their native air for that of France, for their conveyance across the water; and, having gotten their money, to betray them for more pay —— if he could get it —— to the messengers and officers.

‘What,’ I asked, ‘have we to do with such a desperate villain as this?’

‘Why,’ said Mr. Hilyard, remember that we know not when we may make our attempt. We will go to him, the first thing; we will open the business, naming no names; we will prepare him, beforehand, to expect a great personage.’

I could not understand why. If the man was a villain, why not go to an honest man, who would truly serve us?

‘As for my plans,’ he went on, ‘they are not perfected; nor can they be until I have seen his honour and inspected the ground. But we cannot begin too soon, nor can we neglect the least precaution.’

I knew nothing, as yet, of his plans; because, as I have already said, what he had opened to me seemed like the foolish story of a play. However, I listened to him in the matter of this Wapping journey (which, although such as would only be thought of by one who had read many plays, turned out, in the long-run, useful), and we rode thither in a glass-coach. I dressed in my best, concerning which Mr. Hilyard was very particular, wishing the fellow we had to do with to take me for a lady of the highest quality.

We came, after a long drive through streets more crowded and noisy, and with more tumult, fighting, and blasphemy, than I could have believed possible, to the river-bank, to a place called Wapping Old Stairs, where we left the coach and took boat (if the people in the streets swore horribly, those on the river swore much worse), and were rowed to a small vessel moored in the middle of the stream. The captain, who was on deck, had a chair rigged to a yard and lowered for me, while Mr. Hilyard clambered up the ladder. A most sinister and evil-looking villain he was, with a great scar across his face; but he bowed, and tried to smile and to look loyal and faithful. Judas himself, or Mr. Patten, had not a more sinister countenance.

‘Here is the lady, captain,’ said Mr. Hilyard; ‘and not to beat about the bush, seeing that we are all honest people here, and of the right sort ——’

‘Truly,’ said the captain, with a most forbidding grin, ‘of the right sort.’

‘Let us come to the point. We will say that her ladyship hath a husband, brother, father, or lover, anxious, for reasons of his own, to change the air. As for his lordship’s —— I mean his honour’s —— name, it matters not. The question is, first, for how much you will take this gentleman abroad and land him on the coast of France.’

‘I will take him, because of his opinions,’ said the honourable captain, ‘for a hundred and fifty guineas.’

Heavens! what a price for taking a gentleman across the Channel!

‘Captain,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘your hand upon it. It is a cheap bargain. This, your ladyship,’ turning to me, ‘is a man of honour. Of that I am informed by friends in whom I can trust. We may rely upon him. He is a man of honour. It may be a month, or even more, before we are ready. But here is our man. Lucky we are to find a man of honour ready to our hand.’

The captain protested that all the world knew him for a man of honour; but that, as for waiting, he should require ten guineas a week for keeping the hoy in readiness.

‘You shall have it, captain, said Mr. Hilyard readily. ‘You shall have it. A moderate sum, indeed, for such a man as yourself. But you must be always aboard, for we may drop down at any hour of the day or night.’

‘He is Judas Iscariot the Second, or perhaps his great-grandson,’ said Mr. Hilyard when we were ashore. ‘We can go home again, remembering that this villain will presently make another bargain for his own advantage, by which he hopes, when he has secured his money from the escaping prisoner, to get a second and perhaps a higher price.’

‘How will it serve us?’

‘In this way, that they will first look for his honour, when we have got him out, at Wapping, which will give us time.’

This seemed very ingenious; but, meanwhile, how was he to be got out? And here Mr. Hilyard could only talk about his plans, which were as yet, he said, only half-hatched; but he thought of nothing else day or night, and went each evening, in order to seek inspiration, to the theatre. I blamed him not. It was my brother, not he, who was in Newgate; and surely no one could have been more generous and faithful than he during all that long and terrible ride to London.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32