Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxxii.

A Noble Project.

I have now to tell of a project, daring and yet most simple, which was set on foot at this time, and unknown to any of those most concerned in it —— Lady Derwentwater went to her dying day in ignorance of it. True it is that by the act and overruling will of Providence the design was frustrated, but I firmly believe it would have succeeded save for this misfortune.

It was not hatched and invented by Mr. Hilyard, whose designs were truly ingenious, but magnificent, as becomes one who hath read the tragic pieces of Greece and Rome, and knows what a plot should be; crooked also, full of surprises, dangers, and demanding the assistance of a great number of people, as is the case always with high tragedy. A simple contrivance was not, in so great a matter, worthy of consideration. This design of which I speak was due to Jenny Lee alone, who must have all the credit, though, in her present condition, the poor creature cannot, I am sure, feel any glory in this, or in any other scheme. You shall presently hear what it was.

Mr. Hilyard, partly with a view of giving me what he called a just view of the noble art of acting, partly that he might lead me to regard Jenny with favour, and partly hoping to divert my mind from the continual contemplation of misfortune, persuaded me one evening to let him carry me to the play. A country-bred woman, who hath seen but one London theatre in her life, may without shame confess that it seemed to her like an enchanted island, and that, though the house was full of finely-dressed women and gallant gentlemen, she had no eyes for them, or for anything else, so long as the actors were on the stage. The piece performed was a very fine tragedy, namely, Dryden’s ‘Conquest of Granada,’ in which, Mr. Hilyard told me, Nelly Gwynne, the mother of the Duke of St. Albans, formerly played the part now given to Jenny. I confess, further, that I was astonished beyond measure to see this girl, only a short while since a mere slip of a lady’s-maid, with a curtsey to the ladies and a smile to the gentlemen who chucked her under the chin (as is a familiar though reprehensible custom in Northumberland), and humble to all, should be transformed into a Princess moving with majesty and heroic courage among the most frightful scenes of war and death. ’Twas truly wonderful!

‘There were many,’ said Mr. Hilyard, when we came away, ‘who could not listen to the play for looking at the lovely Incognita who was in the boxes’—— he meant me. ‘Thus will beauty prevail even over the splendour of the stage. And when the beaux flocked out and made a lane to see you pass, you looked neither to the right nor to the left, but passed through them all as cold and as heedless as Diana.’

‘Why,’ I said, ‘I was not thinking of them. How should I? My thoughts were with the unlucky Mahomet Boabdilen, the last King of Granada —— and with Jenny —— I mean ——’

‘Ah! Miss Dorothy, you will make poor Jenny happy only to let me tell her that she was able to turn your thoughts aside from the crowded house.’

I said that if so small a thing could make her happy, she was very welcome to her happiness.

‘But it is not all,’ he persisted. ‘Jenny humbly desires to pay her respects to you. To the rest of the world she is the Tragedy Queen or the Comic Muse, but to you she bids me say she is, and will always be, your faithful servant.’

‘Bring her to me, then,’ I replied, ‘in Heaven’s name!’

So he left me at my lodging and went away, I suppose to sup with the actress among her friends.

But next day, about ten in the forenoon, comes, if you please, Jenny herself, not in her own coach, because, I suppose, she did not desire to show off her newly-acquired splendour, but walking, and dressed, not richly, but plainly, though of good materials, and as a wealthy gentlewoman would desire to go abroad.

She made me a deep reverence, and hoped I was in health, and that his honour my brother was as well as the unfortunate posture of his affairs admitted. In the old times she stood while she answered my questions; but I could not think of allowing a person who could assume the splendid manners I had seen last night to stand, whatever her past history, wherefore, I bade her take a chair and be welcome, and congratulated her on her success.

‘I thank your ladyship,’ she replied; ‘I have succeeded far beyond my hopes. For at first I thought only to act in a barn, or at a fair, like the people I ran away with; it was grand to put on fine clothes and to speak fine verses; and it seemed delightful to be free and have no masters (yet now I have ten thousand). More than this I never thought to do. Yet you see me now at Drury Lane.’

‘Well, Jenny,’ I said, ‘Mr. Hilyard is never tired of singing thy praises; truly, for myself, I understand not acting; yet I saw thee last night, and, believe me, child, I marvelled greatly at thy cleverness, thy quickness, and thy courage. Enough said about Drury Lane; tell me now, Jenny, about Mr. Frank Radcliffe.’

She blushed a little —— but one cannot expect many blushes of an actress!

‘It is true,’ she said, ‘that I have always had power over Frank Radcliffe, and that of a kind which, except to those of my own people, must appear strange. Nay, I humbly confess that I deceived your ladyship at Dilston Hall when you surprised me exercising that power, because I was ashamed and afraid. Since then, however, I practise upon him in this way no more. It needs not —— Frank is in love with me, and will marry me, when he gets better of his cough.’

‘But Jenny, child, Mr. Frank Radcliffe is a gentleman.’

‘It is true, madam, and I am only an actress. But he will marry me as soon as he gets better.’

‘And then he is a Papist; and you are ——’

‘I am a gipsy, madam. But he will marry me as soon as he gets better. At present he is troubled with a hacking cough that gives him no rest night or day. But this will pass when the warm weather comes. And so, your ladyship, if you please there need be no more said on this head. For Frank will marry me, Papist or Protestant, lady or gipsy, daughter of an earl or plain actress.’

She looked so resolute and spoke with such decision, that I now perceived quite clearly my old Jenny was gone, and this girl before me was quite another kind of person. But that I had already suspected.

‘Wherefore, my lady,’ she went on confidently, though in the old humble manner of speech, ‘my respects paid and these things explained, I desire to lay before you, for your counsel, a project or design of mine own, whereby, if all goes well, we may effect my lord’s escape.’

‘Oh, Jenny! know you what your words mean?’

‘Quite well, madam. I am happy to see that your ladyship hath still something of the same interest in my lord as of old.’

‘Jenny,’ I said, ‘I know not if you are in earnest; but of this be assured. My interest in Lord Derwentwater’s welfare is as great as ever; nor could it possibly be greater. If you have any rational project for his deliverance, in Heaven’s name let me hear it! If it be a secret, be sure that I would rather die a hundred deaths than reveal the thing. Tell me, Jenny, what it is.’

Then, with many entreaties for secrecy, because the pit of Drury Lane was all for the Protestant Succession, and she would be hissed off the stage if the thing were known or even suspected to have come from her, she revealed her design.

First, she assured me, and I readily believed her, that Frank Radcliffe would do anything she told him to do, being madly in love with her; next, that the thing she wanted him to do was perfectly easy, without much danger, and such a thing as would make the ears of those that heard it to tingle; thirdly, that Frank had never ceased to lament his lot as an English gentleman who yet, for his religion’s sake, was not allowed to take any part in the affairs of the nation, and condemned to a private and inglorious life; and then, after this preamble, she opened her design to me. It was, in fact, nothing less than this.

Frank Radcliffe, as everybody knows, was so much like his brother, save that he was somewhat taller of stature and thinner, that in the dusk, and among those who knew his brother imperfectly, he might very well pass for him. Jenny, therefore, proposed that, disguised by herself with a little painting of eyebrows and face, and some artful touches about nose and mouth, Frank should go with her, under some other name, to see his brother in the Tower. There was at this time little difficulty about the admission of visitors; everybody was passed in who pleased; they might even go into the Bell Tower among the common people admitted by the wardens, and so by a small bribe, or by entreaty, or by pretence of some kind or other, obtain admission.

‘Now hearken. Once in my lord’s chamber,’ said Jenny, ‘I whip out my hare’s foot and my sponge; I quickly rub out the make-up of Frank and transfer it to my lord, giving him dark eyebrows, lips turned down, eyes longer than natural, and a mouth a little turned to one side (which disguises most wonderfully). I shorten his chin by a line of chalk; I give his nose the least touch of red; and I paint his cheek with a touch or two of colour which now it lacks. This done, they exchange perruques and coats. Frank takes my lord’s long wig and scarlet coat, and he Frank’s brown drugget and plain curled wig of black horsehair. Then we go away crying —— I can cry so as to move all hearts; but I am not certain yet what I will be, whether his nurse or his aunt, Lady Mary or even his mother. My lord will come after me, wagging his head as they do on the stage —— so —— to show sympathy and sorrow, and Frank will be left behind. Then for a moment he will show his noble face at the door just to disarm suspicion, and so back again quickly, and sit down quiet till time hath passed sufficient for us to get out of the Tower and away —— whither, we must settle when we have effected our escape.’

This was truly a notable project. Did Frank know of it?

‘That,’ said Jenny, ‘is the trouble for us. At present he knows nothing, but is low in his spirits, thinking of his brother a prisoner, and himself little better, since his cough is so bad. I fear as yet to tell him, lest it make him feverish and anxious to be up and about, whereas he ought at present to be resting and getting well.’

So for the present we said no more upon that head, except that Frank was not to be told until his cough was better.

‘As for that,’ said Jenny, ‘the physicians do not good with him, and an hour of my art is worth fifty of theirs. If I were with him always I could cure him of his cough, or of anything. Alas! Miss Dorothy, you know not what this power of mine can do for him.’

‘Jenny,’ I asked earnestly, ‘is it by possession of the devil? Tell me, for the sake of thine eternal soul.’

She laughed at this.

‘I have never seen the devil,’ she said; ‘and I know nought of him. Truly, my grandmother might tell you more; but she teaches, the poor old woman, only what her mother taught her. As for the devil, we gipsies know nothing of any devil. Yet I think that if our art were known, all the world would flock to us to be healed, instead of to physicians. If I were to tell your ladyship what things I have seen and what pains allayed —— all in a moment —— but you would never believe me ——’

‘Yet —— oh, Jenny! —— can it be right to use a magic power?’

‘Magic —— magic?’ she repeated; ‘what is magic? My people have secrets, and I know something of them. Why’—— she sprang to her feet and flung out her arms ——‘I am a gipsy, and I have been your ladyship’s servant; and I am an actress, and hundreds of fine gentlemen love me —— in the way of fine gentlemen; and one man loves me so well that he would take me away and make me his wife, being such as I am. What can I do for that gentleman? Oh, Miss Dorothy! if my art were indeed as you think it, of the devil, I would still practise it daily, if thus I could restore my Frank to health.’

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