Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxxv.

Jenny’s Scheme.

This project of Jenny’s contrivance was so simple, and seemed so easy, that it completely took possession of my mind, and for a time I could think scarce of anything else. For to liberate my lord would be so great and wonderful a thing. Why, these people who act can assume, and make others assume, any appearance they please; had I not seen Mr. Hilyard under a dozen disguises? It would be nothing for Jenny to make up first Frank, and then the Earl, into another person altogether.

‘Nay,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘but you forget that when I have deceived you, it is first through your imagination the cheat is wrought, so that I made you think of a physician first, before I assumed the bearing and guise of one; and of the blacksmith, John Purdy, before I became that man. And so with the stage. Before Jenny steps across the boards —— majesty in her face, sovereignty in her eyes, authority in her carriage —— you have been prepared to expect a Queen; and, lo! she stands before you. But without this preparation and talk disguise is not so easy, and Jenny’s scheme will want, methinks, the help of twilight. Then, indeed, it might be safely tried. Mr. Frank’s resemblance to his brother being so great that he might, by candle-light even, pass very well for the Earl. But he gets daily worse instead of better.’

We began then to consider the strange nature of Jenny’s power over him, so that what she should command, that he would straightway do; and, whereas at Dilston it was in a trance that he did these things, now it was with all his wits awake, and of his own free will —— a mere slave to the will of a woman.

‘In this respect,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘he only follows many illustrious examples of antiquity —— Solomon among others.’

‘Did she give him a love-potion? or did she by some other magic and witch-like art steal his affections?’

‘Nay, Miss Dorothy,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘you understand not the strength of love nor the power of Jenny’s beauty.’ She had bright black eyes, red lips, and a rosy cheek, with black curls and a tall, good figure; and, in a word, the girl was well enough, and might have pleased some honest fellow of her own rank and birth. ‘She is,’ continued Mr. Hilyard, ‘a most beautiful and bewitching creature; witty and roguish. You must not suppose because a gentlewoman seldom or never loves a man below her own degree (yet Venus, the great goddess, loved Adonis, the shepherd boy), that therefore a gentleman cannot love a woman of inferior birth. Why, Boaz, a great prince, as one may suppose, loved Ruth, who seemed to him a simple leasing-maid, and King Cophetua loved a beggar-maid. There are other examples too many to enumerate. As for Jenny’s witcheries, I believe not in them any more than consists in her bright eyes and smiles.’

‘But, oh! Mr. Hilyard,’ I exclaimed, ‘remember what she did at Dilston and what I saw, although she deceived me, lying without shame.’

‘Truly,’ he said, ‘I forget not. It is strange to think upon. There was once, as is related, a learned scholar of Oxford who fell into a kind of melancholy, and conceived a disgust at the company of his fellows. Wherefore he presently left his college and his companions, and, going away into the fields, fell in with a band of gipsies, and continued with them all his life, asking for nothing more than they could give him —— namely, to dwell in the open air, to sleep in tents, to endure the extremes of weather, to live hard, and to have no discourse on books, religion, philosophy, or any of the subjects with which he had formerly been conversant. But to one seeking him in this strange retirement, he said that the gipsy race was possessed of many and marvellous secrets, some of which had been imparted to himself, and that, without any agreement or covenant with the devil, they could so cheat the eyes and brains of men and women as to make them do what they wished, see things invisible, hear voices afar off, and believe what they were told to believe. So Frank Radcliffe, being asleep, seemed awake, and knew not afterwards what he had said or done. Yet no devilry.’

Who can understand these things?

‘Why,’ I asked, ‘seeing that you are so great a scholar, cannot you cure Frank of this madness?’

He shook his head.

‘Because when all the medicines for the cure of love have been applied, there still remains the lover. Why, to love as Frank is in love is to be strong, to be a man, on whom the remedium amoris is but a sham. Any weak man may think himself in love with a girl of his own degree; but this kind of love, as when one hath loved a mermaid, or sea-dragon, and another a fairy, and another a black woman, is not to be cured, and means great strength of will and passion unconquerable. From ordinary passions a strong man like myself keeps himself free; especially when, Miss Dorothy,’ he looked at me with a soft suffusion of his eyes, ‘when a man is prevented from loving other women, because he is always in presence of one so godlike, that the rapt senses cannot endure to think upon a creature of lower nature.’

‘But,’ I said, leaving the subject of love’s madness, ‘Jenny’s project is so easy, that it seems ridiculous to hope that it hath not been guarded against.’

‘The greatest things,’ he said, ‘are sometimes effected in the easiest manner. The mathematician of Syracuse fired a fleet with burning-glasses. But he did not invent the burning-glass. And I remember the egg of Columbus.’

I went to see Frank. He had a lodging near Jenny in Red Lion Street just now; the weather being so hard, he stirred not abroad at all, but sat beside the fire all day, suffering grievously from his cough.

‘Cousin Dorothy,’ he said, pleased indeed to see me (but his cheeks were thin and hollow and his shoulders rounded, so that it was sad to look upon him), ‘I heard that you were in town; I would to Heaven it were on a more pleasant errand! I cannot get abroad to see anyone, not even my brothers in the Tower and in Newgate, poor lads! nor my sister-in-law, the Countess, who hath too much to think of, so that she cannot be expected to come here. Off hood and cloak, cousin, and draw a chair near the fire, and talk to me, because I may not talk much.’

Another fit of coughing seized him and shook him to and fro, so that at the end he lay back among his pillows exhausted.

I told him what news I had to tell, and gave him such comfort as I had to give, which was not much; yet I could tell him that I had seen my lord, and how he looked, and how he had hopes from his noble friends and cousins.

‘As for me,’ he said, ‘what use am I in the world to anybody? And at such a juncture to be thus laid by the heels and unable to stir! Ah, Dorothy! it is weary work lying here whither no one comes, save Mr. Hilyard, who is very good, and keeps up my heart; and every day, never failing, the best, the kindest, the most beautiful of her sex ——’

‘You mean Jenny Lee,’ I said.

‘Whom should I mean but that incomparable creature? Dorothy, I should be the happiest of men, because the divine Jenny hath promised to marry me as soon as I am recovered of this plaguy cough. I know not yet where we shall live; she will leave the stage, which is the scene of her triumphs, but yet no fit place for a gentleman’s wife; we will go somewhere into the country, it matters not where, so that we have a garden, and are retired from mankind, and especially from those who ride up and down exhorting us to be ready for the Prince. As for religion, I am what I am; but my children shall be of the religion of their country, with which Jenny, who hath been religiously brought up, is well content.’

As for Jenny’s religion, I doubt much if she had kept any; but, to be sure, her mother had her taught the Catechism and Ten Commandments with the Lord’s Prayer.

He was going to add more, but he stopped as if arrested in the current of his thoughts, and held up his finger, crying:

‘She is coming. Hush! I hear her footstep.’

I listened, but could hear nothing except the cries of those who bawled their wares in the street below, and from Holborn the roll of carts and waggons. How could he hear her step, when it was five minutes, at least, before she came (and then in her glass-coach) and knocked at the door of the house?

It was about three o’clock of the afternoon, and she was finely dressed, because she would presently go on her way to the theatre, and beneath her furred cloak she wore hoops and a crimson satin petticoat, with a white silk frock and long train, very rich and magnificent, and a great quantity of lace, her head very finely dressed, and patches artfully bestowed. She saluted me with great politeness, and Frank (whom she kissed) with peculiar tenderness, asking what kind of night he had passed, and if he was not better.

‘Much better,’ said the poor lad, ‘and very much stronger;’ but another cough began. Thereupon Jenny took both his hands, made him look her in the face, then laid down his hands, and passed hers before his eyes, and then —— oh, strange! —— he lay back upon his pillows asleep, breathing lightly like a child.

‘Your ladyship perceives,’ she said, ‘that there is no physician like Jenny, and no medicine like the practice of the gipsies.’

‘Oh, Jenny,’ I whispered, looking curiously at the sleeping man, ‘it is wickedness; it not be anything short of sorcery. Women have been burned for less.’

‘Oh yes, I know. Poor creatures who could not even read the lines of the hand. They were burned for much less. Wherefore, we of the Romany tribe hide these gifts, and practise them only among ourselves; but not all have the power. And by this means we allay the pains of toothache and rheumatism to which we are liable; and we find out what goes on far away; and yet I know not of any devil in it at all. See now, Miss Dorothy’—— she caught my hand ——‘he is not asleep; he is quiet, with eyes closed, because I have ordered it. He will now answer any question you ask him. Shall he tell us what my lord is doing in the Tower?’

‘No —— yes! Jenny, it is wicked.’

‘Tell me, Frank, what your brother is doing in the Tower?’

Frank replied, without opening his eyes:

‘He is sitting alone by the fireside; a book is before him, but he reads it not; he is thinking of Dilston and his children. Now a tear falls from his eye; now ——’

‘Jenny, for the love of God, stop him! I dare not —— it is impious —— to pry into my lord’s secret and sacred thoughts.’

She looked at me curiously.

‘I can tell you,’ she said, ‘if he loves you still.’

‘I will hear no more. Oh, Jenny, Jenny! these are, truly, arts of the devil.’

She shook her head and laughed.

‘Fear not, Miss Dorothy; I will ask him no more questions. Let Frank rest in peace for half-an-hour, then he will be easier. If I could spend the whole day and night here, nursing him, he should soon recover. For, see you, it is the strength and violence of his cough that pulls him to pieces. If I were here I would stop each attack at the very beginning, and so he would soon get strength.’

Then I asked her about her project for the Earl’s release. She said she thought of it, because it would please Frank, when he got better, to attempt it; because it was a thing easy of accomplishment; and because it would please myself. As for his lordship, she shrugged her shoulders, and said that when her own people went stealing poultry, poisoning pigs, lifting linen from the hedge, and other things forbidden by the law, they were hanged, flogged, pilloried, branded in the cheek, or transported to the Plantations, without anyone trying to save them or crying over them. The punishment, she said, was part of the life. Those who did such things tried to escape detection; but, if they were caught, they knew what to expect. Wherefore, in the same way, those who rebelled against the King should take the consequences without all this crying over it; but she hoped his honour (meaning my brother Tom) would get safely out of Newgate; and since Frank, who was her sweetheart, and I, who was her old mistress, ardently desired it, she hoped that Lord Derwentwater would get off scot-free.

Then I asked her when she would open the business to Frank.

‘Why,’ she replied, laying her hand tenderly on his thin cheek, ‘your ladyship must first please to understand that Frank is my own man. I suffer no one to come between my man and me.’ She turned and glared upon me like a tigress. ‘It is I who must first speak with him about it, and must choose the time and everything.’

‘Surely, Jenny, it is your plan. No one will interfere with you.’

‘They wanted to tear him from me, and drag him off to the wars. Charles Radcliffe came to me and said hard words, but heard harder. Was I going to suffer him to go on such a fool’s errand? Nay, I warrant you. So Master Charles went off without him, and hath brought his pigs to a pretty market. Trust me, Miss Dorothy.’ Her voice became soft, and so did her eyes. ‘Trust me; as soon as my poor boy is better, he shall do this thing. I will leave him behind, and carry the Earl away with me. There will be no fear for him; though at first they will talk of high treason, and the rest. At present a great deal of foolishness is talked, and we at the theatre get hissed and applauded every night for some line or other which has a meaning. But they will let Frank go free.

‘Meanwhile, your ladyship,’ she said, ‘it is now four o’clock, and soon I must drive away to the theatre. Will you leave us? I must restore him first, and make him comfortable for the night, and see to his broth and medicine. Will you kindly come again to see him, and pardon the daily presence of his sweetheart —— your old servant?’

I wished her good-night and came away, but she shamed me with her courtly courtesy and the sweep of her hoops and train.

‘On the stage,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘all is exaggerated, from the setting of a chair to the dropping of a curtsey. Therefore, poor Jenny, who hath acquired her manners on the boards, saluted you as if you were the Queen and she the unfortunate heroine.’

‘And what of poor Frank, Mr. Hilyard?’

‘Truly,’ he replied, and my heart sank, thinking of my lord and of Jenny’s project, ‘I fear his days will be few and full of suffering, and his life here on earth like that in the kingdom of heaven in one respect —— namely, that there will be in it neither marrying nor giving in marriage.’

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