Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xiv.

Christmas to Twelfth Night.

Thus began the Christmas, which we kept with such royal state. It has been stated that this was a political meeting. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There was not, during the whole time, one word spoken concerning politics. It is true that my lord treated Tom as a private and especial friend, and showed him a very singular kindness throughout. It is also true that no two gentlemen could be more unlike each other than these two; for, while one was well read and loved books, the other knew little save what he had been taught, and read nothing but Quincy’s ‘Dispensatory,’ and his book on ‘Farriery.’ Also, one loved the society of ladies, and the other did not; one cared nothing for drinking, which to the other was his chief delight; one loved poetry and music, which to the other gave little or no pleasure. One went habited with due regard to his rank, having a valet to dress him; the other was careless of his dress, generally going about, on his shooting and other business, in great boots and a plain plush coat, stained with wine and weather.

‘Friendship,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘commonly with young men, goes by opposites. If Jonathan resembled his father, he had nothing of David’s disposition in him; yet were they friends in youth. The great Coligny and his malignant enemy, Guise, were once close friends, each admiring points of unlikeness. Perhaps my lord and Mr. Forster admire also, each in the other, points of unlikeness.’

Although the party consisted both of Catholics and Protestants, there were no discussions on that account; for, in Northumberland, so many families still belong to the old religion that we can meet each other without quarrelling. It must not, therefore, be thrown in Tom’s face that he was a secret friend of Papists. This has been said of him with injustice. In truth there was never a stouter Protestant, though his lawful Sovereign belongs, unhappily, to the opposite faith. Yet so tolerant withal. ‘Each,’ he would say, ‘for his own religion. Live and let live. But not to meddle with the endowments of the Church or to suffer Papists and Nonconformists to enter into the Universities.’

On the evening of Christmas Day there was performed for our pleasure the old play of ‘Alexander and the Egyptian King,’ by village mummers from Hexham and Dilston. The mummers were dressed up with ribbons and finery in rags and tatters; on their heads they wore gilt-paper crowns; they carried swords, and had a fiddler with them who played lustily all the time, whether the speakers were delivering their words or not.

First came the great King Alexander —— he was a blacksmith by trade, and a very big and lusty fellow, who wore a splendid crown of gilt paper and a rusty breastplate; he flourished a sword and marched valiantly, strutting like a game-cock after a fight. Then he pronounced his verses, and brave verses they were, though afterwards he quite forgot that he had promised to produce for us Dives and a Doctor. The Doctor came in due course, but we looked in vain for Dives, and a great moral lesson was lost. Everybody would like to be rich, yet few know the danger of riches or their own weakness in temptation. After him came the King of Egypt and his son Prince George; the King was stricken in years, and somewhat bent by rheumatism and his trade, that of shoemending; but the Prince was a lad whom I knew for as famous a hand with cudgel or quarterstaff as one may hope to see at a country fair. There was no reason why he should wish to fight Alexander, yet it seemed natural that they should, immediately on meeting, hurl words of reproach at each other and fly to arms. A most terrible and bloody fight it was which followed, the combatants thwacking and hacking at each other in such earnest as made one tremble, save for the thought that the swords were but stout ash-twigs painted blue, fitter to raise great weals than make deep cuts. The fiddler, meantime, ran round the pair, shouting while he played; and the King, so far from feeling terror for his son, clapped his hands and applauded, as we all did. It was arranged that Prince George was to be killed, but such was his stubborn nature that he refused to lie down until the great conqueror, a much heavier man than he, had first covered him from top to toe with blows and bruises. When at length he lay down, the Doctor was called in. This learned man, who was the clerk of the parish, impudently asserted his ability to cure all diseases, and, in proof, restored the Prince to life. Then there was another duello between the King and the conqueror: the reason of which I did not understand, save that it enabled the cobbler to show under what unhappy conditions one bent with his trade has to fight. It needs not to say that the cobbler, too, fell beneath great Alexander’s sword. They bore away his body, and all was over.

‘But where is Dives?’ cried my lord. ‘You promised Dives.’

The actors looked at one another, and presently the blacksmith plucked up courage to explain that there never was any Dives in the piece at all, though it was true that he was regularly promised in the prologue or opening verses.

‘Well,’ said my lord, ‘we will excuse the Dives for this once; and thank you, actors all, for a merry tragical piece, in which I know not whether most to admire the skill of Alexander or the courage of the King who dared to meet him. Stand aside, good fellows, and let us go on to the next show.’

Then followed the singers and choristers of Hexham, who were ordered to sing none but true North-country songs, of which we have many, and our people sing them prettily and in tune, sometimes one taking treble, and another a second, and a third tenor or bass, and all with justness, according to time and tune very melodiously, the like of which, I think, will not be found elsewhere, save in cathedrals, such as Durham and other places, where anthems are sung. My lord confessed that he had never heard anything like this rustic singing in France, where the peasants sing on holidays; but not, as our people sing, with gravity and earnestness. First they sang the song of ‘The Knight and the Lady:’

‘There was a lady of the North Countrie (Lay the bent to the bonny broom), And she had lovely daughters three (Lay the bent to the bony broom).’

After that they sang the ‘Battle of Otterbourne;’ then the ‘Fair Flower of Northumberland;’ and then the ballad of ‘Jock o’ the Side;’ and, last, the ‘Jolly Huntsman’s Garland,’ beginning:

‘I walked o’er the mountains, Where shepherds feed their flocks; I spy’d a troop of gallants A hunting of the fox. With clamour and with hollow They made the woods to ring; The hounds they bravely follow, Making a merry din.’

All the gentlemen in the company applauded this song loudly, and with a ‘Whoop!’ and ‘View hollow!’—— no talk of fox-hunting, or song in its praise, is complete without. They knew every verse out of the thirty or forty, and the histories, some of which were entertaining, of the gentlemen in honour of whom the song was written. Nothing is more delightful to one fox-hunter than to talk or hear of another.

There were other songs, and then all were regaled with a present in money and a plentiful supper of what they most love at Christmastide —— namely, a mighty dish of lobscouse, which is a mess of beef, potatoes, and onions, strong of smell and of taste, and therefore grateful to coarse feeders. After the lobscouse they had plum-porridge and shrid-pies, with as much strong ale as they could carry, and more. Yet most of them could carry a great deal: Alexander the Great went away with a barrel or so within him, a mere cask of ale; and the King of Egypt was carried from this field of honour as from the other.

One thing I must relate in my lord’s honour. Among the singers was a plain man (yet he had a sweet, rich voice), who was pointed out to him as a Percy by descent. He was but a stone-cutter, yet a descendant in the direct line from Jocelyn, the fourth Earl; and I know not how his forefathers fell so low. Lord Derwentwater waited until the singing was over, and then stepped forward and offered his hand to this man as to a gentleman, and sent for a bottle of wine which he gave him, with a purse of five guineas, saying that the Percies and the Radeliffes were cousins. The good man was much abashed at first, but presently lifted his head, and carried off his bottle and his purse with resolution and pride. This circumstance, simple as it may seem, greatly raised the character of his lordship; for the common people, many of whom are descendants —— even though bye-blows —— of the gentlefolk, highly regard and are extremely jealous of descent; so that at Hexham it is a great thing to be a Radcliffe, as in Redesdale it is a great thing to be a Hall, and as at Bamborough one would be a Forster if one could, and at Alnwick a Percy. To give a poor man a present because he is of noble descent is a small thing, certainly; yet it was done with so great an ease and kindness that it touched all hearts.

If, on Christmas Day, we amused ourselves after the manner of the people and were happy in their way, we were promised, a few days later, a performance of a quite different and more fashionable kind. It was through Mr. Hilyard, who always knew everything that was going on in the neighbourhood —— how, one knows not, save that he was ever talking with carriers, postboys, and gipsies, and always had a kind word and a crust or a groat for a vagrant, nor cared to inquire if he were honest or not, but helped him, he said, because he was a man, and therefore stamped, like his unworthy self, with the Divine effigies. He reported that there was a company of players at Newcastle, who could doubtless be persuaded, in the manner usually found effective among such people, to journey as far as Dilston Hall. And he sent off without delay a messenger who was to run the whole way, twenty miles, with a letter from himself, to bring them, bag and baggage. It was the same company, though this he told us not (but I remembered their faces), as that among whom we had seen him, for the first time, play Merry Andrew; but the younger actresses were changed, as is, I am told, a very common occurrence, their beauty and their cleverness getting them rapid promotion, and, in some cases, good husbands. Why, Lord Derwentwater’s grandmother was herself but an actress, though she made a King fall in love with her.

These strollers were so poor —— for the profits of each night’s performance are but a few shillings to be divided among all —— that they joyfully acceded to the invitation, and jumped at an offer which was to them nothing short of beef and beer and lodging for a month to come, so generous was my lord.

He had never seen an English play. Nor had I myself, or Tom, or any of the young gentlemen; though I had often heard my father speak of Drury Lane and the little theatre in the Haymarket, the amusements of which he often enjoyed when in London on his Parliament business.

‘I have witnessed the playing,’ said my lord, ‘at the Comédie Française, where they play very finely the tragedies of the great Racine and Corneille and the comedies of Molière. I have also attended a performance of Madame de Maintenon’s sacred plays with which she amuses His Majesty; and I have seen the Italian troupe, who are full of tricks and merriment, and have a thousand ingenious arts to divert their company. The play is truly a most polite form of entertainment, and would be more delightful if the parterre could be by any means induced to remain quiet, and if the actors could have the stage to themselves, without the three rows of gentlemen who interrupt the performance by loud talking, and encumber the movements of the actors. Mr. Hilyard, I beg that you will allow no seats upon our stage. We will all sit in front.’

At Dilston, as everywhere, Mr. Hilyard was entrusted with the management of our amusements.

‘I appoint you, sir,’ said my lord, ‘if I may, our Master of the Revels; and I require but one thing of you —— that you please Miss Dorothy.’

I was so much pleased that never since have I lost the memory of that fortnight, and dwell upon it with such delight in the recollection as I cannot express in words. Oh! sad it is (if we do not apply the thought to our spiritual advantage) that youth and beauty must fade, that love cannot always follow a smooth and easy course, and that the things we most desire should so often be snatched from our grasp just as we think them within our reach! To meditate upon the fleeting and momentary nature of earthly happiness is now my lot. The thought of the past would be too much for me, were it not for the heavenly blessing and divinely given hope that there is another and a more lasting youth before us. Why, what is it to pass through a few years of old age and solitary decay, when there awaits us another life in which I shall meet again my lord, with that same noble face which I remember so well, and those kindly eyes which, like the eyes in a portrait on the wall, follow me still, though they are long since closed in death! The face and the eyes will be the same, but oh! glorified, and in the living image of God. And as for me, my poor beauty that I loved so well, yet lost without a sigh when my friends were gone, that, too, will be given back to me and more, with such heavenly graces as are vouchsafed to those who believe. There will be no marrying nor giving in marriage; but a pure and innocent love will flow from one soul to another, so that my lord will meet me again with such a look in his sweet eyes as he wore in those old days at Dilston Hall. Therefore weep no more, poor Dorothy; but patience, and tell thy story.

The play which Mr. Hilyard chose for us was Congreve’s ‘Mourning Bride.’ He had read it to me more than once; but although the situation, even to one who reads or listens to the poem, is full of horror, and the unravelling of the plot keeps the mind agreeably on the stretch of expectation, I was not prepared for the emotions caused by the actual representation of the piece before my eyes. Mr. Hilyard arranged for the performance in the great hall, providing a curtain and footlights as in a real theatre, with scenery to help the imagination. Thus the scene in the temple or church was an awful representation of aisles and columns which one was easily persuaded to regard as real, though they were nothing in the world but rolls of canvas or linen daubed with grey paint. And thus (but I ought to have expected something from Mr. Hilyard’s vast importance) a most agreeable surprise awaited us. Not only did our Master of the Revels himself pronounce a prologue, beginning ——

‘Far from the London boards we’ve travelled here, Bringing with us, to make you better cheer, Great Dryden, Congreve, Shakespeare, Farquhar, Rowe, To raise your mirth and bid your tears to flow;’ and ending ——

‘Do thou, my lord, Fresh from the splendour of a Court, bestow (Though all our art be simple, and our show But rustic) gracious audience; and while We strive to please, do thou be pleased to smile. Of ye, O fair! we ask, but not in vain, To think ’tis London and in Drury Lane. See Osmyn hug his chains, and Zara say, “Blest be the death which whiles for you this night away.’”

‘Upon my word,’ said my lord, ‘Mr. Hilyard is a much more ingenious gentleman than I thought.’

‘He is well enough,’ said Tom. ‘But this verse-writing is mighty silly skimble skamble stuff.’

Then the curtain drew up, and the play began. Everybody knows this most beautiful tragedy, in which Almeria mourns the bridegroom torn from her at the very hour of her marriage, and drowned by being wrecked. But —— and here is the dramatist’s art —— her father is not to know of the marriage, therefore it is supposed that Almeria was a prisoner in Valentia, and that her husband was none other than the King of Valentia’s son; but that the town was taken by Almeria’s father, and the King and Prince Alphonso were forced to fly, and so taken captive or perished in the waves. The actress was a young woman of some beauty set off by art. She was of light complexion, with very fair hair and blue eyes, which I dare say are common among the Spaniards, and it showed very well under her black mourning habits. She spoke her part so naturally, telling the story of her hasty marriage and the loss of her groom so movingly, that we were all in tears from the beginning. And picture our astonishment when we discovered in the second scene that the prisoner, Osmyn, was none other than Mr. Hilyard himself! Instead of a wig, he wore a Moorish turban; instead of a coat and waistcoat, a suit of chain-armour (borrowed from the wall of the very hall where the play was acted). He was fettered with heavy chains, which he rattled dolefully; his face was full of sternness and resolution (quite unlike the short face and twinkling eyes of Mr. Hilyard), and his head was thrown back to express his scorn of his conqueror. I do not know why anyone should scorn a conqueror, but in Plutarch and the drama they always do so. A conqueror, methinks, should be admired as the stronger and more skilful; if fate permits it, he should be imitated. But perhaps the scorn is intended to show the defiance of virtue, even though vice be for the moment victorious.

He had little to say in the first act. But in the second, he showed the greatness of his soul. The scene is in the aisle of a vast church. The hearers were awed and terrified by the words of Almeria:

‘It strikes an awe And terror on my aching sight. The tomb And monumental caves of death are cold, And shoot a chillness to my trembling heart!’

She finds Osmyn: he is weeping at his father’s tomb, for behold, Osmyn is none other than Alphonso. The raptures of their meeting are interrupted by the arrival of Zara, also one of the captives. She is in love with Osmyn. (After the performance I reflected that it must be a rare thing for prisoners, male and female, thus to wander unrestrained about a church at midnight. Where were Osmyn’s fetters?) She upbraids him with his coldness, and offers liberty for love. He refuses. Then she threatens him, and on the arrival of the King has him conveyed to prison, with the immediate prospect of death by rack and whip. Mr. Hilyard (I mean Osmyn) went to face it with so heroic a countenance that we could not choose but wonder. Did one ever believe that Mr. Hilyard could face death and torture with so bold a front? I declare that, for one, I have ever since considered the courage of this peaceful scholar as tried and proved; nor is it any answer to say that an unshrinking mien may be assumed even by a coward in the presence of pretended torture. I am perfectly assured that no coward could assume without betraying so assured and finished a guise of heroism. In the morning, on reflection, I thought it strange that the King as well as his prisoners should spend the night in wandering among the tombs in a church.

In the third act Osmyn is visited in prison by his friend Heli (I forget whether he was also a prisoner, or merely a wandering friend), who informs him that there are hopes of a mutiny among the troops, and that Zara may assist to release him. In fact, Zara comes —— she was a brunette, with speaking eyes, and very finely, as I thought, played the part of a hapless woman who loves where she is not loved in return. She promises assistance, hoping for reward. She then retires, apparently to make room for Almeria, but returns to discover Almeria with the captive. This fires her resentment:

‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turn’d, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.’

In the fourth act things present a most dreadful outlook to Almeria and her fettered husband; but in the fifth, all, by a most fortunate and providential succession of murders, ends well. First, a mute carrying messages is slain; the King takes the place of Osmyn (or Alphonso) in the prison, and is murdered by mistake; Zara poisons herself, and throws herself upon the body of the King, whom she supposes to be Alphonoso; Almeria comes, and prepares to imitate her rival, when Alphonso, victorious and triumphant, bursts upon the scene, and saves her just in the nick of time. To tell how the tragic story filled my heart with pity and terror while it was acting, how Almeria bewailed her fate, how Zara raged, how nobly Mr. Hilyard (or Alphonso) bore himself, would be impossible. Suffice to say that we wiped away our tears and were happy again, though the stage was strewn with dead bodies, when Alphonso spoke the last lines:

‘Still in the way of honour persevere, And not from past or present ills despair, For blessings ever wait on virtuous deeds, And, though a late, a sure reward succeeds.’

There were others present who enjoyed the play as much as I did, though my lord said that, in his opinion, and compared with the majestic work of Racine, it was but a poor piece, and that the situations were forced, with too much blood. All the servants who chose to come were allowed to stand at the lower end, and though some of them gaped and wondered what it all might mean, there were others who looked on with delight. Among them was my maid Jenny, whom I discerned standing on a stool at the far end, her face aglow with a kind of rapture, her great black eyes like coals of fire, her lips parted, and her body bent forward —— things which I remembered afterwards.

This girl (who was, as I have said, clever, sharp, and faithful) I had taught to read. I am well aware that I am open to censure for doing this. The possession of this key to learning is a dangerous thing. It is certainly a question which still remains to be answered, whether persons in that class should be taught to read; for, in the first place, a little learning is a dangerous thing. Again, discontent is easily acquired when one learns how many, from obscure origins, have become rich. Thirdly, it has been abundantly proved that there is no villain like a villain who can read and write. On the other hand, it seems good that a man or woman should be able to read the Prayer Book, Catechism, and Psalms of David in the vulgar tongue, and the Bible as well, provided always that the interpretation of it be modestly left to clergymen of the Established Church, and not undertaken by private judgment. As for matters of daily work, such as the farm and the house and medicine, it is certain that book-learning will never become so good as the teaching of those who have learned from their fathers and mothers. However, be it right or wrong, I taught the girl to read; and Jenny, though this I knew not, began to read everything she could find at all times when she was not at work. Among other things she read, it is supposed, volumes of plays which belonged to Mr. Hilyard.

When the play was over, Jenny, instead of going to bed as a good girl should have done, must needs wait about (this I learned afterwards) until the players went to their supper; and after supper she sat up with them, listening open-mouthed to their talk. It seems that people of this profession scarce ever go to bed before one or two o’clock in the morning, because after their great passion and the excitement of so many emotions they are fain to sit up till late, recovering the calmness of spirit necessary for quiet sleep. I know not what they said to her, or she to them; but afterwards she was never the same girl. She had moods and fits; would cry for nothing, and laugh at a little; read more books of plays; and, among the other maids, would imitate not only the actresses, but also the very gentlemen of the company to the life —— their voice, gestures, and manner of bearing themselves. This was a very impudent and disrespectful thing to do. I have also reason to believe —— but as I never charged it upon him, so he never confessed it —— that Mr. Hilyard himself secretly encouraged the girl to learn, and taught her to declaim with justness of emphasis and proper management of voice, passages from his books. Great scholar and wit though he was, he did not sufficiently consider the consequences of his actions. To teach such a girl to deliver poetry with eloquence was as much as to give a man who hath no money a taste for the most costly wines.

This, however, by the way.

In the morning I myself, finding the players preparing to go away, entered into conversation with one of the women, the one who played Zara. She was a young woman of genteel carriage and respectful speech, who, off the stage, although upon it she was so queenly in her bearing and so full of fire and action, might very well have passed for a respectable seamstress or milliner. As for the woman who played Leonora, she was the wife of the King, I found, and middle-aged, with a baby. First of all, when I spoke to Zara, I found she was shy, as if afraid that I should despise or insult her, a thing of which I am told actors are very jealous, because by statute law they are regarded as rogues and vagabonds.

‘In Paris,’ my lord told me, ‘they once lost in this way their best actress, an incomparable and most beautiful creature, who was so enraged by the insults of the parterre, that she returned them with scorn and indignation. They clapped her in prison for this lèse-majesté; but when she was liberated, she refused ever to act again.’

Well, but I did not wish to show contempt for anybody, much less a virtuous and honest young woman; and I made haste to compliment her on her rare and wonderful gift of impersonation, adding that I had learned to respect the art from my tutor, Mr. Hilyard, whom they had allowed to play Osmyn. Then I asked her about her way of life, and if she was happy. She replied that, indeed, for happiness she could not tell, because poor folks are never overwhelmed with happiness; that the pay was uncertain, and sometimes food was scanty, and there were times when to play in a barn for a supper was counted great gain; yet (I remembered afterwards that Jenny stood beside me, and was listening with open mouth) the delight of acting (‘Oh! Ah!’ a gasp and a sigh from Jenny) was so great as to counterbalance the evils of poverty. That, to be sure, fine ladies look down upon an actress as mere dirt beneath their feet; but what signifies that, since one need never speak with a fine lady? That it was hard life, in which a body hath no time to be ill or to be wearied, or to have any mood or mind of her own, but always ready for a new part and to play new passion; yet, that this evil was compensated for by the freedom and variety of the life.

‘Consider, madam,’ she said earnestly, ‘if I were not an actress, I should be a maid in a lady’s house, or a common drudge to a tradesman’s wife, or perhaps a dressmaker, or serving-woman to a coffee-house or a tavern; or, if I had good looks, perhaps a shop-girl, to sell gloves, ribbons, and knickknacks, in Cranbourne Alley. Your ladyship doth not know, I am sure, the rubs and flips which we poor women have to endure from harsh masters. What is our character to them, provided fine gentlemen come to the shop and buy? and what do they care what becomes of the poor girls? One gone, another is easily found. All poor people must be unhappy in some way, I suppose. Give me my liberty’—— here Jenny choked —— ‘if I must starve with it. But we all hope for better times, and perhaps, before we grow old and lose such good looks as the Lord hath given to us, an engagement at York Theatre —— or even’—— here she gasped as one who catcheth at a bunch of grapes too high ——‘at Drury Lane.’

So they packed up their dresses and gilt crowns, their tin swords and fineries, and went away, well pleased with the generous pay of my lord.

But Mr. Hilyard went about with his chin in the air, still thinking himself Osmyn, for many days to come.

‘Are there,’ asked my lord, ‘many scholars of Oxford who can act, and write verses, and play the buffoon, and sing like that strange man of yours, Miss Dorothy? In Paris, such a scholar becomes an Abbé; he may make as many verses as he pleases, and pay court to as many patrons, and be lapdog to the fine ladies, but act upon the stage he may not.’

Yet he congratulated the actor with the kindness which belonged to his nature, trying to make him feel that his genius and the variety of his powers were admired and understood. And before we came away my lord gave him a snuff-box, which Mr. Hilyard still carries and greatly values. It bears upon the lid a picture of Danae, believed to be the portrait of Nell Gwynne.

‘But as for his acting,’ my lord went on, ‘I care not who acts nor what the piece, so long as thou art pleased, fair Daphne. For to please thee is at present all my thought and my only care. Ah! blushing, rosy English cheek! Sure nowhere in the world are the women so beautiful as in England; and nowhere so true, and good as well, as in my own country.’

With such pretty speeches he ended everything. If it were a ride, it must be whither I pleased; if we walked, it must be in what direction I commanded; when we dined, the dishes were to be to my liking; if I ventured to praise anything, it must become my own —— nay, I think that, had I chosen, I could have stripped the walls even of the family portraits, carried off the treasures which the house contained, and borne away all the horses from the stable. My lord possessed that nature which is never truly happy unless it is devising further happiness and fresh joyful surprises for those he loves.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51