IT was possibly because she was still conscious of having occupied the commanding position of one of the royal bridesmaids, in spite of the two years that had elapsed since King George III married his homely Mecklenburg princess, that Lady Susan Fox-Strangways, the daughter of the first Earl of Ilchester, became so autocratic during the rehearsal of the Downing Street Comedy. A pretty fair amount of comedy as well as tragedy—with a preponderance of farce—has been played in the same street from time to time, but the special piece in which Lady Susan was interesting herself was to be played at the house of Sir Francis Délavai, and its name was The School for Lovers. It had been originally produced by Mr. David Garrick at Drury Lane Theatre, an occasion upon which a young Irish gentleman called O'Brien, who had disgraced himself by becoming an actor, had attained great distinction. The piece had drawn the town during its protracted run of eight nights, and Sir Francis Delaval's company of amateurs perceived that it was just the play for them. It was said by the critics that, for the first time for many years, an actor had been found capable of playing the part of a gentleman of fashion as if to the manner born. They referred to the acting of Mr. O'Brien, about whose gentlemanly qualities there could be no doubt. Even his own brother actors affirmed that no such perfect gentleman as that of O'Brien's creating had ever been seen on the stage. So said Lee Lewes. Another excellent judge, named Oliver Goldsmith, declared that William O'Brien was an elegant and accomplished actor.

Of course this was the character, every aspiring amateur affirmed, to which a gentleman-born would do ample justice. When O'Brien, who was an actor, had represented the part with distinction, how much better would it not be played by the real thing—the real gentleman who might undertake it?

That was the very plausible reasoning of the “real gentleman” who hoped to win applause by appearing in O'Brien's part in the comedy at Downing Street. But when the piece was rehearsed with the young Viscount B———— in the character, Lady Susan threw up her hands, and threatened to throw up her part as well.

“Lud!” she cried to her associates in the temporary green-room, “Lud! you would fancy that he had never seen a gentleman of fashion in his life! Why cannot he act himself instead of somebody else? When he comes from rehearsal he is the very character itself, but the moment he begins to speak his part he is no more the part than the link-boy.”

Every one present agreed with her—the young gentlemen who were anxious to have the reversion of the part were especially hearty in their acquiescence.

But there could be no doubt about the matter, Lord B——— was deplorably incompetent. He was not even consistently incompetent, for in one scene in the second act, where there was an element of boisterous humour, he was tame and spiritless; but in the love-making scene, which brought the third act to a close, he was awkward, and so anxious to show his spirit that he became as vulgar as any country clown making advances to his Meg or Polly.

And of course he felt all the time that he was doing amazingly well.

Lady Susan was angry at first, and then she became witty. Her sallies, directed against him in every scene, were, however, lost upon him, no matter how calculated they were to sting him; he was too self-satisfied to be affected by any criticism that might be offered to him by man or woman.

And then Lady Susan was compelled to abandon her wit and to become natural. She flounced off the stage when her lover (in the play) was more than commonly loutish, and burst into tears of vexation in the arms of her dear friend Lady Sarah Lennox.

“I never had such a chance until now,” she cried. “Never, oh, never! The part might have been written for me; and I implore of you, Sarah, to tell me candidly if Mrs. Abington or Mrs. Clive could act it with more sprightliness than I have shown in that last scene?”

“Impossible, my sweet Sue!” cried her friend. “I vow that I have never seen anything more arch than your mock rejection of your lover, only to draw him on.”

“You dear creature!” cried Lady Sue. “You are a true friend and a competent critic, Sarah. But what signifies my acting, perfect though it be, when that—that idiot fails to respond in any way to the spirit which I display? The whole play will be damned, and people who know nothing of the matter will spread the report that 'twas my lack of power that brought about the disaster.”

“They cannot be so vile,” said Lady Sarah soothingly.

“But they will. I know how vile some of our friends can be when it suits them, and when they are jealous of the acquirements of another. They will sneer at my best scenes—oh, the certainty that they will do so will be enough to make my best scenes fail. But no! they shall not have the chance of maligning me. I will go to Sir Francis and resign my part. Yes, I will! I tell you I shall!”

The indignant young lady, with something of the stage atmosphere still clinging to her, flung herself with the gesture of a tortured heroine, proud and passionate, toward the door of the room to which the two ladies had retired. But before she had her fingers on the handle the door opened and Sir Francis Délavai entered.

“A thousand pardons, my dear ladies,” he cried, bowing to the carpet. “I had forgot for the moment that when a man turns his house into a theatre he can call no room in it his own. But I should be a churl to suggest that any room in my poor house would not be made beautiful by the presence of your ladyships. After all, this is only my library, and a library is only a polite name for a dormitory, and a—but what is this? I said not a lacrymatory.”

He was looking curiously into Lady Susan's face, which retained the marks of her recent tears.

“Dear Sir Francis, you have come in good time,” said Lady Sarah boldly. “Here is this poor child weeping her heart out because she is condemned to play the part of—of what's her name?—the lady in the play who had to make love to an ass?”

“Oh, sir, mine is a far worse plight,” said Lady Susan, pouting. “It were bad enough for one to have to make love to an ass, but how much worse is't not for one to be made love to by—by—my Lord B———?”

“That were a calculation far above my powers,” said Sir Francis. “My lord has never made love to me, but if rumour and the gossip at White's speak even a soupçon of truth, his lordship is well practised in the art—if love-making is an art.”

“Sir, 'tis a combination of all the arts,” said Lady Susan; “and yet my lord cannot simulate the least of them, which is that of being a gentleman, when he makes love to me on the stage, through the character of Captain Bellaire in our play.”

“To be plain, Sir Francis,” said Lady Sarah, as though the other had not been plain enough in her explanation, “To be plain, Lady Susan, rather than be associated in any measure with such a failure as your theatricals are bound to be if my Lord B——— remains in the part of her lover, has made up her mind to relinquish her part. But believe me, sir, she does so with deep regret.”

“Hence these tears,” said Sir Francis. “My poor child, you are indeed in a pitiable state if you are so deeply chagrined at a clumsy love-making merely on the stage.”

“Merely on the stage?” cried Lady Susan. “Lud, Sir Francis, have you not the wit to see that to be made love to indifferently on the stage is far more unendurable than it would be in private, since in the one case you have the eyes of all the people upon you, whereas in the other case you are as a rule alone?”

“As a rule,” said Sir Francis. “Yes, I perceive the difference, and I mingle mine own turgid tears with your limpid drops. But we cannot spare you from our play.”

“No, you cannot, Sir Francis, but you can spare Lord B———, and so can the play,” suggested Lady Sarah.

“What, you would have me turn him out of the part?” said Sir Francis.

“Even so—but with politeness,” said Lady Sarah.

“Perhaps your ladyship has solved the problem how to kick a man out of your house politely. If so, I would willingly pay you for the recipe; I have been in search of it all my life,” said Sir Francis.

“Surely, sir, if you kick a man hard enough with your slippers on he will leave your house as surely as if you wear the boots of a Life Guardsman,” said Lady Susan timidly.

“I doubt it not, madam; but before trying such an experiment it would be well to make sure that the fellow does not wear boots himself.”

“Psha! Sir Francis. If a man were to beg leave to measure the thickness of his enemy's soles before offering to kick him there would be very few cases of assault and battery,” cried Lady Susan.

“That is good philosophy—see what we have come to—philosophy, when we started talking of lovemaking,” said Sir Francis.

“However we have digressed in conversation, sir, our minds remain steadfast on the point round which we have been circling,” said Lady Sarah.

“And that is———”

“That Lord B———must go.”

The door was thrown open and Lord B——— entered.

“A good preliminary—one must come before one goes,” whispered Sir Francis to the ladies.

His lordship was evidently perturbed. He scarcely bowed either to Sir Francis or the ladies.

“I was told that you had come hither, Sir Francis,” he said, “so I followed you.”

“You do me honour, my lord,” said Sir Francis.

“I took a liberty, sir; but this is not a time for punctilio. I have come to resign my part in your play, sir,” said his lordship.

“Oh, surely not, my lord,” cried Sir Francis. “What would the School for Lovers be without Bellaire, my lord? Why only now Lady Susan was saying—what is it that your ladyship said?”

“It had something to do with philosophy and the sole of a grenadier,” said Lady Sarah interposing.

“Nay, was it not that his lordship's impersonation made you think of a scene from Midsummer Night's Dream?” said Sir Francis. “One of the most beautiful of Shakespeare's plays, is't not, my lord?—fantasy mingled with irony, an oasis of fairyland in the midst of a desert of daily life.”

“I know nothing about your fairyland, sir, but I have been told within the hour that her ladyship”—he bowed in the direction of Lady Susan—“has, during the three rehearsals which we have had of the play, been sneering in a covert way at my acting of the part of Bellaire, although to my face she seemed delighted, and thus——”

“Are you sure that your informant was right in his interpretation of her ladyship's words? Surely your lordship—a man of the world—would have been sensible of every shade of her ladyship's meaning?”

“I have been told by one on whose judgment I can rely that Lady Susan was speaking in sarcasm when she complimented me before the rest of the company. I did not take her as doing so for myself, I must confess. I have always believed—on insufficient evidence, I begin to fear—that her ladyship was a discriminating critic—even now if she were to assure me that she was not speaking in sarcasm——”

“Oh, lud! he is relenting,” whispered Lady Sarah.

“Did you speak, madam?” said his lordship.

“I was protesting against a too early exercise of your lordship's well-known spirit of forgiveness,” said her ladyship.

“I thank you, Lady Sarah; I am, I know, too greatly inclined to take a charitable view of—of—Why, sink me if she, too, is not trying to make me look ridiculous!” cried his lordship.

“Nay, my lord, I cannot believe that Lady Sarah would be at the pains to do for you what you can so well do for yourself,” remarked Lady Susan.

His lordship looked at her—his mouth was slightly open—then he gazed at the smiling features of the beautiful Lady Sarah, lastly at the perfectly expressionless features of Sir Francis.

“A plot—a plot!” he murmured. Then he struck a commonplace theatrical attitude, the “exit attitude” of the man who tells you that his time will come, though appearances are against him for the moment. He pointed a firm forefinger at Lady Susan, saying: “I wash my hands clear of you all. I have done with you and your plays. Get another man to fill my place if you can.”

Then he rushed out through the open door. He seemed to have a shrewd suspicion that if he were to wait another moment one at least of the girls would have an effective answer to his challenge, and it is quite likely that his suspicion was well founded. As it was, however, owing to his wise precipitancy he heard no more than the pleasant laughter—it really was pleasant laughter, though it did not sound so to him—of the two girls.

But when the sound of the slamming of the hall-door reached the library the laughter in that apartment suddenly ceased. Sir Francis Délavai looked at each of the ladies, and both of them looked at him. For some moments no word was exchanged between them. At last one of them spoke—it was, strange to say, the man.

“This is vastly fine, ladies,” he remarked. “You have got rid of your bête-noire, Lady Susan; that, I say, is vastly fine, but where are you to find a bête-blanche to take his place?”

“Surely we can find some gentleman willing to act the part of Bellaire?” said Lady Sarah.

“Oh, there is not like to be a lack of young gentlemen willing to take the part, but we want not merely willingness, but competence as well; and the piece must be played on Wednesday, even though the part of Bellaire be left out,” said Sir Francis.

Lady Susan looked blankly at the floor. She seemed ready to renew the tears which she had wept on the shoulder of her friend a short time before.

“Have I been too hasty?” she said. “Alas! I fear that I have been selfish. I thought only of the poor figure that I should cut with such a lover—and with all the world looking on, too! I should have given more thought to your distress, Sir Francis.”

“Say no more, I pray of you; better have no play at all than one that all our kind friends will damn with the utmost cordiality and good breeding,” said Sir Francis.

“True, sir, but think of the ladies' dresses!” said Lady Sarah. “What the ladies say is, 'Better produce a play that will be cordially damned rather than deprive us of our chance of displaying our new dresses.'”

“Heavens!” cried Sir Francis, “I had not thought of the new dresses. Lady Susan, you will e'en have to face the anger of your sisters—'tis not I that will tarry for such an event. I mean to fly to Bath or Brighthelmstone, or perchance to Timbuctoo, until the storm be overpast.”

“Nay, nay, 'tis not a time for jesting, sir; let us not look at the matter from the standpoint of men, who do not stand but run away, let us be women for once, and scheme,” said Lady Susan.

“That is woman's special province,” said Sir Francis. “Pray begin, my lady—'twill be strange if your ladyship and Lady Sarah do not succeed in——”

“Psha! there is but one man in England who could play the part of Bellaire on Wednesday,” cried Lady Sarah. “Ay, sir, and he is the only one in England capable of playing it.”

“Then we shall have him on our stage if I should have to pay a thousand pounds for his services,” said Sir Francis. “But where is he to be found?”

“Cannot you guess, sir?” asked Lady Sarah, smiling.

Sir Francis looked puzzled, but Lady Sue started and caught her friend by the wrist.

“You do not mean——” she began.

“Lud! these girls! Here's a scheme if you will!” muttered Sir Francis.

“Ay, if you will, Sir Francis. You know that I mean Mr. O'Brien himself and none other,” cried Lady Sarah.

“Impossible!” cried Lady Susan. “My father would never consent to my acting in a play with a real actor—no, not even if he were Mr. Garrick himself. How could you suggest such a thing, Sarah?”

“What, do you mean to tell me that you would refuse to act with Mr. O'Brien?” asked Lady Sarah.

“Oh, hear the child!” cried Lady Susan. “She asks me a question to which she knows only one answer is possible, and looks all the time as though she expected just the opposite answer!”

“I know well that there are a good many ladies who would give all that they possess for the chance of acting with Mr. O'Brien, and you are among the number, my dear,” laughed Lady Sarah.

“I dare not—I dare not. And yet——” murmured the other girl.

Sir Francis had been lost in thought while the two had been bickering over the body of O'Brien. He had walked across the room and seated himself for some moments. Now he rose and held up a finger.

“Ladies, this is a serious matter for all of us,” he said. And he spoke the truth to a greater depth than he was aware of. “'Tis a very serious matter. If we get Mr. O'Brien to play the part, the piece will be the greatest success of the day. If we fail to get him, our theatricals will be damned to a certainty. Lady Susan, will you consent to play with him if his name does not appear upon the bill?”

“But every one would know Mr. O'Brien,” she faltered, after a pause that was overcharged with excitement.

“Yes, in fact; but no one will have official cognizance of him, and, as you must know, in these matters of etiquette everything depends upon official cognizance.”

“My father—”

“His lordship will have no locus standi in the case. He cannot take notice of an act that is not officially recognisable,” suggested Sir Francis, the sophist.

“If you assure me—— But is't true that Mr. O'Brien only ceased to become a gentleman when he became an actor?” said Lady Susan.

“I have not heard that he relinquished the one part when he took up the other,” said Sir Francis. “I wonder that you have not met him at the houses of some of our friends—he is more popular even than Mr. Garrick. The family of O'Brien——”

“All kings, I doubt not,” said Lady Susan. “There were a good many kings in Ireland in the old days, I believe. I read somewhere that ninety-seven kings were killed in one battle, and still there were quite enough left to carry on the quarrels of the country. Oh, yes, there were plenty of kings, and their descendants have—well, descended. Mr. O'Brien descended pretty far when he became a play-actor.”

“If he condescends to take up the part of Bellaire at the eleventh hour to pluck our theatricals out of the fire we shall have every reason to be grateful to him,” said Sir Francis with a severe air of reproof. He was beginning to be tired—as others in his place have been from time to time—of the capriciousness of his company of amateurs.

“You are right, sir,” said Lady Sarah. “Come, my dear Sue, cease to give yourself the airs of those ladies who, Mr. Garrick affirms, have been the plague of his life. If Mr. O'Brien agrees to come to our rescue you should have no feeling but of gratitude to him. Surely 'twere churlish on the part of a damsel when a gallant knight rides up to her rescue to look at his horse in the mouth.”

“I am thinking of my father,” said the other. “But I am disposed to accept the risk of the situation. You will promise that his name will not appear in the bills, Sir Francis?”

“I will promise to do my best to save you from the contamination of having your name made as immortal as Mr. O'Brien's,” said Sir Francis.

Lady Sarah laughed, and so did her friend—after a pause sufficient to allow the colour that had come to her face at the stinging reproof to die away.

“I hope that you may catch your bird, sir—your eagle—your Irish eagle.”

“If I could tell him that Lady Sarah Lennox was to be in the cast of the play I should need no further lure for him,” said Sir Francis, making his most exquisite bow to her.

“Oh, sir, you overwhelm me,” said Lady Sarah, sinking in her most ravishing courtesy.

Lady Susan coloured once more, and her foot played a noiseless tattoo on the floor, for she perceived all that Sir Francis's compliment implied. Lady Sarah was the most beautiful girl in England, while Lady Susan was not even second to her, a fact of which she was as well aware as her friends.

This was how Lady Susan Fox-Strangways first met Mr. O'Brien, the actor whom Garrick had brought from Ireland in the year 1762. He good-naturedly agreed to help Sir Francis Délavai in his extremity, and his ready Irish tact enabled him to be the first to stipulate that his name should not appear in the bills—a condition with which Sir Francis complied, drawing a long breath.

“Mr. O'Brien,” he said, “should the stage ever fail you, a fortune awaits you if you undertake the duty of teaching gentlemen the art of being a gentleman.”

“Ah, sir, the moment that art enters the door the gentleman flies out by the window,” said the actor. “It is Nature, not art, that makes a gentleman.”

One can well believe that Lady Susan Fox-Strangways, with all the pride of her connection with a peerage nearly ten years old, treated Mr. O'Brien's accession to a place in the company of amateurs with some hauteur, though it was said that she fell in love with him at once. On consideration, her bearing of hauteur which we have ventured to assign to her, so far from being incompatible with her having fallen in love with him, would really be a natural consequence of such an accident, and the deeper she felt herself falling the more she would feel it necessary to assert her position, if only for the sake of convincing herself that it was impossible for her to forget herself so far as to think of an Irish play-actor as occupying any other position in regard to her than that of a diversion for the moment.

It was equally a matter of course that Lady Sarah should have an instinct of what was taking place. She had attended several of the rehearsals previously in the capacity of adviser to her friend, for Lady Susan had a high opinion of her critical capacity; but not until two rehearsals had taken place with O'Brien as Bellaire was she able to resume her attendance at Downing Street. Before half an hour had passed this astute lady had seen, first, that O'Brien made every other man in the cast seem a lout; and, secondly, that Lady Susan felt that every man in the world was a lout by the side of O'Brien.

She hoped to discover what were the impressions of O'Brien, but she found herself foiled: the man was too good an actor to betray himself. The fervour which he threw into the character when making love to Lady Susan had certainly the semblance of a real passion, but what did this mean more than that Mr. O'Brien was a convincing actor?

When she arrived at this point in her consideration of the situation Lady Sarah lost herself, and began to long with all her heart that the actor were making love to her—taking her hand with that incomparable devotion to—was it his art?—which he showed when Lady Susan's hand was raised, with a passionate glance into her eyes, to his lips; putting his arm about her waist, while his lips, trembling under the force of the protestations of undying devotion which they were uttering, were almost touching Lady Susan's ear. Before the love scene was over Lady Sarah was in love with the actor, if not with the man, O'Brien.

So was every lady in the cast. O'Brien was the handsomest actor of the day. He had been careful of his figure at a time when men of fashion lived in such a way as made the preservation of a figure well-nigh impossible. Every movement was grace itself with him, and the period was one in which the costume of a man gave him every chance of at least imitating a graceful man. All the others in the cast of the play seemed imitating the gracefulness of O'Brien, and every man of them seemed a clown beside him. They gave themselves countless graces, but he was grace itself.

Lady Sarah saw everything that was to be seen and said nothing. She was wise. She knew that in due time her friend would tell her all there was to be told.

She was not disappointed. The play was produced, and of course every one recognised O'Brien in the part, although the bill—printed in gold letters on a satin ground, with a charming allegorical design by Lady Diana Spencer, showing a dozen dainty cupids going to school with satchels—stated that Bellaire would be represented by “a gentleman.”

Equally as a matter of course a good many of the spectators affirmed that it was intolerable that a play-actor should be smuggled into a company of amateurs, some of them belonging to the best families. And then to attempt a deception of the audience by suggesting that O'Brien was a gentleman—oh, the thing was unheard of! So said some of the ladies, adding that they thought it rather sad that Lady Susan was not better-looking.

But of the success of the entertainment there could not be a doubt. It was the talk of the town for a month, and every one noticed—even her own father—that Lady Susan was looking extremely thin and very pale.

Lady Sarah said that she had taken the diversion of the theatricals too seriously.

“I saw it from the first, my dear Sue,” she said.

Sue sprang from her chair, and it would be impossible for any one to say now that she was over pale.

“You saw it—you—what was it that you saw from the first?” she cried.

Lady Sarah looked at her and laughed.

“Ah, that is it—what was it that I saw from the first?” she said. “What I was going to say that I saw was simply that you were throwing yourself too violently into the production of the play. That was why you insisted on poor Lord B———'s getting his congé. It was a mistake—I saw that also.”

“When did you see that?”

“When I saw you taking part in that love scene with Mr. O'Brien.”

“What mean you by that, Lady Sarah?”

“Exactly what you fancy I mean, Lady Susan.”

Lady Susan gazed at her blankly at first, then very pitifully. In another moment she had flung herself on her knees at the feet of her friend and was weeping in her lap.

The friend was full of sympathy.

“You poor child!” she murmured, “how could you help it? I vow that I myself—yes, for some minutes—I was as deep in love with the fellow as you yourself were. But, of course, you were with him longer—every day. Lud! what a handsome rascal he is, to be sure. His lordship must take you to the country without delay. Has the fellow tried to transfer the character in the play beyond the footlights?”

“Never—never!” cried Susan. “Sir Francis was right—he is a gentleman. That is the worst of it!”

“Oh, lud! the worst of it? Are you mad, girl?”

“I am not mad now, but I know that I shall be if he remains a gentleman—if he refrains from telling me that he loves me—or at least of giving me a chance of telling him that I love him. That would be better than nothing—'twould be such a relief. I really do not think that I want anything more than to be able to confess to him that I love him—that 'tis impossible that I should love another.”

“The sooner you go to the country the better 'twill be for yourself and all of us—his lordship especially. Good heavens, child, you must be mad! Do you fancy that his lordship would give his consent to your marriage with a strolling player, let him be as handsome as Beelzebub?”

“He is not a strolling player. Mr. O'Brien is in Mr. Garrick's company, and every one knows that he is of good family. I have been searching it out for the past week—all about the O'Briens—there were a great many of them, all of them distinguished. If it had not been that King James was defeated by William, in Ireland, Mr. O'Brien's grandfather would have been made a duke. They were all heroes, the O'Briens. And they were just too sincere in their devotion to the losing side—that was it—the losing side was always the one they took up. And yet you call him a strolling player!”

“I take back the insinuation and offer him my apologies; he is not a strolling player because he doesn't stroll—would to Heaven he did! Oh, my poor Sue, take a stroll into the country yourself as soon as possible and try to forget this dreadfully handsome wretch. You would not, I am sure, force me to tell his lordship what a goose his daughter is like to make of herself.”

At this point there was a dramatic scene, one that was far more deeply charged with comedy of a sort than any to be found in Mr. Whitehead's play. Lady Susan accused her dear friend of being a spy, of extorting a confession from her under the guise of friendship, which in other circumstances—the rack, the wheel, the thumbscrew, in fact the entire mechanism of persuasion employed by the Spanish Inquisition—would have been powerless to obtain. Lady Sarah on her side entreated her friend not to show herself to be even a greater goose than her confession would make her out to be. For several minutes there was reproach and counter-reproach, many home truths followed home thrusts; then some tears, self-accusation, expressions of sympathy and tenderness, followed by promises of friendship beyond the dreams of Damon and Pythias; lastly, a promise on the part of Sue that she would take the advice of her devoted Sarah and fly to the country without delay.

Strange to say, she fled to the country, and, stranger still, the result was not to cure her of her infatuation for the handsome actor. For close upon a year she did not see him, but she was as devoted to him as she had been at first, and no day passed on which she failed to think of him, or to spend some hours writing romantic verses, sometimes in the style of Waller in his lyrics, sometimes in the style (distant) of Mr. Dryden in his pastorals: she was Lesbia, and Mr. O'Brien was Strephon.

But in the meantime she had improved so much in her acting that when Lady Sarah, who had within the year married Sir Thomas Bunbury, ventured to rally her upon her infatuation of the previous spring, she was able to disarm her suspicions by a flush and a shrug, and a little contemptuous exclamation or two.

“Ah, my dear one, did not I give you good advice?” cried Lady Sarah. “I was well assured that my beloved Sue would never persevere in a passion that could only end in unhappiness. But indeed, child, I never had the heart to blame you greatly, the fellow is handsome as Apollo and as proud as Apolyon. He has broken many hearts not accounted particularly fragile, during the year.”

“Is't possible? For example?—I vow that I shall keep their names secret.”

Lady Sarah shook her head at first, but on being importuned whispered a name or two of ladies of their acquaintance, all of whom—according to Lady Sarah—had fallen as deep as was possible in love with O'Brien. Her ladyship was so intent on her narration of the scandals that she quite failed to see the strange light that gleamed in her friend's eyes at the mention of every name—a rather fierce gleam, with a flash of green in it. She did not notice this phenomenon, nor did she detect the false note in the tribute of laughter which her friend paid to her powers of narration.

But Lady Sue, when the other had left her, rushed to her room and flung herself on her bed in a paroxysm of jealousy. She beat her innocent pillow wildly, crying in the whisper that the clenching of her teeth made imperative—“The hussies! Shameless creatures! Do they hope that he will be attracted to them? Fools!—they are fools! They do not know him as I know him. They think that he is nothing but a vain actor—Garrick, or Barry, or Lewes. Oh, they do not know him!”

She lay there in her passion for an hour, and if it was her maid who discovered her at the end of that time, it is safe to assume that the young woman's flesh was black and blue in places for several days afterwards. The pinch and the slipper were among the most highly approved forms of torture inflicted upon their maids at that robust period of English history. The French Revolution was still some way off.

A few weeks later Lady Susan was sitting to Sir Joshua Reynolds for a group, in which he painted her with her friend Lady Sarah Bunbury and Mr. Henry Fox; and it was the carrying out of this scheme that put quite another scheme into the quick brain of the first-named lady. Painting was in the air. She possessed a poor print of Mr. O'Brien, and she had found an immense consolation in gazing upon it—frequently at midnight, under the light of her bedroom candle. The sight of the life-like portraits in Sir Joshua's studio induced her to ask herself if she might not possess a picture of her lover that would show him as he really was in life, without demanding so many allowances as were necessary to be made for the shortcomings of the engraver of a print. Why should she not get Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint for her the portrait of Mr. O'Brien?


The thought was a stimulating one, and it took possession of her for a week. At the end of that time, however, she came to the conclusion that it would be unwise for her to employ Sir Joshua on a commission that might possibly excite some comment on the part of her friends should they come to learn—and the work of this particular painter was rather inclined to be assertive—that it had been executed to her order. But she was determined not to live any longer without a portrait of the man; and, hearing some one mention at Sir Joshua's house the name of Miss Catherine Read, who was described as an excellent portrait painter, she made further inquiry, and the result was that she begged her father, the Earl of Ilchester, who was devoted to her, to allow her to have her portrait done by Miss Read, to present to Lady Sarah on her birthday.

Of course Miss Read was delighted to have the patronage of so great a family—she had not yet done her famous pastel of the Duchess of Argyll—and Susan, accompanied by her footman, lost no time in beginning her series of sittings to the artist to whom Horace Walpole referred as “the painteress.”

She was both patient and discreet, for three whole days elapsed before she produced a mezzotint of Mr. O'Brien.

“I wonder if you would condescend to draw a miniature portrait of his lordship's favourite actor from so poor a copy as this, Miss Read?” she said. “Have you ever seen this Mr. O'Brien—an Irishman, I believe he is?”

Miss Read assured her that Mr. O'Brien was her favourite actor also. The print produced was indeed a poor one; it quite failed to do justice to the striking features of the original, she said.

“I felt certain that it could bear but a meagre resemblance to Mr. O'Brien if all that I hear of the man be true,” said Lady Susan. “His lordship swears that there has never been so great an actor in England, and I should like to give him a surprise by presenting to him a miniature portrait of his favourite, done by the cunning pencil of Miss Read, on his birthday. I protest that 'tis a vast kindness you are doing me in undertaking such a thing. But mind, I would urge of you to keep the affair a profound secret. I wish it as a surprise to my father, and its effect would be spoilt were it to become known to any of his friends that I had this intention.”

“Your ladyship may rest assured that no living creature will hear of the affair through me,” said the painteress. “But I heartily wish that your ladyship could procure for me a better copy than this print from which to work,” she added.

“I fear that I cannot promise you that; I found two other prints of the same person, but they are worse even than this,” said Lady Susan. “You must do your best with the material at your disposal.”

“Your ladyship may depend on my doing my best,” replied Miss Read. “When does his lordship's birthday take place?”

Her ladyship was somewhat taken aback by the sudden question. It took her some time to recollect that her father's birthday was to be within a month. She felt that she could not live for longer than another month without a portrait of the man whom she loved.

While she was going home in her chair she could not but feel that she had hitherto been an undutiful daughter, never having taken any interest in her father's birthday, and being quite unacquainted with its date. She hoped fervently that Miss Read would not put herself to the trouble to find out exactly on what day of what month it took place. The result of such an investigation might be a little awkward.

It so happened that Miss Read took no trouble in this direction. All her attention was turned upon the task of making a presentable miniature out of the indifferent material with which she had been supplied for this purpose. She began wondering if it might not be possible to get O'Brien to sit to her half a dozen times in order to give her a chance of doing credit to herself and to the gentleman's fine features.

She was still pondering over this question when her attendant entered with a card, saying that a gentleman had come to wait on her.

She read the name on the card, and uttered an exclamation of surprise, for the name was that of the man of whom she was thinking—Mr. O'Brien, of Drury Lane Theatre.

She had wholly failed to recover herself before he entered the studio, and advanced to her, making his most respectful bow. He politely ignored her flutter-ings—he was used to see her sex overwhelmed when he appeared.

“Madam, I beg that you will pardon this intrusion,” he said. “I have taken the liberty of waiting upon you, knowing of your great capacity as an artist.”

“Oh, sir!” cried the fluttered little lady, making her courtesy.

“Nay, madam, I have no intention of flattering one to whom compliments must be as customary as they are well deserved,” said the actor. “I come not to confer a favour, madam, but to entreat one. In short, Miss Read, I am desirous of presenting a valued friend of mine with the portrait of a lady for whom he entertains a sincere devotion. For certain reasons, which I need not specify, the lady cannot sit to you; but I have here a picture of her poorly done in chalks, from which I hope it may be in your power to make a good—a good—— Good heavens! what do I behold? 'Tis she—she—Lady Susan herself!”

He had glanced round the studio in the course of his speech, and his eyes had alighted upon the newly-begun portrait of Lady Susan. It represented only a few days' work, but the likeness to the original had been ably caught, and no one could fail to recognise the features.

He took a hurried step to the easel, and the air made by his motion dislodged a print which the artist had laid on the little ledge that supported the stretcher of the canvas. The print fluttered to the floor; he picked it up, and gave another exclamation on recognising his own portrait in the mezzotint.

Looking from the print to the picture and then at Miss Read, he said in a low voice, after a pause—“Madam, I am bewildered. Unless you come to my assistance I protest I shall feel that I am dreaming and asleep. Pray, madam, enlighten me—for Heaven's sake tell me how this”—he held up the print—“came into such close juxtaposition with that”—he pointed to the portrait on the easel.

“'Tis easily told, sir,” said Miss Read, smiling archly. “But I must leave it to your sense of honour to keep the matter a profound secret.”

“Madam,” said Mr. O'Brien with dignity, “Madam, I am an Irishman.”

“That is enough, sir; I know that I can trust you. The truth is, Mr. O'Brien, that Lady Susan is sitting to me for her portrait—that portrait. 'Twas marvellous that you should recognise it so soon. I have not worked at it for many hours.”

“Madam, your art is beyond that of the magician. 'Tis well known that every form depicted by Miss Read not only breathes but speaks.”

“Oh, sir, I vow that you are a flatterer; still, you did recognise the portrait—'tis to be presented to Lady Sarah Bunbury.”

“Her ladyship will be the most fortunate of womankind.”

“Which ladyship, sir—Lady Susan or Lady Sarah?”

“Both, madam.” The Irishman was bowing with his hand on his heart. “But the print—my poor likeness?”

“That is the secret, sir; but you will not betray it when I tell you that Lady Susan entrusted that print to me in order that I might make a copy in miniature for her to present to her father, Lord Ilchester. You are his favourite actor, Mr. O'Brien, as no doubt you are aware.”

“'Tis the first I heard of it, madam.” There was a suggestion of mortification in the actor's tone.

“Ah, 'twould be impossible for Mr. O'Brien to keep an account of all his conquests. But now you can understand how it is that her ladyship wishes her intention to be kept a secret: she means to add to the acceptability of her gift by presenting it as a surprise. But her secret is safe in your keeping, sir?”

“I swear to it, madam.” Mr. O'Brien spoke mechanically. His hand was on his chin: he was clearly musing upon some question that perplexed him. He took a turn up and down the studio, and then said:

“Madam, it has just occurred to me that you, as a great artist——”

“Nay, sir,” interposed the blushing painteress.

“I will not take back a word, madam,” said the actor, holding up one inexorable hand. “I say that surely so great an artist as you should disdain to do the work of a mere copyist. Why should not you confer upon me the honour of sitting to you for the miniature portrait?”

“Oh, sir, that is the one favour which I meant to ask of you, if my courage had not failed me.”

“Madam, you will confer immortality upon a simple man through that magic wand which you wield.” He swept his hand with inimitable grace over the mahl-stick which lay against the easel. “I am all impatient to begin my sitting, Miss Read. Pray let me come to-morrow.”

“Her ladyship comes to-morrow.”

“I shall precede her ladyship. Name the hour, madam.”

Without the least demur Miss Read named an hour which could enable him to be far away from the studio before Lady Susan's arrival.

And yet the next day Lady Susan entered the studio quite half an hour before Mr. O'Brien had left it. Of course she was surprised. Had not Miss Read received a letter, making her aware of the fact that she, Lady Susan, would be forced, owing to circumstances over which she had no control, to sit for her portrait an hour earlier than that of her appointment?

When Miss Read said she had received no such letter, Lady Susan said some very severe things about her maid. Miss Read was greatly fluttered, but she explained in as few words as possible how it was that Mr. O'Brien had come forward in the cause of art, and was sitting for the miniature. Lady Susan quickly got over her surprise. (Had Miss Read seen the letter which her ladyship had received the previous evening from Mr. O'Brien she would not have marvelled as she did at the rapidity with which her ladyship recovered her self-possession.) Her ladyship was quite friendly with the actor, and thanked him for his courtesy in offering to give up so much of his time solely for the sake of increasing the value of her gift to her father.

A few minutes later, while they were discussing some point in the design of the picture, Miss Read was called out of the studio, and in a second Lady Susan was in his arms.

“Fate is on our side, darling girl!” he whispered.

“I could not live without you, my charmer. But I was bold! I took my fate in both hands when I wrote you that letter.”

“Dear one, 'twas the instinct of true love that made you guess the truth—that I wanted the portrait because I loved the original. Oh, dear one, what have I not suffered during the year that has parted us!” said Lady Susan, with her head upon his shoulder.

The Irishman found it necessary to fall back upon the seductive tongue of his country for words of endearment to bestow upon her. He called her “Sheila,” “a cushla machree,” “mavourneen,” and also “aroon.” But when Miss Read returned to the studio they were still discussing a purely artistic point in connection with the portrait.

Of course now that O'Brien knew the secret of the miniature there was no reason that Miss Read could see why he and Lady Susan should not meet at her studio. To do her justice, neither could her ladyship perceive why they should not come together at this place. They came every day, and every day Lady Susan begged that Miss Read would allow her to rest in her ante-room after the fatigue of the sitting. She rested in that room, and in the company of O'Brien, until at last Miss Read became frightened; and one day told her friend Lord Cathcart something of her fears. Lord Cathcart, in his turn, told Lord Ilchester. His lordship was furious, but cautious.

He wanted evidence of his daughter's infatuation. He got it the next morning, for he insisted on seeing a letter which arrived for Lady Susan, addressed in the handwriting of Lady Sarah. This letter turned out to be from O'Brien, and Susan confessed that her father's surmise was correct—all the letters which she had recently received in Lady Sarah's hand had come from O'Brien.

Her father was foolish enough to grant her permission to say farewell to her lover, and thus the two were allowed to come together once more. They had a long talk, in the course of which O'Brien communicated to her a secret of the theatre, which was that Mr. Garrick and Mr. Colman were engaged in the construction of a comedy to be called The Clandestine Marriage, and that Mr. Garrick told him that he, O'Brien, was to play the part of the lover—the gentleman who had married the lady in secret.

Lady Susan parted from her lover, not in tears, but in laughter.

The conclusion of the story is told by Horace Walpole, writing to Lord Hertford.

“You will have heard of the sad misfortune that has happened to Lord Ilchester by his daughter's marriage with O'Brien, the actor,” wrote Walpole; and then went on to tell how Lady Susan had made her confession to her father, vowing to have nothing more to do with her lover if she were but permitted to bid him good-bye. “You will be amazed,” continued Walpole, “even this was granted. The parting scene happened the beginning of the week. On Friday she came of age, and on Saturday morning—instead of being under lock and key in the country—walked downstairs, took her footman, said she was going to breakfast with Lady Sarah, but would call at Miss Read's; in the street pretended to recollect a particular cap in which she was to be drawn, sent the footman back for it, whipped into a hackney chair, was married at Covent Garden Church, and set out for Mr. O'Brien's villa at Dunstable.”

Unlike many other alliances of a similar type, this marriage turned out a happy one. O'Brien was induced to leave the stage and to depart with his wife for America. He obtained a grant of some forty thousand acres in the province of New York, and had he retained this property and taken the right side during the Revolution his descendants would to-day be the richest people in the world. A few years later he was given a good appointment in Bermuda; and finally, in 1770, he was made Receiver-General of the County of Dorset, and became popular as a country squire. He died in 1815, and Lady Susan survived him by twelve years.

It was Lady Sarah who had made the imprudent marriage. She submitted to the cruelties of her husband for fourteen years, and on her leaving his roof he obtained a divorce.

In 1781, nineteen years after her first marriage, she wedded the Hon. George Napier, and became the mother of three of the greatest Englishmen of the nineteenth century. She lived until she was eighty. Her friend Lady Susan followed her to the grave a year later, at the age of eighty-four.



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