Nay, sir,” cried Mrs. Abington, with such a smile of infinite witchery as she wore when Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her as 'Miss Prue;' I would not have you make any stronger love to me than is absolutely necessary to keep yourself in training for the love scenes in Dr. Goldsmith's new comedy.”

“Ah, you talk glibly of measuring out the exact portion of one's love, as if love were a physic to be doled out to the precise grain,” cried Lee Lewis, impatiently turning away from the fascinating lady who was smiling archly at him over the back of her chair.

“By my faith, sir, you have e'en given the best description of love that I have heard; 't is beyond doubt a physic, given to mankind to cure many of the ills of life; but, la, sir! there are so many quacks about, 't is well-nigh impossible to obtain the genuine thing.”

And once more the actress smiled at her latest victim.

“I have often wondered if you ever knew what love means,” said he.

“Indeed the same thought has frequently occurred to me, sir,” said the actress. “When one has been offered the nostrums of quacks so often, one begins to lose faith in the true prescription.”

“You think that I am a quack, and therefore have no faith in me,” said Lewis.

“I know that you are an excellent actor, Mr. Lewis.”

“And therefore you suspect my truth?”

“Nay, I respect your art.”

“Perish my art, so long as I gain the favour of the most adorable woman who ever flitted like a vision of beauty—”

“Ah, sir, do not take advantage of my lack of memory; give me the title of the comedy from which you quote, so that I may know my cue, and have my reply ready.”

Lewis flung himself across the room with an exclamation of impatience.

“You are the most cruel woman that lives,” he cried. “I have often left this house vowing that I would never come nigh it again because of your cruelty.”

“What a terrible vengeance!” cried the actress, raising her hands, while a mock expression of terror came over her face. “You would fain prove yourself the most cruel of men because you account me the most cruel of women? Ah, sir, you are ungenerous; I am but a poor weak creature, while you—”

“I am weak enough to be your slave, but let me tell you, madam, I am quite strong enough to throw off your bonds should I fail to be treated with some consideration,” said Lewis.

“Oh, so far as I am concerned you may take your freedom to-morrow,” laughed Mrs. Abington. “The fetters that I weave are of silken thread.”

“I would rather wear your fetters, though they be of iron, than those of the next loveliest woman to you, though hers should be a chain of roses,” said the actor. “Come, now, my dear lady, listen to reason.”

“Gladly; 't will be a change from your usual discourse, which is of love—just the opposite, you know.”

“Why will you not consent to come with me to Vauxhall once more?”

“La, sir, think of the scandal? Have not we been seen there together half a dozen times?”

“Scandal! Do you think that the scandal-mongers can add anything to what they have already said regarding us?”

“I place no limits on the imagination of the scandal-monger, sir, but I desire to assign a limit to my own indiscretions, which, I fear, have set tongues wagging—”

“Pooh! my dear madam, cannot you see that tongues will wag all the faster if I appear at the Gardens with some one else?”

“Say, with your wife. Surely you are not afraid of the tongue of slander if you appear by the side of your wife, sir.”

“'T is for you I fear.”

“What! you fancy that people will slander me if you appear at Vauxhall with your lawful wedded wife?”

“Even so, for they will say that you were not strong enough to keep me faithful to you.”

Mrs. Abington sprang to her feet.

“The wretches!” she cried. “I will show them that———psha! let them say their worst. What care I what they say? I'll go or stay away, as the fancy seizes.”

“You may take your choice, my dear madam,” said Lewis: “Whether you would rather be slandered for coming with me or for staying at home!”

“The terms are not the same in both cases,” said she; “for if I go with you I know that I shall have an excellent supper.”

“So you 'll come! Ah, I knew that you would not forsake me!” he cried, catching her hand and kissing it.

“You foolish man! You take credit to yourself for a decision that is due to the prospect of a supper!” said Mrs. Abington.

“Ah, I know what I know, my dear,” cried he. “And so I will take my leave at once, lest you should change your mind.”

“I protest, sir,” said she, as he kissed her hand again. “I protest that 't was the thought of the supper decided me.”

He roared with laughter.

So did she when he had left her house.

“What fools these men are!” she cried, throwing herself back on her couch with a very capacious yawn. “What fools! The idea of a poor woman being influenced by the thought of minced chicken in a decision that involves being by their side seems preposterous to them! Oh, if they but knew all that such a woman as I am could tell them!”

She laughed softly—subtly—as certain recollections came to her, for Mrs. Abington was a lady of many recollections.

After a space, she resumed her study of the part of Miss Hardcastle, for which she had been cast by Colman in Dr. Goldsmith's new comedy, but which, the following week, to her everlasting regret, she relinquished in favor of Mrs. Bulkley.

Lee Lewis, who was studying the part of Young Marlow, had accompanied her home after rehearsal. He had, during the previous month, shown himself to be extremely polite in regard to her, for he had walked home with her several times, and more than once he had been seen by her side at Ranelagh and Vauxhall, as well as at the Pantheon in the Oxford Road. People about the theater were saying that the beautiful Mrs. Abington had added to the number of her conquests, and Miss Catley, the most imprudent of all the imprudent ladies in Colman's company, said some very spiteful things regarding her. (It was understood that Miss Catley had angled for Lee Lewis herself, but without success.)

Before Mrs. Abington had been alone for half an hour, her maid entered to tell her that a lady was inquiring for her at the hall door.

“Another of our stage-struck misses, Lucette?” said the actress, alluding to the three visits which she had had during the week from young women who were desirous of obtaining a footing on the stage.

“Nay, madam, this lady seems somewhat different,” replied the maid.

“Then let her be shown in at once, whoever she may be,” said Mrs. Abington. “There can surely be no scandal in receiving a lady visitor.”

She gave a glance at a mirror, and saw that her hair was in a proper condition for a visitor who was a lady. She knew that it did not matter so much when her visitors were of the other sex; and a moment afterwards there entered a graceful little woman, whom she could not recollect having ever seen before. She walked quickly to the centre of the room, and stood there, gazing with soft grey eyes at the actress, who had risen from her sofa, and was scrutinising her visitor.

There was a pause before Mrs. Abington, with a smile—the smile she reserved for women—quite different from that with which she was accustomed to greet men—said:

“Pray seat yourself, madam; and let me know to what I am indebted for the honour of this visit.”

But the lady made no move; she remained there, gazing at the actress without a word.

Mrs. Abington gave a laugh, saying, as she returned to her sofa:

“Do not let me hurry you, my dear lady; but I must ask your pardon if I seat myself.” Then the stranger spoke. “You are Mrs. Abington. I wish I had not come to you. Now that I find myself face to face with you, I perceive that I have no chance. You are overwhelmingly beautiful.”

“Did you come here only to tell me that? Faith, you might have saved yourself the trouble, my dear. I have known just how beautiful I am for the past twenty years,” laughed the actress.

“I did not come here to tell you that,” said the visitor; “on the contrary, I meant to call you an ugly harridan—a vile witch, who glories in seeing the ruin of good men; but now—well, now, I am dumb. I perceive you are so beautiful, it is only natural that all men—my husband among the number—should worship you.”

“You are so flattering, my dear madam, I can without difficulty perceive that you have not lived long in the world of fashion—ay, or in the world of play-houses,” said the actress.

“I am Mrs. Lewis, madam,” said the lady, and then dropping into a chair she burst into tears.

Mrs. Abington went beside the unhappy woman, and patted her on the shoulder.

“Dear child,” she said, “the thought that you are Mr. Lewis's wife should not cause you to shed a tear. You should be glad rather than sorry that you are married to a gentleman who is so highly esteemed. Your husband, Mrs. Lewis, is a great friend of mine, and I hope that his wife may become even a greater.”

“Ah—ah!” moaned the lady. “A friend? a friend? Oh, give me back my husband, woman—give me back my husband, whom you stole from me!”

She had sprung to her feet as she spoke her passionate words, and now stood with quivering, clenched hands in front of the actress.

“My good woman,” said Mrs. Abington, “you have need to calm yourself. I can assure you that I have not your husband in my keeping. Would you like to search the room? Look under the sofa—into all the cupboards.”

“I know that he left here half an hour ago—I watched him,” said Mrs. Lewis. “You watched him? Oh, fie!”

“You may make a mock of me, if you please; I expected that you would; but he is my husband, and I love him—I believe that he loved me until your witchery came over him and—oh, I am a most unhappy woman! But you will give him back to me; you have many admirers, madam; one poor man is nothing here or there to you.”

“Listen to me, my poor child.” Mrs. Abington had led her to the sofa, and sat down beside her, still holding her hand. “You have spoken some very foolish words since you came into this room. From whom have you heard that your husband was—well, was ensnared by me?”

“From whom? Why, every one knows it!” cried Mrs. Lewis. “And besides, I got a letter that told me—”

“A letter from whom?”

“From—I suppose she was a lady; at any rate she said that she sympathised with me, and I'm certain that she did.”

“Ah, the letter was not signed by her real name, and yet you believed the slanders that you knew came from a jealous woman? Oh, Mrs. Lewis, I'm ashamed of you.”

“Nay, I did not need to receive any letter; my husband's neglect of me made me aware of the truth—it is the truth, whether you deny it or not.”

“You are a silly goose, and I have half a mind to take your husband from you, as mothers deprive their children of a toy when they injure it. You do n't know how to treat a husband, madam, and you do n't deserve to have one. Think how many girls, prettier and cleverer than you, are obliged to go without husbands all their lives, poor things!”

“It is enough for me to think of those women who are never satisfied unless they have other women's husbands in their train, madam.”

“Look you, my dear ill-treated creature, I do assure you that I have no designs upon your husband. I do not care if I never see him again except on the stage.”

“Is that the truth? Ah, no, everybody says that Mrs. Abington is only happy when—”

“Then leave Mrs. Abington's room if you believe the statements of that vague everybody.”

The actress had risen, and was pointing in fine tragic style to the door.

Mrs. Lewis rose also, but slowly; her eyes fell beneath the flashing eyes of Mrs. Abington. Suddenly she raised her head, and put out a trembling hand.

“I will not believe what I have heard,” she said. “And yet—yet—you are so very beautiful.”

“That you think it impossible I should have any good in me?” laughed the actress. “Well, I do believe that I have some good in me—not much, perhaps, but enough to make me wish to do you a friendly turn in spite of your impudence. Listen to me, you little goose. Why have you allowed your husband to neglect you, and to come here asking me to sup with him at Vauxhall?”

“Ah, then, 't is true!” cried the wife. “You have gone with him—you are going with him?”

“'Tis true that I went with him, and that he left me just now believing that I would accompany him to the Gardens on Monday next. Well, what I want you to explain is how you have neglected your duty toward your husband so that he should stray into such evil ways as supping with actresses at Vauxhall.”

“What! would you make out that his neglect of his duty is my fault?”

“Great heavens, child, whose fault is it, if it is not yours? That is what I say, you do n't deserve to have a toy if you let some strange child snatch it away from you.”

“I protest, Mrs. Abington, that I scarce take your meaning. I have nothing to reproach myself with. I have ever been the best of wives. I have never gone gadding about to balls and routs as some wives do; I have remained at home with my baby.”

“Exactly, and so your poor husband has been forced to ask certain actresses to bear him company at those innocent pleasures, which he, in common with most gentlemen of distinction, enjoy. Ah, 't is you domestic wives that will have to answer for your husbands' backslidings.”

“Is it possible that—why, madam, you bewilder me. You think that I should—I do n't know what you think—oh, I'm quite bewildered!”

“Why, child, have you not seen enough of the world to learn that a woman is most attractive to a man when he perceives that she is admired by other men? Have you not seen that a man seeks to marry a particular woman, not because he cares so greatly for her himself, but because he believes that other men care greatly for her? Your good husband is, I doubt not, fond enough of you; but when he perceives that you think much more of your baby than you do of him—when he perceives that the men whom he considered his rivals before he carried you off from them, no longer follow in your train, is he to be blamed if he finds you a trifle insipid? Ah, let me tell you, my sweet young wife, a husband is a horse that requires the touch of a spur now and again. A jog-trot is not what suits a spirited creature.”

“Heavens, madam! You mean that he—my husband—would be true to me if I only I—I—”

“If only you were not too anxious that he should keep pace with the jog-trot into which you have fallen, my dear. Do you not fancy that I know he wishes me to sup with him only because he is well aware that a dozen men will be longing to mince him when they see him mincing my chicken for me?”

“But I would go with him to the Gardens if he would ask me, only—ah, no one would want to mince him on my account.”

“You silly one! Cannot you see that you must place him in the position of wanting to mince the other man?”

“How? I protest that I am bewildered.”

“Dear child, go to the Gardens, not with your husband, but with another man, and you will soon see him return to you with all the ardour of a lover with a rival in view. Jealousy is the spur which a husband needs to recall him to a sense of his duty, now and again.”

“I will never consent to adopt such a course, madam. In the first place, I cannot force myself upon any gentleman of my acquaintance.”

“Then the sooner you find one on whom you can force yourself, the better chance you will have of bringing your husband to your side.”

“In the second place, I respect my husband too highly—”

“Too highly to win him back to you, though not too highly to come to me with a story of the wrongs he has done to you? Oh, go away now; you do n't deserve your toy.”

Mrs. Lewis did not respond to the laughter of the actress. She remained standing in the centre of the room with her head down. Fresh tears were welling up to her eyes.

“I have given you my advice—and it is the advice of one who knows a good deal of men and their manners,” resumed Mrs. Abington. “If you cannot see your way to follow it there is nothing more to be said.”

“I may be foolish; but I cannot bring myself to go alone with any man to the Gardens,” said her visitor in a low tone.

“Then good-bye to you!” cried the actress, with a wave of her hand.

The little lady went slowly to the door; when there she cast an appealing glance at Mrs. Abington; but the latter had picked up her copy of the new comedy, and was apparently studying the contents. With a sigh Mrs. Lewis opened the door and went out.

“Foolish child! She will have to buy her experience of men, as her sisters buy theirs,” cried Mrs. Abington, throwing away the book.

She rose from her seat and yawned, stretching out her arms. As she recovered herself, her eyes rested on a charcoal sketch of herself in the character Sir Harry Wildair, in “The Constant Couple,” done by Sir Joshua Reynolds' pupil, Northcote. She gave a little start, then ran to the door, and called out to Mrs. Lewis, who had not had time to get to the foot of the stairs.

“Come back for one moment, madam,” cried Mrs. Abington over the banisters, and when Mrs. Lewis returned, she said: “I called you back to tell you to be ready dressed for the Gardens on Monday night. I will accompany you thither in my coach.”

“You mean that you will—”

“Go away now, like a good child. Ask no more questions till Monday night.”

She went away, and on the Monday night she was dressed to go to Vauxhall, when the room in which she was waiting was entered by an extremely handsome and splendidly dressed young gentleman, who had all the swagger of one of the beaux of the period, as he advanced to her smirking.

“I protest, sir,” cried Mrs. Lewis, starting up; “you have made a mistake. I have not the honour of your acquaintance.”

“'Fore Gad, my charmer, you assume the airs of an innocent miss with amazing ability,” smirked her visitor. “My name, madam, is Wildair, at your service, and I would fain hope that you will accept my poor escort to the Gardens.”

A puzzled look was on Mrs. Lewis's face as the gallant began to speak, but gradually this expression disappeared. She clapped her hands together girlishly, and then threw herself back on a chair, roaring with laughter.

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