On his return to the Paul’s Head from that treasonable talk with Tucker, the Colonel found a considerable excitement presiding over that usually peaceful and well-conducted hostelry. The common room was thronged, which was not in itself odd, considering the time of day; what was odd was the noisy, vehement babble of the normally quiet, soberly spoken merchants who for the main part composed its custom. Mrs. Quinn was there listening to the unusually shrill voice of her bookseller-suitor Coleman, and her round red face, which the Colonel had never seen other than creased and puckered in smiles of false joviality, was solemn for once and had lost some of its normally high colour. Near at hand hovered the drawer, scraping imaginary crumbs from the table with his wooden knife, as a pretext for remaining to listen. And so engrossed was his mistress that she left his eavesdropping unreproved.

Yet, for all her agitation, she had a coy glance for the Colonel as he stalked through, with that lofty detachment and arrogant unconcern of his surroundings which she found so entirely admirable in him. It was not long before she followed him into the little parlour at the back, where she found him stretched at his ease on his favourite seat under the window, having cast aside sword and hat. He was in the act of loading a pipe from a leaden tobacco-jar.

“Lord, Colonel! Here be dreadful news,” she told him.

He looked up, cocking an eyebrow.

“You’ll have heard?” she added. “It is the talk of the Town.”

He shook his head. “Nay, I heard nothing dreadful. I met a friend, an old friend, over there by the Flower of Luce, and I’ve been with him these three hours. I talked to no one else. What is this news?”

But she was frowning as she looked at him scrutinizingly with her round blue eyes. Her mind was shifted by his light words to her own more immediate concerns. He had met a friend—an old friend. Not much in that to arouse anxiety, perhaps. But Mrs. Quinn moved now in constant dread of influences that might set the Colonel on a sound worldly footing likely to emancipate him from his dependence upon herself. She had skilfully drawn from him enough of the details of his interview with Albemarle to realize that the help upon which he counted from that quarter had not been forthcoming. He had been put off with vague promises, and Mrs. Quinn knew enough of her world not to be greatly perturbed by that. None the less she would have set all doubts at rest by leading the Colonel into the relationship in which she desired to hold him, but that as yet the Colonel manifested no clear disposition to be led. And she was too crafty a huntress to scare her quarry by premature and too direct an onslaught. The only anxiety, yielding to which she might have committed that imprudence, was on the score of the unexpected. She knew that the unexpected will sometimes happen, and this mention of a friend—an old friend, with whom he had spent some hours in intimate talk—was disquieting. She would have liked to question him on the subject of that friend, and might have done so but for his insistent repetition of the question:

“What is this news?”

Recalled to it thus, the gravity of the news itself thrust out the other matter from her mind.

“That the plague has broken out in the City itself—in a house in Bearbinder Lane. It was brought by a Frenchman from Long Acre, where he lived, and which he left upon finding the pestilence to be growing in his neighbourhood. Yet it seems he was already taken with the disease, which now the wretch has brought to our threshold, as it were, without benefit to himself.”

The Colonel thought of Tucker and his scaremongering emissaries.

“Perhaps it is not true,” said he.

“Aye, but it is. Beyond a doubt. It was put about by a preacher rogue from the steps of Paul’s to-day. At first folk did not believe him. But they went to Bearbinder Lane, and there found the house shut up, and guarded by command of my Lord Mayor. And they do say that Sir John Lawrence is gone to Whitehall to take order about this, to concert measures for staying the spread of the pestilence; they are to close playhouses and all other places where people come together, which will likely mean that they will be closing taverns and eating-houses. And what should I do in that case?”

“Nay, nay,” Holles comforted her. “It will hardly come to that. Men must eat and drink or they starve, and that’s as bad as the pestilence.”

“To be sure it is. But they’ll never think of that in their zeal and their sudden godliness—for they’ll be in a muck-sweat o’ godliness now that they see what a visitation has been brought upon us by the vices of the Court. And this to happen at such a time, with the Dutch fleet, as they say, about to attack the coast!”

She railed on. Disturbed out of her self-centred existence into a consideration of the world’s ills now that she found herself menaced by them, she displayed a prodigious volubility upon topics that hitherto she had completely ignored.

And the substance of her news was true enough. The Lord Mayor was at that very moment at Whitehall urging immediate and drastic measures for combating the spread of the pestilence, and one of these measures was the instant closing of the playhouses. But since he did not at the same time urge the closing of the churches, in which the congregating of people was at least as dangerous as in the theatres, it was assumed at Court that Sir John was the cat’s-paw of the Puritans who sought to make capital out of the pestilence. Besides, the visitation was one that confined itself to the poorer quarters and the lower orders. Heaven would never be so undiscriminating as to permit this horrible disease to beset persons of quality. And then, too, Whitehall’s mind at the moment was over-full of other matters: there were these rumours that the Dutch fleet was out, and that was quite sufficient to engage such time and attention as could be spared from pleasure by the nation’s elect, following in the footsteps of their pleasure-loving King. Also a good many of the nation’s elect were exercised at the time by personal grievances in connection with the fleet and the war. Of these perhaps the most disgruntled—as he was certainly the most eminent—was His Grace of Buckingham, who found the nation sadly negligent of the fact that he had come all the way from York, and his lord-lieutenancy there, to offer her his valuable services in her hour of need.

He had requested the command of a ship, a position to which his rank and his talents fully entitled him, in his own view. That such a request would be refused had never entered his calculations. But refused it was. There were two factors working against him. The first was that the Duke of York cordially disliked him and neglected no chance of mortifying him; the second was that the Duke of York, being Lord Admiral of the Fleet, desired to take no risks. There were many good positions from which capable naval men could be excluded to make way for sprigs of the nobility. But the command of a man-of-war was not one of these. Buckingham was offered a gun-brig. Considering that the offer came from the King’s brother, he could not resent it in the terms his hot blood prompted. But what he could do to mark his scorn, he did. He refused the gun-brig, and enlisted as a volunteer aboard a flag-ship. But here at once a fresh complication arose. As a Privy Councillor he claimed the right of seat and voice in all councils of war, in which capacity it is probable he might have done even more damage than in command of one of the great ships. Again the Duke of York’s opposition foiled him, whereupon in a rage he posted from Portsmouth to Whitehall to lay his plaint before his crony the King. The Merry Monarch may have wavered; it may have vexed him not to be able to satisfy the handsome rake who understood so well the arts of loosening laughter; but between his own brother and Buckingham there can have been no choice. And so Charles could not help him.

Buckingham had remained, therefore, at Court, to nurse his chagrin, and to find his way circuitously into the strange history of Colonel Randal Holles. His grace possessed, as you know, a mercurial temperament which had not yet—although he was now approaching forty—lost any of its liveliness. Such natures are readily consoled, because they readily find distractions. It was not long before he had forgotten, in new and less creditable pursuits, not only the humbling of his dignity, but even the circumstance that his country was at war. Dryden has summed him up in a single line: He “was everything by starts, and nothing long.” The phrase applies as much to Buckingham’s moods as to his talents; it epitomizes the man’s whole character.

His friend George Etheredge, that other gifted rake who had leapt into sudden fame a year ago with his comedy “The Comic Revenge,” had been deafening his ears with praises of the beauty and talent of that widely admired and comparatively newly discovered actress Sylvia Farquharson. At first Buckingham had scoffed at his friend’s enthusiasm.

“Such heat of rhetoric to describe a playhouse baggage!” he had yawned. “For a man of your parts, George, I protest you’re nauseatingly callow.”

“You flatter me in seeking to reprove,” Etheredge laughed. “To be callow despite the years is to bear the mark of greatness. Whom the gods love are callow always; for whom the gods love die young, whatever be their age.”

“You aim at paradox, I suppose. God help me!”

“No paradox at all. Whom the gods love never grow old,” Etheredge explained himself. “They never come to suffer as do you from jaded appetites.”

“You may be right,” his grace admitted gloomily. “Prescribe me a tonic.”

“That is what I was doing: Sylvia Farquharson, at the Duke’s House.”

“Bah! A play actress! A painted doll on wires! Twenty years ago your prescription might have served.”

“You admit that you grow old. Superfluous admission! But this, let me perish, is no painted doll. This is an incarnation of beauty and talent.”

“So I’ve heard of others that had neither.”

“And let me add that she is virtuous.”

Buckingham stared at him, opening his lazy eyes. “What may that be?” he asked.

“The chief drug in my prescription.”

“But does it exist, or is your callowness deeper than I thought?” quoth Buckingham.

“Come and see,” Mr. Etheredge invited him.

“Virtue,” Buckingham objected, “is not visible.”

“Like beauty, it dwells in the beholder’s eye. That’s why you’ve never seen it, Bucks.”

To the Duke’s playhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields his disgruntled grace suffered himself, in the end, to be conducted. He went to scoff. He remained to worship. You already know—having overheard the garrulous Mr. Pepys—how from his box, addressing his companion in particular and the whole house in general, the ducal author loudly announced that he would give his muse no rest until he should have produced a play with a part worthy of the superb talents of Miss Farquharson.

His words were reported to her. They bore with them a certain flattery to which it was impossible that she should be impervious. She had not yet settled herself completely into this robe of fame that had been thrust upon her. She continued unspoiled, and she did not yet condescendingly accept such utterances from the great as no more than the proper tribute to her gifts. Such praise from one so exalted, himself a distinguished author and a boon companion of the King’s, set a climax upon the triumphs that lately she had been garnering.

It prepared her for the ducal visit to the green room, which followed presently. She was presented by Mr. Etheredge with whom she was already acquainted, and she stood shyly before the tall, supremely elegant duke, under the gaze of his bold eyes.

In his golden periwig he looked at this date not a year more than thirty, despite the hard life he had lived from boyhood. As yet he had come to none of that grossness to be observed in the portrait which Sir Peter Lely painted some years later. He was still the handsomest man at Charles’s Court, with his long-shaped, dark blue eyes under very level brows, his fine nose and chin, and his humorous, sensitive, sensual mouth. In shape and carriage he was of an extraordinary grace that drew all eyes upon him. Yet at sight, instinctively, Miss Farquharson disliked him. She apprehended under all that beauty of person something sinister. She shrank inwardly and coloured a little under the appraising glance of those bold, handsome eyes, which seemed to penetrate too far. Reason and ambition argued her out of that instinctive shrinking. Here was one whose approval carried weight and would set the seal upon her fame, one whose good graces could maintain her firmly on the eminence to which she had so laboriously climbed. He was a man whom, in spite of all instinctive warnings, she must use with consideration and a reasonable submission.

On his side, the Duke, already captivated by her grace and beauty upon the stage, found himself lost in admiration now that at close quarters he beheld her slim loveliness. For lovely she was, and the blush which his scrutiny had drawn to her cheeks, heightening that loveliness, almost disposed him to believe Etheredge’s incredible assertion of her virtue. Shyness may be counterfeited and the simpers of unsophistication are easily assumed; but a genuine blush is not to be commanded.

His grace bowed, low, the curls of his wig swinging forward like the ears of a water-spaniel.

“Madam,” he said, “I would congratulate you were I not more concerned to congratulate myself for having witnessed your performance, and still more Lord Orrery, your present author. Him I not only congratulate but envy—a hideous, cankering emotion, which I shall not conquer until I have written you a part at least as great as his Katherine. You smile?”

“It is for gratification at your grace’s promise.”

“I wonder now,” said he, his eyes narrowing, his lips smiling a little. “I wonder is that the truth, or is it that you think I boasted? that such an achievement is not within my compass? I’ll confess frankly that until I saw you it was not. But you have made it so, my dear.”

“If I have done that, I shall, indeed, have deserved well of my audience,” she answered, but lightly, laughing a little, as if to discount the high-flown compliment.

“As well, I trust, as I shall have deserved of you,” said he.

“The author must always deserve the best of his puppets.”

“Deserve, aye. But how rarely does he get his deserts!”

“Surely you, Bucks, have little reason to complain,” gibed Etheredge. “In my case, now, it is entirely different.”

“It is, George—entirely,” his grace agreed, resenting the interruption. “You are the rarity. You have always found better than you deserved. I have never found it until this moment.” And his eyes upon Miss Farquharson gave point to his meaning.

When at length they left her, her sense of exaltation was all gone. She could not have told you why, but the Duke of Buckingham’s approval uplifted her no longer. Almost did she wish that she might have gone without it. And when Betterton came smiling good-naturedly, to offer her his congratulations upon this conquest, he found her bemused and troubled.

Bemused, too, did Etheredge find the Duke as they drove back together to Wallingford House.

“Almost, I think,” said he, smiling, “that already you find my despised prescription to your taste. Persevered with it may even restore you your lost youth.”

“What I ask myself,” said Buckingham, “is why you should have prescribed her for me instead of for yourself.”

“I am like that,” said Etheredge,—“the embodiment of self-sacrifice. Besides, she will have none of me—though I am ten years younger than you are, fully as handsome and almost as unscrupulous. The girl’s a prude, and I never learnt the way to handle prudes. Faith, it’s an education in itself.”

“Is it?” said Buckingham. “I must undertake it, then.”

And undertake it he did with all the zest of one who loved learning and the study of unusual subjects.

Daily now he was to be seen in a box at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and daily he sent her, in token of his respectful homage, gifts of flowers and comfits. He would have added jewels, but that the wiser Etheredge restrained him.

“Ne brusquez pas l’affaire,” was the younger man’s advice. “You’ll scare her by precipitancy, and so spoil all. Such a conquest as this requires infinite patience.”

His grace suffered himself to be advised, and set a restraint upon his ardour, using the greatest circumspection in the visits which he paid her almost daily after the performance. He confined the expressions of admiration to her histrionic art, and, if he touched upon her personal beauty and grace, it was ever in association with her playing, so that its consideration seemed justified by the part that he told her he was conceiving for her.

Thus subtly did he seek to lull her caution and intoxicate her senses with the sweet poison of flattery, whilst discussing with her the play he was to write—which, in his own phrase, was to immortalize himself and her, thereby eternally uniting them. There was in this more than a suggestion of a spiritual bond, a marriage of their respective arts to give life to his dramatic conception, so aloof from material and personal considerations that she was deceived into swallowing at least half the bait. Nor was it vague. His grace did not neglect to furnish it with a certain form. His theme, he told her, was the immortal story of Laura and her Petrarch set in the warm glitter of an old Italian frame. Nor was that all he told her. He whipped his wits to some purpose, and sketched for her the outline of a first act of tenderness and power.

At the end of a week he announced to her that this first act was already written.

“I have laboured day and night,” he told her; “driven relentlessly by the inspiration you have furnished me. So great is this that I must regard the thing as more yours than mine, or I shall do it when you have set upon it the seal of your approval.” Abruptly he asked her, as if it were a condition predetermined: “When will you hear me read it?”

“Were it not better that your grace should first complete the work?” she asked him.

He was taken aback, almost horror-stricken, to judge by his expression.

“Complete it!” he cried; “without knowing whether it takes the shape that you desire?”

“But it is not what I desire, your grace....”

“What else, then? Is it not something that I am doing specially for you, moved to it by yourself? And shall I complete it tormented the while by doubts as to whether you will consider it worthy of your talents when it is done? Would you let a dressmaker complete your gown without ever a fitting to see how it becomes you? And is a play, then, less important than a garment? Is not a part, indeed, a sort of garment for the soul? Nay, now, if I am to continue I must have your assistance as I say. I must know how this first act appears to you, how far my Laura does justice to your powers; and I must discuss with you the lines which the remainder of the play shall follow. Therefore again I ask you—and in the sacred cause of art I defy you to deny me—when will you hear what I have written?”

“Why, since your grace does me so much honour, when you will.”

It was intoxicating, this homage to her talent from one of his gifts and station, the intimate of princes, the close associate of kings, and it stifled, temporarily at least, the last qualm of her intuitions which had warned her against this radiant gentleman. They had become so friendly and intimate in this week, and yet his conduct had been so respectful and circumspect throughout, that clearly her instincts had misled her at that first meeting.

“When I will,” said he. “That is to honour me, indeed. Shall it be to-morrow, then?”

“If your grace pleases, and you will bring the act....”

“Bring it?” He raised his eyebrows. His lip curled a little as he looked round the dingy green room. “You do not propose, child, that I should read it here?” He laughed in dismissal of the notion.

“But where else, then?” she asked, a little bewildered.

“Where else but in my own house? What other place were proper?”

“Oh!” She was dismayed a little. An uneasiness, entirely instinctive, beset her once again. It urged her to draw back, to excuse herself. Yet reason combated instinct. It were a folly to offend him by a refusal? Such a thing would be affronting by its implication of mistrust; and she was very far from wishing to affront him.

He observed the trouble in her blue eyes as she now regarded him, but affected not to observe it, and waited for her to express herself. She did so after a moment’s pause, faltering a little.

“But ... at your house.... Why, what would be said of me, your grace? To come there alone....”

“Child! Child!” he interrupted her, his tone laden with gentle reproach. “Can you think that I should so lightly expose you to the lewd tongues of the Town? Alone? Give your mind peace. I shall have some friends to keep you in countenance and to join you as audience to hear what I have written. There shall be one or two ladies from the King’s House; perhaps Miss Seymour from the Duke’s here will join us; there is a small part for her in the play; and there shall be some friends of my own; maybe even His Majesty will honour us. We shall make a merry party at supper, and after supper you shall pronounce upon my Laura whom you are to incarnate. Is your hesitancy conquered?”

It was, indeed. Her mind was in a whirl. A supper party at Wallingford House, at which in a sense she was to be the guest of honour, and which the King himself would attend! She would have been mad to hesitate. It was to enter the great world at a stride. Other actresses had done it—Moll Davis and little Nelly from the King’s House; but they had done it upon passports other than those of histrionic talent. She would have preferred that Miss Seymour should not have been included. She had no great opinion of Miss Seymour’s conduct. But there was a small part for her, and that was perhaps a sufficient justification.

And so she cast aside her hesitation, and gladdened his grace by consenting to be present.

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