Copyright
Charles Lamb.

The life, letters, and writings of Charles Lamb (Volume 6) online

. (page 18 of 29)
Online LibraryCharles LambThe life, letters, and writings of Charles Lamb (Volume 6) → online text (page 18 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Lurks in this fiend's behaviour ; which, by force
Or fraud, I must make mine.

Lucy. The gentlest means

Are still the wisest. What if you should press
Your wife to a disclosure ?

Selby. I have tried

All gentler means ; thrown out low hints, which,

though
Merely suggestions, still have never fail'd
To blanch her cheek with fears. Roughlier to insist,
Would be to kill, where I but meant to heal.

Lucy. Your own description gave that Widow out
As one not much precise, nor over-coy
And nice to listen to a suit of love.
What if you feign'd a courtship, putting on,
(To work the secret from her easy faith,)
For honest ends, a most dishonest seeming?

Selby. I see your drift, and partly meet your

counsel.
But must it not in me appear prodigious.
To say the least, unnatural, and suspicious,
To move hot love, where I have shown cooi scorn.
And undissembled looks of blank aversion ?

Lucy. Vain woman is the dupe of her own charms,



268 THE wife's trial : OR,

And easily credits the resistless power,
That in besieging beauty lies, to cast down
The slight-built fortress of a casual hate.
Sclby. I am resolved —

Lucy. Success attend your wooing 1

Sclby. And I'll about it roundly, my wise sister.

[Exeunt.

Scene. — Tiie Library.
Mr. Selby. Mrs. Frampton.

Selby. A fortunate encounter, Mistress Frampton.
My purpose was, if you could spare so much
From your sweet leisure, a few words in private.

Mrs. F. What mean his alter'd tones ? — these
looks to me.
Whose glances yet he has repell'd with coolness ?
Is the wind changed ? I'll veer about with it,
And meet him in all fashions. [Aside.

All my leisure,
Feebly bestow'd upon my kind friends here,
Would not express a tithe of the obligements
I every hour incur.

Selby. No more of that.

I know not why, my wife hath lost of late
Much of her cheerful spirits.

Mrs. F. It was my topic

To-day ; and every day, and all day long,
I still am chiding with her. " Child," I said,
And said it pretty roundly — it may be
I was too peremptory — we elder school-fellows.
Presuming on the advantage of a year
Or two, which, in that tender time, seem'd much,
In after years, much like to elder sisters.
Are prone to keep the authoritative style.
When time has made the difference most ridiculous—



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 269

Selby. The observation's shrewd.

Mrs. F. " Child," I was saying,

" If some wives had obtain'd a lot like yours,"
And then perhaps I sigh'd, "they would not sit
In corners moping, like to sullen moppets
That want their will, but dry their eyes, and look
Their cheerful husbands in the face," perhaps
I said, their Selbys, " with proportion'd looks
Of honest joy."

Selby. You do suspect no jealousy ?

Mrs. F. What is his import ? Whereto tends his.
speech ? [Aside.

3f whom, of what, should she be jealous, sir. —

Selby. I do not know, but women have their
fancies ;
And underneath a cold indifference.
Or show of some distaste, husbands have mask'd
A growing fondness for a female friend,
Which the wife's eye was sharp enough to see,
Before the friend had wit to find it out.
You do not quit us soon ?

Mrs. F. 'Tis as I find ;

Your Katherine profits by my lessons, sir. —
Means this man honest ? Is there no deceit ? [Aside.

Selby. She cannot choose. — Well, well, I have;
been thinking.
And if the matter were to do again —

Mrs. F. What matter, sir ?

Selby. This idle bond of wedlock;

These sour-sweet briars, fetters of harsh silk ;
I might have made, I do not say a better.
But a more fit choice in a wife.

Mrs. F. The parch'd ground,.

In hottest Julys, drinks not in the showers



270 THE wife's trial ; OR,

More greedily than I his words! [Aside,

Selhy. My humour

Is to be frank and jovial ; and that man
Affects me best, who most reflects me in
My most free temper.

Mrs. F. Were you free to choose,

As jestingly I'll put the supposition,
Without a thought reflecting on your Katherine,
What sort of Woman would you make your choice ?

Selby. I like your humour and will meet your jest.
She should be one about my Katherine's age ;
But not so old, by some ten years, in gravity,
One that would meet my mirth, sometimes outrun it ;
No muling, pining moppet, as you said,
Nor moping maid that I must still be teaching
The freedoms of a wife all her life after :
But one that, having worn the chain before,
(And worn it lightly, as report gave out,)
Enfranchised from it by her poor fool's death,
Took it not so to heart that I need dread
To die myself, for fear a second time
To wet a widow's eye.

Mrs. F. Some widows, sir,

Hearing you talk so wildly, would be apt
To put strange misconstruction on your words.
As aiming at a Turkish liberty.
Where the free husband hath his several mates,
His Penseroso, his Allegro wife,
To suit his sober or his frolic fit.

Selhy. How judge you of that latitude ?

Mrs. F. As one,

To European customs bred, must judge. Had I
'Been born a native of the liberal East,
I might have thought as they do. Yet I knew



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 27 1

A married man that took a second wife,
And (the man's circumstances duly weigh'd,
With all their bearings) the considerate world
Nor much approved, nor much condemn'd the deed.

Selby. You move my wonder strangely. Pray,
proceed.

Mrs. F. An eye of wanton liking he had placed
Upon a Widow, who liked him again,
But stood on terms of honourable love,
And scrupled wronging his most virtuous wife —
When to their ears a lucky rumour ran,
That this demure and saintly-seeming wife
Had a first husband living ; with the which
Being question'd, she but faintly could deny.
" A priest indeed there was ; some words had pass'd,
But scarce amounting to a marriage rite.
Her friend was absent ; she supposed him dead ;
And, seven years parted, both were free to choose."

Selby. What did the indignant husband? Did
he not
With violent handlings stigmatise the cheek
Of the deceiving wife, who had entail'd
Shame on their innocent babe ?

Mrs. F. He neither tore

His wife's locks nor his own ; but wisely weighing
His own offence with hers in equal poise,
And woman's weakness 'gainst the strength of man.
Came to a calm and witty compromise.
He coolly took his gay-faced widow home,
Made her his second wife ; and still the first
Lost few or none of her prerogatives.
The servants call'd her mistress Still ; she kept
The keys, and had the total ordering
Of the house affairs ; and, some slight toys excepted,
Was all a moderate wife would wish to be.



272 THE wife's trial ; OR,

Selby. A tale full of dramatic incident '. —
And if a man should put it in a play,
How should he name the parties ?

Mrs. F. The man's name

Through time I have forgot — the widow's too ; —
But his first wife's first name, her maiden one.
Was not unlike to that your Katherine bore.
Before she took the honour'd style of Selby.

Selby. A dangerous meaning in your riddle lurks.
One knot is yet unsolved ; that told, this strange
And most mysterious drama ends. The name
Of that first husband —

Enter Lucy.

Mrs. F. Sir, your pardon —

The allegory fits your private ear.
Some half hour hence, in the garden's secret walk,
We shall have leisure. [Exit,

Selby. Sister, whence come you ?

Liicy. From your poor Katherine's chamber^
where she droops
In sad presageful thoughts, and sighs, and weeps,
And seems to pray by turns. At times she looks
As she would pour her secret in my bosom —
Then starts, as I have seen her, at the mention
Of some immodest act. At her request
I left her on her knees.

Selby. The fittest posture ;

For great has been her fault to Heaven and me.
She married me with a first husband living.
Or not known not to be so, which, in the judgment
Of any but indifferent honesty,
Must be esteein'd the same. The shallow widow
Caught by my art, under a riddling veil



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 273

Too thin to hide her meaning, hath confess'd all.
Your coming in broke off the conference,
When she was ripe to tell the fatal name,
That seals my wedded doom.

Lucy. Was she so forward

To pour her hateful meanings in your ear
At the first hint .?

Selby. Her newly flatter'd hopes

Array'd themselves at first in forms of doubt ;
And with a female caution she stood off
Awhile, to read the meaning of my suit,
Which with such honest seeming I enforced,
That her cold scruples soon gave wav ; and now
She rests prepared, as mistress, or as wife.
To seize the place of her betrayed friend —
My much offending, but more suffering, Katherine.

Lucy. Into what labyrinth of fearful shapes
My simple project has conducted you —
Were but my wit as skilful to invent
A clue to lead you forth ! — I call to mind
A letter, which your wife received from the Cape,
Soon after you were married, with some ciroun;;-

stances
Of mystery too.

Selby. I well remember it.

That letter did confirm the truth (she said)
Of a friend's death, which she had long fear'd true,
But knew not for a fact. A youth of promise
She gave him out — a hot adventurous spirit —
That had set sail in quest of golden dreams,
And cities in the heart of Central Afric ;
But named no names, nor did I care to press
My question further, in the passionate grief
She show'd at the receipt. Might this be he ?

VOL. VI. T



274 THE WIFE S TRIAL ; OR,

Lucy. Tears were not all. When that first shower
was past,
With clasp'd hands she raised her eyes to Heav'n,
As if in thankfulness for some escape,
Or strange deliverance, in the news implied,
Which sweeten'd that sad news.

Selby. Something of that

I noted also —

Lucy. In her closet once,

Seeking some other trifle, I espied
A ring, in mournful characters deciphering
The death of " Robert Halford, aged two
And twenty." Brother, I am not given
To the confident use of wagers, which I hold
Unseemly in a woman's argument ;
But I am strangely tempted now to risk
A thousand pounds out of my patrimony,
(And let my future husband look to it,
If it be lost,) that this immodest Widow
Shall name the name that tallies with that ring.

Selby. That wager lost, I should be rich indeed-
Rich in my rescued Kate — rich in my honour,
Which now was bankrupt. Sister, I accept
Your merry wager, with an aching heart
For very fear of winning. 'Tis the hour
That I should meet my Widow in the walk,
The south side of the garden. On some pretence
Lure forth my Wife that way, that she may witness
Our seeming courtship. Keep us still in sight.
Yourselves unseen ; and by some sign I'll give,
(A finger held up, or a kerchief waved,)
You'll know your wager won — then break upon us,
As if by chance.

Lucy. I apprehend your meaning —



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 275

Selby. And may you prove a true Cassandra here,
Though my poor acres smart for 't, wagering sister !

{Exeunt.

Scene. — Mrs. Selbfs chamber.
Mrs. Frampton. Katherine.

Mrs. F. Did I express myself in terms so strong ?

Kath. As nothing could have more affrighted me.

Mrs. F. Think it a hurt friend's jest, in retribution
Of a suspected cooling hospitality.
And, for my staying here, or going hence,
(Now I remember something of our argument,)
Selby and I can settle that between us.
You look amazed. What if your husband, child,
Himself has courted me to stay ?

Kath. You move

My wonder and my pleasure equally.

Mrs. F. Yes, courted me to stay, waved all ob-
jections,
Made it a favour to yourselves ; not me.
His troublesome guest, as you surmised. Child,

child,
When I recall his flattering welcome, I
Begin to think the burden of my presence
Was—

Kath. What, for Heaven —

Mrs. F. A little, little spice

Of jealousy — that's all — an honest pretext,
No wife need blush for. Say that you should see,
(As oftentimes we widows take such freedoms,
Yet still on this side virtue,) in a jest
Your husband pat me on the cheek, or steal
A kiss, while you were by, — not else, for virtue's sake,

T 2



276 THE wife's trial ; OR,

Kath. I could endure all this, thinking my lius-
band
Meant it in sport —

Mrs. F. But if in downright earnest

(Putting myself out of the question here)
Your Selby, as I partly do suspect,
Own'd a divided heart —

Kath. My own v/ould break —

Mrs. F. Why, what a blind and witless fool it is.
That will not see its gains, its infinite gains —

Kath. Gain in a loss.

Or mirth in utter desolation !

Mrs. F. He doating on a face — suppose it mine.
Or any other's tolerably fair —
What need you care about a senseless secret ?

Kath. Perplex'd and fearful woman 1 I in part
Fathom your dangerous meaning. You have broke
The worse than iron band, fretting the soul,
By which you held me captive. Whether my hus-
band
Is what you gave him out, or your fool'd fancy
But dreams he is so, either way I am free.

Mrs. F. It talks it bravely, blazons out its shame j
A very heroine while on its knees ;
Rowe's Penitent, an absolute Calista ?

Kath. Not to thy wretched self these tears are
falling ;
But to my husband, and offended Heaven,
Some drops are due — and then I sleep in peace,
Relieved from frightful dreams, my dreams though

sad. [Exit.

Mrs. F. I have gone too far. Who knows but ia
this mood
She may forestall my story, win on Selby



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 277

By a frank confession ? — and the time draws on
For our appointed meeting. The game's desperate,
For which I play. A moment's difference
May make it hers or mine. I fly to meet him.

[^Exit.

Scene. — ji garden.
Mr. Selby. Mrs. Framfiun.

Selby. I am not so ill a guesser, Mrs. Frampton,
Not to conjecture, that some passages
In your unfinish'd story, rightly interpreted,
Glanced at my bosom's peace ;

You knew my wife ?

Mrs. F. Even from her earliest school days —
What of that ?
Or how is she concerned in my fine riddles.
Framed for the hour's amusement !

Selby. By my hopes

Of my new interest conceived in you,
And by the honest passion of my heart.
Which not obliquely I to you did hint ;
Come from the clouds of misty allegory,
And in plain language let me hear the worst.
Stand I disgraced, or no ?

Mrs. F. Then by my hopes

Of my new interest conceived in you.
And by the kindling passion in tny breast,
Which through my riddles you had almost read,
Adjured so strongly, I will tell you all.
In her school years, then bordering on fifteen.
Or haply not much past, she loved a youth —

Selby. My most ingenuous Widow —

Mrs. F. Met him oft

By stealth, where I still of the party was —



278 THE wife's trial ; OR,

Selby. Prime confidante to all the school, I
warrant,
And general go-between — [Aside.

Mrs. F. One morn he came

In breathless haste. " The ship was under sail,
Or in few hours would be, that must convey
Him and his destinies to barbarous shores,
Where, should he perish by inglorious hands.
It would be consolation in his death
To have call'd his Katherine his."

Selby. Thus far the story

Tallies with what I hoped. [Aside.

Mrs. F. Wavering between

The doubt of doing wrong, and losing him ;
And my dissuasions not o'er hotly urged,
Whom he had flatter'd with the bride-maid's part : —

Selby. I owe my subtle Widow, then, for this.

[Aside.

Mrs. F. Briefly we went to church. The ceremony
Scarcely was huddled over, and the ring
Yet cold upon her finger, when they parted —
He to his ship ; and we to school got back.
Scarce miss'd, before the dinner-bell could ring.

Selby. And from that hour —

Mrs. F. Nor sight, nor news of him,

For aught that I could hear, she e'er obtain'd.

Selby. Like to a man that hovers in suspense
Over a letter just received, on which
The black seal hath impress'd its ominous token,
Whether to open it or no, so I
Suspended stand, whether to press my fate
Further, or check ill curiosity

That tempts me to more loss. — The name, the name
Of this fine youth ?



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 279

Mrs. F. What boots it, if 'twere told ?
Selby. Now, by our loves,

And by my hopes of happier wedlocks, some day
To be accomplish'd, give me his name !

Mrs. F. 'Tis no such serious matter. It was —

Huntingdon.
Selby. How have three little syllables pluck'd from
me
A world of countless hopes ! — [Aside,

Evasive Widow
Mrs. F. How, sir !— I like not this. [Aside.

Selby. No, no, I meant

Nothing but good to thee. That other woman,
How shall I call her but evasive, false,
And treacherous ?— by the trust I place in thee.
Tell me, and tell me truly, was the name
As you pronounced it ?

Mrs. F. Huntingdon — the name,

Which his paternal grandfather assumed,
Together with the estates of a remote
Kinsman : but our high-spirited youth —

Selby. Yes-

Mrs. F. Disdaining

For sordid pelf to truck the family honours,
At risk of the lost estates, resumed the old style
And answer'd only to the name of —

Selby. What—

Mrs. F. Of Halford—

Selby. A Huntingdon to Halford changed so soon !
Why, then I see, a witch hath her good spells,
As well as bad, and can by a backward charm
Unruffle the foul storm she has just been raising.

[Aside. He makes the signal.
My frank, fair-spoken Widow, let this kiss,



28o THE wife's TRIAL ; OR,

Which yet aspires no higher, speak my thanks,
Till I can think on greater.

Enter Lucv and Katherine.

Mrs. F. Interrupted !

Selby. My sister here ! and see, where with her
comes
My serpent gliding in an angel's form,
To taint the new-born Eden of our joys.
Why should we fear them ? We'll not stir a foot,
Nor coy it for their pleasures. [He courts the Widow,

Lucy (to Katherine). This your free,

And sweet ingenuous confession, binds me
For ever to you ; and it shall go hard.
But it shall fetch you back your husband's heart,
That now seems blindly straying ; or at worst,
In me you have still a sister. — Some wives, brother,
Would think it strange to catch their husbands thus
Alone with a trim widow ; but your Katherine
Is arm'd, I think, with patience.

Kath. I am fortified

With knowledge of self-faults to endure worse wrongs,
If they be wrongs, than he can lay upon me;
Even to look on, and see him sue in earnest,
As now I think he does it but in seeming,
To that ill woman.

Selby. Good words, gentle Kate,

And not a thought irreverent of our Widow.
Why 'twere unmannerly at any time.
But most uncourteous on our wedding day,
When we should show most hospitable. — Some wine !

[ Wine is brought^
I am for sports. And now I do remember.
The old Egyptians at their banquets placed
A charnel sight of dead men's skulls before them,



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 281

With images of cold mortality,

To temper their fierce joys when they grew rampant.

I like the custom well : and ere we crown

With freer mirth the day, I shall propose,

In calmest recollection of our spirits,

We drink the solemn ' Memory of the Dead ' —

Mrs. F. Or the supposed dead — [Aside to him.

Selby. Pledge me, good, wife — [She Jills.

Nay, higher, yet, till the brimm'd cup swell o'er.

Kath. I catch the awful import of your words ;
And, though I could accuse you of unkindness,
Yet as your lawful and obedient wife,
While that name last (as I perceive it fading.
Nor I much longer may have leave to use it)
I calmly take the office you impose ;
And on my knees, imploring their forgiveness,
Whom I in heaven or earth may have offended.
Exempt from starting tears, and woman's weakness,
I pledge you, sir — the Memory of the Dead !

[She drinks kneeling.

Selby. 'Tis gently and discreetly said, and like
My former loving Kate,

Mrs. F. Does he relent ? [Aside.

Selbv- That ceremony past, we give the day
To unabated sport. And, in requital
Of certain stories and quaint allegories,
Which my rare Widow hath been telling to me
To raise my morning mirth, if she will lend
Her patient hearing, I will here recite
A Parable ; and, the more to suit her taste.
The scene is laid in the East.

Mrs. F. I long to hear it.

Some tale, to fit his wife. [Aside.

Kath. Now, comes my Trial



282 THE wife's TRIAL ; OR,

Lucy. The hour of your dehverance is at hand,
If I presage right. Bear up, gentlest sister.

Selby. " The Sultan Haroun " — Stay — now I
have it —
" The Caliph Haroun in his orchards had
A fruit-tree, bearing such delicious fruits,
That he reserved them for his proper gust ;
And through the Palace it was Death proclaim'd
To any one that should purloin the same."

Mrs. F. A heavy penance for so light a fault —

Selby. Pray you, be silent, else you put me out,
" A crafty page, that for advantage watch'd,
Detected in the act a brother page,
Of his own years, that was his bosom friend ;
And thenceforth he became that other's lord,
And like a tyrant he demean'd himself,
Laid forced exactions on his fellow's purse ;
And when that poor means fail'd, held o'er his head
Threats of impending death in hideous forms ;
Till the small culprit on his nightly couch
Dream'd of strange pains, and felt his body writhe
In tortuous pangs around the impaling stake."

Mrs. F. I like not this beginning —

Selby. Pray you, attend.

** The Secret, like a night-hag, rid his sleeps.
And took the youthful pleasures from his days.
And chased the youthful smoothness from his brow.
That from a rose-cheek'd boy he waned and waned
To a pale skeleton of what he was ;
And would have died but for one lucky chance."

Kath. Oh !

Mrs. F. Your wife — she faints — some cordial —
smell to this.

Selby. Stand off. My sister best will do that office,



THE INTRUDING WIDOW. 283

Mrs F. Are all his tempting speeches come to
this ? lAside.

Selby. What ail'd my wife ?

Kath. A warning faintness, sir,

Seized on my spirits, when you came to where
You said " a lucky chance." I am better now :
Please you go on.

Selby. The sequel shall be brief.

Kath. But brief or long, I feel my fate hangs
on it. [Aside.

Selby. " One morn the Caliph, in a covert hid
Close by an arbour where the two boys talk'd,
(As oft, we read, that Eastern sovereigns
Would play the eaves-dropper, to learn the truth.
Imperfectly received from mouths of slaves,)
O'erheard their dialogue ; and heard enough
To judge aright the cause, and know his cue.
The following day a Cadi was despatch'd
To summon both before the judgment-seat ;
The lickerish culprit, almost dead with fear,
And the informing friend, who readily,
Fired with fair promises of large reward,
And Caliph's love, the hateful truth disclosed."

Mrs. F. What did the Caliph to the offending boy.
That had so grossly err'd ?

Selby. His sceptred hand

He forth in token of forgiveness stretch'd,
And clapp'd his cheeks, and courted him with gifts,
And he became once more his favourite page.

Mrs. F. But for that other—

Selby. He dismiss'd him straight,

From dreams of grandeur, and of Caliph's love,
To the bare cottage on the withering moor,
Where friends, turn'd fiends, and hollow confidants,



284 THE wife's trial ; OK, THE INTRUDING WIDOW.

And widows, hide, who in a husband's ear

Pour baneful truths, but tell not all the truth ;

And told him not that Robin Halford died

Some moons before his marriage-bells were rung.

Too near dishonour hast thou trod, dear wife.

And on a dangerous cast our fates were set ;

But Heav'n, that will'd our wedlock to be blest,

Hath interposed to save it gracious too.

Your penance is — to dress your cheek in smiles,

And to be once again my merry Kate. —

Sister, your hand.

Your wager won makes me a happy man,

Though poorer, Heav'n knows, by a thousand pound*.

The sky clears up after a dubious day.

Widow, your hand. I read a penitence

In this dejected brow; and in this shame

Your fault is buried. You shall in with us.

And, if it please you, taste our nuptial fare :

For, till this moment, I can joyful say,

Was never truly Selby's Wedding Day.



THE WITCH.

A DRAMATIC SKETCH OF THE SEVEN-
TEENTH CENTURY.



CHARACTERS.
Olo Servant in the Family of Sir Francis Fairford. Stranger.



Servant. One summer night Sir Francis, as it
chanced,
Was pacing to and fro in the avenue
That westward fronts our house,
Among those aged oaks, said to have been planted
Three hundred years ago.
By a neighb'ring prior of the Fairford name.
Being o'ertask'd in thought, he heeded not
The importunate suit of one who stood by the gate,
And begg'd an alms.

Some say he shoved her rudely from the gate
With angry chiding; but I can never think
(Our master's nature hath a sweetness in it)
That he could use a woman, an old woman.
With such discourtesy ; but he refused her —
And better had he met a lion in his path
Than that old woman that night ;
For she was one who practised the black arts,
And served the devil, being since burnt for witch-



Online LibraryCharles LambThe life, letters, and writings of Charles Lamb (Volume 6) → online text (page 18 of 29)