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His Majesty's well-beloved; an episode in the life of Mr. Thomas Betterton as told by his friend John Honeywood online

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grace a noble Gentleman ? " he exclaimed with well-
feigned horror. " I ? a miserable Varlet an in-
solent cur whom one thrashes if he dares to bark ! "

" Ah ! " she broke in, with a swift exclamation.
" Then I have guessed the truth ! This is your
Revenge ! "

" Revenge? " he queried blandly. " For what? "

"You hate the Earl of Stour," she retorted.

Once more his well-shaped hand went up, as if in
gentle protest, and he uttered a kind and deprecat-
ing "Oh!"

"You look upon the Earl of Stour as your
enemy ! " she insisted.

" I have so many, your Ladyship," he riposted
with a smile.

" 'Twas you who obtained his Pardon from my
Lady Castlemaine."

" The inference is scarcely logical," he retorted.
" A man does not as a rule sue for pardon for his
Enemy."

" I think," she rejoined slowly, " that in this case
Mr. Betterton did the illogical thing."

" Then I do entreat your Ladyship," he pro-
tested with mock terror, " not to repeat this cal-
umny. I, accused of a noble action! Tom Better-
ton pardoning his Enemies! Why, my friends
might believe it, and it is so difficult these days to
live down a good Reputation."

" You choose to sharpen your wit at my expense,



240 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

Sir Actor," the lady rejoined with her former
haughtiness, " and to evade the point."

" What is the point, your Ladyship ? " he queried
blandly.

" That you set an end to all these Calumnies
which are levelled against the Earl of Stour."

"How can we stay the Sun in his orbit?" he
retorted ; " or the Stars in their course ? "

" You mean that your Campaign of Slander has
already gone too far? But remember this, Mr.
Betterton : that poisoned darts sometimes wound the
hand that throws them. You may pursue the Earl
of Stour with your Hatred and your Calumnies,
but God will never allow an innocent Man to suffer
unjustly."

Just for a few seconds Mr. Betterton was silent.
He was still regarding the Lady with that same in-
dulgent smile which appeared to irritate her nerves.
To me, the very air around seemed to ring as if
with a clash of ghostly arms the mighty clash of
two Wills and two Temperaments, each fighting for
what it holds most dear : she for the Man whom she
loved, he for his Dignity which had been so cruelly
outraged.

" God will never allow," she reiterated with slow
emphasis, " an innocent Man to suffer at the hands
of a Slanderer."

" Ah ! " riposted Mr. Betterton suavely. " Is
your Ladyship not reckoning over-confidently on
Divine interference? "

" I also reckon," she retorted, " on His Majesty's



THE LADY PLEADS 241

sense of justice and on the Countess of Castle-
maine, who must know the truth of the affair."

" His Majesty's senses are very elusive," he re-
joined drily, " and are apt to play him some way-
ward tricks when under the influence of the Coun-
tess of Castlemaine. The Earl of Stour, it seems,
disdained the favours which that Lady was willing
to bestow on him. He preferred the superior
charms and intellect of the Lady Barbara Wych-
woode. A very natural preference, of course," he
added, with elaborate gallantry. " But I can assure
your Ladyship that, as Helpmeets to heavenly In-
terference, neither His Majesty nor the Countess
of Castlemaine are to be reckoned with."

She bit her lip and cast her eyes to the ground.
I could see that her lovely face expressed acute dis-
appointment and that she was on the verge of tears.
I am not versed in the ways of gentle Folk nor yet
in those of Artists, but I could have told the Lady
Barbara Wychwoode that if she wanted to obtain
Sympathy or Leniency from Mr. Betterton, she had
gone quite the wrong way to work.

Even now, I think if she had started to plead
. . . but the thought of humbling herself before
a Man whom she affected to despise was as far
from this proud Woman's heart, as are thoughts
of self-glorification from mine.

A second or two later she had succeeded in forc-
ing back the tears which had welled to her eyes,
and she was able once more to look her Adversary
straight in the face.



242 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

" And will you tell me, Sir Actor," she queried
with cold aloofness, " how far you intend to carry
on this Infamy? "

And Mr. Betterton replied, equally coldly and
deliberately :

" To the uttermost limits of the Kingdom,
Madam."

" What do you mean? " she riposted.

He drew a step or two nearer to her. His face
too was pale by now, his lips trembling, his eyes
aglow with Passion masterfully kept under control.
His perfect voice rose and fell in those modulated
Cadences which we have all learned to appreciate.

" Only this, your Ladyship," he began quite
slowly. " For the present, the History of the Earl
of Stour's treachery is only guessed at by a few.
It is a breath of Scandal, born as you say somewhat
mysteriously, wafted through Palaces and noble
Mansions to-day dead, mayhap, to-morrow. But
I have had many opportunities for thought of late,"
he continued and it seemed to me as if in his
quivering voice I could detect a tone of Threat as
well as of Passion " and have employed my leisure
moments in writing an Epilogue which I propose
to speak to-morrow, after the Play, His Majesty and
all the Court being present, and many Gentlemen
and Ladies of high degree, as well as Burgesses and
Merchants of the City, and sundry Clerks and other
humbler Folk. A comprehensive Assembly, what?
and an attentive one; for that low-born Mounte-
bank, Tom Betterton, will be appearing in a new;



THE LADY PLEADS 243

play and the Playhouse will be filled to the roof in
order to do him honour. May I hope that the Lady
Barbara Wychwoode herself "

"A truce on this foolery, Sir," she broke in
harshly. " I pray you come to the point."

She tried to look brave and still haughty, but I
knew that she was afraid knew it by the almost
unearthly pallor of her skin, and the weird glitter
in her eyes as she regarded him, like a Bird fasci-
nated by a Snake.

" The point is the Epilogue, my Lady," Mr. Bet-
terton replied blandly. " And after I have spoken
it to-morrow, I shall speak it again and yet again,
until its purport is known throughout the length
and breadth of the Land. The subject of that Epi-
logue, Madam, will be the secret History of a certain
aborted Conspiracy, and how it was betrayed in
exchange for a free Pardon by one of our noblest
Gentlemen in England. Then, I pray your Lady-
ship to mark what will happen," he continued, and
his melodious voice became as hard and trenchant as
the clang of metal striking metal. " After that Epi-
logue has been spoken from the Stage half a dozen
times after His Majesty has heard it and shrugged
his shoulders, after my Lady Castlemaine has
laughed over it and my Lord of Rochester aped it
in one of his Pasquinades, there will be a man whose
Name will be a by-word for everything that is most
infamous and most false a Name that will be ban-
died about in Taverns and in drinking Booths,
quipped, decried, sneered at, anathematized; a



244 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

Name that will be the subject of every lampoon and
every scurrilous rhyme that finds over-ready pur-
chasers a Name, in fact, that will for ever be
whispered with bated breath or bandied about in a
drunken brawl, whene'er there is talk of treachery
and of dishonour! "

At this, she great Lady to her finger tips
threw up her head proudly, still defying him, still
striving to hide her Fears and unwilling to acknowl-
edge Defeat.

" It will be your Word against his," she said with
a disdainful curl of her perfect lips. " No one
would listen to such calumnies."

And he the world-famed Artist at least as
proud as any high born Gentleman in the Land,
retorted, equally haughtily:

"When Tom Betterton speaks upon the Stage,
my Lady, England holds her breath and listens
spellbound."

I would I could render the noble Accent of his
magnificent Voice as he said this. There was no
self-glorification in it, no idle boasting; it was the
accent of transcendent Worth conscious of its
Power.

And it had its effect upon the Lady Barbara
Wychwoode. She lowered her Eyes, but not before
I had perceived that they were full of Tears; her
Lips were trembling still, but no longer with Dis-
dain, and her hands suddenly dropped to her side
with a pathetic gesture of Discouragement and of
Anguish.



THE LADY PLEADS 245

The next moment, however, she was again look-
ing the great Actor fully in the face. A change
had come over her, quite suddenly methought a
great Change, which had softened her Mood and to
a certain extent lowered her Pride. Whether this
was the result of Mr. Betterton's forceful Elo-
quence or of her own Will-power, I could not guess;
but I myself marvelled at the Tone of Entreaty
which had crept into her Voice.

" You will not speak such Falsehoods in Public,
Sir," she said with unwonted softness. " You will
not thus demean your Art the Art which you love
and hold in respect. Oh, there must be some No-
bility in You ! else you were not so talented. Your
Soul must in truth be filled with Sentiments which
are neither ignoble nor base."

" Nay ! " he exclaimed, and this time did not
strive to conceal the intense Bitterness which, as
I knew well enough, had eaten into his very Soul;
" but your Ladyship is pleased to forget. I am
ignoble and base ! There cannot be Nobility in me.
I am only the low-born Lout! Ask my Lord of
Stour; ask you Brother! They will tell you that I
have no Feelings, no Pride, no Manhood that I
am only a despicable Varlet, whom every Gentleman
may mock and insult and whip like a dog. To You
and to your Caste alone belong Nobility, Pride and
Honour. Honour! ! ! " and he broke into a pro-
longed laugh, which would have rent your Heart to
hear " Honour ! Your false Fetish ! Your coun-
terfeit God! ! Very well, then so be it! ! That



246 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

very Honour which he hath denied me, I will wrencH
from him. And since he denied me Satisfaction by
the Sword, I turn to my own weapon my Art ?
and with it I will exact from him to the uttermost
fraction, Outrage for Outrage Infamy for In-
famy."

His wonderful Voice shook, broke almost into a
sob at last. I felt a choking sensation in my Throat
and my Eyes waxed hot with unshed Tears. As if
through a mist, I could see the exquisite Lady Bar-
bara Wychwoode before me, could see that she, too,
was moved, her Pride crushed, her Disdain yielding
to involuntary Sympathy.

" But he is innocent ! " she pleaded, with an ac-
cent verging on Despair.

" And so was I ! " was his calm retort.

"He " she entreated, "he loves me "

" And so do I ! " he exclaimed, with a depth of
Passion which brought the hot Blood to her pale
Cheeks. "/ would have given my Life for one
Smile from your Lips."

Whereupon, womanlike, she shifted her ground,
looked him straight between the Eyes, and, oh! I
could have blushed to see the Wiles she used in order
to weaken his Resolve.

" You love me ? " she queried softly, and there
was now a tone of almost tender Reproach in her
Voice. " You love me ! yet you would drag the
Man who is dearer to me than Life to Dishonour
and to Shame. You trap him, like a Fowler does
a Bird, then crush him with Falsehoods and Cal-



THE LADY PLEADS 247

tunnies ! No, no ! " she exclaimed came a step
or two nearer to him and clasped her delicate Hands
together in a Gesture that was akin to Prayer. " I'll
not believe it! You will tell the Truth, Mr. Bet-
terton, publicly, and clear him. . . . You
will. . . . You will! For my sake since You
say You love me."

But the more eager, the more appealing she grew,
the calmer and more calculating did he seem. Now
it was his turn to draw away from Her, to measure
Her, as it were, with a cold, appraising Look.

" For Your sake ? " he said with perfect quietude,
almost as if the matter had become outside himself.
I cannot quite explain the air of detachment which
he assumed for it was an assumption, on that I
would have staked my Life at the moment. I, who
know him so well, felt that deep down within his
noble Heart there still burned the fierce flames of
an ardent Passion, but whether of Love or Hate,
I could not then have told You.

She had recoiled at the coolness of his Tone;
and he went on, still speaking with that strange,
abnormal Calm :

" Yes! " he said slowly, " for Your love I would
do what You ask ... I would forego that Feast
of Satisfaction, the Thought of which hath alone
kept me sane these past few months. . . . Yes!
for the Love of Lady Barbara Wychwoode I could
bring myself to forgive even his Lordship of Stour
for the irreparable wrong which he hath done to
Me. I would restore to him his Honour, which



248 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

now lies, a Forfeit, in my Hands : for I shall then
have taken Something from him which he holds
well-nigh as dear."

He paused, and met with the same calm relent-
lessness the look of Horror and of Scorn wherewith
she regarded him.

" For my Love? " she exclaimed, and once more
the warm Blood rushed up to her face, flooding her
wan Cheeks, her pale Forehead, even her delicate
Throat with crimson. " You mean that I ? . . . ;
Oh! . . . what Infamy! ... So, Mr. Actor,
that was your reckoning!" she went on with su-
preme Disdain. " It was not the desire for Venge-
ance that prompted You to slander the Earl of Stour,
but the wish to entrap me into becoming your Wife.
You are not content with Your Laurels. You want
a Coat of Arms . . . and hoped to barter one
against Your Calumnies ! "

" Nay, your Ladyship ! " he rejoined simply, " in
effect, I was actually laying a Name famed through-
out the cultured world humbly at your feet. You
made an appeal to my Love for You and I laid a
test for your Sincerity. Mine I have placed beyond
question, seeing that I am prepared to drag my
Genius in the dust before Your Pride and the Ar-
rogance of Your Caste. An Artist is a Slave of his
Sensibilities, and I feel that if, in the near Future,
I could see a Vision of your perfect hand resting
content in mine, if, when You pleaded again for my
Lord Stour, You did so as my promised Wife
not his I would do all that You asked."



THE LADY PLEADS 249

She drew herself up to her full height and glanced
at him with all the Pride which awhile ago had
seemed crushed beyond recall.

" Sir Actor," she said coldly, " shame had gripped
me by the throat, or I should not have listened so
long to such an Outrage. The Bargain You pro-
pose is an Infamy and an Insult."

And she gathered up her Skirts around her, as
if their very contact with the Soil on which he trod
were a pollution. Then she half turned as if ready
to go, cast a rapid glance at the Shrubberies close
by, no doubt in search of her Attendant. Why it
was that she did not actually go, I could not say,
but guessed that, mayhap, she would not vacate the
Field of Contention until quite sure that there was
not a final Chance to soften the Heart of the Enemy.
She had thrown down yet another Challenge when
she spoke of his proposed Bargain as an Infamy;
but he took up the Gage with the same measured
Calm as before.

" As you will," he said. " It was in Your Lady-
ship's name that the Earl of Stour put upon Me
the deadliest Insult which any Man hath ever put
on Man before. Since then, every Fibre within Me
has clamoured for Satisfaction. My Work hath
been irksome to me ... I scarce could think
. . . My Genius lay writhing in an agony of
Shame. But now the hour is mine for it I have
schemed and lied aye, lied like the low-born cur
You say I am. A thousand Devils of Hate and of
Rage are unchained within me. I cannot grapple



250 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

with them alone. They would only yield to your
kiss."

"Oh!" she cried in uttermost despair, "this is
horrible!"

" Then let the Man you love," he rejoined coldly,
" look to himself."

" Conscious of his Innocence, my Lord Stour and
I defy you ! "

" Ah, well ! " he said imperturbably, " the Choice
is still with Your Ladyship. Remember that I do
not speak my Epilogue until to-morrow. When I
do, it will be too late. I have called my Phantasy
' The Comedie of Traitors.' "

Whereupon he bowed low before her, in the most
approved Fashion. But already she was fleeing up
the path in the direction of Westminster. Soon her
graceful Figure was lost to our sight behind an in-
tervening clump of Laurels. Here no doubt her
Ladyship's Attendant was waiting for her Mistress,
for anon I spied two figures hurrying out of the
Park.



For a long time Mr. Betterton remained standing
just where he was, one hand still clutching the knob
of his Stick, the other thrust in the pocket of his
capacious Coat. I could not see his Face, since his
Back was turned towards me, and I did not dare
move lest I should be interrupting his Meditations.
But to Me, even that Back was expressive. There
was a listlessness, hardly a stoop, about it, so unlike



THE LADY PLEADS 251

my Friend's usual firm and upright Carriage. How
could this be otherwise, seeing what he had just
gone through Emotions that would have swept
most Men off their mental balance. Yet he kept
his, had never once lost control of himself. He had
met Disdain with Disdain in the end, had kept suffi-
cient control over his Voice to discuss with absolute
calm, that Bargain which the Lady Barbara had
termed infamous. There had been a detachment
about his final Ultimatum, a " take it or leave it "
air, which must have been bitterly galling to the
proud Lady who had stooped to entreat. He was
holding the winning Hand and did not choose to
yield.

And it was from his attitude on that Day that I,
dear Mistress, drew an unerring inference. Mr.
Betterton had no Love for the Lady Barbara, no
genuine, lasting Affection such as, I maintain, he
has never ceased to feel for You. Passion swayed
him, because he has, above all, that unexplainable
artistic Temperament which cannot be measured by
everyday Standards. Pride, Bitterness, Vengeful-
ness call it what you will; but there was not a
particle of Love in it all. I verily believe that his
chief Desire, whilst he stood pondering there at the
bridgehead, was to humiliate the Lady Barbara
Wychwoode by forcing her into a Marriage which
she had affected to despise. He was not waiting for
her with open, loving Arms, ready to take her to his
Heart, there to teach her to forget the Past in the
safe haven of his Love. He was not waiting to lay



252 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

his Service at her feet, and to render her happy as
the cherished Wife and Helpmate of the great Artist
whom all England delighted to honour. He was
only waiting to make her feel that She had been
subjected to his Will and her former Lover brought
down to Humiliation, through the Power of the
miserable Mountebank whom they had both deemed
less than a Man.

Thus meditating, I stood close to my Friend, until
Chance or a fleeting Thought brought him back to
the realities of Life. He sighed and looked about
him, as a Man will who hath just wakened from a
Dream. Then he spied me, and gave me his wonted
kindly smile and glance.

"Good old John!" he said, with a self-deprecat-
ing shrug of the shoulders. " 'Twas not an edifying
Scene You have witnessed, eh? "

" 'Twas a heartrending one," I riposted almost
involuntarily.

" Heartrending? " he queried, in a tone of intense
bitterness, " to watch a Fool crushing every Noble
Instinct within him for the sake of getting even
with a Man whom he neither honours nor esteems ? "

He sighed again, and beckoned to me to follow
him.

" Let us home, good Honeywood," he said. " I
am weary of all this wrangle, and pine to find solace
among the Poets."

Nor did he mention the name of the Lady Bar-
bara again to me, and I was left to ponder what was
going on in his Mind and whether his cruelly venge-



THE LADY PLEADS 253

ful Scheme for the final undoing of my Lord Stour
would indeed come to maturity on the following
day. I knew that a great and brilliant Representa-
tion of the late Mr. William Shakespeare's play,
"Twelfth Night," was to be given at the Duke's
Theatre, with some of the new Scenery and realistic
scenic Effects brought over last Autumn from Paris
by Mr. Betterton. His Majesty had definitely prom-
ised that he would be present and so had the Coun-
tess of Castlemaine, and there would doubtless be
a goodly and gorgeous Company present to applaud
the great Actor, whose Performance of Sir Toby
Belch was one of the Marvels of histrionic Art,
proclaiming as it did his wonderful versatility, by
contrast with his equally remarkable exposition of
the melancholy Hamlett, Prince of Denmark.

That I now awaited that Day with Sorrow in
my Heart and with measureless Anxiety, You, dear
Mistress, will readily imagine. Until this morning
I had no idea of the terrible Thunderbolt which my
Friend had in preparation for those who had so
shamefully wronged him; and I still marvelled
whether in his talk with the Lady Barbara there had
not lurked some idle Threats rather than a serious
Warning. How could I think of the Man whom
I had learned to love and to reverence as one who
would nurture such cruel Schemes? And yet, did
not the late Mr. Shakespeare warn us that " Pleas-
ure and Revenge have ears more deaf than Adders
to the voice of any true decision" ? Ah, me! but
I was sick at heart.



CHAPTER XIV
THE RULING PASSION



And now, dear Mistress, I come to that memor-
able Evening wherein happened that which causes
You so much heart-ache at this Hour.

I know that the Occurrences of that Night have
been brought to your Notice in a garbled Version,
and that Mr. Betterton's Enemies have placed the
Matter before You in a manner calculated to blacken
his Integrity. But, as there is a living Judge above
Us all, I swear to You, beloved Mistress, that what
I am now purposing to relate is nothing but the
Truth. Remember that, in this miserable Era of
Scandal and Backbiting, of loose Living and Sense-
less Quarrels, Mr. Betterton's Character has always
stood unblemished, even though the evil Tongue of
Malice hath repeatedly tried to attack his untar-
nished Reputation. Remember also that the great
Actor's few but virulent Enemies are all Men who
have made Failures of their Lives, who are Idlers,
Sycophants or Profligates, and therefore envious of
the Fame and Splendour of one who is thought
worthy to be the Friend of Kings.

2

We spoke but little together that day on our way
home from the Park. Mr. Betterton was moody,

254



THE RULING PASSION 255

and I silent. We took our dinner in quietude.
There being no Performance at the Theatre that
day, Mr. Betterton settled down to his Desk in the
afternoon, telling me that he had some writing
to do.

I, too, had some of his Correspondence to attend
to, and presently repaired to my room, my Heart
still aching with Sorrow. Did I not guess what
Work was even now engrossing the Attention of
my Friend? He was deep in the Composition of
that cruel Lampoon which he meant to speak on the
Stage to-morrow, in the presence of His Majesty
and of a large and brilliant Assembly. Strive as I
might, I could not to myself minimize the probable
Effect of the Lampoon upon the Mind of the Public.
It is not for me, dear Mistress, to remind You of
the amazing Popularity of Mr. Betterton a Popu-
larity which hath never been equalled ere this by
any Actor, Artist or Poet in England. Whatever;
he spoke from the Stage would be treasured and
reiterated and commented upon, until every Citizen
of London and Westminster became himself a store-
house of Mud that would be slung at the unfortu-
nate Earl of Stour. And the latter, by refusing to
fight Mr. Betterton when the Latter had been the
injured Party, had wilfully cast aside any Weapon
of Redress which he might after this have called
to his Aid.

Well ! we all know the Effect of scurrilous Quips
spoken from the Stage; even the great Mr. Dryden
or the famous Mr. Wycherley have not been above



256 HIS MAJESTY'S WELL-BELOVED

interpolating some in their Plays, for the Confusion
of their Enemies; and many a Gentleman's or a
Lady's Reputation has been made to suffer through
the Vindictiveness of a noted Actor or Playwright.
But, as you know, Mr. Betterton had never hitherto
lent himself to such Scandal-monging ; he stood far
above those petty Quarrels betwixt Gentlemen and
Poets that could be settled by wordy Warfare across
the Footlights. All the more Weight, therefore,
would the Public attach to an Epilogue specially
written and spoken by him on so great an occasion.
And, alas! the Mud-slinging was to be of a very


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