Major O'Leary had hardly dismounted in the quadrangle of the Cock and Anchor, when O'Connor rode slowly into the inn-yard.
How are you, my dear fellow? exclaimed the man of scarlet and gold; I was just asking where you were. Come down, off that beast, I want to have a word in your eara bit of newssome fun. Descend, I say, descend.
O'Connor accordingly dismounted.
Now thena hearty shakeso. I have great news, and only a minute to tell it. Jack, run like a shot, and get me a chair. Here, Tim, take a napkin and an oyster-knife, and do not leave a bit of mud, or the sign of it, upon my back: take a general survey of the coat and breeches, and a particular review of the wig. And, Jem, do you give my boots a harum-scarum shot of a superficial scrub, and touch up the hatgently, do you mindand take care of the lace. So while the fellows are finishing my toilet, I may as well tell you my morsel
p.111of news. Do you know who is to be at the playhouse to-night?
O'Connor expressed his ignorance.
Well, then, I'll tell you, and make what use you like of it, resumed the major. Miss Mary Ashwoode! There's for you. Take my advice, get into a decent coat and breeches, and run down to the theatreit is not five minutes' walk from this; you'll easily find us, and I'll take care to make room for you. Why, you do not seem half pleased: what more can you wish for, unless you expect the girl to put up for the evening at the Cock and Anchor? Rouse yourself. If you feel modest, there is nothing like a pint or two of Madeira: don't try brandyit's the father and mother of all sorts of indiscretions. Now, mind, you have the hint; it is an opportunity you ought to improve. By the powers, if I was in your placebut no matter. You may not have an opportunity of seeing her again these six months; and unless I'm completely mistaken, you are as much in love with the girl as I am withseveral that shall be nameless. Heigho! next after Burgundy, and the cock-pit, and the fox-hounds, and two or three more frailties of the kind, there is nothing in the world I prefer to flirtation, without much minding whether I'm the principal or the second in the affair. But here comes the vehicle.
Accordingly, without waiting to say any more, the major took his seat in the chair, and was borne by the lusty chairmen, at a swinging pace, through the narrow streets, and, without let or accident, safely deposited within the principal entrance of the theatre.
The theatre of Smock Alley (or, as it was then called, Orange Street) was not quite what theatres are nowadays. It was a large building of the kind, as theatres were then rated, and contained three galleries, one above the other, supported by heavy wooden caryatides, and richly gilded and painted. The curtain, instead of rising and falling, opened, according to the old fashion, in the middle, and was drawn sideways apart, disclosing no triumphs of illusive colouring and perspective, but a succession of plain tapestry-covered screens, which, from early habit, the audience accommodatingly accepted for town or country, dry land or sea, or, in short, for any locality whatsoever, according to the manager's good will and pleasure. This docility and good faith on the part of the audience were, perhaps, the more praiseworthy, inasmuch as a very considerable number of the aristocratic spectators actually sate in long lines down either side of the stagea circumstance involving, by the continuous presence of the same perukes, and the same embroidered waistcoats, the same set of countenances, and the same set of legs, in every variety of clime and situation through which the wayward
p.112invention of the playwright hurried his action, a very severe additional tax upon the imaginative faculties of the audience. But perhaps the most striking peculiarities of the place were exhibited in the grim persons of two bona fide sentries, in genuine cocked hats and scarlet coats, with their enormous muskets shouldered, and the ball-cartridges dangling in ostentatious rows from their bandoleers, planted at the front, and facing the audience, one at each side of the stagea vivid evidence of the stern vicissitudes and insecurity of the times. For the rest, the audience of those days, in the brilliant colours, and glittering lace, and profuse ornament, which the gorgeous fashion of the time allowed, presented a spectacle of rich and dazzling magnificence, such as no modern assembly of the kind can even faintly approach.
The major had hardly made his way to the box where his party were seated, when his attention was caught by an object which had for him all but irresistible attractions: this was the buxom person of Mistress Jannet Rumble, a plump, good-looking, young widow of five-and-forty, with a jolly smile, a hearty laugh, and a killing acquaintance with the language of the eyes. These perfectionsfor of course her jointure, which, by the way, was very considerable, could have had nothing to do withit were too much for Major O'Leary. He met the widow accidentally, made a few careless inquiries about her finances, and fell over head and ears in love with her upon the shortest possible notice. Our friend had, therefore, hardly caught a glimpse of her, when Miss Copland, beside whom he was seated, observed that he became unusually meditative, and at length, after two or three attempts to enter again into conversationall resulting in total and incoherent failure, the major made some blundering excuse, took his departure, and in a moment had planted himself beside the fascinating Mistress Rumblewhere we shall allow him the protection of a generous concealment, and suffer him to read the lady's eyes, and insinuate his soft nonsense, without intruding for a moment upon the sanctity of lovers' mutual confidences.
Emily Copland having watched and enjoyed the manoeuvres of her military friend till she was fairly tired of the amusement, and having in vain sought to engage Henry Ashwoode, who was unusually moody and absent, in conversation, at length, as a last desperate resource, turned her attention to what was passing upon the stage.
While all this was going forward, young Ashwoode was a good deal disconcerted at observing among the crowd in the pit a personage with whom, in the vicious haunts which he frequented, he had made a sort of ambiguous acquaintance.
The man was a bulky, broad-shouldered, ill-looking fellow, with a large, vulgar, red face, and a coarse, sensual mouth, whose blue, swollen lips indicated habitual intemperance, and the nauseous ugliness of which was further enhanced by the loss of two front teeth, probably by some violent agency, as was testified by a deep scar across the mouth; the eyes of the man carried that uncertain expression, half of shame and half of defiance, which belongs to the coward, bully, and ruffian. The blackness of habitually-indulged and ferocious passion was upon his countenance; and the revolting character of the face was the more unequivocally marked by a sort of smile, or rather sneer, which had in it neither intellectuality nor gladnessan odious libel on the human smile, with nothing but brute insolence and scorn, and a sardonic glee in its baleful lighta smile from which every human sympathy recoiled abashed and affrighted. Let not the reader imagine that the man and the character are but the dreams of fiction; the wretch, whose outward seeming we have imperfectly sketched, lived and moved in the scenes where we have fixed our narrativethere grew richthere rioted in the indulgence of every passion which hell can inspire or to which wealth can panderthere ministered to his insatiate avarice, by the destruction and beggary of thousands of the young and thoughtlessand there at length, in the fulness of his time, diedin the midst of splendour and infamy: with malignant and triumphant perseverance having persisted to his latest hour in the prosecution of his Satanic mission; luring the unwary into the toils of crime and inextricable madness, and thence into the pit of temporal and eternal ruin. This man, Nicholas Blarden, Esquire, was the proprietor of one of those places where fortunes are squandered, time sunk, habits, temper, character, morals, all, corrupted, blasted, destroyedone of those places which are set apart as the especial temples of avarice, in which, year after year, are for ever recurring the same perennial scenes of mad excess, of calculating, merciless fraud, of bleak, brain-stricken despairplaces to which has been assigned, in a spirit of fearful truth, the appellative of hell.
The man whom we have mentioned, it had never been young Ashwoode's misfortune to meet, except in those scenes where his acquaintance was useful, without being actually discreditable; for it was the fellow's habit, with the instinctive caution which marks such gentlemen, to court public observation as little as possible, and to skulk systematically from the eye of popular scrutinyseldom embarrassing his aristocratic acquaintances by claiming the privilege of recognition at unseasonable times; and confining himself, for the most part, exclusively to his own coterie. Independently of his unpleasant natural
p.114peculiarities there were other circumstances which tended to make him a conspicuous object in the crowdthe fellow was extravagantly over-dressed, and had planted himself in a standing posture upon a bench, and from this elevated position was, with steady effrontery, gazing into the box in which young Ashwoode's party were seated, exchanging whispers and horse-laughs with three or four men who looked scarcely less villainous than himself, and, as soon became apparent, directing his marked and exclusive attention to Miss Ashwoode, who was too deeply absorbed in her own sorrowful reflections to heed what was passing around her. The young man felt his choler mount, as he beheld the insolent conduct of the fellowhe saw, however, that Blarden was evidently not perfectly sober, and hesitated what course he should take. Strongly as he was tempted to spring at once into the pit, and put an end to the impertinence by caning the fellow within an inch of his life, he yet felt that a disreputable conflict of the kind had better be avoided, and could not well be justified except as a last resource; he, therefore, made up his mind to bear it as long as human endurance could.
Whatever hopes he entertained of escaping a collision with this man were, however, destined to be disappointed. Nicky Blarden (as his friends endearingly called him), to the great comfort of that part of the audience in his immediate neighbourhood, at length descended from his elevated stand, but not to conceal himself among the less obtrusive spectators. With an insolent swagger the fellow shouldered his way among the crowd towards the box where the object of his gaze was seated; and, having planted himself directly beneath it, he stared impudently up at young Ashwoode, exclaiming at the same time,
I say, Ashwoode, how does the world wag with you?why ain't you rattling the bones this evening? dn me, you may as well be off, and let me take care of the dimber mot up there?
Do you speak to me, sir? inquired young Ashwoode, turning almost livid with passion, and speaking in that subdued tone, and with that constrained coolness, which precedes some ungovernable outburst of fury.
Why, me, how great we've got all at onceI say, you don't know meEh! don't you? exclaimed the fellow, with vulgar scorn, at the same time rather roughly poking Ashwoode's hand with the hilt of his sword.
I shall show you, sir, when your drunken folly has passed away, by very sore proofs, that I do know you, replied the young man, clutching his cane with such a grip as threatened to force his fingers into it be assured, sir, I shall know
p.115you, and you me, as long as you have the power to remember.
Whieu, d it, don't frighten us, said the fellow, looking round for the approbation of his companions. I say, dn it, don't frighten the peoplecome, come, no gammon. I say, Ashwoode, you must introduce me, or present me, or whatever's the word, to your sister up thereI say you must.
Quit this part of the house this instant, sir, or nothing shall prevent me flogging you until I leave not a whole bone in your bodythis warning is the lastprofit by it, rejoined Ashwoode, in a low tone of bitter rage.
Oh, ho! it's there you areis it? rejoined the fellow, with a wink at his comrades, so you're going to beat the peoplewhy, dn it, you're enough to make a horse laugh. I say I want to know your sister, or your miss, or whatever she is, with the black hair up there, and if you won't introduce me, dn it, I must only introduce myself.
So saying, the fellow made a spring and caught the ledge of the front of the box, with the intention of vaulting into the place. Lord Aspenly and the young ladies had arisen in some alarm.
My lord, said young Ashwoode, have the goodness to conduct the ladies to the lobbyI will join you in a moment.
This direction was promptly obeyed, and at the same moment the young man caught the fellow, already half into the box, by the neckcloth, dragged his body across the wooden parapet, and while he struggled helplessly to disengage himselfhalf strangled, and without the power to get either up or downwith his heavy cane, the young gentlemanevery nerve, sinew, and muscle being strung to tenfold power by furyinflicted upon his back and ribs a castigation so prolonged and tremendous, that before it had ended, the scoundrel was perfectly insensible, in which state Henry Ashwoode flung him down again into the pit, amid the obstreperous acclamations of all parts of the housean uproar of applause in which the spectators in the pit joined with such hearty enthusiasm, that at length, touched with a kindred heroism, they turned upon the associates of the fallen champion, and fairly kicked and cuffed them out of the house.
This feat accomplished, the young gentleman went down the stairs to the street-entrance, and, after considerable delay, succeeded, with the assistance of the footman who had attended him into the house, in finding out their carriage, and having it brought to the doornot judging it expedient that the ladies should return to their places, where they would, of course, be exposed to the gazing curiosity of the multitude. He found the party in the lobby quite recovered
p.116from whatever was unpleasant in the excitement of the scene, the more violent part of which they had not witnessed. Lord Aspenly and Emily Copland were laughing over the adventure; and Mary, flashed and agitated, was looking better than she had before upon that night. Taking his cousin under his own protection, and consigning his sister to that of Lord Aspenly, young Ashwoode led the way to the carriage. As they passed slowly along the lobby, the quick eye of Mary Ashwoode discerned a form, at sight of which her heart swelled and throbbed as though it would burstthe colour fled from her cheeks, and she felt for a moment on the point of swooning; the pride of her sex, however, sustained her; the tingling blood again mounted warmly to her cheeks, her eye brightened, and she listened, with more apparent interest than perhaps she ever did before, to Lord Aspenly's remarksthe form was O'Connor's. As she passed him, she returned his salute with a slight and haughty bow, and saw, and felt the stern, cold, proud expression which murked his pale and handsome features. In another moment she was seated in the carriage; the doors were closed, crack went the whip, and clatter go the iron hoofs on the pavementbut before they had traversed a hundred yards on their homeward way, poor Mary Ashwoode sunk back in her place, and fainted away.