Benjamin Farjeon.

Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 2 of 3)



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CHAPTER IX
WHAT THE NEWSPAPERS SAID OF "A HEART OF GOLD."

Mr. Linton's speech before the curtain served more than one good purpose with many of the dramatic critics. It diverted the attention of some from the demerits of the comedy drama, and it softened the condemnation which others would have pronounced upon it. Again, it furnished a theme upon which one and all dilated – this one indulgently, that one severely; but the main point was (and the most important in the judgment of the manager of the Star Theatre) that it drew public attention to the production.

"The great point gained," said that astute individual, "is that we get a lot of advertising for nothing."

There were leading articles upon the incident, and it provoked correspondence upon certain collateral matters, which the theatrical manager did his best to nourish. "Keep the pot boiling," said he, and he persuaded his friends to write to the papers, not caring much which side they took so long as their letters were inserted. The old cry of first-night cliques was raised; the right of passing judgment within the walls of the theatre on the first night of production was defended, as to which certain methods in vogue were challenged or upheld, some calling them cruel, others maintaining that they were just. Novel theories were discussed. Said one correspondent:

"We are compelled to pay our money at the doors before we know anything of the quality of the dish which is to be set before us. If it is worthless, we are naturally indignant, and we say as much; if it is good work, we give unstinted praise. Had we the option of paying afterward, instead of being compelled to part with our money beforehand, the case would be different."

To this it was replied:

"Nobody forces you to the theatre on first nights; you can keep away if you choose until you hear from the dramatic critics whether the fare is good or bad."

Of course came the indignant rejoinder:

"It is the public who are the critics, not the writers on the press. There is not a man in pit or gallery who is not as good a judge of the merits of a play as the best professional dramatic critic in the country."

An Englishman who had just returned from a visit to America wrote:

"Three weeks ago I was present in a New York theatre on the first production of a new play. It was the most wretched trash imaginable, and was an unmitigated and deserved failure. In comparison with the play I witnessed then, A Heart of Gold, at the first representation of which I was present, shines forth a most worthy, intellectual, and praiseworthy effort. It is the work of an earnest, capable playwright, who deserves every encouragement, even when he does not come up to the requirements of the modern play-goer. I will, however, go so far as to place the two plays on a level, pronouncing them, for the purpose of my illustration, as equal in merit – which is not the case, for one is a gem, the other the vilest paste.

Both plays were condemned. Note, now, the methods of condemnation. In New York, when the curtain fell, the audience very quietly left the theatre; there was no applause; there were no shrieks and howls; no brutal cries for 'Author,' to serve a cruel end. There was something almost funereal in the manner of the New York audience as they filed slowly out of the house; they seemed to tread more softly than usual; they spoke in lower tones. This was their method of damning the play, and I commend it to the attention of London play-goers as incomparably more decent and respectable than that which they adopt to break an author's heart. There are certain of our national customs which will bear reform; this undoubtedly is one. As I pen these lines I see the two assemblages; one conducting itself with reason and dignity, as becomes rational men and women; the other conducting itself with unreasoning and indefensible cruelty, as becomes a lower order of being."

A morning paper of high repute summed up the matter thus:

"In our columns to-day will be found a letter from a gentleman who contrasts with some force the different methods of 'damning' a play in England and America. He commends the American system and condemns the English, ignoring, as it appears to us, the more important issues which hang upon the methods he describes. If the matter which he argues commenced and ended with the behaviour of an audience on the first night of a new production, his views would be convincing, but it only commences and does not end there. We have ourselves, on several occasions during late years, commented with some severity upon the unnecessarily noisy conduct of first-night audiences in London when an indifferent or a bad play has been submitted to their judgment, but we have never gone so far as to absolutely condemn the method which has excited the indignation of our correspondent. It is merely a question of degree, and the good sense of the public will sooner or later set the matter right. To this end the proceedings at the Star Theatre on the first representation of A Heart of Gold will healthfully contribute. But that is not the question. What we have to consider is absolutely apart from the purely personal aspect of the matter, and we have no hesitation in declaring that the English method, exercised with reasonable moderation, is much more powerful in its beneficial effects upon dramatic literature than the 'silent system' depicted by our correspondent as being the vogue in New York. If a lesson is to be enforced, it is as well that some emphasis should be used in the manner of its administration; its effect is intended not only for the present, but for the future, and our correspondent is totally mistaken in supposing that there is anything really and solely personal in the attitude of our first-night audiences when they are displeased – and generally justly displeased – with the fare provided for them. It means, 'Be more careful in your future work; let your proportions be more nicely managed, do not fall into the ultra-sentimental, or the ultra-farcical, or the ultra-melodramatic.' The condemnation pronounced is not the condemnation of an author's life and career; it is condemnation of a single effort. Let this same author the following night at another theatre produce a play which justly pleases, and he will be acclaimed from the topmost row of the gallery to the foremost row of the stalls. This fact is a proof that the argument of personalism ridiculously introduced is unworthy of consideration, and likely to be detrimental to the best interests of the drama. As well might one say that a wholesome correction administered to a child is cruel and brutal.

"It may not be unprofitable to cursorily examine the effect of the opposite systems current in America and England with respect to first-nights. We do not for one moment intend to advance that these verdicts are the direct cause of the comparative merits of production, but certainly they contribute to the result. For generations it has been the fashion here to sigh for the dramatist who is to lift our drama to a higher level than it occupies at present. This yearning is to a great extent sentimental, for much has been done by living English dramatists which is by no means discreditable to intellectual effort; and the thirst for great plays – plays which shall take their place as classics – seems in the near future not unlikely to be satisfied. We mention no names, for that would be invidious, and we are aware that in a few of our best theatres no high level is aimed at – that is to say, that the eye more than the mind is catered for. There are, however, four or five West End theatres which, while entirely satisfying the demand for pictorial effect, at the same time satisfy the intellect. At these theatres original plays of a high order are from time to time produced, and in their revival of old plays an intelligence is displayed worthy of the sincerest commendation. We have writers of comedy also who are aiming high, who fail now and then, but who buckle on their armour again and work with a will. This is the right spirit, and we claim that our English first-night system has stirred it to a higher emulation. On the other hand, what has America done? Is there upon the English stage to-day one lofty example of American original dramatic effort? We supply the American theatres; they do not reciprocate by supplying us. What is the customary answer to this? 'Oh! but we are a young country.' It is a fallacious excuse. America, as a nation, is more than a hundred years old; it has gathered into its folds a fair proportion of our best intellect; it has a stirring, new, and picturesque history; its public and social life teems with novel and amusing characteristics; its story abounds in heroic episodes; Nature smiles upon it bounteously and beautifully; and humanity, as varied and many-sided in its aspects as could ever be hoped to be seen cheek by jowl in one country, there plays its part through the hours and the days and the years. What more is needed? Young! America is ripe now, if ever it will be; but where is its lofty dramatic record? 'Where is yours?' the nation may retort. And we answer: Such as it is, look for it in your American theatres. You ask for our stamp, when you should make and rely upon one of your own. We should not be the losers if you satisfied our demand; nor would you; we should both be nerved to the highest instead of to the mediocre. It is not unworthy of consideration whether the silent attitude of your first-night audiences, instead of the indignant, as with us, be not prejudicial to the production of a dramatic literature worthy of your greatness.

"One word more. If London play-goers who are in the habit of going to 'first nights' with unfair and ungenerous intentions, in the hope of or the desire for a failure, regard what we have said as a defence or a justification of their occasionally inconsiderate and violent conduct, they are grievously mistaken. There must be moderation an all things, and there must be moderation in the expression of their opinions. They have a license, but the privilege accorded to them must not be abused. They have no right to demand that the author of an unsuccessful play should appear before them to be hooted and howled at, and it is to be hoped for the future that this insistence may not be carried to an extreme, as of late years has frequently been the case."

The result of all this was that instead of empty benches, as the manager of the Star Theatre had feared before Mr. Linton's speech, the public flocked to see A Heart of Gold, in order that they might judge for themselves. Everybody in the theatre was in a high state of exultation at this unexpected turn of the tables. Kiss, who was in great trepidation at the prospect of not being able to meet the bill which Jeremiah Pamflett held, became gradually reassured, and was not chary in the expression of his hopes to Mr. Lethbridge. "It is the most wonderful event in my professional experience," he said.

This recountal of the progress of Mr. Linton's comedy drama has somewhat transgressed the sequence of events, the private details of which now claim our attention.

When Mr. and Mrs. Lethbridge returned home after their visit to Mrs. Linton they found the young people up; Fred Cornwall, as a matter of course, and because of what had taken place between him and Ph?be, being happily ensconced by Ph?be's side, as was his undoubted right under the circumstances. Very few moments elapsed before Mr. and Mrs. Lethbridge were made acquainted with the engagement. Ph?be's happiness was reflected in her face, and her aunt and uncle fondly embraced her, and wished the young people every joy.

"I should not have dared to stop so late but for this," said Fred Cornwall to Mrs. Lethbridge.

"It is very late," said Mrs. Lethbridge, glancing at the clock; "five minutes to three; and the girls must go to bed. Dear, dear, what a night this has been! Now, Fanny, Ph?be, you must not stop up a minute longer. Mr. Cornwall, I am glad, for Ph?be's sake, that you are not a dramatic author."

"Why, mamma?" exclaimed Fanny, the staunch and faithful champion. "The successful ones makes heaps of money, and Fred would have been sure to be successful. And, mamma, it isn't 'Mr. Cornwall' now; it is Fred with all of us. You mustn't forget he is one of the family – aren't you, Fred?"

"I hope to be," said Fred, gaily, "and very soon."

"And you must call mamma Aunt Leth, as everybody does who has the least affection for her," said Fanny.

"May I?" asked Fred.

"Indeed you may," said Mrs. Lethbridge. She clasped the young man's hand, and looked at him solicitously; "I must speak to you before you go."

He took the hint, and went out into the passage to wish his dear girl good night. It is wonderful what a long time this simplest form of farewell occupied, but then it was like a new language to the lovers. Indeed, everything to their senses was at that moment new and beautiful, and every word they spoke to each other was charged with strange tenderness. Fanny, as was to be expected of her, retired first to her bedroom, leaving the lovers together; but her high spirits would not allow her to be utterly extinguished. When at length Ph?be came slowly into the room, "with many a lingering look behind," Fanny popped out into the passage, shutting her cousin in.

"Fred!" said Fanny, in a stage-whisper, leaning over the balustrade.

"Yes," he said, looking up.

"Like Romeo and Juliet, isn't it? Parting is such sweet sorrow she could say good-night until to-morrow. But she isn't coming out again, so you had best go at once to mamma. Good-night, Fred."

"Good-night, Fanny."

Then he went into the dining-room, where Mr. and Mrs. Lethbridge were waiting for him. It rather discomposed him to observe that they received him with grave looks instead of smiles.

"You are not sorry," he said, "for what has occurred?"

"No," replied Mrs. Lethbridge, "we are not sorry. But for one consideration there would not be a cloud upon our hearts to-night."

"What consideration?" asked Fred.

"Ph?be's father. You have not spoken to him?"

"No, I have not. To speak the truth, it was my intention to ask your advice whether, before I spoke to Ph?be, I should go to see Mr. Farebrother at Parksides."

"That would have been the best course, perhaps," said Mrs. Lethbridge.

"You would have advised me to do so?"

"Yes."

"It is, however, too late to talk of that now. I had no intention of proposing to Ph?be to-night, and I have no idea how it all came about. But there it is, and I would not unsay what I have said, or undo what I have done, for all the wealth in the world."

"We would not wish you to do so," said Mrs. Lethbridge; and her gentle voice and wistful eyes were sufficient proof that she was in entire sympathy with him. "It is not to-night that we have discovered that you and our dear Ph?be love each other. We have known it a long time, and our prayer is that we have not acted unwisely in innocently encouraging it. Should there be no obstacle to your union a happy life is before you both."

"What obstacle can there be?"

"Ph?be's father may refuse his consent."

"I cannot see upon what grounds," said Fred. "I am not rich, it is true; but I am a gentleman, and I shall not ask him for any money. I am content – more than content – to take Ph?be as she is, without a penny, and to work with all my heart and soul for her happiness and comfort. And she will be happy with me, Aunt Leth."

"There is no reason to doubt it," said Mrs. Lethbridge. "But it is as well to be prepared when you go to see Mr. Farebrother."

"To be prepared for what? – for his refusal? Well, in that case I shall have reason to rejoice that I spoke to Ph?be first, and learnt from her dear lips that her heart is mine. With her father's refusal staring me in the face I might have hesitated, but I should have spoken all the same. It isn't likely that I should have stood tamely aside and seen the happiness of our lives destroyed. But what is done, is done, Aunt Leth, and nothing can undo it. Ph?be is mine, and I am hers. Nothing in the world shall part us."

"Let us hope for the best," said Mrs. Lethbridge. "We thought it our duty to give you a word of warning. Ph?be's father is a strange man, and you must be careful in dealing with him."

"I will be. Ph?be remains here four or five days, she tells me."

"Yes; her father consented that she should stop with us till Tuesday or Wednesday next."

Fred rubbed his hands joyously. "Let it be Wednesday, Aunt Leth."

"I shall be only too happy, Fred. When will you go to Parksides?"

"Not before Wednesday next. I want time, you see, to think of what I shall say to Mr. Farebrother. There is no immediate hurry, because everything is as good as settled. Good-night dear Aunt Leth. I am the happiest man in the world!"

CHAPTER X
HIDDEN TREASURE

"Mother," said Jeremiah Pamflett, the next day, when he reached Parksides, "I am going to make a move; I am getting tired of playing a waiting game."

"Something has occurred, then, Jeremiah?" asked Mrs. Pamflett, her keen eyes on her son's face.

"Well, I went to the theatre last night, and sat in the pit, while Ph?be —my Ph?be, mother – and her precious set were in a private box, dressed up to the nines, with flowers and all sorts of things."

"The Lethbridges, Jeremiah?"

"Yes, the Lethbridges, and that lawyer chap."

"I told you there was danger in that quarter, Jeremiah."

"And I told you to mind your own business. Do you think this Ph?be affair is the only one I've got to look after? There are other schemes, mother, with heaps of money hanging to them, which will land me in a carriage as sure as guns. I'm going to take in the sharpers; I'm going to prove that I'm the sharpest fellow they ever had to deal with; I'll have thousands out of them! They think they know a lot, but they don't know everything. Why, with my head for figures and calculations, I ought to be as rich as the Rothschilds! I'll tell you all about it by-and-by."

"You are always keeping things from me, Jeremiah," said Mrs. Pamflett, in an injured tone. "Why not tell me now?"

"Because I don't choose. Still tongue, wise head."

"I might keep things from you, Jeremiah," said Mrs. Pamflett; and there was now a sly note in her voice which caused Jeremiah to bristle up.

"Oh, you would, would you! You've got something to tell, and you won't tell it! All right. I've done with you." He turned to go, but she seized his arm and detained him.

"No, no, Jeremiah! I've no one in the world but you. I'll tell you everything, everything!"

"Well, out with it; and never speak to me again like that, or it will be the worse for you. Mind what I say!"

"I will, Jeremiah – I will. Shut the door, and look first that there's no one outside."

"Who should be outside?" he asked, when he returned to his mother's side.

"Speak low, Jeremiah. Miser Farebrother is as cunning as a fox. For all his lameness, he can creep about the house as soft as a cat. I was awake last night with a bad toothache, and I heard his bedroom door creak, and then I heard him go softly, softly down-stairs. 'What is he up to?' I thought, and I slipped out of bed and into the passage. There was no fear of his hearing my door creak; I keep the hinges well oiled; and it was dark, and he couldn't see me. Would you believe it, Jeremiah? It was past two o'clock in the morning, and he went out of the house. I was afraid to go after him, because if he had turned suddenly back, and shut the street door upon me, I shouldn't have been able to get in without his finding me out. So I waited and waited, wondering what he was about. I suppose it must have been twenty minutes at least before he came back; but he did come at last, and, oh, Jeremiah; you never in all your life saw anybody as sly as he was! He looked round and round, and this way and that, to make sure he was alone, and then he crawled upstairs. How he managed it I don't know, he was in such pain; but not a groan, not a sound, escaped him. And he was carrying a large cash-box, too, that I had never seen before. It was covered with mud, and of course I jumped at the truth; it had been buried somewhere in the grounds, and he had gone out in the middle of the night to dig it up. You may guess what a state of excitement I was in, and I said to myself, 'For Jeremiah's sake I'll see the end of it.' It took him almost another twenty minutes to get to his room; he had to sit on the stairs a dozen times to rest, and I couldn't help thinking what a wonderfully sly man he was that he should be doing what he was doing, and what perhaps he's done over and over again, without my ever being able to find it out."

"You may well say that," grumbled Jeremiah. "A nice article you are to look after my interests! Catch me being in the house all the years you've been, and being taken in like that! I wouldn't have believed it of you if anybody else was telling me."

"I wouldn't have believed it of myself, Jeremiah; but better late than never, my boy."



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