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Pearce, Charles Edward, - / Madame Flirt A Romance of 'The Beggar's Opera'
MADAME FLIRT


A ROMANCE OF
"THE BEGGAR'S OPERA"

BY

CHARLES E. PEARCE

_"Why how now Madam Flirt"--Lucy._


AUTHOR OF

"STIRRING DEEDS IN THE GREAT WAR," "A QUEEN OF THE PADDOCK,"
"CORINTHIAN JACK," ETC.

LONDON
STANLEY PAUL & CO.
31, ESSEX STREET, STRAND, W.C.2.

_Printed in Great Britain at the Athenæum Printing Works, Redhill_

FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1922.




CHAPTER I

"IF YOUR NAME ISN'T POLLY IT OUGHT TO BE"


"As pretty a wench as man ever clapped eyes on. Wake up, Lance, and look
at her."

The portly man of genial aspect sitting in the corner of the bow window
of the Maiden Head Inn at the High Street end of Dyott Street in the
very heart of St. Giles, clapped his sleeping friend on the shoulder and
shook him. The sleeper, a young man whose finely drawn features were
clouded with the dregs of wine, muttered something incoherently, and
with an impatient twist shifted his body in the capacious arm-chair.

"Let him alone, Mr. Gay. When a man's in his cups he's best by himself.
'Twill take him a day's snoring to get rid of his bout. The landlord
here tells me he walked with the mob from Newgate to Tyburn and back and
refreshed himself at every tavern on the way, not forgetting, I warrant
you, to fling away a guinea at the Bowl, the Lamb, and the 'Black Jack'
over yonder, and drink to the long life of the daring rogue in the cart
and the health of the hangman to boot."

"Long life indeed, my lord. A couple of hours at most. Not that the
length of life is to be measured by years. I don't know but what it's
possible to cram one's whole existence into a few hours, thanks to that
thief of time," rejoined John Gay pointing to the bottle on the table.

The poet's placid face saddened. John Gay had always taken life as a
pleasure, but there is no pleasure without pain as he had come to
discover. Maybe at that moment a recollection of his follies gave his
conscience a tinge. Of Gay it might be said that he had no enemies other
than himself.

"Oh, the passing hour is the best doubtless, since we never know whether
the next may not be the worst," laughed Henry St. John, Lord
Bolingbroke. "I'll wager Jack Sheppard's best was when the noose was
round his neck. The rascal will trouble nervous folks no more. After all
he was of some use. See that drunken rabble. But for the brave show he
made at Tyburn yesterday, would those ladies and gentlemen be merry
making, think you, and would the tavern keepers and the gin sellers be
putting money in their pockets?"

Gay turned his eyes to the open window.

"I don't want to think of the rascally knave or the rabble either. My
thoughts are on yonder pretty little jade. Look for yourself,
Bolingbroke. You're not so insensible to beauty as Lance Vane is at this
moment."

"Faith, I hope not. Where's the charmer?" said Bolingbroke walking to
the window.

"Stay. She's going to sing. She has the voice of a nightingale. I've
heard her before. Lord! to think she has to do it for a living!"

"Humph. She has courage. Most girls would die rather than rub shoulders
with that frousy, bestial, drunken mob."

"Aye, but that little witch subdues them all with her voice. What says
Will Congreve? Music has charms to soothe a savage breast? Listen."

A girl slight in figure but harmoniously proportioned had placed herself
about two yards from the bow window. She fixed her eyes on Gay and her
pretty mouth curved into a smile. Then she sang. The ditty was "Cold and
Raw," a ballad that two hundred years ago or so, never failed to delight
everybody from the highest to the lowest. She gave it with natural
feeling and without any attempt at display. The voice was untrained but
this did not matter. It was like the trill of a bird, sweet, flexible
and pure toned.

"A voice like that ought not to be battered about. It's meant for
something better than bawling to a mob. What says your lordship?"

Bolingbroke's face had become grave, almost stern. His high, somewhat
narrow, slightly retreating forehead, long nose and piercing eyes lent
themselves readily to severity. Twenty-five years before it was not so.
He was then the gayest of the gay and in the heyday of his career. Much
had happened since then. Disappointed political ambitions and political
flirtations with the Jacobite party had ended in exile in France, from
which, having been pardoned, he had not long returned.

Meeting Gay, the latter suggested a prowl in St. Giles, where life was
in more than its usual turmoil consequent upon the execution of Jack
Sheppard; so Viscount Bolingbroke revisited the slums of St. Giles,
which had been the scene of many an orgy in his hot youth.

The nobleman returned no answer to Gay's question. His thoughts had gone
back to his early manhood when he took his pleasure wherever he found
it. In some of his mad moods St. Giles was more to his taste than St.
James's. So long as the face was beautiful, and the tongue given to
piquant raillery, any girl was good enough for him. He was of the time
when a love intrigue was a necessary part of a man's life, and not
infrequently of a woman's too.

Successful lover though he had been he was not all conquering. The
ballad singer's tender liquid tones carried his memory back to the
low-born girl with the laughing eyes who had captured his heart. She
sold oranges about the door of the Court of Requests, she sang ballads
in the street, she was a little better than a light of love, yet
Bolingbroke could never claim her as his own. It angered him sorely
that she had a smile for others. But he bore her no malice, or he would
hardly have written his poetical tribute commencing:--


"Dear, thoughtless Clara, to my verse attend,
Believe for once the lover and the friend."


So Gay's words were unheeded. A heavy step sounded on the sanded floor.
A big man with features formed on an ample mould had entered. Gay was
entranced by the singer and did not hear him. The newcomer stood
silently behind the poet. He too, was listening intently.

The girl's voice died into a cadence. Gay beckoned to her and she came
up to the window.

"Finely sung, Polly," cried Gay. "Who taught thee, child?"

"I taught myself, sir," said she dropping a curtsey.

"Then you had a good teacher. There's a crown for you."

"Oh sir ... it's too much."

"Nay, Polly--if your name isn't Polly it ought to be. What does your
mother call you?"

"Mostly an idle slut, sir."

Her face remained unmoved save her eyes, which danced with sly
merriment.


The men at the window burst into a roar of laughter. He who had entered
last laughed the loudest and deepest, and loud and deep as was that
laugh it was full of music. At its sound Gay turned sharply.

"What? Dick Leveridge? You've come at the right moment. We need someone
who knows good music when he hears it. What of this pretty child's
voice. Is it good?"

"Is it good? I'll answer your question, Mr. Gay, by asking you another.
Are you good at verses?"

"'Tis said my 'Fables' will be pretty well. The young Prince William
will have the dedication of it and if his mother, the Princess of Wales
approves, methinks my fortune's made," cried Gay buoyantly.

"Glad to hear it," replied Leveridge, dryly. "If I know anything about
His Royal Highness you'll gain a fortune sooner by writing a ballad or
two for this pretty songster. Make her famous as you made me with 'All
in the Downs' and 'T'was when the seas were roaring.'"

Gay's face brightened.

"Faith, Dick, you've set my brain working. I'll think on't, but that
means I must keep my eye on the wench."

"Oh, I'll trust you for that," rejoined Leveridge, the ghost of a smile
flitting across his solemn visage.

Meanwhile the girl had retreated a yard or two from the window, her gaze
fixed wistfully on Gay and Leveridge. She knew from their looks that she
was the subject of their talk.

Gay turned from his friend Richard Leveridge, the great bass singer of
the day, and rested his hands on the window sill. Bolingbroke had sunk
into his chair, and buried in his thoughts, was slowly sipping his wine.
Lancelot Vane continued to breathe heavily.

"Come here, child," said Gay through the open window and sinking his
voice. The crowd had pressed round her and were clamourous for her to
sing again. Some had thrown her a few pence for which a couple of
urchins were groping on the ground.

The girl approached.

"Now Polly----"

"My name's Lavinia--Lavinia Fenton, sir," she interrupted.

"Too fine--too fine. I like Polly better. Never mind. If it's Lavinia,
Lavinia it must be. What's your mother? Where does she live?"

"At the coffee house in Bedfordbury."

"Does she keep it?"

"Yes, sir."

"And what do _you_ do?"

"Wait on the customers--sometimes."

"And sometimes you sing in the streets--round the taverns, eh?"

"Only when mother drives me out."

"Oh. She ill treats you, does she? That bruise on your shoulder--was it
her work?"

The girl nodded.

"You wouldn't mind if you left your mother and did nothing but sing?"

"Oh, that would be joy," cried the girl squeezing her hands tightly
together to stifle her emotions. "But how can I?"

"It may be managed, perhaps. I must see your mother----"

He was interrupted by a deafening roar--hoarse, shrill, raucous,
unmistakably drunken. A huge, ragged multitude had poured into the High
Street from St. Martin's Lane, jostling, fighting, cursing, eager for
devilment, no matter what. They rushed to the hostelries, they
surrounded the street sellers of gin, demanding the fiery poisonous
stuff for which they had no intention of paying.

The landlord of the "Maiden Head" hurried into the room somewhat
perturbed.

"Best shut the window, gentlemen," said he. "This vile scum's none too
nice. Anything it wants it'll take without so much as by your leave, or
with your leave."

"What does it mean, landlord?" asked Bolingbroke.

"Oh's all over Jack Sheppard. The people are mad about the rascal just
because the turnkeys couldn't hold him, nor prison walls for the matter
o' that. He was clever in slipping out o' prison I grant ye. Well, sirs,
his body was to be handed over to the surgeons like the rest o' the
Tyburn gentry, but his friends would have none of it. A bailiff somehow
got hold of the corpse to make money out of it--trust them sharks for
_that_ when they see a chance--an' smuggled it to his house in Long
Acre. It got wind afore many hours was past and the mob broke into the
place, the Foot Guards was called out an' there's been no end of a
rumpus."

"Faith, my poor Gay," said Bolingbroke with a sardonic smile, "the
people make more fuss over a burglar than over a ballad maker. And
what's become of the noble Sheppard's body, landlord?"

"It's hidden somewhere. They say as it'll be buried to-night in St.
Martin's Churchyard. So the people'll get their way after all."

"As they mostly do if they make noise enough," rejoined Bolingbroke
refreshing himself with a pinch of snuff.

"Yes, your honour, and----"

The sound of a loud high pitched, strident voice floated into the room
through the open window. Gay, whose eyes had never shifted from the girl
outside, saw her cheeks suddenly blanch. She looked round hurriedly like
a frightened rabbit seeking a way of escape.

"Bring the girl in, landlord," exclaimed the poet hastily. "She'll come
to harm else. Lord! Look at those drunken beasts. No--no"--the landlord
was about to shut the latticed windows--"run to the door, child. Quick."

A howling sottish mob mad with drink, clamouring, gesticulating, men and
women jostling each other, embracing vulgarly, their eyes glassy, their
faces flushed, was approaching the inn.

The mob was headed by a handsome woman. She was in the plenitude of
fleshly charms. Her dress, disordered, showed her round solidly built
shoulders, her ample bust. Some day unless her tastes and her manner of
life altered she would end in a bloway drab, every vestige of beauty
gone in masses of fat. But at that moment she was the model of a
reckless Bacchante, born for the amusement and aggravation of man.

Her maddening eyes were directed on the Maiden Head inn. Her full lips
were parted in a harsh boisterous laugh; her white teeth gleamed; the
blood ran riot in her veins; she was the embodiment of exuberant,
semi-savage, animal life. She danced up to the open window. The sight of
the sleeping Lance Vane had drawn her thither.

Up to that moment Lavinia Fenton's back was towards the woman. Lavinia
tried to get away without notice, but the Bacchante's escort was too
numerous, too aggressive, too closely packed. They hoped for some fun
after their own tastes.

"Mercy on me," muttered Gay apprehensively, "that impudent hussy, Sally
Salisbury. And drunk too. This means trouble. Dick," he whispered
hurriedly to Leveridge, "you can use your fists if need be. I've seen
you have a set-to in Figg's boxing shed. That girl's in danger. Sally's
bent on mischief. There's murder in her eyes. Come with me."

Leveridge nodded and followed his friend out of the room.

Gay's action was none too prompt. No sooner had Sally
Salisbury--destined to be, a few years later, the most notorious woman
of her class--set eyes on the girl than her brows were knitted and her
lips and nostrils went white. Her cheeks on the other hand blazed with
fury. She gripped the shrinking girl and twisted her round. Then she
thrust her face within a few inches of Lavinia's.

"What do you mean by coming here, you squalling trollop?" she screamed.
"How dare you poach on my ground, you----"

How Sally finished the sentence can be very well left to take care of
itself.

Lavinia despite her terror of the beautiful virago never lost her
self-control.

"You're welcome to this ground every inch of it, but I suppose I've as
much right to walk on it as you have," said she.

"Don't talk to me, you little trull, or you'll drive me to tear your
eyes out. Take that."

With the back of her disengaged hand she struck the girl's cheek.




CHAPTER II

"GO YOUR OWN WAY YOU UNGRATEFUL MINX"


The mob roared approval at the prospect of a fight, and though the
combatants were unfairly matched some of the ruffians urged the girl to
retaliate.

"Go for her hair, little un," one shouted. "There's plenty of it. Once
you get a fair hold and tear out a handful she'll squeak, I'll warrant."

The advice was not taken and maybe nobody expected it would be. Anyway,
before Sally could renew the attack her arm was seized by a man, slight
in stature and with a naturally humorous expression on his lean narrow
face and in his bright twinkling eyes.

"Enough of this brawling, mistress. If you _must_ fight choose someone
as big and as strong as yourself, not a lambkin."

The crowd knew him and whispers went round. "That's Spiller--Jemmy
Spiller the famous play actor." "No, is it though. Lord, he can make
folks laugh--ah, split their sides a'most. I see him last Saturday at
Master Rich's theayter in the Fields, and I thought I should ha' died."

Spiller was better at making people laugh than at holding an infuriated
woman. But he had two friends with him, stalwart butchers from Clare
Market, and he turned the task over to them with the remark that they
were used to handling mad cattle.

At this point Gay and Leveridge forced their way through the crowd. Gay
saw the red angry mark on the girl's pallid face and guessed the cause.
He drew her gently to him.

"Run inside the house. I'll join you presently," he whispered.

She thanked him with her eyes and vanished. Gay turned to Spiller.

"You deserve a double benefit at Drury Lane, Jemmy, for what you did
just now. That wild cat was about to use her claws," said he.

"Aye, and her teeth too, Mr. Gay."

"You'll need a mouthful of mountain port after that tussle. And your
friends as well, when they've disposed of Mistress Salisbury."

The butchers had removed her out of harm's way. Some of her lady friends
and sympathisers had joined her; and a couple of young "bloods" who had
come to see the fun of an execution, with money burning holes in their
pockets, being captured, the party subsided into the "Bowl" where a
bottle of wine washed away the remembrance of Sally Salisbury's
grievance. But she vowed vengeance on the "squalling chit" sooner or
later.

Meanwhile the object of Sally Salisbury's hoped for revenge was sitting
in a dark corner of the coffee room of the Maiden Head tavern. She felt
terribly embarrassed and answered Bolingbroke's compliments in
monosyllables. He pressed her to take some wine but she refused. To her
great relief he did not trouble her with attentions.

Then Gay entering with Spiller and his butcher friends, and Leveridge,
as soon as he could, approached her.

"Tell me, Polly,--my tongue refuses to say Lavinia--how you have
offended that vulgar passionate woman?"

"I don't know. Jealousy, I suppose. She's burning to sing but she can't.
Sing, why she sets one's teeth on edge! It might be the sharpening of a
knife on a grindstone. She would be a play actress, and Mrs. Barry at
Drury Lane promised to help her, but they quarrelled. Sally wanted to be
a great actress all at once, but you can't be, can you, sir?"

She looked at the poet earnestly. Her large grey eyes were wonderfully
expressive, and Gay did not at once answer. He was thinking how sweet
was the face, and how musical and appealing the voice.

"True, child, and that you should say it shows your good sense. Wait
here a few minutes and then you shall take me to your mother."

Gay crossed the room to his friends, and they talked together in low
voices. Spiller and Leveridge had much to say--indeed it was to these
two, who had practical knowledge of the theatre, to whom he appealed.
Bolingbroke sat silently listening.

Gay's project concerning his new found protégée was such as would only
have entered into the brain of a dreamy and impecunious poet. He saw in
Lavinia Fenton the making of a fine actress--not in tragedy but in
comedy--and of an enchanting singer. But to be proficient she must be
taught not only music, but how to pronounce the English language
properly. She had to a certain extent picked up the accent of the
vulgar. It was impossible, considering her surroundings and
associations, to be otherwise. But proper treatment and proper
companions would soon rid her of this defect.

Both Spiller and Leveridge agreed she was fitted for the stage. But how
was she to be educated? And what was the use of education while she was
living in a Bedfordbury coffee house!

"She must be sent to a boarding school and be among gentlefolk,"
declared Gay energetically.

"Excellent," said Bolingbroke, speaking for the first time, "and may I
ask who will pay for the inestimable privilege of placing her among the
quality?"

The irony in St. John's voice did not go unnoticed by Gay, but he
continued bravely.

"I will, if her mother won't."

"You? My good friend, you can scarce keep yourself. But 'tis like you to
add to the burden of debt round your neck rather than reduce it. Have
you been left a fortune? Have your dead South Sea Shares come back to
life?"

"Nay, Bolingbroke, don't remind me of my folly," rejoined Gay, a little
piqued. "We can't always be wise. Thou thyself--but let that pass, the
future is the foundation of hope. Before long I shall be in funds. The
'Fables' will be in the booksellers' hands ere the month is out."

"Oh, that's well. But the booksellers, though eager enough to sell their
wares, are not so ready to pay the writer his due. Moreover if I know
anything of John Gay, of a certainty all the money he puts in his pocket
will go out of the hole at the other end."

"I know--I know," rejoined the poet hastily. "But I'm not thinking alone
of the booksellers. It is a 'place' I shall have and an annual income
that will sweep away all my anxieties."

"Then you're in favour with the Princess and her obedient servant Sir
Robert--or is Walpole her master? What will the Dean of St. Patrick and
Mr. Pope say to your surrender?"

"No, no. I will never write a word in praise of either. There's not a
word in the 'Fables' that can be twisted into bolstering up the
Government."

"And you think to receive your comfortable 'place' out of pure
admiration of your poetical gifts? My poor Gay!"

"No. Friendship."

"Well, well, you must go your own way or you wouldn't be a poet. I leave
you to your commendable work of rescuing damsels in distress."

And after refreshing himself with a pinch of snuff Bolingbroke with a
wave of the hand to Gay and his friends strode from the room leaving the
poet with his pleasant face somewhat overcast.

But his chagrin did not last long. His natural buoyancy asserted itself
and he beckoned to Lavinia who was sitting primly on the edge of the
hard chair, her folded hands resting on her lap. Before she could cross
the room Spiller and Leveridge took up Bolingbroke's argument, and urged
Gay not to meddle further in the matter.

"Nay, why should I not? It would be a shame and a pity that so much good
talent should be wasted on the groundlings of St. Giles. Besides, there
is the girl herself," Gay lowered his voice. "You wouldn't have her be
like Sally Salisbury, Jemmy, would you? She has a good and innocent
nature. It will be torn to tatters if she be not looked after now. No.
Neither you nor Dick Leveridge will talk me out of my intent. Do you see
what misguided youth may easily come to? Look at your friend Vane."

Gay pointed to the sleeping young man.

"I know--I know. The young fool," returned Spiller a little angrily.
"Wine is Lancelot Vane's only weakness--well, not the only one, any
pretty face turns his head."

"He's not the worse for that provided a good heart goes with the pretty
face."

"Aye, _if_."

"Look after him then. When he awakens from his drunken fit he'll be like
clay in the hands of the potters."

"Faith, you're right, Mr. Gay, but there's one thing that'll protect
him--his empty purse. I doubt if he has a stiver left. I know he drew
some money from the _Craftsman_ yesterday."

"What, does he write for that scurrilous, venomous print?" cried Gay,
visibly disturbed.

"Not of his own will. He hates the paper and he hates Amherst, who owns
it. But what is a man to do when poverty knocks at the door?"

"That may be. Still--I wish he had nothing to do with that abusive
fellow, Nicholas Amherst, who calls himself 'Caleb D'Anvers,' why I know
not, unless he's ashamed of the name his father gave him. Do you know
that the _Craftsman_ is always attacking my friends, Mr. Pope, Dr.
Swift, Dr. Arbuthnot? As for myself--but that's no matter."

"Oh, Amherst's a gadfly, no doubt. But your friends can take care of
themselves. For every blow they get they can if it so pleases them, give
two in return."

"That's true, and I'll say nothing more. I wish your friend well rid of
the rascally D'Anvers. Look after him, Jemmy. Come Polly--let us to your
mother."

Both Spiller and Leveridge saw that Gay was not to be turned from his
resolution to help the girl, and presently she and her new found friend
were threading their way through a network of courts and alleys finally
emerging into the squalid thoroughfare between New Street and Chandos
Street.

The dirt and the poverty-stricken aspect of the locality did not deter
the poet from his intention. Bedfordbury was not worse than St. Giles.
The girl led him to a shabby coffee shop from the interior of which
issued a hot and sickly air.

"That's mother," she whispered when they were in the doorway.

A buxom woman not too neatly dressed, whose apron bore traces of
miscellaneous kitchen work, scowled when her eyes lighted on her
daughter.

"So you've come home, you lazy good-for-nothing hussy," she screamed.
"Where have you been? You don't care how hard I have to work so long as
you can go a pleasuring. There's plenty for you to do here. Set about
washing these plates if you don't want a trouncing."

Mrs. Fenton was in a vile temper and Gay's heart somewhat failed at the
sight of her. Then he glanced at the girl and her frightened face gave
him courage.

"Madame," said he advancing with a polite bow, "I should like with your
permission to have a few words with you in private. My business here
concerns your daughter in whom I take an interest."

"Oh, and who may you be?" asked the woman ungraciously.

"My name is Gay--John Gay--but I'll tell you more when we're alone."

He cast a look around at the rough Covent Garden porters with which the
place was fairly full. One of the boxes was empty and Mrs. Fenton
pointed to it, at the same time ordering her daughter to go into the
kitchen and make herself useful. Then she flopped down opposite Gay,
separated from him by a table marked by innumerable rings left by coffee
mugs.

Gay put forward his ideas and painted a glorious future for Lavinia. Her
mother did not seem particularly impressed. It was doubtful indeed if
she believed him.

"You'll find the wench a handful. She's been no good to me. I'd as lieve
let her go her own way as keep her. A young 'oman with a pretty face
hasn't got no need to trouble about getting a living. Sooner or later
she'll give me the slip--but--well--if you takes her and makes a lady of
her what do I get out of it?"

This was a view of the matter which had not occurred to the poet. He
felt decidedly embarrassed. His project appeared to be more costly than
he had at first imagined.

"It is for the benefit of your daughter," he stammered.

"Her benefit, indeed. Fiddle-de-dee! Your own you mean. I know what men
are. If she was an ugly slut you wouldn't take no notice of her. Don't
talk rubbish. What are you a going to give me for saying, yes. That's
business, mister. Come, how much?"

The poet saw there was no other way but talking business. This
embarrassed him still more for he was the last man qualified to act in
such a capacity.

"I'll see what I can do," said he nervously, "but you mustn't forget
that Lavinia will have to be quite two years at school, and there is her
music master----"

"Oh I dare say," rejoined the lady scoffingly, "and the mantle maker,
and the milliner, and the glover, and the hairdresser. That's your
affair, not mine. Name a round sum and I'll try to meet you. What d'ye
say?"

"Would five guineas----?"

"What!" shrieked Lavinia's mother. "And you call yourself a gentleman?"

"The sum I admit is a small one, but as you seemed anxious to get your
daughter off your hands I thought I was doing you a service by putting
the girl in a way to earn a good living."

"I dare say. I'm not to be taken in like that. Fine words butter no
parsnips. While Lavinia's in the house I'll go bail I'll make her work.
If she goes away I've got to pay someone in her place, haven't I? Twenty
guineas is the very lowest I'll take, and if you was anything like the
gentleman you look you'd make it double."

The haggling over such a matter and the coarse mercenary nature of the
woman jarred upon the poet's sensitive soul. The plain fact that he
hadn't got twenty guineas in the world could not be gainsaid. But he had
rich friends. If he could only interest them in this protégée of his
something might be done. And there were the "Fables."

"Twenty guineas," he repeated. "Well, I'll do my best. In two days'
time, Mrs. Fenton, I will come and see you and most likely all will be
settled to your satisfaction."

"Two days. Aye. No longer or maybe my price'll go up."

"I shall not fail. Now, Mrs. Fenton, before I go I'd like to see Lavinia
once more."

"No, this business is between you an' me, mister. The hussy's naught to
do with it. She'll have to behave herself while she's with me. That's
all I have to say about _her_."

So Gay rose and walked out of the box feeling as though he'd been
through a severe drubbing. He might have been sufficiently disheartened
to shatter his castle in the air had he not seen Lavinia's big sorrowful
eyes fixed upon him from the kitchen. He dared not disobey her mother's
behest not to speak to her so he tried to smile encouragingly, and to
intimate by his expression that all was going well. Whether he succeeded
in so doing he was by no means sure.

On leaving the coffee house Gay walked towards Charing Cross and thence
along the Haymarket to Piccadilly. His destination was Queensberry House
to the north of Burlington Gardens. Here lived Gay's good friends the
Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, and indeed Gay himself, save when he
was at Twickenham with Pope.

At dinner that evening Gay broached the subject of the phenomenal singer
whom he had discovered in the streets of St. Giles and his scheme
concerning her. The duke laughed at the poet's visions, but the duchess
was fascinated. Anything of the unusual at once appealed to the
warmhearted, impulsive, somewhat eccentric, lady. Her enthusiasm where
she was interested always carried her away, and her impatience and
energy would not let her rest until her object was accomplished.

"I would vastly like to hear Mr. Gay's pretty nightingale. You must
bring her to-morrow. I am dying to see if she is really the wonder you
pretend she is. You know that the best judge of a woman is another
woman. A man is apt to be partial."

"And a woman to be prejudiced," said Gay smilingly.

"Faith, Kitty," laughed the duke, "our poet has thee there."

"I deny it. But we will discuss the question after we've seen the
paragon. When shall she come?"

Gay for once was shrewd.

"Not until we've settled with the mother. She's a harpy. If she knows
that your grace has anything to do with the affair she'll double her
price."

"Why, our Gay is teaching us something," said the Duke banteringly. "He
is giving us a lesson in financial economy. Duchess, you must keep your
eye on the next post vacant in the Exchequer."

"Pish!" retorted her grace. "Mr. Gay is only exercising commonsense. We
all of us have a little of that commodity. If we could only have it
handy when it's wanted how much better the world would be."

Neither of the men disputed the lady's proposition, and the duchess
rising, left them to their wine.

Armed with the twenty guineas, Gay presented himself the following day
at the Bedfordbury coffee house. Mrs. Fenton was still ungracious, but
the sight of the little pile of gold and the chink of the coins
mollified her humour.

"Where and when are you going to take her?" she demanded.

Gay had arranged a plan with the duchess and he replied promptly.

"She will stay here for a few days while her wardrobe is being got
ready, then she is to go to Miss Pinwell's boarding school in Queen
Square."

"Carry me out and bury me decent," ejaculated Mrs. Fenton. "Then I'm to
be the mother of a fine lady, am I?"

"I don't say that, but a clever one if I'm not mistaken."

"Clever! Oh la! Much good will her cleverness do her. Clever! Aye in
always having a crowd o' sparks a dangling after her. That Miss
What's-her-name in Queen Square'll have to get up early to best Lavinia
when there's a man about."

"A mother shouldn't say such ill-natured things of her own child," said
Gay reprovingly. "She's hardly a woman yet."

"But she knows as much. Well, you've got your bargain. Make your best of
it. What about her clothes? She's but a rag-bag though it's no fault o'
mine. Pray who's going to buy her gowns, her hats, her petticoats, her
laces and frills. You?"

"I? Bless me! no, woman. I know nothing about such things," rejoined Gay
colouring slightly. "I will send a woman who understands the business."

"It's all one to me. Maybe you'd better tell your tale to Lavinia with
your own lips. I've done with her."

"By all means. I should like to see her."

Mrs. Fenton, whose eyes all the while had been gloating over the gold on
the table now swept it into her pocket. It was a windfall which had come
at the right moment. She was tired of Bedfordbury. She aimed at a step
higher. There was a coffee house business in the Old Bailey going cheap,
the twenty pounds would enable her to buy it.

As for her daughter, she had no scruple about letting her go with a man
who was quite a stranger. The girl's future didn't trouble her. Since
Lavinia had entered her teens, mother and daughter had wrangled
incessantly. Lavinia was amiable enough, but constant snubbing had
roused a spirit which guided her according to her moods. Sometimes she
was full of defiance, at others she would run out of the house, and
ramble about the streets until she was dead tired.

Lavinia was shrewd enough to discover why her mother did not want her at
home. Mrs. Fenton, still good-looking, was not averse to flirting with
the more presentable of her customers, and as Lavinia developed into
womanhood she became a serious rival to her mother, so on the whole,
Gay's proposition suited Mrs. Fenton admirably, and she certainly never
bothered to find out if he spoke the truth. She was not inclined to
accept his story of the boarding school as a stepping-stone to the
stage, but to pretend to believe it in a way quieted what little
conscience she possessed. If the scheme turned out badly, why, no one
could say _she_ was to blame.

Lavinia, tremulous with excitement and looking prettier than ever, came
into the room where the poet was awaiting her. Her face fell when Gay
talked about the boarding school and of the possibility of her having to
remain there a long time, but she brightened up on his going on to say
that the period might be considerably shortened if she made a rapid
improvement.

"And do you really think, sir, I shall ever be good enough to act in a
theatre like Mrs. Barry and Mrs. Oldfield, and--oh, and Mrs.
Bracegurdle?" cried the girl, her eyes blazing with anxious ambition.

"I don't say you'll act like them. You'll act in your own way, and if
you work hard your own way will be good enough. If you succeed the
friends who are now helping you will be more than rewarded."

"Ah, I will do anything to please you, sir."

She caught his hand and impulsively raised it to her lips.

Gay was a little embarrassed at this outburst. Did it mean that the girl
had fallen in love with him? He checked the rising thought. Yet there
was nothing outrageous in such a possibility. Lavinia was only sixteen,
it is true, and romantic sixteen might see nothing incongruous in
thirty-seven, which was Gay's age.

"What pleases me, child, doesn't matter," he returned hastily. "I want
to see you please others--in the play house I mean."

She looked at him wistfully.

"But," he continued, "it will be time enough to talk of that when I see
how you get on. Now is it all settled? You're leaving this place and
your mother of your own free will--isn't that so?"

Lavinia said nothing, but pinched her lips and nodded her head
vigorously. The action was sufficiently expressive and Gay was
satisfied.

Three days went by. Her Grace of Queensberry's maid, a hard-faced
Scotswoman who was not to be intimidated nor betrayed into confidences,
superintended Lavinia's shopping and turned a deaf ear to Mrs. Fenton's
scoffs and innuendoes.

The girl was transformed. Her new gowns, hats, aprons, and what not sent
her into high spirits and she bade her mother adieu with a light heart.

"Go your own way, you ungrateful minx," was Mrs. Fenton's parting shot,
"and when you're tired of your fine gentleman or he's tired of you,
don't think you're coming back here 'cause I won't have you."

Lavinia smiled triumphantly and tripped into the hackney coach that was
awaiting her.




CHAPTER III

"OH, MISTRESS MINE, WHERE ART THOU ROAMING?"


"Lavina! Have done!"

It was a whispered entreaty. The victim of the feather of a quill pen
tickling her neck dared not raise her voice. Miss Pinwell, the
proprietress of the extremely genteel seminary for young ladies, Queen
Square--quite an aristocratic retreat some two hundred years ago--was
pacing the school-room. Her cold, sharp eyes roamed over the shapely
heads--black, golden, brown, auburn, flaxen--of some thirty girls--eager
to detect any sign of levity and prompt to inflict summary punishment.

"Miss Fenton, why are you not working?" came the inquiry sharply from
Miss Pinwell's thin lips.

Lavinia Fenton withdrew the instrument of torture and Priscilla
Coupland's neck was left in peace. It was done so swiftly that Miss
Pinwell's glance, keen as it was, never detected the movement. But the
lady had her suspicions nevertheless, and she marched with the erectness
of a grenadier to where Lavinia Fenton sat with her eyes fixed upon her
copy book, apparently absorbed in inscribing over and over again the
moral maxim at the top of the page, and, it may be hoped, engrafting it
on her mind.

The young lady's industry did not deceive Miss Pinwell. Lavinia Fenton
was the black sheep--lamb perhaps is a more fitting word, she was but
seventeen--of the school. But somehow her peccadilloes were always
forgiven. She had a smile against which severity--even Miss
Pinwell's--was powerless.

"What were you doing just now when you were not writing?"

The head was slowly raised. The wealth of wavy brown hair fell back from
the broad smooth brow. The large limpid imploring eyes looked straight,
without a trace of guilt in them, at the thin-faced schoolmistress. The
beautiful mouth, the upper lip of which with its corners slightly
upturned was delightfully suggestive of a smile, quivered slightly but
not with fear, rather with suppressed amusement.

"Nothing madam," was the demure reply.

"Nothing? I don't believe you. Your hand was not on your book. Where was
it?"

"Oh, _that_. Yes, a wasp was flying near us. I thought it was going to
settle on Priscilla Coupland's neck and I brushed it away with my pen."

Miss Pinwell could say nothing to this, especially as she distinctly
heard at that moment the hum of some winged insect. It _was_ a wasp, a
real one, not the insect of Lavinia's fervid imagination. The windows
were open and it had found its way in from Lamb's Conduit Fields, at a
happy moment allying itself with Lavinia.

Others heard it as well and sprang to their feet shrieking. The chance
of escaping from tiresome moral maxims was too good to be lost.

"Young ladies----" commanded Miss Pinwell, but she could get no further.
Her voice was lost in the din. The lady no more loved wasps than did her
pupils. She retreated as the wasp advanced. The intruder ranged itself
on the side of the girls and circled towards their instructress with
malevolence in every turn and vicious intent in its buzz.

The only one not afraid was Lavinia Fenton who, waving a pocket
handkerchief met the foe bravely but without success. The enemy refused
to turn tail. Other girls plucking up courage joined the champion and
soon the school-room was in a hubbub. Probably the army of hoydenish
maidens were not anxious the conflict should cease--it was far more
entertaining than maxims, arithmetic and working texts on samples--and
Miss Pinwell seeing this, summoned Bridget, the brawny housemaid, who
with a canvas apron finally caught and squashed the rash intruder.

It was sometime before the excitement died down, and meanwhile Lavinia
Fenton's remissness of conduct was forgotten--indeed her intrepidity
singled her out for praise, which she received with becoming
graciousness.

But before the day was out she relapsed into her bad ways. She could or
would do nothing right. Miss Pinwell chided her for carelessness, she
retorted saucily. As discipline had to be maintained she was at last
condemned to an hour with the backboard and there she sat in a corner of
the room on a high legged chair with a small and extremely uncomfortable
oval seat made still more uncomfortable by it sloping slightly forward.
As for the back, it was high and narrow. It afforded no rest for the
spine. The delinquent was compelled to sit perfectly upright. Thus it
was at the same time an instrument of correction and of deportment.

Whatever bodily defects the early Georgian damsels possessed they
certainly had straight backs and level shoulders.



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