Olivia's Pottage by James Branch Cabell
"Mr. Wycherley was naturally modest until King Charles' court, that late disgrace to our times, corrupted him. He then gave himself up to all sorts of extravagances and to the wildest frolics that a wanton wit could devise. . . . Never was so much ill-nature in a pen as in his, joined with so much good nature as was in himself, even to excess; for he was bountiful, even to run himself into difficulties, and charitable even to a fault. It was not that he was free from the failings of humanity, but he had the tenderness of it, too, which made everybody excuse whom everybody loved; and even the asperity of his verses seems to have been forgiven."
I the Plain Dealer am to act to-day.
* * * * * *
Now, you shrewd judges, who the boxes sway, Leading the ladies' hearts and sense astray, And for their sakes, see all and hear no play; Correct your cravats, foretops, lock behind: The dress and breeding of the play ne'er mind; For the coarse dauber of the coming scenes To follow life and nature only means, Displays you as you are, makes his fine woman A mercenary jilt and true to no man, Shows men of wit and pleasure of the age Are as dull rogues as ever cumber'd stage.
WILLIAM WYCHERLEY.--Prologue to The Plain Dealer.
It was in the May of 1680 that Mr. William Wycherley went into the country to marry the famed heiress, Mistress Araminta Vining, as he had previously settled with her father, and found her to his vast relief a very personable girl. She had in consequence a host of admirers, pre-eminent among whom was young Robert Minifie of Milanor. Mr. Wycherley, a noted stickler for etiquette, decorously made bold to question Mr. Minifie's taste in a dispute concerning waistcoats. A duel was decorously arranged and these two met upon the narrow beach of Teviot Bay.
Theirs was a spirited encounter, lasting for ten energetic minutes. Then Wycherley pinked Mr. Minifie in the shoulder, just as the dramatist, a favorite pupil of Gerard's, had planned to do; and the four gentlemen parted with every imaginable courtesy, since the wounded man and the two seconds were to return by boat to Mr. Minifie's house at Milanor.
More lately Wycherley walked in the direction of Ouseley Manor, whistling Love's a Toy. Honor was satisfied, and, happily, as he reflected, at no expense of life. He was a kindly hearted fop, and more than once had killed his man with perfectly sincere regret. But in putting on his coat--it was the black camlet coat with silver buttons--he had overlooked his sleevelinks; and he did not recognize, for twenty-four eventful hours, the full importance of his carelessness.
In the heart of Figgis Wood, the incomparable Countess of Drogheda, aunt to Mr. Wycherley's betrothed, and a noted leader of fashion, had presently paused at sight of him--laughing a little--and with one tiny hand had made as though to thrust back the staghound which accompanied her. "Your humble servant, Mr. Swashbuckler," she said; and then: "But oh! you have not hurt the lad?" she demanded, with a tincture of anxiety.
"Nay, after a short but brilliant engagement," Wycherley returned, "Mr. Minifie was very harmlessly perforated; and in consequence I look to be married on Thursday, after all."
"Let me die but Cupid never meets with anything save inhospitality in this gross world!" cried Lady Drogheda. "For the boy is heels over head in love with Araminta,--oh, a second Almanzor! And my niece does not precisely hate him either, let me tell you, William, for all your month's assault of essences and perfumed gloves and apricot paste and other small artillery of courtship. La, my dear, was it only a month ago we settled your future over a couple of Naples biscuit and a bottle of Rhenish?" She walked beside him now, and the progress of these exquisites was leisurely. There were many trees at hand so huge as to necessitate a considerable detour.
"Egad, it is a month and three days over," Wycherley retorted, "since you suggested your respected brother-in-law was ready to pay my debts in full, upon condition I retaliated by making your adorable niece Mistress Wycherley. Well, I stand to-day indebted to him for an advance of L1500 and am no more afraid of bailiffs. We have performed a very creditable stroke of business; and the day after to-morrow you will have fairly earned your L500 for arranging the marriage. Faith, and in earnest of this, I already begin to view you through appropriate lenses as undoubtedly the most desirable aunt in the universe."
Nor was there any unconscionable stretching of the phrase. Through the quiet forest, untouched as yet by any fidgeting culture, and much as it was when John Lackland wooed Hawisa under, its venerable oaks, old even then, the little widow moved like a light flame. She was clothed throughout in scarlet, after her high-hearted style of dress, and carried a tall staff of ebony; and the gold head of it was farther from the dead leaves than was her mischievous countenance. The big staghound lounged beside her. She pleased the eye, at least, did this heartless, merry and selfish Olivia, whom Wycherley had so ruthlessly depicted in his Plain Dealer. To the last detail Wycherley found her, as he phrased it, "mignonne et piquante," and he told her so.
Lady Drogheda observed, "Fiddle-de-dee!" Lady Drogheda continued: "Yes, I am a fool, of course, but then I still remember Bessington, and the boy that went mad there----"
"Because of a surfeit of those dreams 'such as the poets know when they are young.' Sweet chuck, beat not the bones of the buried; when he breathed he was a likely lad," Mr. Wycherley declared, with signal gravity.
"Oh, la, la!" she flouted him. "Well, in any event you were the first gentleman in England to wear a neckcloth of Flanders lace."
"And you were the first person of quality to eat cheesecakes in Spring Garden," he not half so mirthfully retorted. "So we have not entirely failed in life, it may be, after all."
She made of him a quite irrelevant demand: "D'ye fancy Esau was contented, William?"
"I fancy he was fond of pottage, madam; and that, as I remember, he got his pottage. Come, now, a tangible bowl of pottage, piping hot, is not to be despised in such a hazardous world as ours is."
She was silent for a lengthy while. "Lord, Lord, how musty all that brave, sweet nonsense seems!" she said, and almost sighed. "Eh, well! le vin est tiré, et il faut le boire."
"My adorable aunt! Let us put it a thought less dumpishly; and render thanks because our pottage smokes upon the table, and we are blessed with excellent appetites."
"So that in a month we will be back again in the playhouses and Hyde Park and Mulberry Garden, or nodding to each other in the New Exchange,--you with your debts paid, and I with my L500----?" She paused to pat the staghound's head. "Lord Remon came this afternoon," said Lady Drogheda, and with averted eyes.
"I do not approve of Remon," he announced. "Nay, madam, even a Siren ought to spare her kin and show some mercy toward the more stagnant-blooded fish."
And Lady Drogheda shrugged. "He is very wealthy, and I am lamentably poor. One must not seek noon at fourteen o'clock or clamor for better bread than was ever made from wheat."
Mr. Wycherley laughed, after a pregnant silence.
"By heavens, madam, you are in the right! So I shall walk no more in Figgis Wood, for its old magic breeds too many day-dreams. Besides, we have been serious for half-an-hour. Now, then, let us discuss theology, dear aunt, or millinery, or metaphysics, or the King's new statue at Windsor, or, if you will, the last Spring Garden scandal. Or let us count the leaves upon this tree; and afterward I will enumerate my reasons for believing yonder crescent moon to be the paring of the Angel Gabriel's left thumb-nail."
She was a woman of eloquent silences when there was any need of them; and thus the fop and the coquette traversed the remainder of that solemn wood without any further speech. Modish people would have esteemed them unwontedly glum.
Wycherley discovered in a while the absence of his sleeve-links, and was properly vexed by the loss of these not unhandsome trinkets, the gifts of Lady Castlemaine in the old days when Mr. Wycherley was the King's successful rival for her favors. But Wycherley knew the tide filled Teviot Bay and wondering fishes were at liberty to muzzle the toys, by this, and merely shrugged at his mishap, midcourse in toilet.
Mr. Wycherley, upon mature deliberation, wore the green suit with yellow ribbons, since there was a ball that night in honor of his nearing marriage, and a confluence of gentry to attend it. Miss Vining and he walked through a minuet to some applause; the two were heartily acclaimed a striking couple, and congratulations beat about their ears as thick as sugar-plums in a carnival. And at nine you might have found the handsome dramatist alone upon the East Terrace of Ouseley, pacing to and fro in the moonlight, and complacently reflecting upon his quite indisputable and, past doubt, unmerited good fortune.
There was never any night in June which nature planned the more adroitly. Soft and warm and windless, lit by a vainglorious moon and every star that ever shone, the beauty of this world caressed and heartened its beholder like a gallant music. Our universe, Mr. Wycherley conceded willingly, was excellent and kindly, and the Arbiter of it too generous; for here was he, the wastrel, like the third prince at the end of a fairy-tale, the master of a handsome wife, and a fine house and fortune. Somewhere, he knew, young Minifie, with his arm in a sling, was pleading with Mistress Araminta for the last time; and this reflection did not greatly trouble Mr. Wycherley, since incommunicably it tickled his vanity. He was chuckling when he came to the open window.
Within a woman was singing, to the tinkling accompaniment of a spinet, for the delectation of Lord Remon. She was not uncomely, and the hard, lean, stingy countenance of the attendant nobleman was almost genial. Wycherley understood with a great rending shock, as though the thought were novel, that Olivia, Lady Drogheda, designed to marry this man, who grinned within finger's reach--or, rather, to ally herself with Remon's inordinate wealth,--and without any heralding a brutal rage and hatred of all created things possessed the involuntary eavesdropper.
She looked up into Remon's face and, laughing with such bright and elfin mirth as never any other woman showed, thought Wycherley, she broke into another song. She would have spared Mr. Wycherley that had she but known him to be within earshot. . . . Oh, it was only Lady Drogheda who sang, he knew,--the seasoned gamester and coquette, the veteran of London and of Cheltenham,--but the woman had no right to charm this haggler with a voice that was not hers. For it was the voice of another Olivia, who was not a fine and urban lady, and who lived nowhere any longer; it was the voice of a soft-handed, tender, jeering girl, whom he alone remembered; and a sick, illimitable rage grilled in each vein of him as liltingly she sang, for Remon, the old and foolish song which Wycherley had made in her praise very long ago, and of which he might not ever forget the most trivial word.
Men, even beaux, are strangely constituted; and so it needed only this--the sudden stark brute jealousy of one male animal for another. That was the clumsy hand which now unlocked the dyke; and like a flood, tall and resistless, came the recollection of their far-off past and of its least dear trifle, of all the aspirations and absurdities and splendors of their common youth, and found him in its path, a painted fellow, a spendthrift king of the mode, a most notable authority upon the set of a peruke, a penniless, spent connoisseur of stockings, essences and cosmetics.
He got but little rest this night.
There were too many plaintive memories which tediously plucked him back, with feeble and innumerable hands, as often as he trod upon the threshold of sleep. Then too, there were so many dreams, half-waking, and not only of Olivia Chichele, naive and frank in divers rural circumstances, but rather of Olivia, Lady Drogheda, that perfect piece of artifice; of how exquisite she was! how swift and volatile in every movement! how airily indomitable, and how mendacious to the tips of her polished finger-nails! and how she always seemed to flit about this world as joyously, alertly, and as colorfully as some ornate and tiny bird of the tropics!
But presently parochial birds were wrangling underneath the dramatist's window, while he tossed and assured himself that he was sleepier than any saint who ever snored in Ephesus; and presently one hand of Moncrieff was drawing the bed-curtains, while the other carefully balanced a mug of shaving-water.
Wycherley did not see her all that morning, for Lady Drogheda was fatigued, or so a lackey informed him, and as yet kept her chamber. His Araminta he found deplorably sullen. So the dramatist devoted the better part of this day to a refitting of his wedding-suit, just come from London; for Moncrieff, an invaluable man, had adjudged the pockets to be placed too high; and, be the punishment deserved or no, Mr. Wycherley had never heard that any victim of law appeared the more admirable upon his scaffold for being slovenly in his attire.
Thus it was as late as five in the afternoon that, wearing the peach-colored suit trimmed with scarlet ribbon, and a new French beaver, the exquisite came upon Lady Drogheda walking in the gardens with only an appropriate peacock for company. She was so beautiful and brilliant and so little--so like a famous gem too suddenly disclosed, and therefore oddly disparate in all these qualities, that his decorous pleasant voice might quite permissibly have shaken a trifle (as indeed it did), when Mr. Wycherley implored Lady Drogheda to walk with him to Teviot Bay, on the off-chance of recovering his sleeve-links.
And there they did find one of the trinkets, but the tide had swept away the other, or else the sand had buried it. So they rested there upon the rocks, after an unavailing search, and talked of many trifles, amid surroundings oddly incongruous.
For this Teviot Bay is a primeval place, a deep-cut, narrow notch in the tip of Carnrick, and is walled by cliffs so high and so precipitous that they exclude a view of anything except the ocean. The bay opens due west; and its white barriers were now developing a violet tinge, for this was on a sullen afternoon, and the sea was ruffled by spiteful gusts. Wycherley could find no color anywhere save in this glowing, tiny and exquisite woman; and everywhere was a gigantic peace, vexed only when high overhead a sea-fowl jeered at these modish persons, as he flapped toward an impregnable nest.
"And by this hour to-morrow," thought Mr. Wycherley, "I shall be chained to that good, strapping, wholesome Juno of a girl!"
So he fell presently into a silence, staring at the vacant west, which was like a huge and sickly pearl, not thinking of anything at all, but longing poignantly for something which was very beautiful and strange and quite unattainable, with precisely that anguish he had sometimes known in awaking from a dream of which he could remember nothing save its piercing loveliness.
"And thus ends the last day of our bachelorhood!" said Lady Drogheda, upon a sudden. "You have played long enough--La, William, you have led the fashion for ten years, you have written four merry comedies, and you have laughed as much as any man alive, but you have pulled down all that nature raised in you, I think. Was it worth while?"
"Faith, but nature's monuments are no longer the last cry in architecture," he replied; "and I believe that The Plain Dealer and The Country Wife will hold their own."
"And you wrote them when you were just a boy! Ah, yes, you might have been our English Moliere, my dear. And, instead, you have elected to become an authority upon cravats and waistcoats."
"Eh, madam"--he smiled--"there was a time when I too was foolishly intent to divert the leisure hours of posterity. But reflection assured me that posterity had, thus far, done very little to place me under that or any other obligation. Ah, no! Youth, health and--though I say it--a modicum of intelligence are loaned to most of us for a while, and for a terribly brief while. They are but loans, and Time is waiting greedily to snatch them from us. For the perturbed usurer knows that he is lending us, perforce, three priceless possessions, and that till our lease runs out we are free to dispose of them as we elect. Now, had I jealously devoted my allotment of these treasures toward securing for my impressions of the universe a place in yet unprinted libraries, I would have made an investment from which I could not possibly have derived any pleasure, and which would have been to other people of rather dubious benefit. In consequence, I chose a wiser and devouter course."
This statement Lady Drogheda afforded the commentary of a grimace.
"Why, look you," Wycherley philosophized, "have you never thought what a vast deal of loving and painstaking labor must have gone to make the world we inhabit so beautiful and so complete? For it was not enough to evolve and set a glaring sun in heaven, to marshal the big stars about the summer sky, but even in the least frequented meadow every butterfly must have his pinions jeweled, very carefully, and every lovely blade of grass be fashioned separately. The hand that yesterday arranged the Himalayas found time to glaze the wings of a midge! Now, most of us could design a striking Flood, or even a Last judgment, since the canvas is so big and the colors used so virulent; but to paint a snuff-box perfectly you must love the labor for its own sake, and pursue it without even an underthought of the performance's ultimate appraisement. People do not often consider the simple fact that it is enough to bait, and quite superfluous to veneer, a trap; indeed, those generally acclaimed the best of persons insist this world is but an antechamber, full of gins and pitfalls, which must be scurried through with shut eyes. And the more fools they, as all we poets know! for to enjoy a sunset, or a glass of wine, or even to admire the charms of a handsome woman, is to render the Artificer of all at least the tribute of appreciation."
But she said, in a sharp voice: "William, William----!" And he saw that there was no beach now in Teviot Bay except the dwindling crescent at its farthest indentation on which they sat.
Yet his watch, on consultation, recorded only five o'clock; and presently Mr. Wycherley laughed, not very loudly. The two had risen, and her face was a tiny snowdrift where every touch of rouge and grease-pencils showed crudely.
"Look now," said Wycherley, "upon what trifles our lives hinge! Last night I heard you singing, and the song brought back so many things done long ago, and made me so unhappy that--ridiculous conclusion!--I forgot to wind my watch. Well! the tide is buffeting at either side of Carnrick; within the hour this place will be submerged; and, in a phrase, we are as dead as Hannibal or Hector."
She said, very quiet: "Could you not gain the mainland if you stripped and swam for it?"
"Why, possibly," the beau conceded. "Meanwhile you would have drowned. Faith, we had as well make the best of it."
Little Lady Drogheda touched his sleeve, and her hand (as the man noted) did not shake at all, nor did her delicious piping voice shake either. "You cannot save me. I know it. I am not frightened. I bid you save yourself."
"Permit me to assist you to that ledge of rock," Mr. Wycherley answered, "which is a trifle higher than the beach; and I pray you, Olivia, do not mar the dignity of these last passages by talking nonsense."
For he had spied a ledge, not inaccessible, some four feet higher than the sands, and it offered them at least a respite. And within the moment they had secured this niggardly concession, intent to die, as Wycherley observed, like hurt mice upon a pantry-shelf. The business smacked of disproportion, he considered, although too well-bred to say as much; for here was a big ruthless league betwixt earth and sea, and with no loftier end than to crush a fop and a coquette, whose speedier extinction had been dear at the expense of a shilling's worth of arsenic!
Then the sun came out, to peep at these trapped, comely people, and doubtless to get appropriate mirth at the spectacle. He hung low against the misty sky, a clearly-rounded orb that did not dazzle, but merely shone with the cold glitter of new snow upon a fair December day; and for the rest, the rocks, and watery heavens, and all these treacherous and lapping waves, were very like a crude draught of the world, dashed off conceivably upon the day before creation.
These arbiters of social London did not speak at all; and the bleak waters crowded toward them as in a fretful dispute of precedence.
Then the woman said: "Last night Lord Remon asked me to marry him, and I declined the honor. For this place is too like Bessington--and, I think, the past month has changed everything----"
"I thought you had forgotten Bessington," he said, "long, long ago."
"I did not ever quite forget--Oh, the garish years," she wailed, "since then! And how I hated you, William--and yet liked you, too,--because you were never the boy that I remembered, and people would not let you be! And how I hated them--the huzzies! For I had to see you almost every day, and it was never you I saw--Ah, William, come back for just a little, little while, and be an honest boy for just the moment that we are dying, and not an elegant fine gentleman!"
"Nay, my dear," the dramatist composedly answered, "an hour of naked candor is at hand. Life is a masquerade where Death, it would appear, is master of the ceremonies. Now he sounds his whistle; and we who went about the world so long as harlequins must unmask, and for all time put aside our abhorrence of the disheveled. For in sober verity, this is Death who comes, Olivia,--though I had thought that at his advent one would be afraid."
Yet apprehension of this gross and unavoidable adventure, so soon to be endured, thrilled him, and none too lightly. It seemed unfair that death should draw near thus sensibly, with never a twinge or ache to herald its arrival. Why, there were fifty years of life in this fine, nimble body but for any contretemps like that of the deplorable present! Thus his meditations stumbled.
"Oh, William," Lady Drogheda bewailed, "it is all so big--the incurious west, and the sea, and these rocks that were old in Noah's youth,--and we are so little----!"
"Yes," he returned, and took her hand, because their feet were wetted now; "the trap and its small prey are not commensurate. The stage is set for a Homeric death-scene, and we two profane an over-ambitious background. For who are we that Heaven should have rived the world before time was, to trap us, and should make of the old sea a fowling-net?" Their eyes encountered, and he said, with a strange gush of manliness: "Yet Heaven is kind. I am bound even in honor now to marry Mistress Araminta; and you would marry Remon in the end, Olivia,--ah, yes! for we are merely moths, my dear, and luxury is a disastrously brilliant lamp. But here are only you and I and the master of all ceremony. And yet--I would we were a little worthier, Olivia!"
"You have written four merry comedies and you were the first gentleman in England to wear a neckcloth of Flanders lace," she answered, and her smile was sadder than weeping.
"And you were the first person of quality to eat cheese-cakes in Spring Garden. There you have our epitaphs, if we in truth have earned an epitaph who have not ever lived."
"No, we have only laughed--Laugh now, for the last time, and hearten me, my handsome William! And yet could I but come to God," the woman said, with a new voice, "and make it clear to Him just how it all fell out, and beg for one more chance! How heartily I would pray then!"
"And I would cry Amen to all that prayer must of necessity contain," he answered. "Oh!" said Wycherley, "just for applause and bodily comfort and the envy of innumerable other fools we two have bartered a great heritage! I think our corner of the world will lament us for as much as a week; but I fear lest Heaven may not condescend to set apart the needful time wherein to frame a suitable chastisement for such poor imbeciles. Olivia, I have loved you all my life, and I have been faithful neither to you nor to myself! I love you so that I am not afraid even now, since you are here, and so entirely that I have forgotten how to plead my cause convincingly. And I have had practice, let me tell you. . . . !" Then he shook his head and smiled. "But candor is not ŕ la mode. See, now, to what outmoded and bucolic frenzies nature brings even us at last."
She answered only, as she motioned seaward, "Look!"
And what Mr. Wycherley saw was a substantial boat rowed by four of Mr. Minifie's attendants; and in the bow of the vessel sat that wounded gentleman himself, regarding Wycherley and Lady Drogheda with some disfavor; and beside the younger man was Mistress Araminta Vining.
It was a perturbed Minifie who broke the silence. "This is very awkward," he said, "because Araminta and I are eloping. We mean to be married this same night at Milanor. And deuce take it, Mr. Wycherley! I can't leave you there to drown, any more than in the circumstances I can ask you to make one of the party."
"Mr. Wycherley," said his companion, with far more asperity, "the vanity and obduracy of a cruel father have forced me to the adoption of this desperate measure. Toward yourself I entertain no ill-feeling, nor indeed any sentiment at all except the most profound contempt. My aunt will, of course, accompany us; for yourself, you will do as you please; but in any event I solemnly protest that I spurn your odious pretensions, release myself hereby from an enforced and hideous obligation, and in a phrase would not marry you in order to be Queen of England."
"Miss Vining, I had hitherto admired you," the beau replied, with fervor, "but now esteem is changed to adoration."
Then he turned to his Olivia. "Madam, you will pardon the awkward but unavoidable publicity of my proceeding. I am a ruined man. I owe your brother-in-law some L1500, and, oddly enough, I mean to pay him. I must sell Jephcot and Skene Minor, but while life lasts I shall keep Bessington and all its memories. Meanwhile there is a clergyman waiting at Milanor. So marry me to-night, Olivia; and we will go back to Bessington to-morrow."
"To Bessington----!" she said. It was as though she spoke of something very sacred. Then very musically Lady Drogheda laughed, and to the eye she was all flippancy. "La, William, I can't bury myself in the country until the end of time," she said, "and make interminable custards," she added, "and superintend the poultry," she said, "and for recreation play short whist with the vicar."
And it seemed to Mr. Wycherley that he had gone divinely mad. "Don't lie to me, Olivia. You are thinking there are yet a host of heiresses who would be glad to be a famous beau's wife at however dear a cost. But don't lie to me. Don't even try to seem the airy and bedizened woman I have known so long. All that is over now. Death tapped us on the shoulder, and, if only for a moment, the masks were dropped. And life is changed now, oh, everything is changed! Then, come, my dear! let us be wise and very honest. Let us concede it is still possible for me to find another heiress, and for you to marry Remon; let us grant it the only outcome of our common-sense! and for all that, laugh, and fling away the pottage, and be more wise than reason."
She irresolutely said: "I cannot. Matters are altered now. It would be madness----"
"It would undoubtedly be madness," Mr. Wycherley assented. "But then I am so tired of being rational! Oh, Olivia," this former arbiter of taste absurdly babbled, "if I lose you now it is forever! and there is no health in me save when I am with you. Then alone I wish to do praiseworthy things, to be all which the boy we know of should have grown to. . . . See how profoundly shameless I am become when, with such an audience, I take refuge in the pitiful base argument of my own weakness! But, my dear, I want you so that nothing else in the world means anything to me. I want you! and all my life I have wanted you."
"Boy, boy----!" she answered, and her fine hands had come to Wycherley, as white birds flutter homeward. But even then she had to deliberate the matter--since the habits of many years are not put aside like outworn gloves,--and for innumerable centuries, it seemed to him, her foot tapped on that wetted ledge.
Presently her lashes lifted. "I suppose it would be lacking in reverence to keep a clergyman waiting longer than was absolutely necessary?" she hazarded.