Published in 'The Theatre' - August 1892, (UK).
The theatre was crowded, and cheers loud and long greeted the descent of the curtain upon a play which had just been performed for the first time, and which had instantly been recognised as a dramatic masterpiece. The story was a powerful one of human suffering and human sin, full of such intense pathos that it brought tears to the eyes even of strong men. In the back row of the stalls were seated two men in the prime of life who were evidently so deeply impressed with the play that it was some minutes before they could rouse themselves sufficiently to join the throng which swelled out into the dark winter's night. They were a strange contrast these two men: one a hasty, generous, improvident, devil-may-care fellow, on whom the anxieties of the world sat lightly, but of a nature which, when once roused, could overcome almost any obstacle; the other a prudent, thoughtful, somewhat sluggish character, but a man with the heart of a lion and the gentleness of a woman.
Opposite in character, indeed, but possessing a deep love for each other, which, through many years of trial, had never failed; an unselfish devotion, the true test of all men's friendship. Such were Harold Cooper and Jack Sinclair. The walk home from the theatre was accomplished in almost perfect silence, but after supper, when the two men had lit their pipes, brewed the toddy, and drawn their chairs to the blazing fire, their tongues were unloosed and the conversation, of course, fell upon their common pet hobby, the stage, and more particularly upon the play they had just witnessed.
"There are far more strange things," said Harold, "happen in real life than upon the stage. The play to-night came particularly home to me; opening a chapter of my life, which I could have wished closed for ever. No man, woman, or child in this world, old man, knows me so thoroughly as you do, not even my wife God bless her! but even you do not know that there is a skeleton in the cupboard of my life, and that at one time my career came very near being wrecked."
"Tell it to me, Harold. Tell me the whole story. Nothing that you have done, or will do, can lessen my regard or shake my faith in the best friend man ever had."
"I am sure of your regard, Jack, but when I have told you my tale I am not so sure of your respect." A firm grip of the hand was Jack Sinclair's only reply, and then the two men settled, themselves down in their chairs, and Harold began his tale.
"It is nearly twenty years now, as you know, since I married the gentlest and best of all women in the world - at all events in my eyes. The first few years of our married life passed like a bright summer day. My work as dramatic critic called me out very late at night. One cold evening in January, shortly after midnight, I was passing with my wife the stage door of old Drury, as a motley crowd of men, women, and children were coming away from their pantomime labours, when I caught sight of a child's face which instantly rivetted my attention. Anything more beautiful I have never seen, and probably never shall see again.
Picture to yourself a little girl about eleven, with long, wavy, golden-brown hair, large deep blue eyes, and the face of a child angel. Picture her standing in her ragged garments at the top of Drury Lane, shivering as the cold east wind came with a rush round the corner - alone in London, alone in the midst of vice, misery, and want. There was such a look of piteous hesitation on the beautiful little face that we involuntarily stood still to see if anything was the matter. The child was standing under the gas lamp with the light full upon her, and while looking I suddenly noticed a large black bruise down one side of her neck. The sight was too much for me, and I approached her with the gentlest words at my command, and asked her whether she was going home. The very mention of the word 'home' brought a flood of tears to the lovely eyes, but, little by little, my wife coaxed her to talk, and then we heard a tale, old as the hills indeed, but one which for misery and pathos can never be surpassed on this wide earth. A drunken father and a vicious mother lived on the earnings of this little fairy from the pantomime, who was the premiere danseuse among the children, and, as we afterwards learned, earned a very good salary; but these wretches sent her out night after night alone, hungry, and half-clothed.
Well, to cut a long story short, we succeeded in practically purchasing the child from her unworthy parents, and put her to a good school in the country. "For six years I never saw her, for, as luck would have it, I was obliged to go to America for some time. On our return the child came to live with us, and now you can perhaps imagine what happened. I will not attempt to describe the physical beauty of this young girl, which had infinitely increased with years. Enough that I shortly became madly infatuated with her, and for the time being forgot I was the husband of a true and loving wife, forgot I was the father of two sweet children. Maggie (for that was the child's name) was still too young and innocent to at first comprehend my affection, and never while I live shall I forget the day when she first understood what my madness meant. For one short day we lived for each other; all restraint was thrown aside; oblivious of the world, dead to honour and every manly instinct, I poured words of love into her ears, and heard her murmur words in return that made my brain grow dizzy and caused me to reel like a drunken man. I tore myself away from her arms and walked out into night, God knows where."
Harold paused, and a dead silence reigned between the two men, only broken by the steady ticking of the clock. "Hate me, despise me, old man," he at last went on, "you cannot despise me more than I despise myself, but at least hear me to the end. "My wife knew everything that was going on, and yet not one word of reproach escaped her lips. Like a guardian angel she waited her opportunity; and it came at last, on the very night I confessed my love. The two women met. What happened I know not, except that on my return I found the object of my madness gone, leaving me the following lines:
'May God forgive you the wrong of this night, and pardon me for injuring the noblest woman on this earth.'
"This letter, instead of opening my eyes to my sin and folly, only served to make my madness greater. I sought her far and wide for months, and at length found out where she was living. Day after day I called, but was refused admittance. I saw her come and go, but always with an elderly lady, who kept me from making the smallest advances. At length one evening a note was brought me asking me to call. I went with the utmost speed to the house and was shown to her room, only to find it empty. Hour after hour passed before she at length came back from the theatre (for she was once more a dancer). How shall I describe the scene which followed. She came in, well tipsy, accompanied by some men, two of whom I knew to be thoroughpaced blackguards. Champagne was brought, and the girl I thought the most innocent on this earth actually threw herself into the arms of the worst man in the whole room, and openly showered kisses upon his face. Coarse jests and ribald laughter flowed from her lips, until I could stand it no longer, but fled from the room, disgusted, ashamed, and cured. The truth never dawned upon me for full fifteen years after that dreadful night.
"One summer evening my wife received a telegram, and hastily putting on her things asked me to accompany her. No word of explanation could I get from her upon the journey, which led us to a quiet little village on the Thames. There, in a cottage overhung with honeysuckle and roses. I saw once more the face which had brought so much sorrow into our lives, but, how changed! Beautiful still nay, ten times more beautiful but the heavy hand of death was there, and five minutes after our arrival that fair spirit passed gently and peacefully away, passed 'To where beyond these voices there is peace.'
"That night my wife told me the truth; how in desperation the girl had nobly atoned for the sin which was all mine; told me how the scene of that dreadful night was a trick and was planned beforehand; how by God's providence it had succeeded, and had sent me 'home.' She was right to tell me then, for I was indeed cured. I loved my wife with all my heart and soul; the other was a summer madness, which, however, might have brought misery and perhaps worse to many. My story is told; like most true stories it is neither new nor amusing, but it at all events points to one grand truth - there is nothing on God's earth so beautiful as a wife's forgiveness and a wife's love."
No word was spoken, but the two friends joined hands with a warm grip which needed no explanation.