'A play of George Etherege's, or a jingle of Sir John Suckling's is lighter, though mayhap less wholesome food for the mind. A man in London may keep pace with the world of letters without much reading, for what with the gossip of the coffee-houses and the news-letters that fall in his way, and the babble of poets or wits at the assemblies, with mayhap an evening or two in the week at the playhouse, with Vanbrugh or Farquhar, one can never part company for long with the muses. Then, after the play, if a man is in no humour for a turn of luck at the green table at the Groom Porter's, he may stroll down to the Coca Tree if he be a Tory, or to St. James's if he be a Whig, and it is ten to one if the talk turn not upon the turning of alcaics, or the contest between blank verse or rhyme. Then one may, after an arriere supper, drop into Will's or Slaughter's and find Old John, with Tickell and Congreve and the rest of them, hard at work on the dramatic unities, or poetical justice, or some such matter. I confess that my own tastes lay little in that line, for about that hour I was likely to be worse employed with wine-flask, dice-box, or--'
'Hem! hem!' cried I warningly, for several of the Puritans were listening with faces which expressed anything but approval.
'What you say of London is of much interest to me,' said the Puritan maiden, 'though these names and places have little meaning to my ignorant ears. You did speak, however, of the playhouse. Surely no worthy man goes near those sinks of iniquity, the baited traps of the Evil One? Has not the good and sanctified Master Bull declared from the pulpit that they are the gathering-place of the froward, the chosen haunts of the perverse Assyrians, as dangerous to the soul as any of those Papal steeple-houses wherein the creature is sacrilegiously confounded with the Creator?'
'Well and truly spoken, Mistress Timewell,' cried the lean young Puritan upon the right, who had been an attentive listener to the whole conversation. 'There is more evil in such houses than even in the cities of the plain. I doubt not that the wrath of the Lord will descend upon them, and destroy them, and wreck them utterly, together with the dissolute men and abandoned women who frequent them.'
'Your strong opinions, friend,' said Sir Gervas quietly, 'are borne out doubtless by your full knowledge of the subject. How often, prythee, have you been in these playhouses which you are so ready to decry?'
'I thank the Lord that I have never been so far tempted from the straight path as to set foot within one,' the Puritan answered, 'nor have I ever been in that great sewer which is called London. I trust, however, that I with others of the faithful may find our way thither with our tucks at our sides ere this business is finished, when we shall not be content, I'll warrant, with shutting these homes of vice, as Cromwell did, but we shall not leave one stone upon another, and shall sow the spot with salt, that it may be a hissing and a byword amongst the people.'
'You are right, John Derrick,' said the Mayor, who had overheard the latter part of his remarks. 'Yet methinks that a lower tone and a more backward manner would become you better when you are speaking with your master's guests. Touching these same playhouses, Colonel, when we have carried the upper hand this time, we shall not allow the old tares to check the new wheat. We know what fruit these places have borne in the days of Charles, the Gwynnes, the Palmers, and the whole base crew of foul lecherous parasites. Have you ever been in London, Captain Clarke?'
'Nay, sir; I am country born and bred.'
'The better man you,' said our host. 'I have been there twice. The first time was in the days of the Rump, when Lambert brought in his division to overawe the Commons. I was then quartered at the sign of the Four Crosses in Southwark, then kept by a worthy man, one John Dolman, with whom I had much edifying speech concerning predestination. All was quiet and sober then, I promise you, and you might have walked from Westminster to the Tower in the dead of the night without hearing aught save the murmur of prayer and the chanting of hymns.