My Godmother’s Legacy;
or, The Art of Consoling
Section II — People in the Country
Modern mathematicians, who gravely tell us their science is the sole and indispensable basis of all others, would be ill pleased if told that my Art of Consoling stands on principles as universal and necessary as theirs. It has, as those learned gentlemen say, both its Theory and its Techny; and the four ages of human life may be tolerably well compared to the four great schools or stages of mathematic science. In childhood we learn matters only in the “Abstract;”—in youth, “distinct and general facts;”—in middle life, “the products;”—and in advanced age, “the continual fractions.”—And though professors of the Consoling Art cannot shew amongst them such great names as Cardan, Bombelli, Leibnitz, and Legrange, it is probable, that even these wise men and their predecessors, Thales and Pythagoras, owed their perseverance in study to the excellent Art of Consoling, as practised by some members of their families.
The characters on which this arte is practicable may be divided, like the matter recognized by mathematicians, into the fluid and the solid; and distinguished, as they say, by the same difference:—that is, the particles of the solid have the power of resisting, and those of the fluid are governed by the moving forces round them. Thus the two great divisions of the spiritual and material world are characterised in the same manner.
My first experiment, as I have shewn, was on the fluid character of a very gentle young woman; the next happened to be on the solid one of a substantial-headed country-gentleman, who found my moving force quite sufficient. People in the country are the finest subjects of our science; for as the spirits are apt to mount and flutter about there, it is very easy and kind to rub the gold dust and gay-coloured down off their butterfly-wings, lest they should be too much envied.—If one has a farm, it is comforting to hear that nobody wonders at its ill success; if one has none, people console us by saying we have nothing to do. If we open our doors to entertain all the neighbourhood, they console us for our trouble by laughing at it; if we see few or nobody, some goodnatured friend must give us comfort by hinting we don’t know the worst. My way of consolation when I left a friendly set of country neighbours, was to send a civil farewell-billet to every house, taking care that each person, when he or she opened it, should find it addressed to the next door. Thus the Lady Glowrowrum of the village received a note of thanks: written to Lady Bluemantle, with compliments for her witty anecdotes of her dear Lady G—, and Lady Bluemantle, vice-versa, read one meant for Lady Glowrowrum. My brother, fearing to offend any of his neighbours, invited every one to a splendid ball, not omitting his pastry-cook, his chandler, or his gardener. Every body looked magnificent, some very vastly astonished, others immeasurably dignified; but all were so well consoled by a most gorgeous supper, that they came three times again in one season to be shocked and comforted at his expense.
Every body has heard of the quicksands and squalls which render the passage dangerous from the Isle of Man to Cork, but every body does not remember the Manxmen’s notion, that a vessel is sure of shipwreck if she sails after a dumb man has crossed her deck, and marked her mast with chalk. My brother, Sir Phelim Quackenboss, had affairs at his estate near Liscarrol, and by way of consoling him for the trouble they threatened to give him, I chose to be his companion. But a dumb woman suddenly came on board our vessel, and made attempts to write upon the mast. My screams, and the superstition of the sailors, caused her to be forcibly dragged from the deck, and almost hurled into the boat which had brought her. The captain would have given his unwelcome visitor alms, and protested she was a harmless beggar whose motive for intrusion he could not guess. However, his brig stranded near the cove of Cork, and the crew consoled themselves with reminding each other that the dumb sybil might have prevented it. I mention this last particular as a proof how naturally my Art of Consolation is adapted to all classes.
We were received on the Irish coast as if the natives had learned the Zetland notion of ill-luck attending those who save the drowning. My brother lost his life, or rather it was taken from him by the delay of those who might have saved it. A poor serjeant of marines crawled into the hut of a purple-faced Irish dweller on the coast, and asked his help to seek for his wife among the wrecked. “Ye’z find her here, and comfort beside,” answered Looney; and shewed his guest the lifeless remains of a drowned woman, whose apron, folded close round her neck, contained a leathern purse full of dollars, and a living boy. The purse belonged to the widowed husband, the boy to my lost brother, and both afforded consolation to the survivors.
My younger brother, Glumfret, succeeded to the guardianship of the little baronet, and to a suitable mansion, which I shall entitle Bow-wow Hall. He was a bachelor; frank, bountiful, and benevolent, like a genuine Milesian, and very solicitous to console his orphan nephew, to whom, as I have said in a former section, he bequeathed an ample legacy in a codicil which cost some trouble to find, and more to prove it. The young baronet chose to settle in the country, and I paid a visit in the neighbourhood to offer him my advice as his eldest and nearest relative. Sir Tristram Craginmoss, for our ancient family-appellation, “Quackenboss,” required thus refining, made his entrée into a mansion situated, as poets would say, like a thing built in a dream amongst whatever is beautiful in nature;—that is, on the edge of a hill sloping on one side to a fine trout-stream, on the other broken into a rude staircase, carpeted and festooned with wild shrubs:—and this hill itself sheltered by a more giant family of highlands, all purple with heather or grey in the distance. The house had a cellar stored with claret fit for a viceroy, servants never known to miss a battle or a bottle for their master’s honour, and lodging-rooms enough to entertain the county—with the study of astrology, for every part of the roof was an inlet to starlight.—His tenants lived in mud-hovels ingeniously built in ditches to save one side-wall, and roofed with the branches of his trees, covered with a thin paring from his meadow-ground, and again with rushes or the stalks of beans and potatoes. Here, in the form of a divan, crouched low upon the earth under a canopy of smoke, he found his leaseholders, and sometimes their calves and pigs, in a state so squalid yet so gleeful, so idle yet so content, that Sir Tristram doubted how he should be able to interrupt such merry misery. However, he made an essay. Forty houses were built of stone found in the picturesque chasm behind Bow-wow Hall, and roofed with the short, thick, matted heath which covers the moving bog whence our original name of Quackenboss is derived. These tenements he promised rent-free for a year to the first forty unmarried men who laboured forty weeks in draining the aforesaid bog without being more than twice intoxicated, or once in a fray. And he gave an acre of good potatoe ground on a long lease and an easy rent to the first dozen of these forty who chose wives, provided they drew their damsels every Sunday during the term of courtship in a broad-wheeled waggon from their church or chapel to his hall-door, where he gave with his own hand a deep cup of ale to be shared between the lovers. Thus, as he merrily told the future brides, he accustomed them to hold the reins, and go long and rough journies patiently together; at the same time smoothing his own road from the good old hall to the church. These were his public amusements: but in private, like the Caliph Haroun Alraschid, or the modern hero of Shenstone-Green, he spent many joyous days in traversing his neighbourhood clothed like an ordinary post-boy or a begging musician, taking his share of the mirth at wakes and weddings, sure to leave a silver offering on the dead man’s breast or in the bride’s glass, but especially wherever he saw a clean hearth and a mended platter. And when which sometimes happened, he found an idle husband and a tattered wife, he gave a birch-broom to one and a whistle to the other.
All this made Sir Tristram the delight of Quackenboss-town, and the happiest man in it. Therefore he required my consolation, which, when I can, I always address to the prosperous. Almost every book and every body teaches us how to console sorrow, but it needs some skill to make happy people accept comfort.
“Aunt Tormenton,” said Sir Tristram, leaping into the middle of my conservatory one day, “I have a proposal to make to your ladyship. “My ceilings have been new-plaistered, and I have taught my groom of the chambers to sweep the stairs with a handbrush instead of the odd flap of his coat. I shall order my butler to see my table well spread for half a dozen every day, and a dozen of good claret ready under the sideboard. And Looney shall carry circular letters to all my gentlemen-neighbours, notifying that they will find my table and my claret ready daily at my hour. All I ask of you is to sit at the head of it, and not to leave us.”
“I am glad you are going to keep a menagerie at home, instead of showing yourself abroad. People say, you visit your tenants incog. only to drink the ale you send them: but you may comfort yourself, for that is not so bad as some of your particular friends’ hints, that when you sent the bell-ringers a guinea on your birth-day, you went in disguise, and rung yourself, to have a share of it.—But which must I govern, Sir Tristram,—the table or the claret?”
“Both, my good aunt, and then neither will be abused.—There is no brute without instinct, and in a venerable lady’s presence, decency is instinctive. Lady Di. Sterlingwit married a toper, and a foxhunter by profession, yet she mellowed him into sense and his companions into manners by keeping a cheerful table always spread, and herself always in her place at it. Now Lady Diana was a fine woman of forty, with wit enough to laugh at a right jest, and grace enough to rebuke a wrong one. So she kept her husband sober by making his guests drink less, and his guests drank less because they were ashamed to be worse than cattle in her presence.—But she neither found fault with their dusty hunting-jackets, nor their hounds asleep on her hearth-rug: and you, who are a still finer woman of fifty, will find no fault with the toasts you give yourself, or the bumpers we drink to your health.”
“Certainly not, my dear Sir Tristram, if you promise they shall be the last. But pray be comforted when you find all the good wives in the county your enemies. In the first place, you will prevent half a dozen honest gentlemen from breaking their necks; and in the next, you will make two or three dozen discontented if they cannot bring their shot-bags and their hounds into the best parlour without hearing murmurs. There will be neither order nor peace, neither clean carpets nor unbroken chairs, in any house within twenty miles, unless every gentlemen has a Lady Di. and a set of oak-settles. There will be a commission of lunacy proposed for you;—but, by way of comfort, it is thought of already.—”
“Thought of, Lady Tormenton!—I have had the thanks of ten husbands for abolishing dinners on plate after fifteen days’ notice and a week spent in unpapering china and dusting damask curtains—”
“Which is half the purpose of their ladies’ lives, and perhaps all their consolation!—Well, Sir Tristram, never mind their ungrateful treachery. It is some comfort that your neighbours have only drank three hogsheads of your best wine while they were slandering you; and I hardly know whether it is slander to say a miser’s money ought to be a spend-thrift’s inheritance.”
“A miser’s, madam! my uncle wore a patchwork gown when it suited a fit of the gout better than nankeen; but he fed two bankrupt-brothers, cleared their estates of debts, and paid annuitants who would never had had a suit of clothes without his help, though they gave him one which lasted all his life, a suit in chancery. But he is the strongest man who can bear the most injuries.”
“Very true, Sir Tristram; it is for that you must console yourself. People say you empty your cellars so fast because you know your uncle hid all his bank-notes in a bottle, and you have uncorked a thousand at least without finding them. Some say, your uncle stayed in the East Indies till he turned Hindoo, and believed a man who meddled with waterpans would be a stone two or three hundred years. Therefore you take great care of the old stones of this house, and never touch water.”
“If you ever loved water,” said my nephew, very angrily, “your punishment is pretty far advanced, for you have been fifty years a stone! I only hope my uncle will not be born again a country-gentleman with a consoling friend.”
And he went forth to look at his cottages, and returned in no placid humour, having seen his foster-brother Looney, whom he had found diving among the ducks in a slush-pool and lodged in a comfortable tenement, now amusing himself with making another pool in the middle of the floor, because, as he said, “he could not be aisy without the ould place.” I consoled Sir Tristram, by shewing him the pastime in a large barn which he had fitted up as a sort of public kitchen for all who laboured on his land and had no hearths of their own. Therein was a dame, black and fireburnt as a Croatian Gospodina, cowered in a bed of soft mud, and employed in plucking an old hen whose roost had been over the chimney above the bread-fleak, where might be seen some as hard and dirty as an Illyrian Bride-cake made to throw over the house without breaking. Two or three and twenty comely lasses and their swains were dancing to the sound of a jew’s harp without shoes, but with caps which seemed to have served as slippers; while the blankets given by Sir Tristram for winter-comforts were hung on the men’s shoulders, and their arms thrust through holes in them, according to Sir John Falstaff’s notion of a herald’s coat without sleeves. Then I comforted my nephew for the incurable taste of his vassals, by reminding him that his Irish Ghronipata was no worse than a virtuous Indian housewife who sprinkles her floor with manure, and cleans her rice-boiler with straw, ashes, and water. The next week he celebrated his birth-day by giving a copper-boiler to the damsel who brought the fattest fowl, and a new coat to him who wrestled best, hoping to teach the wives the means of good cookery, and their husbands a more creditable way of shewing their strength than in brawls. But the winner, not liking the incumbrance of sleeves, skewered the flaps of his new coat round his neck, while a rogue composedly walked away with the copper prize on his head; and when the lady asked if he had seen hers, replied, “You should have put it on safe as I’ve done.”—I comforted my nephew for the failure of his bounty to the poor knaves, by showing him that the rich were as ill-pleased with it as they. He had the consolation of knowing, that one of the brightest belles among the spectators had said, “’Twas pity Sir Tristram had not made his exhibition exactly like the old Coteswold games, by dressing the fool of the company in a motley coat.”—And as a consoling proof that this lady was not particular in her opinion, I shewed him the pattern of a party-coloured silk which all the ladies of Quackenboss intended to wear by the name of the Tristram Motley. But Sir Tristram had one of those solid heads which resist all the delicate points of neighbourly kindness, and he chose his own way of consoling himself. He borrowed one of my band-boxes, and folding up his uncle’s celebrated patchwork garment in a ream of silver paper, sent it to every kind friend who had feasted at his house and slandered its present and former owner, with permission to take the pattern, as it had been so much admired. He also sent a Memoir of his own life, to spare, he said, the trouble of enquiries.—For his unlucky attempts to mend his tenants, he took no farther comfort than bribing the apothecary of Quackenboss to cure his rheumatic patients by a vapour bath in the American mode. For which purpose he fitted up a kind of cellar with bricks, and half a dozen of the most refractory tenants were so nearly smothered and reduced to jelly among the fumes of plantain-leaves and hot vinegar, that they never fought a battle or consulted an apothecary again.—To complete his comfort, I said, “My dear nephew, when country-people laugh at the plagues of London, it is like a sieve blaming a needle for having a hole in it. You had better resemble Whitfield, who could not find an hour to suit his town friends, because they were shopping, or dressing, or in the Park, or dining with two dozen, or going to a rout; than be among people who have nothing to do but to call on you in the morning, dine, drink, fish, shoot, or play billiards with you, except to question your servants, borrow your money, criticise your conduct, and laugh at the whole of it. Your London friends are pleasant puppets if you touch the right wires, but country-people cover you with dust, like Egyptian mummies, if you come too near them.”