My Godmother’s Legacy;
or, The Art of Consoling
Section III — Poor Old Friends
We should have good practical treatises on the art of consoling these unfortunate creatures, if all Parvenues, or prosperous adventurers, were required to leave their real histories written on vellum, to be preserved, not like the biographical papyrus of an Egyptian mummy, under their burial-garments, but in some public register, as open to inspection as their wills or mortgages. I was asked once by a groupe of fashionable girls to chaperone them on a morning visit to one of the acquaintances they chose to recognize during a month’s stay in town. We sallied forth in a splendid barouche, and stopped opposite a house whose appearance promised, what was afterwards realized,—a mixture of real penury and modern pretensions; for a balcony filled with “geraniums loth to live,” and a festoon of yellow muslin fluttering behind them, were contrasted by sundry broken panes in the kitchen window, and shreds of vegetables in the area. My youngest companion’s shrill voice proclaiming the number of the house to her barouche-driver, probably reached the occupier of this kitchen, for the same pale face and soiled hand which we had observed near the cracked window, shewed themselves half hidden behind the half opened door, several minutes after a clamorous knock had announced us. Our driver, for the borrowed barouche had no footman, waited not to be told whether Mrs. Middleplace was at home, instinctive goodnature or politeness of heart instructing honest Jehu to spare her the pain of answering a needless question. While the lady tripped a few steps backward to receive her guests less awkwardly and in a more elevated station on the stairs, our party alighted, and having passed through a hurried confusion of civilities,—civilities, I mean, attempted by the mistress of the mansion, for her visitors were too highbred to excuse an intrusion purposely earlier than modern etiquette permits, we took possession of her drawing-room sofa, and enjoyed the opportunity of making remarks. I, specially for this purpose, placed myself opposite the groupe of visitors, whose brilliant morning-apparel lost its designed effect, because the visitee was entirely occupied in considering the disadvantages of her own. She had hastily thrown a rich Spanish shawl over her brown stuff negligée, and a knot of brown ribbands stuck among curls only half unpapillotted, gave her head a great deal of crazed Ophelia’s style. Her eyes had in them a comical mixture of conscious humiliation, and resolute defiance of her visitors’ superior looks. These looks were directed successively and rapidly over the drugget which did not cover a carpet, the cut-paper screens hung over sundry frames no longer gilt, and an inkstand whose age and infirmities were ill hidden by tufts of worsted flowers. There were some very well executed drawings in these frames; the ink-stand was of ancient plate, and the sofa and chairs wore coverings of faded damask repaired with extraordinary care and pains. These tokens of real industry and past opulence claimed tenderness, and our party hastened to shew their talents for consoling.
“Such a delightful drive to see you!” said one of the five dear friends—“our coachman,—he was yours once, you know,—drives over a rough road to a charm;—not but there is an ugly pitfall at that corner, and a strange mountain of bean-stalks and cabbage-leaves before your door. However, it must be so consoling to live near the park where you used to take such pleasant airings!”
“And you’ll find time to work lace, and draw still!” added another;—“such profitable resources must be great consolations.—We have been terribly oppressed with engagements, but we could not resolve to come, my dear Middleplace, without some little token of our industry, lest you should think rich people always idle.”
“Oh! that is one of the particular comforts of a little change of fortune,—it makes one so contriving and so diligent. I dare say, my love, you did not know one half your abilities till you had occasion for them.”
“But you have no idea how we have laboured to finish our little memorial for you!—And I have done my best to make it as like your dear infant who died last year as possible. It is so comforting to look at a resemblance.”
“Pray don’t forget to tell our friend how I have traversed Pall-mall to find lace of her favourite pattern. It was quite a consolation to find a remnant of the very Mechlin you gave me, my dear, and almost a miracle, for I had thrown it among my cast-caps.”
“Yes, love;—and the petticoat is of the newest style, flounced exactly like my own. Joanna, my maid, spent two hours contriving the bonnet, for I wished you to see a model of the last produced in Albemarle-street. We have omitted nothing,—slippers, gloves, fan, and frock:—We shall be so consoled by thinking, though you are in this desolate place, you will not want any thing.”
The beloved friend listened and blushed and bowed, not doubting that this preamble would usher in substantial consolation, or at least as much as a complete suit of fashionable equipment affords. All her five kind visitors assisted to open an enormous band-box, from which, as a suitable gift for their half famished friend, and a consoling pledge of the gratitude they felt for her former bounties to them, they drew forth a large wax doll, dressed in the extreme of miniature elegance, and in the most expensive materials.”
“What a resemblance of yourself!” said the poor receiver, looking keenly at the brilliant automaton who presented it, “how touching a symbol of your friendship!—I am afraid my child is not yet old enough to learn all it may teach her mother.”
“Really,” I added, “it is a pretty little piece of consolation, for you cannot have many opportunities to see such things in their costume at Almack’s or the Opera, and I have met no people of pretension in this neighbourhood.”
“They are paying morning visits just now,” she replied, with more bitterness than was wise, and an untimely look of triumph in the repartee. Her consolers, having had time enough to gaze at the decayed slippers which some unlucky turns of her drapery discovered, began to wonder whether their barouche had returned, as their servant had been ordered to drive out of sight ten minutes, lest such a new thing at her door might disturb their dear friend. The dear friend, not quite so well amused with looking at bonnets gorgeous with rose-coloured sattin, and girdles weighed down by gemmed buckles and seven-fold watch-chains, made some applications to her bell-rope, supposing, from sundry movements in her little tenement, that her solitary servant had returned. We made our exit, protesting that the fatigue of having numerous domestics rendered us quite envious of her comfort in having only one.
While the five belles laughed heartily at their ci-devant acquaintance’s “awkward sensations,” I reflected how scientifically they had consoled her for her retirement from the circle of her brilliant friends, and for the loss of all polite society. I too had the just consolation of knowing that she deserved her morning-lesson; for if she had shewn herself cheerfully and with unblushing frankness in the garb suited to her houshold industry, she would neither have provoked the ridicule of little minds, nor needed still more dangerous ridicule to repel it.—And those apt minds were consoled when they saw a nobler one exposed by one lingering Pretension to all the misery of shame and the meanness of malice on an occasion so contemptible.
We drove next to an old-fashioned house, which had once been a superb one; but its present occupiers, three maiden sisters of advanced age, chose to reside in it still in its decaying state, rather than abandon their ancient family-home to strangers. These ladies retain little more than five hundred pounds yearly, and instead of clinging to the pomp of modern life, courageously retire to its comforts. They keep the rich, firm, useful furniture of their old mansion, and two servants, the aged housekeeper and coachman once their father’s. They give no dinner-parties at the expense of a week’s famine and fatigue; no Conversaziones purchased by solitude for the rest of the year. The visitor brought by chance or invitation at their dinner-hour, is received with quiet hospitality at a table always exactly neat and simply abundant. Their tea-table affords more true society than all the “At Homes” of their splendid neighbours, with whom they attempt no competition, and desire no intercourse. Without parade, with very small expense, and chiefly by a careful disposal of their time, these sisters are the benefactresses of a poorer circle; and by uncensuring and retiring tempers, remain the friends of the richer. Their mansion and their dress have an indisputable air of nobility, because all is consistent and without pretension. The faded damask curtains and heavy cabriole chairs are not mocked by Arabesque cornices and Greek scrolls; nor the stiff tabbinet and thick point lace cut into frocks and flounces. It is like one of Wilkie’s pictures. There is the same harmony in the figures, in the tints of the draperies and the walls, and even in the domestic animals on the hearth. When I entered their parlour in the morning, I found, as I always might, one sister employed in the old-fashioned labours of the spinning-wheel, and knew the others were busy, one in her useful herb-garden, the other in their household.—There was no flutter, nor bitterness of spirit, at our intrusion,—no after-regrets for the witty things that might have been said to mortify us.—Alas! my Art of Consoling was useless there.
However, this branch of my theory is so well known, and generally practised among poor old friends, that farther examples of it are needless. I have shewn where it may, and where it may not, be applied; but as there are yet a few, a very few, who adhere to an antiquated system of consoling, I will shew the toils and difficulties attending it, to prove, by contrast, the easy benefits of mine.
Captain Charles Maurice, once an opulent adventurer in the West India trade, found reasons to visit Demerara when his age was far advanced. His family consisted of an infirm wife and two infant grandchildren, attended by a young person whose father had left her to his guardianship. She had not altogether requited it well, for she had married a merchant’s clerk whose prospects he did not approve; and his judgment was confirmed by the young man’s arrest under very suspicious circumstances. They were deemed sufficient to justify a sentence of transportation, and Susanna, almost a Widow but fortunately childless, was received again under the roof of her guardian, who congratulated himself that he had never seen her husband, and consoled her very often by hoping she would never see him again.
Maurice failed in fortune, though his honest heart never erred, and he saw himself compelled to set forth alone, at sixty-seven, on a perilous voyage to the western world. He embarked in a vessel whose commander was but little known to him, and her destination proved to be still less. She touched on the Gold Coast, stored herself with Africans for sale, and resumed her course to the West-Indies. Providence followed this baleful vessel on her voyage. Want of water and the intense heat suffered by the prisoners, produced a contagious malady in the eyes. It found its way among the crew, seized the commander himself and his passenger Maurice. An aged man oppressed with many sorrows was not likely to be the least sufferer under this frightful epidemic, which brought delirium with it. When he sickened, one half of the crew were raving, and the rest blind. At last, only one retained his sight, and lost it before the ship had crossed the Atlantic. Famine came in addition to their miseries, they had hardly strength remaining enough to shew signals of distress, and knew not whether they were in sight of help. Maurice sank into stupor before the last agonies of despair came on his companions, and the fifth day of his sufferings was the last of his recollection. When it returned, his thoughts at first were dim and blind, but presently his touch convinced him that he lay in an European bed, and he heard a sweet familiar voice. “Who are you,” he said, “that bring me this cup, and have held my head so often.”—“I am Susanna, sir, and you are at home.”
Nobody knows the world of comfort in that little word till they have sufſered misery in absence. Maurice disdained to weep for joy, but he could ask no more questions. He dared not, for his only son was in his grave, and his grandchildren might have followed him. His wife was not at his bed-side, therefore she must have died, perhaps of grief and fear, after his departure. The aged do not grieve aloud for the aged, and Maurice lay silent till the joyful clamour of two children mimicking the hooting and answering of owls called him to happier thoughts. This had often been the sport of his grandchildren, and he held out his hands, sobbing their names,—“Which is Charles—which is Rachel?”—Susanna’s voice whispered in his ear that they had grown but little, and he felt in the round soft cheeks and silky hair of the urchins, as they rolled over his bed, the beauty he could see no longer. Maurice was an honest man, but neither a silent nor a patient one. He deplored his folly in hazarding a voyage to encrease the little which might have been enough if women could ever be satisfied. Susanna comforted him by hinting that he had returned to enjoy it, when nearly all the rest of his fellow-voyagers had perished before an English vessel met them.
“Perished yes, and no harm either, if they had nobody to care for them. So my wife is alive, and you think it a comfort to tell me I am come back? Pray where am I, and where is she?”
“In Wales, sir,—in South Wales;—and the air blows sweetly on the little nook where our garden is, and that murmur, do you not hear it now?—it is the tide’s on the sand below.—We thought Rachel tender, —and—and we knew you loved to walk on the sea-side, and I brought the children here to meet you—” —“But their grandmother?—you say nothing of her.”—“She is feeble, sir, and paralytic,—she is with most kind friends, and she hoped,—and I believed you would be consoled for her absence by Charles and Rachel.”
His wife a helpless dependant and himself blind were two touching objects; and the proud English merchant’s heart bled. Susanna comforted him by the kindness of silent tears, and in due time by asking him to tell his “hairbreadth ’scapes.” The children sat on his knees, and their hushed breathings shewed their attention. The grandfather was the hero of a wondrous tale till midnight, and then went to rest comforted.
Day after day passed, till the joy of a man rescued from famine and shipwreck sunk into querulous ennui. He grew peevish at Susanna’s long absences, and at his grandchildren’s, especially when he heard the murmur of many voices below. But when he found these were the voices of Susanna’s pupils, and that she kept a school for their maintenance, he was first angry, and then ashamed to find himself and his son’s children her pensioners. Presently, his pride and his active spirit found a remedy. “Susanna,” he said, “I am blind, it is true, but I can cypher and write as well as if I had eyes; besides, I know better than any woman can how to manage those knave-children. I hear shouting among your tiny misses:—Let them come to me, and I will teach them with my own boy.”—Susanna’s voice betrayed that she wept, “Ah, sir!—they are not rich men’s sons!”—but after a little pause she added,—“they will be so grateful and so proud!—And in three weeks Maurice was established on the throne of a schoolmaster, and quite consoled by ample exercise for his lungs and rod. Then on holidays he was the leader of their gambols, and they the briskest labourers in his garden. Such a garden, indeed, might well make his heart proud, and console it for the loss of his London villa; for the hedges were thick with roses, and the geraniums crept into the window of his bedroom. It seemed as if the carnations, and all “the sweet silent creatures” men love in their leisure, grew at his bidding, for the plat before the little school-house sent up a steam of perfumes when the morning or evening dew fell. Maurice had but one grief, which arose from the frequent visits of a person whose manners seemed likely to make Susanna forget her still living husband, or wish for his death. At first this young man had consoled him greatly by listening to his eventful history, reading news to him, and assisting in the pleasant toils of his garden. But after two or three months had passed, and he had observed the seventh day always brought this guest for many hours, the old man began to renew his complaints of women’s fickleness, and to warn Susanna against the heinous sin of forsaking even a worthless husband. “Not,” he would say, “that I should blame this clever boy, who understands our trade-laws and the balance of exports and imports so well, for coveting a manager so useful and profitable, if the rogue whose name I hate was dead. By and bye, perhaps, we shall have the comfort of hearing it; and by that time, child, my own boy and girl may be able to work for me, ay, and reward you too.—Wait, Susanna, though it be a hard matter, and be consoled by your duty.” Susanna always promised to obey, and assured him she had enough to love.
A year, or as it seemed to Maurice only one long summer, passed before his sight began to return, perhaps because the bland air of this coast had restored his frame almost to the vigour of middle age. His watchful nurse, when she perceived one eye beginning to brighten, earnestly entreated him to make few and cautious trials of it, especially in his noon-walks. But sight appeared to him a sense he had never fully enjoyed before; and at last he snatched away the curtain Susanna’s care had spread over his window, and looked out. What a banquet!—Either his gladness brightened every thing, or the mountains, the trees, the sky, were unlike what he had ever seen in England. He crept down into the garden,—he was not deceived—the hedge was composed entirely of geraniums taller than himself, loaded with their silver and scarlet blossoms; and peaches in full ripeness and bloom clustered under the walls. Birds, whose brilliant plumage was new to him, hung in cages among the wicker treillis of the porch, and the children were at play with a young buffalo. Susanna was near them, leaning fondly and familiarly on the arm of the guest so much suspected by Maurice, who stood mute with amaze and almost with dismay, till she spoke in the same meek tone which had consoled him so often, “Pray forgive us all!—When I could be of no use in England, I thought I might try to comfort my husband. I came here with the new Governor’s family, and he supposed a good husband could not be so guilty as not to deserve his notice. Philip is happy enough to please him, and these dear children are ours. Pardon us for calling them by the same names as yours.—You have already said you could excuse us for loving each other.”—Maurice could neither answer nor think distinctly; but by degrees he learned by what chance he had been redeemed from the perishing vessel by one bound to Sydney Cove, in New South Wales. When his name and misfortunes were known there, he was eagerly sought by his grateful ward Susanna, who had left England to join a husband more unfortunate than criminal. They carried him to their little tenement, and during the four years which elapsed before Maurice recovered his intellects, the two children were born who assisted Susanna in her happy art of consoling. When her penitent husband’s banishment ended, the good old man returned with them to England, and was laid in the grave which had received his family, indemnified for his sufferings by one grateful friend,—the rarest, but the best consoler.