The Last Leaf of the Parish-Register
M. Vivant Denon soi-disant Junior, has made himself very merry with the National Institute and his English readers; but among the incidents which enriched his “Hundred Days in England,” he has forgotten to number his visit to the synagogue to see the Wandering Jew, with whom, as he assured an eminent scholar, he spent three hours in Hebrew discourse; though at the very same time he was, or seemed to be, at the new theatre. And when asked to explain this Hindoo property of being in two places at once, he gravely replied, that a familiar demon walked about in his likeness. I shall not injure M. Denon’s credit among his learned brethren, by hinting that the visit he paid to the Central Regions of the Earth, on which he has wasted so much physiological pedantry, was in truth only a visit to the tavern in the Strand commonly called the Coal-hole: nor shall I detail what alarm he caused at a provincial ball by standing under the orchestra with his notebook in his hand, and intimating to the stewards that the minister had accepted from him the prospectus of a plan for ameliorating the poor’s rates by three methods,—First, By sending rich men’s children to charity-schools, and taking the sums usually expended on their education to help the revenue.—Secondly, By sending all vagrants, viz. watering-place strollers, to their own parishes, or to workhouses, for the benefit of the public.—Thirdly, By making a list of every lady and gentleman’s public acquaintance, commonly called rout-visitors, card-droppers, and nodders; and levying a tax on him or her according to their number.—This extraordinary Prospectus circulated among the company like electric fluid; and as nobody chose to pay even five per cent. to government for their best friends, nor to beat hemp or turn a corn-mill instead of toiling in the dust or on the sands or chalk of a fashionable show-place, it was pleasant enough to see how instantly the most smiling Dandizetts became deaf and blind to their acquaintance, and laid aside all the elegant coquetries of the eyeglass and the fan, lest they should be included in M. Denon’s list of professed exhibitors, and sent to the parish-house of Industry. I am not very sure that we should have escaped some personal affront if my companion had not diverted the assembly’s attention by a mysterious hint that the Wandering Jew was present in the disguise of a Frenchman, and at that moment whistling Malbrook. Every ear was opened, and every eye fixed in astonishment, for this marvellous tune seemed to be whistled by each individual in succession; and the steward of the ball, a notorious freethinker and dreadnought in politics and religion, was covered with a cold dew of horror when he heard it issuing from his own throat, and saw his guests shrink from him as if they had expected a patriarch’s beard to cover his official medal and blue ribbon. M. Denon, satisfied with the success of his ventriloquism, made his escape with me while its astounding effect lasted: but this adventure was not forgotten next day in the Mural Literature of the town, in plain English I should have said, among the ballads and graphic specimens in chalk which decorate long walls and uninhabited houses. And I have no doubt that his new plan for the relief of the Poor, was the true reason of the buffeting which M. Denon has recorded as the second battle of Bosworth Field.
Having given this light to the most important part of his narrative, I may venture to throw some on the personage he calls Teapottus, because, as he once told me, this way of pronouncing my travelling name Thibaut, was more suited to the idiom of the Roman language from whence romances derive their appellation. I forgive him for this jest on the romantic colour of my life, and for his metaphorical reference to the blue demons that haunt the tea-table as my favourite companions. I cannot explain both better than by transcribing the memoir attached to the “last leaf of the Parish Register,” so honourably mentioned in his.
At the end of a winding green lane, bordered by a few rude cottages in the manner of an English village, there is a manorhouse, sheltered from the traveller’s eye by folding gates and high trees. I left my fellow-tourist at the inn to pursue his own schemes at leisure, while mine brought me to these gates, which opened slowly and unwillingly, as if hinges had been neglected, or deemed needless. When I had passed them, I found myself on the edge of a little bridge thrown without railings across a stream smooth as glass, which divided me from the square green area before a mansion of pure English architecture, such, at least, as once distinguished an ancient squire’s tenement. There were still the pointed latticed windows, the sloping roof, the door raised only by one broad stone above the level of the earth, and the dairy and other appendages composing three parts of a comfortable square. But there was no smoke from the chimney, no paths worn in the turf-area by many feet going as in former times to that hospitable door, and the windows were all closed. I crossed the bridge again, and followed the course of the stream by a path close to its brink, now choked with long grass. This stream, stretched above half-a-mile under the shadow cast by a mass of enormous trees, here and there crossed by a willow whose branches dipped into the water, till it reached the old corn-mill, and washed the walls of a modern cottage built for the miller. Near this place I knew I should find its source, made holy by many delicious recollections; and I found it dignified by an inscription signifying that the King’s hand had placed the first stone of the little arch that covered it. The spring itself, the purest in the kingdom, reposed as it used to do, in a natural basin of pebbles, the smallest of them glittering through its transparency. A few steps more, hewn in the chalky soil, brought me to the rude terrace on which the church is seated in the centre of this green valley, and to the wicket-gate still belonging to the pastor’s cottage and his rich orchard, whose abundance would have tempted me to felony, if my boyhood could have returned. But I had no longing except to see the parish-register; and the good old man, without any recollection of my face, admitted me to examine it. The name which interested me most occurred in no recent record of births, marriages, or deaths; and I remarked to my conductor that one leaf seemed wanting. “A strange tale is attached to it,” he answered; “and the loss of this elder volume’s last leaf may have caused the dead pause you have observed in the Vivian family.”
The honest parish-priest related a rumour whose incorrectness made me smile; but I only replied by an ordinary comment on the varieties of human things. “And this book,” I said, “as I have already told a learned fellow-traveller, would furnish to a well-informed historian more strange and romantic births, marriages, and deaths, than the northern Trouveurs, or southern Troubadours of France have left in their legends to modern gleaners. Two living geese, outside-passengers by the coach we travelled in, thrust their long necks so gracefully through the opposite sides of the basket that held them, as to suggest to my friend a new model of a classical vase; and why may not we borrow a quill from their wings to convert this lost leaf of your register into a romance?”
“Sir,” said my cicerone, “if you, or your travelling companion possess and can spare any new edition of the romances gathered by Ellis, and Le Grand from the ancient hoards of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, you would bestow them charitably, yet not without profit, on my patron, Sir Launcelot Vivian, who is at least as deep in the learning of those days, as his namesake Sir Launcelot and the fair lady Vivian of the Lake were in the enchantments of theirs. He has a library well qualified to enrich your stock of romantic legends, and a mind which needs all the amusement they can lend him.”
I seized on this welcome overture, and told enough of myself and my travelling companion to warrant an introduction by the kind curate to his patron. And he led me by the arm up a high slope behind the woods to an eminence which overlooked the rich scenery of the whole province, little dreaming that the hand which rested on him had been guided by himself when it first used a pen, and had gathered for him every rare moss and wild flower on that ground.—“Yonder,” said he, “is the new mansion-house of Sir Launcelot with its white portico and curtain of flowering myrtles, which to my thinking are fitter for the young days of his daughter, than as a home for his old age;—and I think the sound truths and comfortable shelter of our church-books, like the stout timbers of his ancient house and plantations, would be worthier for him to rest in, than the foppery of romancers which clung about the learning of the middle ages, or those blossoms hanging round his porch.”
Even as he spoke we reached the light modern gate of cast iron fillagree work swinging between two graceful pyramids at the entrance of a garden-sweep. And the mansion, a fashionable villalette, if such a word may be coined, had its Venetian windows, lofty carved cornices, and spacious staircase brilliant with Brussels carpeting. Thereon we ascended to the saloon of Sir Launcelot Vivian, a lean old man with a purple countenance and a dress curiously composed of blue and grey. His shoes, however, were of the brightest black, and his ruffles of as distinguished white; but there was a discontented and spleenful authority in his face, which seemed to say, like Hecate to the ministers of mischief,
“Black spirits and white,
Blue spirits and grey,
Mingle, mingle, mingle,
Ye that mingle may.”
And Hecate herself could not have blended them better than they appeared in his vinegar aspect; but a creature stood near him whose presence seemed that of a benevolent fairy. She was about seventeen, with a form such as Canova has given to Hebe, and a face with the colouring Titian would have chosen for her. She was seated near his arm-chair, with a large folio resting on her knee; and the old man turned the leaves as she requested, while his other hand rested among the curls upon her fair forehead. Then I perceived that he was blind; and by thus touching both his treasures, the folio and the beautiful reader, assured himself of possessing them. And I also discovered by the constant fixture of her bright eyes on him, and the joy that laughed in them when she saw the muscles of his countenance express pleasure, that the narrative she was reciting came from memory, or was composed extempore.
“Do not interrupt her yet,” said my guide, stopping in the ante-room—“This is her daily occupation several hours. She has read and repeated all the ancient romances of Charlemagne, Merlin, and Coeur de Lion’s days, till they have ceased to interest even an antiquary’s ear; but as his memory fails him, and her fancy does not, she continues to invent and detail adventures thus seated at his feet with a folio in her lap, which affords him the occupation of turning its well-remembered leaves, and the pleasure of believing that he still hears the legends, which delighted the most learned.”
My informer caught a glance from her lively eye, which seemed to ask our absence till her story was finished, and he obeyed it by leading me into the open viranda she had made her conservatory. “She is here still,” he added, with tears glistening in his eyes;—“these flowers, and these birds. are all images of herself—lovely, innocent, and cheerful prisoners, gladdening the confinement they dwell in.”—“But she who is thus devoted to it is not his daughter!”—these words escaped me, and I could not recall them. The curate eyed me earnestly. “Then you know something more of the Vivian family. I suspected it when you avoided treading on the stone which bears their name near my chancel; and much more when you looked at the initials on the old yew-tree:—Now I see they are your own!—how could I be deceived so long!”—He squeezed my hand passionately, and it would have been impossible for either of us to have added a word. We went out upon the lawn, and I wrote with my pencil a few lines on a card, expressing our intention to return at a fitter opportunity. My dear old schoolmaster gave it to a servant for Sir Launcelot, smiling as if he had recognized the handwriting he had once directed, and the pencil which had been his gift to me twenty years before. We went back to his little parsonage, and I seated myself in the corner he allowed me to fill on the wooden settle, when I had gained the place of honour in my school-days. “Now,” said he, with a laugh broken by an hysteric sob, “I know my pupil again. Ah! my dear Thibaut! times are altered here; but, thank God! I have not lost my memory, as Sir Launcelot has. Yet he is happy, for he thinks that fair creature is the daughter he buried long since; and she, though only his niece, is willing to spend her youth in soothing him by such tales as he once loved to decypher in black letter.”—“And,” I replied, “I too have decyphered a tale written in the blackest letters of grief and guilt; and I ask no better recompense, but to hear it recited by such a speaker, and to such a listener.”