Tales of To-day
Education in 1819
“Pray, my dear Bland, take care of my pet, and teach her all you can considering her want of speech. I found her by a charming incident—but amongst some horribly vulgar people; and am forced to trust her under the escort of one of the tribe to your house, for Lord Allinton would not spare either carriage or servants to convey her properly—You know his brasquerie—but no matter—you know my mènage also. Give your new pupil a polite name, Lara, for instance, if one may venture to feminize it without associating impertinent ideas of some resemblance between her and the noble Childe. Let all possible care be taken of her beautiful hair, and, above all things, teach her to sit upright—I leave you a carte blanche for expense till my return from our twelve-month’s tour on the continent. You may match her easily in Park-place or Allcourt House—Adieu I love my Bijou. F. Allinton.”
“Who brought this billet?” said Mrs. Bland, the president of a small select establishment for ladies of fashion; and her adjutant answered by leading in a tall pale girl with large eyes and a most idiot stare. “Nobody came with this young thing,” added the deputy president, “except a strange-looking man, who never troubled himself to wait for an answer, and a ragged French dog that ran away too.”
“My dear Lady Allinton always enjoyed such dramatic surprises. What must we do first with this petite, my dear Blonde?—Quite dumb, I protest! really a fortunate circumstance for her ladyship, if she has any secrets in her keeping. Tell Chapeau and Grandame to send the newest rose-coloured satin tunics and a dozen yards of Mechlin to make her fit for our evening conversaziones. Heavens, neither workbox nor wardrobe! there must be some astonishing mystery in all this. Her board must be at least five hundred a-year.”
With this determination Mrs. Bland presented her young boarder to an inferior priestess of education, whose office was to curl hair, adjust the plaits of morning robes, and lace the sandals of her novices. And this lady had at least the pleasure of finding her pupil perfectly untainted by any inferior instructions, as her manners, or rather her mode of looking, had a vacuity of the most perfect kind. After receiving about twelve lessons in private, she entered the academic parlour of the society with a calm, heedless, and unchanging air, which had such good effect, that her new companions received Miss Lara Monbijou, as her preceptress had styled her, with the respect due to first-rate fashion. She had been three months in this polite seminary before it was discovered that she did not know how to read: and considering the arrangements there, it was only surprising that the discovery occurred so soon. The mornings of the society were regularly devoted to various experiments in the arrangement of their costume, till the hour allotted for one of seven masters who divided the week among them. While the fashionable period of promenade was enjoyed, they also received lessons in the more useful arts of developing the parasol, carrying the folds of the shawl with picturesque negligence, or bestowing a side glance at proper times. The French master gave his aid, not in the old formula of exercises and examinations, but seated on the Arabesque chaise-longue, sipping his coffee, and holding an agreeable small talk with his pupils, who were thus enabled to acquire the familiar graces of a conversazione and the prettinesses of Parisian wit at once. They were troubled neither with the pedantry of grammar nor the fatigue of recitation, but happily caught by ear and by memory whatever they thought fit. As Lara looked as if she understood, the polite Abbé was satisfied with his pupil’s progress during the first six months: nor were her advances in writing and drawing more difficult. Both these sciences were communicated with equal elegance and ease. The society, arranged round their bijou-table, wrote charades and journals by way of improvement in the first, and drew caricatures to exercise the second. The professors were too liberal and gracious to disturb the bent of native genius; and while the young students enriched their portfolios with their own ideas, executed themselves an ostensible specimen for each. Lara knew as little of writing as of reading; but the modern system of making sidelong strokes, and joining them by zig-zag flourishes, rendered her autograph soon as ready and graceſul as that of Louis the Great, who learned to frame his at an age rather more advanced. Her journal contained so many ingenious hints, and her sketch of Mademoiselle Blondel, her vice-governess, was touched with such exquisite burlesque, that the Principal ventured to pronounce her a most promising pupil. “She has,” said she, in a private letter to Lady Allinton, “the three great requisites for establishing well—she feels nothing, fears nothing, and says nothing. This, by the way, I take to be a remarkable gift of Providence in her favour, as the ladies whom I have the honour to bring out are not always so thoroughly dumb as I could wish. There is sometimes—very seldom, I flatter myself, a lurking intelligence of eye, a momentary smile, which is too much like the vulgar eloquence of common nature, and entirely spoils my system. Now your charming Lara’s speechlessness is in fact a faculty of being fashionable. If your ladyship has any arrangement ready for her, you may depend on the effect of her coming out. She has been already at three small family parties and a select at Home, without being suspected in the least of having been born dumb. I have the honour to enclose my petite memoire, and am,
“Your Ladyship’s Faithful,
By one of the strange embroglios of the French post, or by some minor accident, this letter, the first in which Mrs. Bland had distinctly ventured to name her charge, fell into Lord Allinton’s hands before it reached his lady’s. He was a good deal alarmed and surprised at such a burden, especially when he looked at the little “Memoire” of expenses, not exceeding two thousand pounds; and after some precise investigation into the origin of the matter, he resolved to take the catastrophe on himself. In due time the receptress received this important letter.
“Mrs. Bland is too well acquainted with the great world to be unaware, that there are certain delicacies in domestic secrets which cannot be even confidentially named.
“Sir Walter Burnthistle of Dunderdrumlie is known to have had two or three cobwebs in his house—not such as a facetious general usually swept from the roofs where he saw them hanging in the shape of dried tongues and smoked Westphalia hams, but such as Kotzebue elegantly calls the incumbrances of a solitary man’s mansion. One disappeared a year ago, and was advertised with great zeal and expense to deceive the world; and Lady Allinton now commissions Mrs. Bland to conclude her office by conducting Lara to her birth-place, which must be approached with great caution. It is Sir Walter Burnthistle’s command, that she should visit every place of amusement in the town and neighbourhood of Dunderdrum for one month; and if during that period she does not find an Establishment, and appear to deserve the notice of her father, Mrs. Bland will hear again from Lady Allinton.”
The superb directress of an academic society was exceedingly deraisonnée by this mission. Chaperon an untitled novice into the subscription balls and rustic parties of a Cumbrian watering-place!—the dignity of her character and practice hardly permitted it. However, a splendid remuneration might be expected, the place was a novelty, the effect of her appearance might be prodigious, and who could tell whether Sir Walter Burnthistle might not himself be the reward of her protection to his daughter! The day of Mrs. Bland’s arrival at the Rose Hotel of Dunderdrum was fortunately distinguished by an election-ball, to which tickets respectfully sealed in perfumed paper were laid upon her toilet. And if the provincial assembly were surprised at the gorgeous attire, the imposing step, and unintelligible countenance, of the young stranger, her governess was no less surprised to see the magnificent festoons of crimson damask, the wreaths of artificial flowers and allegorical transparencies, which wanted nothing but wax-lights in something better than tin-sconces to rival London. But her whole attention was fixed on another “distinguished stranger,” who made his first entré on the same occasion. He had exactly that finely-constructed head that announces a first-rate compound of fancy and fashion—“a sort of fantastic pensiveness, a real or affected abstraction, a something imaginative and ideal,” which indicated a perfect pupil of the new school. But that he had spoken at some time of his life, appeared from this fragment of a note book dropped under the red bench where he sat.
“Beauty without smiles is like heaven without the sun.”
“Memorandum. This has been said, twice said, to Miss Echowell, and once written to Lady L.
“Speak of yourself-for those who speak well should speak on the best subject.” N.B. Must not say this too often, or they will think it in earnest.
“Presents gracefully given are the most persuasive courtship,” says Ovid—My grandmother’s watch case will be a pretty porringer for Stella’s lapdog.
“Bo, bo, bo—” is the chorus of a Greek love-song—It may be dangerous, therefore, to say Bo on some occasions.
“The company of men wants a certain softness—the company of women, without you, wants every thing.”—A pretty sentence, but rather too particular—it might raise unwarrantable expectations.
“Here Nature doth her works display
In wonders huge and great;
Besides there are large clumps of hay
Which earth do opakate!”
N.B. — will serve for the first stanza of a descriptive sonnet on Dunderdrum.”
It was perhaps from sympathy in misfortune that this distinguished person attached himself to Lara, as nothing in the course of the evening revealed that he possessed the power of speech. He received her hand from the master of the ceremonies with a silent bow, dismissed it with the same mute eloquence, strolled through the meanders of another quadrille, and indicated his contempt of the company with such expressive gestures of ennui as made speech seem superfluous. However, he placed himself full length on the sultane opposite Lara, took his ice with one eye fixed on her face through a superb lorgnette, and ended the pantomime of gallantry by a shrug when she departed.—The whole of this evening, therefore, equalled the Chaperon’s most splendid expectations, for the steward of the ball, Sir Walter Burnthistle, had eyed her novice with all the paternal regard that could have been safely manifested. A few enquiries confirmed her idea of the fashionable stranger’s importance. He had a foreign valet, two superb greys in his curricle, and paid nobody but the postman.
The second appearance of Lara was designed to be in one of those parties of pleasure which modern rustics devise as compensations for many months spent in the poverty and inhospitality imposed by temporary eclats. A barouche belonging to an insolvent freeholder, who had just purchased an estate to prevent the mortgages of his own from being suspected, the member’s gig, and a cart supplied with sacks of bean-straw, on which some young women of the first families chose to expose themselves to a burning sun for the pleasure of novelty and a pic-nic frolic, composed the party. As the cavalcade passed through the gates of the rich park intended as the first scene of their amusement, the careful governess drew aside her pupil—“This, my dear Lara, will be the test of your education. I hardly know any thing so dangerous to the decorum of high ton as one of these rambling saturnalias, and it is of very great importance that your deficiency of voice should not be suspected. Only act systematically, and it may pass even here for the perfection of my tuition.” Lara returned an assent in her language of signs, and the trial of her skill commenced. Part of the glories of this northern scenery was a deep lake in the centre of a mountain-rock, on one side rent into a cathedral-cave, on the other forming a crescent chizzeled by Nature into treble rows of pilasters, over which the broad and clear water fell like a silver curtain. While half the groupe gazed at this wonder of more than human architecture, or followed each other with screams of mirth down the declivities, the pupil of high ton preserved an air of lassitude and apathy so true, that to have expected speech from her would have been impossible. Her courtesies even did not seem to require its aid. A nod, a sigh, a yawn, or a half bend, were quite sufficient for her share of conversation, and the frigid civilities of the polished natives were thus easily repaid. A drop of the left ear-ring towards her shoulder, a touch of the little finger, or a simperett, as Mrs. Bland called a coquettish smile in her academy, gave all due effect to her beauty, especially on the distinguished stranger, who appeared struck with instinctive admiration of a character so like his own. He seemed to have found in the mysterious and speechless communion of their looks, and the sleepy languor of her attitudes, that “fine charm” for which there is yet no name, and perhaps no understanding. She appeared, no doubt, to possess that rare perfection of apathy which has all the attraction of an enigma and all the picturesque beauty of a statue. The distinguished person himself took care to preserve, notwithstanding his evident preference, an air of the most perfect repose and elegant indifference to the business of the day. He was in every body’s way, dozing when all were busy, and ſixed in a sentimental trance when others could find nothing to look at, but never failing to seize the most convenient seat and the most delicate refreshment. Certainly the fine pyramidical symmetry of his figure contrived by the broad expanse of a well-wired coat skirt, terminating in a Cossack waist resembling a lady’s of the year 1770, and again expanding into a bust of the same lady’s kind, enlarged by innumerable folds of muslin, crowned by a perfumed tête, and a hat hearing due proportion to the fly-cap of that year, added considerably to the effect of his assumptions. Half feminine, half brutal, he vied with the belles of the party in all the pettynesses of languor, and with their grooms in savage heedlessness of civility.
That he had never been heard to speak was a matter of no surprise to the educated ladies of Dunderdrum, and of small concern to the gentlemen, especially to Sir Walter Burnthistle, who made one of the party, with an air that implied close attention to some purpose of his own. As Mrs. Bland always said, exploring parties are the most suitable to sentimental conversation, and the sublime in nature generally tempts us to consider the beautiful. In Janet’s cave, a charming little chasm with a clear brook and an arch of green willows, the ancient hero of the romance began its denouement.
“The recourse I have had to some finesse, madam, will not detract, I hope, from your confidence in the regularity of my intentions. Some incumbrances I may find difficult to dislodge, but I cannot be too early in placing your accomplished pupil in the situation for which you have prepared her, if I may judge from appearances, completely.”
“O, my dear Sir Walter, not an article omitted. Paints velvet better than Townly, dances like Angiolini, never misses the Institution or the Exhibition, and—”
“Exhibition.” said Sir Walter, whose deafness rendered him insensible to every word but the last, “I should not greatly desire in the head of my establishment. All my farmers’ daughters bring home Poonah-work, French harps, and painted ottomans, but their fathers bring less honest rents to my steward. And I wish their mothers gave their cowslip wine to their poor neighbours, instead of reserving it for their evening parties. I hope, madam, Lara speaks neither Latin, Italian, nor French?”
“Not a syllable, dear Sir Walter—such modesty!—such retenue!—such correct ton!”
“I grieve, madam, to be so inadequate a judge of her voice’s tone, but the motion of her lips and head is eloquence itself. I have no desire, madam, to see my sofas thronged with books, and my tables with cut paper. I desire to know if this young woman can keep accounts, direct her butler, and make a sick man’s posset!”
“Posset, Sir Walter!” said the lady, with an involuntary echo of horror—but instantly perceiving the probability of a successful manoeuvre in her own favour—“I dare hardly flatter myself that my dear young pupil could undertake the task. You know, my dearest sir, there is in the true style of a young lady’s fashionable education—or at least there should be a perfect tranquillity, an air of unembarrassed sufficiency, which arithmetic and housewifry would wholly destroy. How could the management of domestic affairs be united to that beautiful repose of countenance, that soft ladylike indifference—that elegant supineness of air which renders our pupils so like the angels, whose life and faith is love!”
This apostrophe, uttered with all the force that bright black eyes, aided by a rich veil very picturesquely thrown over the beauty of two and forty could give, was again wasted on the deaf ear of Sir William, who gravely replied—“I am glad to hear you mention faith—I hope she is not without religion?”
“Whatever you please, my dear Sir Walter!—It is my boast and particular care, that in that point I always leave my pupils’ minds, as Rousseau says, a perfect sheet of unstained writing-paper; and in regard to marriage, you will find her, depend on my word of honour, as well disposed and obedient to any suitable arrangement as a father could wish, with or without it.”
“I am very far,” returned Sir Walter, still more gravely. “from wishing her to take Rousseau’s opinion in points of religion; nor have I ever contemplated arrangements without marriage. He has not shewn us any state or society in which it is not respectable, nor any religion better than our own. And I prefer a bridge like Mirza’s, with a few clouds resting on it, to a gulph without end.”
The priestess of modern education felt some uneasiness at this speech, but her manoeuvre was not baffled. “I perceive, my dear Sir Walter Burnthistle, that you have considered these subjects with an acuteness which youth cannot share. That age which, without being definable, partakes both the sweetness of mellow maturity and the bloom of an earlier season, would be better suited to your poetic enthusiasm and worldly consequence. In short, I think, a lady about thirty might be found—”
Even Sir Walter’s dull ears received every word of this speech, which the fair orator delivered with peculiar energy and emphasis. “I thought,” he answered, “when I advertised for a wife, I had expressed my desire for seriousness and good housewifery. I am sorry if you have taken a long and useless journey with a young candidate wholly unqualified.”
The equivoque was now near its end. But while each paused, and viewed the other with a grave kind of comic surprise, the clamour of many voices was heard, and the distinguished person was seen rapidly descending towards them, dragged by a young major of the militia, sufficiently fashioned to pay no attention to a lady’s presence. The company cried with one voice—“An assault!—a robbery!—Sir Walter Burnthistle, give us your authority to lodge this felon in the gaol.”
“What is his offence, and who is, he?” said the Baronet, assuming his magisterial face.
“My valet, sir!” answered the Major—“and after robbing me of my money and portmanteau, he has begun a minor course of practice as fortune-hunter.”
The distinguished stranger heard a verbal warrant of committal given with the same air of gentlemanly and philosophic abstraction, and was led off, after having been recognized by another acquaintance as a tailor who had formerly emptied at the opera-house the pockets he had made in Bond-street.
When the groupe had dispersed, leaving the Baronet, the Governess, and the Major, in possession of Janet’s glen, the latter said, with an easy application of his eye-glass—“Since this place seems adapted for private conversation, allow me, madam, to present Lady Allinton’s credentials, and request that your charge may travel back to her under my care.”
Mrs. Bland read the note, which simply desired that Lara might be resigned to the Major’s protection, and rejoicing to see some prospect of a release from her task, she ventured to protest her hopes that Lara’s education and improvement would delight her patroness.
“’Twas a pretty little creature always,” said the military man—“but what in the world could you teach a dumb thing?”
“O Major, ten thousand accomplishments!—she dances like a sylph, wears her hair admirably arranged, and walks and sits in the best style—not, perhaps, quite so upright as Lady Allinton directed, because the Grecian bend is still fashionable.”
As the Major was of the school of ruffians, not of Exquisites, he turned on his heel while the lady spoke, hummed a French air, and replied, “Any puppy taught in the Hotel des Invalides can sit or walk, and I have seen one knit, which is more, I guess, than any English girl can do now. As for her hair, I know no use in curling it, unless Bowman wants it for a chancery-wig. When shall I send my groom for her, madam?”
“For what, sir?” retorted the indignant schoolmistress.
“Why, for Lady Allinton’s French lapdog Lara, which she sent to your care last year to be nursed and taught tricks. She bought it of a dumb beggar-girl, who promised to bring it to our house, and had a new suit of clothes for her pains.”
Not Cato or Seneca, if he had kept a female academy, could have borne this horrible blow to his dignity and hopes. Our female Stoic, however, assumed an air of calm disdain worthy an ancient sage, and replied—“Carry back my compliments to Lady Allinton, and tell her, while women of fashion send their lapdogs to be educated by the same governess that educated themselves, there is little room to wonder that the education of a lapdog should be the same as theirs, and that her dumb Lara will equal any woman of fashion in wit, in usefulness, grace, reason, and religion.”
But the sagacious gouvernante, when she had recovered her first chagrin, began to consider that her dumb Elève would be the safest and most fit assistant in her seminary to teach the true frigid, languid, unspeaking, and unspeakable airs of high fashion. The Baronet, however, whose advertisement for a wife had been so mischievously misrepresented as an advertisement for a daughter, looked again at the silent Beauty, and remembered that one of Montesquieu’s friends died of joy when he found his wife was dumb, which (says the philosopher) “is not surprising, for a dumb wife is an extraordinary blessing!”—Whether Sir Walter Burnthistle hesitates through fear of dying also is unknown; but he certainly believes Lara equally qualified to shine with the silent apathy of a modern mansion’s mistress, or to finish education in the mode of 1819.