M. Denon in England
“Well!” said Monsieur Teapottus—“have you found any thing yet in that sublime romance which will save you the trouble of inventing a description of Englishwomen?”
“Not yet,” I replied, laying down the third volume—“though having been written so lately, and by an Englishman, I make no doubt his portraits are not sketched without some original.”
Teapottus shut his snuff-box and his newspaper—“Look, my dear Denon, at the plain truth of the matter. If you could find here, or any where else, a creature who would devote her beauty, her talents, and her life, to a ‘worshipped one,’ she knows not who, and she cares not why;—one who only dances, sings, or talks, that she may whisper to herself, ‘I heard his sigh, but he has heard the applause:’—one, in short, who if she was shewn all the terrors of Dante’s Inferno, would only ask if her lover was to be there—”
“I should say, M. Teapottus, if such a one exists, a Frenchman may hope to discover her.”
“And I should say—she would be fitter to live with Immalees, and Medoras, and Imogens, among peacocks and tamarind-trees, corsairs and assassins, than in a decent front-parlour with her husband’s frills in her work-bag, or sitting quietly near the tea-urn with the baker’s weekly bill in her hand. What would become of your soup, your coffee, and your sea-coal fire, while she was gazing at the stars—‘those flowers of heaven which only open at night’—and the moon, ‘whose beams are like the silver branches of those flowers?’”
“Ah! my dear Teapottus—let me put that down in my note-book.”
“Whisper it to the barmaid of les Milles Colonnes, and it will pay for a dozen cups of coffee, but Englishwomen have no such language.—You saw a woman at Lord Boscobel’s funeral last night standing silent near the grave, and looking with dry eyes on the earth that fell upon his coffin,—you saw another kissing rose-leaves, and dropping them over it, raining tears, and tearing her long hair like handfuls of golden thread—which was the mourner?”
“My good friend, the mourner we love to describe is a lovely and a graceful one;—the other kind makes no figure on paper, nor is there any way of describing her.”
“You are right—real grief suits neither speech nor picture. Listen to a truth, not a romance. Lord Boscobel married in his youth a fair young Juliet at Gretna-green, and they lived forty years together. She had no daughter, but she adopted the offspring of his disgraced sister, kept the secret of their illegitimate birth, and gave them an abundant education. Two days after his death she learned that he had secretly, but more formally, married some wandering girl, whose son is now his heir, while she stands alone, beggared, widowed, and, as it were, unwedded.”
“Well!—the villain is in his grave, and she has her nieces to foster and console her.”
“The new-made heir calls them his adopted sisters, and they gave their benefactress,—a black stuff gown. They, or perhaps their maids, were the mourners you admired last night, but the bereaved and dishonoured widow who shed no tears, gave her forgiveness both to the living and the dead, while she stood unnoticed near that grave.”
I put my romance in the fire, and Teapottus rose from his arm-chair.—“Denon, these are the scenes which I, a blue demon as you call me, ought to rejoice in: these are the events which send emigrants and settlers to our colony in the place you and I dare not name.—But you must fill your note-book with sketches, and this town shall supply you with one or two before we leave it. Follow me.”
If I had not known my companion’s real office and character, I should have been surprised at his quick descent into the half shrewd, half careless stare, and sturdy lounge, of a West-country yeoman, such as his apparel suited. We walked together up the town. There was about the centre a low house of dull grey stone, with a projecting balcony of heavy carved work shadowing three narrow casements filled with small squares of glass sunk in lead. A passage or archway, opened to the wind at both ends, gave us admittance to a door placed sideways. This door was consecrated to visitors of superior appearance to ours, for my guide had muffled me in a huge frieze coat like his own. We went down a paved walk to the wicket of a kitchen which formed the fourth side of an oblong square enclosing a six-cornered bed of flowers, a few cropped myrtles in tubs, and a leaden cistern. The broad deep window of the mansion’s best room looked into this square, and two or three slits or loopholes gave light to a long stone passage, contrived, with the folly of ancient architecture, to cool the meats in their way from the kitchen.
“This,” said Teapottus, “may serve for your etching of an old village-house; and here comes a relic of a race almost extinct, a gossip from pure benevolence, prying into all secrets with a genuine hope of doing good.—Such an one as Will Wimble should have married.”
The relic he promised was, or seemed to be, one of a flourishing race. She had a portly person, clothed in a chintz like a peacock’s train, with a rich flounce of yellow lace set round an apron of stiff muslin. She wore a large pair of turquoise-earrings, studded with paste brilliants and shaped like chamber-bells, one of which was in her hand to summon her maid when needful. Teapottus stroked his hat, and told her he was a Wiltshire cousin of the Boscobel family come to the “grand burying.”—The good woman shook her bell, and sent a sharp-eyed handmaiden to call Mrs. Alice, for the title of Lady Boscobel was hers no more. But by instinct, or by force of habit, all who approached or named her were heard to say lady or mistress, and knew her only by that appellation.
Mrs. Alice was of the English order of fine forms, and her face exhibited an outline of almost Grecian beauty, improved by the exquisite transparency of complexion peculiar to England. Her coif seemed of the closest and plainest kind worn by widows in this country, and her black dress shewed no part of her person except her hands, whose exceeding slenderness and whiteness might have been received as pledges of a lady’s birth and habits. Her room was such as Rembrandt would have chosen, lined with quaint carvings of dark oak, and lighted only by one casement, which threw a partial but rich summer-light on the angle in which the lady sat; sheltered under the cove of a very ancient chair, not much unlike a throne. It was impossible to see the forehead on which that summer-light rested, fair, open, and unwrinkled by the progress of thirty years, in pain and now in poverty, without reverence. I had an ample opportunity to contemplate it through one of the little square glasses which ancient housewives chose to have inserted into almost every wall, till Teapottus plucked my shoulder. “Finish your portrait of that rare original at our tavern,—there is another of as true English growth waiting for you in the hall, and the time of my conference with the Lady of Boscobel will be enough for your portrait-painting there.”
The old gentlewoman, whose office seemed to be something between comptroller of the kitchen and lady of the bed-chamber, came towards us with a broad smile on her rosy round face. “Dame,” said Teapottus, taking his westland dialect again—“Oi’se coom abute a bit of business wi’ ould mistress yonder, soa I brot my nevoy to look a’t ould castle and market-cross. Yo see t’ould lord had a mortal luve of money, and mightily liked a bit brot now and then in th’ way of interest; soa I signed a bit o’ paper, just for luve of him, promising to pay sum, ond oi’se thinking t’ould mistress wad give’t me again for luve of him too.”—There is no describing the excellent mixture of roguish ease and conscious cleverness which Teapottus threw into the true Yorkshire round of his bronzed face; and if my reader comes from the West-riding, which is the Gascony of England, I need not attempt to describe it.
Dame Wimble, for I cannot find a better name than he thought fit for her, placed me in the warm angle of a wooden settee half under the arch of the kitchen-chimney, and spread before me, on a table too white to need a napkin, a superb cheese garnished with flakes of thin curling oaten-cake, and butter that scented of cowslips. The very shy touch of her finger on the huge jug of ale, and the fifth or sixth glance at her well plaited cap and frill, reflected by a stooping mirror twelve inches square in a cherry-tree frame dark and polished as ebony, announced her pretensions to elegance; and I bowed to every speech she made in recommendation of the feast. In all ages and in all countries, the courtesy of the young and the graceful has its irresistible charm; and the good dame began to intercede for my influence on my supposed uncle in favour of her mistress. “Every body knows, Master Nathan,” said she, “and every body may see by the education Tony Gill has given you, that he has money enough for a gentleman; and I must say he had better have kept you in England, if he must pay for your frisk to France by robbing my lady, who has been robbed enough, as you may guess, by—, but I say nothing;— I only say, if I was a lawyer like you, I would take care nobody should have more than one wife at a time, for then every body would have a husband.”
“Madam,” said I, not doubting that, like most ancient dames, she remembered all the ballads and traditions of her country, and might furnish me with some—“I ask leave to refresh your memory. Your good and great King Arthur, pupil of the prophet Merlin, appears to have had a wife with more than one husband, as I have read in the Auchinleck manuscript. Merlin himself only laughed when he saw such incidents; and he is said to have laughed all the way from Wales to London.”
“There is not one word of truth in the Laird of Auchinleck,” interrupted the Dame, tossing back the pinners of her mob-cap;—“I knew him when he was a ragged boy, riding in the cart to buy lean calves; and as to that Mr. Merlin he is so fond of, he kept a workshop in London, and made a show of his whispering statues, and moving stools. That chair my lady sits on is of his making.”
I was rather surprised, and made a memorandum of this in my note-book, as a supplement to my extracts from the memoir of Merlin, consisting of 40,000 lines, written in the reign of Henry VI. by Thomas de Lonelich; and from others preserved in the library of Lincoln’s Inn and Lincoln Cathedral.
“But, my good madam,” I rejoined, “this Merlin, whose machinery you have seen in London, was no less rich than ancient; for the great historian of France, Froissart, and William of Malmesbury, and Geoffery of Monmouth, tell us of the cloth of gold and the ivory saddles and the jewels—”
“I saw them all at the museum,” quoth the dame—“and a goldfinch feeding its little ones with pearls in a nest of silver moss. And, moreover, there was a wicked glass which he contrived to tell secrets—I never durst look at it.”
“You were quite right, my good lady, for I have read, though not of his goldfinch, of many strange and impertinent hints he gave to King Vortigern respecting his lady; which, considering the misfortune of his own mother and the caco-demon his father, might have been spared.”
“I don’t think any such thing,” answered the old lady, haughtily—“and if Mr. King Vortigern says so, he speaks evil of an honest woman who was my kin. Merlin’s mother was a very decent gentlewoman, and his father was a carpenter, and not of the trade you say.”
I have always heard that old ladies are the repositories of provincial traditions, therefore I inserted this assertion in my note-book, as it does not disagree with the poem in the Auchinleck MS. which states, that he “pegged windows and doors, by roof and ground:”—and hoping to gain farther hints to enrich my memoir of Anglo-Saxon romances, I added, “Much as I lament my Lady Boscobel’s mishap, I find King Arthur’s wife took no offence at his second bride Guenever; and Guenever’s father Leodigan, being in danger of the giant Caudocaulicon when his wife’s second husband made an apology, told him to say no more about it.”
“Why no,” said the dame, “considering that a giant was hunting them, it was no time to talk: but I should like to know where this good-natured king and queen lived; for if such a thing had happened in my time, aye, or a hundred years ago, the neighbours would have talked of it.”
“Madam,” said I, consulting my pocket-abridgement of the Fabliaux and Romances of the fourteenth Century, “Carlisle was the favourite seat of Arthur, as Froissart thinks; and his oven and round table are between that and Penrith. Ettrick forest was the Sylva Caledonia beloved by Merlin, and Drummelziar his burial-place. Galloway was given to one of Arthur’s knights, and the tomb of Dame Ganore, or Guenever, his beautiful left-handed wife, may be seen at Meigle in Angus, between Coupar and Forfar.
The dame poured herself out a full glass of ale—“I thought as much, Master Nathan;—These left-handed wives all go to Scotland, but I never heard Galloway belonged to any thing but drovers and black nowts. Pray what kind of a person might he be who bought Galloway of King Arthur?”
“He was called Gawain the Brave; but there were thirty-nine who followed Arthur in pairs—and these were, Sir Antour, Sir Ulfin, Sir Bretel, Sir Kay, Sir Lucan, Sir Ditto, son of the Mayor of London, Sir Grifles, Sir Mairoc, Sir Drians of the forest, Sir Belias, Sir Flandran, Sir Leomas, Sir Amours the Brown, Sir Ancales the Red, Sir Bleobel, Sir Bleoberis, Sir Canode, Sir Aladan the Crisp, Sir Colatides, Sir Lampades, Sir—”
The dame ran to the casement near the street, down which a troop of fine Galloway cattle were pacing; and her cry, “There they all go!” put the rest of the knights’ names out of my memory.
“Then, madam,” I continued, “the lays of the Bretons, new called Marie’s lays, because collected by her, and still in one manuscript—let me see—‘Harl. MSS. No. 798,’ are tokens that your lady’s mischance is not against the ancient custom of Britons, or of our Brittany. For she tells us of a Bisclaveret, that is, a nobleman condemned to be a wolf three days in the week, whose wife was not divorced from her second husband, though the first seized the king’s stirrup with his fore-paw to supplicate justice; and in another lay, called Eliduc, she celebrates a charming wife named Guildedeluce, who, when she saw her rival in a trance like death, put into her lips a rose leaf to revive her.”
“I always thought Queen Mary, a wicked woman,” interposed my dame, “and she deserved to be burned herself for telling such monstrous tales: not but I know many husbands who are wolves more than three days in a week, but I’ll never believe your Eliduc, and I dare swear it was hemlock, and not rose-leaves, she meant.”
“Marie was a French poetess, madam, and there may be a mistake in the translation: but what I am going to mention is a solemn fact recorded in France. There was a fair lady called Vivian——”
“That is my lady’s family name,’ said my companion.
“And this English beauty lived near a lake, where she brought up a boy called Launcelot, who loved the lady of his friend and patron. This kind patron grew jealous, and would have dismissed his wife; but Launcelot’s honour was singularly nice, and he did not choose a mistress whose reputation was impeached even for his sake. Therefore he required her husband to receive her back, and reinstate her in her domestic place, to which he himself conducted her with an extraordinary parade. The good husband had a strange vision soon after. He dreamed he stood on a huge wheel, the upper part of which was set with gold and jewels, but the lower in a pitfall of scorpions. The omen was realized;—his nominal nephew, or reputed son, strove to rob him of his lands, and killed him in the first affray. The dead man’s body was found in a splendid bier, brought, no one knew how, to a holy place—His first friend Launcelot came to his help too late, and the penitent wife hid herself from her lover and the world for ever.”
“Master Nathan,” replied the dame, taking a pinch of snuff, and carefully wiping the dust from the puffs of her stiff neck-kerchief—“If you found this tale in Merlin’s Museum, it is a shame and a sin to prorogate it. I know more of Launcelot Vivian than any body in this province, and I certify to you there is not one word of truth in the matter of the wheel: it was a lottery-wheel, and he certainly dreamt it would ruin him.—On my conscience I know nothing about the rest. To be sure his lady loved her glass, but she was never called Ginever—and nobody thinks much about such little matters now.”
“Nor I neither, madam,” I replied,—“for Geoffrey of Monmouth has some of them in his chronicle, and Giraldus Cambrensis mentions a strange token of his inaccuracy. There was in the neighbourhood of Chester a young gentleman always surrounded by demons when he looked on false books. While he read Geoffry’s chronicle, they sat on his head, on his back, and on the volume he held in his lap, which, added to the heaviness of the book itself, says he, was quite intolerable.”
“I think one of them has been sitting on my spectacles all the time you have been talking,” answered Dame Wimble, “for my eyes feel wonderfully sleepy.”
At this hint I looked at the clock, and then at the chimney-corner, where Teapottus had perched himself while I was reading my note-book, and fallen fast asleep. I blamed her ale for counteracting the joint power of wit and beauty; and the good dame shewed us a backway out of her tenement, to prevent, as she said, the neighbourly talk of the town.
* * * * *
“You will have a rich page in your journal to-day,” said Teapottus, bursting into my chamber—“I expected what would follow your legends of Merlin, and King Arthur, and Launcelot of the Lake, last night. Come, prepare, this is the hour Mrs. Alice appointed for my presentation to a full divan of kinsmen and kinswomen, and you must act your part as a learned traveller, or the business of the scene will be lost to the world—that is, to your readers. Dame Wimble has acted her part too as we shall find.”
Teapottus had awakened me from a deep reverie on the possibility of King Arthur’s Round Table Knights having a lottery; but I put my commentary in my pocket, and followed my cicerone to the ancient house in the village. The parlour of black oak was already filled with a groupe more worthy Teniers than Rembrandt, who, if he could have looked upon the scene, would only have sketched the head of Mrs. Alice as she sat erect in the recess of her ebony chair. One directly opposite was occupied by a young woman, whose face would have been perfectly beautiful, if it had possessed that unteachable and indescribable something, that glance of social and friendly welcome so seldom seen in the first interview with an Englishwoman. But she had an air at once rustic, studied, and wayward; a pompous negligence in the arrangement of her dress which seemed designed to insult, yet to intimate that an insult was not worth the trouble. Her rich velvet mantle lay folded about her feet; her costly shawl was rolled into a cushion for the dog she fondled in her lap, and the rare species of the animal hinted the expensive delicacy of her taste in toys. This fair creature’s luxuriant beauty and elegance was contrasted by my friend, alias Tony Gill, in his sturdy frieze coat, his large bare head rising like a dome, but his mouth and eye slily contracted into a mockery of demureness; I cannot tell how far my own figure completed the groupe.
The Lady Alice held in her hand an old-fashioned jewel-casket, which she unlocked and opened, turning her eyes towards the young Countess of Boscobel, the wife of the new-made heir. “These,” she said, “are heirlooms, and the rightful property of those who enjoy the earldom, but I chose to give them thus publicly into your own hand, that I might add one request. This honest farmer,—Tony rose, and bowed with a comical glance, as if denying the compliment;—this friendly person, a kinsman of the late lord, desires remission of a small debt due from him, and I think if he had lived, it would have been granted. What I cannot now bestow myself, I wish him to see was not unasked from one better able to intercede for him.”
“And I might have deputed my lord’s attorney to receive those trifles,” replied the young peeress, “if I had not desired to tell Mrs. Alice Vivian thus publicly, that Lord Boscobel’s memory deserves more respect in this house than to be the subject of kitchen legends. This person might have found better ways of asking a favour, and need not expect any, unless he fully denies the tale he has circulated about the Vivian family— especially our uncle Launcelot.”
“Madam,” said I, understanding the hint of my friend’s eye, and placing myself in the midst of the circle—“If what all Europe has heard is false, I am sorry for it. If Chrestien de Troyes and Geoffry de Ligny have slandered Sir Launcelot, they are to blame. But if they were only mistaken, so have Ritson and Pinkerton been; if they have reported the tales of your province amiss, so did Bishop Percy when it suited him. Moreover, I see no slander in reporting matters which no man’s family regards if they are false, or can hide if they are true; for I find nobody who objects to any gentleman or lady’s acquaintance even if they had such a mother as Merlin’s, or such a nurse as Sir Launcelot’s; of whom if I have spoken in error, here is my authority.”
The whole circle, not excepting Mrs. Alice, gazed with astonishment while I deposited on the table the huge chronicles of Gildas and Nennius, the lays of our King Thibaut of Navarre, and my own extracts from the Auchinleck MS. with the annotations of Sir W. S.—All these, carefully transcribed on broad vellum paper, with the signatures and comments of sundry learned men now living, especially of celebrated Scotch civilians, had a most imposing appearance; and the young Countess of Boscobel, glancing her eye on the last page, and reading there a formal attestation that all therein contained was irresistibly verified, enquired what price would purchase the suppression of this scandal.—“It is not in my power, madam,” I replied, “to suppress it;—these papers were entrusted to me by M. Chateaubriand, Minister of France, and by M. Denon, whose name, I think, needs no addition, to be committed to the English press.”—And their signatures, which I displayed with the superb seal of the National Institute, an armed Minerva, acted on the young Countess like a Gorgon’s head. Teapottus seized this moment to open his huge coat, and plucking out a three-clasped volume, venerably tarnished and decayed as if it had been dug from Herculaneum, added, “And I found this vast book where St. Kentegern’s church was burnt years ago;—they say ’twill fetch a rare sum at Doctors’ Commons; but my Lady Alice shall read it first. Give it him, mistress, if he wants a bribe; for two thousand pounds have been bidden for it.”
It was the parish-register of the church where the Lady Alice’s marriage had been confirmed by English ritual. A painter or a writer would be a fool if he attempted to describe her look, the brightness of it was worth twice two thousand pounds. Teapottus dragged me out, but I heard the uncountessed lady’s hysteric scream of rage, and saw my dear extracts trampled to pieces.—“Be satisfied,” said Teapottus, “you have been well paid for your loss by seeing an English woman.—These are the heroines this country produces, women without pretension, without the poetry of enthusiasm and romance, but capable of bearing a wrench from all they love, from honour, distinction, and affluence, without desponding. An Englishman, if injured or unfortunate, is apt to do both too little and too much. He neglects the graces that would make his fortitude amiable, and affects a churlish indifference more unmanly than grief. But a woman, such as we have seen, is most gracious to her enemies, and strongest in her affliction.”
“But, O Teapottus!” I exclaimed, “she never lost, as I have done, two folio MSS. of metrical romances collected for the National Institute!”
“Be under no chagrin,” he answered—“not one of your legends will perish. Dame Wimble has circulated them through the whole parish, and the baker is at this moment listening, while two calves’ heads grow cold, to the knife-grinder’s memoir of Launcelot Vivian’s amours. The stewards of the race-ball are debating whether they ought to invite the kinsman of such a treasonous and immoral person, though he is called by courtesy Earl of Boscobel. They have not heard, perhaps, that to-day’s discovery will cost him his estates: and while he had them, they never remembered the right owner.”
“Ah, mon Dieu!—milord Boscobel will be chagrined at this affair, and I shall not taste his cook’s paté, seasoned with pimento and lemonjuice!”
“You know nothing of Englishmen,” said Teapottus—“to shew how little he cares for his estates or his creditors, he will buy two new carriages, and invite you to dinner.”
“But since we have nothing particular to eat to-day, may we not feast ourselves on the contents of that precious book found in the catacombs of the Central Regions of the Earth; which, as I have told the National Institute, are a thousand times larger than M. Belzoni’s Egyptian tomb?”
“There you fibbed,” said Teapottus; “but that is no matter, as you are travelling. I dug up one book, as I said, under the ruins of St. Kentegern; and there are in it records of more deaths than in all the chronicles of Charlemagne’s twelve peers, more amours than ever were told of Launcelot de Luc himself, or Ferumbras, or Sir Eglamour of Artois; and the names of ‘knave-children’ whose adventures would puzzle all the advocates in Edinburgh, and fill a larger MS. than those of Auchinleck in their library. All your poets, even if they fibbed as largely as those prodigious MSS. would find subjects for a thousand romances, if they knew the histories of all, whose names and dates are in that volume.”
“Ah, my dear Teapottus! Entrust it to me, and it shall be lodged in our Museum!—What is it called?”
“A Parish-Register—and any other found in any little English village would serve as well.”
A French gentleman, especially a sçavant, never answers an inconvenient jest. I took up a new novel, and Teapottus amused himself with a philosophical experiment to make his rushlights grow longer, by soaking the ends in salt and water till bed-time.