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Anna Jane Vardill

Extracts from a Lawyer’s Portfolio

Part 8


It has been mentioned in some part of these memoirs, that my affairs sometimes called me to the Isle of Man. One of those unforeseen combinations of events which we are pleased to call chance carried me thither at that period of the year which Manxmen still distinguish by a few of their ancient superstitions. Then begin the operations of a certain familiar spirit, whose nightly labours in the flower garden or field are repaid by a piece of silver deposited on the threshold. I arrived on May eve, and found the good farmer at whose house my stay was expectcd, full of preparation for the mock battle between summer and winter usually exhibited on the next morn. Lawyers are not celebrated for their readiness to partake such pastoral and amicable combats; but there is a tradition extant which ascribes to the may-pole the dignity of a wand of justice, and informs us that courts of law once assembled round it. Perhaps this tradition gave new zest to the curiosity with which I awoke to attend the festival of milk maids and farmers’ boys loaded with garlands and mock silver cups. The latter were too often filled and emptied to allow much order in the procession; but the mirthful carols and grotesque dances of the Manx girls drew a train of spectators, including my honest old host, with all his family and guests. The day ended as convivially as it had begun; but as twelve hours’ unceasing exertion must exhaust the best animal spirits, ours gradually sunk from clamorous jests into sad tales of witchcraft, dreams, and omens. If the Isle of Man deserves to be called the heaven of lawyers, it it also the paradise of prophetesses and soothsayers. The charming enchantress described by a modern bard must have visited it to form her garland of dreams. We were all probably under the influence of this enchantress, for every one of the company had some striking dream or mysterious presentiment to relate. Our narratives suggested a proposal to try that mode of divination called the Sortes Virgilianæ, and celebrated in many authentic anecdotes of eminent men. A young Gascon, who obtained bread by teaching a little French to the daughters of some fashionable residents in the neighbourhood, supplied us with a pocket Virgil, and, as the newest guest, my chance had precedence. I opened the oracular volume with due solemnity, and found my finger on this remarkable line of the Georgics,

“Some days are fortunate—the fifth beware!”

The company amused themselves with a few constrained jests, and prolonged the conversation till day-break, more through fear of retiring into solitude and darkness, than from the spirit of conviviality. If the Virgilian oracle had made any impression on my mind, it was effaced next day by my host’s clamorous complaints that he had lost a silver ewer of rare antiquity, which his dame had persuaded him to lend the May-damsels for the embellishment of their pole. Such an article, in a spot like the Isle of Man, was not likely to be sold or converted into bullion without detection, and the farmer was advised to employ his strictest enquiries on the coast, from whence the felon would probably convey it. I went with him to the sea port town of Ramsey, where we found opportunities to view the crews and consult the captains of several vessels, in one of which we noticed a man whose apparel was singularly loose and ill-suited. It would have been more accurate to have said, I alone noticed this sailor, for I feared to call my angry and revengeful companion’s attention towards him, and he soon disappeared. The owner of the lost ewer returned home in a churlish humour, having found no clue to guide his search, and I availed myself gladly of an invitation to visit the deemster, whose distant residence would remove me beyond the litigious farmer’s reach. Like many discerning men, whose circumstances have secluded them in a narrow circle, the deemster had expended the vigour of his mind on abstruse and occult sciences. He believed in necromancy, and had stored his library with all the judicial examinations of witches recorded by French lawyers, to the disgrace of the sixteenth century. I was too much fatigued in body, and too incredulous in mind, to listen without many hints at the lateness of the hour, which the deemster seemed very unwilling to understand, and at length asked me, in a lowered tone, if I had ever read Burton’s disquisition on spirits?—Good-manners required a serious answer; and my entertainer, after much preamble, confessed that his own house was visited by unquiet and disembodied beings. He added a very earnest apology for the circumstances which compelled him to lodge me in an apartment which they were said to disturb. My unaffected fatigue gave so much real gravity to my countenance, that it encouraged him to recite the causes of his belief, and amongst other articles, a dream which seemed to be a kind of heirloom in his family. This dream implied, that when a glee-eyed lord came to that mansion, a treasure should be found in it. My host had a slight defect in one eye, and he congratulated himself that he had left the ruinous part of his large castellated mansion undisturbed till the accident which had befallen his sight entitled him to realize the prophecy. His design was to begin a search in a short time, and he conducted me to my chamber with some joyous anticipations, probably intended to cheer my spirits. They were certainly depressed in an uncommon manner, and not much revived when the Virgilian line occurred to me. It was the fifth day of May, the anniversary of a dear friend’s death, never remembered without peculiar regret, as it had been eventually caused by strange mysteries. The book which lay on a forgotten shelf had something ominous in it. It opened at the very words said to have been engraved on the Elector of Saxony’s ring by an unknown hand, “After Six.” Those mysterious words, as the Saxon historian tells us, were afterwards found to indicate the time appointed for assasination, and I went to bed with very gloomy visions hovering about me. My repeater sounded the hour four times, and a vague doze began to quiet my nerves, but its sixth stroke roused me, perhaps, because it was aided by a confused sound in the room. Day-light was beginning to find its way through the deep casements and dark hangings, but not sufficiently to shew more than the outline of a man stealing from behind my bed. Despair is always stronger than fear, and this man’s violent efforts to escape my grasp, and especially to prevent me from calling help, proved the extent of his own desperate guilt. One, only one moment he seemed desirous to take my life, but presently his purpose changed, and seizing the advantage given by his wavering hold, I overcame him. “Spare me a few minutes,” said he, in French; “I am a very miserable wretch, but not a reprobate.” I dragged him to the light, and could hardly credit my eyes when they recognised the poor Gascon teacher who had supped with me at the farmer’s house. He supplicated mercy in the humblest manner, protesting that he had entered the deemster’s house only to hide himself from pursuit, and hoping that the haunted rooms would be disturbed by no visitor. His look of famine and despair, and his solemn protestations of repentance, induced me to open the casement, and bid him leap out. He hesitated only an instant, for steps seemed to be approaching, and I had the pleasure of seeing him safe among the trees before my host entered. Either his own restless curiosity, or the sound of a voice in my room, brought him thus early; and if he had not triumphed in my evident agitation as a proof that his house was really visited by strange apparitions, it would have been impossible to have escaped troublesome enquiries. He amused himself with his own comments and conjectures till after breakfast; and as I could not deny that some disturbance had occurred, he probably thought me worthy to partake super-natural communications, and therefore chose me as his companion in the business of searching for concealed treasure among his ruined chambers. It may be guessed with how little zeal I aided in the work, which we began that night with spades and Ianthorns, and continued nearly all the following day without success, till we removed the shattered wall of a large closet near my bed-chamber. There, in a huge decayed chest of evident antiquity, we found an enormous silver cup or flaggon in a state of polish and preservation which surprised the good old deemster more than myself, for I had no doubt that the farmer’s stolen treasure had been deposited here by the felon whose escape I had aided. It is hardly possible to conceive embarrassment more ridiculous or extreme than mine. If I permitted my honest antiquarian to carry forth his prize for sale, he might be perplexingly challenged as a receiver of stolen goods, and if I named the real owner without confessing my connivance at the thief’s escape, my own integrity might be questioned. The safest medium was to suggest the propriety of concealing this precious relic, lest it might excite the avarice and envy of his neighbours, and tempt them to undermine his castle. These were plausible and powerful hints, which he embraced so readily, that he proposed, for the greater security of the silver cup, to remove it into my chamber. Though I had some private reasons to fear that my Gascon friend might return to complete its safe conveyance away, I durst not object to an expedient which appeared so reasonable, and implied such confidence. The flaggon was deposited in my care, and the most suspiciously timid miser could not have watched that night with more anxiety. But, amongst my uneasy apprehensions, a thought occurred which the supposed patron of lawyers must have suggested. I say the supposed patron, because even the prince of demons would not have tempted a lawyer into a dilemma so dangerous, if he owed any obligations to the profession. This pernicious thought tempted me to look at the cup, and to consider, that by effacing the rude inscription which the late owner had made on it, its identity might be rendered questionable. On the rim were these initials and words, SALLY · C · O · ’S Q’ POT · · M · HEIR OF U · S · . . . . . . . . . which by a few small
punctures and additional strokes became a very respectable Roman legend. The next morning, to my utter confusion, brought the farmer himself, to lay before my host, as his Majesty’s deemster, the particulars of his loss, and the
reasons he had to believe the felon still lurking in the island. Fortunately for
the honour of that immovable firmness which ought to characterise an honest barrister, I was not present during his detail, but the deemster’s repetition of
it gave me some illegal sensations. However, he examined his cup, which seemed to threaten us with as many adventures as befell Parnell’s Hermit,
and asked my opinion of the legend; adding, that according to the Reverend
Fathers Cayjou and Chamillart, such vessels were called cinerary vases or
ossvariums—“Now,” said he. “the inference is most logically certain and
distinct. Farmer Faustuff has lost a flaggon—I have found a vase—ergo,
my vase cannot be his flaggon. Besides, he tells me he stamped his initials on the edge, but here is SYLLA · COS · Q · POMPEI · RVFVS. The P rather resembles an H, but some unskilful graver may have shaped it.”

And in full confidence of the weight due to these distinctions, the good deemster set forth on horseback to deposit the questioned article in the hands of his brother-magistrate, while I rode by his side, inwardly execrating the contrivance which had produced his dangerous confidence, and firmly resolving to abide the consequences of a disclosure when we reached the house of the south deemster, whose prudence and ability were more famous than his colleague’s. But before we reached it, our evil stars conducted us into the lonely vale of Kirkmichael, near some ruined cairns, from whence rushed four strong men in sailors’ garments. The deemster, whose person greatly resembled Falstaff’s, soon fell into their hands, with the exquisite cup which he carried on his saddle-bow, not chusing to entrust his servants with a charge so important. When they had muffled my hands and eyes, I was surprised to find no violence offered to my purse, though they seemed to lead my horse a very considerable distance. In about an hour, a shrill whistle called away my guards; and after a long pause, during which I had leisure enough for sublime resolutions, my face and arms were unbound by one of my friend’s tenants, who informed me I was very near the place from whence we had set out. Without entering into the history of the unfortunate cup, I told him of the outrage offered to his master, and we began a search for him with sufficient assistants. We might have spared our pains. Nothing could be heard of him till a week had elapsed, when his house-keeper, with great astonishment, found a sack deposited at her hall-door, and saw her master creep forth in a large red petticoat, a stiff mob-cap, and a black silk calash. Notwithstanding some melancholy reflections on a similar event which I have already recorded, it was impossible to resist his grotesque countenance, and his complaints of the barbarous manner in which his assailants had compelled him to travel on a vile horse, in the still viler attire of a nurse, above twenty leagues circuitously, after robbing him of the precious cup. Of these assailants I dared offer no opinion, for my meeting with the Gascon in a sailor’s garb had not escaped my memory, and this last exploit, though disrespectful to the good old judge, had certainly rescued us both from a dangerous enquiry. But as popular opinion seldom favours a lawyer or a magistrate, the resentment excited by the robbery soon sunk in the laughter which followed our ridiculous adventure. It is wise to allow certain outlets and channels to the malignity of the vulgar. When the wells are seen to flow, there is no danger of a volcano.

M. Chateaubriand, when he visited modern Sparta, told us he had never met with any hut so detestable as his lodging in the granary of a Turkish khan, where the goats disputed his morsel of biscuit and cup of milk. Had this traveller seen a cabin in the Isle of Man, he would have been at no loss for a comparison. In one of this miserable kind lived a poor Englishman, called Philip, and his wife, whose misfortunes had driven them to seek a sanctuary from their creditors. Their poverty was extreme, but not sufficient to subdue that decent pride which shuns public commiseration, and their consequent seclusion from busy visitors rendered them unacquainted with the favourite subject of Manx conversation at this period. The woman’s name was Geraldine, which implies that her birth had been among a polished class, and her countenance had the kind of beauty which arises not from rosy good-humour, but from dignified sorrow. Late one evening, as she sat spinning in her hut, she was alarmed and surprised by her husband’s long absence, and still more by his return loaded with a large basket. Philip informed her, that he had received it from the boatswain of an English ship then moored in Ramsey-bay, with a present of five dollars for the task of conveying it to the farmer of Kirkmichael. He looked pale, agitated, and thoughtful; and when urged to execute his commission without delay, intimated a half-formed wish to see the contents, as he had been requested to detain the basket till the ship had sailed. His wife heard him with inexpressible doubts and anguish. During the last month he had regularly absented himself on certain days, and had returned pale and languid, but with a supply of silver for which he refused to account. At this moment there were red drops visible on his sleeve, and the deadliest whiteness covered his lips and forehead. Geraldine hardly dared warn him against farther guilt, not knowing how far he had already plunged. He opened the basket, and displayed a silver cup, which his eyes measured with the eagerness of desire. His wife silently observed his movements, and saw him deposit it in a secret corner of their wretched habitation. He ate his portion of bread and water without venturing to meet her eyes, and fell asleep on his heap of straw. Even his deep slumber added to his wife’s horror, as it seemed a proof of fixed and fearless depravity, but it favoured her purpose. In the dead hour of night she took the basket from its place of concealment, and wrapping herself in her cloak, traversed the desolate valley of Kirkmichael, and deposited her burden on the farmer’s threshold, as she believed, unseen. She heard only her own faint breathings as she hastened back to her husband’s door, which she had begun to open, when her cloak was seized by the rough hand of the farmer himself. She rushed in with loud shrieks, by which she hoped to awaken Philip, and intimate the necessity of his flight; but the unhappy man, confused by interrupted slumber, and conscious of a felonious purpose, only hid himself under his bed. There he was found in an attitude of fear and shame which might have justified the suspicions of a milder judge. Both were dragged before the north deemster, who immediately recognized the antique cup found in his own mansion, and claimed it as his property. The matter was referred to the chief court of criminal law, and I was summoned by both parties to identify the unfortunate cup. The farmer sturdily appealed to his own inscription on the rim—the learned deemster maintained that it was a legend evidently of the Consul Sylla’s period, and applied to me to confirm his opinion. I endeavoured to satisfy my secret sense of justice, and to conciliate both opponents by observing, that there were other marks on the vase which had not been noticed when we found it in the haunted mansion.—“Why there now, bless his honour!” said Farmer Faustuff, “his young judgeship is right—there is my dame’s name at short on the flaggon top—ELIZ. FAUSTUFF—but the zed looks rather like an X.”—“Man,” interrupted the antiquary, in a rage, “thou reversest the inscription—it is manifestly to be read thus—FAUSTUS FEELIX—What thou mistakest for a second F is an E.”—“Lord, Sir! but I cannot mistake the plough-colter which I figured there with my own hand, as a mark of my calling.”—“A plough colter, man! it is an augur’s staff—Faustus, the son of Sylla, was an augur; and Felix is the epithet Sylla always preferred, because he boasted of having fortune in his pay, as we are told by Pliny, Plutarch, and Appian. The word Felix is here with two E’s, according to the orthography of the ancients, who used to double the vowels in long syllables. We find proofs of this in many inscriptions.”—Neither the farmer nor myself could answer these arguments, and the matter was deferred to a second public hearing. But whoever might be the owner of the vase, the public agreed in believing Philip the thief, for his poverty would not allow him to purchase friends, and his pride made him defy his enemies.

Tully tells us of a law, or received custom, which permitted the accusers of a man to search out all his former defects and errors. As my ill-judged officiousness had increased the perplexity of this case, I thought myself bound to reverse the Lex Accusatorium, and enquire into all the good points of the prisoner’s character. I discovered, that to gain a sum sufficient to preserve his wife from famine, Philip had earned by his midnight labours the silver appropriated to the May-Elf of the Isle, and that this was the occasion of his mysterious absences from home. An explanation so touching, and the reluctance with which he gave it, implied too much tender and generous feeling to allow any suspicion in my mind that he had been the colleague of robbers, though a strong temptation might have shaken him for a moment. And he steadily persisted to me in the account he had given his wife of the unknown sailor, whom I determined to believe the Gascon in disguise. To the great surprise of the farmer, the deemster, and the good people of the Isle, I undertook his cause, and obtained his acquittal. After it had been pronounced, Philip and his Geraldine were invited to sup with me at the house of my friendly antiquarian, who still persisted in prosecuting his claims to the silver vase with all the spirit of a Manxman in law. It was the fifth of the month, and I had begun to congratulate myself on the failure of the Virgilian oracle, which my success on that day had falsified, when a large packet was brought to me, bearing on its inner cover the post-mark of Corfu. The letter—but I must copy it all, for no extract or abridgement would do it justice.

A MONSIEUR—MONS. - - - - - - - -

“I pray my very good friend will do me the honour much great of making l’amende honorable for me to Monseigneur le Deemster, for giving him capriole on mine little black horse, and putting monself into his chateau with Monsieur Faustuff’s coupe d’argent, which I borrowed for one little occasion. Agreèz, Monsieur, to believe it was not convenience for me to stay in the Man’s isle, but I never cannot forget Monsieur’s bounty when he help me out of the window. Non, M.—I have come to deposit my cinders at this Corfou, which they call in antiquity turn-by-turn Drepanum, Macria, Schérie, Corcyre, Cassiopée et même Argos!—Ulysse was thrown here without his coat—Le grand Alexandre when he was baby came to be citizen here—Caton rencontred Ciceron in this île after the kicks of fortune before the Triumvirs. Ah! quels hommes!—what eventments!—Encore I say again, Monsieur, under this sky-blue, where I can see the thirteen pear-trees of Homer’s old gentleman, (not more venerables than the pears of le grand Henri at Ivry) I recognise my absent friends. There never was but one dog ingrate here, and that was a Lancaster puppy: Et puis, which I not know how you say with your English tongue, that villain-dog (which l’histoire calls Math) was servant to an English king, and had never seen le grand nation. Accept, Monsieur, assurances of my high consideration.

Le Marquis De Gonflecœur.

“I have send back the silver pipkin.”

This letter was accompanied by a box containing a rich blue velvet vest, an Albanian shawl and ataghan of curious manufacture, and a little of the soft chalk formerly used to seal letters. These articles amply indemnified my antiquary for the loss of his silver vase, and honest Philip’s acquittal was complete. I have since heard that the marquis is honourably settled as interpreter to a Pacha in the Morea, and I have no reason to put faith in Virgil’s line,

“Some days are fortunate—the fifth beware!”


(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 74, July 1818, pp. 9-13