Legends of Lampidosa
Collected by a Recluse
The seventh hour of a fine autumnal evening assembled round a tea-table all the inhabitants of Willow Hall, including six spinsters of decayed fortunes and the foundress or president of their community, to whom they gave the monastic title of Sister Agnes, while their neighbours styled her more characteristically the Lady of the Hall. She was now seated in a rich damask chair, her face half-shaded by an antique frill and close point-lace cap, and her person wrapped in ample folds of dove-coloured sattin in the almost forgotten style of an ancient English spinster. Her associates were gathered to receive a visit from her earliest friend, a belle esprit of high fashionable fame, who probably designed to fill the seventh and only vacant chair in their society, where this hope caused as much sensation as Madame de Genlis among the Carmelites. Wet roads, the usual avenues to a Derbyshire elysium, began to be mentioned as the cause of her delay, when suddenly wheels rattled, bells rang, and the dark oak door gave entrée to the right honourable Barbara, only daughter of Lord Aircastle. A military pelisse, an immense over-shadowing French bonnet surmounted by a pyramid of flowers, a complexion highly bronzed, black curls a-la-Titus, with a step and set of features which might have suited Titus himself, announced her complete bon-ton as she glanced with elegant nonchalance over the whole circle. There she recognized the fair Mariana Alphonsine Clancastledown, who preferred a “select society” of strangers to the gothicism of knitting lamb’s wool and making cream-cakes for her father in his Scotch manse; the more celebrated Olivia Gossamer, whose unsuccessful manœuvres at Bath and Cheltenham had reduced her to what she called a country boarding-house; and a bright-eyed Spanish emigrant, to whom the ruin of an Andalusian convent in the last war had rendered this species of English nunnery a safe refuge. “My dear long-expected friend!” said Sister Agnes, rising, and advancing to receive her guest, in defiance of modern etiquette. Lady Barbara probably forgot it also, for she caught the offered hand, and bent her forehead towards it with playful yet affectionate homage.—“Not a word of reprimand!” she began—“I have executed all your commissions—Prince Bruinhoff’s quadrilles, specimens of 7000 flies from the Russian Academy, a forget-me-not from Waterloo, a basket bonnet from Paris, a pipe from Albania, and from London—a new treatise on the Shortitude, now a subject of more national concern than the Longitude …. but O Ventre St. Gris!—I have lost my willow cane!”
“I hope,” said the Lady of the Hall, rather drily, “you have brought a list of the most feminine expletives.”—“Ten thousand pardons for profaning your Sancta Casa; but how can one return to the pine-apple ice of English decorum after the ragouts of French belle esprit? Really I feel like a squirrel in a petrifying well—As to my cane, it was an absolute unique, and had been the subject of a charming parody by Sir Pertinax Townly—
“O Lady, chuse no cane for me
Or chuse it from the willow-tree!
Too briskly shakes the aspen light,
The burnish’d elm is all too bright,
The stiff bamboo and knotted pine
May suit a hand less soft than mine.
But, Lady, chuse no cane for me,
Or chuse it from the willow-tree”
“The subject seems very applicable to the writer,” exclaimed Olivia Gossamer—“I hope you sent a suitable reply?”—“O of course I answered,
“Yes, chuse for me a willow-bough,
Yet, O my swain!—suspend not now;
Wait till a few short months are past,
And I have looked and laughed my last,
Then, when it seems no longer new,
To hear thee sigh and see thee sue,
Then chase a trusty branch for me,
And chuse it on the highest tree!”
But what was I saying before?—I cannot imagine why one of Henri Quatre’s oaths should run so trippingly off my tongue, for since I left France I have taken a model of the Bulgarian salt-miner’s buckets, and learned to drive Prince Razamowski’s curricle with four bears in hand.”—“I suppose,” resumed Olivia, archly glancing at Lady Barbara’s pelisse, “that was part of their costume.”—“No indeed, my dear; this coat is according to the last order from the War-office. My brother forgot to pay for it, and I bid my artisan place it to my account. Bowman assures me this tête was bespoke by a colonel of the guards, who died insolvent; therefore my costume is complete. I wore it when I performed the king’s knight in Countess Babelrout’s chess dance, which, by the way, is no new thought, for old Archduke John’s vassals danced it in his black and white marble hall.”—“Not so picturesque as the Pyrrhic ballet, for our original Tarantula dance,” said the fair Spaniard, raising her eyes from a folio of antique drawings.—“O, we have tried all those according to Leon’s edition; but you interrupted the history of my coat—it served last night as a passport for my entrance into a certain debating society, where”—“Your entrance!” interposed the Lady President, half withdrawing her hand from the grasp which still detained it.—“Mine, I vow!” retorted Lady Bab, with a smile rather slily conscious than contrite—“My brother fancies he has had a disappointment in a tendresse—an amourette—an affair—I forget the right word; and he came among these mountains to die in a decent way of a broken heart; but having an incurable propensity to eat and sleep, he fell into a lingering state of embonpoint. Then he joined this fraternity of seven idle hypochondriacs, fit only to tell when it is going to be wet or dry weather, like the statue of salt at Cracow:—and I introduced myself amongst them under the name of Peregrine Philowhim, Esq. to learn the art of telling fibs.”
Four of the sisterhood suddenly dropped their cards on the whist-table, and their superieure drew her hand entirely from the modern belle, who went on without hesitation—“Every one related his romance, and I made myself the heroine of mine—Then I told a tale of this institution, persuaded them that you required a secretary to copy seven miraculous legends, and saw them chuse my brother by ballot as a candidate for the office.”—“But is he really coming?” asked Alphonsine, the youngest of the audience—“I came first to prepare for him,” said Lady Bab, laughing: “and that is my special reason for regretting my lost cane.—But he expects to carry back seven or eight instructive tales of feminine excellence; and after great pains and research, I have only been able to compose seven, though I gathered some odd anecdotes from the old registrar of Lampidosa in my travels. But here is a memoir I found in my brother’s coat-pocket, and it may serve for our eighth legend:—only let me secure my ponies before I unclasp the four and twenty attachments to my pelisse—Honi soit qui mal y panse!”—With this equivocal motto the pretended Lady Bab bounded out of the room, into a barouche, and through the hall-gates, leaving the astonished sisterhood to read this “last legend.”
“In the long deep valley which leads to the most picturesque cove in the western coast of Scotland, stands the Manse of Dundrennan, distinguished only by its white walls and new yellow thatch from the cottar-town, whose name is derived from the ruined abbey supposed to have been Queen Mary’s favourite resting-place. The deep green of meadows contrasted with neglected patches of long yellow broom, gives a checkered drapery, not unlike their national plaid, to the steep mountains which enclose this valley, though no trees flourish there except in the Provost’s garden, whose luxuriant plantations once overhung the stream, and concealed its windings. The stilly sound of this stream and of the mill-wheel was interrupted about twenty years ago by a post-chaise rolling along the narrow shelf called a road towards the manse-gate, where the minister and his family stood to receive it. The provost and his heiress, a sprightly English girl about fourteen, came in this magnificent vehicle to invite the minister’s only daughler, Marianne, to repeat a visit which she had paid a few years before. It was now Hallow-e’en—a season sacred in Scotland to mirthful incantations; and the young village lassie soon instructed her English friend in all the mysteries of the droukit sleeve and the ball of tow. The requisites for the latter ceremony were easily found in the laird’s old mansion, and the ladie, as his heiress was called according to Scotch courtesy, followed her instructress into a lonely room, where an empty kist or chest stood suited to the purpose. The ball of tow or yarn was placed within it, and the end drawn through a hole in the lid; to be turned gently till its sudden stoppage should announce the fit time to enquire the name of the holder’s future husband. In a few moments it stopped, as was expected; and “Wha holds the tow?” was asked with due solemnity; but a voice ominously distinct replied, “Whistle Bertie, the Provost’s turnspit.”—The young enquirers into futurity crept out of the oracular chamber in the silence of surprise, shame, and superstitious fear. But the second sensation, though it survived the first and last, was not quite strong enough to stifle the Scotch lassie’s curiosity, and she soon discovered that the yellow-haired sunburnt boy, known in the provost’s household by the name of Bertie, was one of those nameless orphans so frequently attached to Scotch estates in the humblest degree of servitude. Perhaps the supposed infallibility of the oracle might have inclined May Marian to think favourably of poor Bertie, though he was said to unite the wild archness of a Davie Gellatly with the stupidity of “Goose Gibbie:”—but the English heiress, firmly believing that the mysterious response had proceeded from a crevice in the wall, proportioned her resentment to the insolence of the affront offered to her playmate or herself. In a few weeks Bertie was removed from the Provost’s house to seek his fortune in another climate.
More than twelve years had passed after this trifling incident, when a traveller, well mounted, stopped on the brow of the hill from whence that house is visible. The sun shone gorgeously on the brilliant expanse of the Irish Channel, beautified in its centre by the Isle of Man, enshrined in clouds like the temple of some marine divinity. But the horseman looked only on the vale below him, though no trace of cultivation appeared, except a tuft of trees in the hollow, where a detached garden lay. To him this scene brought no ideas of neglect or desolation: the clumps of wild broom and the sheep-paths worn among them were all connected with “some social scene, some dear familiar face,” which his memory has made still lovelier. He returned to this delicious vale with the same determination to be happy which he had taken with him when he departed to struggle through the hardships of a friendless adventurer, and it had rendered him insensible to many miseries.
The world had been his school, and happiness his only science, but he had found it easy, because he limited it to the simple secret of acting usefully and thinking merrily. Therefore he still retained that pure and elastic spirit which is necessary to dictate those bold words—“I resolve to be happy.” When men become vicious, they are not ashamed of being miserable.
William Bertram, as our traveller called himself, continually repeated those words while he followed a road now overshadowed with wild rose trees and sweet briar whose plantation he had assisted. It led him to the manse of Dundrennan, where he learned from an old servant left there by the absent minister, that the good Provost was no more, his mansion tenanted by strangers, and his estate sunk in litigation. His reputed heiress, poor and almost desolate, had taken refuge in a small society of decayed spinsters, amongst whom a slender annuity sufficed to gain her admission. May Marian, the minister’s only daughter, was gone to the South, it was said, under the auspices of a noble lady. Only the last part of this intelligence was new to Bertram, who had pleased his pride, perhaps, with the hope of returning not unworthy or unwelcome to the young beauty, and elevating her above the haughty Southron girl, to whom he ascribed his banishment. Her removal disappointed a plan half spleenful and half romantic; but he comforted himself by remembering that he had escaped the danger of a rash connection, and gained time to consider what kind of female character would be best suited to his present prospects. Three beautiful images floated in his imagination which had created them: and he determined to suspend all thoughts of marriage till he could ascertain the best, or find the attractions of all three united. Nothing now detained him in Scotland, and he had a pleasant duty to perform in England, where the father lived by whom he had been lately acknowledged. Though that eccentric parent had not avowed his first offspring till he had found misery and disgrace in his subsequent connections, Bertram anxiously wished to reconcile him to the daughter whose caprices had provoked his resentment, forgetting how his own bright prospects might change when that resentment ceased. He knew her place of abode, though he had never seen her; and having resolved to be happy himself, he could not leave his sister’s happiness unattempted.
A splendid hotel received him on his arrival in London, and he would have thrown himself on a sofa to sleep away his fatigue, if a waiter’s abrupt answer to a very soft voice had not roused him. Was it possible that May Marian could be unprotected in this hotel?—All the romance in his disposition, all the glad remembrances connected with that voice so often heard in his boyhood, urged him to open his door, and he saw passing into the next apartment one of the three delightful forms which filled his day-dreams. It was the very form a painter would have chosen to represent the youngest and simplest of the Graces, if the face had not expressed more softness than mirth. But that soft melancholy increased the attraction, especially as he was now assured that he recognized the good pastor’s daughter of Dundrennan, and both benevolence and curiosity induced him to rejoice that an ill-closed door allowed him to see her reception in the next apartment. The frolicsome spirit of Davie Gellatly revived in him at the scene, and Chesterfield himself would have been tempted to peep at the actors. Marian, in all the graces of her slender figure, with a veil half thrown back from a face to which large upraised eyes and braided hair gave the character of a Madona, was kneeling before a short round personage attired in a Cossack tunic, and a riding-hat whose plumes hung archly aside over a pair of still darker eye-brows, mingling with the curls which lent some degree of feminine character to bright black eyes, a nose remarkably curved, and a wide range of ivory teeth, now displayed by a smile of most peculiar drollery.—“Ah, Madam!” said the suppliant, folding her hands on ber breast, “allow me to hope that I have not presumed on the noble sensibility expressed in your writings—that you will permit me to enjoy the illumination of your society!”—“This altitude is too flattering,” returned the patroness; “but , my dear little novice, what can you do?”—“Any thing or every thing that you would command, my lady!—any thing to be rescued from the languid nothingness of common life, and allowed to travel in your train through those enchanting scenes you have described among congenial spirits.”—“Very prettily said, child,” returned the plump lady, raising the chin of her suitor’s pathetic countenance with a familiar tap—“but as you know neither spelling, writing, nor reading tolerably, this charming face will answer no purpose any-where. Congenial spirits and enchanting scenery are soon found with a full purse and an easy post-chariot, but I never found them without, except upon paper. Go home to your father, my dear; feed his pigeons, and be easy.” The beautiful petitioner bent her head over her Minerva’s russet hand with a gesture of devout tenderness, raised her eyes in adoration once more, and departed.
All this seemed an unintelligible mystery to Bertram; but though he saw rather too much fierce negligence in the great lady’s Amazonian tunic and head-dress, there was a “light of life” in her eye and smile which attracted the volatile fire of his character even more than May Marian had touched its secret vein of romance. Summoning all that frolic fire, he entered the apartment, announcing his name, and his long acquaintance with the minister of Dundrennan, as an excuse for hazarding an enquiry respecting his daughter. The great lady poised her lorgnette very steadily a few moments, then dropped it with an unrestrained laugh. “This would have been extremely clever, Chevalier Bertram, if it was not addressed to your sister, Lady Barbara Aircastle. Well, chance has broken the arctic circle of a first meeting pleasantly enough, and, as my little visitor would have said, we shall be very congenial spirits.”—Bertram, rather startled by this whimsical recognizance, made the best reply he could invent, and Lady Barbara went on—“So you know that pretty adventuress!—She has read my two last publications on Moral Perfection, and thinks I keep a glass-case, I suppose, for all the butterfly-wing characters that cannot bear a rough touch. The lovely sentimentalist is tired of opening and shutting drawers, folding and unfolding table-cloths, and all the every-day business of life; and comes from Scotland, without the least acquaintance with me, to claim my patronage!”—“Is it possible that she can have forsaken her father’s home for this wild purpose!—but you will give her an asylum—”—“I, my dear new brother!—a girl of sentiment desires nothing but to think and feel—what should I do with a gentlewoman too refined to hem muslin and pour coffee?—Wear cobwebs and eat tulips, perhaps?”
Bertram was compelled to smile, but ventured to reply, “Since your magical pen has caused this poor girl’s dream of sensibility and superfine felicity, we owe her a safe conveyance home to her village at least. Is her father acquainted with the madness of her folly?”—“O, her father!—young ladies of sensibility quite forget such personages, and we should find it a very difficult task to bend the obstinacy of these light characters. A bridge of wicker-work is stronger than one of stone.”—"“True, sister, and life itself is but a bridge of wicker-work; therefore we must teach her not to despise the every-day trifles that compose it.”—“But you would not advise me to burthen myself with a creature fit only for a world made of uncrimped rose-leaves!—People never think this world too bad unless they are not good enough for it—as I said in my preface; but Voltaire says girls never read one. Well, Bertram, since you know her father and her name, which I doubted till this moment”—“It was the first I ever learned to remember with pleasure,” interrupted Bertram, eagerly; and it is my duty to keep it from stain.”—Lady Barbara opened her ivory tablets with great nonchalance, and replied, “Really, this will be a good hint for a scene, and full of stage-effect. Come, I shall not break the usual train of adventures. It is quite selon le regle that your Phillis should find me a bountiful patroness, but I am going to the Greek Isles and Herculaneum with the Baroness De S——. She shall have a less meteoric path.” The literary lady’s speech was suddenly interrupted by a servant’s entrance to announce another visitor.—“Chance is my divinity to-day!” she resumed, laughing—“here comes a true old-fashioned Englishwoman, exactly fitted to nurse your wild rose. Nobody quotes her bon-mots, or copies her dress, but every body remembers her good-temper. She is one of those soft hair-strokes that serve to bind together the thick downright masculine ones in Nature’s copy-book. Or if you like a conchological simile better, she resembles my favorite shell, the auris-marino, lined with the fairest pearl-colour, which the aquafortis of your wit, perhaps, may change to a rosy red, love’s proper hue.”
Lady Barbara prevented any reply by placing her finger on her lip, and the expected visitor entered in a dress so simple and becoming, that Bertram, if he had been asked to describe it, would only have remembered the wearer’s beauty: and when the ample veil was thrown back, it discovered a countenance whose animation prevented him from immediately recognizing the shy half sullen English girl he nad once detested. The muslin drapery which divided the saloon preserved him also from recognizance; and he now understood without approving his sister’s design to render him an unsuspected auditor, while she exclaimed, “I have a recruit for your brigade of recluses, Sister Agnes! but first tell me how you contrive to keep time amongst such a concert of unharmonized characters?”—“By the very simple art,” she answered, smiling, “of never attempting to play the first part. You have been told, that the seven members of my sisterhood are as various as the rainbow’s seven colours, yet you shall see them all mixed in one ‘arch of peace.’”—“I wish your arch of peace,” said Lady Barbara. “would extend over a few more solitary damsels. It has always been a subject of great surprise to me, that no asylum is provided for the thousands who learn nothing but to paint cockle-shells, break harpstrings, and fringe Ottomans;—or the twenty thousands who teach them. I have a charming young novice to introduce, if you have a vacant chair:—one of those romantic heroines who love to live in suspense and spin cobweb-mysteries like spiders, but not quite so industrious.”—“A woman of sentiment, I suppose?—Well, we shall soon cure her strange appetite for misery by making her acquainted with happiness, which, after all, is only another name for kindness. To-morrow is my thirtieth birth-day, and it is pleasant to think what a mass of comfort is composed of mites, such as every hour supplies, if we would only stoop to find them. My life passes away like music too familiar to be noticed, and is sweet though it passes unremembered.”
“The true life of an English woman!” thought Bertram; and he smiled at the chance which had placed women of sentiment, of genius, and of common-sense, in sudden succession before him. His sister answered, with a comic glance, “Such music would do better with an accompaniment. A shepherd’s pipe will be easily found when you regain the lauds of Dundrennan.”—“That is impossible,” replied her friend, very calmly; “my cause was decided to-day, and I have lost it. The minister gave evidence against my claim.”—“How! you have lost it through his means!—then I cannot expect you to receive his daughter—Yet she wants an asylum which I am unable to give.”—Agnes paused a moment, and rejoined, with beauty itself in her look—“I ought not to forget a friend because her father forgot me. He was a faithful witness, though not in my favour, and I honour him for his truth. His daughter shall find a home in mine, and, poor as I am now, you shall see I dare resolve to be happy.”—These last words, so often repeated by Bertram in his musings, were spoken in a tone which seemed the very echo of his own heart. He stood profoundly silent after her departure, remembering the long-past Hallow-e’en, and the scheme of vengeance he had cherished since. “Courage, brother!” said Lady Barbara, laughing—“a spindle and a handful of grass were an ancient bride’s gifts, but you must be content with the first since her estate is lost.”—“That loss has determined me,” he replied; “she knows how to bear it, and it renders us more equal. I thank you, sister, for shewing me three female characters in their true light. The woman of sentiment feels too often—the woman of genius reasons too much—the pupil of Common-sense does both only at proper times. Sensibility and science are charming when united; but plain Good-sense, which endures misfortune and forgives faults, is the best qualification of a wife, and the true national distinction of an Englishwoman.”
* * * * * *
Here the manuscript ended, and we are left to guess whether the fair Agnes pardoned the stratagem which conveyed Bertram’s history into her hands, or allowed him to realize the oracle of Hallow-e’en. But the chronicles of the Eunomian Society informed us, that he returned to boast of his successful visit to Willow Hall, where his brother-hermits found their lost Juanas. Olivias, and Alphonsines, and exchanged their vague speculations for domestic comfort and commonsense—
———“the gift of heav’n,
And tho’ no science, fairly worth the Sev’n.”