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Anna Jane Vardill

Tales of To-day

The Balance of Power

When we had listened to our lady-president’s romance of modern education, we sat down to laugh at its absurdity, and to end the last day of our visit to Park-gate by the best supper its thatched inn afforded. While the landlady was in quest of her choicest grouse pie, and the waiter-general preparing the only decanters in her cupboard, a strange and ominous sound appeared to proceed from the wall of our apartment. Had we been still discussing the relics of popular superstitions, our prepossessed fancies might have converted the sound into a ghost-like groan; but as we were amusing ourselves with the follies of To-day, it struck our cars only as a long yawn struggling with a laugh. However, the incident began to grow worthy a chapter in romance, for the pannel of the dark wooden wall slid slowly back, and discovered a cavity from whence rose a shadowy face muffled in folds of such tartan as usually equips a poetic seer. In Italy such an opening would have given very reasonable expectation of a bandit-scene, but in Galloway we knew it probably belonged only to one of those concealed cup-board beds common in the ancient hostels of Scotland. The occupant of this came forth with a good theatrical step, and bowed profoundly to our groupe, saying, that he knew not whether we ought to punish our Landlady for admitting a passenger to sleep in our sanctum sanctorum, or to recompense her for securing such a willing auditor. The joyous Provost shook his clansman heartily by the hand; our lady asked if he had brought any corals or red oranges from the Caribbees; the captain enquired a┼┐ter his ship, the minister and clerk about new books. When the young traveller had shaken his curls, smooth’d his plaid cloak, and seated himself near the decanters, he replied, “Listeners usually hear something of their own affairs, and those who tell tales of to-day ought to be well informed of facts. Lady Barharror’s story of her fourfooted Lara’s polite education, wants only two or three additions to be quite true; and having listened in patient silence and a dark cup-board more than three hours, I deserve to be the last and most accredited speaker To-day.

“A young staff officer returned from one of our last campaigns with only two trophies of his valour—a large Pomeranian dog, and a little girl bequeathed to his care by a dying Cossack on the field of battle. He consigned both to an English lady, who took them under her protection; and when he returned four years afterwards, merrily said, that Madame Chateau Briant had been desired to educate the rough Pomeranian dog, but had mistaken her instructions, and educated the pretty little Cossack savage. Not content with this amiable finesse to hide her bounty, this charming woman of fashion took her pupil into the best society, still pleasantly pretending that her kindness was well repaid, because a Cossack-protegée made her assemblies irresistible. But I must tell Lady Barharror that my prize—for I need no longer speak in the third person—my prize was not dumb, except at first in our language. When the Russian ambassador came to England, a man of some consequence in Count Platoff’s household claimed both my Pomeranian dog and poor Iwanöe, as the property of a veteran once distinguished in his service. The Russian officer offered a dower with the lovely Cossack if she chose an English husband, but she was accepted without any, except a wisp of straw and a wooden cage.”

“Straw and a cage!” echoed all our party at once; and Lady Barharror added, “I have heard of the batogs and other agreeable implements of a Russian husband’s authority, but these are quite new either in England or Tartary.”

“They are symbols,” replied our traveller, “of a domestic invention of great utility; and since every one else has told a tale, mine (as the clock has not yet told twelve) will end the day.

* * * * * *

In addition to the use of straw in framing Guy Fawkes’s effigy and other personages equally destined for the rising generation, we have lately discovered three very convenient purposes to which it may be applied. The illustrious Rob Roy ushered a messenger who came to arrest him for debt, into an apartment formidably garnished with weapons, taking care that he should see an effigy of a man well stuffed with straw hanging behind the door. His amazed visitor not doubting that he saw a dead body, enquired whose it was; and when Rob drily answered, “Only a roguish messenger that I hanged last night, and have not had time to bury”—the poor minister of the law fell into a swoon, and was carried through a pond to revive him. A painter more idle, but almost as ingenious as the Macgreggor, contrived an effigy of himself, which he seated on the scaffolding where he ought to have been at work, while he spent his time at a tavern. The third was a dancing-master’s device. Having no footman to dignify his chariot when it moved in a procession, he suspended one composed of straw behind him; but the horses that followed next in the rear, had a taste for investigation, and drew forth all his footman’s intellects. All these appropriations of straw deserve patents for the use of poor, idle, honourable men, who have not courage enough to borrow a few droves in the highland fashion; but the fourth which I am going to mention, was invented for the instruction of husbands.

My great-grandfather was a widower, and a perfect woman-hater, probably because we hate nothing perfectly without a mixture of fear. He derived this disposition from one of those chances which rebuke and defeat the petty calculations of men. In his youth he began a law-suit against a rich and capricious uncle, whose zeal to preserve his money baffled itself by throwing him into a fit of the gout, during which the young man entered his house, and married his heiress. The world laughed, and my great-grandfather laughed too, but the lady more heartily than either, for her fortune was absolutely and entirely settled on herself beyond her husband’s reach. They lived many years in that state of misery which Providence seems to permit, that men may be convinced no second purgatory is requisite; and the first command which their sons received when they reached manhood, was a repetition of Lord Bacon’s: “Marry not young, lest thou shouldst have too much time to repent, nor old, lest thou shouldst have too little.” And as a farther warning, my great-grandfather left them this precious statement.

1. A wise woman is the crown of her husband. Solomon. 1. A wise woman is worth 5s. to her husband. Modern Version.
2. If a beautiful woman would kiss the sea, its waters would be no longer bitter. Koran 2. The Supreme waited till he was asked to create woman, lest man should accuse him of spite.
3. The honour of a man is a virtuous wife. Sophocles. 3. There have been many wise men—only four wise women. Koran.
4. Let wives and husbands be equal. Solon. 4. What business have women in the world? Sophocles.
5. We govern all men, because women govern us. Themistocles. 5. I gave my enemy a wife, because I could do him no greater injury. Pythagoras.
6. Let men obey their wives. Cato, Cicero, Pompey, and Pliny. 6. All men are mad, but lovers the maddest of all. Ovid, Virgil, Horace, and Terence.
7. Plato tells us there are only four kinds of flattery, but a woman would have taught him a thousand. Plutarch. 7. Fire, water, and woman, are the three great evils. Homer.
8. A wife is the best half of man. Hindoo Institutes. 8. If she obeys him! Ditto.
9. He who wounds a woman shall lose his hand. American Indian Law. 9. But he may use a switch. Ibid.
10. A woman’s weapon is her tongue, which she uses to prevent rust. Chinese Institutes. 10. Fear no weapon but a woman’s tongue. Chinese Proverb.
11. Nature made man with an axe, but woman with a pencil. Canadian Tradition. 11. The Good Spirit was angry when he made woman. Ditto.
12. Let women rule their husbands. Egyptian and Babylonian Law. 12. Two days in the year only. Ditto.
13. Woman should be loved at all times. Henry and Frederic the Great. 13. There never was such a thing as a wise woman—the wisest of us is only a little less foolish than the rest. Mary Queen of Scots.
14. Authority is acquired by man, but natural in woman. Montesquieu. 14. Is marriage eternal?—then Heaven preserve us! Zimmerman.
15. A woman without loveliness is the mistake of Nature. Lavater. 15. A wise woman is as prodigious as a bearded one. Winkelman.
16. There are no virtues of the masculine gender but the inferior ones. Addison. 16. Why were fools made? to be companions to women. Ditto.
17. Woman is the chef d’œuvre of Nature’s works. Steele. 17. Deceit is invention in man, but instinct in woman. Ditto.
18. There is no virtue in man which is not more amiable in woman. Swift. 18. Apes have more entertaining tricks than women, and are neither so mischievous nor so expensive. Ditto.
19. We see her faults, but must love them all. Pope. 19. A plague on female wisdom! it makes a man ten times more uneasy than his own! Ditto.
20. Woman should be our mistress in youth, our friend in middle age, our nurse at last. Lord Bacon. 20. Women are like the baggage of an army—an inevitable evil. Sir F. Bacon.
21. First of all I thank God for my wife! Chief Justice Coke. 21. A woman should hold no office but a sexton’s, because she loves to bury her husband. Coke’s Institutes.
22. Chose thy wife well, for thy fate depends on her. Lord Burleigh. 22. Of all fools, a she-fool is the worst. Burleigh.
23. The eye of the wife is as the light of day to her husband. Bishop Taylor. 23. Where there is woman, there must be mischief. St. Columb.
24. We find benevolence in man, but its graces in woman. Rochefoucault. 24. There must be husbands, or who could govern women? Fontenella.
25. Let pleasant people say what they will, good sense is given equally to both sexes. Rousseau. 25. A very silly man would be a tolerably wise woman, but a clever woman would be a very silly man. Rousseau.
26. Women differ from us only in being more amiable. Voltaire. 26. Women are pretty dolls—if they are more, they are unnatural. Voltaire.
27. If women taught philosophy, who would not learn? Bayle. 27. Women reason as dogs dance—they do it ill, but one wonders they do it at all. Dr. Johnson.
      Balance on either side—NONE

My grandfather shrugged his shoulders when he read this statement of accompts, and thought it so nicely balanced, that another opinion was wanting to turn the scale. Therefore, as is usual when a youth of twenty-one is forbidden to try an experiment, he soon found irresistible reasons and inducements. On pain of disinheritance, and under the most imminent peril of discovery, he married a fair and portionless girl resident near his father’s house, and endured more than twelve years all the anxieties, alarms, and restraints, attendant on a secret preserved in such circumstances. With my great-grandfather’s death the secresy ceased, and with it all the charm that had diffused itself over this attachment. It seems as if romantic love, like the camera obscura, owed all its best colours to the darkness that encompasses it. My grandfather, when his marriage was openly avowed, and his establishment conducted according to the usual routine of domestic life in a fashionable circle, thought the Pros and Cons very fairly adjusted, and was apt to think he had made a needless attempt to decide the point. And as a long habit of dissimulation had grown easy to him, he began to practise on his wife those successful deceptions which his genius and her fondness had contrived to delude his father. He formed an acquaintance with one of those poor, yet splendid, adventuresses, whose beauty is made purchaseable by their vain ambition, and cheap by exposure. More to enhance the zest of this new attachment than from respect to moral or conjugal feelings, he studied the most profound secresy, and covered his frequent absence from home with plausible and even gracious excuses. On one of these occasions, he professed an affectionate desire to superintend the arrangement of a very splendid suit of new furniture for his wife’s boudoir, as a birthday offering, and had the pleasure of seeing her enter it with marked delight, because it appeared to have been the business of his secret journies. But when he visited the retirement of her rival, he was astonished, and even displeased, to see hangings of the same superb satin, and furniture in all respects of the same costly model. He apprehended that la Belle, as he entitled his sultana, had presumed without his license to equal the magnificence he still thought due to his wife, who he only called la Bonne. Yet when la Belle thanked him for his sumptuous generosity, he had not courage to disclaim it, and returned, half afraid to investigate the truth, to his own mansion. There he was surprised to see his wife’s boudoir deprived of its elegant embellishments; but la Bonne, smiling with the gentlest kindness, only replied to his enquiry, “I have sent them where they will give you more pleasure.”—“Ah!” said the husband, touched by the tenderness of the rebuke—“I have both la belle et bonne at home!”—And la Belle herself, when informed from whom the splendid gift proceeded, was subdued by the noble superiority of the injured wife, and saw the injurer no more.

But habits of deceit and secret machinations are seldom cured, and perhaps it is not easy to love those who humble us. Either weary of la Bonne’s unfailing goodness, or because his diseased mind wanted its usual food of stratagems and adventures, my grandfather found a second “La Belle,” whose chief attraction was the almost infallible one of seeming humility. So true it is, that we are more easily flattered by those who receive than those who confer obligations; and it is also true the injurer never forgives, therefore he soon availed himself of some supposed offence in his wife’s conduct as a pretext for separation. She withdrew into very obscure retirement, for the expenses of the new “La Belle,” though his station was high and lucrative, were too great to permit two splendid establishments: and her numerous offspring so fixed and extended her influence, that his indulgent fidelity, had it not been immoral, might have justified the fond devotion professed by its object. But a few years spent in this infatuation diminished and deranged his resoures. Still blinded by a generous though ill-managed temper, he continued to support his beautiful dependent in magnificent luxury, fearing to wound an affection which he believed so simple and sincere by an intimation of his danger. The ruin when it arrived was sudden and complete, but he effected his personal escape into Flanders, leaving la Belle and her faunily in possession of all he could bestow. His chief creditor, incensed at the extent of his uncured folly, made the most rigorous researches, and at last presented himself to the enchantress, proffering her a certain provision and an immediate reward if she surrendered the next letter which arrived from her protector without breaking the seal. This woman, unmindful of the bounty she had enjoyed so long and the safety in which even his life was involved, gave up the letter on condition that it was opened in her presence. It was opened, and contained information of the obscure sea-port to which he had stolen back for the pleasure of seeing her once more, and a letter of credit for a thousand pounds, the last gift he could make to her children. Struck with dismay and regret at the punishment her cruel selfishness might incur, she demanded this valuable paper or the promised reward instantly. “This is ours, madam,” said the creditor, “but your reward is already ". I promised only what would be a just and sufficient provision, and you have it. Quit this house with the infamy you have earned so well, and keep it as the only property that cannot be taken from you.”—Her miserable victim came without suspicion to his place of refuge, and was met, not by the creature for whom his honour and wealth had been sacrificed, but by his forsaken wife, who came to share with him the little annuity she had preserved from the wreck. He could neither accept nor survive this humiliation, and his last words were. “The account of good and evil is balanced.”

La Bonne, as my venerable grandmother was truly called, did not end her work of forgiving charity there. A son and daughter survived him, to whom she extended the kindest care of a mother, and I have often wondered that her son, as she called my uncle, did not burn the statement of accompts which he found in his father’s pocket. But he kept these Pros and Cons for his own consideration, especially when he studied the law as his profession. I must own our laws, when professionally studied, are apt to excite no very favourable ideas of women, as they exclude them so ingeniously from all offices of importance, except a sexton’s. But my uncle was a classical student also, and often said he admired notning so much as the Roman law which provided tutors or overseers not for children under age only, but for women also. And he highly approved the same law, that no woman should inherit more than one quarter of a rich man’s goods, or, as the Latin phrase quaintly expresses it, “no female shall possess the whole Ass”—a sentence which, though it formerly applied only to certain coin, now, as he said, might bear much wise interpretation, notwithstanding Lord Halifax’s approved advice to his daughter, “If your husband is an ass, take care that he is nobody’s ass but ".”

My uncle meditated so much on this subject, that he began at last to consider whether he should take a wife by the old Roman form of sale, or by lottery. The wits of those days said he married according to both these ancient customs, for he chose his bride by chance, and gave her as the price of purchase an article equal in nomination to the coin before-mentioned. Certainly it appears in our family annals, that he fell in love like the learned Magliabechi among his books, that he grew enormously fat during the agonies of suspense, as once happened to a professor of the law in Aberdeen, who took refuge from the power of a beauty in a steeple, till it became too slender to contain him; and finally, when the lady was entering a post-chaise with a more favoured suitor, he discharged at his rival a pistol loaded with currant-jelly, and carried off the prize. During the first year of his marriage, he practised all the whimsical tyranny by which men of wit and learning are apt to shew their deficiency in common-sense. He was displeased with her cheerfulness, because it might seem coquetry; with her seriousness, lest the world should mistake it for sadness. If her dress was plain, it disparaged his generosity; if it was rich, he doubted her discretion. I have heard him say, his peace-offerings and atonements for these fits of ill-humour cost him more pearl earrings and yards of lace than there are pages in Coke upon Littleton, even with all the annotations that have ever been written. Lady Catharine went through all the meanders of feminine blandishment to pacify her sovereign without effect, till she suddenly assumed the spirit of her namesake. Instead of listening to his murmurs, and waiting for his commands or reproaches, she assailed him with jealous enquiries, scoldings, and fantastical requisitions. My uncle had no more occasion to blame her melancholy silence, or perplex himself to devise new gifts, for her prattle was incessant, and the jeweller never absent from his door. She was, as Rosalind says, more clamorous than a parrot against rain; but to the shrewishess of Shakspeare’s Katharine, she joined so much of that charming Rosalind’s grace, that my poor uncle could not have recourse to the privilege granted by a certain celebrated judge. But she soon became too completely fashionable to regard the limits of his fortune, and her hours of visiting would have been better suited to Lapland, where there is very little night, than to a climate in which the polite season has scarcely any day. My uncle reasoned, remonstrated, and even menaced, to no purpose, for his wife was resolved to verify the Rabbis’ proverb, “When ten measures of speech came into the world, the women took away nine of them.” She prepared for a most magnificent assembly on a scale of ridiculous expense, and her husband finding all opposition useless, acquiesced in silence. When the gala-night arrived, and the business of her toilette was begun, her fille-de-chambre announced that he was suddenly busied in adding a new decoration to the hall. Curiosity tempted her to visit it, and she found him surveying—not as she expected a Chinese lantern, but a very large and superb cage. Aware that she owed him some complaisance in return for his indulgence to her present whim, she enquired, in a tone tolerably respectful, for what he designed this elegant receptacle. My uncle, who had fortified himself by consulting that magic spirit which the Hebrews say “speaketh out of a bottle,” replied, “Only for a Bird of Paradise, my dear.”—“I should have thought it had been for an ostrich,” said his lady: “but what an extravagant basket you have bought for its food—it would have suited my toilet.”—And as she spoke she stepped in to look at the silver fillagree which covered a crystal basin, but before she could withdraw herself, the door closed, the cage began to mount, and she found it hanging in the centre of her hall. Knock resounded after knock, and visitor followed visitor; while my uncle standing at the foot of the stairs, exclaimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, as the express purpose of your visit is to see the lady of this house without any regard to her husband, I have devised this arrangement for your accommodation. And I really believe an obedient wife is a rara avis worth exhibition.”—Some laughed, but all understood the rebuke; and when his unwelcome visitors were dispered, my resolute kinsman caused the cage to be carried into his library. “My fair Katharine,” said he, when her hysteric of anger had spent itself, “if creditors could satisfy themselves in these days, as they did in former times, by selling their debtors in a market-place, I make no doubt that your lovely self would be sufficient; therefore it was not amiss to try the effect of your beauty properly hung out for sale, as these banquets and galas will soon leave me no other property. And I cannot see why it should be more ridiculous or disgraceful for a wife to look through the wires of a cage, than for her husband to be shut up within a prison-grate.”—Lady Katharine had finesse and good sense enough to see her cage would not open without some concession on her part; and she answered with the silver tone of a poet’s bird of paradise—“So you really believed I intended to ruin you? My dear honest husband, there was no way to cure your million of little ailments without putting you in fear of some monstrous evil. But to tell you a secret, when two or three hundred friends come to see me in this way, I always stuff my newest dress with straw, fasten it to my marble bust, and station it comme il faut in my first drawing-room, while I go incognito the opera. Now when you have a fancy to exhibit your phœnix again, I have no objection to hang in effigy. It will be quite as convenient, and more amusing to my visitors.”

My uncle unlocked his cage; but protested his intention to preserve it for her use if she infringed her allegiance or his revenue again. I never heard of its second public appearance; but the gay world of Dublin have not yet forgotten Counsellor C.——’s invention; and though he ascribed it to wine, many husbands advised him to demand a patent, and bring the wife-cage into fashion, especially as the reigning mode almost requires such a contrivance to render a lady visible among her crowd of guests. Since this experiment, he declares his Katharine has been as smooth as the Law-Latin of a wife’s name implies that she should be; and when he gave the statement of accompts into my hand, he added, “Balance on the right side.—One.”

This conclusion, addressed to the only lady in our party, could be disputed by no gentleman in it, though the young clerk secretly determined to search all the annals of justice in quest of facts to divert the next meeting. But the happy party at Park-gate assembled no more. The young collector satisfied his vanity by trans- mitting his gleanings to a literary friend, and endeavours to preserve a pleasant memory of the past among the whims of To-day.


The European Magazine, Vol. 77, January 1820, pp. 9-15