Anna Jane Vardill

LEGENDS OF LAMPIDOSA

COLLECTED BY A RECLUSE

Continued

THE ITALIAN

“Tell me not of our Ariosto and Petrarch!” exclaimed the learned Doctor Busbequius Buonavisa to his nephew Count Blandalma, as they walked in the great square of Padua: “All the books in the Vatican or the Alexandrian library, if they could be found, should never convince me that woman is not evil. What says the Talmud? What said the Council of Nice? and the Koran, and the Institutes of Menu—and—ay, and our own college?—Do they not all agree that the Creator did not send woman till he was asked, lest we should tax him with malice?—‘Woe to the father of daughters!’ said the Rabbi Ben Sirai; and I answer—Woe to husbands!”

“Sir,” replied the young man, meekly, “I might also defy you to shew me any poet, historian, or philosopher, from Hesiod to Voltaire, who has not contradicted himself at least six times on this subject.”

“Well, boy, well!—and what does that prove, except that when women were created, fools became necessary?—But what were they in Hesiod’s days, and what are they now? Ask Ovid, Lucian, Terence, or Petronius!—Hear the English sage in 1617—‘For what end,’ says he, ‘are women so new-fangled, unstaid and prodigious in their attires, unbefitting age, place, quality, or condition?—Why do they deck themselves with coronets, pendents, chains, girdles, rings, spangles, and versicolor ribbands? Why are their glorious shews with scarfs, fans, feathers, furs, masks, laces, tiffanies, ruffs, falls, calls, cuffs, damasks, velvets, cloth of gold and silver?—to what end are their crisped hair, painted faces, gold-fringed petticoats, baring of shoulders and wrists? Such stiffening with cork—streight’ning with whalebone—sometimes crushed and crucified—anon in lax clothes, and 100 yards I think in a gown and sleeve: then short, up, down, high, low, thick, or thin, making themselves, like the bark of a cinnamon tree, best outside!’ Answer me, Signor Ludovico Blandalma, answer me.”

“There can be no answer, uncle, to such a congregation of questions, unless I repeat the catechism of your friend Jacobus de Voragine, who composed it, perhaps, when he meditated matrimony. ‘Hast thou means?—thou hast one to keep and increase them—Hast none?—thou hast one to help thee.—Art in prosperity?—thy happiness is doubled—Art in adversity?—she’ll comfort and direct thee—Art at home?—she’ll drive away melancholy—Art abroad?—she’ll wish and welcome thy return—There is no delight without society—no society like a wife’s.”

“Hold, hold!” interrupted Doctor Busbequius—“listen to the obverse side—‘Hast thou means?—thou hast one to spend them—Hast none?—thy beggary is increased.—Art in prosperity?—thy share is ended—Art in adversity?—she’ll make it like Job’s.—Art at home?—she’ll scold thee out of doors—Art abroad?—if thou beest wise, keep thee so.’ Nothing easier than solitude, no solitude like a bachelor’s—Why, how now? Whence comes that offuscation of face, Ludovico?”

“Nothing, Sir,” replied the nephew, smiling, with downcast eyes—“a flush, perhaps, from indigestion.”

“Fulginous vapours, child! Savanarola and Professor Menadous prescribe diazinziber, diacapers, and diacinnamonum, with the syrup of borage and scolopendra, to remove them. This is an irregular syncopatic pulse, which indicates a chronic disease.”

“Very possibly, dear uncle, for I have taken a wife.”

“By the heart of man! (which is no profane oath, as I know not what the thing is made of) I am glad to hear it!—A wife, saith the Hindoos, is the staff and salvation of her husband; meaning, no doubt, that she chastises him in this world. I congratulate thee, Ludovico, on thy progress through purgatory.”

“Spare your raillery,” answered Blandalma, with a deeper flush, “I should not have announced my marriage to a cynic so professed, if I had not also had reason to acknowledge my conversion to his system, and my intended separation from—”

“From your wife, nephew!” interposed the cynic, charmed with this opportunity to reason on both sides of the question—“abstractedly, a wife is an evil, but relatively she is a benefit, because she exercises the cardinal virtues.”

“Sir, there was no enduring her diabolical temper.”

“That is another prejudice of ignorance, nephew. We have no reason to believe that Satan has a woman’s tongue; but admitting that a shrewish temper and a demoniacal one are synonimous, I can suggest a remedy. When your wife is eloquent, answer her in the words of Aristophanes—‘Brecc, ckex, ko-ax, oop—oop!’—Or there is another expedient:—the stones in the market-place, as you know, were once employed as public seats of exhibition for all the insolvent debtors in Padua, and they would be equally useful if vixens were required to stand on them barefoot. I have no doubt that the famous circle at Stonehenge was contrived by the wisdom of ancient Britons for that purpose.”

Whether either or both of these expedients would have been successful, remains in eternal doubt, as the next moment brought Ludovico a special messenger, announcing the death of his wife on her way to the baths of Pisa. As this event happened at a distance so convenient, there was no occasion for much solemnity of mourning; one of her relatives, with whom he was not personally acquainted, had arranged her funeral; and Ludovico carried his sable mockery to “midnight dances and the public show” with great satisfaction. But as custom is second nature, the unusual tranquillity which he now enjoyed became gradually an incumbrance, and he began to regret the varieties and inequalities of his domestic life. His uncle, after quoting Isocrates, Seneca, Epictetus, and every other ancient reasoner against melancholy, prescribed travelling, and determined to accompany him in his tour through the Mediterranean isles himself. As a busy indolence was Ludovico’s only motive, and his uncle had none except his delight in curious research among antiquities, their first disembarkation was on the isle of Mytilene—“Here,” said Dr. Busbequius, as they walked from the ship’s boat along the windings of the graceful coast, and looked towards a cassino half covered with orange blossoms—“here is a fit residence for a man whose imagination can give no flashes of light except on a summer’s day, like a Swedish marigold!—here, in the ancient Lesbos, the court of Cytherea, and consequently exempt from shrews, as all isles are usually safe from scorpions.”—Ludovico sighed in silence, and approached the garden-gate, where the owner stood awaiting their arrival. The terms of their admission as temporary guests were easily concluded with Signor Furbino, who received them with Italian civility. But when they required his signature to the contract, he informed them, that ceremony would be performed by his daughter—“I abhor all references to female wisdom,” said Dr. Busbequius—“it always makes a man more uneasy than his own: Why must we have a female signature?”—“Sir,” replied the master of the villa, “I have been naturalized in this island long enough to acquaint you with its laws. Here the eldest daughter possesses all rights allotted to a first-born son in other countries: the second is her menial servant, wears only a coarse brown garb, and is condemned to celibacy. If unfortunately a third daughter arrives, she claims all that her parents may have accumulated since the eldest’s birth, and the fourth in succession is her servant, or Calogria. Thus, gentlemen, our daughters are alternately heiresses and slaves, and our sons must seek their fortunes in other lands, or be humble vassals at home, since all the wealth, liberty, and power, belong to our wives.”—“Why, then,” exclaimed the philosopher, “this is worse than Egyptian bondage; even in Cleopatra’s days, her subjects allowed women to command only one day in the year! Sir, it is plain you require a courageous leader to break these hideous fetters; and if you dare follow me, I will harangue your countrymen in their senate-house till they resolve on emancipation.”—“You would find none but women there, Sir!” answered Furbino, laughing; “and your own emancipation would be rather doubtful. As for myself, I am not very unfortunate, being a widower with only two daughters; but I must act as the steward of the eldest, and one of you, gentlemen, must sign this contract in her presence.”

Highly amused by his uncle’s vehement indignation and eagerness to combat this prodigious system, Blandalma willingly ceded to his seniority the privilege of guaranteeing the contract. With his college peruke placed on one side, his left arm behind, and his right advanced with the roll of parchment in the posture of Cicero’s statue, Dr. Busbequius presented himself before the Lesbian lady, who sat alone in a superb apartment, leaning on her embroidery. “Madam!” said the philosopher, elevating his eyebrows and fixing his round person precisely erect, “though every code of law and every national opinion, from the lex Julia of the Romans to the talk of a Cattabaw chief, allows us to form contracts, either public or domestic, without female aid, I am instructed that your consent it necessary before we can be domiciliated here.”—“Is talking your profession?” said the Lesbian, fixing her large bright eyes on her orator—“if it is, you shall teach my macaw. I want him to learn Italian with a pure academical accent; and I admit no strangers unless they conform to our customs. Have you any name or business here?”—“My name,” retorted her guest, “which was never asked before without respect, is Busbequius Buonavisa, physician and professor of philology in Padua; and when my nephew has recovered his health, I thank Heaven, I shall have no business here.”—“Now!" said Lesbia, “does a physician dare to see a sick man?”—“What would our academy have to do, madam, if men were not sick?”—“Nothing, Mr. Busbequius; and therefore our custom is to chastise a physician every day until his patient recovers.”—“But, good lady, my nephew is only sick in mind, and requires no medicine except wine and a clear atmosphere, which, as Boerhaave saith—”—“I have no objection to hear you talk,” interrupted Lesbia, “provided you are useful in the meantime—either hold my lap dog, or this skein of silk while I unwind it. But is not your real name Boerhaave? I have seen your face before in his picture; and if I could learn Latin, I would read his works, and be physician-general to the island.”

The latter part of this speech so nearly resembled a compliment, that it reconciled him to the first; and Dr. Busbequius, forgetting how ill his portly resemblance to Boerhaave qualified him for a silk-winder, quietly performed that office while he made an oration on medical science, and ended it by signing the contract as Lesbia dictated. It must be confessed that she unravelled her silk with fingers of exquisite beauty, and employed eyes whose brilliance was heightened by the artificial eyebrow and rich complexion peculiar to Mytilene. The philosopher returned to his nephew in a very eloquent mood, and disturbed his rest more than half the night by descanting on the absurdity of this island’s customs, and the necessity of correcting them. Before day-break, he had convinced himself that it would be wisest to enlighten and reform the ladies of Mytilene, and for this purpose he resolved to teach Lesbia Latin. Blandalma shrugged his shoulders at his uncle’s quixotism; but as the sovereign lady of the family did not require or permit his attendance, he resolved to enjoy the pleasures of her villa. And as his former sufferings had disposed him to compassion, he took some pains to acquaint himself with her younger sister, whom the fantastical laws condemned to perpetual servitude. After many solitary rambles in the orangery, he saw a female there laboriously arranging its trellis in a dark brown habit of the coarsest cloth and most ungraceful form, with a long and thick veil which concealed all her face. Her hair was closely gathered under her hood, and her hands appeared of an olive tint roughened by labour. It was not difficult to recognise the unfortunate Calogria in this costume; and if her fate had been less entitled to benevolent concern, she would have won it by the meek humility in her gestures, as she offered her basket of oranges. This simple action, though probably due to the languor of his faded countenance, was sufficient to claim Blandalma’s gratitude, and to manifest the natural grace and courtesy of the Calogria. As the custom of Mytilene forbids that unhappy class of females to converse with strangers, she made no verbal reply to his civility, but her silence had more charms than eloquence. Nor was Ludovico slow in observing her activity and skill in her father’s household, and patient submission to the tasks imposed on her by her capricious and imperious sister. She had no leisure, perhaps no wish, to cultivate finer talents; yet she found means to display the sweetness of her voice in Lesbian songs, and to prove a delicate and ready wit in her brief replies to the billets hazarded by Ludovico. For the mystery which involved their intercourse soon touched his imagination sufficiently to rouse him from indifference, and the obstacle created by the laws of Mytilene became an incitement. This mystery, and its enlivening effect on his mind, would not have escaped inquisition, if his uncle’s attention had not been equally occupied. With a serious and declared design to convince Lesbia of the follies authorized by the custom of the isle, he visited her apartment daily, and soon discovered that her mind, if properly enlightened, would incline to exchange an absurd prerogative for the softer influence allowed to females. At first Lesbia seemed curiously interested in the enormous volumes brought by her new teacher, who collected the most ancient and ample ones on the subject of due supremacy and subordination. But Lesbia never reasoned, though she argued continually; and it was not easy to debate with an opponent who answered the gravest arguments by a laugh or a jest. And as she always found some employment for him during his harangues, poor Busbequius spent half his time in regulating her aviary, selecting bouquets, and holding her music-book while she adapted the odes of the first Lesbian poetess to the half-antique lyre still used in Mytilene. After a few interviews, he discovered that her figure in the picturesque costume of her island would afford Italian sculptors an admirable model of an Amazon; that her modern Greek manuscripts deserved a place in the academy of Pisa; and that she might be rendered a very useful amanuensis if her notions of female independence could be subdued. Instigated, as he always said, by no motive but the public good, our professor lengthened his visits every day, and certainly enlarged his fund of science. For Lesbia persecuted him with questions respecting the dress of his countrywomen, and would not understand his descriptions till he endeavoured to exemplify them by tying on his cloak and folding his official scarf in the style of a Paduan lady. And as she found his education very deficient, she told him, in the most important points, she compelled him to pour her coffee, arrange her work-table, and carry her parasol, which he endured with tolerable grace, as his obedience was an easy price for her attention to his precepts. With all the dignity and self-approbation of a martyr to the cause of philosophy, Dr. Busbequius sat by her side, gravely learning to knit while Lesbia pretended to read Cicero’s letters respecting his wife’s domestic virtues of industry and meekness, in a tone of profound attention and respect. We must confess these studies were often interrupted by a symphony on the Lesbian lyre, which she touched with skill enough to have enchanted Ludovico himself, whose first quarrel with his deceased wife had been because she refused to learn the science he idolized.

After some weeks had passed, the philosopher, one day, accosted his nephew with a mysterious air; and having intimated, rather awkwardly, that public benefits sometimes require private sacrifices, announced his intended marriage with Lesbia. “Superior reason.” said he, assuming a sublime tone, “has determined her to leave this seat of barbarous prejudices, and to learn the true graces of her sex in Italy. After this, Ludovico, let no one doubt the prevailing force of masculine rhetoric, wisdom, and perseverance.”

Blandalma had not been wholly blind to the progress of his uncle’s wisdom; but as it had furnished both a shelter and an excuse for his own, he made no attempt to oppose it; and very complacently inquired how he intended to convey a bride from a place where marriages with aliens are unfavourably viewed. The philosopher had formed a plan to elude all obstacles, and proposed that their felucca should be equipped as if for a short excursion, and Lesbia invited to partake it. Blandalma listened with unfeigned pleasure to a scheme which accorded so well with one he did not yet venture to avow. He felt, it is true, some pity on his uncle’s account, when he saw him fascinated by wit and beauty into a ridiculous union, but congratulated himself that his second choice was founded on the sure attractions of a meek and well-subdued temper. Never doubting that the Calogria would be permitted to accompany her sister in the projected voyage, Blandalma instantly provided his felucca with a trusty crew, and took his station in the cabin, as his uncle requested, to receive the fair companion of their adventure with due respect. He had never yet been admitted into her presence, as his indolent indifference had provoked the capricious haughtiness of her temper; and he, on his part, expected to see a face as shrewishly forbidding as some degree of youth and beauty could permit in Lesbia, and the utmost softness in her sister’s, which he had never yet seen unveiled. But when the lady entered, triumphantly ushered by his uncle, and threw aside her boat-cloak, he recognized, notwithstanding the artificial eyebrows and high vermillion added to suit her Lesbian costume, the features of his own wife. Astonishment at this resurrection, and perhaps a sensation not unlike horror, were so visible in his face, that Dr. Busbequius stood aghast, and mechanically felt for his lancet in expectation of a swoon. The Countess Blandalma, less surprised at the effect of her apearance, bent humbly to her husband, and inquired if he was still disposed to cultivate her Calogria’s favour. Ludovico made a confused and angry answer, that it no longer depended on himself. “It depends on you alone,” she replied, laughing; “your uncle has learnt to excuse your former submission to my fancies, and I have learnt how to render it easy. With all my fantastical pretensions to dominion, he did not think me intolerable; and without wit, beauty, or elegance, you found me very interesting in the cloak and veil of a dumb Calogria. When I wish for success in the art of pleasing, I have only to remember the industry and meekness you admired at Mytilene; and you will probably forgive my pretended death, which allowed you so much happiness.”

Blandalma had good-humour and good-sense; and as he knew she had acquired the art of being silent sometimes, he very frankly forgave the stratagem practised to regain him. Her uncle Furbino, by whom the principal part had been sustained, accompanied them back to their former residence in Italy, where their conjugal happiness became a proverb; while his honest uncle Busbequius wrote two folios to prove that celebrated truth—“Silence is the ornament of woman.”

V.

( To be continued )

The European Magazine, Vol. 72, September 1817 pp. 201-205