MEMOIRS OF A RECLUSE
Sir Pertinax Townly, our third brother, began his narrative with a graceful application to a superb gold snuff-box. “Science and philosophy,” said he, “are not the only sources of human vanity: for mine, I confess, was never influenced by either. I am the disciple and the martyr of fashion.
“You have heard me mentioned, gentlemen, as the youngest of three brothers who lived unmarried under a tacit compact that the last survivor should inherit the whole family-estate. In his fifty-fifth year, my second brother gave the honours of his name to an adventuress with two hundred penniless cousins, and announced an heir. “What intolerable folly!” exclaimed the eldest of my two seniors, and immediately signed a deed giving forty thousand pounds to his Cinderella’s uneducated daughers. I saw the loss of my reversionary hopes with fewer pangs than usual, as my fashionable celebrity and unfaded age promised some compensation in marriage.
“Never depend upon your children, Pertinax!”—said my eldest brother, as he sat bending with paralytic infirmity at his desolate fire-side, forsaken by those who thought their father’s errors an excuse for their ingratitude. He expired a few moments after, leaving me nothing but the task of settling the incessant and furious disputes of my nieces and nephews. They were settled at last, but not till the will of my eldest, and the marriage of my second brother had been annulled, and their whole estates devoured by litigation. Thus benefitted at least by their experience, I determined to avoid a disproportioned marriage, or the reproach of a nameless progeny. As my brothers had been deluded by women without honour, and robbed by children from whom they had withheld a right to venerate them, I thought myself happy in my escape from all ties of a kind so precarious. Horses, dogs, and fashionable friends, employed my time and purse; but at the close of rather more than forty years, I saw my life passing like a meteor, without any regular or useful light, and without leaving a single trace of its path. I began to feel that fear of utter death which is unknown to those who hope to live in the remembrance of posterity. The infatuation of my brothers, ruinous as it had proved, seemed less wretched than mine. I felt the insufficiency of transient ties, without daring to form others more permanent.
“I wish you were married and settled in the country!” said Lord Bolingbroke to his large dog when it trod on his gouty foot. This wish, though very malevolently spoken, was soon the highest and most constant of mine. But difficulties began to rise. My reputation and fortune had passed their grand climacteric, and both were falling into decay. Several peers flourished a curricle whip with newer grace, and two Yorkshire peasants walked thirty miles in less time than myself. Thus my celebrity was tarnished, and bets to redeem it sunk my fortune: but an unexpected event restored both. You will deem it, gentlemen, a proof of the good which always in some respects results from evil. Lord Aircastle, whose eccentricities have been related by our Brother Peregrine Philowhim, about this period dismissed his daughter in the rage excited by her elopement. I was his nephew and presumptive heir, and he invited me most graciously to his Hall of Experiments. Never had fantastical chimæras a fitter herald! Cuvier, his favourite naturalist, would have been perplexed in what class to place him, for he appeared to have neither nerves nor brains, except in the same proportion as a shark’s, which are, as he told me, only the two thousandth part of its substance. His eyes glared like two ill managed gas-lights; and his person would have resembled an oblate sphere placed on two parallel poles, if an unlucky curve in the shoulder had not given it more similitude to the handle of his own air-pump. Yet this man had flatterers!—Plato says there are only four ways of flattering; but a woman would have taught him a thousand. Three ingenious ladies, aware of his daughter’s irretrievable offence and his enormous freeholds, chose to offer consolation. Miss Rodelinda Delphine Stormont, a damsel with 500 unpublished sonnets, two philological essays in folio, and a novel still in MS. besieged Lord Aircastle’s citadel in the open and regular style of modern war. The Hon. Mrs. Artemisia Bustleton, an accomplished widow, in possession of full vouchers from her physicians and undertaker that the defunct husband had been dismissed with due decorum and despatch, was the next assailant: but Olivia Gossamer, the ward of Lord Aircastle, seemed most dangerous to his philosophy. Only in her eighteenth year, with all the graces of education though of unknown origin, this fair syren resided in his neighbourhood under the tutelage of Mrs. Bustleton, who always officiously seized the advantageous office of chaperoning youth and beauty. This office, so wisely instituted by modern dowagers, was her passport to Lord Aircastle’s society and to mine; though, as the younger branch of a ruined family, I did not deserve her notice. She concluded that my long visit to my relative was an expedient to escape my creditors; and I encouraged a report which preserved me from any cobweb sensations among ladies. But Lord Aircastle one day astonished me by suddenly saying—“Pertinax, if your indolence is not greater than your vanity, here are three hearts at your disposal. Widow Bustleton’s is a strong earthen jar, hermetically sealed: Rodelinda’s seems an empty tin cannister, fit for a puppy’s plaything: but Olivia’s resembles a clear glass decanter: one may see all the contents, and it ought not to be broken.”
Seeing my grave dismay, he added—“You have persuaded yourself, I perceive, that Olivia’s beauty would induce me to eat a hemlock-sallad like Magliabechi of Tuscany, or to avoid the force of love by living in a church steeple, according to Professor Scougall’s example; but, my good cousin, those powers of beauty are past. The fumes of my crucible have not yet reached my brain, whatever the world may say; and I give you frank permission to become my rival with all force of your accomplishments. That you will not be my heir is a secret which I honestly whisper in your ear; but to be reputed such will be of equal service.”
The good old peer laughed, leaving me astonished at the vanity which induced him to suppose his beautiful ward capable of bestowing a thought upon him. But his last intimation was most forcible. If no inheritance was designed for me, the necessity of seeking and securing fortune became urgent. I balanced the chances of advantage, and began to feel myself, like the famous shepherd, perplexed by three beauties. Rodelinda’s wealth was merely mental, but perhaps my distinguished name, if bestowed upon her, might affix ton to her talents and—a price on her works. Mrs. Bustleton appeard to possess a more worldly genius; but as it embraced every art, not excepting that of sustaining a polite establishment with only 600l per annum, I saw temptations to blend my fate with hers. Still, gentlemen, there are moments when, notwithstanding the due sense we all feel of our own value, and the importance of a certain compensation for the risques of marriage, we yield to the charm of disinterested affection. Olivia’s partiality seemed so involuntary, so excusable, and so deeply rooted, that my hesitation would have ceased if her origin had been less obscure. But to confer my title on a person born perhaps (pardon me) in a repository of consolidated curds, was a hazard not endurable: and I determined on another expedient. Fortunes, it is notorious, have been gained by advertisement, and this path to an eligible match seemed much less tedious than the old fashioned ceremonies of introduction and courtship; though modern damsels no longer require us to offer civilities or to sneeze and sigh by moonlight among damp myrtles. I announced my pretensions accordingly in the usual terms, through the medium of three celebrated newspapers, and on the following day received this reply:
“If X. Y. Z. can bring vouchers of his fortune, family, and reputation, he may expect a lady in the prime of life at the white gate of B. church-yard, between 7 and 8 to-morrow evening.”
As my uncle seemed disposed to give me only a perspective view of his fortune, I thought myself entitled to borrow his semblance whenever it suited my present convenience. The leisure hours of my youth were often devoted to dramatic amusements, and I have been considered no indifferent mimic. The “slippered pantaloon” of a Christmas pantomime may give some idea of the disguise I thought fit to assume on this occasion. A flapp’d hat, false nose, and muffled legs, with the crutch-stick and wrapping-coat of an ancient invalid, completed my resemblance to Lord Aircastle. The shade of night had begun to gather when I opened the church-yard gate, and beheld—not the fine form I expected, but a matron-like Duenna, bent double as it seemed with age, and wrapped in a red cloak, whose hood scarcely allowed me to perceive the nose and chin of a most haggard face. Two figures better suited to a church-yard never met. My courage began to fail, but I collected enough to say, in a tremulous treble voice, “X. Y. Z.!”—“I am an agent,” replied the spectre, in a tone which I immediately recognized—“But are you only forty years old?”—“No more, madam!” replied I—“though some asthmatic symptoms and intense studies have wrinkled me. The lady, I understand, is in the prime of life—of course, about my age.”—“She will require,” answered the negotiator, “some vouchers of your family and estate:—and as—excuse me, sir—as there seems some probability of widowhood, a jointure will be requisite.”—A counterfeit cough hid a laugh which almost suffocated me as I replied, “Madam, I have no objection to settle my estate in Terra Australis upon her, though I think the chance of widowhood almost a sufficient compensation.”—My incognita looked at the church-yard with a gesture which implied her thoughts on some agreeable probabilities, and added, “A note of hand should not be given in the matrimonial way with value received!”—“Charming Mrs. Bustleton!” I exclaimed, assuming Lord Aircastle’s voice, “this disguise may obscure your beauty but not your wit. I thank it for devising this mode of acquainting me on what terms my coronet would be acceptable.”—The fair widow’s first gesture expressed alarm; but presently dropping her hood and well-contrived mask, she answered, in her most dulcet tone, “Lord Aircastle has not surprised me, for the refinements of sentiment and science are always united: but on this occasion I act only—as—as the deputy of a friend who flatters herself that she has claims—and my disinterested regard is proved by this sacrifice of my own—” “Whatever may be her claims, madam,” rejoiced I, “she secures my acquiescence by such a representative.”—Mrs. Bustleton bowed her head with such joyful triumph in her countenance, that it provoked me to add, “Really, Mrs. Bustleton, my intentions would have been less ambiguous if your conduct to my nephew had been more intelligible.”—“Surely, my dear Lord! no jealousy could be excited by my trifling attentions to Sir Pertinax. It is really charitable to soothe the constant thirst of such dropsical vanity, and he is never amusing except when he is ridiculous!”—I knew not what my countenance expressed, but fortunately a stifled laugh behind a tomb-stone alarmed the fair widow, and she glided away like a spirit of the night. My anger was suppressed by curiosity when I saw a paper, which in her hasty retreat she had dropped, near me. Within it—O gentlemen! the clear moonlight shewed me these words in the hand writing of my Olivia—the disinterested, the refined, and open-minded Olivia, whose devotion to me had been so fascinating!
“You will be charmed to hear, my good cousin Bustleton, that Viscount Clamourcourt has spoken explicitly at last. He could not resist the ice-cream offered me by the Duke of———at Lady Evergreen’s rout. I return you, with many thanks, the sermons on Domestic Virtue which you lent me during Mr. Almscant’s visits. They will be of no use at present; but as Lord———is a lover of virtù, I have bought an Egyptian sphynx seated on a terminas to support my work-table, which I shall fill with shreds of shoe-leather; extracts from Professor Blinkensop’s logarithms; the newest treatise on filling mattrasses with gas; and half a pair of boots cemented with iron-glue. If this fixed air or iron-glue could close the crevices of our purses, it would be worth while to buy the patents; but a fashionable education furnishes other expedients. Pray shew your usual skill in pacifying Sir Pertinax Petcalf. I am really concerned for his disappointment, as his uncle seems disposed to leave him the Aircastle estate. But it was impossible to discover whether the machine in his left side was of cork, lead, or stretching leather. Besides, I have wasted too much time in dropping sonnets among rose-bushes, and waving my fan in county ball-rooms. Such self-lovers require a siege longer than the Iliad.”
No doubt my gestures were outrageous while I perused this odious fragment; but they were suddenly interrupted by a tall vigorous man, who seized my arm, while the church-yard gate was opened by three others in Lord Aircastle’s livery, followed by his carriage. My consternation was extreme; and before I could determine how to escape from the peril in which my disguise had placed me, my conductor exclaimed, “We have him safe now—he shall waste no more of his heir’s estate in foololgy and matthewmadtricks. Drive gently, and he may breakfast with Dr. Willis to-morrow morning.” The coachman fixed his eyes on me, and started back—“Sure enough he has had an analeptic fit at last! how strangely his nose is awry!—he is struck dumb too, but so much the better. All this comes of calvinism and lecturefrying.”—Silence indeed seemed my best resource, as resistance would have been in vain; and my four attendants having placed me in the chariot, it was driven rapidly towards a repository for lunatics. When it stopped at an obscure inn on the road, I profited by my supposed infirmity, and suffered myself to be lodged in a bed-chamber, where, by gestures and grimaces, I indicated my speechless state, and had the pleasure of hearing my guards descant on the flagellations and cataplasms usual in such cases. Deluded by my apparent helplessness, they left me on a couch in the custody only of a nurse, twin sister to Sycorax, who soon resigned herself to aniseed and sleep. Perceiving the auspicious opportunity, I exchanged my uncle’s apparel for her large cloak, cap, and bonnet, and, climbing through the window to the roof, descended a neighbouring chimney, at the hazard of my life and reputation. Whether she escaped from the discipline intended for Lord Aircastle, or whether she was thought his best representative, I never ventured to enquire; but after this perilous adventure, I could not presume to revisit his house, as the attempt to secure him in a fitter habitation had been prompted by myself, though and unlucky combination of circumstances rendered me the victim. The fair widow, Artemisia, whom I most devoutly wished in the mausoleum of her namesake’s husband, contrived to expose my imposture to my uncle; but I found some consolation in remembering, that her disappointment had been as deep and ridiculous as my own. Your hospitality, gentlemen, afforded me refuge in this embarrassing crisis. Persons less benevolent have viewed my disaster with more derision than pity, and ascribed what they call the insignificance of my age to the frivolous expenditure of my youth. But I have many companions in my present state; and can proudly prove that all my errors have been fashionable.”
Counsellor Lumiere took the speaker’s chair with a smile at his predecessor. “You have given us,” said he, “a farcical epilogue to our second brother’s tragedy; yet they both exhibit that certain, though sometimes slow, retribution which is called poetical justice, not because it is uncommon, but because it is natural and beautiful. How pleasing such justice is to all men, may be inferred from the general similitude of all moral codes in every age and nation. Casuists may insist on the force of hereditary prejudice, custom, and example; but I conceive the force of laws established by conquerors or devised by imitators would have been insufficient to gain and preserve their long sway, if an instinctive love of order and justice had not seconded them. My professional studies have shewn me, that the earliest customs of our ancestors expressed a distinct and prevailing sense of right: and perhaps their absurd and barbarous customs were, like their language, a confused effort to convey ideas obscurely but nobly formed. Among the religious and social institutions of ancient Romans, Jews, and Britons; I might add even among the remotest and the rudest nations; there is a resemblance too striking to be explained, without admitting that a reverence for truth, for the decencies of conjugal life, for the authority of age and the memory of the dead, is natural in men. Their institutions are as various as the shape of their features; but those features have the same purpose in all. Love of justice is the noblest instinct allotted to man as the noblest creature; and its prevailing force may be traced among a thousand instances, to which I presume to add the events of my life.”