Anna Jane Vardill

MEMOIRS OF A RECLUSE

FIFTH HISTORY

Continued

The Physician, our fifth brother, rose with his usual smile—“I approve your motto,” said he, addressing himself to Counsellor Lumiere: “When the Creator sent light, he sent Truth and Justice into the world. Since they are elements of happiness, who shall accuse him of neglecting to provide it?—Yet both our professions, brother, acquaint us largely with the infirmities of human nature, and would be superfluous indeed if it was perfect. Let us be believed, therefore, if experience and research only tend to convince us how well those infirmities are balanced by its powers and resources. That they require regulation is no greater subject of complaint, than that the most exquisite machinery may fail without a due exercise of its springs. Every benevolent thought is a pleasant sensation. With this maxim in his head, a middle-aged man placed himself on the roof of a stage-coach, to enjoy a delicious prospect, and that healthful motion which, if it was not seen every day, and in almost every man’s power, would be deemed the most exquisite luxury. Your shrewd smiles announce your belief that this traveller was your fifth brother. Chief Justice Coke thanked Heaven because he had a good wife, took no physic, and knew the law:—I, at that period, was thankful that I had no wife, could live by physic, and never took the law. Without presuming to decide the rival claims of the peers and peeresses of creation, I had some vague ideas that the latter ought not to be paramount, especially as one of the sex has told me that the wisest woman is only a little less foolish than the rest. My father, whose union with my mother had been a mixture of peevishness and indifference resembling the American dish of sour cream and cucumber, paid implicit respect to Queen Mary’s opinion. Believing a clever woman only a mistake of nature, he chose for my bride a young damsel, whose ignorance would have placed her very high in that Italian state which was once governed by Il Quatri Illiterati, or the four great dunces. My journey in the stage coach, I have mentioned, was to see this model of primitive loveliness, whose poetical name entitled her to homage.

Alphonsine was too ignorant to be simple, and had acquired all those romantic notions which lodge in unfurnished heads. According to modern description, she had so much of the “freshness of youth, the spell of grace, and the mystery of loveliness about her, that her form resembled a brilliant exhalation from the incorporated mists of the morning!” This, at least, was her own private opinion; and as a humble physician could not deserve any treasure so ethereal, her first overt act was a formal protest against my visit. The simple name of Beauclerc, which I offered, was rivalled by one more attractive. She had that morning received a letter, of which, as we can all laugh at each other’s follies, a copy may amuse our fraternity.

“We shall soon escape, amiable Alphonsine, from the soulless intercourse of the world, and find peace in the charming retreat offered us by my native valley. You alone, who have courage to brave and break the trammels of heart-freezing custom, and to adopt the kind of happiness dictated by reason, are worthy to possess it with me. This evening shall waft you from the vile shackles of home to the paradise of love—

Not that cold love to frozen worldlings known,
Red tape his fetters, and a frog his throne;
Which strives in nooks and shallow swamps to stay,
Croaks at a cloud, and hops in haste away;
But that strange rapture, that delicious spell
Too vast to suffer, too sublime to tell,
Which bids us gaze, groan, quiver, and adore….
O! my soul swoons, and—I can say no more!
MISANDER

The sublime is said to be a secret something whose power and extent cannot be seen. According to this definition, Alphonsine’s resolution to bestow herself on a lover whose name and station in life she did not know, was a hazard truly sublime. The appointed hour arrived, and the fair elopee, with all the mystery which gives such importance and attraction to absurdities, was placed in a chaise by her Misander, introduced to his confidential friend, who accompanied them, and driven by the soft light of an October moon under the long arcade of rocks which forms the vale of St. John. The door of a thatched cottage, interestingly fringed with jasmine, was opened by the owner’s key, and no servant appeared to interrupt the frugal repast prepared for them of bread and sallad suited to philosophic appetites. The scanty furniture of the supper-room might be ascribed to the haste of preparation, and the lady made no comment on such sublunary trifles. But the following day, when she descended to this apartment, which seemed designed for every household purpose, she beheld a personage in a shaggy bearskin pelisse, with a cap of blue worsted, and a portable stove suspended to his arm. Magliabechi might have mistaken him for his own ghost, so complete was his resemblance to that celebrated sage’s costume; and even the eye of love could hardly recognize Misander in this brain-like attire.—“Good heavens!” said the gentle Alphonsine, “is that your usual robe de chambre?”—“Madam,” replied the metaphysical lover, “while I lived in the world, I conformed to its unmeaning rules; but as liberty is the child of solitude, I imitate Nature, who provides herself with only one suit in a year.”—“Then you will wear this always?” replied the lady, with an involuntary shiver.—“Certainly, madam; and as the most uncultivated nations retain the truest principles of nature, I recommend you to lay aside those muslins and laces which we should have found ready made in the world if they had been necessary, and adopt the leather vest and oiled cap, so respectable for their lasting utility.”—Alphonsine viewed in her mind’s eye (for their was no mirror) the elegant contour of her shape and face in such appendages, and remained rather sullenly silent. But as the most refined sentimentalists must eat, and she had waited till far beyond noon with exemplary patience, her lips condescended to utter the vulgar query, “Is it not breakfast-time yet?”—“Breakfast-time,” replied Misander, “is another arbitrary institution. There is no reason for giving that title to any hour, since no nation, family, or individual, ever exactly agreed about it. I eat when the viscera require employment; but if yours are swayed by custom, you will find a milch goat in the out-house, lodged there because I presumed your appetite might be less carnivorous than mine.”—“But I see no tea-kettle, and there is not any fire except in that basket which hangs at your elbow!”—“That is quite sufficient for me,” answered Misander, drily: “but if you think water benefitted by the action of fire, you may find sticks and other combustibles in the cellar. I choose to wear and to eat things as nearly in their natural state as possible.”

Alphonsine, whose ignorance of domestic matters fully equalled her romantic delirium, could only infer from this, that she must learn to provide her own fire and arrange her breakfast as she could. Very great surprise mingled with her admiration of Misander’s Spartan temperance, and she became rather impatient for the appearance of his confidential friend, whose voice and features had been hardly distinguishable the preceding night. “This way of breakfasting,” said she, timidly, “may be very proper for us who have refined sentiments; but what will your friend think, if he loves tea or coffee?” Misander gravely laid aside his book, and replied, “Alphonsine, you have shewn the greatness of your mind by accompanying me here before the banns of marriage were published and _______”—“You do not mean to intimate,” interrupted she, with a start of real terror, “that there is any delay intended beyond the time necessary for their publication?”—“I can have no objection to banns,” replied Misander, still more drily, “as even Kalmuc-Tartars, Bedouin-Arabs, and Cattabaw-Indians, perform nuptial ceremonies; but I expect from you a farther proof of magnanimity. The friend to whom I introduced you last night, though in male attire, is my first wife, and will be domesticated with us.” Utter amazement silenced Alphonsine, and Misander continued with the most undisturbed composure of face.—“It has always appeared natural and reasonable to me, that those who propose a perpetual contract should previously know each other’s humours and other characteristics. No one can describe them to you more impartially than my wife, or instruct you better in the mode of conduct I expect on your part.”—“Two wives!” cried the pupil of romance, raising her voice to a tremulous shriek: “and do you call yourself a Christian?”—“I do no more than yourself,” answered Misander; “you dispense with the precept which enjoins filial obedience, and I with that which forbids polygamy: but there may be a mistake in our translation; for the Hebrew word which implies a rib also signifies a stitch in the side.”—This speech produced a flood of tears, and a thousand vehement reproaches. “Pray proceed,” said Misander calmly folding his arms: “the Chinese consider a woman’s tongue as her only weapon; and I agree with them that it should be used to prevent rust. But listen also to reason, which is not less proper for use. We have no money; very little, perhaps, might suffice to supply our real wants; but as you know not how to dig, spin, milk, or bake, it is plain that I must retain my useful wife to assist in these purposes, and consider you only as a luminary of intellect to embellish and enliven me.” Alphonsine fled to the upper chamber of the little tenement, and barring the door, amused herself with hysteric shrieks of anguish, till hearing footsteps below, she applied her eye to a crevice in the floor, and saw the disguised friend enter. Misander’s conversation with this mysterious personage was long and familiar, but their whispers were indistinct. Frantic with burning curiosity and resentment, she sprang to the casement, and saw, after she had looked once or twice over the desolate valley in despair, a paper hung on one of the jasmine branches. It was within her reach, and repaid her eagerness to seize it, with words to this import.

“That I am your father’s friend and the son of his nearest relative seems to have been an obstacle to your favour; yet I cannot now forbear to state it as a security for my honour. You have fallen into the hands of a ruffian who might be believed a madman if he was not an impostor. I promise to escort you safely back to your father, without demanding any recompense except the happiness you will both regain. The mail to L——— passes the edge of this valley at seven o’clock, and your admittance into it shall be secured if you express assent by throwing down a tuft of jasmine blossoms. My presence, which you have always shunned, shall not be obtruded, though I hope to place myself as your protector on the roof of the vehicle, till your father has received you safely from
W. H. BEAUCLERC.”

How beautifully unexpected, and if the vehicle had not been a mail coach, how elegant and romantic! However, the flowery signal was given; and Alphonsine, with the comical cruelty peculiar even to reasonable woman, pleased her imagination by conjecturing the wan cheek and emaciated form which she expected to see in the lover who had suffered her rejection. Hope, added to the cooling influence of a small garret without fire, and a long fast, reduced her anger within bounds; and Misander, hearing no sobs or gusts of heroic frenzy, walked quietly out with his companion. It was almost twilight, the mail was visible in the long windings of the valley, and Alphonsine, seizing the precious opportunity, descended from the cottage-casement with the aid of her scarf and the clustered jasmine. In another moment her feet would have touched the ground, when she found herself seized by four strong arms, and carried into her prison again. Recovering from a swoon almost natural, she beheld Misander seated opposite with a tremendous frown. “Have you considered, madam,” he began with a stern voice, “the fittest punishment for adultery?—You can give no other name to your premeditated violation of the solemn contract between us?”—Alphonsine felt the heroism which should have lasted through five volumes, failing her entirely. She could not even articulate the simple fact that she was still free.

“The Egyptians,” continued Misander, “punished such an offence with 1000 stripes; the Greeks permitted a husband or a father to revenge it on the spot. Plato, Solon, Domitian, Severus, and Aurelian, deemed it deserving death. Lycurgus thought the Lacedæmonians incapable of it. The Germans cut off a false wife’s hair; modern Dutchmen permit her to expiate her guilt by paying 300 florins; but their ancestors threw a traitress into the sea in a cask, intimating, perhaps, that a cask should be the husband’s consolation. Caffrarian law, madam, directs me to use a switch; the Mexican requires a forfeit of your ears; the Abyssinian deprives you of all except your needle; and Indian Institutes allow you to be devoured—Chuse, therefore, the sentence most agreeable to your ideas of right.”

Alphonsine, wringing her hands, protested none were agreeable, as she had never injured any one.

“Perhaps so, madam, in our opinion; but a man of reason only regards his own. I allow you all a freethinker can desire, the privilege of chusing whatever law suits you best. Russians, I have heard, recommend a boiling kettle on such occasions; but having no luxury of that kind in my house, I hope you will prefer the expedient which a hazel or birch tree affords, especially as it is advised by the custom of this land.”

Misander composedly locked the door as he finished his harangue, and departed, leaving Alphonsine in no respect reconciled to the national customs he had cited. But the spirit of stratagem and adventure never forsakes a heroine; and her eyes were measuring the casement when she heard bolts undrawn, and saw a beckoning hand. An unknown voice whispered, “My husband is far out of sight—Depart, and be speedy.” The command was given and obeyed with equal caution. Morning had begun to dawn, but Alphonsine reached the high road without interruption, and was quietly received into the mail-coach, which she entered more rapturously than a heroine ought. Your fifth brother, as he informed you when his narrative commenced, mounted its roof soon after, and alighted at the same instant which brought it to the gate of Alphonsine’s father, who ran to welcome the restored fugitive. She sprang into his embrace, but looking back, perceived her pretended husband, and begged, with unaffected shrieks, for protection. The father, smiling, invited him to speak, and Alphonsine heard him for the last time.

“Do not apprehend, my fair friend, that you will be claimed again by a man rejected under the real name of Beauclerc and the assumed one of Misander. The farce contrived to awaken your respect for social duties and your gratitude for parental protection, has ended. Your father was my mysterious companion, and I have fulfilled my promise to restore you in forty-eight hours, convinced how little the visions of romance agree with female happiness or safety. We shall meet no more: the contract formed by our fathers and ourselves is dissolved, I think, by mutual consent; but we shall remember it without regret or dishonour. A physician’s proudest title is to be the pupil of Nature; and I have learned from all its movements, that religion and morality impose no law upon it except the law of happiness.

V.

(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 70, November 1816, pp. 397-400