MEMOIRS OF A RECLUSE
The President rose, as I have said, to collect and compare the opinions of his seven associates. “Our Brother began their narratives,” he said, “with a professed design to exhibit the evils of human life; but they have only given us a series of facts tending to prove how closely error is interwoven with pain, and justice with felicity. Since the Father of ancient anatomists and the Chief of modern sculptors have told us that the interior structure of man contains at least 6000 express indications of contrivance, and his outward form accords always with the precisest rules of geometry, we may conclude that his intellectual powers are adjusted to their purpose with equal fitness. And the seeming chances of human life, which cannot be more various than our forms and characters, may be found as accurately proportioned—therefore….
“President,” interposed our scowling Philosopher, “allow me to announce my intelligence that your logical inferences may be suited to the present occasion. Our Banker, judging, according to our sublime Rousseau’s maxim, that the possession of money only subjects men to the drudgery of buying what may be more conveniently stolen, has decamped with all our funds, and left us to try our internal sources of happiness.”
I am ashamed to add, Mr. Editor, that this news suspended all our eloquence. The herald of so much evil only smiled with the churlish joy usual to men who have studied misery till they love it. Brother Pertinax consulted his pocket-mirror: Ensign Bertram (alias your humble correspondent) opened the newspaper to ascertain the proposed reduction in the military establishment: and Dr. Beauclerc examined his list of surviving patients. Peregrine Philowhim, whose meagre countenance had been very little disturbed by our near prospect of famine, first ventured to break the solemn pause—“Faith, gentlemen, this shock reminds me of a most philosophical impromptu produced by my last patron’s valet, when the machine I invented to excite wit by electric strokes was tried upon him. The sentiments are altogether classical and appropriate.
Platow the Cossack said one day,
Lord! why should man be vain?
If his is poor he cannot pay;
If rich, he lives in pain:
Both Demoncrank and Harry Clytus
Did nothing else but laugh and cry thus.
The why should man his greatness vaunt,
A poor unplumag’d biped?
Why honest four-legg’d creatures taunt,
And carry such a high head?
A man without his wit is funny—
But what’s his wit without his money?
“Mr. Philowhim,” said our Poet, rather angrily, “this may be very pleasant to you who have been accustomed to dine with magnifying spectacles; but unless the diving-bell of your imagination can find something better, we must seek for ore in the Thames according to your learned chere amie’s suggestion.”
“I see no resource for us,” added Sir Pertinax Townly, still consulting his pocket-mirror, “unless we dispose of ourselves by auction or lottery. We might be arranged very properly in the usual order of capital prizes; or a few of us might be comprised in one lot, according to the general fate of odd volumes.” Another awful pause was broken by our scheming Brother’s exclamation, “Eurekas, I have found it!—never had Archimedes himself greater reason to rejoice in a discovery! In this portfolio is a piece of oriental music, in which every sound is expressed by a corresponding image, and every concord or discord in it forms a picturesque groupe. Let us borrow the old Brahmin’s idea, and obtain a patent for publishing sonatas in the shape of landscapes. A purling stream might indicate a succession of soft notes; a forest thick with innumerable leaves would represent the difficulties of a fine chromatic passage; and a full thundercloud behind might express the sublime burst of sound usual at a grand finale.”
“Certainly,” said Clanharold, “the sister arts of music and painting might be beautifully blended by associating lovely forms with ideas of melody; but this specimen of ancient Hindoo harmony seems to suggest an improvement on Lavater’s system. Might you not obtain a more profitable patent by devising a gamut of human faces expressing the gradations of intellect and beauty?”
“Many thanks for the hint, Brother Poet. And as bass and treble notes admirably shew the contrast between the shrill sounds of female eloquence and the growlings of deep masculine wisdom, we might contrive an instructive example of the concords and discords resulting from both united. For this purpose, I have already sketched a gamut of faces exhibiting the seven stages of spleen, as displayed in our own fraternity, with an accompaniment composed of seven female heads whose scornful beauty affords a tolerable excuse for us.”
We all gathered round this whimsical caricature—“These fair heads,” continued Philowhim, “which I have placed according to nature, an octave lower in the scale than ours, are borrowed from a certain institution established by seven wealthy spinsters. They reside in a romantic seclusion, admit no strangers, and amuse themselves with collecting all the legends left in favour of their sex by historians of seven nations. But as the compilation of so many female heads required adjusting, they inquired for a confidential amanuensis to transcribe it. I was a candidate for the task, and had the felicity of a moment’s glance at seven heads worth a thousand pounds to Drs. Gall and Spurzheim.”
“Pray,” said Sir Pertinax, surveying them through his eye-glass, “is the office of secretary vacant now?”
“O most probably. King Boleslaus, who employed a hundred clerks, or Cardinal Dubois, who hired one merely to scold at, never gave an amanuensis more trouble. In addition to my task of transcribing seven legends of female virtue, I was employed in copying sonnets, making extracts from lectures on conchology, craniology, and pathology, and composing paragraphs for the scandalous chronicle. In my haste and confusion, I communicated a recipe for the best noyau to the Antiquarian Society, instead of a dissertation on a petrified owl found by one of the sisterhood; and sent an order for a bottle of patent Parisian cream in an enveloppe designed for a sentimental ode. My dismission followed, and I came here, like other ex-secretaries, to reveal the secrets of my office.”
“I have heard such intitutions proposed,” said Dr. Beauclerc, “as fit and desirable asylums, but have fearful doubts of their utility. Mineral poisons may lose their inveteracy by mingling, but those of the moral world grow more malignant when collected. Imagine a society of females infected with vain and dissatisfied self-love, consequently with envy, ambition, and uncharitableness! Imagine how each would consume her talents in frivolous devices, and blight her associates by spleen and calumny! Such a female circle would form a place of torture beyond all that tyranny ever devised—a torture too various to be described, and too ridiculous to be pitied.”
“Very true!” sighed forth our poetic Clanharold—“flowers perfume the air if unconfined, but poison it if covered in a close jar.”
“Your axiom may be elegant,” interposed the Cynic, “but it is not true. Flowers may dephlogisticate the air, as you say, in a close jar; but they never purify it any where. It has been proved by Ingenhousz and others, that the stem and leaves, not the flowers, of plants have power to improve our atmosphere.”
“Allow me,” said I, “to pursue your thought. If there is any resemblance between the beauties of animal and vegetable nature, it is not the gaudy, variable, and fading decorations of modern females which sweeten social life, but the soft and steady virtue that gives support and diffuses balm like the leaves and stem of an aromatic plant.—Let us carry the analogy still farther. As flowers diffuse a malignant air only in the absence of the sun, I conceive that the florid talents of women, which you suppose mere poisoners of existence, require always the correcting influence of a kind and benevolent spirit. Such a principle fixed in their own minds, would render their ornaments both innocent and lovely, as the presence of light gives colouring and health to vegetables.”
“How tenderly expressed!” retorted my opponent with a glance of malice; “but I am not quite convinced that the globules of light have any share in colours; nor is a lady’s character always so flowery as it seems. Many a traveller has found nothing but senna and coloquintida where he expected poppies and….”
“A truce,” said our eldest Brother, “to this contest between science and imagination. Let us all remember that wit owes its attraction to good-nature, as the violet ray of the sun gives magnetic power to the needle. But as we enjoy without understanding the principle of light, I choose rather to admire than to decline the genius of woman. I look upon the female mind as I look upon the sea. Without presuming to explain, I know the noble and necessary element which composes it; but I also see its fluctuation, its insolidity, its uncertain and often violent motion. Therefore, though many encounter it with safety and success, I am content to walk at a sure distance on the shore.”
“Brothers,” said Counsellor Lumiere, very gravely, “though corporations may legally and necessarily employ a secretary or prolocutor, I know not whether a community of spinsters can be considered in the eye of the law, and according to its statutes, a real and effective corporation. For it requires, 1st. lawful authority; 2dly. proper persons; 3dly. a name and place fitting thereunto; and finally, it must be an assembly whereof one is head or chief. Now it is evident that females cannot exercise lawful authority, inasmuch as, though a woman may be a sexton herself, or vote in the election of one (vide Strange, 1114), the law allows her no other office, wisely intimating that her chief concern and pleasure is to bury her husband; or, as one of the sex expresses it—“to plague him first and bury him afterwards.” Nor can a community of spinsters ever elect a chief, as it is their profession to be uncontrouled, and each a sovereign of herself. Nor is the name of Tabby appropriate or fitting, being derived from a tame domestic animal no way similar to a feme sole, quoad spinster. But if these points should not be litigated, and this institution can maintain itself, I will venture to offer my aid, being experienced in all the forms of the law:—which forms are necessary (saith Hobbes, 232), or the law would be no art. But as spinsters ought to be named generosa (see Dyer, 46 and 88), I shall expect a retaining fee, and believe their verdict would be non obstante.”
“Brother Hermits,” exclaimed Sir Pertinax, after a long yawn—“are we not debating like the philosophers who reasoned on the golden tooth? Before we dispute about this female institution, we should be very certain that it exists. Let us choose one of our fraternity by ballot, and send him to ascertain the fact:—if he can obtain a view of these rich recluses by offering himself as amanuensis, we will all assist him in transcribing their miraculous legends, provided he supplies us with a copy of their rent-rolls.”—Every voice gave assent—the balloting-glasses were prepared, and my name was drawn forth. Our speculating buffoon, Philowhim, gave my hand an honest shake of congratulation. “But be not too sanguine,” he added, “in your hopes of obtaining a clue to the bower. If you can find credentials enough to recommend you to the office of copyist, you may possibly be entrusted with the precious manuscripts, but not with a glance at the seven heiresses. Remember your duty to us, however; and as a member of the Taletelling Club, or Brotherhood of Bioscribes, endeavour to furnish us with a new romance, at least.”
“Fear nothing,” was my answer—“We once called ourselves the Eunomian Society, because we intended to seek the law of happiness: and as we borrowed our name from Hesiod’s loveliest female personage, we may find teachers of happiness among women.”
* * * * *
And now imagine me, like a second Baron of Triermain, in quest of a most perilous adventure. Having passed under the arch of a giant-rock which forms the colossal portcullis of Dovedale, I followed the narrow path hewn on the edge of a chasm whose sides are clothed by the arbutus and mountain ash, and whose depth would seem unfathomable if the glistening of the Dove did not betray its channel. The alpine bridge which hangs over this chasm brought me to the threshold of Willow Hall. But there the alpine scenery disappeared: a screen of interwoven oaks concealed it, and I saw only a sunny slope, regular enough for a bal champêtre, and bordered by the river which spreads itself there into a clear and broad mirror. Forest trees complete the amphitheatre: and the village spire, the smoke of a few cottages, and the outline of a grey mountain, were just visible beyond. I leave you to fancy it with the rich gold and purple colouring bestowed on the superb pavilion of rocks by the setting sun. “This might be the home of happiness!” said my imagination when I looked round. Do not smile, sagacious Editor, for this my first thought in whatever place I enter. And why should we not view every habitation with a wish to think it pleasant? There is a reserved and feminine spirit in happiness which will not be won unsought.—When the portress had opened the iron gates of Willow Hall, I found myself in an ancient parlour, where the sun shining through an ample damask drapery, reminded me of a kind heart seen through a glowing face, and gave a charming couleur-de-rose to the assembly. In a chair of state sat the foundress of the institution, surrounded by her sisterhood. Had I been a pupil of the Great Henry’s first tutor, Le Gaucherie, I could not have presented my credentials with less grace; but they were successful. The historian of the hermits became the spinster’s chronicler; and if they are deserving credit, they may claim a page in the same pages.