This house was said to have belonged to Robespierre at one time, and a very large and deep well in one corner of the play-ground was invested with a horrid interest in our imaginations by tales of noyades on a small scale supposed to have been perpetrated in its depths by his orders. This charm of terror was, I think, rather a gratuitous addition to the attractions of this uncommonly fine well; but undoubtedly it added much to the fascination of one of our favorite amusements, which was throwing into it the heaviest stones we could lift, and rushing to the farthest end of the play-ground, which we sometimes reached before the resounding bumps from side to side ended in a sullen splash into the water at the bottom. With our removal to the Barriere de l'Etoile, the direction of our walks altered, and our visits to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Parc Monceaux were exchanged for expeditions to the Bois de Boulogne, then how different from the charming pleasure-ground of Paris which it became under the reforming taste and judgment of Louis Napoleon!
Between the back of our play-ground and the village suburb of Chaillot scarcely a decent street or even house then existed; there was no splendid Avenue de l'Imperatrice, with bright villas standing on vivid carpets of flowers and turf. Our way to the "wood" was along the dreariest of dusty high-roads, bordered with mean houses and disreputable-looking estaminets; and the Bois de Boulogne itself, then undivided from Paris by the fortifications which subsequently encircled the city, was a dismal network of sandy avenues and carrefours, traversed in every direction by straight, narrow, gloomy paths, a dreary wilderness of low thickets and tangled copsewood.
I have said that I never returned home during my three years' school life in Paris; but portions of my holidays were spent with a French family, kind friends of my parents, who received me as an enfant de la maison among them. They belonged to the petite bourgeoisie of Paris. Mr. A—— had been in some business, I believe, but when I visited him he was living as a small rentier, in a pretty little house on the main road from Paris to Versailles.
It was just such a residence as Balzac describes with such minute finish in his scenes of Parisian and provincial life: a sunny little maisonnette, with green jalousies, a row of fine linden trees clipped into arches in front of it, and behind, the trim garden with its wonderfully productive dwarf espaliers, full of delicious pears and Reine Claudes (that queen of amber-tinted, crimson-freckled greengages), its apricots, as fragrant as flowers, and its glorious, spice-breathing carnations.
The mode of life and manners of these worthy people were not refined or elegant, but essentially hospitable and kind; and I enjoyed the sunny freedom of my holiday visits to them extremely. The marriage of their daughter opened to me a second Parisian home of the same class, but with greater pretensions to social advantages, derived from the great city in the center of which it stood.
I was present at the celebration of Caroline A——'s marriage to one of the head-masters of a first-class boarding-school for boys, of which he subsequently became the principal director. It was in the Rue de Clichy, and thither the bride departed, after a jolly, rollicking, noisy wedding, beginning with the religious solemnization at church and procession to the mairie for due sanction of the civil authorities, and ending with a bountiful, merry, early afternoon dinner, and the not over-refined ancient custom of the distribution of the jarretiere de la mariee. The jarretiere was a white satin ribbon, tied at a discreet height above the bride's ankle, and removed thence by the best man and cut into pieces, for which an animated scramble took place among the male guests, each one who obtained a piece of the white favor immediately fastening it in his button-hole. Doubtless, in earlier and coarser times, it was the bride's real garter that was thus distributed, and our elegant white and silver rosettes are the modern representatives of this primitive wedding "favor," which is a relic of ages when both in England and in France usages obtained at the noblest marriages which would be tolerated by no class in either country now;
"When bluff King Hal the stocking threw, And Katharine's hand the curtain drew."
I have a distinct recollection of the merry uproar caused by this ceremony, and of the sad silence that fell upon the little sunny dwelling when the new-married pair and all the guests had returned to Paris, and I helped poor Madame A—— and her old cuisiniere and femme de charge, both with tearful eyes, to replace the yellow velours d'Utrecht furniture in its accustomed position on the shiny parquet of the best salon, with the slippery little bits of foot-rugs before the empty bergeres and canapes.
My holidays after this time were spent with M. and Madame R——, in whose society I remember frequently seeing a literary man of the name of Pelissier, a clever writer, a most amusing talker, and an admirable singer of Beranger's songs.
Another visitor of their house was M. Rio, the eminent member of the French ultramontane party, the friend of Lammenais, Lacordaire, Montalembert, the La Ferronays, the hero of the Jeune Vendee, the learned and devout historian of Christian art. I think my friend M. R—— was a Breton by birth, and that was probably the tie between himself and his remarkable Vendean friend, whose tall, commanding figure, dark complexion, and powerful black eyes gave him more the appearance of a Neapolitan or Spaniard than of a native of the coast of ancient Armorica. M. Rio was then a young man, and probably in Paris for the first time, at the beginning of the literary career of which he has furnished so interesting a sketch in the autobiographical volumes which form the conclusion of his "Histoire de l'Art Chretien." Five and twenty years later, while passing my second winter in Rome, I heard of M. Rio's arrival there, and of the unbounded satisfaction he expressed at finding himself in the one place where no restless wheels beat time to, and no panting chimneys breathed forth the smoke of the vast, multiform industry of the nineteenth century; where the sacred stillness of unprogressive conservatism yet prevailed undisturbed. Gas had, indeed, been introduced in the English quarter; but M. Rio could shut his eyes when he drove through that, and there still remained darkness enough elsewhere for those who loved it better than light.
During one of my holiday visits to M. R——, a ball was given at his young gentlemen's school, to which I was taken by him and his wife. It was my very first ball, and I have a vivid recollection of my white muslin frock and magnificent ponceau sash. At this festival I was introduced to a lad, with whom I was destined to be much more intimately acquainted in after years as one of the best amateur actors I ever saw, and who married one of the most charming and distinguished women of European society, Pauline de la Ferronays, whose married name has obtained wide celebrity as that of the authoress of "Le Recit d'une Soeur."
I remained in Paris till I was between fifteen and sixteen years old, and then it was determined that I should return home. The departure of Elizabeth P—— had left me without competitor in my studies among my companions, and I was at an age to be better at home than at any school.
My father came to fetch me, and the only adventure I met with on the way back was losing my bonnet, blown from my head into the sea, on board the packet, which obliged me to purchase one as soon as I reached London; and having no discreeter guide of my proceedings, I so far imposed upon my father's masculine ignorance in such matters as to make him buy for me a full-sized Leghorn flat, under the circumference of which enormous sombrero I seated myself by him on the outside of the Weybridge coach, and amazed the gaping population of each successive village we passed through with the vast dimensions of the thatch I had put on my head.
Weybridge was not then reached by train in half an hour from London; it was two or three hours' coach distance: a rural, rather deserted-looking, and most picturesque village, with the desolate domain of Portmore Park, its mansion falling to ruin, on one side of it, and on the other the empty house and fine park of Oatlands, the former residence of the Duke of York.
The straggling little village lay on the edge of a wild heath and common country that stretches to Guildford and Godalming and all through that part of Surrey to Tunbridge Wells, Brighton, and the Sussex coast—a region of light, sandy soil, hiding its agricultural poverty under a royal mantle of golden gorse and purple heather, and with large tracts of blue aromatic pine wood and one or two points of really fine scenery, where the wild moorland rolls itself up into ridges and rises to crests of considerable height, which command extensive and beautiful views: such as the one from the summit of Saint George's Hill, near Weybridge, and the top of Blackdown, the noble site of Tennyson's fine house, whence, over miles of wild wood and common, the eye sweeps to the downs above the Sussex cliffs and the glint of the narrow seas.
We had left London in the afternoon, and did not reach Weybridge until after dark. I had been tormented the whole way down by a nervous fear that I should not know my mother's face again; an absence of three years, of course, could not justify such an apprehension, but it had completely taken possession of my imagination and was causing me much distress, when, as the coach stopped in the dark at the village inn, I heard the words, "Is there any one here for Mrs. Kemble?" uttered in a voice which I knew so well, that I sprang, hat and all, into my mother's arms, and effectually got rid of my fear that I should not know her.
Her rural yearnings had now carried her beyond her suburban refuge at Craven Hill, and she was infinitely happy, in her small cottage habitation, on the outskirts of Weybridge and the edge of its picturesque common. Tiny, indeed, it was, and but for her admirable power of contrivance could hardly have held us with any comfort; but she delighted in it, and so did we all except my father, who, like most men, had no real taste for the country; the men who appear to themselves and others to like it confounding their love for hunting and shooting with that of the necessary field of their sports. Anglers seem to me to be the only sportsmen who really have a taste for and love of nature as well as for fishy water. At any rate, the silent, solitary, and comparatively still character of their pursuit enables them to study and appreciate beauty of scenery more than the violent exercise and excitement of fox-hunting, whatever may be said in favor of the picturesque influences of beating preserves and wading through turnip-fields with keepers and companions more or less congenial.
Of deer-stalking and grouse-shooting I do not speak; a man who does not become enthusiastic in his admiration of wild scenery while following these sports must have but half the use of his eyes.
Perhaps it was hardly fair to expect my father to relish extremely a residence where he was as nearly as possible too high and too wide, too long and too large, for every room in the house. He used to come down on Saturday and stay till Monday morning, but the rest of the week he spent at what was then our home in London, No. 5 Soho Square; it was a handsome, comfortable, roomy house, and has now, I think, been converted into a hospital.
The little cottage at Weybridge was covered at the back with a vine, which bore with the utmost luxuriance a small, black, sweet-water grape, from which, I remember, one year my mother determined to make wine; a direful experiment, which absorbed our whole harvest of good little fruit, filled every room in the house with unutterable messes, produced much fermentation of temper as well as wine, and ended in a liquid product of such superlative nastiness, that to drink it defied our utmost efforts of obedience and my mother's own resolute courage; so it was with acclamations of execration made libations of—to the infernal gods, I should think—and no future vintage was ever tried, to our great joy.
The little plot of lawn on which our cottage stood was backed by the wild purple swell of the common, and that was crested by a fine fir wood, a beautiful rambling and scrambling ground, full of picturesque and romantic associations with all the wild and fanciful mental existences which I was then beginning to enjoy. And even as I glide through it now, on the railroad that has laid its still depths open to the sun's glare and scared its silence with the eldritch snort and shriek of the iron team, I have visions of Undine and Sintram, the Elves, the little dog Stromian, the Wood-Witch, and all the world of supernatural beauty and terror which then peopled its recesses for me, under the influence of the German literature that I was becoming acquainted with through the medium of French and English translations, and that was carrying me on its tide of powerful enchantment far away from the stately French classics of my school studies.
Besides our unusual privilege of grape-growing in the open air, our little estate boasted a magnificent beurre pear tree, a small arbor of intertwined and peculiarly fine filbert and cobnut trees, and some capital greengage and apple trees; among the latter, a remarkably large and productive Ribstone pippin. So that in the spring the little plot of land was flowerful, and in the autumn fruitful, and we cordially indorsed my mother's preference for it to the London house in Soho Square.
The sort of orchard which contained all these objects of our regard was at the back of the house; in front of it, however, the chief peculiarity (which was by no means a beauty) of the place was displayed.
This was an extraordinary mound or hillock of sand, about half an acre in circumference, which stood at a distance of some hundred yards immediately in front of the cottage, and in the middle of what ought to have been a flower garden, if this uncouth protuberance had not effectually prevented the formation of any such ornamental setting to our house. My mother's repeated applications to our landlord (the village baker) to remove or allow her to remove this unsightly encumbrance were unavailing. He thought he might have future use for the sand, and he knew he had no other present place of deposit for it; and there it remained, defying all my mother's ingenuity and love of beauty to convert it into any thing useful or ornamental, or other than a cruel eye-sore and disfigurement to our small domain.
At length she hit upon a device for abating her nuisance, and set about executing it as follows. She had the sand dug out of the interior of the mound and added to its exterior, which she had graded and smoothed and leveled and turfed so as to resemble the glacis of a square bastion or casemate, or other steep, smooth-sided earth-work in a fortification. It was, I suppose, about twenty feet high, and sloped at too steep an angle for us to scale or descend it; a good footpath ran round the top, accessible from the entrance of the sand-heap, the interior walls of which she turfed (to speak Irish) with heather, and the ground or floor of this curious inclosure she planted with small clumps of evergreen shrubs, leaving a broad walk through the middle of it to the house door. A more curious piece of domestic fortification never adorned a cottage garden. It looked like a bit of Robinson Crusoe's castle—perhaps even more like a portion of some deserted fortress. It challenged the astonishment of all our visitors, whose invariable demand was, "What is that curious place in the garden?" "The mound," was the reply; and the mound was a delightful play-ground for us, and did infinite credit to my mother's powers of contrivance. Forty years and more elapsed between my first acquaintance with Weybridge and my last visit there. The Duke of York's house at Oatlands, afterwards inhabited by my friends Lord and Lady Ellesmere, had become a country hotel, pleasant to all its visitors but those who, like myself, saw ghosts in its rooms and on its gravel walks; its lovely park, a nest of "villas," made into a suburb of London by the railroads that intersect in all directions the wild moorland twenty miles from the city, which looked, when I first knew it, as if it might be a hundred.
I read and spent a night at the Oatlands Hotel, and walked, before I did so, to my mother's old cottage. The tiny house had had some small additions, and looked new and neat and well cared for. The mound, however, still stood its ground, and had relapsed into something of its old savage condition; it would have warranted a theory of Mr. Oldbuck's as to its possible former purposes and origin. I looked at its crumbled and irregular wall, from which the turf had peeled or been washed away; at the tangled growth of grasses and weeds round the top, crenellated with many a breach and gap; and the hollow, now choked up with luxuriant evergreens that overtopped the inclosure and forbade entrance to it, and thought of my mother's work and my girlish play there, and was glad to see her old sand-heap was still standing, though her planting had, with the blessing of time, made it impenetrable to me.
Our cottage was the last decent dwelling on that side of the village; between ourselves and the heath and pine wood there was one miserable shanty, worthy of the poorest potato patch in Ireland. It was inhabited by a ragged ruffian of the name of E——, whose small domain we sometimes saw undergoing arable processes by the joint labor of his son and heir, a ragged ruffian some sizes smaller than himself, and of a half-starved jackass, harnessed together to the plow he was holding; occasionally the team was composed of the quadruped and a tattered and fierce-looking female biped, a more terrible object than even the man and boy and beast whose labors she shared.
On the other side our nearest neighbors, separated from us by the common and its boundary road, were a family of the name of ——, between whose charming garden and pretty residence and our house a path was worn by a constant interchange of friendly intercourse.
I followed no regular studies whatever during our summer at Weybridge. We lived chiefly in the open air, on the heath, in the beautiful wood above the meadows of Brooklands, and in the neglected, picturesque inclosure of Portmore Park, whose tenantless, half-ruined mansion, and noble cedars, with the lovely windings of the river Wey in front, made it a place an artist would have delighted to spend his hours in.
We haunted it constantly for another purpose. My mother had a perfect passion for fishing, and would spend whole days by the river, pursuing her favorite sport. We generally all accompanied her, carrying baskets and tackle and bait, kettles and camp stools, and looking very much like a family of gypsies on the tramp. We were each of us armed with a rod, and were more or less interested in the sport. We often started after an early breakfast, and, taking our luncheon with us, remained the whole day long absorbed in our quiet occupation.
My mother was perfectly unobservant of all rules of angling, in her indiscriminate enthusiasm, and "took to the water" whether the wind blew, the sun shone, or the rain fell; fishing—under the most propitious or unpropitious circumstances—was not, indeed, necessarily, catching fish, but still, fishing; and she was almost equally happy whether she did or did not catch any thing. I have known her remain all day in patient expectation of the "glorious nibble," stand through successive showers, with her clothes between whiles drying on her back, and only reluctantly leave the water's edge when it was literally too dark to see her float.
Although we all fished, I was the only member of the family who inherited my mother's passion for it, and it only developed much later in me, for at this time I often preferred taking a book under the trees by the river-side, to throwing a line; but towards the middle of my life I became a fanatical fisherwoman, and was obliged to limit my waste of time to one day in the week, spent on the Lenox lakes, or I should infallibly have wandered thither and dreamed away my hours on their charming shores or smooth expanse daily.
I have often wondered that both my mother and myself (persons of exceptional impatience of disposition and irritable excitability of temperament) should have taken such delight in so still and monotonous an occupation, especially to the point of spending whole days in an unsuccessful pursuit of it. The fact is that the excitement of hope, keeping the attention constantly alive, is the secret of the charm of this strong fascination, infinitely more than even the exercise of successful skill. And this element of prolonged and at the same time intense expectation, combined with the peculiarly soothing nature of the external objects which surround the angler, forms at once a powerful stimulus and a sedative especially grateful in their double action upon excitable organizations.
I have said that we all more or less joined in my mother's fishing mania at Weybridge; but my sister, then a girl of about eleven years, never had any liking for it, which she attributed to the fact that my mother often employed her to bait the hook for her. My sister's "tender-hefted" nature was horribly disgusted and pained by this process, but my own belief is that had she inherited the propensity to catch fish, even that would not have destroyed it in her. I am not myself a cruel or hardhearted woman (though I have the hunter's passion very strongly), and invariably baited my own hook, in spite of the disgust and horror I experienced at the wretched twining of the miserable worms round my fingers, and springing of the poor little live bait with its back pierced with a hook. But I have never allowed any one to do this office for me, because it seemed to me that to inflict such a task on any one, because it was revolting to me, was not fair or sportsmanlike; and so I went on torturing my own bait and myself, too eagerly devoted to the sport to refrain from it, in spite of the price I condemned myself to pay for it. Moreover, if I have ever had female companions on my fishing excursions, I have invariably done this service for them, thinking the process too horrid for them to endure; and have often thought that if I were a man, nothing could induce me to marry a woman whom I had seen bait her own hook with any thing more sensitive than paste.
I have said that I followed no systematic studies after I left school; but from that time began for me an epoch of indiscriminate, omnivorous reading, which lasted until I went upon the stage, when all my own occupations were necessarily given up for the exercise of my profession.
At this time my chief delight was in such German literature as translations enabled me to become acquainted with. La Motte Fouque, Tieck, Wieland's "Oberon," Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister," were my principal studies; soon to be followed by the sort of foretaste of Jean Paul Richter that Mr. Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus" gave his readers; both matter and manner in that remarkable work bearing far more resemblance to the great German Incomprehensible than to any thing in the English language, certainly not excepting Mr. Carlyle's own masterly articles in the Edinburgh Review on Burns, Elliot the Corn-Law Rhymer, etc. Besides reading every book that came within my reach, I now commenced the still more objectionable practice of scribbling verses without stint or stay; some, I suppose, in very bad Italian, and some, I am sure, in most indifferent English; but the necessity was on me, and perhaps an eruption of such rubbish was a safer process than keeping it in the mental system might have proved; and in the meantime this intellectual effervescence added immensely to the pleasure of my country life, and my long, rambling walks in that wild, beautiful neighborhood.
I remember at this moment, by the by, a curious companionship we had in those walks. A fine, big Newfoundland dog and small terrier were generally of the party; and, nothing daunted by their presence, an extremely tame and affectionate cat, who was a member of the family, invariably joined the procession, and would accompany us in our longest walks, trotting demurely along by herself, a little apart from the rest, though evidently considering herself a member of the party.
The dogs, fully occupied with each other, and with discursive raids right and left of the road, and parenthetical rushes in various directions for their own special delectation, would sometimes, returning to us at full gallop, tumble over poor puss and roll her unceremoniously down in their headlong career. She never, however, turned back for this, but, recovering her feet, with her back arched all but in two, and every hair of her tail standing on end with insulted dignity, vented in a series of spittings and swearings her opinion of dogs in general and those dogs in particular, and then resumed her own decently demure gait and deportment; thanking Heaven, I have no doubt, in her cat's soul, that she was not that disgustingly violent and ill-mannered beast—a dog.
My brothers shared with us our fishing excursions and these walks, when at home from school; besides, I was promoted to their nobler companionship by occasionally acting as long-stop or short-stop (stop of some sort was undoubtedly my title) in insufficiently manned or boyed games of cricket: once, while nervously discharging this onerous duty, I received a blow on my instep from a cricket ball which I did not stop, that seemed to me a severe price for the honor of sharing my brothers' manly pastimes. A sport of theirs in which I joined with more satisfaction was pistol-shooting at a mark: I had not a quick eye, but a very steady hand, so that with a deliberate aim I contrived to hit the mark pretty frequently. I liked this quiet exercise of skill better than that dreadful watching and catching of cannon-balls at cricket; though the noise of the discharge of fire-arms was always rather trying to me, and I especially resented my pistol missing fire when I had braced my courage for the report. My brother John at this time possessed a rifle and a fowling-piece, with the use of both of which he endeavored to familiarize me; but the rifle I found insupportably heavy, and as for the other gun, it kicked so unmercifully, in consequence, I suppose, of my not holding it hard enough against my shoulder the first time I fired it, that I declined all further experiments with it, and reverted to the pretty little lady-like pocket pistols, which were the only fire-arms I ever used until one fine day, some years later, when I was promoted to the honor of firing an American cannon on the practicing ground of the young gentlemen cadets of West Point.
While we retained our little cottage at Weybridge, the house of Oatlands, the former residence of the Duke of York, and burial-place of the duchess's favorite dogs, whose cemetery was one of the "lions" of the garden, was purchased by a Mr. ——, a young gentleman of very large fortune, who came down there and enlivened the neighborhood occasionally with his sporting prowesses, which consisted in walking out, attired in the very height of Bond Street dandyism, with two attendant gamekeepers, one of whom carried and handed him his gun when he wished to fire it, the other receiving it from him after it had been discharged. This very luxurious mode of following his sport caused some sarcastic comment in the village.
This gentleman did not long retain possession of Oatlands, and it was let to the Earl of Ellesmere, then Lord Francis Egerton, with whom and Lady Francis we became acquainted soon after their taking it; an acquaintance which on my part grew into a strong and affectionate regard for both of them. They were excellent and highly accomplished, and, when first I knew them, two of the handsomest and most distinguished-looking persons I have ever seen.
Our happy Weybridge summers, which succeeded each other for three years, had but one incident of any importance for me—my catching the small-pox, which I had very severely. A slight eruption from which my sister suffered was at first pronounced by our village AEsculapius to be chicken-pox, but presently assumed the more serious aspect of varioloid. My sister, like the rest of us, had been carefully vaccinated; but the fact was then by no means so generally understood as it now is, that the power of the vaccine dies out of the system by degrees, and requires renewing to insure safety. My mother, having lost her faith in vaccination, thought that a natural attack of varioloid was the best preservative from small-pox, and my sister having had her seasoning so mildly and without any bad result but a small scar on her long nose, I was sent for from London, where I was, with the hope that I should take the same light form of the malady from her; but the difference of our age and constitution was not taken into consideration, and I caught the disease, indeed, but as nearly as possible died of it, and have remained disfigured by it all my life.
I was but little over sixteen, and had returned from school a very pretty-looking girl, with fine eyes, teeth, and hair, a clear, vivid complexion, and rather good features. The small-pox did not affect my three advantages first named, but, besides marking my face very perceptibly, it rendered my complexion thick and muddy and my features heavy and coarse, leaving me so moderate a share of good looks as quite to warrant my mother's satisfaction in saying, when I went on the stage, "Well, my dear, they can't say we have brought you out to exhibit your beauty." Plain I certainly was, but I by no means always looked so; and so great was the variation in my appearance at different times, that my comical old friend, Mrs. Fitzhugh, once exclaimed, "Fanny Kemble, you are the ugliest and the handsomest woman in London!" And I am sure, if a collection were made of the numerous portraits that have been taken of me, nobody would ever guess any two of them to be likenesses of the same person.
The effect of natural small-pox on the skin and features varies extremely in different individuals, I suppose according to their constitution. My mother and her brother had the disease at the same time, and with extreme violence; he retained his beautiful bright complexion and smooth skin and handsome features; my mother was deeply pitted all over her face, though the fine outline of her nose and mouth was not injured in the slightest degree; while with me, the process appeared to be one of general thickening or blurring, both of form and color. Terrified by this result of her unfortunate experiment, my poor mother had my brothers immediately vaccinated, and thus saved them from the infection which they could hardly have escaped, and preserved the beauty of my youngest brother, which then and for several years after was very remarkable.
Mrs. F—— is among the most vivid memories of my girlish days. She and her husband were kind and intimate friends of my father and mother. He was a most amiable and genial Irish gentleman, with considerable property in Ireland and Suffolk, and a fine house in Portland Place, and had married his cousin, a very handsome, clever, and eccentric woman. I remember she always wore a bracelet of his hair, on the massive clasp of which were engraved the words, "Stesso sangue, stessa sorte." I also remember, as a feature of sundry dinners at their house, the first gold dessert service and table ornaments that I ever saw, the magnificence of which made a great impression upon me; though I also remember their being replaced, upon Mrs. F—— wearying of them, by a set of ground glass and dead and burnished silver, so exquisite, that the splendid gold service was pronounced infinitely less tasteful and beautiful.
Mrs. F——'s sons were school-fellows of my eldest brother, under Dr. Malkin, the master of the grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds; and at this time we always saw Dr. and Mrs. Malkin when they visited London, and I was indebted to the doctor for a great deal of extremely kind interest which he took in my mental development and cultivation.
He suggested books for my reading, and set me, as a useful exercise, to translate Sismondi's fine historical work, "Les Republiques Italiennes," which he wished me to abridge for publication. I was not a little proud of Dr. Malkin's notice and advice; he was my brother's school-master, an object of respectful admiration, and a kind and condescending friend to me.
He was a hearty, genial man, of portly person, and fine, intelligent, handsome face; active and energetic in his habits and movements, in spite of a slight lameness, which I remember he accounted for to me in the following manner. He was very intimate with Miss O'Neil before she left the stage and became Lady Becher. While dancing with her in a country-dance one evening at her house, she exclaimed, on hearing a sudden sonorous twang, "Dear me! there is one of the chords of my harp snapped." "Indeed it is not," replied Dr. Malkin; "it is my tendo-Achillis which has snapped." And so it was; and from that time he always remained lame.
Mrs. Malkin was a more uncommon person than her husband; the strength of her character and sweetness of her disposition were alike admirable, and the bright vivacity of her countenance and singular grace and dignity of her person must be a pleasant memory in the minds of all who, like myself, knew her while she was yet in the middle bloom of life.
Dr. and Mrs. Malkin's sons were my brother's school and college mates. They were all men of ability, and good scholars, as became their father's sons. Sir Benjamin, the eldest, achieved eminence as a lawyer, and became an Indian judge; and the others would undoubtedly have risen to distinction but for the early death that carried off Frederick and Charles, and the hesitation of speech which closed almost all public careers to their brother Arthur.
He was a prominent and able contributor to the "Library of Useful Knowledge," and furnished a great part of the first of a whole generation of delightful publications, Murray's "Hand-Book" for Switzerland.
One of the earliest of Alpine explorers, Arthur Malkin mounted to those icy battlements which have since been scaled by a whole army of besiegers, and planted the banner of English courage and enterprise on "peaks, passes, and glaciers" which, when he first climbed the shining summits of the Alps, were all but terra incognita to his countrymen.
There is nothing more familiar to the traveling and reading British public nowadays than Alpine adventures and their records; but when my friend first conquered the passes between Evolena and Zermatt (still one of the least overrun mountain regions of Switzerland), their sublime solitudes were awful with the mystery of unexplored loneliness. Now professors climb up them, and artists slide down them, and they are photographed with "members" straddling over their dire crevasses, or cutting capers on their scornful summits, or turning somersaults down their infinite precipices. The air of the high Alps was inhaled by few Englishmen before Arthur Malkin; one can not help thinking that now, even on the top of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, it must have lost some of its freshness.
I have said that all Dr. Malkin's sons were men of more than average ability; but one, who never lived to be a man, "died a most rare boy" of about six years, fully justifying by his extraordinary precocity and singular endowments the tribute which his bereaved father paid his memory in a modest and touching record of his brief and remarkable existence.
My Parisian education appeared, at this time, to have failed signally in the one especial result that might have been expected from it: all my French dancing lessons had not given me a good deportment, nor taught me to hold myself upright. I stooped, slouched, and poked, stood with one hip up and one shoulder down, and exhibited an altogether disgracefully ungraceful carriage, which greatly afflicted my parents. In order that I might "bear my body more seemly," various were the methods resorted to; among others, a hideous engine of torture of the backboard species, made of steel covered with red morocco, which consisted of a flat piece placed on my back, and strapped down to my waist with a belt and secured at the top by two epaulets strapped over my shoulders. From the middle of this there rose a steel rod or spine, with a steel collar which encircled my throat and fastened behind. This, it was hoped, would eventually put my shoulders down and my head up, and in the meantime I had the appearance of a young woman walking about in a portable pillory. The ease and grace which this horrible machine was expected to impart to my figure and movements were, however, hardly perceptible after considerable endurance of torture on my part, and to my ineffable joy it was taken off (my harness, as I used to call it; and no knight of old ever threw off his iron shell with greater satisfaction), and I was placed under the tuition of a sergeant of the Royal Foot Guards, who undertook to make young ladies carry themselves and walk well, and not exactly like grenadiers either. This warrior having duly put me through a number of elementary exercises, such as we see the awkward squads on parade grounds daily drilled in, took leave of me with the verdict, that I "was fit to march before the Duke of York," then commander of the forces; and, thanks to his instructions, I remained endowed with a flat back, well-placed shoulders, an erect head, upright carriage, and resolute step.
I think my education had come nearly to a standstill at this period, for, with the exception of these physical exercises, and certain hours of piano-forte practicing and singing lessons, I was left very much to the irregular and unsystematic reading which I selected for myself. I had a good contralto voice, which my mother was very desirous of cultivating, but I think my progress was really retarded by the excessive impatience with which her excellent ear endured my unsuccessful musical attempts. I used to practice in her sitting-room, and I think I sang out of tune and played false chords oftener, from sheer apprehension of her agonized exclamations, than I should have done under the supervision of a less sensitively organized person. I remember my sister's voice and musical acquirements first becoming remarkable at this time, and giving promise of her future artistic excellence. I recollect a ballad from the Mexican opera by Bishop, called Cortex, "Oh, there's a Mountain Palm," which she sang with a clear, high, sweet, true little voice and touching expression, full of pathos, in which I used to take great delight.
The nervous terror which I experienced when singing or playing before my mother was carried to a climax when I was occasionally called upon to accompany the vocal performances of our friendly acquaintance, James Smith (one of the authors of the "Rejected Addresses"). He was famous for his humorous songs and his own capital rendering of them, but the anguish I endured in accompanying him made those comical performances of his absolutely tragical to me; the more so that he had a lion-like cast of countenance, with square jaws and rather staring eyes. But perhaps he appeared so stern-visaged only to me; while he sang everybody laughed, but I perspired coldly and felt ready to cry, and so have but a lugubrious impression of some of the most amusing productions of that description, heard to the very best advantage (if I could have listened to them at all) as executed by their author.
Among our most intimate friends at this time were my cousin Horace Twiss and his wife. I have been reminded of him in speaking of James Smith, because he had a good deal of the same kind of humor, not unmixed with a vein of sentiment, and I remember his songs, which he sang with great spirit and expression, with the more pleasure that he never required me to accompany them. One New-Year's Eve that he spent with us, just before going away he sang charmingly some lines he had composed in the course of the evening, the graceful turn of which, as well as the feeling with which he sang them, were worthy of Moore. I remember only the burden:
"Oh, come! one genial hour improve, And fill one measure duly; A health to those we truly love, And those who love us truly!"
And this stanza:
"To-day has waved its parting wings, To join the days before it; And as for what the morning brings, The morning's mist hangs o'er it."
It was delightful to hear him and my mother talk together, and their disputes, though frequent, seemed generally extremely amicable, and as diverting to themselves as to us. On one occasion he ended their discussion (as to whether some lady of their acquaintance had or had not gone somewhere) by a vehement declaration which passed into a proverb in our house: "Yes, yes, she did; for a woman will go anywhere, at any time, with anybody, to see any thing—especially in a gig." Those were days in which a gig was a vehicle the existence of which was not only recognized in civilized society, but supposed to confer a diploma of "gentility" upon its possessor.
Horace Twiss was one of the readiest and most amusing talkers in the world, and when he began to make his way in London society, which he eventually did very successfully, ill-natured persons considered his first step in the right direction to have been a repartee made in the crush-room of the opera, while standing close to Lady L——, who was waiting for her carriage. A man he was with saying, "Look at that fat Lady L——; isn't she like a great white cabbage?" "Yes," answered Horace, in a discreetly loud tone, "she is like one—all heart, I believe." The white-heart cabbage turned affably to the rising barrister, begged him to see her to her carriage, and gave him the entree of H—— House. Lord Clarendon subsequently put him in Parliament for his borough of Wootton-Basset, and for a short time he formed part of the ministry, holding one of the under-secretaryships. He was clever, amiable, and good-tempered, and had every qualification for success in society.
He had married a Miss Searle, one of his mother's pupils at the fashionable Bath boarding-school, the living image of Scott's Fenella, the smallest woman that I have ever seen, with fairy feet and tiny hands, the extraordinary power of which was like that of a steel talon. On one occasion, when Horace Twiss happened to mention that his bright little spark of a wife sat working in his library by him, while he was engaged with his law or business papers, my mother suggested that her conversation must disturb him. "Oh, she doesn't talk," said he, "but I like to hear the scissors fall," a pretty conjugal reply, that left a pleasant image in my mind. His only child by her, a daughter, married first Mr. Bacon, then editor of the Times, and, after his death, John Delane, who succeeded him in that office and still holds it; so that her father said "she took the Times and Supplement."
About this time I began to be aware of the ominous distresses and disturbances connected with the affairs of the theater, that were to continue and increase until the miserable subject became literally the sauce to our daily bread; embittering my father's life with incessant care and harassing vexation; and of the haunting apprehension of that ruin which threatened us for years, and which his most strenuous efforts only delayed, without averting it.
The proprietors were engaged in a lawsuit with each other, and finally one of them threw the whole concern into chancery; and for years that dreary chancery suit seemed to envelop us in an atmosphere of palpitating suspense or stagnant uncertainty, and to enter as an inevitable element into every hope, fear, expectation, resolution, event, or action of our lives.
How unutterably heart-sick I became of the very sound of its name, and how well I remember the expression on my father's careworn face one day, as he turned back from the door, out of which he was going to his daily drudgery at the theater, to say to my aunt, who had reproached him with the loss of a button from his rather shabby coat, "Ah, Dall, my dear, you see it is my chancery suit!"
Lord Eldon, Sir John Leach, Lord Lyndhurst, and Lord Brougham were the successive chancellors before whom the case was heard; the latter was a friend of my family, and on one occasion my father took me to the House of Lords to hear the proceedings. We were shown into the chancellor's room, where he indeed was not, but where his huge official wig was perched upon a block; the temptation was irresistible, and for half a minute I had the awful and ponderous periwig on my pate.
While we were still living in Soho Square our house was robbed; or rather, my father's writing-desk was broken open, and sixty sovereigns taken from it—a sum that he could very hardly spare. He had been at the theater, acting, and my mother had spent the evening at some friend's house, and the next morning great was the consternation of the family on finding what had happened. The dining-room sideboard and cellarette had been opened, and wine and glasses put on the table, as if our robbers had drank our good health for the success of their attempt.
A Bow Street officer was sent for; I remember his portly and imposing aspect very well; his name was Salmon, and he was a famous member of his fraternity. He questioned my mother as to the honesty of our servants; we had but three, a cook, housemaid, and footman, and for all of these my mother answered unhesitatingly; and yet the expert assured her that very few houses were robbed without connivance from within.
The servants were had up and questioned, and the cook related how, coming down first thing in the morning, she had found a certain back scullery window open, and, alarmed by that, had examined the lower rooms, and found the dining-room table set out with the decanters and glasses. Having heard her story, the officer, as soon as she left the room, asked my mother if any thing else besides the money had been taken, and if any quantity of the wine had been drank. She said, "No," and with regard to the last inquiry, she supposed, as the cook had suggested when the decanters were examined, that the thieves had probably been disturbed by some alarm, and had not had time to drink much.
Mr. Salmon then requested to look at the kitchen premises; the cook officiously led the way to the scullery window, which was still open, "just as she found it," she said, and proceeded to explain how the robbers must have got over the wall of a court which ran at the back of the house. When she had ended her demonstrations and returned to the kitchen, Salmon, who had listened silently to her story of the case, detained my mother for an instant, and rapidly passed his hand over the outside window-sill, bringing away a thick layer of undisturbed dust, which the passage of anybody through the window must infallibly have swept off. Satisfied at once of the total falsity of the cook's hypothesis, he told my mother that he had no doubt at all that she was a party to the robbery, that the scullery window and dining-room drinking scene were alike mere blinds, and that in all probability she had let into the house whoever had broken open the desk, or else forced it herself, having acquired by some means a knowledge of the money it contained; adding, that in the very few words of interrogatory which had passed between him and the servants, in my mother's presence, he had felt quite sure that the housemaid and man were innocent; but had immediately detected something in the cook's manner that seemed to him suspicious. What a fine tact of guilt these detectives acquire in their immense experience of it! The cook was not prosecuted, but dismissed, the money, of course, not being recoverable; it was fortunate that neither she nor her honest friends had any suspicion of the contents of three boxes lying in the drawing-room at this very time. They were large, black leather cases, containing a silver helmet, shield, and sword, of antique Roman pattern and beautiful workmanship—a public tribute bestowed upon my uncle, and left by him to my father; they have since become an ornamental trophy in my sister's house. They were then about to be sent for safe keeping to Coutts's bank, and in the meantime lay close to the desk that had been rifled of a more portable but far less valuable booty.
Upon my uncle John's death his widow had returned to England, and fixed her residence at a charming place called Heath Farm, in Hertfordshire. Lord Essex had been an attached friend of my uncle's, and offered this home on his property to Mrs. Kemble when she came to England, after her long sojourn abroad with my uncle, who, as I have mentioned, spent the last years of his life, and died, at Lausanne. Mrs. Kemble invited my mother to come and see her soon after she settled in Hertfordshire, and I accompanied her thither. Cashiobury Park thus became familiar ground to me, and remains endeared to my recollection for its own beauty, for the delightful days I passed rambling about it, and for the beginning of that love bestowed upon my whole life by H—— S——. Heath Farm was a pretty house, at once rural, comfortable, and elegant, with a fine farm-yard adjoining it, a sort of cross between a farm and a manor house; it was on the edge of the Cashiobury estate, within which it stood, looking on one side over its lawn and flower-garden to the grassy slopes and fine trees of the park, and on the other, across a road which divided the two properties, to Lord Clarendon's place, the Grove. It had been the residence of Lady Monson before her (second) marriage to Lord Warwick. Close to it was a pretty cottage, also in the park, where lived an old Miss M——, often visited by a young kinswoman of hers, who became another of my life-long friends. T—— B——, Miss M——'s niece, was then a beautiful young woman, whose singularly fine face and sweet and spirited expression bore a strong resemblance to two eminently handsome people, my father and Mademoiselle Mars. She and I soon became intimate companions, though she was several years my senior. We used to take long rambles together, and vaguely among my indistinct recollections of her aunt's cottage and the pretty woodland round it, mix sundry flying visions of a light, youthful figure, that of Lord M——, then hardly more than a lad, who seemed to haunt the path of his cousin, my handsome friend, and one evening caused us both a sudden panic by springing out of a thicket on us, in the costume of a Harlequin. Some years after this, when I was about to leave England for America, I went to take leave of T—— B——. She was to be married the next day to Lord M——, and was sitting with his mother, Lady W——, and on a table near her lay a set of jewels, as peculiar as they were magnificent, consisting of splendid large opals set in diamonds, black enamel, and gold....
To return to our Cashiobury walks: T—— B—— and I used often to go together to visit ladies, the garden round whose cottage overflowed in every direction with a particular kind of white and maroon pink, the powerful, spicy odor of which comes to me, like a warm whiff of summer sweetness, across all these intervening fifty years. Another favorite haunt of ours was a cottage (not of gentility) inhabited by an old man of the name of Foster, who, hale and hearty and cheerful in extreme old age, was always delighted to see us, used to give us choice flowers and fruit out of his tiny garden, and make me sit and sing to him by the half-hour together in his honeysuckle-covered porch. After my first visit to Heath Farm some time elapsed before we went thither again. On the occasion of our second visit Mrs. Siddons and my cousin Cecilia were also Mrs. Kemble's guests, and a lady of the name of H—— S——. She had been intimate from her childhood in my uncle Kemble's house, and retained an enthusiastic love for his memory and an affectionate kindness for his widow, whom she was now visiting on her return to England. And so I here first knew the dearest friend I have ever known. The device of her family is "Haut et Bon:" it was her description. She was about thirty years old when I first met her at Heath Farm; tall and thin, her figure wanted roundness and grace, but it was straight as a dart, and the vigorous, elastic, active movements of her limbs, and firm, fleet, springing step of her beautifully made feet and ankles, gave to her whole person and deportment a character like that of the fabled Atalanta, or the huntress Diana herself. Her forehead and eyes were beautiful. The broad, white, pure expanse surrounded with thick, short, clustering curls of chestnut hair, and the clear, limpid, bright, tender gray eyes that always looked radiant with light, and seemed to reflect radiance wherever they turned, were the eyes and forehead of Aurora. The rest of her features were not handsome, though her mouth was full of sensibility and sweetness, and her teeth were the most perfect I ever saw. She was eccentric in many things, but in nothing more so than the fashion of her dress, especially the coverings she provided for her extremities, her hat and boots. The latter were not positively masculine articles, but were nevertheless made by a man's boot-maker, and there was only one place in London where they could be made sufficiently ugly to suit her; and infinite were the pains she took to procure the heavy, thick, cumbrous, misshapen things that as much as possible concealed and disfigured her finely turned ankles and high, arched, Norman instep. Indeed, her whole attire, peculiar (and very ugly, I thought it) as it was, was so by malice prepense on her part. And whereas the general result would have suggested a total disregard of the vanities of dress, no Quaker coquette was ever more jealous of the peculiar texture of the fabrics she wore, or of the fashion in which they were made. She wore no colors, black and gray being the only shades I ever saw her in; and her dress, bare and bald of every ornament, was literally only a covering for her body; but it was difficult to find cashmere fine enough for her scanty skirts, or cloth perfect enough for her short spencers, or lawn clear and exquisite enough for her curious collars and cuffs of immaculate freshness.
I remember a similar peculiarity of dress in a person in all other respects the very antipodes of my friend H——. My mother took me once to visit a certain Miss W——, daughter of a Stafford banker, her very dear friend, and the godmother from whom I took my second name of Anne.
This lady inhabited a quaint, picturesque house in the oldest part of the town of Stafford. Well do I remember its oak-wainscoted and oak-paneled chambers, and the fine old oak staircase that led from the hall to the upper rooms; also the extraordinary abundance and delicacy of our meals, particularly the old-fashioned nine o'clock supper, about every item of which, it seemed to me, more was said and thought than about any food of which I ever before or since partook. It was in this homely palace of good cheer that a saying originated, which passed into a proverb with us, expressive of a rather unnice indulgence of appetite.
One of the ladies, going out one day, called back to the servant who was closing the door behind her: "Tell the cook not to forget the sally-lunns" (a species of muffin) "for tea, well greased on both sides, and we'll put on our cotton gowns to eat them."
The appearance of the mistress of this mansion of rather obsolete luxurious comfort was strikingly singular. She was a woman about sixty years old, tall and large and fat, of what Balzac describes as "un embonpoint flottant," and was habitually dressed in a white linen cambric gown, long and tending to train, but as plain and tight as a bag over her portly middle person and prominent bust; it was finished at the throat with a school-boy's plaited frill, which stood up round her heavy falling cheeks by the help of a white muslin or black silk cravat. Her head was very nearly bald, and the thin, short gray hair lay in distant streaks upon her skull, white and shiny as an ostrich egg, which on the rare occasions of her going out, or into her garden, she covered with a man's straw or beaver hat.
It is curious how much minor eccentricity the stringent general spirit of formal conformity allows individuals in England: nowhere else, scarcely, in civilized Europe, could such a costume be worn in profound, peaceful defiance of public usage and opinion, with perfect security from insult or even offensive comment, as that of my mother's old friend, Miss W——, or my dear H—— S——. In this same Staffordshire family and its allies eccentricity seemed to prevail alike in life and death; for I remember hearing frequent mention, while among them, of connections of theirs who, when they died, one and all desired to be buried in full dress and with their coffins standing upright.
To return to Heath Farm and my dear H——. Nobility, intelligence, and tenderness were her predominating qualities, and her person, manner, and countenance habitually expressed them.
This lady's intellect was of a very uncommon order; her habits of thought and reading were profoundly speculative; she delighted in metaphysical subjects of the greatest difficulty, and abstract questions of the most laborious solution. On such subjects she incessantly exercised her remarkably keen powers of analysis and investigation, and no doubt cultivated and strengthened her peculiar mental faculties and tendencies by the perpetual processes of metaphysical reasoning which she pursued.
Between H—— S—— and myself, in spite of nearly twelve years' difference in our age, there sprang up a lively friendship, and our time at Heath Farm was spent in almost constant companionship. We walked and talked together the livelong day and a good part of the night, in spite of Mrs. Kemble's judicious precaution of sending us to bed with very moderate wax candle ends; a prudent provision which we contrived to defeat by getting from my cousin, Cecilia Siddons, clandestine alms of fine, long, life-sized candles, placed as mere supernumeraries on the toilet table of a dressing-room adjoining her mother's bedroom, which she never used. At this time I also made the acquaintance of my friend's brother, who came down to Heath Farm to visit Mrs. Kemble and his sister. He possessed a brilliant intellect, had studied for the bar, and at the same time made himself favorably known by a good deal of clever periodical writing; but he died too early to have fully developed his genius, and left as proofs of his undoubtedly superior talents only a few powerfully written works of fiction, indicating considerable abilities, to which time would have given maturity, and more experience a higher direction.
Among the principal interests of my London life at this time was the production at our theater of Weber's opera, "Der Freyschuetz." Few operas, I believe, have had a wider or more prolonged popularity; none certainly within my recollection ever had any thing approaching it. Several causes conduced to this effect. The simple pathos of the love story, and the supernatural element so well blended with it, which gave such unusual scope to the stage effects of scenery, etc., were two obvious reasons for its success.
From the inimitably gay and dramatic laughing chorus and waltz of the first scene to the divine melody in which the heroine expresses her unshaken faith in Heaven, immediately before her lover's triumph closes the piece, the whole opera is a series of exquisite conceptions, hardly one of which does not contain some theme or passage calculated to catch the dullest and slowest ear and fix itself on the least retentive memory; and though the huntsman's and bridesmaid's choruses, of course, first attained and longest retained a street-organ popularity, there is not a single air, duet, concerted piece, or chorus, from which extracts were not seized on and carried away by the least musical memories. So that the advertisement of a German gentleman for a valet, who to other necessary qualifications was to add the indispensable one of not being able to whistle a note of "Der Freyschuetz," appeared a not unnatural result of the universal furor for this music.
We went to hear it until we literally knew it by heart, and such was my enthusiasm for it that I contrived to get up a romantic passion for the great composer, of whom I procured a hideous little engraving (very ugly he was, and very ugly was his "counterfeit presentment," with high cheek-bones, long hooked nose, and spectacles), which, folded up in a small square and sewed into a black silk case, I carried like an amulet round my neck until I completely wore it out, which was soon after poor Weber's death.
The immense success of "Der Freyschuetz," and the important assistance it brought to the funds of the theater, induced my father to propose to Weber to compose an opera expressly for Covent Garden. The proposal met with ready acceptance, and the chivalric fairy tale of Wieland's "Oberon" was selected for the subject, and was very gracefully and poetically treated by Mr. Planche, to whom the literary part of the work—the libretto—was confided, and who certainly bestowed as much pains on the versification of his lyrical drama as if it was not destined to be a completely secondary object to the music in the public estimation. Weber himself, however, was by no means a man to disregard the tenor of the words and characters he was to associate with his music, and was greatly charmed with his English coadjutor's operatic version of Wieland's fairy epic. He was invited to come over to London and himself superintend the production of his new work.
Representations of "Der Freyschuetz" were given on his arrival, and night after night the theater was crowded to see him preside in the orchestra and conduct his own fine opera; and the enthusiasm of the London public rose to fever height. Weber took up his abode at the house of Sir George Smart, the leader of the Covent Garden orchestra, and our excellent old friend—a capital musician and very worthy man. He was appointed organist to King William IV., and for many years directed those admirable performances of classical music called the Ancient Concerts.
He was a man of very considerable musical knowledge, and had a peculiar talent for teaching and accompanying the vocal compositions of Handel. During the whole of my father's management of Covent Garden, he had the supervision of the musical representations and conducted the orchestra, and he was principally instrumental in bringing out Weber's fine operas of "Der Freyschuetz" and "Oberon." Weber continued to reside in Sir George Smart's house during the whole of his stay in London, and died there soon after the production of his "Oberon." Sir George Smart was the first person who presented Mendelssohn to me. I had been acting Juliet one night, and at the end of the play was raised from the stage by my kind old friend, who had been in the orchestra during the performance, with the great composer, then a young man of nineteen, on his first visit to England. He brought letters of introduction to my father, and made his first acquaintance with me in my grave-clothes. Besides my esteem and regard for Sir George's more valuable qualities, I had a particular liking for some excellent snuff he always had, and used constantly to borrow his snuff-box to sniff at it like a perfume, not having attained a sufficiently mature age to venture upon "pinches;" and a snuff-taking Juliet being inadmissible, I used to wish myself at the elderly lady age when the indulgence might be becoming: but before I attained it, snuff was no longer taken by ladies of any age, and now, I think, it is used by very few men.
In a letter written to me by my mother, during my temporary absence from London, just after the accession of King William IV., I find the following passage with reference to Sir George Smart:
"London is all alive; the new king seems idolized by the people, and he appears no less pleased with them; perhaps Sir George is amongst the happiest of his subjects. His Majesty swears that nothing shall be encouraged but native talent, and our friend is to get up a concert at the Duke of Sussex's, where the royal family are all to dine, at which none but English singers are to perform. Sir George dined with me on Monday, and I perceive he has already arranged in his thoughts all he proposes to tell the queen about you on this occasion. It is evident he flatters himself that he is to be deep in her Majesty's confidence."
Sir George Smart and his distinguished guest, Weber, were constantly at our house while the rehearsals of "Oberon" went forward. The first day they dined together at my father's was an event for me, especially as Sir George, on my entering the room, took me by the hand, and drawing me toward Weber, assured him that I and all the young girls in England were over head and ears in love with him. With my guilty satchel round my neck, I felt ready to sink with confusion, and stammered out something about Herr von Weber's beautiful music, to which, with a comical, melancholy smile, he replied, "Ah, my music! it is always my music, but never myself!"
Baron Carl Maria von Weber was a noble-born Saxon German, whose very irregular youth could hardly, one would suppose, have left him leisure to cultivate or exercise his extraordinary musical genius; but though he spent much of his early life in wild dissipation, and died in middle age, he left to the world a mass of compositions of the greatest variety and beauty, and a name which ranks among the most eminent in his pre-eminently musical country. He was a little thin man, lame of one foot, and with a slight tendency to a deformed shoulder. His hollow, sallow, sickly face bore an expression of habitual suffering and ill health, and the long, hooked nose, salient cheek-bones, light, prominent eyes, and spectacles were certainly done no more than justice to in the unattractive representation of my cherished portrait of him.
He had the air and manner of a well-born and well-bred man of the world, a gentle voice, and a slow utterance in English, which he spoke but indifferently and with a strong accent; he generally conversed with my father and mother in French. One of the first visits he paid to Covent Garden was in my mother's box, to hear Miss Paton and Braham (his prima donna and tenor) in an oratorio. He was enthusiastic in his admiration of Braham's fine performance of one of Handel's magnificent songs ("Deeper and deeper still," I think), but when, in the second part of the concert, which consisted of a selection of secular music, the great singer threw the house into ecstasies, and was tumultuously encored in the pseudo-Scotch ballad of "Blue Bonnets over the Border," he was extremely disgusted, and exclaimed two or three times, "Ah, that is beast!" (Ah, cela est bete!) to our infinite diversion. Much more aggravating proof was poor Weber destined to have of the famous tenor's love of mere popularity in his art, and strange enough, no doubt, to the great German composer was the thirst for ignorant applause which induced Braham to reject the beautiful, tender, and majestic opening air Weber had written for him in the character of Huon, and insist upon the writing of a battle-piece which might split the ears of the groundlings and the gods, and furnish him an opportunity for making some of the startling effects of lyrical declamation which never failed to carry his audience by storm.
No singer ever delivered with greater purity or nobler breadth Handel's majestic music; the masterly simplicity of his execution of all really fine compositions was worthy of his first-rate powers; but the desire of obtaining by easier and less elevated means the acclamations of his admirers seemed irresistible to him, and "Scots wha hae," with the flourish of his stick in the last verse, was a sure triumph which he never disdained. Weber expressed unbounded astonishment and contempt at this unartistic view of things, and with great reluctance at length consented to suppress, or rather transfer to the overture, the noble and pathetic melody designed for Huon's opening song, for which he submitted the fine warlike cantata beginning—
"Oh,'tis a glorious sight to see The charge of the Christian chivalry!"
in which, to be sure, Braham charged with the Christians, and routed the Paynims, and mourned for the wounded, and wept for the dead, and returned in triumph to France in the joyous cabaletta, with wonderful dramatic effect, such as, no doubt, the other song would never have enabled him to produce. But the success of the song did not reconcile Weber to what he considered the vulgarity and inappropriateness of its subject, and the circumstance lowered his opinion both of the English singer and of the English public very grievously.
How well I remember all the discussions of those prolonged, repeated, anxious, careful rehearsals, and the comical despair of which Miss Paton, the heroine of the opera, was the occasion to all concerned, by the curious absence of dramatic congruity of gesture and action which she contrived to combine with the most brilliant and expressive rendering of the music. In the great shipwreck scene, which she sang magnificently, she caught up the short end of a sash tied around her waist, and twirled it about without unfastening it, by way of signaling from the top of a rock for help from a distant vessel, the words she sang being, "Quick, quick, for a signal this scarf shall be waved!" This performance of hers drew from my father the desperate exclamation, "That woman's an inspired idiot!" while Weber limped up and down the room silently wringing his hands, and Sir George Smart went off into ecstatic reminiscences of a certain performance of my mother's, when—in some musical arrangement of "Blue Beard" (by Kelly or Storace, I think), in the part of Sister Anne—she waved and signaled and sang from the castle wall, "I see them galloping! I see them galloping!" after a very different fashion, that drew shouts of sympathetic applause from her hearers.
Miss Paton married Lord William Lennox, was divorced from her husband and married Mr. Wood, and pursued her career as a public singer for many years successfully after this event; nor was her name in any way again made a subject of public animadversion, though she separated herself from Mr. Wood, and at one time was said to have entertained thoughts of going into a Roman Catholic nunnery. Her singing was very admirable, and her voice one of the finest in quality and compass that I ever heard. The effects she produced on the stage were very remarkable, considering the little intellectual power or cultivation she appeared to possess. My father's expression of "an inspired idiot," though wrung from him by the irritation of momentary annoyance, was really not inapplicable to her. She sang with wonderful power and pathos her native Scotch ballads, she delivered with great purity and grandeur the finest soprano music of Handel, and though she very nearly drove poor Weber mad with her apparent want of intelligence during the rehearsals of his great opera, I have seldom heard any thing finer than her rendering of the difficult music of the part of Reiza, from beginning to end, and especially the scene of the shipwreck, with its magnificent opening recitative, "Ocean, thou mighty monster!"
"Oberon" was brought out and succeeded; but in a degree so far below the sanguine expectations of all concerned, that failure itself, though more surprising, would hardly have been a greater disappointment than the result achieved at such a vast expenditure of money, time, and labor. The expectations of the public could not have been realized by any work which was to be judged by comparison with their already permanent favorite, "Der Freyschuetz." No second effort could have seemed any thing but second-best, tried by the standard of that popular production; and whatever judgment musicians and connoisseurs might pronounce as to the respective merits of the two operas, the homely test of the "proof of the pudding" being "in the eating" was decidedly favorable to the master's earlier work; and my own opinion is, that either his "Euryanthe" or his "Preciosa" would have been more popular with the general English public than the finer and more carefully elaborated music of "Oberon." The story of the piece (always a main consideration in matters of art, with average English men and women) wanted interest, certainly, as compared with that of its predecessor; the chivalric loves and adventures of Huon of Bordeaux and the caliph's daughter were indifferent to the audience, compared with the simple but deep interest of the fortunes of the young German forester and his village bride; and the gay and brilliant fairy element of the "Oberon" was no sort of equivalent for the startling diablerie of Zamiel, and the incantation scene. The music, undoubtedly of a higher order than that of "Der Freyschuetz," was incomparably more difficult and less popular. The whole of the part of Reiza was trying in the extreme, even to the powers of the great singer for whom it was written, and quite sure not to be a favorite with prime donne from its excessive strain upon the voice, particularly in what is the weaker part of almost all soprano registers; and Reiza's first great aria, the first song of the fairy king, and Huon's last song in the third act, are all compositions of which the finest possible execution must always be without proportionate effect on any audience, from the extreme difficulty of rendering them and their comparative want of melody. By amateurs, out of Germany, the performance of any part of the music was not likely ever to be successfully attempted; and I do not think that a single piece in the opera found favor with the street organists, though the beautiful opening chorus was made into a church hymn by discarding the exquisite aerial fairy symphonies and accompaniments; and the involuntary dance of the caliph's court and servants at the last blast of the magical horn was for a short time a favorite waltz in Germany.
Poor Weber's health, which had been wretched before he came to England, and was most unfavorably affected by the climate, sank entirely under the mortification of the comparatively small success of his great work. He had labored and fretted extremely with the rehearsals, and very soon after its production he became dangerously ill, and died—not, as people said, of a broken heart, but of disease of the lungs, already far advanced when he came to London, and doubtless accelerated by these influences. He died in Sir George Smart's house, who gave me, as a memorial of the great composer whom I had so enthusiastically admired, a lock of his hair, and the opening paragraph of his will, which was extremely touching and impressive in its wording.
The plaintive melody known as "Weber's Waltz" (said to have been his last composition, found after his death under his pillow) was a tribute to his memory by some younger German composer (Reichardt or Ries); but though not his own, it owed much of its popularity to his name, with which it will always be associated. Bellini transferred the air, verbatim, into his opera of "Beatrice di Tenda," where it appears in her song beginning, "Orombello, ah Sciagurato!" A circumstance which tended to embitter a good deal the close of Weber's life was the arrival in London of Rossini, to whom and to whose works the public immediately transferred its demonstrations of passionate admiration with even more, than its accustomed fickleness. Disparaging comparisons and contrasts to Weber's disadvantage were drawn between the two great composers in the public prints; the enthusiastic adulation of society and the great world not unnaturally followed the brilliant, joyous, sparkling, witty Italian, who was a far better subject for London lionizing than his sickly, sensitive, shrinking, and rather soured German competitor for fame and public favor.
The proud, morbid sensitiveness of the Northern genius was certainly in every respect the very antipodes of the healthy, robust, rejoicing, artistic nature of the Southern.
No better instance, though a small one, perhaps, could be given of the tone and temper in which Rossini was likely to encounter both adverse criticism and the adulation of amateur idolatry, than his reply to the Duchess of Canizzaro, one of his most fanatical worshipers, who asked him which he considered his best comic opera; when, with a burst of joyous laughter, he named "Il Matrimonio Secreto," Cimarosa's enchanting chef-d'oeuvre, from which, doubtless, Rossini, after the fashion of great geniuses, had accepted more than one most felicitous suggestion, especially that of the admirable finale to the second act of the "Barbiere." It was during this visit of his to London, while Weber lay disappointed and dying in the dingy house in Great Portland Street, that this same Duchess of Canizzaro, better known by her earlier title of Countess St. Antonio, as a prominent leader of fashionable taste in musical matters, invited all the great and gay and distinguished world of London to meet the famous Italian composer; and, seated in her drawing-room with the Duke of Wellington and Rossini on either side of her, exclaimed, "Now I am between the two greatest men in Europe." The Iron Duke not unnaturally rose and left his chair vacant; the great genius retained his, but most assuredly not without humorous appreciation of the absurdity of the whole scene, for he was almost "plus fin que tous les autres," and certainly "bien plus fin que tous ces autres."
About this time I returned again to visit Mrs. Kemble at Heath Farm, and renew my days of delightful companionship with H—— S——. Endless were our walks and talks, and those were very happy hours in which, loitering about Cashiobury Park, I made its echoes ring with the music of "Oberon," singing it from beginning to end—overture, accompaniment, choruses, and all; during which performances my friend, who was no musician, used to keep me company in sympathetic silence, reconciled by her affectionate indulgence for my enthusiasm to this utter postponement of sense to sound. What with her peculiar costume and my bonnetless head (I always carried my bonnet in my hand when it was possible to do so) and frenzied singing, any one who met us might have been justified in supposing we had escaped from the nearest lunatic asylum.
Occasionally we varied our rambles, and one day we extended them so far that the regular luncheon hour found us at such a distance from home, that I—hungry as one is at sixteen after a long tramp—peremptorily insisted upon having food; whereupon my companion took me to a small roadside ale-house, where we devoured bread and cheese and drank beer, and while thus vulgarly employed beheld my aunt's carriage drive past the window. If that worthy lady could have seen us, that bread and cheese which was giving us life would inevitably have been her death; she certainly would have had a stroke of apoplexy (what the French call foudroyante), for gentility and propriety were the breath of life to her, and of the highest law of both, which can defy conventions, she never dreamed.
Another favorite indecorum of mine (the bread and cheese was mere mortal infirmity, not moral turpitude) was wading in the pretty river that ran through Lord Clarendon's place, the Grove; the brown, clear, shallow, rapid water was as tempting as a highland brook, and I remember its bright, flashing stream and the fine old hawthorn trees of the avenue, alternate white and rose-colored, like clouds of fragrant bloom, as one of the sunniest pictures of those sweet summer days.
The charm and seduction of bright water has always been irresistible to me, a snare and a temptation I have hardly ever been able to withstand; and various are the chances of drowning it has afforded me in the wild mountain brooks of Massachusetts. I think a very attached maid of mine once saved my life by the tearful expostulations with which she opposed the bewitching invitations of the topaz-colored flashing rapids of Trenton Falls, that looked to me in some parts so shallow, as well as so bright, that I was just on the point of stepping into them, charmed by the exquisite confusion of musical voices with which they were persuading me, when suddenly a large tree-trunk of considerable weight shot down their flashing surface and was tossed over the fall below, leaving me to the natural conclusion, "Just such a log should I have been if I had gone in there." Indeed, my worthy Marie, overcome by my importunity, having selected what seemed to her a safe, and to me a very tame, bathing-place, in another and quieter part of the stream, I had every reason, from my experience of the difficulty of withstanding its powerful current there, to congratulate myself upon not having tried the experiment nearer to one of the "springs" of the lovely torrent, whose Indian name is the "Leaping Water." Certainly the pixies—whose cousin my friends accused me of being, on account of my propensity for their element—if they did not omit any opportunity of alluring me, allowed me to escape scathless on more than one occasion, when I might have paid dearly for being so much or so little related to them.
This fascination of living waters for me was so well known among my Lenox friends of all classes, that on one occasion a Yankee Jehu of our village, driving some of them by the side of a beautiful mountain brook, said, "I guess we should hardly have got Mrs. Kemble on at all, alongside of this stream," as if I had been a member of his team, made restive by the proximity of water. A pool in a rocky basin, with foaming water dashing in and out of it, was a sort of trap for me, and I have more than once availed myself of such a shower-bath, without any further preparation than taking my hat and shoes and stockings off. Once, on a visit to the Catskills, during a charming summer walk with my dear friend, Catherine Sedgwick, I walked into the brook we were coasting, and sat down in the water, without at all interrupting the thread of our conversation; a proceeding which, of course, obliged me to return to the hotel dripping wet, my companion laughing so immoderately at my appearance, that, as I represented to her, it was quite impossible for me to make anybody believe that I had met with an accident and fallen into the water, which was the impression I wished (in the interest of my reputation for sanity) to convey to such spectators as we might encounter.
On another occasion, coming over the Wengern Alp from Grindelwald one sultry summer day, my knees were shaking under me with the steep and prolonged descent into Lauterbrunnen. Just at the end of the wearisome downward way an exquisite brook springs into the Lutschine, as it flies through the valley of waterfalls, and into this I walked straight, to the consternation of my guides and dear companion, a singularly dignified little American lady, of Quaker descent and decorum, who was quite at a loss to conceive how, after such an exploit, I was to present myself to the inhabitants, tourists, and others of the little street and its swarming hotels, in my drenched and dripping condition; but, as I represented to her, nothing would be easier: "I shall get on my mule and ride sprinkling along, and people will only say, 'Ah, cette pauvre dame! qui est tombee a l'eau!'"
My visit to my aunt Kemble was prolonged beyond the stay of my friend H——, and I was left alone at Heath Farm. My walks were, of course, circumscribed, and the whole complexion of my life much changed by my being given over to lonely freedom limited only by the bounds of our pleasure-grounds, and my living converse with my friend exchanged for unrestricted selection from my aunt's book-shelves; from which I made a choice of extreme variety, since Lord Byron and Jeremy Taylor were among the authors with whom I then first made acquaintance, my school introduction to the former having been followed up by no subsequent intimacy.
I read them on alternate days, sitting on the mossy-cushioned lawn, under a beautiful oak tree, with a cabbage-leaf full of fresh-gathered strawberries and a handful of fresh-blown roses beside me, which Epicurean accompaniments to my studies appeared to me equally adapted to the wicked poet and the wise divine. Mrs. Kemble in no way interfered with me, and was quite unconscious of the subjects of my studies; she thought me generally "a very odd girl," but though I occasionally took a mischievous pleasure in perplexing her by fantastical propositions, to which her usual reply was a rather acrimonious "Don't be absurd, Fanny," she did not at all care to investigate my oddity, and left me to my own devices.
Among her books I came upon Wraxall's "Memoirs of the House of Valois," and, reading it with great avidity, determined to write an historical novel, of which the heroine should be Francoise de Foix, the beautiful Countess de Chateaubriand. At this enterprise I now set eagerly to work, the abundant production of doggerel suffering no diminution from this newer and rather soberer literary undertaking, to which I added a brisk correspondence with my absent friend, and a task she had set me (perhaps with some vague desire of giving me a little solid intellectual occupation) of copying for her sundry portions of "Harris's Hermes;" a most difficult and abstruse grammatical work, much of which was in Latin, not a little in Greek. All these I faithfully copied, Chinese fashion, understanding the English little better than the two dead languages which I transcribed—the Greek without much difficulty, owing to my school-day proficiency in the alphabet of that tongue. These literary exercises, walks within bounds, drives with my aunt, and the occasional solemnity of a dinner at Lord Essex's, were the events of my life till my aunt, Mrs. Whitelock, came to Heath Farm and brought an element of change into the procession of our days.
I think these two widowed ladies had entertained some notion that they might put their solitude together and make society; but the experiment did not succeed, and was soon judiciously abandoned, for certainly two more hopelessly dissimilar characters never made the difficult experiment of a life in common.
Mrs. Kemble, before she went to Switzerland, had lived in the best London society, with which she kept up her intercourse by zealous correspondence; the names of lords and ladies were familiar in her mouth as household words, and she had undoubtedly an undue respect for respectability and reverence for titled folk; yet she was not at all superficially a vulgar woman. She was quick, keen, clever, and shrewd, with the air, manner, dress, and address of a finished woman of the world. Mrs. Whitelock was simple-hearted and single-minded, had never lived in any English society whatever, and retorted but feebly the fashionable gossip of the day which reached Mrs. Kemble through the London post, with her transatlantic reminiscences of Prince Talleyrand and General Washington. She was grotesque in her manner and appearance, and a severe thorn in the side of her conventionally irreproachable companion, who has been known, on the approach of some coroneted carriage, to observe pointedly, "Mrs. Whitelock, there is an ekkipage." "I see it, ma'am," replied the undaunted Mrs. Whitelock, screwing up her mouth and twirling her thumbs in a peculiarly emphatic way, to which she was addicted in moments of crisis. Mrs. Kemble, who was as quick as Pincher in her movements, rang the bell and snapped out, "Not at home!" denying herself her stimulating dose of high-life gossip, and her companion what she would have called a little "genteel sociability," rather than bring face to face her fine friends and Mrs. Whitelock's flounced white muslin apron and towering Pamela cap, for she still wore such things. I have said that Mrs. Kemble was not (superficially) a vulgar woman, but it would have taken the soul of gentility to have presented, without quailing, her amazingly odd companion to her particular set of visitors. A humorist would have found his account in the absurdity of the scene all round; and Jane Austen would have made a delicious chapter of it; but Mrs. Kemble had not the requisite humor to perceive the fun of her companion, her acquaintances, and herself in juxtaposition. I have mentioned her mode of pronouncing the word equipage, which, together with several similar peculiarities that struck me as very odd, were borrowed from the usage of London good society in the days when she frequented it. My friend, Lord Lansdowne, never called London any thing but Lunnon, and always said obleege for oblige, like the Miss Berrys and Mrs. F—— and other of their contemporaries, who also said ekkipage, pettikits, divle. Since their time the pronunciation of English in good society, whose usage is the only acknowledged law in that matter, and the grammatical construction of the language habitual in that same good society, has become such as would have challenged the severest criticism, if we had ventured upon it in my father's house.
The unsuccessful partnership of my aunts was dissolved. Mrs. Kemble found the country intolerably dull, declared that the grass and trees made her sick, and fixed her abode in Leamington, then a small, unpretending, pretty country town, which (principally on account of the ability, reputation, and influence of its celebrated and popular resident physician, Dr. Jephson) was a sort of aristocratic-invalid Kur Residenz, and has since expanded into a thriving, populous, showy, semi-fashionable, Anglo-American watering-place in summer, and hunting-place in winter. Mrs. Kemble found the Leamington of her day a satisfactory abode; the AEsculapius, whose especial shrine it was, became her intimate friend; the society was comparatively restricted and select; and the neighborhood, with Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and Guy's Cliff, full of state and ancientry, within a morning's drive, was (which she cared less for) lovely in every direction. Mrs. Whitelock betook herself to a really rural life in a cottage in the beautiful neighborhood of Addlestone, in Surrey, where she lived in much simple content, bequeathing her small mansion and estate, at her death, to my mother, who passed there the last two years of her life and died there. I never returned to Heath Farm again; sometimes, as I steam by Watford, the image of the time I spent there rises again before me, but I pass from it at forty miles an hour, and it passed from me upwards of forty years ago.