These were childish expressions of a feeling the soberer portion of which remains with me even now, and makes the memory of that excellent woman, and kind, judicious friend, still very dear to my grateful affection. Not only was the change of discipline under which I now lived advantageous, but the great freedom I enjoyed, and which would have been quite impossible in London, was delightful to me; while the wonderful, picturesque beauty of Edinburgh, contrasted with the repulsive dinginess and ugliness of my native city, was a constant source of the liveliest pleasure to me.
The indescribable mixture of historic and romantic interest with all this present, visible beauty, the powerful charm of the Scotch ballad poetry, which now began to seize upon my imagination, and the inexhaustible enchantment of the associations thrown by the great modern magician over every spot made memorable by his mention, combined to affect my mind and feelings at this most susceptible period of my life, and made Edinburgh dear and delightful to me above all other places I ever saw, as it still remains—with the one exception of Rome, whose combined claim to veneration and admiration no earthly city can indeed dispute.
Beautiful Edinburgh! dear to me for all its beauty and all the happiness that I have never failed to find there, for the keen delight of my year of youthful life spent among its enchanting influences, and for the kind friends and kindred whose affectionate hospitality has made each return thither as happy as sadder and older years allowed—my blessing on every stone of its streets!
I had the utmost liberty allowed me in my walks about the city, and at early morning have often run up and round and round the Calton Hill, delighting, from every point where I stopped to breathe, in the noble panorama on every side. Not unfrequently I walked down to the sands at Porto Bello and got a sea bath, and returned before breakfast; while on the other side of the town my rambles extended to Newhaven and the rocks and sands of Cramond Beach.
While Edinburgh had then more the social importance of a capital, it had a much smaller extent; great portions of the present new town did not then exist. Warriston and the Bridge of Dean were still out of town; there was no Scott's monument in Princess Street, no railroad terminus with its smoke and scream and steam scaring the echoes of the North Bridge; no splendid Queen's Drive encircled Arthur's Seat. Windsor Street, in which Mrs. Harry Siddons lived, was one of the most recently finished, and broke off abruptly above gardens and bits of meadow land, and small, irregular inclosures, and mean scattered houses, stretching down toward Warriston Crescent; while from the balcony of the drawing-room the eye, passing over all this untidy suburban district, reached, without any intervening buildings, the blue waters of the Forth and Inchkeith with its revolving light.
Standing on that balcony late one cold, clear night, watching the rising and setting of that sea star that kept me fascinated out in the chill air, I saw for the first time the sky illuminated with the aurora borealis. It was a magnificent display of the phenomenon, and I feel certain that my attention was first attracted to it by the crackling sound which appeared to accompany the motion of the pale flames as they streamed across the sky; indeed, crackling, is not the word that properly describes the sound I heard, which was precisely that made by the flickering of blazing fire; and as I have often since read and heard discussions upon the question whether the motion of the aurora is or is not accompanied by an audible sound, I can only say that on this occasion it was the sound that first induced me to observe the sheets of white light that were leaping up the sky. At this time I knew nothing of these phenomena, or the debates among scientific men to which they had given rise, and can therefore trust the impression made on my senses.
I have since then witnessed repeated appearances of these beautiful meteoric lights, but have never again detected any sound accompanying their motion. The finest aurora I ever saw was at Lenox, Massachusetts; a splendid rose-colored pavilion appeared to be spread all over the sky, through which, in several parts, the shining of the stars was distinctly visible, while at the zenith the luminous drapery seemed gathered into folds, the color of which deepened almost to crimson. It was wonderfully beautiful. At Lenox, too, one night during the season of the appearance of the great comet of 1858, the splendid flaming plume hovered over one side of the sky, while all round the other horizon streams of white fire appeared to rise from altars of white light. It was awfully glorious, and beyond all description beautiful. The sky of that part of the United States, particularly in the late autumn and winter, was more frequently visited by magnificent meteors than any other with which I have been acquainted.
The extraordinary purity, dryness, and elasticity of the atmosphere in that region was, I suppose, one cause of these heavenly shows; the clear transparency of the sky by day often giving one the feeling that one was looking straight into heaven without any intermediate window of atmospheric air, while at night (especially in winter) the world of stars, larger, brighter, more numerous than they ever seemed to me elsewhere, and yet apparently infinitely higher and farther off, were set in a depth of dark whose blackness appeared transparent rather than opaque.
Midnight after midnight I have stood, when the thermometer was twenty and more degrees below freezing, looking over the silent, snow-smothered hills round the small mountain village of Lenox, fast asleep in their embrace, and from thence to the solemn sky rising above them like a huge iron vault hung with thousands of glittering steel weapons, from which, every now and then, a shining scimitar fell flashing earthward; it was a cruel looking sky, in its relentless radiance.
My solitary walks round Edinburgh have left two especial recollections in my mind; the one pleasant, the other very sad. I will speak of the latter first; it was like a leaf out of the middle of a tragedy, of which I never knew either the beginning or the end.
I was coming home one day from a tramp toward Cramond Beach, and was just on the brow of a wooded height looking towards Edinburgh and not two miles from it, when a heavy thunder-cloud darkened the sky above my head and pelted me with large drops of ominous warning. On one side of the road the iron gate and lodge of some gentleman's park suggested shelter; and the half-open door of the latter showing a tidy, pleasant-looking woman busy at an ironing table, I ventured to ask her to let me come in till the sponge overhead should have emptied itself. She very good-humoredly consented, and I sat down while the rain rang merrily on the gravel walk before the door, and smoked in its vehement descent on the carriage-road beyond.
The woman pursued her work silently, and I presently became aware of a little child, as silent as herself, sitting beyond her, in a small wicker chair; on the baby's table which fastened her into it were some remnants of shabby, broken toys, among which her tiny, wax-like fingers played with listless unconsciousness, while her eyes were fixed on me. The child looked wan and wasted, and had in its eyes, which it never turned from me, the weary, wistful, unutterable look of "far away and long ago" longing that comes into the miserably melancholy eyes of monkeys.
"Is the baby ill?" said I.
"Ou na, mem; it's no to say that ill, only just always peaking and pining like"—and she stopped ironing a moment to look at the little creature.
"Is it your own baby?" said I, struck with the absence of motherly tenderness in spite of the woman's compassionate tone and expression.
"Ou na, mem, it's no my ain; I hae nane o' my ain."
"How old is it?" I went on.
"Nigh upon five year old," was the answer, with which the ironing was steadily resumed, with apparently no desire to encourage more questions.
"Five years old!" I exclaimed, in horrified amazement: its size was that of a rickety baby under three, while its wizened face was that of a spell-struck creature of no assignable age, or the wax image of some dwindling life wasting away before the witch-kindled fire of a diabolical hatred. The tiny hands and arms were pitiably thin, and showed under the yellow skin sharp little bones no larger than a chicken's; and at her wrists and temples the blue tracery of her veins looked like a delicate map of the blood, that seemed as if it could hardly be pulsing through her feeble frame; while below the eyes a livid shadow darkened the faded face that had no other color in it.
The tears welled up into my eyes, and the woman, seeing them, suddenly stopped ironing and exclaimed eagerly: "Ou, mem, ye ken the family; or maybe ye'll hae been a friend of the puir thing's mither!" I was obliged to say that I neither knew them nor any thing about them, but that the child's piteous aspect had made me cry.
In answer to the questions with which I then plied her, the woman, who seemed herself affected by the impression I had received from the poor little creature's appearance, told me that the child was that of the only daughter of the people who owned the place; that there was "something wrong" about it all, she did not know what—a marriage ill-pleasing to the grandparents perhaps, perhaps even worse than that; but the mother was dead, the family had been abroad for upward of three years, and the child had been left under her charge. This was all she told me, and probably all she knew; and as she ended she wiped the tears from her own eyes, adding, "I'm thinking the puir bairn will no live long itsel'."
The rain was over and the sun shone, and I got up to go; as I went, the child's dreary eyes followed me out at the door, and I cried all the way home. Was it possible that my appearance suggested to that tiny soul the image of its young lost mother?
The other incident in my rambles that I wish to record was of a far pleasanter sort. I had gone down to the pier at Newhaven, one blowy, blustering day (the fine Granton Pier Hotel and landing-place did not yet exist), and stood watching the waves taking their mad run and leap over the end of the pier, in a glorious, foaming frenzy that kept me fascinated with the fine uproar, till it suddenly occurred to me that it would be delightful to be out among them (I certainly could have had no recollections of sea-sickness), and I determined to try and get a boat and go out on the frith.
I stopped at a cottage on the outskirts of the fishing town (it was not much more than a village then) of Newhaven, and knocked. Invited to come in, I did so, and there sat a woman, one of the very handsomest I ever saw, in solitary state, leisurely combing a magnificent curtain of fair hair that fell over her ample shoulders and bosom and almost swept the ground. She was seated on a low stool, but looked tall as well as large, and her foam-fresh complexion and gray-green eyes might have become Venus Anadyomene herself, turned into a Scotch fish-wife of five and thirty, or "thereawa." "Can you tell me of any one who will take me out in a boat for a little while?" quoth I. She looked steadily at me for a minute, and then answered laconically, "Ay, my man and boy shall gang wi' ye." A few lusty screams brought her husband and son forth, and at her bidding they got a boat ready, and, with me well covered with sail-cloths, tarpaulins, and rough dreadnaughts of one sort and another, rowed out from the shore into the turmoil of the sea. A very little of the dancing I got now was delight enough for me, and, deadly sick, I besought to be taken home again, when the matronly Brinhilda at the cottage received me with open-throated peals of laughter, and then made me sit down till I had conquered my qualms and was able to walk back to Edinburgh. Before I went, she showed me a heap of her children, too many, it seemed to me, to be counted; but as they lay in an inextricable mass on the floor in an inner room, there may have seemed more arms and legs forming the radii, of which a clump of curly heads was the center, than there really were.
The husband was a comparatively small man, with dark eyes, hair, and complexion; but her "boy," the eldest, who had come with him to take care of me, was a fair-haired, fresh-faced young giant, of his mother's strain, and, like her, looked as if he had come of the Northern Vikings, or some of the Niebelungen Lied heroes.
When I went away, my fish-wife bade me come again in smooth weather, and if her husband and son were at home they should take me out; and I gave her my address, and begged her, when she came up to town with her fish, to call at the house.
She was a splendid specimen of her tribe, climbing the steep Edinburgh streets with bare white feet, the heavy fish-basket at her back hardly stooping her broad shoulders, her florid face sheltered and softened in spite of its massiveness into something like delicacy by the transparent shadow of the white handkerchief tied hoodwise over her fair hair, and her shrill sweet voice calling "Caller haddie!" all the way she went, in the melancholy monotone that resounds through the thoroughfares of Edinburgh—the only melodious street-cry (except the warning of the Venetian gondoliers) that I ever heard.
I often went back to visit my middle-aged Christie Johnstone, and more than once saw her and her fellow fish-women haul up the boats on their return after being out at sea. They all stood on the beach clamoring like a flock of sea-gulls, and, as a boat's keel rasped the shingles, rushed forward and seized it; and while the men in their sea clothes, all dripping like huge Newfoundland dogs, jumped out in their heavy boots and took each the way to their several houses, their stalwart partners, hauling all together at the rope fastened to the boat, drew it up beyond water-mark, and seized and sorted its freight of fish, and stalked off each with her own basketful, with which she trudged up to trade and chaffer with the "gude wives" of the town, and bring back to the men the value of their work. It always seemed to me that these women had about as equal a share of the labor of life as the most zealous champion of the rights of their sex could desire.
I did not indulge in any more boating expeditions, but admired the sea from the pier, and became familiar with all the spokes of the fish-wife's family wheel; at any rate, enough to distinguish Jamie from Sandy, and Willie from Johnnie, and Maggie from Jeanie, and Ailsie from Lizzie, and was great friends with them all.
When I returned to Edinburgh, a theatrical star of the first magnitude, I took a morning's holiday to drive down to Newhaven, in search of my old ally, Mistress Sandie Flockhart. She no longer inhabited the little detached cottage, and divers and sundry were the Flockhart "wives" that I "speired at" through the unsavory street of Newhaven, before I found the right one at last, on the third flat of a filthy house, where noise and stench combined almost to knock me down, and where I could hardly knock loud enough to make myself heard above the din within and without. She opened the door of a room that looked as if it was running over with live children, and confronted me with the unaltered aspect of her comely, smiling face. But I had driven down from Edinburgh in all the starlike splendor of a lilac silk dress and French crape bonnet, and my dear fish-wife stared at me silently, with her mouth and gray eyes wide open; only for a moment, however, for in the next she joyfully exclaimed, "Ech, sirs! but it's yer ain sel come back again at last!" Then seizing my hand, she added breathlessly, "I'se gotten anither ane, and ye maun come in and see him;" so she dragged me bodily through and over her surging progeny to a cradle, where, soothed by the strident lullabies of its vociferating predecessors, her last-born and eleventh baby lay peaceably slumbering, an infant Hercules.
Among Mrs. Harry Siddons's intimate friends and associates were the remarkable brothers George and Andrew Combe; the former a lawyer by profession, but known to the literary and scientific world of Europe and America as the Apostle of Phrenology, and the author of a work entitled "The Constitution of Man," and other writings, whose considerable merit and value appear to me more or less impaired by the craniological theory which he made the foundation of all his works, and which to my mind diminished the general utility of his publications for those readers who are not prepared to accept it as the solution of all the mysteries of human existence.
His writings are all upon subjects of the greatest importance and universal interest, and full of the soundest moral philosophy and the most enlightened humanity; and their only drawback, to me, is the phrenological element which enters so largely into his treatment of every question. Indeed, his life was devoted to the dissemination of this new philosophy of human nature (new, at any rate, in the precise details which Gall, Spurzheim, and he elaborated from it), which, Combe believed, if once generally accepted, would prove the clew to every difficulty, and the panacea for every evil existing in modern civilization. Political and social, religious and civil, mental and moral government, according to him, hinged upon the study and knowledge of the different organs of the human brain, and he labored incessantly to elucidate and illustrate this subject, upon which he thought the salvation of the world depended. For a number of years I enjoyed the privilege of his friendship, and I have had innumerable opportunities of hearing his system explained by himself; but as I was never able to get beyond a certain point of belief in it, it was agreed on all hands that my brain was deficient in the organ of causality, i.e., in the capacity of logical reasoning, and that therefore it was not in my power to perceive the force of his arguments or the truth of his system, even when illustrated by his repeated demonstrations.
I am bound to say that my cousin Cecilia Combe had quite as much trouble with her household, her lady's-maids were quite as inefficient, her housemaids quite as careless, and her cooks quite as fiery-tempered and unsober as those of "ordinary Christians," in spite of Mr. Combe's observation and manipulation of their bumps previous to engaging them.
I remember once, when I was sitting to Lawrence Macdonald for my bust, which was one of the first he ever executed, before he left Edinburgh to achieve fame and fortune as the most successful marble portrait-maker in Rome, an absurd instance of Mr. Combe's insight into character occurred at my expense.
Macdonald was an intimate friend of the Combes, and I used to see him at their house very frequently, and Mr. Combe often came to the studio when I was sitting. One day while he was standing by, grimly observing Macdonald's absorbed manipulation of his clay, while I, the original clay, occupied the "bad eminence" of an artist's studio throne, my aunt came in with a small paper bag containing raspberry tarts in her hand. This was a dainty so peculiarly agreeable to me that, even at that advanced stage of my existence, those who loved me, or wished to be loved by me, were apt to approach me with those charming three-cornered puff paste propitiations.
As soon as I espied the confectioner's light paper bag I guessed its contents, and, springing from my dignified station, seized on the tarts as if I had been the notorious knave of the nursery rhyme. "There now, Macdonald, I told you so!" quoth Mr. Combe, and they both began to laugh; and so did I, with my mouth full of raspberry puff, for it was quite evident to me that my phrenological friend had impressed upon my artistic friend the special development of my organ of alimentiveness, as he politely called it, which I translated into the vulgate as "bump of greediness." In spite of my reluctance to sit to him, from the conviction that the thick outline of my features would turn the edge of the finest chisel that "ever yet cut breath," and perhaps by dint of phrenology, Macdonald succeeded in making a very good bust of me; and some time after, to my great amusement, having seen me act in the "Grecian Daughter," he said to me, "Oh, but what I want to do now is a statue of you."
"Yes," said I, "and I will tell you exactly where—in the last scene, where I cover my face."
"Precisely so!" cried my enthusiastic friend, and then burst out laughing, on seeing the trap I had laid for him; but he was a very honest man, and stood by his word.
The attitude he wished to represent in a statue was that when, having stabbed Dionysius, I raised the dagger toward heaven with one hand, and drew my drapery over my face with the other. For my notion of heroic women has always been, I am afraid, rather base—a sort of "They do not mind death, but they can not bear pinching;" and though Euphrasia might, could, would, and should stab the man who was about to murder her father, I have no idea that she would like to look at the man she had stabbed. "O Jupiter, no blood!" is apt to be the instinct, I suspect, even in very villainous feminine natures, and those who are and those who are not cowards alike shrink from sights of horror.
When I made Macdonald's acquaintance I was a girl of about seventeen, and he at the very beginning of his artistic career; but he had an expression of power and vivid intelligence which foretold his future achievements in the exquisite art to which he devoted himself.
When next I met Macdonald it was after a long lapse of time, in 1846, in Rome. Thither he had gone to study his divine art, and there he had remained for a number of years in the exercise of it. He was now the Signor Lorenzo of the Palazzo Barberini, the most successful and celebrated maker of busts, probably, in Rome, having achieved fame, fortune, the favor of the great, and the smiles of the fair, of the most fastidious portion of the English society that makes its winter season in Italy. He dined several times at our house (I was living with my sister and her husband); under his guidance we went to see the statutes of the Vatican by torchlight; and he came out once or twice in the summer of that year to visit us at our villa at Frascati.
I returned to Rome in 1852, and saw Macdonald frequently, in his studio, in our own house, and in general society; and shortly before leaving Rome I met him at dinner at Mrs. Archer Clive's (the authoress of "Paul Ferrol"). I had a nosegay of snowdrops in the bosom of my dress, and Macdonald, who sat next me, observed that they reminded him of Scotland, that he had never seen one in all the years he had passed in Italy, and did not even know that they grew there.
The next day I went to the gardener of the Villa Medici, an old friend of mine, and begged him to procure a pot of snowdrops for me, which I carried to Macdonald's studio, thinking an occasional reminiscence of his own northern land, which he had not visited for years, not a bad element to infuse into his Roman life and surroundings. Macdonald's portraits are generally good likenesses, sufficiently idealized to be also good works of art. In statuary he never accomplished any thing of extraordinary excellence. I think the "Ulysses Recognized by his Dog" his best performance in sculpture. His studio was an extremely interesting place of resort, from the portraits of his many remarkable sitters with which it was filled.
I met dear old Macdonald, in the winter of 1873, creeping in the sun slowly up the Pincio as I waddled heavily down it (Eheu!), his snow-white hair and moustache making his little-altered and strongly marked features only more striking. I visited his studio and found there, ardently and successfully creating immortal gods, a handsome, pleasing youth, his son, inheriting his father's genius, and, strange to say, his broadest of Scotch accents, though he had himself never been out of Rome, where he was born.
On one occasion Mr. Combe was consulted by Prince Albert with regard to the royal children, and was desired to examine their heads. He did not, of course, repeat any of the opinions he had given upon the young princes' "developments," but said they were very nice children, and likely to be capitally educated, for, he added (though shaking his head over cousinly intermarriages among royal personages), Prince Albert was well acquainted with the writings of Gall and Spurzheim, and his own work on "The Constitution of Man." Prince Albert seems to have known something of every thing that was worthy of a Wiseman's knowledge.
In spite of my inability to accept his science of human nature, Mr. Combe was always a most kind and condescending friend to me. He was a man of singular integrity, uprightness, and purity of mind and character, and of great justice and impartiality of judgment; he was extremely benevolent and humane, and one of the most reasonable human beings I have ever known. From first to last my intercourse with him was always delightful and profitable to me. Of the brothers, however, the younger, Dr. Andrew Combe, was by far the most generally popular, and deservedly so. He was one of the most excellent and amiable of men; his countenance, voice, and manner were expressive of the kindliest benevolence; he had none of the angular rigidity of person and harshness of feature of his brother: both were worthy and distinguished men, but Andrew Combe was charming, which George Combe was not—at least to those who did not know him. Although Dr. Combe completely indorsed his brother's system, he was far lass fanatical and importunate in his advocacy of it. Indeed, his works upon physiology, hygiene, and the physical education of children are of such universal value and importance that no parent or trainer of youth should be unfamiliar with them. Moreover, to them and their excellent author society is indebted for an amount of knowledge on these subjects which has now passed into general use and experience, and become so completely incorporated in the practice of the present day, that it is hardly remembered to whom the first and most powerful impression of the importance of the "natural laws," and their observance in our own lives and the training of our children, is due. I knew a school of young girls in Massachusetts, where taking regular exercise, the use of cold baths, the influence of fresh air, and all the process of careful physical education to which they were submitted, went by the general name of Combeing, in honor of Dr. Combe.
Dr. Combe was Mrs. Harry Siddons's medical adviser, most trusted friend, and general counselor. The young people of her family, myself included, all loved and honored him; and the gleam of genial pleasant humor (a quality of which his worthy brother had hardly a spark) which frequently brightened the gentle gravity of his countenance and demeanor made his intercourse delightful to us; and great was the joy when he proposed to take one or other of us in his gig for a drive to some patient's house, in the lovely neighborhood of Edinburgh. I remember my poor dear mother's dismay when, on my return home, I told her of these same drives. She was always in a fever of apprehension about people's falling in love with each other, and begged to know how old a man this delightful doctor, with whom Mrs. Harry allowed her own daughters and my mother's daughters to go gigging, might be. "Ah," replied I, inexpressibly amused at the idea of Dr. Combe in the character of a gay gallant, "ever so old!" I had the real school-girl's estimate of age, and honestly thought that dear Dr. Combe was quite an old man. I believe he was considerably under forty. But if he had been much younger, the fatal disease which had set its seal upon him, and of which he died—after defending his life for an almost incredible space of time from its ultimate victory (which all his wisdom and virtue could but postpone)—was so clearly written upon his thin, sallow face, deep-sunk eyes, and emaciated figure, and gave so serious and almost sad an expression to his countenance and manner, that one would as soon have thought of one's grandfather as an unsafe companion for young girls. I still possess a document, duly drawn up and engrossed in the form of a deed by his brother, embodying a promise which he made to me jestingly one day, that when he was dead he would not fail to let me know, if ever ghosts were permitted to revisit the earth, by appearing to me, binding himself by this contract that the vision should be unaccompanied by the smallest smell of sulphur or flash of blue flame, and that instead of the indecorous undress of a slovenly winding-sheet, he would wear his usual garments, and the familiar brown great-coat with which, to use his own expression, he "buttoned his bones together" in his life. I remembered that laughing promise when, years after it was given, the news of his death reached me, and I thought how little dismay I should feel if it could indeed have been possible for me to see again, "in his image as he lived," that kind and excellent friend. On one of the occasions when Dr. Combe took me to visit one of his patients, we went to a quaint old house in the near neighborhood of Edinburgh. If the Laird of Dumbiedike's mansion had been still standing, it might have been that very house. The person we went to visit was an old Mr. M——, to whom he introduced me, and with whom he withdrew, I suppose for a professional consultation, leaving me in a strange, curious, old-fashioned apartment, full of old furniture, old books, and faded, tattered, old nondescript articles, whose purpose it was not easy to guess, but which must have been of some value, as they were all protected from the air and dust by glass covers. When the gentlemen returned, Mr. M—— gratified my curiosity by showing every one of them to me in detail, and informing me that they had all belonged to, or were in some way relics of, Charles Edward Stuart. "And this," said the old gentleman, "was his sword." It was a light dress rapier, with a very highly cut and ornamented steel hilt. I half drew the blade, thinking how it had flashed from its scabbard, startling England and dazzling Scotland at its first unsheathing, and in what inglorious gloom of prostrate fortunes it had rusted away at last, the scorn of those who had opposed, and the despair of those who had embraced, its cause. "And so that was the Pretender's sword!" said I, hardly aware that I had spoken until the little, withered, snuff-colored gentleman snatched rather than took it from me, exclaiming, "Wha' did ye say, madam? it was the prince's sword!" and laid it tenderly back in the receptacle from which he had taken it.
As we drove away, Dr. Combe told me, what indeed I had perceived, that this old man, who looked like a shriveled, russet-colored leaf for age and feebleness, was a passionate partisan of Charles Edward, by whom my mention of him as the Pretender, if coming from a man, would have been held a personal insult. It was evident that I, though a mere chit of the irresponsible sex, had both hurt and offended him by it. His sole remaining interest in life was hunting out and collecting the smallest records or memorials of this shadow of a hero; surely the merest "royal apparition" that ever assumed kingship. "What a set those Stuarts must have been!" exclaimed an American friend of mine once, after listening to "Bonnie Prince Charlie," "to have had all those glorious Jacobite songs made and sung for them, and not to have been more of men than they were!" And so I think, and thought even then, for though I had a passion for the Jacobite ballads, I had very little enthusiasm for their thoroughly inefficient hero, who, for the claimant of a throne, was undoubtedly un tres pauvre sire. Talking over this with me, as we drove from Mr. M——'s, Dr. Combe said he was persuaded that at that time there were men to be found in Scotland ready to fight a duel about the good fame of Mary Stuart.
Sir Walter Scott told me that when the Scottish regalia was discovered, in its obscure place of security, in Edinburgh Castle, pending the decision of government as to its ultimate destination, a committee of gentlemen were appointed its guardians, among whom he was one; and that he received a most urgent entreaty from an old lady of the Maxwell family to be permitted to see it. She was nearly ninety years old, and feared she might not live till the crown jewels of Scotland were permitted to become objects of public exhibition, and pressed Sir Walter with importunate prayers to allow her to see them before she died. Sir Walter's good sense and good nature alike induced him to take upon himself to grant the poor old lady's petition, and he himself conducted her into the presence of these relics of her country's independent sovereignty; when, he said, tottering hastily forward from his support, she fell on her knees before the crown, and, clasping and wringing her wrinkled hands, wailed over it as a mother over her dead child. His description of the scene was infinitely pathetic, and it must have appealed to all his own poetical and imaginative sympathy with the former glories of his native land.
My mother's anxiety about Dr. Combe's age reminds me that my intimacy with my cousin, Harry Siddons, who was now visiting his mother previous to his departure for India to begin his military career, had been a subject of considerable perplexity to her while I was still at home and he used to come from Addiscombe to see us. Nothing could be more diametrically opposite than his mother's and my mother's system (if either could be called so) of dealing with the difficulty, though I have my doubts whether Mrs. Harry perceived any in the case; and whereas I think my mother's apprehensions and precautions would have very probably been finally justified by some childish engagement between Harry and myself, resulting in all sorts of difficulties and complications as time went on and absence and distance produced their salutary effect on a boy of twenty and a girl of seventeen, Mrs. Harry remained passive, and apparently unconscious of any danger; and we walked and talked and danced and were sentimental together after the most approved cousinly fashion, and Harry went off to India with my name engraved upon his sword—a circumstance which was only made known to me years after by his widow (his and my cousin, Harriet Siddons), whom he met and loved and married in India, and who made me laugh, telling me how hard he and she had worked, scratched, and scrubbed together to try and efface my name from the good sword; which, however, being true steel, and not inconstant heart of man, refused to give up its dedication. I should have much objected to any such inscription had I been consulted.
My cousin Harry's wife was the second daughter of George Siddons, Mrs. Siddons's eldest son, who through her interest was appointed, while still quite a young man, to the influential and lucrative post of collector of the port at Calcutta, which position he retained for nearly forty years. He married a lady in whose veins ran the blood of the kings of Delhi, and in whose descendants, in one or two instances, even in the fourth generation, this ancestry reveals itself by a type of beauty of strikingly Oriental character. Among these is the beautiful Mrs. Scott-Siddons, whose exquisite features present the most perfect living miniature of her great-grandmother's majestic beauty. In two curiously minute, highly finished miniatures of the royal Hindoo personages, her ancestors, which Mrs. George Siddons gave Miss Twiss (and the latter gave me), it is wonderful how strong a likeness may be traced to several of their remote descendants born in England of English parents.
To return to Edinburgh: another intimate acquaintance, or rather friend, of Mr. Combe's whom I frequently met at his house was Duncan McLaren, father of the present member of Parliament, the able editor of the Scotsman. Between him and the Combes all matters of public interest and importance were discussed from the most liberal and enlightened point of view, and it was undoubtedly a great advantage to an intelligent girl of my age to hear such vigorous, manly, clear expositions of the broadest aspects of all the great political and governmental questions of the day. Admirable sound sense was the characteristic that predominated in that intellectual circle, and was brought to bear upon every subject; and I remember with the greatest pleasure the evenings I passed at Mr. Combe's residence in Northumberland Street, with these three grave men. Among the younger associates to whom these elders and betters extended their kindly hospitality was William Gregory, son of the eminent professor of chemistry, who himself has since pursued the same scientific course with equal success and distinction, adding a new luster to the honorable name he inherited.
Mr. William Murray, my dear Mrs. Harry's brother, was another member of our society, to whom I have alluded, in speaking of the Edinburgh Theater, as an accomplished actor; and sometimes I used to think that was all he was, for it was impossible to determine whether the romance, the sentiment, the pathos, the quaint humor, or any of the curiously capricious varying moods in which these were all blended, displayed real elements of his character or only shifting exhibitions of the peculiar versatility of a nature at once so complex and so superficial that it really was impossible for others, and I think would have been difficult for himself, to determine what was genuine thought and feeling in him, and what the mere appearance or demonstration or imitation of thought and feeling. Perhaps this peculiarity was what made him such a perfect actor. He was a very melancholy man, with a tendency to moody morbidness of mind which made him a subject of constant anxiety to his sister. His countenance, which was very expressive without being at all handsome, habitually wore an air of depression, and yet it was capable of brilliant vivacity and humorous play of feature. His conversation, when he was in good spirits, was a delightful mixture of sentiment, wit, poetry, fun, fancy and imagination. He had married the sister of Mrs. Thomas Moore (the Bessie so tenderly invited to "fly from the world" with the poet), and I used to think that he was like an embodiment of Moore's lyrical genius: there was so much pathos and wit and humor and grace and spirit and tenderness, and such a quantity of factitious flummery besides in him, that he always reminded me of those pretty and provoking songs in which some affected attitudinizing conceit mingles with almost every expression of genuine feeling, like an artificial rose in a handful of wild flowers.
I do not think William Murray's diamonds were of the finest water, but his paste was; and it was difficult enough to tell the one from the other. He had a charming voice, and sang exquisitely, after a fashion which I have no doubt he copied (as, however, only original genius can copy) from Moore; but his natural musical facility was such that, although no musician, and singing everything only by ear, he executed the music of the Figaro in Mozart's "Nozze" admirably. He had a good deal of his sister's winning charm of manner, and was (but not, I think, of malice prepense) that pleasantly pernicious creature, a male flirt. It was quite out of his power to address any woman (sister or niece or cookmaid) without an air and expression of sentimental courtesy and tender chivalrous devotion, that must have been puzzling and perplexing in the extreme to the uninitiated; and I am persuaded that until some familiarity bred—if not contempt, at least comprehension—every woman of his acquaintance (his cook included) must have felt convinced that he was struggling against a respectful and hopeless passion for her.
Of another acquaintance of ours in Edinburgh, a Mrs. A——, I wish to say a word. She was a very singular woman; not perhaps in being tolerably ignorant and silly, with an unmeaning face and a foolish, commonplace manner, an average specimen of vacuity of mind and vapidity of conversation, but undoubtedly singular in that she combined with these not un-frequent human conditions a most rare gift of musical and poetical interpretation—a gift so peculiar that when she sang she literally seemed inspired, taken possession of, by some other soul, that entered into her as she opened her mouth and departed from her as she shut it. She had a dull, brick-colored, long, thin face, and dull, pale-green eyes, like boiled gooseberries; but when in a clear, high, sweet, passionless soprano, like the voice of a spirit, and without any accompaniment, she sang the old Scotch ballads which she had learned in early girlhood from her nurse, she produced one of the most powerful impressions that music and poetry combined can produce. From her I heard and learned by ear "The Douglas Tragedy," "Fine Flowers in the Valley," "Edinbro'," and many others, and became completely enamored of the wild beauty of the Scotch ballads, the terror and pity of their stories, and the strange, sweet, mournful music to which they were told. I knew every collection of them, that I could get hold of, by heart, from Scott's "Border Minstrelsy" to Smith's six volumes of "National Scottish Songs with their Musical Settings," and I said and sang them over in my lonely walks perpetually; and they still are to me among the deepest and freshest sources of poetical thought and feeling that I know. It is impossible, I think, to find a truer expression of passion, anguish, tenderness, and supernatural terror, than those poems contain. The dew of heaven on the mountain fern is not more limpid than the simplicity of their diction, nor the heart's blood of a lover more fervid than the throbbing intensity of their passion. Misery, love, longing, and despair have found no finer poetical utterance out of Shakespeare; and the deepest chords of woe and tenderness have been touched by these often unknown archaic song-writers, with a power and a pathos inferior only to his. The older ballads, with the exquisite monotony of their burdens soothing and relieving the tragic tenor of their stories, like the sighing of wind or the murmuring of water; the clarion-hearted Jacobite songs, with the fragrance of purple heather and white roses breathing through their strains of loyal love and death-defying devotion; and the lovely, pathetic, and bewitchingly humorous songs of Burns, with their enchanting melodies, were all familiar to me, and, during the year that I spent in Edinburgh, were my constant study and delight.
On one occasion I sat by Robert Chambers, and heard him relate some portion of the difficulties and distresses of his own and his brother's early boyhood (the interesting story has lately become generally known by the publication of their memoirs); and I then found it very difficult to swallow my dinner, and my tears, while listening to him, so deeply was I affected by his simple and touching account of the cruel struggle the two brave lads—destined to become such admirable and eminent men—had to make against the hardships of their position. I remember his describing the terrible longing occasioned by the smell of newly baked bread in a baker's shop near which they lived, to their poor, half-starved, craving appetites, while they were saving every farthing they could scrape together for books and that intellectual sustenance of which, in after years, they became such bountiful dispensers to all English-reading folk. Theirs is a very noble story of virtue conquering fortune and dedicating it to the highest purposes. I used to meet the Messrs. Chambers at Mr. Combe's house; they were intimate and valued friends of the phrenologist, and I remember when the book entitled "Vestiges of Creation" came out, and excited so great a sensation in the public mind, that Mr. Combe attributed the authorship of it, which was then a secret, to Robert Chambers.
Another Edinburgh friend of ours was Baron Hume, a Scottish law dignitary, a charming old gentleman of the very old school, who always wore powder and a pigtail, knee-breeches, gold-buckles, and black silk stockings; and who sent a thrill of delight through my girlish breast when he addressed me, as he invariably did, by the dignified title of "madam;" though I must sorrowfully add that my triumph on this score was considerably abated when, on the occasion of my second visit to Edinburgh, after I had come out on the stage, I went to see my kind old friend, who was too aged and infirm to go to the theater, and who said to me as I sat on a low stool by his sofa, "Why, madam, they tell me you are become a great tragic actress! But," added he, putting his hand under my chin, and raising my face toward him, "how am I to believe that of this laughing face, madam?" No doubt he saw in his memory's eye the majestic nose of my aunt, and my "visnomy" under the effect of such a contrast must have looked comical enough, by way of a tragic mask. By the bye, it is on record that while Gainsborough was painting that exquisite portrait of Mrs. Siddons which is now in the South Kensington Gallery, and which for many fortunate years adorned my father's house, after working in absorbed silence for some time he suddenly exclaimed, "Damn it, madam, there is no end to your nose!" The restoration of that beautiful painting has destroyed the delicate charm of its coloring, which was perfectly harmonious, and has as far as possible made it coarse and vulgar: before it had been spoiled, not even Sir Joshua's "Tragic Muse" seemed to me so noble and beautiful a representation of my aunt's beauty as that divine picture of Gainsborough's.
Two circumstances occurred during my stay in Edinburgh which made a great impression upon me: the one was the bringing of the famous old gun, Mons Meg, up to the castle; and the other was the last public appearance of Madame Catalani. I do not know where the famous old cannon had been kept till it was resolved to place it in Edinburgh Castle, but the event was made quite a public festival, and by favor of some of the military authorities who presided over the ceremony we were admirably placed in a small angle or turret that commanded the beautiful land and sea and town, and immediately overlooked the hollow road up which, with its gallant military escort of Highland troops, and the resounding accompaniment of their warlike music, the great old lumbering piece of ordnance came slowly, dragged by a magnificent team of horses, into the fortress. Nothing could be more striking than the contrast presented by this huge, clumsy, misshapen, obsolete engine of war, and the spruce, trim, shining, comparatively little cannon (mere pocket-pistols for Bellona) which furnished the battery just below our stand, and which, as soon as the unwieldy old warrioress had occupied the post of honor reserved for her in their midst, sent forth a martial acclaim of welcome that made the earth tremble under our feet, and resounded through the air, shivering, with the strong concussion, more than one pane of glass in the windows of Princess Street far below.
Of Madame Catalani, all I can say is that I think she sang only "God save the King" and "Rule Britannia" on the occasion on which I heard her, which was that of her last public appearance in Edinburgh. I remember only these, and think had she sung any thing else I could not have forgotten it. She was quite an old woman, but still splendidly handsome. Her magnificent dark hair and eyes, and beautiful arms, and her blue velvet dress with a girdle flashing with diamonds, impressed me almost as much as her singing; which, indeed, was rather a declamatory and dramatic than a musical performance. The tones of her voice were still fine and full, and the majestic action of her arms as she uttered the words, "When Britain first arose from the waves," wonderfully graceful and descriptive; still, I remember better that I saw, than that I heard, Madame Catalani. She is the first of the queens of song that I have seen ascend the throne of popular favor, in the course of sixty years, and pretty little Adelina Patti the last; I have heard all that have reigned between the two, and above them all Pasta appears to me pre-eminent for musical and dramatic genius—alone and unapproached, the muse of tragic song.
I can not remember any event, or series of events, the influence of which could, during my first stay in Edinburgh, have made a distinctly serious or religious impression on my mind, or have directed my thoughts especially toward the more solemn concerns and aspects of life. But from some cause or other my mind became much affected at this time by religious considerations, and a strong devotional element began to predominate among my emotions and cogitations. In my childhood in my father's house we had no special religious training; our habits were those of average English Protestants of decent respectability. My mother read the Bible to us in the morning before breakfast; Mrs. Trimmer's and Mrs. Barbauld's Scripture histories and paraphrases were taught to us; we learnt our catechism and collects, and went to church on Sunday, duly and decorously, as a matter of course. Grace was always said before and after meals by the youngest member of the family present; and I remember a quaint, old-fashioned benediction which, when my father happened to be at home at our bedtime, we used to kneel down by his chair to receive, and with which he used to dismiss us for the night: "God bless you! make you good, happy, healthy, and wise!" These, with our own daily morning and evening prayers, were our devotional habits and pious practices. In Mrs. Harry Siddons's house religion was never, I think, directly made a subject of inculcation or discussion; the usual observances of Church of England people were regularly fulfilled by all her family, the spirit of true religion governed her life and all her home relations, but special, direct reference to religious subjects was infrequent among us. God's service in that house took the daily and hourly form of the conscientious discharge of duty, unselfish, tender affection toward each other, and kindly Christian charity toward all. At various times in my life, when hearing discussions on the peculiar (technical, I should be disposed to call it) profession and character supposed by some very good people of a certain way of thinking to be the only indication of what they considered real religion, I have remembered the serene, courageous self-devotion of my dear friend, when, during a dangerous (as it was at one time apprehended, fatal) illness of her youngest daughter, she would leave her child's bedside to go to the theater, and discharge duties never very attractive to her, and rendered distasteful then by cruel anxiety, but her neglect of which would have injured the interests of her brother, her fellow-actors, and all the poor people employed in the theater, and been a direct infringement of her obligations to them. I have wondered what amount of religion a certain class of "professing Christians" would have allowed entered into that great effort.
We attended habitually a small chapel served by the Rev. William Shannon, an excellent but not exciting preacher, who was a devoted friend of Mrs. Harry Siddons; and occasionally we went to Dr. Allison's church and heard him—then an old man—preach, and sometimes his young assistant, Mr. Sinclair, whose eloquent and striking sermons, which impressed me much, were the only powerful direct appeals made to my religious sentiments at that time. I rather incline to think that I had, what a most unclerical young clergyman of my acquaintance once assured me I had, a natural turn for religion. I think it not unlikely that a great deal of the direct religious teaching and influences of my Paris school-days was, as it were, coming up again to the surface of my mind, and occupying my thoughts with serious reflections upon the most important subjects. The freedom I enjoyed gave scope and leisure to my character to develop and strengthen itself; and to the combined healthful repose and activity of all my faculties, the absence of all excitement and irritation from external influences, the pure moral atmosphere and kindly affection by which I lived surrounded during this happy year, I attribute whatever perception of, desire for, or endeavor after goodness I was first consciously actuated by. In the rest and liberty of my life at this time, I think, whatever was best in me had the most favorable chance of growth, and I have remained ever grateful to the wise forbearance of the gentle authority under which I lived, for the benefit as well as the enjoyment I derived from the time I passed in Edinburgh.
I think that more harm is frequently done by over than by under culture in the moral training of youth. Judicious letting alone is a precious element in real education, and there are certain chords which, often touched and made to vibrate too early, are apt to lose instead of gaining power; to grow first weakly and morbidly sensitive, and then hard and dull; and finally, when the full harmony of the character depends upon their truth and depth of tone, to have lost some measure of both under repeated premature handling.
I sometimes think that instead of beginning, as we do, with a whole heaven-and-earth-embracing theory of duty to God and man, it might be better to adopt with our children the method of dealing only with each particular instance of moral obligation empirically as it occurs; with each particular incident of life, detached, as it were, from the notion of a formal system, code, or theory of religious belief, until the recurrence of the same rules of morality under the same governing principle, invoked only in immediate application to some instance of conduct or incident of personal experience, built up by degrees a body of precedent which would have the force and efficacy of law before it was theoretically inculcated as such. Whoever said that principles were moral habits spoke, it seems to me, a valuable truth, not generally sufficiently recognized or acted upon in the task of education.
The only immediate result, that I can remember, of my graver turn of thought at this time upon my conduct was a determination to give up reading Byron's poetry. It was a great effort and a very great sacrifice, for the delight I found in it was intense; but I was quite convinced of its injurious effect upon me, and I came to the conclusion that I would forego it.
"Cain" and "Manfred" were more especially the poems that stirred my whole being with a tempest of excitement that left me in a state of mental perturbation impossible to describe for a long time after reading them. I suppose the great genius touched in me the spirit of our time, which, chit as I was, was common to us both; and the mere fact of my being un enfant du siecle rendered me liable to the infection of the potent, proud, desponding bitterness of his writing.
The spirit of an age creates the spirit that utters it, and though Byron's genius stamped its impress powerfully upon the thought and feeling of his contemporaries, he was himself, after all, but a sort of quintessence of them, and gave them back only an intensified, individual extract of themselves. The selfish vanity and profligate vice which he combined with his extraordinary intellectual gifts were as peculiar to himself as his great mental endowments; and though fools may have followed the fashion of his follies, the heart of all Europe was not stirred by a fashion of which he set the example, but by a passion for which he found the voice, indeed, but of which the key-note lay in the very temper of the time and the souls of the men of his day. Goethe, Alfieri, Chateaubriand, each in his own language and with his peculiar national and individual accent, uttered the same mind; they stamped their own image and superscription upon the coin to which, by so doing, they gave currency, but the mine from whence they drew their metal was the civilized humanity of the nineteenth century. It is true that some of Solomon's coining rings not unlike Goethe's and Byron's; but Solomon forestalled his day by being blase before the nineteenth century. Doubtless the recipe for that result has been the same for individuals ever since the world rolled, but only here and there a great king, who was also a great genius, possessed it in the earlier times; it took all the ages that preceded it to make the blase age, and Byron, pre-eminently, to speak its mind in English—which he had no sooner done than every nineteenth-century shop-boy in England quoted Byron, wore his shirt-collar open, and execrated his destiny. Doubtless by grace of his free-will a man may wring every drop of sap out of his own soul and help his fellows like-minded with himself to do the same; but the everlasting spirit of truth renews the vitality of the world, and while Byron was growling and howling, and Shelley was denying and defying, Scott was telling and Wordsworth singing things beautiful and good, and new and true.
Certain it is, however, that the noble poet's glorious chanting of much inglorious matter did me no good, and so I resolved to read that grand poetry no more. It was a severe struggle, but I persevered in it for more than two years, and had my reward; I broke through the thraldom of that powerful spell, and all the noble beauty of those poems remained to me thenceforth divested of the power of wild excitement they had exercised over me. A great many years after this girlish effort and sacrifice, Lady Byron, who was a highly esteemed friend of mine, spoke to me upon the subject of a new and cheap edition of her husband's works about to be published, and likely to be widely disseminated among the young clerk and shopkeeper class of readers, for whom she deprecated extremely the pernicious influence it was calculated to produce. She consulted me on the expediency of appending to it some notice of Lord Byron written by herself, which she thought might modify or lessen the injurious effect of his poetry upon young minds. "Nobody," she said, "knew him as I did" (this certainly was not the general impression upon the subject); "nobody knew as well as I the causes that had made him what he was; nobody, I think, is so capable of doing justice to him, and therefore of counteracting the injustice he does to himself, and the injury he might do to others, in some of his writings." I was strongly impressed by the earnestness of her expression, which seemed to me one of affectionate compassion for Byron and profound solicitude lest, even in his grave, he should incur the responsibility of yet further evil influence, especially on the minds of the young. I could not help wondering, also, whether she did not shrink from being again, to a new generation and a wider class of readers, held up to cruel ridicule and condemnation as the cold-hearted, hard, pedantic prude, without sympathy for suffering or relenting toward repentance. I had always admired the reticent dignity of her silence with reference to her short and disastrous union with Lord Byron, and I felt sorry, therefore, that she contemplated departing from the course she had thus far steadfastly pursued, though I appreciated the motive by which she was actuated. I could not but think, however, that she overestimated the mischief Byron's poetry was likely to do the young men of 1850, highly prejudicial as it undoubtedly was to those of his day, illustrated, so to speak, by the bad notoriety of his own character and career. But the generation of English youth who had grown up with Thackeray, Dickens, and Tennyson as their intellectual nourishment, seemed to me little likely to be infected with Byronism, and might read his poetry with a degree of impunity which the young people of his own time did not enjoy. I urged this my conviction upon her, as rendering less necessary than she imagined the antidote she was anxious to append to the poison of the new edition of her husband's works. But to this she replied that she had derived her impression of the probable mischief to a class peculiarly interesting to him, from Frederick Robertson, and of course his opinion was more than an overweight for mine.
Lady Byron did not, however, fulfill her purpose of prefacing the contemplated edition of Byron's poems with a notice of him by herself, which I think very likely to have been a suggestion of Mr. Robertson's to her.
My happy year in Edinburgh ended, I returned to London, to our house in James Street, Buckingham Gate, where I found my parents much burdened with care and anxiety about the affairs of the theater, which were rapidly falling into irretrievable embarrassment. My father toiled incessantly, but the tide of ill-success and losing fortune had set steadily against him, and the attempt to stem it became daily harder and more hopeless. I used sometimes to hear some of the sorrowful details of this dreary struggle, and I well remember the indignation and terror I experienced when one day my father said at dinner, "I have had a new experience to-day: I have been arrested for the first time in my life." I believe my father was never personally in debt during all his life; he said he never had been up to that day, and I am very sure he never was afterward. Through all the severe labor of his professional life, and his strenuous exertions to maintain his family and educate my brothers like gentlemen, and my sister and myself with every advantage, he never incurred the misery of falling into debt, but paid his way as he went along, with difficulty, no doubt, but still steadily and successfully, "owing no man any thing." But the suit in question was brought against him as one of the proprietors of the theater, for a debt which the theater owed; and, moreover, was that of a person whom he had befriended and helped forward, and who had always professed the most sincere gratitude and attachment to him. The constantly darkening prospects of that unlucky theater threw a gloom over us all; sometimes my father used to speak of selling his share in it for any thing he could get for it (and Heaven knows it was not likely to be much!), and going to live abroad; or sending my mother, with us, to live cheaply in the south of France, while he continued to work in London. Neither alternative was cheerful for him or my poor mother, and I felt very sorrowful for them, though I thought I should like living in the south of France better than in London. I was working with a good deal of enthusiasm at a tragedy on the subject of Fiesco, the Genoese noble's conspiracy against the Dorias—a subject which had made a great impression upon me when I first read Schiller's noble play upon it. My own former fancy about going on the stage, and passionate desire for a lonely, independent life in which it had originated, had died away with the sort of moral and mental effervescence which had subsided during my year's residence in Edinburgh. Although all my sympathy with the anxieties of my parents tended to make the theater an object of painful interest to me, and though my own attempts at poetical composition were constantly cast in a dramatic form, in spite of my enthusiastic admiration of Goethe's and Schiller's plays (which, however, I could only read in French or English translations, for I then knew no German) and my earnest desire to write a good play myself, the idea of making the stage my profession had entirely passed from my mind, which was absorbed with the wish and endeavor to produce a good dramatic composition. The turn I had exhibited for acting at school appeared to have evaporated, and Covent Garden itself never occurred to me as a great institution for purposes of art or enlightened public recreation, but only as my father's disastrous property, to which his life was being sacrificed; and every thought connected with it gradually became more and more distasteful to me. It appears to me curious, that up to this time, I literally knew nothing of Shakespeare, beyond having seen one or two of his plays acted; I had certainly never read one of them through, nor did I do so until some time later, when I began to have to learn parts in them by heart.
I think the rather serious bias which my mind had developed while I was still in Scotland tended probably to my greater contentment in my home, and to the total disinclination which I should certainly now have felt for a life of public exhibition. My dramatic reading and writing was curiously blended with a very considerable interest in literature of a very different sort, and with the perusal of such works as Mason on "Self-Knowledge," Newton's "Cardiphonia," and a great variety of sermons and religious essays. My mother, observing my tendency to reading on religious subjects, proposed to me to take my first communion. She was a member of the Swiss Protestant Church, the excellent pastor of which, the Rev. Mr. S——, was our near neighbor, and we were upon terms of the friendliest intimacy with him and his family. In his church I received the sacrament for the first time, but I do not think with the most desirable effect. The only immediate result that I can remember of this increase of my Christian profession and privileges was, I am sorry to say, a rigid pharisaical formalism, which I carried so far as to decline accompanying my father and mother to our worthy clergyman's house, one Sunday, when we were invited to spend the evening with him and his family. This sort of acrid fruit is no uncommon first harvest of youthful religious zeal; and I suppose my parents and my worthy pastor thought it a piece of unripe, childish, impertinent conscientiousness, hardly deserving a serious rebuke.
Another of my recollections which belong to this time is seeing several times at our house that exceedingly coarse, disagreeable, clever, and witty man, Theodore Hook. I always had a dread of his loud voice, and blazing red face, and staring black eyes; especially as on more than one occasion his after-dinner wit seemed to me fitter for the table he had left than the more refined atmosphere of the drawing-room. One day he dined with us to meet my cousin Horace Twiss and his handsome new wife. Horace had in a lesser degree some of Hook's wonderful sense of humor and quickness of repartee, and the two men brought each other out with great effect. Of course I had heard of Mr. Hook's famous reply when, after having returned from the colonies, where he was in an official position, under suspicion of peculation, a friend meeting him said, "Why, hallo, Hook! I did not know you were in England! What has brought you back again?" "Something wrong about the chest," replied the imperturbable wit. He was at this time the editor of the John Bull, a paper of considerable ability, and only less scurrility than the Age; and in spite of his chest difficulty he was much sought in society for his extraordinary quickness and happiness in conversation. His outrageous hoax of the poor London citizen, from whom he extorted an agonized invitation to dinner by making him believe that he and Charles Mathews were public surveyors, sent to make observations for a new road, which was to go straight through the poor shopkeeper's lawn, flower-garden, and bedroom, he has, I believe, introduced into his novel of "Gilbert Gurney." But not, of course, with the audacious extemporaneous song with which he wound up the joke, when, having eaten and drank the poor citizen's dinner, prepared for a small party of citizen friends (all the time assuring him that he and his friend would use their very best endeavors to avert the threatened invasion of his property by the new line of road), he proposed singing a song, to the great delight of the unsophisticated society, the concluding verse of which was—
"And now I am bound to declare That your wine is as good as your cook, And that this is Charles Mathews, the player, And I, sir, am Theodore Hook."
He always demanded, when asked for a specimen of his extemporizing power, that a subject should be given to him. I do not remember, on one occasion, what was suggested in the first instance, but after some discussion Horace Twiss cried out, "The Jews." It was the time of the first mooting of the question of the Jews being admitted to stand for Parliament and having seats in the House, and party spirit ran extremely high upon the subject. Theodore Hook shrugged his shoulders and made a discontented grimace, as if baffled by his theme, the Jews. However, he went to the piano, threw back his head, and began strumming a galloping country-dance tune, to which he presently poured forth the most inconceivable string of witty, comical, humorous, absurd allusions to everybody present as well as to the subject imposed upon him. Horace Twiss was at that time under-secretary either for foreign affairs or the colonies, and Hook took occasion to say, or rather sing, that the foreign department could have little charms for a man who had so many more in the home, with an indication to Annie Twiss; the final verse of this real firework of wit was this—
"I dare say you think there's little wit In this, but you've all forgot That, instead of being a jeu d'esprit, 'Tis only a jeu de mot,"
pronouncing the French words as broadly as possible, "a Jew d'esprit, and 'tis only a Jew de motte," for the sake of the rhyme, and his subject, the Jews. It certainly was all through a capital specimen of ready humor. I remember on another occasion hearing him exercise his singular gift in a manner that seemed to me as unjustifiable as it was disagreeable. I met him at dinner at Sir John McDonald's, then adjutant-general, a very kind and excellent friend of mine. Mrs. Norton and Lord C——, who were among the guests, both came late, and after we had gone into the dining-room, where they were received with a discreet quantity of mild chaff, Mrs. Norton being much too formidable an adversary to be challenged lightly. After dinner, however, when the men came up into the drawing-room, Theodore Hook was requested to extemporize, and having sung one song, was about to leave the piano in the midst of the general entreaty that he would not do so, when Mrs. Norton, seating herself close to the instrument so that he could not leave it, said, in her most peculiar, deep, soft, contralto voice, which was like her beautiful dark face set to music, "I am going to sit down here, and you shall not come away, for I will keep you in like an iron crow." There was nothing about her manner or look that could suggest any thing but a flattering desire to enjoy Hook's remarkable talent in some further specimen of his power of extemporizing, and therefore I suppose there must have been some previous ill-will or heart-burning on his part toward her—she was reckless enough in her use of her wonderful wit and power of saying the most intolerable stinging things, to have left a smart on some occasion in Hook's memory, for which he certainly did his best to pay her then. Every verse of the song he now sang ended with his turning with a bow to her, and the words, "my charming iron crow;" but it was from beginning to end a covert satire of her and her social triumphs; even the late arrival at dinner and its supposed causes were duly brought in, still with the same mock-respectful inclination to his "charming iron crow." Everybody was glad when the song was over, and applauded it quite as much from a sense of relief as from admiration of its extraordinary cleverness; and Mrs. Norton smilingly thanked Hook, and this time made way for him to leave the piano.
We lived near each other at this time, we in James Street, Buckingham Gate, and the Nortons at Storey's Gate, at the opposite end of the Birdcage Walk. We both of us frequented the same place of worship—a tiny chapel wedged in among the buildings at the back of Downing Street, the entrance to which was from the park; it has been improved away by the new government offices. Our dinner at the McDonalds' was on a Saturday, and the next day, as we were walking part of the way home together from church, Mrs. Norton broke out about Theodore Hook and his odious ill-nature and abominable coarseness, saying that it was a disgrace and a shame that for the sake of his paper, the John Bull, and its influence, the Tories should receive such a man in society. I, who but for her outburst upon the subject should have carefully avoided mentioning Hook's name, presuming that after his previous evening's performance it could not be very agreeable to Mrs. Norton, now, not knowing very well what to say, but thinking the Sheridan blood (especially in her veins) might have some sympathy with and find some excuse for him, suggested the temptation that the possession of such wit must always be, more or less, to the abuse of it. "Witty!" exclaimed the indignant beauty, with her lip and nostril quivering, "witty! One may well be witty when one fears neither God nor devil!" I was heartily glad Hook was not there; he was not particular about the truth, and would infallibly, in some shape or other, have translated for her benefit, "Je crains Dieu, cher Abner, et n'ai point d'autre crainte."
The Nortons' house was close to the issue from St. James's Park into Great George Street. I remember passing an evening with them there, when a host of distinguished public and literary men were crowded into their small drawing-room, which was literally resplendent with the light of Sheridan beauty, male and female: Mrs. Sheridan (Miss Callender, of whom, when she published a novel, the hero of which commits forgery, that wicked wit, Sidney Smith, said he knew she was a Callender, but did not know till then that she was a Newgate calendar), the mother of the Graces, more beautiful than anybody but her daughters; Lady Grahame, their beautiful aunt; Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Blackwood (Lady Dufferin), Georgiana Sheridan (Duchess of Somerset and queen of beauty by universal consent), and Charles Sheridan, their younger brother, a sort of younger brother of the Apollo Belvedere. Certainly I never saw such a bunch of beautiful creatures all growing on one stem. I remarked it to Mrs. Norton, who looked complacently round her tiny drawing-room and said, "Yes, we are rather good-looking people." I remember this evening because of the impression made on me by the sight of these wonderfully "good-looking people" all together, and also because of my having had to sing with Moore—an honor and glory hardly compensating the distress of semi-strangulation, in order to avoid drowning his feeble thread of a voice with the heavy, robust contralto which I found it very difficult to swallow half of, while singing second to him, in his own melodies, with the other half. My acquaintance with Mrs. Norton lasted through a period of many years, and, though never very intimate, was renewed with cordiality each time I returned to England. It began just after I came out on the stage, when I was about twenty, and she a few years older. My father and mother had known her parents and grandparents, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Miss Lindley, from whom their descendants derived the remarkable beauty and brilliant wit which distinguished them.
My mother was at Drury Lane when Mr. Sheridan was at the head of its administration, and has often described to me the extraordinary proceedings of that famous first night of "Pizarro," when, at last keeping the faith he had so often broken with the public, Mr. Sheridan produced that most effective of melodramas, with my aunt and uncle's parts still unfinished, and, depending upon their extraordinary rapidity of study, kept them learning the last scenes of the last act, which he was still writing, while the beginning of the piece was being performed. By the by, I do not know what became of the theories about the dramatic art, and the careful and elaborate study necessary for its perfection. In this particular instance John Kemble's Rolla and Mrs. Siddons's Elvira must have been what may be called extemporaneous acting. Not impossibly, however, these performances may have gained in vivid power and effect what they lost in smoothness and finish, from the very nervous strain and excitement of such a mental effort as the actors were thus called upon to make. My mother remembered well, too, the dismal Saturdays when, after prolonged periods of non-payment of their salaries, the poorer members of the company, and all the unfortunate work-people, carpenters, painters, scene-shifters, understrappers of all sorts, and plebs in general of the great dramatic concern, thronging the passages and staircases, would assail Sheridan on his way to the treasury with pitiful invocations: "For God's sake, Mr. Sheridan, pay us our salaries!" "For Heaven's sake, Mr. Sheridan, let us have something this week!" and his plausible reply of, "Certainly, certainly, my good people, you shall be attended to directly." Then he would go into the treasury, sweep it clean of the whole week's receipts (the salaries of the principal actors, whom he dared not offend and could not dispense with, being, if not wholly, partially paid), and, going out of the building another way, leave the poor people who had cried to him for their arrears of wages baffled and cheated of the price of their labor for another week. The picture was not a pleasant one.
When I first knew Caroline Sheridan, she had not long been married to the Hon. George Norton. She was splendidly handsome, of an un-English character of beauty, her rather large and heavy head and features recalling the grandest Grecian and Italian models, to the latter of whom her rich coloring and blue-black braids of hair gave her an additional resemblance. Though neither as perfectly lovely as the Duchess of Somerset, nor as perfectly charming as Lady Dufferin, she produced a far more striking impression than either of them, by the combination of the poetical genius with which she alone, of the three, was gifted, with the brilliant wit and power of repartee which they (especially Lady Dufferin) possessed in common with her, united to the exceptional beauty with which they were all three endowed. Mrs. Norton was extremely epigrammatic in her talk, and comically dramatic in her manner of narrating things. I do not know whether she had any theatrical talent, though she sang pathetic and humorous songs admirably, and I remember shaking in my shoes when, soon after I came out, she told me she envied me, and would give anything to try the stage herself. I thought, as I looked at her wonderful, beautiful face, "Oh, if you should, what would become of me!" She was no musician, but had a deep, sweet contralto voice, precisely the same in which she always spoke, and which, combined with her always lowered eyelids ("downy eyelids" with sweeping silken fringes), gave such incomparably comic effect to her sharp retorts and ludicrous stories; and she sang with great effect her own and Lady Dufferin's social satires, "Fanny Grey," and "Miss Myrtle," etc., and sentimental songs like "Would I were with Thee," "I dreamt 'twas but a Dream," etc., of which the words were her own, and the music, which only amounted to a few chords with the simplest modulations, her own also. I remember she used occasionally to convulse her friends en petit comite with a certain absurd song called "The Widow," to all intents and purposes a piece of broad comedy, the whole story of which (the wooing of a disconsolate widow by a rich lover, whom she first rejects and then accepts) was comprised in a few words, rather spoken than sung, eked out by a ludicrous burden of "rum-ti-iddy-iddy-iddy-ido," which, by dint of her countenance and voice, conveyed all the alternations of the widow's first despair, her lover's fiery declaration, her virtuous indignation and wrathful rejection of him, his cool acquiescence and intimation that his full purse assured him an easy acceptance in various other quarters, her rage and disappointment at his departure, and final relenting and consent on his return; all of which with her "iddy-iddy-ido" she sang, or rather acted, with incomparable humor and effect. I admired her extremely.
In 1841 I began a visit of two years and a half in England. During this time I constantly met Mrs. Norton in society. She was living with her uncle, Charles Sheridan, and still maintained her glorious supremacy of beauty and wit in the great London world. She came often to parties at our house, and I remember her asking us to dine at her uncle's, when among the people we met were Lord Lansdowne and Lord Normanby, both then in the ministry, whose good-will and influence she was exerting herself to captivate in behalf of a certain shy, silent, rather rustic gentleman from the far-away province of New Brunswick, Mr. Samuel Cunard, afterwards Sir Samuel Cunard of the great mail-packet line of steamers between England and America. He had come to London an obscure and humble individual, endeavoring to procure from the government the sole privilege of carrying the transatlantic mails for his line of steamers. Fortunately for him he had some acquaintance with Mrs. Norton, and the powerful beauty, who was kind-hearted and good-natured to all but her natural enemies (i.e. the members of her own London society), exerted all her interest with her admirers in high place in favor of Cunard, and had made this very dinner for the express purpose of bringing her provincial protege into pleasant personal relations with Lord Lansdowne and Lord Normanby, who were likely to be of great service to him in the special object which had brought him to England. The only other individual I remember at the dinner was that most beautiful person, Lady Harriet d'Orsay. Years after, when the Halifax projector had become Sir Samuel Cunard, a man of fame in the worlds of commerce and business of New York and London, a baronet of large fortune, and a sort of proprietor of the Atlantic Ocean between England and the United States, he reminded me of this charming dinner in which Mrs. Norton had so successfully found the means of forwarding his interests, and spoke with enthusiasm of her kind-heartedness as well as her beauty and talents; he, of course, passed under the Caudine Forks, beneath which all men encountering her had to bow and throw down their arms. She was very fond of inventing devices for seals, and other such ingenious exercises of her brains, and she gave —— a star with the motto, "Procul sed non extincta," which she civilly said bore reference to me in my transatlantic home. She also told me, when we were talking of mottoes for seals and rings, that she had had engraved on a ring she always wore the name of that miserable bayou of the Mississippi—Atchafalaya—where Gabriel passes near one side of an island, while Evangeline, in her woe-begone search, is lying asleep on the other; and that, to her surprise, she found that the King of the Belgians wore a ring on which he had had the same word engraved, as an expression of the bitterest and most hopeless disappointment.
In 1845 I passed through London, and spent a few days there with my father, on my way to Italy. Mrs. Norton, hearing of my being in town, came to see me, and urged me extremely to go and dine with her before I left London, which I did. The event of the day in her society was the death of Lady Holland, about which there were a good many lamentations, of which Lady T—— gave the real significance, with considerable naivete: "Ah, poore deare Ladi Ollande! It is a grate pittie; it was suche a pleasant 'ouse!" As I had always avoided Lady Holland's acquaintance, I could merely say that the regrets I heard expressed about her seemed to me only to prove a well-known fact—how soon the dead were forgotten. The real sorrow was indeed for the loss of her house, that pleasantest of all London rendezvouses, and not for its mistress, though those whom I then heard speak were probably among the few who did regret her. Lady Holland had one good quality (perhaps more than one, which I might have found out if I had known her): she was a constant and exceedingly warm friend, and extended her regard and remembrance to all whom Lord Holland or herself had ever received with kindness or on a cordial footing. My brother John had always been treated with great friendliness by Lord Holland, and in her will Lady Holland, who had not seen him for years, left him as a memento a copy, in thirty-two volumes, of the English essayists, which had belonged to her husband.
Almost immediately after this transient renewal of my intercourse with Mrs. Norton, I left England for Italy, and did not see her again for several years. The next time I did so was at an evening party at my sister's house, where her appearance struck me more than it had ever done. Her dress had something to do with this effect, no doubt. She had a rich gold-colored silk on, shaded and softened all over with black lace draperies, and her splendid head, neck, and arms were adorned with magnificently simple Etruscan gold ornaments, which she had brought from Rome, whence she had just returned, and where the fashion of that famous antique jewelry had lately been revived. She was still "une beaute triomphante a faire voir aux ambassadeurs."
During one of my last sojourns in London I met Mrs. Norton at Lansdowne House. There was a great assembly there, and she was wandering through the rooms leaning on the arm of her youngest son, her glorious head still crowned with its splendid braids of hair, and wreathed with grapes and ivy leaves, and this was my last vision of her; but, in the autumn of 1870, Lady C—— told me of meeting her in London society, now indeed quite old, but indomitably handsome and witty.
I think it only humane to state, for the benefit of all mothers anxious for their daughters', and all daughters anxious for their own, future welfare in this world, that in the matter of what the lady's-maid in the play calls "the first of earthly blessings—personal appearance," Caroline Sheridan as a girl was so little distinguished by the exceptional beauty she subsequently developed, that her lovely mother, who had a right to be exacting in the matter, entertained occasionally desponding misgivings as to the future comeliness of one of the most celebrated beauties of her day.
At the time of my earliest acquaintance with the Nortons, our friends the Basil Montagus had left their house in Bedford Square, and were also living at Storey's Gate. Among the remarkable people I met at their house was the Indian rajah, Ramohun Roy, philosopher, scholar, reformer, Quaker, theist, I know not what and what not, who was introduced to me, and was kind enough to take some notice of me. He talked to me of the literature of his own country, especially its drama, and, finding that I was already acquainted with the Hindoo theatre through the medium of my friend Mr. Horace Wilson's translations of its finest compositions, but that I had never read "Sakuntala," the most remarkable of them all, which Mr. Wilson had not included in his collection (I suppose because of its translation by Sir William Jones), Ramohun Roy sent me a copy of it, which I value extremely as a memento of so remarkable a man, but in which I confess I am utterly unable to find the extraordinary beauty and sublimity which he attributed to it, and of which I remember Goethe also speaks enthusiastically (if I am not mistaken, in his conversations with Eckermann), calling it the most wonderful production of human genius. Goethe had not, any more than myself, the advantage of reading "Sakuntala" in Sanskrit, and I am quite at a loss to account for the extreme and almost exaggerated admiration he expresses for it.
JAMES STREET, BUCKINGHAM GATE, August 23, ——. MY DEAREST H——,
I received your last on my return from the country, where I had been staying a fortnight, and I assure you that after an uncomfortable and rainy drive into town I found it of more service in warming me than even the blazing fire with which we are obliged to shame the month of August.
I have a great deal to tell you about our affairs, and the effect that their unhappy posture seems likely to produce upon my future plans and prospects. Do you remember a letter I wrote to you a long time ago about going on the stage? and another, some time before that, about my becoming a governess? The urgent necessity which I think now exists for exertion, in all those who are capable of it among us, has again turned my thoughts to these two considerations. My father's property, and all that we might ever have hoped to derive from it, being utterly destroyed in the unfortunate issue of our affairs, his personal exertions are all that remain to him and us to look to. There are circumstances in which reflections that our minds would not admit at other times of necessity force themselves upon our consideration. Those talents and qualifications, both mental and physical, which have been so mercifully preserved to my dear father hitherto, cannot, in the natural course of things, all remain unimpaired for many more years. It is right, then, that those of us who have the power to do so should at once lighten his arms of all unnecessary burden, and acquire the habit of independent exertion before the moment comes when utter inexperience would add to the difficulty of adopting any settled mode of proceeding; it is right and wise to prepare for the evil day before it is upon us. These reflections have led me to the resolution of entering upon some occupation or profession which may enable me to turn the advantages my father has so liberally bestowed upon me to some account, so as not to be a useless incumbrance to him at present, or a helpless one in future time. My brother John, you know, has now determined, to go into the Church. Henry we have good although remote hopes of providing well for, and, were I to make use of my own capabilities, dear little A—— would be the only one about whom there need be any anxiety. I propose writing to my father before he returns home (he is at present acting in the provinces) on this subject. Some step I am determined to take; the nature of it will, of course, remain with him and my mother. I trust that whatever course they resolve upon I shall be enabled to pursue steadily, and I am sure that, be it what it may, I shall find it comparatively easy, as the motive is neither my own profit nor reputation, but the desire of bringing into their right use whatever talents I may possess, which have not been given for useless purposes. I hope and trust that I am better fitted for either of the occupations I have mentioned than I was when I before entertained an idea of them. You asked me what inclined John's thoughts to the Church. It would be hard to say; or rather, I ought to say, that Providence which in its own good time makes choice of its instruments, and which I ever firmly trusted would not suffer my brother's fine powers to be wasted on unworthy aims. I am not able to say how the change which has taken place in his opinions and sentiments was effected; but you know one has not done all one's thinking at two and twenty. I have been by circumstances much separated from my brother, and when with him have had but little communication upon such subjects. It was at a time when, I think, his religious principles were somewhat unsettled, that his mind was so passionately absorbed by politics. The nobler instincts of his nature, diverted for a while from due direct intercourse with their divine source, turned themselves with enthusiastic, earnest hope to the desire of benefiting his fellow-creatures; and to these aims—the reformation of abuses, the establishment of a better system of government, the gradual elevation and improvement of the people, and the general progress of the country towards enlightened liberty and consequent prosperity—he devoted all his thoughts. This was the period of his fanatical admiration for Jeremy Bentham and Mill, who, you know, are our near neighbors here, and whose houses we never pass without John being inclined to salute them, I think, as the shrines of some beneficent powers of renovation. And here comes the break in our intercourse and in my knowledge of his mental and moral progress. I went to Scotland, and was amazed, after I had been there some time, to hear from my mother that John had not got his scholarship, and had renounced his intention of going to the bar and determined to study for the Church. I returned home, and found him much changed. His high sense of the duties attending it makes me rejoice most sincerely that he has chosen that career, which may not be the surest path to worldly advancement, but if conscientiously followed must lead, I should think, to the purest happiness this life can offer. I think much of this change may be attributed to the example and influence of some deservedly dear friends of his; probably something to the sobering effect of the disappointment and mortification of his failure at college, where such sanguine hopes and expectations of his success had been entertained. Above all, I refer his present purpose to that higher influence which has followed him through all his mental wanderings, suggesting the eager inquiries of his restless and dissatisfied spirit, and finally leading it to this, its appointed goal. He writes to us in high spirits from Germany, and his letters are very delightful.