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Chapter 12

One evening, Helen was looking over a beautiful scrap-book of Lady Cecilia's. Beauclerc, who had stood by for some time, eyeing it in rather scornful silence, at length asked whether Miss Stanley was a lover of albums and autographs?

Helen had no album of her own, she said, but she was curious always to see the autographs of celebrated people.

"Why?" said Beauclerc.

"I don't know. It seems to bring one nearer to them. It gives more reality to our imagination of them perhaps," said Helen.

"The imagination is probably in most cases better than the reality," replied he.

Lady Davenant stooped over Helen's shoulder to look at the handwriting of the Earl of Essex—the writing of the gallant Earl of Essex, at sight of which, as she observed, the hearts of queens have beat high. "What a crowd of associated ideas rise at the sight of that autograph! who can look at it without some emotion?"

Helen could not. Beauclerc in a tone of raillery said he was sure, from the eager interest Miss Stanley took in these autographs, that she would in time become a collector herself; and he did not doubt that he should see her with a valuable museum, in which should be preserved the old pens of great men, that of Cardinal Chigi, for instance, who boasted that he wrote with the same pen for fifty years.

"And by that boast you know," said Lady Davenant, "convinced the Cardinal de Retz that he was not a great, but a very little man. We will not have that pen in Helen's museum."

"Why not?" Beauclerc asked, "it was full as well worth having as many of the relics to be found in most young ladies' and even old gentlemen's museums. It was quite sufficient whether a man had been great or little that he had been talked of,—that he had been something of a lion—to make any thing belonging to him valuable to collectors, who preserve and worship even 'the parings of lions' claws.'"

That class of indiscriminate collectors Helen gave up to his ridicule; still he was not satisfied. He went on to the whole class of 'lion- hunters,' as he called them, condemning indiscriminately all those who were anxious to see celebrated people; he hoped Miss Stanley was not one of that class.

"No, not a lion-hunter," said Helen; she hoped she never should be one of that set, but she confessed she had a great desire to see and to know distinguished persons, and she hoped that this sort of curiosity, or as she would rather call it enthusiasm, was not ridiculous, and did not deserve to be confounded with the mere trifling vulgar taste for sight- seeing and lion-hunting.

Beauclerc half smiled, but, not answering immediately, Lady Davenant said, that for her part she did not consider such enthusiasm as ridiculous; on the contrary, she liked it, especially in young people. "I consider the warm admiration of talent and virtue in youth as a promise of future excellence in maturer age."

"And yet," said Beauclerc, "the maxim 'not to admire,' is, I believe, the most approved in philosophy, and in practice is the great secret of happiness in this world."

"In the fine world, it is a fine air, I know," said Lady Davenant. "Among a set of fashionable young somnambulists it is doubtless the only art they know to make men happy or to keep them so; but this has nothing to do with philosophy, Beauclerc, though it has to do with conceit or affectation."

Mr. Beauclerc, now piqued, with a look and voice of repressed feeling, said, that he hoped her ladyship did not include him among that set of fashionable somnambulists.

"I hope you will not include yourself in it," answered Lady Davenant: "it is contrary to your nature, and if you join the nil admirari coxcombs, it can be only for fashion's sake—mere affectation."

Beauclerc made no reply, and Lady Davenant, turning to Helen, told her that several celebrated people were soon to come to Clarendon Park, and congratulated her upon the pleasure she would have in seeing them. "Besides being a great pleasure, it is a real advantage," continued she, "to see and be acquainted early in life with superior people. It enables one to form a standard of excellence, and raises that standard high and bright. In men, the enthusiasm becomes glorious ambition to excel in arts or arms; in women, it refines and elevates the taste, and is so far a preventive against frivolous, vulgar company, and all their train of follies and vices. I can speak from my own recollection, of the great happiness it was to me, when I early in life became acquainted with some of the illustrious of my day."

"And may I ask," said Beauclerc, "if any of them equalled the expectations you had formed of them?"

"Some far exceeded them," said Lady Davenant.

"You were fortunate. Every body cannot expect to be so happy," said Beauclerc. "I believe, in general it is found that few great men of any times stand the test of near acquaintance. No man——"

"Spare me!" cried Lady Davenant, interrupting him, for she imagined she knew what he was going to say; "Oh! spare me that old sentence, 'No man is a hero to his valet de chambre.' I cannot endure to hear that for the thousandth time; I heartily wish it had never been said at all."

"So do I," replied Beauclerc; but Lady Davenant had turned away, and he now spoke in so low a voice, that only Helen heard him. "So do I detest that quotation, not only for being hackneyed, but for having been these hundred years the comfort both of lean-jawed envy and fat mediocrity."

He took up one of Helen's pencils and began to cut it—he looked vexed, and low to her observed, "Lady Davenant did not do me the honour to let me finish my sentence."

"Then," said Helen, "if Lady Davenant misunderstood you, why do not you explain?"

"No, no it is not worth while, if she could so mistake me."

"But any body may be mistaken; do explain."

"No, no," said he, very diligently cutting the pencil to pieces; "she is engaged, you see, with somebody—something else."

"But now she has done listening."

"No, no, not now; there are too many people, and it's of no consequence."

By this time the company were all eagerly talking of every remarkable person they had seen, or that they regretted not having seen. Lady Cecilia now called upon each to name the man among the celebrated of modern days, whom they should most liked to have seen. By acclamation they all named Sir Walter Scott, 'The Ariosto of the North!'

All but Beauclerc; he did not join the general voice; he said low to Helen with an air of disgust—"How tired I am of hearing him called 'The Ariosto of the North!'"

"But by whatever name," said Helen, "surely you join in that general wish to have seen him?"

"Yes, yes, I am sure of your vote," cried Lady Cecilia, coming up to them, "You, Granville, would rather have seen Sir Walter Scott than any author since Shakespeare—would not you?"

"Pardon me, on the contrary, I am glad that I have never seen him."

"Glad not to have seen him!—not?"

The word not was repeated with astonished incredulous emphasis by all voices. "Glad not to have seen Sir Walter Scott! How extraordinary! What can Mr. Beauclerc mean?"

"To make us all stare," said Lady Davenant, "so do not gratify him. Do not wonder at him; we cannot believe what is impossible, you know, only because it is impossible. But," continued she, laughing, "I know how it is. The spirit of contradiction—the spirit of singularity—two of your familiars, Granville, have got possession of you again, and we must have patience while the fit is on."

"But I have not, and will not have patience," said Lord Davenant, whose good-nature seldom failed, but who was now quite indignant.

"I wonder you are surprised, my dear Lord," said Lady Davenant, "for Mr. Beauclerc likes so much better to go wrong by himself than to go right with all the world, that you could not expect that he would join the loud voice of universal praise."

"I hear the loud voice of universal execration," said Beauclerc; "you have all abused me, but whom have I abused? What have I said?"

"Nothing." replied Lady Cecilia; "that is what we complain of. I could have better borne any abuse than indifference to Sir Walter Scott."

"Indifference!" exclaimed Beauclerc—"what did I say Lady Cecilia, from which you could infer that I felt indifference? Indifferent to him whose name I cannot pronounce without emotion! I alone, of all the world, indifferent to that genius, pre-eminent and unrivalled, who has so long commanded the attention of the whole reading public, arrested at will the instant order of the day by tales of other times, and in this commonplace, this every-day existence of ours, created a holiday world, where, undisturbed by vulgar cares, we may revel in a fancy region of felicity, peopled with men of other times—shades of the historic dead, more illustrious and brighter than in life!"

"Yes, the great Enchanter," cried Cecilia.

"Great and good Enchanter," continued Beauclerc, "for in his magic there is no dealing with unlawful means. To work his ends, there is never aid from any one of the bad passions of our nature. In his writings there is no private scandal—no personal satire—no bribe to human frailty—no libel upon human nature. And among the lonely, the sad, and the suffering, how has he medicined to repose the disturbed mind, or elevated the dejected spirit!—perhaps fanned to a flame the unquenched spark, in souls not wholly lost to virtue. His morality is not in purple patches, ostentatiously obtrusive, but woven in through the very texture of the stuff. He paints man as he is, with all his faults, but with his redeeming virtues—the world as it goes, with all its compensating good and evil, yet making each man better contented with his lot. Without our well knowing how, the whole tone of our minds is raised—for, thinking nobly of our kind, he makes us think more nobly of ourselves!"

Helen, who had sympathised with Beauclerc in every word he had said, felt how true it is that

"——Next to genius, is the power Of feeling where true genius lies."

"Yet after all this, Granville," said Lady Cecilia, "you would make us believe you never wished to have seen this great man?"

Beauclerc made no answer.

"Oh! how I wish I had seen him!" said Helen to Lady Davenant, the only person present who had had that happiness.

"If you have seen Raeburn's admirable pictures, or Chantrey's speaking bust," replied Lady Davenant, "you have as complete an idea of Sir Walter Scott as painting or sculpture can give. The first impression of his appearance and manner was surprising to me, I recollect, from its quiet, unpretending good nature; but scarcely had that impression been made before I was struck with something of the chivalrous courtesy of other times. In his conversation you would have found all that is most delightful in all his works—the combined talent and knowledge of the historian, novelist, antiquary, and poet. He recited poetry admirably, his whole face and figure kindling as he spoke: but whether talking, reading, or reciting, he never tired me, even with admiring; and it is curious that, in conversing with him, I frequently found myself forgetting that I was speaking to Sir Walter Scott; and, what is even more extraordinary, forgetting that Sir Walter Scott was speaking to me, till I was awakened to the conviction by his saying something which no one else could have said. Altogether he was certainly the most perfectly agreeable and perfectly amiable great man I ever knew."

"And now, mamma," said Lady Cecilia, "do make Granville confess honestly he would give the world to have seen him."

"Do, Lady Davenant," said Helen, who saw, or thought she saw, a singular emotion in Beauclerc's countenance, and fancied he was upon the point of yielding; but Lady Davenant, without looking at him, replied,—"No, my dear, I will not ask him—I will not encourage him in affectation."

At that word dark grew the brow of Beauclerc, and he drew back, as it were, into his shell, and out of it came no more that night, nor the next morning at breakfast. But, as far as could be guessed, he suffered internally, and no effort made to relieve did him any good, so every one seemed to agree that it was much better to let him alone, or let him be moody in peace, hoping that in time the mood would change; but it changed not till the middle of that day, when, as Helen was sitting working in Lady Davenant's room, while she was writing, two quick knocks were heard at the door.

"Come in!" said Lady Davenant.

Mr. Beauclerc stood pausing on the threshold——

"Do not go, Miss Stanley," said he, looking very miserable and ashamed, and proud, and then ashamed again.

"What is the matter, Granville?" said Lady Davenant.

"I am come to have a thorn taken out of my mind," said he—"two thorns which have sunk deep, kept me awake half the night. Perhaps, I ought to he ashamed to own I have felt pain from such little things. But so it is; though, after all, I am afraid they will be invisible to you, Lady Davenant."

"I will try with a magnifying-glass," said she; "lend me that of your imagination, Granville—a high power, and do not look so very miserable, or Miss Stanley will laugh at you."

"Miss Stanley is too good to laugh."

"That is being too good indeed," said Lady Davenant. "Well, now to the point."

"You were very unjust to me, Lady Davenant, yesterday, and unkind."

"Unkind is a woman's word; but go on."

"Surely man may mark 'unkindness' altered eye' as well as woman," said Beauclerc; "and from a woman and a friend he may and must feel it, or he is more or less than man."

"Now what can you have to say, Granville, that will not be anticlimax to this exordium?"

"I will say no more if you talk of exordiums and anti-climaxes," cried he. "You accused me yesterday of affectation—twice, when I was no more affected than you are."

"Oh! is that my crime? Is that, what has hurt you so dreadfully? Here is the thorn that has gone in so deep! I am afraid that, as is usual, the accusation hurt the more because it was——"

"Do not say 'true,'" interrupted Beauclerc, "for you really cannot believe it, Lady Davenant. You know me, and all my faults, and I have plenty; but you need not accuse me of one that I have not, and which from the bottom of my soul I despise. Whatever are my faults, they are at least real, and my own."

"You may allow him that," said Helen.

"Well I will—I do," said Lady Davenant; "to appease you, poor injured innocence; though anyone in the world might think you affected at this moment. Yet I, who know you, know that it is pure real folly. Yes, yes, I acquit you of affectation."

Beauclerc's face instantly cleared up.

"But you said two thorns had gone into your mind—one is out, now for the other."

"I do not feel that other, now," said Beauclerc, "it was only a mistake. When I began with 'No man,' I was not going to say, 'No man is a hero to his valet de chambre.' If I had been allowed to finish my sentence, it would have saved a great deal of trouble, I was going to say that no man admires excellence more fervently than I do, and that my very reason for wishing not to see celebrated people is, lest the illusion should be dispelled.

"No description ever gives us an exact idea of any person, so that when any one has been much described and talked of, before we see them we form in our mind's eye some image, some notion of our own, which always proves to be unlike the reality; and when we do afterwards see it, even if it be fairer or better than our imagination, still at first there is a sort of disappointment, from the non-agreement with our previously formed conception. Every body is disappointed the first time they see Hamlet, or Falstaff, as I think Dugald Stewart observes."

"True; and I remember," said Lady Davenant, "Madame de la Rochejaquelin once said to me, 'I hate that people should come to see me. I know it destroys the illusion.'"

"Yes," cried Beauclerc; "how much I dread to destroy any of those blessed illusions, which make the real happiness of life. Let me preserve the objects of my idolatry; I would not approach too near the shrine; I fear too much light. I would not know that they were false!"

"Would you then be deceived?" said Lady Davenant.

"Yes," cried he; "sooner would I believe in all the fables of the Talmud than be without the ecstasy of veneration. It is the curse of age to be thus miserably disenchanted; to outlive all our illusions, all our hopes. That may be my doom in age, but, in youth, the high spring-time of existence, I will not be cursed with such a premature ossification of the heart. Oh! rather, ten thousand times rather, would I die this instant!"

"Well! but there is not the least occasion for your dying," said Lady Davenant, "and I am seriously surprised that you should suffer so much from such slight causes; how will you ever get through the world if you stop thus to weigh every light word?"

"The words of most people," replied he, "pass by me like the idle wind; but I do weigh every word from the very few whom I esteem, admire, and love; with my friends, perhaps, I am too susceptible, I love them so deeply."

This is an excuse for susceptibility of temper which flatters friends too much to be easily rejected. Even Lady Davenant admitted it, and Helen thought it was all natural.

Maria Edgeworth