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BATTY LANGTON, CHRONICLER.
From Batty Langton, Esquire, to the Hon. Horatio Walpole.
January 21st, 1748.
. . . . . You ask me, my dear Sir, why I linger on year by year in this land of Cherokees and Choctaws, as you put it, at the same time hinting very delicately that now, with my poor old father in his grave and my own youthful debts discharged, you see no enduring reason for this exile. It is kind of you to be so solicitous: kinder still to profess that you yet miss me. But that I am missed at White's is more than you shall persuade me to believe. In an earlier letter, written when the Gaming Act passed, you told me they were for nailing up an escutcheon to mourn the death of play; they nailed up none for me. And I gather that play has recovered, and Dick Edgcumbe holds my cards. I doubt if I could endure to revisit St. James's--save by moonlight perhaps. Rappelez-moi to the waiters. They will remember me.
But in good deed, dear Sir, what should I be doing at home among the Malvern Hills upon a patrimony of 800 pounds?--for to that it has dwindled. Can I hoe turnips, or poke a knowledgeable finger into the flanks of beeves? I wonder if your literary explorations ever led you across the furrow of an ancient ploughman who--
--on a May morning, on Malvern hills
was weary of wandering and laid him down to sleep beside a brook--having been chased thither betimes, no doubt, by a nagging bedfellow. I have no wife, nor mean to take one, and find it more to my comfort to sleep here by the River Charles and dream of Malvern, secure that I shall wake to find myself detached from it by half a world.
Yet your last letter touched me closely; for it happens that Sir O. V., for love of whom rather than for any better reason I have kept this exile, has taken to himself a Lady. That, you'll say, should be my dismissal; and that I like her, as she appears willing to be friends with me, gives me, you'll say again, no excuse to linger. Yet I do, and shall.
As for her history, Vyell picked her up in a God-forsaken fishing town, some leagues up the coast; brought her home; placed her under gouvernante and tutors; finally espoused her. Stay: finally he has built a palace for her, "Eagles" by name, whither he forces all Boston to pay its homage. For convenience of access to the goddess he has cut a road twenty feet broad through the woodlands of her demesne.
The palace in a woody vale they found, High-raised, of stone--
or, to speak accurately, of stone and timber combined. Be pleased to imagine a river very much like that of Richmond, but covered with grey crags. "Fie," you will say, "the site is savage, then, like all else in this New World?" My dear sir, you were never more mistaken. Mr. Manley's young eye of genius fastened upon it at once, to adapt it to a house and gardens in the Italian style.
Have I mentioned this Mr. Manley in former letters? He is a young gentleman of good Midland blood (his county, I believe, Bedfordshire), with a moderate talent for drinking, a something more than talent for living on his friends, and a positive genius for architecture. He will have none of your new craze for Gothic. Palladio is his god, albeit he allows that Palladio had feet of clay, and corrects him boldly--though always, as he tells me, with help of his minor deities, Vignola and the rest, who built the great villas around Rome. He has studied in Italy, and tells me that at Florence he was much beholden to your friend Mann, who, I dare swear, lost money by the acquaintance.
Vyell, his present patron, takes him out and shows him the site. "Italy!" exclaims the Youth of Genius. "Italy?" echoes Maecenas, astonished. "We'll make it so," says the Youth. "These terraces, this spouting water, these pines to serve us for cypresses!" "But, my good sir, the House?" cries the impatient Vyell. "A fig for your house! Any fool can design a house when the Almighty and an artist together have once made the landscape for it. Grant me two years for the gardens," he pleads. "You shall have ten months to complete landscape, house, everything." "I shall need armies of workmen." "You shall have them." The Youth groaned. "I shall have to be sober for ten months on end!" "What of that?" says V. Lovers are unconscionable.
Well, the Youth sits down to his plans, and at once orders begin to fly across ocean to this port and that for the rarest marbles--rosso antico from Mount Taenarus, verde antico from Thessally; with green Carystian, likewise shipped from Corinth; Carrara, Veronese Orange, Spanish broccatello, Derbyshire alabaster, black granite from Vyell's Cornish estate, red and purple porphyries from high up the Nile. . . . The Youth conjures up his gardens as by magic. Here you have a terrace fenced with columns; below it a cascade pouring down a stairway of circular basins--the hint of it borrowed from Frascati (from the Villa Torlonia, if I remember); there an alley you'd swear was Boboli dipping to rise across the river, on a stairway you'd swear as positively was Val San Zibio. Yet all is congruous. The dog scouts the Villa d'Este for a "toy-shop."
The house at first disappoints one, being straight and simple to the last degree. ("D----n me," says he, "what can you look for, in ten months?") It is of two storeys, the windows of the upper storey loftier by one-third than those beneath; and has for sole ornament a balustraded parapet broken midway by an Ionic portico of twelve columns, with a loggia deeply recessed above its entrance door. To this portico a flight of sixteen steps conducts you from the uppermost terrace.
Such is Vyell's new pleasance of Eagles, Boston's latest wonder. I have described it at this length because you profess to take more interest in houses than in women; and also, to tell the truth, be cause I am shy of describing Lady V. To call her roundly the loveliest creature I have ever set eyes on, or am like to, is (you will say) no description, though it may argue me in love with her.
On my honour, no! or only as all others are in love--all the men, I mean, and even some pro portion of the womankind. The rest agree to call her "Lady Good-for-Nothing," upon a double rumour, of which one half is sad truth, and the other (my life on it) false as hell.
They have heard that when Vyell found her she was a serving-girl, undergoing punishment (a whipping, to be precise) for some trumpery offence against the Sabbath. Yes, my dear sir, this is true; as it is true also that Vyell, like a knight-errant of old, offered to share her punishment, and did indeed share it to the extent of sitting in the stocks beside her. You'd have thought an honest mind might find food for compassion in this, and even an excuse to believe the better of human nature; but it merely scandalises these Puritan tabbies. They fear Vyell for his wealth and title; and he, despising them, forces them to visit her.
Now for the falsehood. The clergyman who read the marriage ceremony for V. somewhere in the backwoods (this, too, was his whim, and they have to be content with it) is a low-bred trencher-chaplain, by name Silk. He should have been unfrocked the next week, not for performing a function apostolically derived, but for spreading a report--I wait to fasten it on him--that before marriage she was no better than she should be. I have earned better right than any other man to know Vyell, and I know it to be calumny. But the wind blows, and the name "Lady Good-for-Nothing" is a by-breath of it.
Vyell guesses nothing of this. He has a masculine judgment and no small degree of wit--though 'tis of a hard intellectual kind; but through misprising his fellow creatures he has come to lack flair. His lady, if she scent a taint on the wind wafted through her routs and assemblies, no doubt sets it down to breathings upon her humble origin, or (it may be) even to some leaking gossip of her foregone wrong. (Women, my dear sir, are brutes to rend a wounded one of the herd.) She can know nothing of the worse slander.
She moves through her duties as hostess with a pretty well-bred grace, and a childishness infinitely touching. Yet something more protects her; a certain common sense, which now and then very nearly achieves wit. For an instance--But yesterday a certain pompous lady lamented to her in my hearing (and with intention, as it seemed to me, who am grown suspicious), the rapid moral decay of Boston society. "Alas!" sighs my heroine; "but what a comfort, ma'am, to think that neither of us belongs to it!" Add to this that she has learning enough to equip ten precieuses--and hides it: has read Plato and can quote her Virgil by the page--but forbears. Yet all this while you have suspected me, no doubt, of raving over a 'Belle Sauvage, a Pocahontas.
Well, I shall watch her progress. . . . I have become so nearly a part of Vyell that I charge myself to stand for him and supply what he lacks. He loves her; she loves him to doting; but I cannot see into their future.
Vyell, by the way, charges me to request your good offices with Mr. Mann to procure him a couple of Tuscan vases. I know that your friend is infinitely obliging to all who approach him through you: and this request which my letter carries as a tag should have been its pretext, as in fact it was its occasion. Adieu! my dear sir.
Yours most sincerely,
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