An Irish Story-Teller
( Originally Published 1877 )
Who was She?
DID you ever hear of Gretna-Green, and of Gretna-Green marriages ? Gretna is a small place in Scotland, only a little way over the English border, as you go from Carlisle to Dumfries ; and it used to be famous as a place for runaway couples to go and be married —a thing that it was much easier to do, without consent of relatives, under the Scotch law, than under the English law.
Well, in the year 1763 — the year when poor Goldsmith was getting into trouble with his landlady, and had the "Vicar of Wakefield" still in his drawer—there drove up to the inn at Gretna a fine carriage with a young gentleman in it, hardly nineteen years old, who was an Oxford student ; and he brought with him a young girl only seventeen ; and these runaways were married there by the blacksmith of the village, who was also justice of the peace.
I suppose the parents were indignant ; but I think they forgave them afterward. The young wife lived only a few years ; but she left to her husband two children. The oldest, a boy, was brought up in a very strange way, — yet a way which had been commended by a French philosopher, — Rousseau (who never had a child that he cared for). This young Oxford man was at this time a great admirer of Rousseau : so his boy did what he chose to do, and nothing that he did not choose. He was never punished ; wore no clothing beyond what decency required ; and grew up, as any-body might expect, a strong, active, ungovernable, bare-armed and bare-legged young savage. He took a strong liking for the sea, just when his father would have been glad to keep him on land ; and to sea he went ; and at sea he kept — until in after days he went to America, married there, and settled near to Georgetown in South Carolina, where, it is said, some of his descendants still live.
The second child of this runaway match was a daughter, who grew up to be one of the best-known women in all Europe ; and her name — if you have not guessed it already—was Maria Edgeworth.
Her father — Richard Lovell Edgeworth, married again ; in fact, he married a third and a fourth wife before he was sixty ; and he had a great company of children, who lived with him in a huge country house near to Longford in the centre of Ireland. Here Maria Edgeworth went, when she was only four years old; here she grew into such love for Ireland and the Irish, that' she called herself an Irishwoman, and was proud to be so called ; and here she wrote those stories which were the delight of all young people forty years ago, and those novels which were the delight of all the grown people of her time. — You never heard of, them ? Well, well ! Yet it is not so very long ago that she was alive there, — a good, kindly old lady ; and her stepmother — the latest wife of Richard Edgeworth — died only the other day (1864).
It is quite too soon to forget good Miss Edgeworth and her books. Why, in my school-days, the fellow who had not read " Eton Montem," and "Forrester," and "Waste not, Want not," was not counted much of a reader. There were long words in them, and some prosiness, maybe (Dr. Johnson, who set the example of long words, was the great man in her young days, you must remember) ; but there was a good plot in her stories, and a good winding-up. You couldn't tell now, if you were to read one of her books, what church she attended, or what party she voted with ; but you could find, scattered up and down, such talk as would show — that honesty and common sense and good manners and good morals and all charities were always venerated by her, and always taught by her.
I don't think I shall forget to the last day of my life, the long white Chalk-Hill near to Dunstable, where. Paul and his little sister " scotched " the wheels of the chaises that went toiling up, so that the horses might take a breathing-spell. The story was in the " Parents' Assistant ; " and there was a quaint old cut showing Paul with his " scotcher," and sister Anne, and the old grandmother— talking over the guinea which had been given the children by accident.
Would he keep it ? — would he return it ? Of course we knew how it would be ; and the sturdy honesty and pluck of the lad as he went bustling through the inn-yard at Dunstable was more refreshing than the eighth commandment repeated ten times over.
Some of us made " scotchers," to look like Paul's, out of blocks and broom-handles ; but there were no chaise-wheels and no long chalk-hills to help us out ; and no guineas dropped into our hats by accident or otherwise. If there had been, I think we should have caught —all the same — the infection of good Miss Edgeworth's straightforward honesty. Healthy, cheery, unhesitating honesty is always catching.
The fact is, that homely old truths, which nobody in his senses ever thought of disputing, lie at the bottom of most of Miss Edgeworth's pleasant stories, and put their color on them from beginning to end.
She doesn't take the sly way of covering up a moral pill in a spoonful of jelly — so that a boy shall bolt it without knowing it ; nor does she tie the lesson she wants to teach upon the end of her stories — like a snapper ; but it runs all through them, and is so strong and sound and good that every boy's common sense makes him stand up stoutly for her little heroes.
Take that old tale of " Waste not, Want not." Mr. Meacham is a shrewd, practical, kindly-disposed man, who — having no sons of his own — has taken a couple of nephews to bring up and care for.
Hal is free and easy ; and has been brought up to have a great respect for people with a great trail — whether of titles or of silk. How the boy does worship Lady Diana Sweepstakes and her sons !
Ben, the other nephew, is thoughtful, quiet, careful, plodding, and doesn't think of running after boys be cause they are Lady Diana's sons.
Mr. Meacham — wanting to test the working ways of his two nephews—gives to each a big parcel to undo. Hal goes daintily about his task, — puzzles over the knots, — gets petulant, — whips out his knife, and cuts all clean. Ben sets himself sturdily to a careful untying of the fastenings, and saves a good bit of whipcord. Next day Mr. Meacham gives each of them a top — but without strings. Ben, by his steady care of yesterday, is provided with a capital one. Hal — in a gust of perplexity — at last pulls off his hat-band, and uses it up.
Presently afterward, a great archery match is to come off under the patronage of Lady Diana. Both are provided with bows and arrows, — thanks to uncle Meacham : and both, by a little practice, come to be good shots. Hal wants a white and green uniform to wear—since Lady Diana's boys are to have such. Ben does not care so much to do things because Lady Di's boys do them ; and puts his money into a good winter coat, that will be of service when the archery day is gone by.
Well, the time for the match comes at length. Hal is very fine in his green and white ; but it is something cold and windy ; and his hat — for want of that band which went to top-spinning some days before — goes spinning over a ploughed field, where Hal must needs. follow, and comes back with his green and white uniform woefully draggled and besmeared with red mud. He could bear this better if he did not catch a sneering look from Lady Diana and Lady Diana's boys : those who worship fashion must take fashion's sneers. How-ever, he stands up bravely to the shooting. The Sweep-stakes boys have made good ventures ; Hal does fairly at the first two shots (they have three each) ; but at the third — twang ! goes his bow-string, — hopelessly broken.
Ben shoots as well ; is mighty comfortable, too, in his snug linsey-woolsey coat ; but it could not bar him against accident. His bow-string gives out at the second shot. Ben is not flustered one jot : he pulls out that bit of whipcord which he had saved from his parcel-fastening, and which had done service with his top, — adjusts it to his bow, — takes new aim, and with two capital shots — one after the other — wins the match.
I suspect that little experience — as recorded in the " Parents' Assistant " —has led to the saving of a great deal of whipcord first and last : and I suspect it has lessened the eagerness with which some boys—even American boys - will go hunting after familiarity with the showy Lady Dianas and the Lady Diana's sons. Miss Edgeworth did not believe in fustian.
Then there was that jolly story — as we easily thought it —of the " Limerick Gloves." What a pig-headed British obstinacy in the old verger Jonathan Hill, with his — "What I say, I say ; and what I think, I think." We had seen such people, though they did not wear wigs like the verger of Hereford. There was the stout wife too, who set him upon the hunt for unreal troubles, and carried her head so high ; and the pretty Phoebe, with the bang in her hair, looking demure, but very constant in thinking well of Mr. Brian O'Neill, whatever papa might do or say.
It looked as if there were a great Popish plot to come out in the story, and as if the Hereford Cathedral were to be blown up ; but it ends in a scare about a mere rat-hole under the church wall, and in the pretty Phoebe wearing her Limerick gloves ; and "no perfume ever was so delightful to her lover" (who was Brian O'Neill) "as the smell of the rose-leaves in which they had been kept." The moral of the tale is, — we have no right to suspect people of roguery and arson because they do not sing out of our hymn-book.
I have no doubt Phoebe and O'Neill married ; but Miss Edgeworth doesn't say so. In fact, few of her stories are love-stories in the ordinary sense. She never married herself ; and I dare say saw no reason why a story—like a life — might not be a good one without being rounded off with a marriage.
Nearly all of her stories were written in that old country-house in Ireland. There was almost always a troop of children in it, as I have said, whom she loved, and who loved her. The father, too, was a companion and a helper in all her work ; for he had bravely given over all the wild courses of his younger days, and was one of the best of landlords ; seeking always for means to help on his work-people, and so knitting their interests with his own, that in the rebellion of 1798, when so many brave young Irishmen went to the scaffold, and so many homes were desolated, the Edgeworth house (though they were obliged to leave it for a time, in the madness of the outbreak) was wholly unharmed. Even the pens and papers upon Miss Edgeworth's table were found, at their return, precisely as she had left them.
An avenue of gaunt old trees leads up to the mansion from the high road ; and the library windows look out upon lawn and garden, which were always in the old time carefully kept. And it is a wonderful thing, and worth the telling—that this good lady authoress never had her " moods " —never neglected commonest every, day duties, and actually did her book-making work surrounded by the family, — with only such retirement as she could gain by placing her quaint little writing-table (still preserved) in a corner of the great library, which was also the common sitting-room.
But it was an orderly and a cheery household. Mr. Edgeworth writes to Dr. Darwin in 1796—" I do not think one tear a month is shed in this house, nor the voice of reproof heard." The son who had been bred half a savage was gone at this time ; else I think he would have amused himself with pinching the fat arms of the little ones.
I cannot show you a portrait of Miss Edgeworth ; for she would never consent to sit for one. She was not beautiful, but very comely, and had those virtues which almost compensate for beauty — extremest cleanliness and neatness of dress and person.
Upon the whole, I think the best short story of Miss Edgeworth's is that which she calls " Forester ; " it is certainly worth every boy's reading. I can only give you a sketch of it.
The hero was the son of a strange English gentle-man, who had very curious notions about society and education, — not very unlike those which Mr. Edge-worth held when he was making a half-savage of his oldest son.
Forester's father died when the lad was nineteen ; and he was placed under the guardianship of Dr. Camp-bell, a clever and learned man, who had a clever son Henry, and a pretty lass of a daughter called Flora.
Forester was brave and generous and truthful ; but he had been taught to believe that cleanliness and good manners and the usual forms of cultivated society were idle things, not worthy of the consideration of a reflecting man ; and he brought his half-savage habits into the family of the good Dr. Campbell. The Campbells, seeing his better qualities, bore with him patiently; but there was a certain Lady Mackenzie, with her son Archibald, living under the same roof —very pretentious and artificial and shallow, both of them. These lose no occasion to ridicule the shortcomings of poor Forester, who finds that the ridicule of the shallow, if well informed in the ways of the world, is very irritating. He pays back ridicule with a noisy contempt; and his sense of truth is not kept in check by any regard for the feelings of others. He would have lived as independent as Robinson Crusoe, if he could, and with as little practice of the ordinary courtesies of society. He had been taught to think that a polished manner must needs go always with a selfish indolence ; and he showed his hate for it by wanton disregard of proprieties, and by choosing his companions among those beneath him, whom he honored only because they were without any fashionable gloss.
I suppose that most of big-brained boys go through this state of feeling at some period of their youth ; but they never get on very well in life until they master it and hold it decently in check.
Forester's wrong-headedness puts him in the way of incurring a good many damaging suspicions —that are slyly fed by the Mackenzies, who hate the lad's coarseness, and are jealous of his cleverness. But this he could bear bravely enough, —with the knowledge that he was honest and true. But when his slovenliness and disregard for appearances exposed him to the open ridicule of a company of well-bred people —as it did upon a memorable evening at his friends, the Campbells, he forswears all further intercourse with such people — packs up his wardrobe,—writes an adieu to the Camp-bells, and goes to live with an. industrious, simple-minded gardener.
He finds, however, that the gardener and the gardener's people—however simple-minded they may be are just as self-seeking as those he has left ; and that it is none the better for being coarsely shown. He learns how to plant flowers, and enjoys it ; but he doesn't find any delightful Arcadia with the gardener.
He conceals his name so that old acquaintances shall know nothing of him ; yet his new acquaintances are not satisfying : so he changes quarters, and establishes himself in the office of a great brewery. Oddly enough, he doesn't find the clerks and apprentices here altogether perfect.. He gets his dismission at an early day, because he will not join his fellow clerks in supporting some false report to the officers of excise.
He next undertakes employment with a bookseller and printer, whom he has encountered accidentally, and with whom he doubtless hopes to find purity without any pretence or parade. I doubt if he did ; so does Miss Edgeworth.
Meantime he had been practising extravagant charities siding with poor street people in quarrels he knew nothing of — thrusting himself into situations by his independent bravado, that made him easily suspected of bad deeds. Indeed, it came to that pass at last, that he was fairly arrested as party to a theft of which he knew no more than the man in the moon.
As an independent young citizen who wanted to live his own life without thanks to anybody there was no one to help him. But as young Forester—when his name came to be known—and former companion to young Henry Campbell, the old Doctor and all his friends came forward to aid him in spite of himself. These establish very clearly the honesty of the young man ; but in making this clear, it was equally well proven that he had acted with very great folly. Perhaps it was some consolation to him to know that the real culprit—so far as there was any culprit at all in the matter of the theft—was his old enemy, the elegant Archibald Mackenzie.
Forester is brought to think better of the Campbells — gentlemanly as they are ; and he is taught, too, to pay more regard than had been his habit to those formalities of society, which the usage and good-fellowship of the world—for a few centuries past—have laid down for law. He gave over the hope of fighting windmills and carrying off honor ; or of overleaping the customs of civilized life at a bound. In the excess of his new-found tolerance, it is stated that he, condescends to take a few dancing-lessons. He goes back to his old intimacy with the Campbells—father and son and daughter. He wears clean linen—does not put on Crusoe goat-skins ; thinks no worse of people for saying " Good-morning cheerily and to all the world ; does not consider a shabby coat or a coarse speech of necessity a reason for showing favor ; and the curtain of the little story drops upon our hero—dancing a Scotch reel with the pretty Flora Campbell !
Whether they made a match of it, Miss Edgeworth does not say, and has no need to say. The tale is pointed with a moral, though it be not blazoned with a marriage.