Mr Arthur Ansard, standing at his table, selecting a steel pen from a card on which a dozen are ranged up, like soldiers on parade.
I must find a regular graver to write this chapter of horrors. No goose quill could afford me any assistance. Now then. Let me see——(Reads, and during his reading Barnstaple comes in at the door behind him, unperceived.) “At this most monstrously appalling sight, the hair of Piftlianteriscki raised slowly the velvet cap from off his head, as if it had been perched upon the rustling quills of some exasperated porcupine—(I think that’s new)—his nostrils dilated to that extent that you might, with ease, have thrust a musket bullet into each—his mouth was opened so wide, so unnaturally wide, that the corners were rent asunder, and the blood slowly trickled down each side of his bristly chin—while each tooth loosened from its socket with individual fear.—Not a word could he utter, for his tongue, in its fright, clung with terror to his upper jaw, as tight as do the bellies of the fresh and slimy soles, paired together by some fishwoman; but if his tongue was paralysed, his heart was not—it throbbed against his ribs with a violence which threatened their dislocation from the sternum, and with a sound which reverberated through the dark, damp subterrene——.” I think that will do. There’s force there.
B. There is, with a vengeance. Why, what is all this?
B. The Germans will be infinitely obliged to you; but, my dear fellow, you appear to have fallen into the old school—that’s no longer in vogue.
A. My orders are for the old school. B—— was most particular on that point. He says that there is a re-action—a great re-action.
B. What, on literature? Well, he knows as well as any man. I only wish to God there was in everything else, and we could see the good old times again.
A. To confess the truth, I did intend to have finished this without saying a word to you. I wished to have surprised you.
B. So you have, my dear fellow, with the few lines I have heard. How the devil are you to get your fellow out of that state of asphyxia?
A. By degrees—slowly—very slowly—as they pretend that we lawyers go to heaven. But I’ll tell you what I have done, just to give you an idea of my work. In the first place, I have a castle perched so high up in the air, that the eagles, even in their highest soar, appear but as wrens below.
B. That’s all right.
A. And then it has subterraneous passages, to which the sewers of London are a mere song, and they all lead to a small cave at high water mark on the sea-beach, covered with brambles and bushes, and just large enough at its entrance to admit of a man squeezing himself in.
B. That’s all right. You cannot be too much underground; in fact, the two first, and the best part of the third volume, should be wholly in the bowels of the earth, and your hero and heroine should never come to light until the last chapter.
A. Then they would never have been born till then, and how could I marry them? But still I have adhered pretty much to your idea; and, Barnstaple, I have such a heroine—such a love—she has never seen her sweetheart, yet she is most devotedly attached, and has suffered more for his sake than any mortal could endure.
B. Most heroines generally do.
A. I have had her into various dungeons for three or four years, on black bread and a broken pitcher of water—she has been starved to death—lain for months and months upon wet straw—had two brain fevers—five times has she risked violation, and always has picked up, or found in the belt of her infamous ravishers, a stiletto, which she has plunged into their hearts, and they have expired with or without a groan.
B. Excellent: and of course comes out of her dungeons each time as fresh, as sweet, as lovely, as pure, as charming, and as constant as ever.
A. Exactly; nothing can equal her infinite variety of adventure, and her imperishable beauty and unadhesive cleanliness of person; and, as for lives, she has more than a thousand cats. After nine months’ confinement in a dungeon, four feet square, when it is opened for her release, the air is perfumed with the ambrosia which exhales from her sweet person.
B. Of course it does. The only question is, what ambrosia smells like. But let me know something about your hero.
A. He is a prince and a robber.
B. The two professions are not at all incompatible. Go on.
A. He is the chief of a band of robbers, and is here, there, and everywhere. He fills all Europe with terror, admiration, and love.
B. Very good.
A. His reasons for joining the robbers are, of course, a secret (and upon my word they are equally a secret to myself); but it is wonderful the implicit obedience of his men, and the many acts of generosity of which he is guilty. I make him give away a great deal more money than his whole band ever take, which is so far awkward, that the query may arise in what way he keeps them together, and supplies them with food and necessaries.
A. I have some very grand scenes, amazingly effective; for instance, what do you think, at the moment after the holy mass has been performed in St Peter’s at Rome, just as the pope is about to put the sacred wafer into his mouth and bless the whole world, I make him snatch the wafer out of the pope’s hand, and get clear off with it.
B. What for, may I ask?
A. That is a secret which I do not reveal. The whole arrangement of that part of the plot is admirable. The band of robbers are disguised as priests, and officiate, without being found out.
B. But isn’t that rather sacrilegious?
A. No; it appears so to be, but he gives his reasons for his behaviour to the pope, and the pope is satisfied, and not only gives him his blessing, but shows him the greatest respect.
B. They must have been very weighty reasons.
A. And therefore they are not divulged.
B. That is to say, not until the end of the work.
A. They are never divulged at all; I leave a great deal to the reader’s imagination—people are fond of conjecture. All they know is, that he boldly appears, and demands an audience. He is conducted in, the interview is private, after a sign made by our hero, and at which the pope almost leaps off his chair. After an hour he comes out again, and the pope bows him to the very door. Every one is astonished, and, of course, almost canonise him.
B That’s going it rather strong in a Catholic country. But tell me, Ansard, what is your plot?
A. Plot! I have none.
B. No plot!
A. No plot, and all plot. I puzzle the reader with certain materials. I have castles and dungeons, corridors and creaking doors, good villains and bad villains. Chain armour and clank of armour, daggers for gentlemen, and stilettos for ladies. Dark forests and brushwood, drinking scenes, eating scenes, and sleeping scenes—robbers and friars, purses of gold and instruments of torture, an in carnate devil of a Jesuit, a handsome hero, and a lovely heroine. I jumble them all together, sometimes above, and sometimes underground, and I explain nothing at all.
B. Have you nothing supernatural?
A. O yes! I’ve a dog whose instinct is really supernatural, and I have two or three visions, which may be considered so, as they tell what never else could have been known. I decorate my caverns and dungeons with sweltering toads and slimy vipers, a constant dropping of water, with chains too ponderous to lift, but which the parties upon whom they are riveted, clang together as they walk up and down in their cells, and soliloquise. So much for my underground scenery. Above, I people the halls with pages and ostrich feathers, and knights in bright armour, a constant supply of generous wine, and goblets too heavy to lift, which the knights toss off at a draught, as they sit and listen to the minstrel’s music.
B. Bravo, Ansard, bravo. It appears to me that you do not want assistance in this romance.
A. No, when I do I have always a holy and compassionate friar, who pulls a wonderful restorative or healing balm, out of his bosom. The puffs of Solomon’s Balm of Gilead are a fool to the real merits of my pharmacopœia contained in a small vial.
B. And pray what may be the title of this book of yours, for I have known it take more time to fix upon a title than to write the three volumes.
A. I call it The Undiscovered Secret, and very properly so too, for it never is explained. But if you please, I will read you some passages from it. I think you will approve of them. For instance, now let us take this, in the second volume. You must know, that Angelicanarinella (for that is the name of my heroine) is thrown into a dungeon not more than four feet square, but more than six hundred feet below the surface of the earth. The ways are so intricate, and the subterranean so vast, and the dungeons so numerous that the base Ethiop, who has obeyed his master’s orders in confining her, has himself been lost in the labyrinth, and has not been able to discover what dungeon he put her in. For three days he has been looking for it, during which our heroine has been without food, and he is still searching and scratching his woolly head in despair, as he is to die by slow torture, if he does not reproduce her—for you observe, the chief who has thrown her into this dungeon is most desperately in love with her.
B. That of course; and that is the way to prove romantic love—you ill-treat—but still she is certainly in a dilemma, as well as the Ethiop.
A. Granted; but she talks like the heroine of a romance. Listen. (Ansard reads.) “The beauteous and divinely-moulded form of the angelic Angelicanarinella pressed the dank and rotten straw, which had been thrown down by the scowling, thick-lipped Ethiop for her repose—she, for whom attendant maidens had smoothed the Sybaritic sheet of finest texture, under the elaborately carved and sumptuously gilt canopy, the silken curtains, and the tassels of the purest dust of gold.”
B. Tassels of dust of gold! only figuratively, I suppose.
A. Nothing more. “Each particular straw of this dank, damp bed was elastic with delight, at bearing such angelic pressure; and, as our heroine cast her ineffably beaming eyes about the dark void, lighting up with their effulgent rays each little portion of the dungeon, as she glanced them from one part to another, she perceived that the many reptiles enclosed with her in this narrow tomb, were nestling to her side, their eyes fixed upon her in mute expressions of love and admiration. Her eclipsed orbs were each, for a moment, suffused with a bright and heavenly tear, and from the suffusion threw out a more brilliant light upon the feeling reptiles who paid this tribute to her undeserved sufferings. She put forth her beauteous hand, whose ‘faint tracery,’—(I stole that from Cooper,)—whose faint tracery had so often given to others the idea that it was ethereal, and not corporeal, and lifting with all the soft and tender handling of first love a venerable toad, which smiled upon her, she placed the interesting animal so that it could crawl up and nestle in her bosom. ‘Poor child of dank, of darkness, and of dripping,’ exclaimed she, in her flute-like notes, ‘who sheltereth thyself under the wet and mouldering wall, so neglected in thy form by thy mother Nature, repose awhile in peace where princes and nobles would envy thee, if they knew thy present lot. But that shall never be; these lips shall never breathe a tale which might endanger thy existence; fear not, therefore, their enmity, and as thou slowly creepest away thy little round of circumscribed existence, forget me not, but shed an occasional pearly tear to the memory of the persecuted, the innocent Angelicanarinella!'” What d’ye think of that?
B. Umph! a very warm picture certainly; however, it is natural. You know, a person of her consequence could never exist without a little toadyism.
A. I have a good many subterraneous soliloquies, which would have been lost forever, if I did not bring them up.
B. That one you have just read is enough to make everybody else bring up.
A. I rather plume myself upon it.
B. Yes, it is a feather in your cap, and will act as a feather in the throat of your readers.
A. Now I’ll turn over the second volume, and read you another morceau, in which I assume the more playful vein. I have imitated one of our modern writers, who must be correct in her language, as she knows all about heroes and heroines. I must confess that I’ve cribbed a little.
B. Let’s hear.
A. The lovely Angelicanarinella pottered for some time about this fairy chamber, then ‘wrote journal.’ At last, she threw herself down on the floor, pulled out the miniature, gulped when she looked at it, and then cried herself to sleep.
A. It’s all right, my dear fellow. I understand that it is the refined slang of the modern boudoir, and only known to the initiated.
B. They had better keep it entirely to their boudoirs. I should advise you to leave it all out.
A. Well, I thought that one who was so very particular, must have been the standard of perfection herself.
B. That does not at all follow.
A. But what I wish to read to you is the way in which I have managed that my secret shall never be divulged. It is known only to four.
B. A secret known to four people! You must be quick then.
A. So I am, as you shall hear; they all meet in a dark gallery, but do not expect to meet any one but the hero, whom they intend to murder, each one having, unknown to the others, made an appointment with him for that purpose, on the pretence of telling him the great secret. Altogether the scene is well described, but it is long, so I’ll come at once to the denouement.
B. Pray do.
A. “Absenpresentini felt his way by the slimy wall, when the breath of another human being caught his ear: he paused, and held his own breath. ‘No, no,’ muttered the other, ‘the secret of blood and gold shall remain with me alone. Let him come, and he shall find death.’ In a second, the dagger of Absenpresentini was in the mutterer’s bosom:—he fell without a groan. ‘To me alone the secret of blood and gold, and with me it remains,’ exclaimed Absenpresentini. ‘It does remain with you,’ cried Phosphorini, driving his dagger into his back:—Absenpresentini fell without a groan, and Phosphorini, withdrawing his dagger, exclaimed, ‘Who is now to tell the secret but me?’ ‘Not you,’ cried Vortiskini, raising up his sword and striking at where the voice proceeded. The trusty steel cleft the head of the abandoned Phosphorini, who fell without a groan. ‘Now will I retain the secret of blood and gold,’ said Vortiskini, as he sheathed his sword. ‘Thou shalt,’ exclaimed the wily Jesuit, as he struck his stiletto to the heart of the robber, who fell without a groan. ‘With me only does the secret now rest, by which our order might be disgraced; with me it dies,’ and the Jesuit raised his hand. ‘Thus to the glory and the honour of his society does Manfredini sacrifice his life.’ He struck the keen-pointed instrument into his heart, and died without a groan. ‘Stop,’ cried our hero.”
B. And I agree with your hero: stop, Ansard, or you’ll kill me too—but not without a groan.
A. Don’t you think it would act well?
B. Quite as well as it reads; pray is it all like this?
A. You shall judge for yourself. I have half killed myself with writing it, for I chew opium every night to obtain ideas. Now again——
B. Spare me, Ansard, spare me; my nerves are rather delicate; for the remainder I will take your word.
A. I wish my duns would do the same, even if it were only my washerwoman; but there’s no more tick for me here, except this old watch of my father’s, which serves to remind me of what I cannot obtain from others—time; but, however, there is a time for all things, and when the time comes that my romance is ready, my creditors will obtain the ready.
B. Your only excuse, Ansard.
A. I beg your pardon. The public require strong writing now-a-days. We have thousands who write well, and the public are nauseated with what is called good writing.
B. And so they want something bad, eh? Well, Ansard, you certainly can supply them.
A. My dear Barnstaple, you must not disparage this style of writing—it is not bad—there is a great art in it. It may be termed writing intellectual and ethereal. You observe, that it never allows probabilities or even possibilities to stand in its way. The dross of humanity is rejected: all the common wants and grosser feelings of our natures are disallowed. It is a novel which is all mind and passion. Corporeal attributes and necessities are thrown on one side, as they would destroy the charm of perfectability. Nothing can soil, or defile, or destroy my heroine; suffering adds lustre to her beauty, as pure gold is tried by fire: nothing can kill her, because she is all mind. As for my men, you will observe when you read my work——
B. When I do!
A. Which, of course, you will—that they also have their appetites in abeyance; they never want to eat, or drink, or sleep—are always at hand when required, without regard to time or space. Now there is a great beauty in this description of writing. The women adore it because they find their sex divested of those human necessities, without which they would indeed be angels! the mirror is held up to them, and they find themselves perfect—no wonder they are pleased. The other sex are also very glad to dwell upon female perfectability, which they can only find in a romance, although they have often dreamt of it in their younger days.
B. There is some truth in these remarks. Every milliner’s girl, who devours your pages in bed by the half-hour’s light of tallow stolen for the purpose, imagines a strong similarity between herself and your Angelicanarinella, and every shop-boy measuring tape or weighing yellow soap will find out attributes common to himself and to your hero.
A. Exactly. As long as you draw perfection in both sexes, you are certain to be read, because by so doing you flatter human nature and self-love, and transfer it to the individual who reads. Now a picture of real life——
B. Is like some of Wouvermans’ best pictures, which will not be purchased by many, because his dogs in the fore-ground are doing exactly what all dogs will naturally do when they first are let out of their kennels.
A. Wouvermans should have known better, and made his dogs better mannered if he expected his pictures to be hung up in the parlour of refinement.
A. Perhaps you would like to have another passage or two.
B. Excuse me: I will imagine it all. I only hope, Ansard, this employment will not interfere with your legal practice.
A. My dear Barnstaple, it certainly will not, because my legal practice cannot be interfered with. I have been called to the bar, but find no employment in my calling. I have been sitting in my gown and wig for one year, and may probably sit a dozen more, before I have to rise to address their lordships. I have not yet had a guinea brief. My only chance is, to be sent out as judge to Sierra Leone, or perhaps to be made a commissioner of the Court of Requests.
B. You are indeed humble in your aspirations. I recollect the time, Ansard, when you dreamt of golden fame, and aspired to the wool-sack—when your ambition prompted you to midnight labour, and you showed an energy——
A. (putting his hands up to his forehead, with his elbows on the table.) What can I do, Barnstaple? If I trust to briefs, my existence will be but brief—we all must live.
B. I will not reply as Richelieu did to a brother author, “Je ne vois pas la nécessité,” but this I do say, that if you are in future to live by supplying the public with such nonsense, the shorter your existence the better.
Metropolitan Magazine, 1835.