A few miles from the town of Southampton there is an old mansion-house, which has been for centuries known as Madeline Hall, in the possession of the de Versely family. It is a handsome building, surrounded by a finely timbered park of some extent, and, what is more important, by about 12,000 acres of land, which also appertain to it. At the period in which I commence this history, there resided in this mansion an elderly spinster of rank, named the Honourable Miss Delmar, sister of the late Lord de Versely and aunt to the present earl, and an Honourable Captain Delmar, who was the second son of the deceased nobleman. This property belonged to the Honourable Miss Delmar, and was at her entire disposal upon her decease.
The Honourable Captain Delmar, at the time I am speaking of, commanded a frigate employed upon what was designated channel service, which in those days implied that the captain held a seat in the House of Commons and that he voted with the ministry; and further, that his vote might, when required, be forthcoming, the frigate was never sea-going, except during the recess. It must be admitted that H.M. ship Paragon did occasionally get under weigh and remain cruising in sight of land for two or three days, until the steward reported that the milk provided for the captain’s table was turning sour; upon which important information the helm was immediately put up, and the frigate, in a case of such extreme distress, would drop her anchor at the nearest port under her lee. Now as the Paragon was constantly at Spithead, Captain Delmar was very attentive in visiting his aunt, who lived at Madeline Hall; ill-natured people asserted, because she had so fine an estate in her own gift. Certain it is, that he would remain there for weeks, which gave great satisfaction to the old lady, who liked her nephew, liked attention, and was even so peculiar as to like sailors. But it must be observed that there was another person at the mansion who also liked the captain, liked attention, and liked sailors; this was Miss Arabella Mason, a very pretty young woman of eighteen years of age, who constantly looked in the glass merely to ascertain if she had ever seen a face which she preferred to her own, and who never read any novel without discovering that there was a remarkable likeness between the heroine and her pretty self.
Miss Arabella Mason was the eldest daughter of the steward of the old Lord de Versely, brother to the Honourable Miss Delmar, and was much respected by his lordship for his fidelity and his knowledge of business, in the transaction of which he fell, for he was felling trees, and a tree fell upon him. He left a widow and two daughters: it was said that at his death Mrs Mason was not badly off, as her husband had been very careful of his earnings. Mrs Mason, however, did not corroborate this statement; on the contrary, she invariably pleaded poverty; and the Honourable Miss Delmar, after Lord de Versely’s death—which happened soon after that of his steward—sent both the daughters to be educated at a country school, where, as everything that is taught is second-rate, young ladies, of course, receive a second-rate education. Mrs Mason was often invited by the Honourable Miss Delmar to spend a month at Madeline Hall, and used to bring her eldest daughter, who had left school, with her. Latterly, however, the daughter remained as a fixture, and Mrs Mason received but an occasional invitation. It may be inquired in what capacity Miss Arabella Mason remained at the Hall; she was not a servant, for her position in life was above that of a menial; neither was she received altogether in the saloon, as she was of too humble a grade to mix with gentry and nobility; she was, therefore, betwixt and between, a sort of humble companion in the drawing-room, a cut above the housekeeper in the still-room, a fetcher and carrier of the honourable spinster’s wishes, a sort of link between the aristocratic old dame and her male attendants, towards whom she had a sort of old maidish aversion. However this position might be found useful to her mistress, it must be admitted that it was a most unfortunate position for a young, thoughtless, and very pretty girl, moreover, who was naturally very lively, very smart in repartee, and very fond of being admired.
As the Honourable Captain Delmar was very constant in his visits to his aunt, it was but natural that he should pay some little attention to her humble companion. By degrees the intimacy increased, and at last there were reports in the servants’ hall, that the captain and Miss Bella Mason had been seen together in the evergreen walk; and as the captain’s visits were continually repeated during the space of two years so did the scandal increase, and people became more ill-natured. It was now seen that Miss Bella had been very often found in tears, and the old butler and the older housekeeper shook their heads at each other like responsive mandarins; the only person who was ignorant of the scandal afloat was the old lady spinster herself.
I must now introduce another personage. The Honourable Captain Delmar did not, of course, travel without his valet, and this important personage had been selected out of the marine corps which had been drafted into the frigate. Benjamin Keene, for such was his name, was certainly endowed with several qualities which were indispensable in a valet; he was very clean in his person, very respectful in his deportment, and, after the sovereign of Great Britain, looked upon the Honourable Captain Delmar as the greatest person in the world. Moreover, Benjamin Keene, although only a private marine was, without exception, one of the handsomest men that ever was seen and being equally as well made and well drilled as he was handsome in person, he was the admiration of all the young women. But Nature, who delights in a drawback, had contrived to leave him almost without brains; and further, he was wholly uneducated—for he was too stupid to learn—his faculties were just sufficient to enable him, by constant drilling, to be perfect in the manual exercise, and mechanically to perform his duties as a valet.
Ben always accompanied his master to the hall, where the former was at one and the same time the admiration and laughter of all the servants. It hardly need be observed, that the clever and sprightly Miss Arabella Mason considered Ben as one much beneath her, that is, she said so on his first arrival at Madeline hall; but, strange to say, that two years afterwards, just at the time that reports had been raised that she had been frequently discovered in tears, there was a change in her manner towards him; indeed some people insinuated that she was setting her cap at the handsome marine: this idea, it is true, was ridiculed by the majority; but still the intimacy appeared rapidly to increase. It was afterwards asserted by those who find out everything after it has taken place, that Ben would never have ventured to look up to such an unequal match had he not been prompted to it by his master, who actually proposed that he should marry the girl. That such was the fact is undoubted, although they knew it not; and Ben, who considered the wish of his captain as tantamount to an order, as soon as he could comprehend what his captain required of him, stood up erect and raised his hand with a flourish to his head, in token of his obedience. Shortly afterwards, Captain Delmar again came over to Madeline Hall, accompanied as usual, by Ben, and the second day after their arrival it was made known to all whom it might concern, that Miss Arabella Mason had actually contracted a secret marriage with the handsome Benjamin Keene.
Of course, the last person made acquainted with this interesting intelligence was the Honourable Miss Delmar, and her nephew took upon himself to make the communication. At first the honourable spinster bridled up with indignation, wondered at the girl’s indelicacy, and much more at her demeaning herself by marrying a private marine. Captain Delmar replied, that it was true that Ben was only a private, but that every common soldier was a gentleman by profession. It was true that Bella Mason might have done better—but she was his aunt’s servant, and Keene was his valet, so that the disparity was not so very great. He then intimated that he had long perceived the growing attachment; talked of the danger of young people being left so much together; hinted about opportunity, and descanted upon morals and propriety. The Honourable Miss Delmar was softened down by the dexterous reasoning of her nephew; she was delighted to find so much virtue extant in a sailor; and, after an hour’s conversation, the married couple were sent for, graciously pardoned, and Mrs Keene, after receiving a very tedious lecture, received a very handsome present. But if her mistress was appeased, Mrs Keene’s mother was not. As soon as the intelligence was received, old Mrs Mason set off for Madeline Hall. She first had a closeted interview with her daughter, and then with Captain Delmar, and as soon as the latter was over, she immediately took her departure, without paying her respects to the mistress of the Hall, or exchanging one word with any of the servants; this conduct gave occasion to more innuendoes—some indeed ascribed her conduct to mortification at her daughter’s having made so imprudent a match, but others exchanged very significant glances.
Three weeks after the marriage, the Parliament having been prorogued, the admiral of the port considered that he was justified in ordering the frigate out on a cruise. Ben Keene, of course accompanied his master, and it was not until three months had passed away that the frigate returned into port. As usual, the Honourable Captain Delmar, as soon as he had paid his respects to the admiral, set off to visit his aunt, accompanied by his benedict marine. On his arrival, he found that everything appeared to be in great confusion; indeed an event was occurring which had astonished the whole household; the butler made a profound bow to the captain; the footmen forgot their usual smirk when he alighted. Captain Delmar was ushered in solemn silence into the drawing-room, and his aunt, who had notice of his arrival received him with a stiff, prim air of unwonted frigidity, with her arms crossed before her on her white muslin apron.
“My dear aunt,” said Captain Delmar, as she coldly took his proffered hand, “what is the matter?”
“The matter is this, nephew,” replied the old lady—“that marriage of your marine and Bella Mason should have taken place six months sooner than it did. This is a wicked world, nephew; and sailors, I’m afraid, are—”
“Marines, you should say, in this instance, my dear aunt,” replied Captain Delmar, insinuatingly. “I must confess that neither sailors nor marines are quite so strict as they ought to be; however, Ben has married her. Come, my dear aunt, allow me to plead for them, although I am very much distressed that such an event should take place in your house. I think,” added he, after a pause, “I shall give Mr Keene seven dozen at the gangway, for his presumption, as soon as I return on board.”
“That won’t mend the matter, nephew,” replied Miss Delmar. “I’ll turn her out of the house as soon as she can be moved.”
“And I’ll flog him as soon as I get him on board,” rejoined the captain. “I will not have your feelings shocked, and your mind harassed in this way, by any impropriety on the part of my followers—most infamous—shameful—abominable—unpardonable,” interjected the captain, walking the quarter-deck up and down the room.
The Honourable Miss Delmar continued to talk, and the honourable captain to agree with her in all she said, for an hour at least. When people are allowed to give vent to their indignation without the smallest opposition they soon talk it away; such was the case with the Honourable Miss Delmar. When it was first announced that Bella Keene was safely in bed with a fine boy, the offended spinster turned away from the communication with horror; when her own maid ventured to remark that it was a lovely baby, she was ordered to hold her tongue; she would not see the suffering mother, and the horrid marine was commanded to stay in the kitchen, lest she should be contaminated by meeting him on the stairs; but every day softened down her indignation, and before a fortnight was over the Honourable Miss Delmar had not only seen but admired the baby; and at last decided upon paying a visit to the mother, who was now sufficiently recovered to undergo a lecture of about two hours’ length, in which the honourable spinster commented upon her indecency, indiscretion, inconsiderateness, incorrectness, indecorum, incontinence, and indelicacy; pointing out that her conduct was most inexcusable, iniquitous, and most infamous. The Honourable Miss Delmar having had such a long innings then gave it up, because she was out of breath. Bella, who waited patiently to make her response, and who was a very clever girl, then declared, with many tears, that she was aware that her conduct was inexcusable, her faults had been involuntary, and her sorrow was inexpressible; her inexperience and her infatuation her only apology; that her infelicity at her mistress’s displeasure would inevitably increase her sufferings; assured her that she was not incorrigible, and that if her mistress would only indulge her with forgiveness, as she hoped to inherit heaven she would never incur her anger by committing the same fault again. Satisfied with this assurance, the Honourable Miss Delmar softened down, and not only forgave, but actually took the child into her lap that Bella might read the Bible which she had presented her with. Reader, the child who had this great honour conferred upon him, who actually laid in the immaculate lap, on the apron of immaculate snowy whiteness of the immaculate Honourable Miss Delmar, was no other person than the narrator of this history—or, if you please it, the Hero of this Tale.
That my mother had so far smoothed things pretty well must be acknowledged; but it was to be presumed that her husband might not be pleased at so unusual an occurrence, and already the sneers and innuendoes of the servants’ hall were not wanting. It appeared, however, that an interview had taken place between Ben and Captain Delmar shortly after my making my appearance: what occurred did not transpire, but this is certain that, upon the marine’s return to the kitchen, one of the grooms, who ventured to banter him, received such a sound thrashing from Ben that it put an end to all further joking. As Ben had taken up the affair so seriously, it was presumed that if there had been anticipation of the hymeneal rites he was himself the party who had been hasty; and that now he was married, he was resolved to resent any impertinent remarks upon his conduct. At all events, the question now became one of less interest, as the scandal was of less importance; and as Ben had made known his determination to resent any remarks upon the subject, not a word more was said, at all events when he was present.
In due time I was christened, and so completely was my mother reinstalled in the good graces of her mistress, that as Captain Delmar had volunteered to stand my sponsor, the Honourable Miss Delmar gave the necessary female security; at the particular request of my mother, the captain consented that I should bear his own Christian name, and I was duly registered in the church books as Percival Keene.
There is no security in this world. A dissolution of Parliament took place, and on the following election the Honourable Captain Delmar’s constituents, not being exactly pleased at the total indifference which he had shown to their interests, took upon themselves to elect another member in his stead, who, as Captain Delmar had previously done, promised everything, and in all probability would follow the honourable captain’s example by performing nothing. The loss of his election was followed up by the loss of his ship, his majesty’s government not considering it necessary that Captain Delmar (now that he had leisure to attend to his professional duties) should retain his command. The frigate, therefore, was paid off, and recommissioned by another captain who had friends in Parliament.
As Ben Keene belonged to the marine corps, he could not, of course, remain as valet to Captain Delmar, but was ordered, with the rest of the detachment, to the barracks at Chatham; my mother, although she was determined that she would not live at barracks, was not sorry to leave the Hall, where she could not fail to perceive that she was, from her imprudent conduct, no longer treated with the respect or cordiality to which she had been previously accustomed. She was most anxious to quit a place in which her disgrace was so well known; and Captain Delmar having given her his advice, which coincided with her own ideas, and also a very munificent present to enable her to set up housekeeping, took his departure from the Hall. My mother returned to her room as the wheels of his carriage rattled over the gravel of the drive, and many were the bitter tears which she shed over her unconscious boy.
The following day the Honourable Miss Delmar sent for her; as usual, commenced with a tedious lecture, which, as before, was wound up at parting with a handsome present. The day after my mother packed up her trunks, and with me in her arms set off to Chatham, where we arrived safely, and immediately went into furnished lodgings. My mother was a clever, active woman, and the presents which she had at different times received amounted to a considerable sum of money, over which her husband had never ventured to assert any claim.
Indeed, I must do Ben Keene the justice to say that he had the virtue of humility. He felt that his wife was in every way his superior and that it was only under peculiar circumstances that he could have aspired to her. He was, therefore, submissive to her in everything, consenting to every proposal that was made by her, and guided by her opinion. When, therefore, on her arrival at Chatham, she pointed out how impossible it would be for one brought up as she had been to associate with the women in the barracks, and that she considered it advisable that she should set up some business by which she might gain a respectable livelihood, Ben, although he felt that this would be a virtual separation a mensâ et thoro, named no objections. Having thus obtained the consent of her husband, who considered her so much his superior as to be infallible, my mother, after much cogitation, resolved that she would embark her capital in a circulating library and stationer’s shop; for she argued that selling paper, pens, and sealing-wax was a commerce which would secure to her customers of the better class. Accordingly, she hired a house close to the barracks, with a very good-sized shop below, painting and papering it very smartly; there was much taste in all her arrangements, and although the expenses of the outlay and the first year’s rent had swallowed up a considerable portion of the money she had laid by, it soon proved that she had calculated well, and her shop became a sort of lounge for the officers, who amused themselves with her smartness and vivacity, the more so as she had a talent for repartee, which men like to find in a very pretty woman.
In a short time my mother became quite the rage, and it was a mystery how so pretty and elegant a person could have become the wife of a private marine. It was however, ascribed to her having been captivated with the very handsome person and figure of her husband, and having yielded to her feelings in a moment of infatuation. The ladies patronised her circulating library; the officers and gentlemen purchased her stationery. My mother then added gloves, perfumery, canes, and lastly cigars, to her previous assortment and before she had been a year in business, found that she was making money very fast, and increasing her customers every day. My mother had a great deal of tact; with the other sex she was full of merriment and fond of joking, consequently a great favourite; towards her own sex her conduct was quite the reverse; she assumed a respectful, prudish air, blended with a familiarity which was never offensive; she was, therefore, equally popular with her own sex, and prospered in every sense of the word. Had her husband been the least inclined to have asserted his rights, the position which she had gained was sufficient to her reducing him to a state of subjection. She had raised herself, unaided, far above him; he saw her continually chatting and laughing with his own officers, to whom he was compelled to make a respectful salute whenever they passed by him; he could not venture to address her, or even to come into the shop, when his officers were there, or it would have been considered disrespectful towards them; and as he could not sleep out of barracks, all his intercourse with her was to occasionally slink down by the area, to find something better to eat than he could have in his own mess, or obtain from her an occasional shilling to spend in beer. Ben, the marine, found at last that somehow or another, his wife had slipped out of his hands; that he was nothing more than a pensioner on her bounty a slave to her wishes, and a fetcher and carrier at her command, and he resigned himself quietly to his fate, as better men have done before.