Tabby Hall June 1813
More wonders, Mr Editor! and one of the greatest is that I should leave Cassino to write a long letter. A Special Committee was summoned yesterday at Tabby Hall, and all the rational and irrational creatures of this community assembled round our board of green cloth, not excepting Barnaby Scratch and my French pug. In the centre, on her chair of state, sat our president St Agnes. The film had recently been removed from her eyes, but they were not yet suffered to meet the light, and her veil still hung over them; however, her smile did not want the help of eyes to render it enchanting.
“Sisters,” she began, “I have lived to see the fallacy of my plan, but not long enough to regret it. I hoped to form a little republic wherein every individual might have equal freedom and power, and contribute equally to the general happiness. It should have been remembered that an institution where all are commanders, like an army composed of generals, cannot exist. I have also learnt that females are better qualified to obey than to direct, for power, it seems, is a weapon which we know not how to use among ourselves. The finest essences or the richest fruits are destroyed by being mingled together; and nature seems to have designed that we should not collect in clusters. Quick wits and ardent hearts require more control than free and equal females are willing to impose upon themselves. We neglect, in trifles, what is the true politeness of the heart. It is not a single virtue, but the result of many. It is the sun of social life, which should rise every day.
“Many members of my republic will leave it, I foresee, to establish the monarchy of a marriage: — yet let them not forget the experience they have gained. Let them remember that petty yet perpetual quarrels, like cold and continual drops of water, are the severest torture. Particles of obstinacy lurk in the gentlest characters, as chemists find iron in honey: but as it is not so easy to find honey in iron, the wise wife will not seek profit from anger. We may guide a storm by attraction, but we must not attempt, like the French philosopher, to disperse it by our artillery.
“Forgive me, sisters, if I have been prolix in the last advice I shall offer from this chair. The purpose of our committee is to resolve on the dissolution of our community, or to new-model its statutes.”
Our clerk having read the resolution and called for votes, Miss Botherem rose — “Our President has spoken wisely of the heterogeneous particles in our society; but her inference is not logical. The finest compounds result from heterogeneous things, and moreover divers philosophers have agreed that there is no evil. Things must be considered in their abstract and relative nature. A quiet woman is good abstractedly; but a loquacious and vehement female is relatively good because she creates wit in others. Thus Mr Julep’s buzz-wig in abstract, is a ridiculous thing, but in relation to him, it is necessary to make him look wise.”
“I thank Miss Botherem for her illustration,” said Mr Apothecary Julep. “Physically speaking, I think as due portions of salt and sulphur are requisite in our constitutions, the spleen and acrimony in this sisterhood may be very conducive to health: therefore I vote for its continuance.”
“For my part,” said I, “I am as much amused with the faults an quarrels of our society as with the flats and sharps in a good concerto. I love a few pebbles on the shore of life: the smoothest sand is the falsest.”
“I should have voted for the continuance of this establishment,” said Miss Prudentia Quickset, elevating her chin above the points of her tenfold frill, “if alarming innovations had not been attempted. Miss Croaker’s infirmities and my weak nerves induced me to acquiesce in the admission of our medical and clerical advisers; but the attempt to domiciliate a barrister has determined me to fly from contagion.”
“Really, Miss Quickset (interrupted our Vice-President Nettletop) as poor old Dr Cheyne used to say — (good man! he gave my godmother an excellent recipe of plum-broth) men are all naturally knaves or fools, so we may as well have the law on our side. And as Counsellor is a comely gentleman about my age, there can be no harm in his living her as we have Fordyce’s Sermons in the library. Besides I have just finished the fable of the fox and geese in tent-stitch, which will be a very useful warning when it is hung over the mantle-piece.”
“Indeed,” said the gentle Saccarissa, “the subject is unworthy your needle and our saloon! You might have represented the nymph Echo bewailing Narcissus or the forsaken Ariadne comforted by Bacchus.”
“Prettily imagined, I vow!” exclaimed Miss Squib with a sly glance. “We know many forlorn damsels who find comfort in a closet-bottle!”
“Lord, Miss Murmur!” said Mrs Nettletop without noticing this comment. “I might as well copy the sign of Satan and a bag of nails!”
“A Satyr and Bacchanals, you mean, President!” interposed Barbara; “but a portrait of the Princess Dashkoff, chief of the Russian Academy, would have been a fitter ornament for our saloon.”
“Or the sacrifice of the Vestal,” said Cassandra Croaker, sighing.
“Or the witches’ feast,” added Emily Echowell.
All these orators spoke at once, and a full concerto of tongues was proceeding, when our Moderator, St Agnes, reminded us that we had wandered very far from the original question, which was simply whether our institution should be abolished or new-modelled.
“I vote for its continuance,” said the Chaplain with a gracious smile. “One of my order has maliciously compared celibacy to a fly in the heart of an apple which lives and dies unknown; but I consider it an useful bee, busied in collecting only the honey of life, and provided with a powerful sting to revenge insults.”
“For myself,” said Dr Cardamom, “I brave the sarcasms levelled at me because I have attached myself to this institution, whose champion I remain. Many who ride in the full-loaded stage-waggon of wedlock, would prefer the light untaxed cart of celibacy, which pays no tolls at the turn-pike of care.”
“Our machine would have travelled very smoothly on,” retorted Sister Squib looking askance at our male dependants, “if we had not hired four supernumerary mules!”
“Truly,” added Mrs Nettletop, “I dare say these gentlemen would have Tabby Hall managed like the little town abroad where the four greatest dunces are chosen to govern. And I must say we should not have got into such disgrace if some people had minded poor Mr Scratch’s confluescence instead of dropping love songs among my cabbages, and writing long tell-tale letters to the Attic Chest.”
Dr Cardamom rose instantly, with a Ciceronian air — “I plead guilty,” said he, “to the Vice-President’s first charge. The fragment found in the hermitage is mine. I had once a lover’s hopes, which I determined to conceal till my fortune equalled my ambition. After an absence of twenty years, I found the object of those hopes, blind, infirm, and buried in the nunnery of her own creation. But it seemed not impossible to unclose the eye whose light was once so beautiful, and to preserve the life which still seems a part of mine. For this purpose, I accepted the office of physician to this sisterhood, and disguised my name, my voice, and even my manners. Cynical buffoonery is the most convenient mask; but I now feel that real affection cannot wear one.”
St Agnes started, and for the first time, lifted the bandeau from her eyes. They seemed to have recovered all their brightness, and all her soul shone in them as she exclaimed, “William Balvenie!”
But why should I proceed? If your heart, Mr Editor is as well-filled as your Chest, you will imagine the rest of the scene. You will guess all that was said, or rather, all that was not said; for more tears than words were spent on this occasion. The Chaplain, who seems to have been Dr Balvenie’s accomplice, produced a special license, and in two hours we saluted St Agnes by a new name. Never were seven gayer brides-maids. Even the grins of Messrs Julep and Scratch were natural. In my careless mirth I said to Willoughby Woodbine, “We, whose hearts are made of cork or elastic rubber, know nothing of these romantic affections.”
“True,” he replied, “but as a heart composed of elastic rubber can wipe out all mistakes, I give you mine!”
What is your opinion, Editress? Shall I accept it? He has procured a deanery, and in time, perhaps, I may learn to mix puddings and darn lawn-sleeves. And thus ends the Chronicle of Tabby Hall kept by
P.S. Example is contagious: Miss Quickset has eloped with my valet. Poor Pirouette! I pity him — he will be smothered under an avalanche of wisdom. I should have preferred our Vice-President Nettletop, for a summer thunderstorm is better than perpetual frost. If she names honest Barnaby Scratch and our apothecary Julep takes poor Cassandra Croaker, they may make amends for the poison they have given. Sister Squib has bestowed herself on Sir Patrick McSinister as a solace for his disgraces, and Barbara Botherem has returned to London to energize Dr Atom’s theory of domestic happiness. Master Michael Mitre has carried his amanuensis, Kitty Maltravers, to his shop in Holborn; and if you know any disappointed spinsters, Tabby Hall is now to let.