Letter from Sir Pertinax Townly

Miss Porden

Positive House 6th March 1814

“There is no general rule without an exception,” so in spite of Electromagus’s injunctions and prohibitions, again behold a sheet of prose from Pertinax Townly. Oui! me voici encore! Mr Editor, tho’ indeed much for the starling’s reason, because I can’t get out, at least with honor.

Never was there a more glorious scene of mummery than that presented here last Wednesday, on the arrival of Lord Aircastle.

quaeque ipse ridiculissima vidi
Et quorum pars magna fui.

For three days previous we were convened as usual by day-break in the laboratory, the windows of which, lest London fogs should affect the action of the machines, were hermetically closed. Here no dull ray of terrestrial light is permitted to mingle with the pure stream of electricity which from an immense Voltaic battery in unremitted action sheds a bright but livid lustre on the scene. Near this stood Electromagus, dressed in a purple velvet gown and cap of fur, surrounded by the implements of his art, balls, points, machines, electrometers, Leyden jars, &c. without number and looking like a magician in his subterranean cavern, exercising the deepest mysteries of his art, while his pupils, pale and shivering, seemed by the ghastly light like the wan spectres of the dead called by his unhallowed spell from the sacred silence of the tomb. The light slim figure of Olivia, the shade of one who pined and died for love. The fair Artemisia, clad in the deepest sables, and leaning on an urn containing the hydraulic apparatus for producing instantaneous light, an Agrippina, and the tall masculine Rodelinda, a Thalestris or an Hippolyta. Philemon standing with becoming gravity, and occasionally casting a sheep’s eye at Olivia, might have been one of the sages of antiquity. Atticus tall and thin with a look more keen than that the ostrich fixes on her egg, seemed hatching inspiration from the light of the battery; had he been a lady, I should have dubbed him a vestal who, accustomed all her days to watch the sacred flame, felt e’en in death the force of habit. For myself I know not what to say: you may if you please christen me the Ghost of Alcibiades or Paris.

But to return. After we have remained in this medicated atmosphere as long as may be necessary for the excitation of our electrical energies, Electromagus commands us to insulate ourselves — i.e. put on our glass slippers (à propos, you shall have a tale of a glass slipper). When this is done we are led one at a time to a throne of glass, there to receive the appointed charge from the machine, jar, or battery, and are then permitted to retire, still insulated, to the study. Here pens and ink and paper are provided, and we sit, till the electricity thus accumulated has discharged itself in the shape of Sonnets, Pindarics, &c. thro’ our fingers’ ends into the paper, which becomes marvellously electric in consequence, and adheres closely to the desk as if it had been pasted.

Our electricity and our wit being thus exhaled we are permited to breakfast, after which we ramble thro’ the gardens of this mansion, which are much older than the house and really pretty. We then return to reading and study till dinner time, and the evening is passed in scientific conversation, or in witnessing some of our master’s experiments in the laboratory.

Such is the general outline of a day at Positive House, but on the three days before mentioned extraordinary solemnity was intended, and, as is not uncommon, extraordinarily marred.

Young Atticus, seated on his vitreous throne, was just beginning to discharge his inspiration in a Pindaric Rhapsody, when we were suddenly enveloped in total darkness, the charcoal forming the connection between the opposite ends of the great battery having burnt out. Electromagus in his haste to rekindle the spark, fell over the battery, and received a stroke, which just left him power to break his communication with it, before he fell back benumbed with its force and broke his largest patent elecrometer intended as a present for Lord Aircastle. Philemon hastened to assist Electromagus, Atticus sat like a statue, and Rodelinda, throwing herself into my arms, fainted like a true heroine; while Olivia, with more presence of mind than any of us, ran for a candle. We were still in the dark, when the sudden explosion of an overcharged Leyden jar revealed for a moment the pale countenance of Atticus. Artemisia shriek’d and exclaimed, “It is, it is the spirit of my Alexander, my dear dear husband! Oh, why?”

I heard no more, for the motion of her arm overthrew the urn of instantaneous light, and Olivia returned with a candle. Everything was now soon rectified. Rodelinda, perceiving little attention paid to her, recovered from her fainting fit, and sat down to console the widow, leaving me at liberty to hasten to the assistance of Philemon, and we succeeded in removing Electromagus to his couch, where Dr Beauclerc, as we sometimes call him, prescribed for his patient. Thus passed this memorable morning, which afforded abundant food for evening conversation.

The next we assembled as usual, and Electromagus wan and languid soon followed. But alas! not one of the machines was in order, and tho’ no essential damage had been done, except breaking the electrometer, the water from Artemisia’s urn had overflowed the room, and rendered machines, jars, and batteries alike incapable of acting. We were accordingly dismissed, and each pretending the impossibility of writing per se, enjoyed a second holiday, while Electromagus and his assistant were busy scrubbing and polishing. The third morning was therefore the only one left for the construction of the Addresses on which so much of our master’s future fortunes might depend. Fortunately for him no accident occurred, save that Philemon deserted the cause, pretending he had himself received a shock that disordered his nerves too much to allow him to write.

Everything else went off smoothly. I had my metamorphosed lover-verses ready, and wrote them off-hand, so that Electromagus was in an ecstasy at my celerity, which however was not very far before that of my competitors.

I had intended to give you an account of the important day, immortalized by the arrival of our patron, but alas! the dinner bell rings, and I have neither adjusted my cravat nor arranged my hair. You must therefore be contented for the present with the narrative of Electromagus, which will be more pompous tho’ perhaps not so faithful as that of

Yours &c.

Pertinax Townly

P.S. I hope Electromage will not forget to notice the costume of the ladies — all studied from Mr Hope. Do you know I really suspect the widow is laying siege to his Lordship and he seems flattered by it. So much the better. I shall have no objection to see a little flirtation in that quarter. Olivia would be thrown away on such a fungus, as crooked as a siphon, as old as a mummy, and as empty as his own Torricellian Vacuum, on which he loves to expatiate. Really I wondered my verses went off so well. I feared it had been too palpable; however if there is but flattery enough n’importe pour le reste. No bait is too clumsy for such a gudgeon. But soft — the bell rings again.