The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 2)

Hutchinson1The rays of the onyx confounded Lord Albon; they were too radiant for his eye to gaze on! He stopt—He thought he saw the spirit of his friend, deck’d in angelic lustre! But Astianax relieved his confusion, and cries out: “My noble Lord, this meeting affords me infinite delight. My pilgrimage is ended: My vow is fulfiled: Behold, I have borne the ashes of the Hermit, Paul Du’Monte, to this their resting place! And, my Lord, the will of Providence sends forth unhop’d for circumstances to aid the completion of the prophecy. Hence, departing, I shall approach the throne, and crave from royal bounty, the restoration of my lost possessions…”

Astianax’s fourteen-year occupation of the Hermitage is carried out in obedience to Paul Du’Monte himself, who appears in corporeal form, allowing Astianax to recognise him as – surprise! – the mysterious hermit who lectured him on the right way to live. (Although if he had lived the right way, he would never have had to flee into the mountains. Hmm…) Paul orders Astianax to remain in the cell, to devote himself to prayer and meditation, and to read the book – the one book – that the cell contains:

“On the day in which thou shalt attain the last of these few folios, on that day the will of Heaven shall lead thee hence. When thou departest, carry forth my ashes, and let them rest amidst my ancestors.”

One book that lasts fourteen years, hey? I’m betting it’s George Reynolds’ The Mysteries Of London. Both volumes.

Paul then makes a dramatic exit by crumbling into his component parts, leaving Astianax to gather up the dust and transfer it into an urn prepared for that purpose. A quick prayer later, and he settles in for a good read—

Already were fourteen years elapsed in this abode; the book of wisdom yet remained unfinished, and the latest page of knowledge was far distant—

(“Book of wisdom”? Okay, not George Reynolds…)

—but all good things must come to an end, and finally:

The book of knowledge turned as leaves toss’d by the breeze, and shewed this last most sacred sentence: “The essence of all human wisdom is religion; in prosperity, it guides the giddy spirits to the paths of rectitude; and, in adversity, it blesseth us with confidence in God.” Astianax perused the lines; no sooner were they read, than the book closed…

And immediately, Astianax hears someone calling him by the name he has carefully concealed from his mountain friends. He hurries out of the Hermitage to find himself face to face with – surprise! – Grinvil, the rumours of whose death were greatly exaggerated. The disappearance of Astianax in the wake of his attack upon his friend had him written off as a suicide in most quarters, but Grinvil never believed it and kept searching for him. At last, after hearing the story of Paul Du’Monte from some mountain men, and also that “the promised one was come”, he was certain he had finally discovered the retreat of Astianax.

After explaining that it was Polidore who arranged for him to be at the bath house at that particular time, Grinvil reveals that Lord Melvil was killed by lightning during the terrible storm that accompanied Astianax’s flight into the mountains, and that his heir, Geoffrey, “contemning the bigotry and insolence of churchmen”, subsequently refused to hand Astinanax’s estate over to the church. Furthermore, the treacherous Polidore is also dead, having keeled over after taking communion: either struck down by God for his sacrilege or, more prosaically, by a poisoned wafer, courtesy of his old friend Father Paul.

That’s the good news; the bad news is, Grinvil has been unable to discover what happened to Jessalind.

But first things first: a group of noblemen, including the new Lord Melvil, are rebelling against the king. Grinvil insists that Astianax accompany him back to civilisation, to take up arms on the royal side. Accordingly, having carefully packed up Paul’s ashes, Astianax bids farewell to the Hermitage.

Now—ever since Astianax’s retreat into the mountains some fourteen years ago, passages describing his surroundings have been appearing more and more frequently in the text. Some of these passages are quite lengthy, but none of them to date are a patch on what Astianax bursts forth with – and forces Grinvil to listen to; hasn’t he suffered enough? – as they pitch their tents after joining the forces of the loyal Lord Albon.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you—a man who has had no-one to talk to for the past fourteen years:

“Whilst we attend to the works of Nature, we receive innumerable testimonies of the benevolence of that great Existence, whose eye superintends, and whose breath pervades the universe. Every landscape is the manifestation of the presence of its all-powerful Author: Every individual object in this scene bears inexpressible beauties, which exceed human imagination, leading us at once to astonishment and adoration: See how the velvet-verdant carpet, which overspreads the lawn, is embroidered with flowers, and fringed with shrubs, irregularly scattered round: The autumn dresses yonder woods in a variety of colours: The foliage of the shadowy sycamore is gilded, the oak puts on his russet, the holly half conceals her ripened berries with her evergreen, the trembling poplar mixes its silvery hue amidst the dusky elms, and, here, and there, thro’ the thick grove, the white-skin’d birch seems to conceal its nakedness. Amidst the windings of the woods, the river shews its shining lakes, where the glad spirit of the streams, laughs at the dancing myriads of the sun beams. Their fleecy multitudes whiten the extended pasture, browsing around the hillocks, and with their bleating wake solitary echo from her Silvan grot; all intermixed, the lazy oxen stand sullenly, and recollect the flowery feast, whilst the gay fantastic colts play round their dams, vaulting in airy sport, the dams cast looks askance, and neigh maternal cautions to their frantic rounds. On this hand, golden furrows gladden the ascent, and load the reapers arms with wealthy sheafs. The yellow hills stretch out the distant view to yonder heathy mountains, where Barrenness sits sullenly, and frowns on Sloth; and, whilst she eyes her haggard bosom, furrowed over by storms, with extended arms she grasps the cumbersome clouds, to veil her desolation. Wilder the aspect on the other hand, which terminates the prospect; the vale extends itself to such a distance, that, tinged with azure hue, it seems to mix with Heaven; the nearer objects are o’ertop’d in gay perspective with objects still behind. Hamlets and rills, and cottages delightfully dispersed, and mingled with the various tints of trees and streams, of pastures, corn, and fallow. The church spire thrusts its head above the smoak which clouds the town; and there the solemn ruins of a castle nod upon the cliff and precipice, and tremble o’er the brook below, whose frighted Nereides hide them in the reeds which wave along the marsh. Oh! thou most splendid, thou descending orb of light, how wonderful, how delighting! From thy abounding glory are shed forth the golden streams which paint the western Heavens: To thy blazing chariot wheel gay vegetation, ever young, and fair fertility, with joys prolific wait: Now the slant rat overstretches all the valley, and there, behind the hill, the beams shoot up aloft, and skirt the pale grey, and the crimson clouds, with rich embroidery: But, whilst we contemplate the beauties of the scene, behold, far east, the horizon stands crouded with ascending vapours; and thou day-imparting constellation, hastenest thy career, and drives the rosy-footed hours beneath the mountains: As objects are withdrawing from our view, another sense finds pleasure: The bleating of the sheep, the voice of cattle trudging down the plain, and mourning for the pail, salute my ear; the song of yonder blackbird perch’d upon the thorn, the calling notes of every tenant of the spray; the cooing of the doves that lodge in dusky pines, the rustling gales which wanton with the alpine leaves, the ivy-cover’s sage, who whoots his trembling prayer to deities of darkness, the deep ton’d cadence of the distant water-fall, the voice of busy men who hear the harvest home, the clangour of the smith’s laborious hammer from his hovel, the dashing of the streams which turn yon mill, the barking of the cottage cur, who waits impatiently the long protracted steps of his dear peasant master, with the solemn sound of curfew bell which dies along the dale, as thus united or intermixed, afford delightful harmony. Through all thy glorious works, almighty Lord, the enraptured spirit of the human mind wanders forth, and full of wonder, full of praise, dwells on each object, till in itself enlarged with the pure flame of adoration; through unbounded space it bends inspired imagination, and presents itself prostrate at thy throne, full of humiliation, reverence, and gratitude; paying to thy divine existence, that worship which human language never can express.”

“Which human language never can express”!? Quite the comedian, our Astianax. On the other hand, Grinvil proves sadly lacking in a sense of humour, letting slip the opportunity to respond, “What? Sorry, I wasn’t really listening.”

(In the original edition of this novel, one of the physically small but large-fonted publications typical of this era, that paragraph runs for nine and a half pages. My giggling fit started on page 3…)

However, the novel itself provides a punchline of sorts: the inspiration of Astianax’s rhapsodising is also the scene of battle, and the beauties of nature are soon obscured by piles of mutilated human bodies, a great many of them put there by Astianax himself; after a three-page speech about the horrors of war, of course.

But not all of the bloodshed is to Astianax’s, uh, credit, even though he “slaughtered like a pestilence”:

One competitor alone fought for the King, and almost equal’d the hero in his claim for glory! Mounted on a dappled roan, a gallant steed, that toss’d his silver main aloft in air, a young man braved the greatest terrors of the war! The red teints on his horse’s glossy skin, seem’d like a shower of blood! A crimson plume covered his helmet, and crimson ribbons bound his armour: Amidst the carnage of his sword, he was known only by the name of the Bloody Knight! Where’er the foes rush’d on, and gained upon the royal troops, there he attacked!… He forced his way, and, meeting with Lord Melvil, braved him to engage; unhors’d him, and, amidst his amazed vassals, severed his head from off his body; and bore it by the hair aloft to view! The spectacle dismayed the rebel troops;—they fled!—Whilst he approach’d the King, and made the offering which ensured the peace! The rout was general!

Gee, I wonder who this could be?

By the way: I hope you see, what I mean!—about colons, commas, and, exclamation marks!

The king, whoever he may be, wishes to reward the homicidal youngster appropriately, and sends one Lord Morton to inquire after the boy’s condition. We learn that his name is Leo Du’Monte and that, in addition to bearing on his shield, A lion argent on a bloody field, supported on a rising sun; the coat of the Du’Montes, and therefore being a descendent of the Dukes of Belfort, he is the grandson of one Alfred of Normandy. However, one of his distant forbears having managed to forfeit the family title, and a more recent one the family estate, he has been compelled to make his own honour in combat. Hearing Leo’s history from Morton, the king restores to him both his family’s title and lands.

And it is via the young Leo (“young”, indeed! – given the exigencies of the plot, he can’t be more than fourteen! [And now I’m doing it!!]) that we learn what fate befell Father Paul, after the miscarrying of all his dastardly plots:

“The disappointment drove the monk to madness: For many years a raving horror harrowed up his soul; and, in his malady, the most distracting desperation wore down his carcase to the grave.”

Like I said at the outset, this isn’t a proper Gothic novel; otherwise, we would have seen Father Paul’s soul being harrowed up, and his carcase being worn down to the grave by distracting desperation. In graphic close-up.

Meanwhile, Astianax is wandering around for apparently no reason but to rhapsodise over nature for another ten pages or so (although not all in one paragraph). Eventually he reaches the old mansion house, which is a ruin except for the wing containing Norban’s armour, where he offers up the following Ode To A Pelican Who Might Be My Ancestor (?):

    Thence there seem’d to awake, a slumbering pelican, which sat supported on the casque, and shook its snowy plumes; then stretching forth its fair white wings, as if preparing for her flight, on either side the vast extended plumage reach’d, displaying all her ample breast, where every silver feather shone, spotless and burnish’d as the Seraph’s heavenly buckler, when he stands array’d in the glowing arms of light; with a mighty sound she took her way aloft, and, as she mounted to the realms of Heaven, a lucid train, such as the sun beams shoot from out the evening cloud, traced her passage to the skies.
     Astianax, gazing upon the vision, breathed this short ejaculation: “Blessed spirit of the mighty Norban, have the labours of Astianax gained thy approbation? Have these accomplished toils procured thee peace? Is the hour at hand, which shall restore thee to the regions of felicity?”

Having taken care of the burial of Grinvil, who in the course of battle sustained yet another fatal injury, Astianax goes to his own family vault to fulfil his obligations to the saintly Paul:

    Amidst the hallelujah, and the chorus, Astianax lifted up his face, and, to the strain, accompanied his voice. Forth from the urn a livid lambent flame arose, which shot its quivering point aloft, and fill’d the vault with fragrance. On the breast of Astianax, the onyx spread a blaze of light, such as surrounded the heavenly form of Gabriel, when sped to earth on errands of divine import, to patriarchs of old.
     Over the urn two cherubs, with their lucid pinions, hovered; and, catching the ascending flame, wafted it to Heaven: Whilst all above, the choir of aereal voices, with the sounds of many trumpets, sung his requiem…

A “noble youth” is watching all this with great interest, but before he can speak Astianax is accosted by Lord Albon, who announces that he has become enamoured of a certain female taken captive in the wake of the battle, and plans to marry her immediately – whether she likes it or not.

Gee, I wonder who this could be?

The bride, with collected resolution, at length looks up. Her looks struck on Astianax, the lustre of whose amulet had reach’d her eye! She started! stretch’d her arms to catch assistance! shriek’d and fell! And, as she fell, from her fair hand drop’d a dagger, which she had concealed, to prevent the odious espousal! Odious, as contrary to inclination!

Gratuitous, as unnecessary for clarity!

All this is rather mortifying for the prospective bridegroom:

Lord Albon thought himself abused, and called to his attendants for his sword: “Here are tricks,” cries he, “and subtleties, and holy frauds, which interpose between me and my purpose, and would deprive me of my bridal joys.”

This, mind you, is after about five minutes of “My husband!” “My wife!” “My mother!” “My son!” “My father!” “Your father!?”

However, Astianax has by now patched things up with Heaven, and as Lord Albon draws his sword, another terrible thunderstorm breaks directly overhead. When the panic subsides there is an opportunity for explanations, and at length, Lord Albon – who doesn’t exactly seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer – was convinced that this was more than artifice. Leo is embarrassed to discover that he has inadvertently usurped his father’s lands and title and immediately offers them back, but Astianax replies that he wants only the mansion house and its grounds. By this stage Lord Albon has had a chance to pull himself together and, rather oddly, gets the final word:

“Above the selfish sentiments of partiality for my own happiness, sincere joy fills all my soul for your restored felicity, and your rewarded merit. And you, Lord Belfort, full of valour, and warm with principles of honour; go on and scorn the little gains of self-enjoyment, when an emulation of the God, whose image it is you wear, prompts to the exercise of virtues, in the field of life. For in virtue only true nobility consists, and self approving conscience calls it happiness.”

And, oh yeah, sorry for trying to hack you to death with my sword back there…

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8 Comments to “The Hermitage: A British Story (Part 2)”

  1. “Sorry, drifted off a bit there, could you pick up from ‘blazing chariot wheel’?”

    From the pelican’s perspective: “There I was, having a nice nap and dreaming of fish, when up comes this knight going on about how wonderful nature is. ‘Course I naffed off.”

    Yeah, it’s not a proper Gothic — nothing like enough madness and death among the good guys. Not even a secondary couple to be cruelly torn apart. But I’m definitely getting a continuing Malory feel from the advent of Galahad, I mean Leo.

  2. In his pursuit of “A British Story”, Hutchinson probably felt it was appropriate to reference British literary roots.

    That bit with the pelican puts me in mind of a semi-comic ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu, where an Irish farmer becomes convinced that the spirit of his father is inhabiting a goose.

  3. It’s not a real Gothic – no unknown sister for Leo to almost marry!!!

    Would you be offended if I didn’t quite read every word in Astianax’s soliloquy?

  4. so why is it so easy to convince a husband that his wife is unfaithful? At least Iago had a handkerchief as proof.

    • Well, it’s what they do, isn’t it? Women. Can’t trust ’em. All that embroidery, they must be up to something… 🙂

  5. It’s not the embroidery, it’s the knitting you really have to watch out for.

  6. That’s it, I’m creating a band, and our first single will be called “Ode To A Pelican Who Might Be My Ancestor”. (Don’t ask how can a crow be a pelican’s descendent. Such details are not important, and I won’t let them stand in a way of my artistic vision….)

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