Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 16

Miss Niphet — The Theatre — The Lake — Divided Attraction — Infallible Safety

Amiam: che non ha tregua

Con gli anni umana vita, e si dilegua.

Amiam: che il sol si muore, e poi rinasce;

A noi sua breve luce

S’asconde, e il sonno eterna notte adduce.

Tasso: Aminta.

Love, while youth knows its prime,

For mortal life can make no truce with time.

Love: for the sun goes down to rise as bright;

To us his transient light

Is veiled, and sleep comes on with everlasting night.

Lord Curryfin was too much a man of the world to devote his attentions in society exclusively to one, and make them the subject of special remark. He left the inner drawing-room, and came up to the doctor to ask him if he knew the young lady who had sung the last ballad. The doctor knew her well. She was Miss Niphet, the only daughter of a gentleman of fortune, residing a few miles distant.

Lord Curryfin. As I looked at her while she was singing, I thought of Southey’s description of Laila’s face in Thadaba:

A broad light floated o’er its marble paleness,

As the wind waved the fountain fire.

Marble paleness suits her well. There is something statuesque in her whole appearance. I could not help thinking what an admirable Camilla she would make in Cimarosa’s Orazii. Her features are singularly regular. They had not much play, but the expression of her voice was such as if she felt the full force of every sentiment she uttered.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I consider her to be a person of very deep feeling, which she does not choose should appear on the surface. She is animated in conversation when she is led into it. Otherwise, she is silent and retiring, but obliging in the extreme; always ready to take part in anything that is going forward She never needs, for example, being twice asked to sing. She is free from the vice which Horace ascribes to all singers, of not complying when asked, and never leaving off when they have once begun. If this be a general rule, she is an exception to it.

Lord Curryfin. I rather wonder she does not tinge her cheeks with a slight touch of artificial red, just as much as would give her a sort of blush-rose complexion.

Miss Ilex. You will not wonder when you know her better. The artificial, the false in any degree, however little, is impossible to her. She does not show all she thinks and feels, but what she does show is truth itself.

Lord Curryfin. And what part is she to take in the Aristophanic comedy?

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. She is to be the leader of the chorus.

Lord Curryfin. I have not seen her at the rehearsals.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. So far, her place has been supplied. You will see her at the next.

In the meantime, Mr. Falconer had gone into the inner drawing-room, sat down by Miss Gryll, and entered into conversation with her. The doctor observed them from a distance, but with all the opportunity he had had for observation, he was still undetermined in his opinion of the impression they might have made on each other.

‘It is well,’ he said to himself, ‘that Miss Ilex is an old maid. If she were as young as Morgana, I think she would win our young friend’s heart. Her mind is evidently much to his mind. But so would Morgana’s be, if she could speak it as freely. She does not; why not? To him at any rate. She seems under no restraint to Lord Curryfin. A good omen, perhaps. I never saw a couple so formed for each other. Heaven help me! I cannot help harping on that string. After all, the Vestals are the obstacle.’

Lord Curryfin, seeing Miss Niphet sitting alone at the side of the room, changed his place, sate down by her, and entered into conversation on the topics of the day, novels, operas, pictures, and various phenomena of London life. She kept up the ball with him very smartly. She was every winter, May, and June, in London, mixed much in society, and saw everything that was to be seen. Lord Curryfin, with all his Protean accomplishments, could not start a subject on which she had not something to say. But she originated nothing. He spoke, and she answered. One thing he remarked as singular, that though she spoke with knowledge of many things, she did not speak as with taste or distaste of any. The world seemed to flow under her observation without even ruffling the surface of her interior thoughts. This perplexed his versatile lordship. He thought the young lady would be a subject worth studying: it was clear that she was a character. So far so well. He felt that he should not rest satisfied till he was able to define it.

The theatre made rapid progress. The walls were completed. The building was roofed in. The stage portion was so far finished as to allow Mr. Pallet to devote every morning to the scenery. The comedy was completed. The music was composed. The rehearsals went on with vigour, but for the present in the drawing-rooms.

Miss Niphet, returning one morning from a walk before breakfast, went into the theatre to see its progress, and found Lord Curryfin swinging over the stage on a seat suspended by long ropes from above the visible scene. He did not see her. He was looking upwards, not as one indulging in an idle pastime, but as one absorbed in serious meditation. All at once the seat was drawn up, and he disappeared in the blue canvas that represented the sky. She was not aware that gymnastics were to form part of the projected entertainment, and went away, associating the idea of his lordship, as many had done before, with something like a feeling of the ludicrous.

Miss Niphet was not much given to laughter, but whenever she looked at Lord Curryfin during breakfast she could not quite suppress a smile which hovered on her lips, and which was even the more forced on her by the contrast between his pantomimic disappearance and his quiet courtesy and remarkably good manners in company. The lines of Dryden —

A man so various, that he seemed to be

Not one, but all mankind’s epitome,

— passed through her mind as she looked at him.

Lord Curryfin noticed the suppressed smile, but did not apprehend that it had any relation to himself. He thought some graceful facetiousness had presented itself to the mind of the young lady, and that she was amusing herself with her own fancy. It was, however, to him another touch of character, that lighted up her statuesque countenance with a new and peculiar beauty. By degrees her features resumed their accustomed undisturbed serenity. Lord Curryfin felt satisfied that in that aspect he had somewhere seen something like her, and after revolving a series of recollections, he remembered that it was a statue of Melpomene.

There was in the park a large lake, encircled with varieties of woodland, and by its side was a pavilion, to which Miss Niphet often resorted to read in an afternoon. And at no great distance from it was the boat-house, to which Lord Curryfin often resorted for a boat, to row or sail on the water. Passing the pavilion in the afternoon, he saw the young lady, and entering into conversation, ascertained what had so amused her in the morning. He told her he had been trying — severally by himself, and collectively with the workmen — the strength of the suspending lines for the descent of the Chorus of Clouds in the Aristophanic comedy. She said she had been very ungrateful to laugh at the result of his solicitude for the safety of herself and her young friends. He said that in having moved her to smile, even at his expense, he considered himself amply repaid.

From this time they often met in the pavilion, that is to say, he often found her reading there on his way to a boat, and stopped awhile to converse with her. They had always plenty to say, and it resulted that he was always sorry to leave her, and she was always sorry to part with him. By degrees the feeling of the ludicrous ceased to be the predominant sentiment which she associated with him. L’amour vient sans qu’on y pense.

The days shortened, and all things were sufficiently advanced to admit of rehearsals in the theatre. The hours from twelve to two — from noon to luncheon — were devoted to this pleasant pastime. At luncheon there was much merriment over the recollections of the morning’s work, and after luncheon there was walking in the park, rowing or sailing on the lake, riding or driving in the adjacent country, archery in a spacious field; and in bad weather billiards, reading in the library, music in the drawing-rooms, battledore and shuttlecock in the hall; in short, all the methods of passing time agreeably which are available to good company, when there are ample means and space for their exercise; to say nothing of making love, which Lord Curryfin did with all delicacy and discretion — directly to Miss Gryll, as he had begun, and indirectly to Miss Niphet, for whom he felt an involuntary and almost unconscious admiration. He had begun to apprehend that with the former he had a dangerous rival in the Hermit of the Folly, and he thought the latter had sufficient charms to console even Orlando for the loss of Angelica. In short, Miss Gryll had first made him think of marriage, and whenever he thought his hopes were dim in that quarter, he found an antidote to despair in the contemplation of the statue-like damsel.

Mr. Falconer took more and more pleasure in Miss Gryll’s society, but he did not declare himself. He was more than once on the point of doing so, but the images of the Seven Sisters rose before him, and he suspended the intention. On these occasions he always went home for a day or two to fortify his resolution against his heart. Thus he passed his time between the Grange and the Tower, ‘letting I dare not wait upon I would.’

Miss Gryll had listened to Lord Curryfin. She had neither encouraged nor discouraged him. She thought him the most amusing person she had ever known. She liked his temper, his acquirements, and his manners. She could not divest herself of that feeling of the ludicrous which everybody seemed to associate with him; but she thought the chances of life presented little hope of a happier marriage than a woman who would fall in with his tastes and pursuits — which, notwithstanding their tincture of absurdity, were entertaining and even amiable — might hope for with him. Therefore she would not say No, though, when she thought of Mr. Falconer, she could not say Yes.

Lord Curryfin invented a new sail of infallible safety, which resulted, like most similar inventions, in capsizing the inventor on the first trial. Miss Niphet, going one afternoon, later than usual, to her accustomed pavilion, found his lordship scrambling up the bank, and his boat, keel upwards, at some little distance in the lake.

For a moment her usual self-command forsook her. She held out both her hands to assist him up the bank, and as soon as he stood on dry land, dripping like a Triton in trousers, she exclaimed in such a tone as he had never before heard, ‘Oh! my dear lord!’ Then, as if conscious of her momentary aberration, she blushed with a deeper blush than that of the artificial rose which he had once thought might improve her complexion. She attempted to withdraw her hands, but he squeezed them both ardently, and exclaimed in his turn, like a lover in a tragedy —

‘Surely, till now I never looked on beauty.’

She was on the point of saying, ‘Surely, before now you have looked on Miss Gryll,’ but she checked herself. She was content to receive the speech as a sudden ebullition of gratitude for sympathy, and disengaging her hands, she insisted on his returning immediately to the house to change his ‘dank and dripping weeds.’

As soon as he was out of sight she went to the boat-house, to summon the men who had charge of it to the scene of the accident. Putting off in another boat, they brought the capsized vessel to land, and hung up the sail to dry. She returned in the evening, and finding the sail dry, she set it on fire. Lord Curryfin, coming down to look after his tackle, found the young lady meditating over the tinder. She said to him —

He was touched by this singular development of solicitude for his preservation, but could not help saying something in praise of his invention, giving a demonstration of the infallibility of the principle, with several scientific causes of error in working out the practice. He had no doubt it would be all right on another experiment. Seeing that her looks expressed unfeigned alarm at this announcement, he assured her that her kind interest in his safety was sufficient to prevent his trying his invention again. They walked back together to the house, and in the course of conversation she said to him —

‘The last time I saw the words Infallible Safety, they were painted on the back of a stage-coach which, in one of our summer tours, we saw lying by the side of the road, with its top in a ditch, and its wheels in the air.’

The young lady was still a mystery to Lord Curryfin.

‘Sometimes,’ he said to himself, ‘I could almost fancy Melpomene in love with me. But I have seldom seen her laugh, and when she has done so now and then, it has usually been at me. That is not much like love. Her last remark was anything but a compliment to my inventive genius.’

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24