Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 21

Skating — Pas De Deux on the Ice — Congeniality — Flints Among Bones

Ubi lepos, joci, risus, ebrietas decent,

Gratias, decor, hilaritas, atque delectatio,

Qui quaerit alia his, malum videtur quaerere.

— Plautus: In Pseudolo.

Where sport, mirth, wine, joy, grace, conspire to please,

He seeks but ill who seeks aught else than these.

The frost continued. The lake was covered over with solid ice. This became the chief scene of afternoon amusement, and Lord Curryfin carried off the honours of the skating. In the dead of the night there came across his memory a ridiculous stave:

There’s Mr. Tait, he cuts an eight,

He cannot cut a nine:

and he determined on trying if he could not out-do Mr. Tait.

He thought it would be best to try his experiment without witnesses: and having more than an hour’s daylight before breakfast, he devoted that portion of the morning to his purpose. But cutting a nine by itself baffled his skill, and treated him to two or three tumbles, which, however, did not abate his ardour. At length he bethought him of cutting a nine between two eights, and by shifting his feet rapidly at the points of difficulty, striking in and out of the nine to and from the eights on each side. In this he succeeded, and exhibiting his achievement in the afternoon, adorned the surface of the ice with successions of 898, till they amounted to as many sextillions, with their homogeneous sequences. He then enclosed the line with an oval, and returned to the bank through an admiring circle, who, if they had been as numerous as the spectators to the Olympic games, would have greeted him with as loud shouts of triumph as saluted Epharmostus of Opus.1

Among the spectators on the bank were Miss Niphet and Mr. MacBorrowdale, standing side by side. While Lord Curryfin was cutting his sextillions, Mr. MacBorrowdale said: ‘There is a young gentleman who is capable of anything, and who would shine in any pursuit, if he would keep to it. He shines as it is, in almost everything he takes in hand in private society: there is genius even in his failures, as in the case of the theatrical vases; but the world is a field of strong competition, and affords eminence to few in any sphere of exertion, and to those few rarely but in one.’

Miss Niphet. Before I knew him, I never heard of him but as a lecturer on Fish; and to that he seems to limit his public ambition. In private life, his chief aim seems to be that of pleasing his company. Of course, you do not attach much value to his present pursuit. You see no utility in it.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. On the contrary, I see great utility in it. I am for a healthy mind in a healthy body: the first can scarcely be without the last, and the last can scarcely be without good exercise in pure air. In this way, there is nothing better than skating. I should be very glad to cut eights and nines with his lordship: but the only figure I should tut would be that of as many feet as would measure my own length on the ice.

Lord Curryfin, on his return to land, thought it his duty first to accost Miss Gryll, who was looking on by the side of Miss Ilex.

He asked her if she ever skated. She answered in the negative. ‘I have tried it,’ she said, ‘but unsuccessfully. I admire it extremely, and regret my inability to participate in it.’ He then went up to Miss Niphet, and asked her the same question. She answered: ‘I have skated often in our grounds at home.’ ‘Then why not now?’ he asked. She answered: ‘I have never done it before so many witnesses.’ ‘But what is the objection?’ he asked. ‘None that I know of,’ she answered. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘as I have done or left undone some things to please you, will you do this one thing to please me?’

‘Certainly,’ she replied: adding to herself: ‘I will do anything in my power to please you.’

She equipped herself expeditiously, and started before he was well aware. She was half round the lake before he came up with her. She then took a second start, and completed the circle before he came up with her again. He saw that she was an Atalanta on ice as on turf. He placed himself by her side, slipped her arm through his, and they started together on a second round, which they completed arm-inarm. By this time the blush-rose bloom which had so charmed him on a former occasion again mantled on her cheeks, though from a different cause, for it was now only the glow of healthful exercise; but he could not help exclaiming, ‘I now see why and with what tints the Athenians coloured their statues.’

‘Is it clear,’ she asked, ‘that they did so?’

‘I have doubted it before,’ he answered, ‘but I am now certain that they did.’

In the meantime, Miss Gryll, Miss Ilex, and the Reverend Doctor Opimian had been watching their movements from the bank.

Miss Ilex. I have seen much graceful motion in dancing, in private society and on the Italian stage; and some in skating before today; but anything so graceful as that double-gliding over the ice by those two remarkably handsome young persons, I certainly never saw before.

Miss Gryll. Lord Curryfin is unquestionably handsome, and Miss Niphet, especially with that glow on her cheeks, is as beautiful a young woman as imagination can paint. They move as if impelled by a single will. It is impossible not to admire them both.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. They remind me of the mythological fiction, that Jupiter made men and women in pairs, like the Siamese twins; but in this way they grew so powerful and presumptuous, that he cut them in two; and now the main business of each half is to look for the other; which is very rarely found, and hence so few marriages are happy. Here the two true halves seem to have met.

The doctor looked at Miss Gryll, to see what impression this remark might make on her. He concluded that, if she thought seriously of Lord Curryfin, she would show some symptom of jealousy of Miss Niphet; but she did not. She merely said —

‘I quite agree with you, doctor. There is evidently great congeniality between them, even in their respective touches of eccentricity.’

But the doctor’s remark had suggested to her what she herself had failed to observe; Lord Curryfin’s subsidence from ardour into deference, in his pursuit of herself. She had been so undividedly ‘the cynosure of neighbouring eyes,’ that she could scarcely believe in the possibility of even temporary eclipse. Her first impulse was to resign him to her young friend. But then appearances might be deceitful. Her own indifference might have turned his attentions into another channel, without his heart being turned with them. She had seen nothing to show that Miss Niphet’s feelings were deeply engaged in the question. She was not a coquette; but she would still feel it as a mortification that her hitherto unquestioned supremacy should be passing from her. She had felt all along that there was one cause which would lead her to a decided rejection of Lord Curryfin. But her Orlando had not seized the golden forelock; perhaps he never would. After having seemed on the point of doing so, he had disappeared, and not returned. He was now again within the links of the sevenfold chain, which had bound him from his earliest days. She herself, too, had had, perhaps had still, the chance of the golden forelock in another quarter. Might she not subject her after-life to repentance, if her first hope should fail her when the second had been irrevocably thrown away? The more she contemplated the sacrifice, the greater it appeared. Possibly doubt had given preponderance to her thoughts of Mr. Falconer; and certainly had caused them to repose in the case of Lord Curryfin; but when doubt was thrown into the latter scale also, the balance became more even. She would still give him his liberty, if she believed that he wished it; for then her pride would settle the question; but she must have more conclusive evidence on the point than the Reverend Doctor’s metaphorical deduction from a mythological fiction.

In the evening, while the party in the drawing-room were amusing themselves in various ways, Mr. MacBorrowdale laid a drawing on the table, and said, ‘Doctor, what should you take that to represent?’

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. An unformed lump of I know not what.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Not unformed. It is a flint formation of a very peculiar kind.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Very peculiar, certainly. Who on earth can have amused himself with drawing a misshapen flint? There must be some riddle in it; some ænigma, as insoluble to me as Aelia Laelia Crispis.2

Lord Curryfin, and others of the party, were successively asked their opinions. One of the young ladies guessed it to be the petrifaction of an antediluvian mussel. Lord Curryfin said petrifactions were often siliceous, but never pure silex; which this purported to be. It gave him the idea of an ass’s head; which, however, could not by any process have been turned into flint.

Conjecture being exhausted, Mr. MacBorrowdale said, ‘It is a thing they call a Celt. The ass’s head is somewhat germane to the matter. The Artium Societatis Syndicus Et Socii have determined that it is a weapon of war, evidently of human manufacture. It has been found, with many others like it, among bones of mammoths and other extinct animals, and is therefore held to prove that men and mammoths were contemporaries.’

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. A weapon of war? Had it a handle? Is there a hole for a handle?

Mr. MacBorrowdale. That does not appear.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. These flints, and no other traces of men, among the bones of mammoths?

Mr. MacBorrowdale. None whatever.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. What do the Artium Societatis Syndicus Et Socii suppose to have become of the men who produced these demonstrations of high aboriginal art?

Mr. MacBorrowdale. They think these finished specimens of skill in the art of chipping prove that the human race is of greater antiquity than has been previously supposed; and the fact that there is no other relic to prove the position they consider of no moment whatever.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Ha! ha! ha! This beats the Elephant in the Moon,3 which turned out to be a mouse in a telescope. But I can help them to an explanation of what became of these primaeval men-of-arms. They were an ethereal race, and evaporated.

1 (Greek phrase)— PIND. Olymp. ix. With what a clamour he passed through the circle.

2 This ænigma has been the subject of many learned disquisitions. The reader who is unacquainted with it may find it under the article ‘ænigma’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica; and probably in every other encyclopaedia.

3 See Butler’s poem, with that title, in his Miscellaneous Works.

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