Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter XIII

Mr Glowry was much surprised, on occasionally visiting Scythrop’s tower, to find the door always locked, and to be kept sometimes waiting many minutes for admission: during which he invariably heard a heavy rolling sound like that of a ponderous mangle, or of a waggon on a weighing-bridge, or of theatrical thunder.

He took little notice of this for some time; at length his curiosity was excited, and, one day, instead of knocking at the door, as usual, the instant he reached it, he applied his ear to the key-hole, and like Bottom, in the Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘spied a voice,’ which he guessed to be of the feminine gender, and knew to be not Scythrop’s, whose deeper tones he distinguished at intervals. Having attempted in vain to catch a syllable of the discourse, he knocked violently at the door, and roared for immediate admission. The voices ceased, the accustomed rolling sound was heard, the door opened, and Scythrop was discovered alone. Mr Glowry looked round to every corner of the apartment, and then said, ‘Where is the lady?’

‘The lady, sir?’ said Scythrop.

‘Yes, sir, the lady.’

‘Sir, I do not understand you.’

‘You don’t, sir?’

‘No, indeed, sir. There is no lady here.’

‘But, sir, this is not the only apartment in the tower, and I make no doubt there is a lady up stairs.’

‘You are welcome to search, sir.’

‘Yes, and while I am searching, she will slip out from some lurking place, and make her escape.’

‘You may lock this door, sir, and take the key with you.’

‘But there is the terrace door: she has escaped by the terrace.’

‘The terrace, sir, has no other outlet, and the walls are too high for a lady to jump down.’

‘Well, sir, give me the key.’

Mr Glowry took the key, searched every nook of the tower, and returned.

‘You are a fox, Scythrop; you are an exceedingly cunning fox, with that demure visage of yours. What was that lumbering sound I heard before you opened the door?’

‘Sound, sir?’

‘Yes, sir, sound.’

‘My dear sir, I am not aware of any sound, except my great table, which I moved on rising to let you in.’

‘The table! — let me see that. No, sir; not a tenth part heavy enough, not a tenth part.’

‘But, sir, you do not consider the laws of acoustics: a whisper becomes a peal of thunder in the focus of reverberation. Allow me to explain this: sounds striking on concave surfaces are reflected from them, and, after reflection, converge to points which are the foci of these surfaces. It follows, therefore, that the ear may be so placed in one, as that it shall hear a sound better than when situated nearer to the point of the first impulse: again, in the case of two concave surfaces placed opposite to each other —’

‘Nonsense, sir. Don’t tell me of foci. Pray, sir, will concave surfaces produce two voices when nobody speaks? I heard two voices, and one was feminine; feminine, sir: what say you to that?’

‘Oh, sir, I perceive your mistake: I am writing a tragedy, and was acting over a scene to myself. To convince you, I will give you a specimen; but you must first understand the plot. It is a tragedy on the German model. The Great Mogul is in exile, and has taken lodgings at Kensington, with his only daughter, the Princess Rantrorina, who takes in needlework, and keeps a day school. The princess is discovered hemming a set of shirts for the parson of the parish: they are to be marked with a large R. Enter to her the Great Mogul. A pause, during which they look at each other expressively. The princess changes colour several times. The Mogul takes snuff in great agitation. Several grains are heard to fall on the stage. His heart is seen to beat through his upper benjamin. — THE MOGUL (with a mournful look at his left shoe). ‘My shoe-string is broken.’— THE PRINCESS (after an interval of melancholy reflection). ‘I know it.’ THE MOGUL. ‘My second shoe-string! The first broke when I lost my empire: the second has broken today. When will my poor heart break?’— THE PRINCESS. ‘Shoe-strings, hearts, and empires! Mysterious sympathy!’

‘Nonsense, sir,’ interrupted Mr Glowry. ‘That is not at all like the voice I heard.’

‘But, sir,’ said Scythrop, ‘a key-hole may be so constructed as to act like an acoustic tube, and an acoustic tube, sir, will modify sound in a very remarkable manner. Consider the construction of the ear, and the nature and causes of sound. The external part of the ear is a cartilaginous funnel.’

‘It wo’n’t do, Scythrop. There is a girl concealed in this tower, and find her I will. There are such things as sliding panels and secret closets.’— He sounded round the room with his cane, but detected no hollowness. —‘I have heard, sir,’ he continued, ‘that during my absence, two years ago, you had a dumb carpenter closeted with you day after day. I did not dream that you were laying contrivances for carrying on secret intrigues. Young men will have their way: I had my way when I was a young man: but, sir, when your cousin Marionetta —’

Scythrop now saw that the affair was growing serious. To have clapped his hand upon his father’s mouth, to have entreated him to be silent, would, in the first place, not have made him so; and, in the second, would have shown a dread of being overheard by somebody. His only resource, therefore, was to try to drown Mr Glowry’s voice; and, having no other subject, he continued his description of the ear, raising his voice continually as Mr Glowry raised his.

‘When your cousin Marionetta,’ said Mr Glowry, ‘whom you profess to love — whom you profess to love, sir —’

‘The internal canal of the ear,’ said Scythrop, ‘is partly bony and partly cartilaginous. This internal canal is —’

‘Is actually in the house, sir; and, when you are so shortly to be-as I expect —’

‘Closed at the further end by the membrana tympani —’

‘Joined together in holy matrimony —’

‘Under which is carried a branch of the fifth pair of nerves —’

‘I say, sir, when you are so shortly to be married to your cousin Marionetta —’

‘The cavitas tympani —’

A loud noise was heard behind the book-case, which, to the astonishment of Mr Glowry, opened in the middle, and the massy compartments, with all their weight of books, receding from each other in the manner of a theatrical scene, with a heavy rolling sound (which Mr Glowry immediately recognised to be the same which had excited his curiosity,) disclosed an interior apartment, in the entrance of which stood the beautiful Stella, who, stepping forward, exclaimed, ‘Married! Is he going to be married? The profligate!’

‘Really, madam,’ said Mr Glowry, ‘I do not know what he is going to do, or what I am going to do, or what any one is going to do; for all this is incomprehensible.’

‘I can explain it all,’ said Scythrop, ‘in a most satisfactory manner, if you will but have the goodness to leave us alone.’

‘Pray, sir, to which act of the tragedy of the Great Mogul does this incident belong?’

‘I entreat you, my dear sir, leave us alone.’

Stella threw herself into a chair, and burst into a tempest of tears. Scythrop sat down by her, and took her hand. She snatched her hand away, and turned her back upon him. He rose, sat down on the other side, and took her other hand. She snatched it away, and turned from him again. Scythrop continued entreating Mr Glowry to leave them alone; but the old gentleman was obstinate, and would not go.

‘I suppose, after all,’ said Mr Glowry maliciously, ‘it is only a phænomenon in acoustics, and this young lady is a reflection of sound from concave surfaces.’

Some one tapped at the door: Mr Glowry opened it, and Mr Hilary entered. He had been seeking Mr Glowry, and had traced him to Scythrop’s tower. He stood a few moments in silent surprise, and then addressed himself to Mr Glowry for an explanation.

‘The explanation,’ said Mr Glowry, ‘is very satisfactory. The Great Mogul has taken lodgings at Kensington, and the external part of the ear is a cartilaginous funnel.’

‘Mr Glowry, that is no explanation.’

‘Mr Hilary, it is all I know about the matter.’

‘Sir, this pleasantry is very unseasonable. I perceive that my niece is sported with in a most unjustifiable manner, and I shall see if she will be more successful in obtaining an intelligible answer.’ And he departed in search of Marionetta.

Scythrop was now in a hopeless predicament. Mr Hilary made a hue and cry in the abbey, and summoned his wife and Marionetta to Scythrop’s apartment. The ladies, not knowing what was the matter, hastened in great consternation. Mr Toobad saw them sweeping along the corridor, and judging from their manner that the devil had manifested his wrath in some new shape, followed from pure curiosity.

Scythrop meanwhile vainly endeavoured to get rid of Mr Glowry and to pacify Stella. The latter attempted to escape from the tower, declaring she would leave the abbey immediately, and he should never see her or hear of her more. Scythrop held her hand and detained her by force, till Mr Hilary reappeared with Mrs Hilary and Marionetta. Marionetta, seeing Scythrop grasping the hand of a strange beauty, fainted away in the arms of her aunt. Scythrop flew to her assistance; and Stella with redoubled anger sprang towards the door, but was intercepted in her intended flight by being caught in the arms of Mr Toobad, who exclaimed —‘Celinda!’

‘Papa!’ said the young lady disconsolately.

‘The devil is come among you,’ said Mr Toobad, ‘how came my daughter here?’

‘Your daughter!’ exclaimed Mr Glowry.

‘Your daughter!’ exclaimed Scythrop, and Mr and Mrs Hilary.

‘Yes,’ said Mr Toobad, ‘my daughter Celinda.’

Marionetta opened her eyes and fixed them on Celinda; Celinda in return fixed hers on Marionetta. They were at remote points of the apartment. Scythrop was equidistant from both of them, central and motionless, like Mahomet’s coffin.

‘Mr Glowry,’ said Mr Toobad, ‘can you tell by what means my daughter came here?’

‘I know no more,’ said Mr Glowry, ‘than the Great Mogul.’

‘Mr Scythrop,’ said Mr Toobad, ‘how came my daughter here?’

‘I did not know, sir, that the lady was your daughter.’

‘But how came she here?’

‘By spontaneous locomotion,’ said Scythrop, sullenly.

‘Celinda,’ said Mr Toobad, ‘what does all this mean?’

‘I really do not know, sir.’

‘This is most unaccountable. When I told you in London that I had chosen a husband for you, you thought proper to run away from him; and now, to all appearance, you have run away to him.’

‘How, sir! was that your choice?’

‘Precisely; and if he is yours too we shall be both of a mind, for the first time in our lives.’

‘He is not my choice, sir. This lady has a prior claim: I renounce him.’

‘And I renounce him,’ said Marionetta.

Scythrop knew not what to do. He could not attempt to conciliate the one without irreparably offending the other; and he was so fond of both, that the idea of depriving himself for ever of the society of either was intolerable to him: he therefore retreated into his stronghold, mystery; maintained an impenetrable silence; and contented himself with stealing occasionally a deprecating glance at each of the objects of his idolatry. Mr Toobad and Mr Hilary, in the mean time, were each insisting on an explanation from Mr Glowry, who they thought had been playing a double game on this occasion. Mr Glowry was vainly endeavouring to persuade them of his innocence in the whole transaction. Mrs Hilary was endeavouring to mediate between her husband and brother. The Honourable Mr Listless, the Reverend Mr Larynx, Mr Flosky, Mr Asterias, and Aquarius, were attracted by the tumult to the scene of action, and were appealed to severally and conjointly by the respective disputants. Multitudinous questions, and answers en masse, composed a charivari, to which the genius of Rossini alone could have given a suitable accompaniment, and which was only terminated by Mrs Hilary and Mr Toobad retreating with the captive damsels. The whole party followed, with the exception of Scythrop, who threw himself into his arm-chair, crossed his left foot over his right knee, placed the hollow of his left hand on the interior ancle of his left leg, rested his right elbow on the elbow of the chair, placed the ball of his right thumb against his right temple, curved the forefinger along the upper part of his forehead, rested the point of the middle finger on the bridge of his nose, and the points of the two others on the lower part of the palm, fixed his eyes intently on the veins in the back of his left hand, and sat in this position like the immoveable Theseus, who, as is well known to many who have not been at college, and to some few who have, sedet, oeternumque sedebit.13 We hope the admirers of the minutiæ in poetry and romance will appreciate this accurate description of a pensive attitude.

13 sedet, oeternumque sedebit: Sits, and will sit for ever.

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