Nightmare Abbey, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter VI

Mr Toobad had found his daughter Celinda in London, and after the first joy of meeting was over, told her he had a husband ready for her. The young lady replied, very gravely, that she should take the liberty to choose for herself. Mr Toobad said he saw the devil was determined to interfere with all his projects, but he was resolved on his own part, not to have on his conscience the crime of passive obedience and non-resistance to Lucifer, and therefore she should marry the person he had chosen for her. Miss Toobad replied, très posément, she assuredly would not. ‘Celinda, Celinda,’ said Mr Toobad, ‘you most assuredly shall.’—‘Have I not a fortune in my own right, sir?’ said Celinda. ‘The more is the pity,’ said Mr Toobad: ‘but I can find means, miss; I can find means. There are more ways than one of breaking in obstinate girls.’ They parted for the night with the expression of opposite resolutions, and in the morning the young lady’s chamber was found empty, and what was become of her Mr Toobad had no clue to conjecture. He continued to investigate town and country in search of her; visiting and revisiting Nightmare Abbey at intervals, to consult with his friend, Mr Glowry. Mr Glowry agreed with Mr Toobad that this was a very flagrant instance of filial disobedience and rebellion; and Mr Toobad declared, that when he discovered the fugitive, she should find that ‘the devil was come unto her, having great wrath.’

In the evening, the whole party met, as usual, in the library. Marionetta sat at the harp; the Honourable Mr Listless sat by her and turned over her music, though the exertion was almost too much for him. The Reverend Mr Larynx relieved him occasionally in this delightful labour. Scythrop, tormented by the demon Jealousy, sat in the corner biting his lips and fingers. Marionetta looked at him every now and then with a smile of most provoking good humour, which he pretended not to see, and which only the more exasperated his troubled spirit. He took down a volume of Dante, and pretended to be deeply interested in the Purgatorio, though he knew not a word he was reading, as Marionetta was well aware; who, tripping across the room, peeped into his book, and said to him, ‘I see you are in the middle of Purgatory.’—‘I am in the middle of hell,’ said Scythrop furiously. ‘Are you?’ said she; ‘then come across the room, and I will sing you the finale of Don Giovanni.’

‘Let me alone,’ said Scythrop. Marionetta looked at him with a deprecating smile, and said, ‘You unjust, cross creature, you.’—‘Let me alone,’ said Scythrop, but much less emphatically than at first, and by no means wishing to be taken at his word. Marionetta left him immediately, and returning to the harp, said, just loud enough for Scythrop to hear —‘Did you ever read Dante, Mr Listless? Scythrop is reading Dante, and is just now in Purgatory.’—‘And I’ said the Honourable Mr Listless, ‘am not reading Dante, and am just now in Paradise,’ bowing to Marionetta.

MARIONETTA You are very gallant, Mr Listless; and I dare say you are very fond of reading Dante.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS I don’t know how it is, but Dante never came in my way till lately. I never had him in my collection, and if I had had him I should not have read him. But I find he is growing fashionable, and I am afraid I must read him some wet morning.

MARIONETTA No, read him some evening, by all means. Were you ever in love, Mr Listless?

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS I assure you, Miss O’Carroll, never — till I came to Nightmare Abbey. I dare say it is very pleasant; but it seems to give so much trouble that I fear the exertion would be too much for me.

MARIONETTA Shall I teach you a compendious method of courtship, that will give you no trouble whatever?

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS You will confer on me an inexpressible obligation. I am all impatience to learn it.

MARIONETTA Sit with your back to the lady and read Dante; only be sure to begin in the middle, and turn over three or four pages at once — backwards as well as forwards, and she will immediately perceive that you are desperately in love with her — desperately.

(The Honourable Mr Listless sitting between Scythrop and Marionetta, and fixing all his attention on the beautiful speaker, did not observe Scythrop, who was doing as she described.)

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS You are pleased to be facetious, Miss O’Carroll. The lady would infallibly conclude that I was the greatest brute in town.

MARIONETTA Far from it. She would say, perhaps, some people have odd methods of showing their affection.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS But I should think, with submission —

MR FLOSKY (joining them from another part of the room) Did I not hear Mr Listless observe that Dante is becoming fashionable?

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS I did hazard a remark to that effect, Mr Flosky, though I speak on such subjects with a consciousness of my own nothingness, in the presence of so great a man as Mr Flosky. I know not what is the colour of Dante’s devils, but as he is certainly becoming fashionable I conclude they are blue; for the blue devils, as it seems to me, Mr Flosky, constitute the fundamental feature of fashionable literature.

MR FLOSKY The blue are, indeed, the staple commodity; but as they will not always be commanded, the black, red, and grey may be admitted as substitutes. Tea, late dinners, and the French Revolution, have played the devil, Mr Listless, and brought the devil into play.

MR TOOBAD (starting up) Having great wrath.

MR FLOSKY This is no play upon words, but the sober sadness of veritable fact.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS Tea, late dinners, and the French Revolution. I cannot exactly see the connection of ideas.

MR FLOSKY I should be sorry if you could; I pity the man who can see the connection of his own ideas. Still more do I pity him, the connection of whose ideas any other person can see. Sir, the great evil is, that there is too much common-place light in our moral and political literature; and light is a great enemy to mystery, and mystery is a great friend to enthusiasm. Now the enthusiasm for abstract truth is an exceedingly fine thing, as long as the truth, which is the object of the enthusiasm, is so completely abstract as to be altogether out of the reach of the human faculties; and, in that sense, I have myself an enthusiasm for truth, but in no other, for the pleasure of metaphysical investigation lies in the means, not in the end; and if the end could be found, the pleasure of the means would cease. The mind, to be kept in health, must be kept in exercise. The proper exercise of the mind is elaborate reasoning. Analytical reasoning is a base and mechanical process, which takes to pieces and examines, bit by bit, the rude material of knowledge, and extracts therefrom a few hard and obstinate things called facts, every thing in the shape of which I cordially hate. But synthetical reasoning, setting up as its goal some unattainable abstraction, like an imaginary quantity in algebra, and commencing its course with taking for granted some two assertions which cannot be proved, from the union of these two assumed truths produces a third assumption, and so on in infinite series, to the unspeakable benefit of the human intellect. The beauty of this process is, that at every step it strikes out into two branches, in a compound ratio of ramification; so that you are perfectly sure of losing your way, and keeping your mind in perfect health, by the perpetual exercise of an interminable quest; and for these reasons I have christened my eldest son Emanuel Kant Flosky.

THE REVEREND MR LARYNX Nothing can be more luminous.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS And what has all that to do with Dante, and the blue devils?

MR HILARY Not much, I should think, with Dante, but a great deal with the blue devils.

MR FLOSKY It is very certain, and much to be rejoiced at, that our literature is hag-ridden. Tea has shattered our nerves; late dinners make us slaves of indigestion; the French Revolution has made us shrink from the name of philosophy, and has destroyed, in the more refined part of the community (of which number I am one), all enthusiasm for political liberty. That part of the reading public which shuns the solid food of reason for the light diet of fiction, requires a perpetual adhibition of sauce piquante to the palate of its depraved imagination. It lived upon ghosts, goblins, and skeletons (I and my friend Mr Sackbut served up a few of the best), till even the devil himself, though magnified to the size of Mount Athos, became too base, common, and popular, for its surfeited appetite. The ghosts have therefore been laid, and the devil has been cast into outer darkness, and now the delight of our spirits is to dwell on all the vices and blackest passions of our nature, tricked out in a masquerade dress of heroism and disappointed benevolence; the whole secret of which lies in forming combinations that contradict all our experience, and affixing the purple shred of some particular virtue to that precise character, in which we should be most certain not to find it in the living world; and making this single virtue not only redeem all the real and manifest vices of the character, but make them actually pass for necessary adjuncts, and indispensable accompaniments and characteristics of the said virtue.

MR TOOBAD That is, because the devil is come among us, and finds it for his interest to destroy all our perceptions of the distinctions of right and wrong.

MARIONETTA I do not precisely enter into your meaning, Mr Flosky, and should be glad if you would make it a little more plain to me.

MR FLOSKY One or two examples will do it, Miss O’Carroll. If I were to take all the mean and sordid qualities of a money-dealing Jew, and tack on to them, as with a nail, the quality of extreme benevolence, I should have a very decent hero for a modern novel; and should contribute my quota to the fashionable method of administering a mass of vice, under a thin and unnatural covering of virtue, like a spider wrapt in a bit of gold leaf, and administered as a wholesome pill. On the same principle, if a man knocks me down, and takes my purse and watch by main force, I turn him to account, and set him forth in a tragedy as a dashing young fellow, disinherited for his romantic generosity, and full of a most amiable hatred of the world in general, and his own country in particular, and of a most enlightened and chivalrous affection for himself: then, with the addition of a wild girl to fall in love with him, and a series of adventures in which they break all the Ten Commandments in succession (always, you will observe, for some sublime motive, which must be carefully analysed in its progress), I have as amiable a pair of tragic characters as ever issued from that new region of the belles lettres, which I have called the Morbid Anatomy of Black Bile, and which is greatly to be admired and rejoiced at, as affording a fine scope for the exhibition of mental power.

MR HILARY Which is about as well employed as the power of a hothouse would be in forcing up a nettle to the size of an elm. If we go on in this way, we shall have a new art of poetry, of which one of the first rules will be: To remember to forget that there are any such things as sunshine and music in the world.

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS It seems to be the case with us at present, or we should not have interrupted Miss O’Carroll’s music with this exceedingly dry conversation.

MR FLOSKY I should be most happy if Miss O’Carroll would remind us that there are yet both music and sunshine —

THE HONOURABLE MR LISTLESS In the voice and the smile of beauty. May I entreat the favour of —(turning over the pages of music.)

All were silent, and Marionetta sung:

Why are thy looks so blank, grey friar?

Why are thy looks so blue?

Thou seem’st more pale and lank, grey friar,

Than thou wast used to do:—

Say, what has made thee rue?

Thy form was plump, and a light did shine

In thy round and ruby face,

Which showed an outward visible sign

Of an inward spiritual grace:—

Say, what has changed thy case?

Yet will I tell thee true, grey friar,

I very well can see,

That, if thy looks are blue, grey friar,

’Tis all for love of me —

’Tis all for love of me.

But breathe not thy vows to me, grey friar,

Oh, breathe them not, I pray;

For ill beseems in a reverend friar,

The love of a mortal may;

And I needs must say thee nay.

But, could’st thou think my heart to move

With that pale and silent scowl?

Know, he who would win a maiden’s love,

Whether clad in cap or cowl,

Must be more of a lark than an owl.

Scythrop immediately replaced Dante on the shelf, and joined the circle round the beautiful singer. Marionetta gave him a smile of approbation that fully restored his complacency, and they continued on the best possible terms during the remainder of the evening. The Honourable Mr Listless turned over the leaves with double alacrity, saying, ‘You are severe upon invalids, Miss O’Carroll: to escape your satire, I must try to be sprightly, though the exertion is too much for me.’

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