Forester, by Maria Edgeworth

The Key.

It was unfortunate that Forester retired from company in such abrupt displeasure at Flora Campbell’s question, for had he borne the idea of a Scotch reel more like a philosopher, he would have heard of something interesting relative to the intended ball, if any thing relative to a ball could be interesting to him. It was a charity-ball, for the benefit of the mistress of the very charity-school3 to which the little girl with the bruised hand belonged. “Do you know,” said Henry to Forester, when they returned home, “that I have great hopes we shall be able to get justice done to the poor children? I hope the tyrannical schoolmistress may yet be punished. The lady, with whom we drank tea yesterday is one of the patronesses of the charity-school.”

“Lady patronesses!” cried Forester; “we need not expect justice from a lady patroness, depend upon it, especially at a ball; her head will be full of feathers, or some such things. I prophesy you will not succeed better than I have.”

The desponding prophecies of Forester did not deter Henry from pursuing a scheme which he had formed. The lady, who was the mistress of the canary bird, came in a few days to visit his mother, and she told him that his experiment had succeeded, that she had regularly locked up the wafers, and that her favourite bird was in perfect health. “And what fee, doctor,” said she, smiling, “shall I give you for saving his life?”

“I will tell you in a few minutes,” replied Henry; and in a few minutes the little girl and her geranium were sent for, and appeared. Henry told the lady all the circumstances of her story with so much feeling, and at the same time with so much propriety, that she became interested in the cause: she declared that she would do every thing in her power to prevail upon the other ladies to examine into, the conduct of the schoolmistress, and to have her dismissed immediately, if it should appear that she had behaved improperly.

Forester, who was present at this declaration, was much astonished, that a lady, whom he had seen caressing a canary-bird, could speak with so much decision and good sense. Henry obtained his fee: he asked and received permission to place the geranium in the middle of the supper-table at the ball; and he begged that the lady would take an opportunity, at supper, to mention the circumstances which he had related to her; but this she declined, and politely said, that she was sure Henry would tell the story much better than she could.

“Come out and walk with me,” said Forester to Henry, as soon as the lady was gone. Henry frequently left his occupations with great good-nature, to accompany our hero in his rambles, and he usually followed the subjects of conversation which Forester started. He saw, by the gravity of his countenance, that he had something of importance revolving in his mind. After he had proceeded in silence for some time along the walk, under the high rock called Arthur’s Seat, he suddenly stopped, and, turning to Henry, exclaimed, “I esteem you; do not make me despise you!”

“I hope I never shall,” said Henry, a little surprised by his friend’s manner; “what is the matter?”

“Leave balls, and lady patronesses, and petty artifices, and supple address, to such people as Archibald Mackenzie,” pursued Forester, with enthusiasm:

“Who noble ends by noble means pursues —”

“Will scorn canary birds, and cobble shoes,”

Replied Henry, laughing; “I see no meanness in my conduct: I do not know what it is you disapprove.”

“I do not approve,” said Forester, “of your having recourse to mean address to obtain justice.”

Henry requested to know what his severe friend meant by address; but this was not easily explained. Forester, in his definition of mean address, included all that attention to the feelings of others, all those honest arts of pleasing, which make society agreeable. Henry endeavoured to convince him, that it was possible for a person to wish to please, nay, even to succeed in that wish, without being insincere. Their argument and their walk continued, till Henry, who, though very active, was not quite so robust as his friend, was completely tired, especially as he perceived that Forester’s opinions remained unshaken.

“How effeminate you gentlemen are!” cried Forester: “see what it is to be brought up in the lap of luxury. Why, I am not at all tired; I could walk a dozen miles further, without being in the least fatigued!”

Henry thought it a very good thing to be able to walk a number of miles without being fatigued, but he did not consider it as the highest perfection of human nature. In his friend’s present mood, nothing less could content him, and Forester went on to demonstrate to the weary Henry, that all fortitude, all courage, and all the manly virtues, were inseparably connected with pedestrian indefatigability. Henry, with good-natured presence of mind, which perhaps his friend would have called mean address, diverted our hero’s rising indignation by proposing that they should both go and look at the large brewery which was in their way home, and with which Forester would, he thought, be entertained.

The brewery fortunately turned the course of Forester’s thoughts, and, instead of quarrelling with his friend for being tired, he condescended to postpone all further debate. Forester had, from his childhood, a habit of twirling a key, whenever he was thinking intently: the key had been produced, and had been twirling upon its accustomed thumb during the argument upon address; and it was still in Forester’s hand when they went into the brewery. As he looked and listened, the key was essential to his power of attending; at length, as he stopped to view a large brewing vat, the key unluckily slipped from his thumb, and fell to the bottom of the vat: it was so deep, that the tinkling sound of the key, as it touched the bottom, was scarcely heard. A young man who belonged to the brewery immediately descended by a ladder into the vat, to get the key, but scarcely had he reached the bottom, when he fell down senseless. Henry Campbell was speaking to one of the clerks of the brewery when this accident happened: a man came running to them with the news, “The vat has not been cleaned; it’s full of bad air.” “Draw him up, let down a hook and cords for him instantly, or he’s a dead man,” cried Henry, and he instantly ran to the place. What was his terror, when he beheld Forester descending the ladder! He called to him to stop; he assured him that the man could be saved without his hazarding his life: but Forester persisted; he had one end of a cord in his hand, which he said he could fasten in an instant round the man’s body. There was a skylight nearly over the vat, so that the light fell directly upon the bottom.

Henry saw his friend reach the last step of the ladder. As Forester stooped to put the rope round the shoulders of the man, who lay insensible at the bottom of the vat, a sudden air of idiocy came over his animated countenance; his limbs seemed no longer to obey his will; his arms dropped, and he fell insensible.

The spectators, who were looking down from above, were so much terrified, that they could not decide to do any thing; some cried, “It’s all over with him! Why would he go down?” Others ran to procure a hook — others called to him to take up the rope again, if he possibly could: but Forester could not hear or understand them, Henry Campbell was the only person who, in this scene of danger and confusion, had sufficient presence of mind to be of service.

Near the large vat, into which Forester had descended, there was a cistern of cold water. Henry seized a bucket, which was floating in the cistern, filled it with water, and emptied the water into the vat, dashing it against the sides, to disperse the water, and to displace the mephitic air4, He called to the people, who surrounded him, for assistance; the water expelled the air; and, when it was safe to descend, Henry instantly went down the ladder himself, and fastened the cord round Forester, who was quite helpless.

“Draw him up!” said Henry, They drew him up. Henry fastened another cord round the body of the other man, who lay at the bottom of the vessel, and he was taken up in the same manner. Forester soon returned to his senses, when he was carried into the air; it was with more difficulty that the other man, whose animation had been longer suspended, was recovered; at length, however, by proper application, his lungs played freely, he stretched himself, looked round upon the people who were about him with an air of astonishment, and was some time before he could recollect what had happened to him. Forester, as soon as he had recovered the use of his understanding, was in extreme anxiety to know whether the poor man, who went down for his key, had been saved. His gratitude to Henry, when he heard all that had passed, was expressed in the most enthusiastic manner.

“I acted like a madman, and you like a man of sense,” said Forester. “You always know how to do good: I do mischief, whenever I attempt to do good. But now, don’t expect, Henry, that I should give up any of my opinions to you, because you have saved my life. I shall always argue with you just as I did before. Remember, I despise address, I don’t yield a single point to you. Gratitude shall never make me a sycophant.”

3 There is no charity-school of this description in Edinburgh; this cannot, therefore, be mistaken for private satire.

4 Carbonic acid gas.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54