Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 22

The Seven Against Thebes — A Soliloquy on Christmas

Over the mountains,

And over the waves;

Under the fountains,

And under the graves;

Under floods that are deepest,

Which Neptune obey;

Over rocks that are steepest,

Love will find out the way.

— Old Song in Percy’s Reliques.

Harry Hedgerow had volunteered to be Mr. Falconer’s Mercury during his absences from the Tower, and to convey to him letters and any communications which the sisters might have to make. Riding at a good trot, on a horse more distinguished for strength than grace, he found the shortest days long enough for the purpose of going and returning, with an ample interval for the refreshment of himself and his horse.

While discussing beef and ale in the servants’ hall, he heard a good deal of the family news, and many comments on the visitors. From these he collected that there were several young gentlemen especially remarkable for their attention to the young lady of the mansion: that among them were two who were more in her good graces than the others: that one of these was the young gentleman who lived in the Duke’s Folly, and who was evidently the favourite: and that the other was a young lord, who was the life and soul of the company, but who seemed to be very much taken with another young lady, who had, at the risk of her own life, jumped into the water and picked him out, when he was nearly being drowned.

This story had lost nothing in travelling. Harry, deducing from all this the conclusion most favourable to his own wishes, determined to take some steps for the advancement of his own love-suit, especially as he had obtained some allies, who were willing to march with him to conquest, like the Seven against Thebes.

The Reverend Doctor Opimian had finished his breakfast, and had just sat down in his library, when he was informed that some young men wished to see him. The doctor was always accessible, and the visitors were introduced. He recognised his friend Harry Hedgerow, who was accompanied by six others. After respectful salutations on their part, and benevolent acceptance on his, Harry, as the only one previously known to the doctor, became spokesman for the deputation.

Harry Hedgerow. You see, sir, you gave me some comfort when I was breaking my heart; and now we are told that the young gentleman at the Folly is going to be married.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Indeed! you are better informed than I am.

Harry Hedgerow. Why, it’s in everybody’s mouth. He passes half his time at Squire Gryll’s, and they say it’s all for the sake of the young lady that’s there: she that was some days at the Folly; that I carried in, when she was hurt in the great storm. I am sure I hope it be true. For you said, if he married, and suitable parties proposed for her sisters, Miss Dorothy might listen to me. I have lived in the hope of that ever since. And here are six suitable parties to propose for her six sisters. That is the long and the short of it.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. The short of it, at any rate. You speak like a Spartan. You come to the point at once. But why do you come to me? I have no control over the fair damsels.

Harry Hedgerow. Why, no, sir; but you are the greatest friend of the young gentleman. And if you could just say a word for us to him, you see, sir.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I see seven notes in the key of A minor, proposing to sound in harmony with the seven notes of the octave above; but I really do not see what I can do in the matter.

Harry Hedgerow. Indeed, sir, if you could only ask the young gentleman if he would object to our proposing to the young ladies.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Why not propose to them yourselves? You seem to be all creditable young men.

Harry Hedgerow. I have proposed to Miss Dorothy, you know, and she would not have me; and the rest are afraid. We are all something to do with the land and the wood; farmers, and foresters, and nurserymen, and all that. And we have all opened our hearts to one another. They don’t pretend to look above us; but it seems somehow as if they did, and couldn’t help it They are so like young ladies. They daze us, like. Why, if they’d have us, they’d be all in reach of one another. Fancy what a family party there’d be at Christmas. We just want a good friend to put a good foot foremost for us; and if the young gentleman does marry, perhaps they may better themselves by doing likewise.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. And so you seven young friends have each a different favourite among the seven sisters?

Harry Hedgerow. Why, that’s the beauty of it.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. The beauty of it? Perhaps it is. I suppose there is an agistor 1 among you?

Harry Hedgerow. (after looking at his companions who all shook their heads). I am afraid not. Ought there to be? We don’t know what it means.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I thought that among so many foresters there might be an agistor. But it is not indispensable. Well, if the young gentleman is going to be married, he will tell me of it. And when he does tell me, I will tell him of you. Have patience. It may all come right.

Harry Hedgerow. Thank ye, sir. Thank ye, sir, kindly.

Which being echoed in chorus by the other six, they took their departure, much marvelling what the reverend doctor could mean by an agistor.

‘Upon my word,’ said the doctor to himself, ‘a very good-looking, respectable set of young men. I do not know what the others may have to say for themselves. They behaved like a Greek chorus. They left their share of the dialogue to the coryphaeus. He acquitted himself well, more like a Spartan than an Athenian, but none the worse for that. Brevity, in this case, is better than rhetoric. I really like that youth. How his imagination dwells on the family party at Christmas. When I first saw him, he was fancying how the presence of Miss Dorothy would gladden his father’s heart at that season. Now he enlarges the circle, but it is still the same predominant idea. He has lost his mother. She must have been a good woman, and his early home must have been a happy one. The Christmas hearth would not be so uppermost in his thoughts if it had been otherwise. This speaks well for him and his. I myself think much of Christmas and all its associations. I always dine at home on Christmas Day, and measure the steps of my children’s heads on the wall, and see how much higher each of them has risen since the same time last year, in the scale of physical life. There are many poetical charms in the heraldings of Christmas. The halcyon builds its nest on the tranquil sea. “The bird of dawning singeth all night long.” I have never verified either of these poetical facts. I am willing to take them for granted. I like the idea of the Yule-log, the enormous block of wood carefully selected long before, and preserved where it would be thoroughly dry, which burned on the old-fashioned hearth. It would not suit the stoves of our modem saloons. We could not burn it in our kitchens, where a small fire in the midst of a mats of black iron, roasts, and bakes, and boils, and steams, and broils, and fries, by a complicated apparatus which, whatever may be its other virtues, leaves no space for a Christmas fire. I like the festoons of holly on the walls and windows; the dance under the mistletoe; the gigantic sausage; the baron of beef; the vast globe of plum-pudding, the true image of the earth, flattened at the poles; the tapping of the old October; the inexhaustible bowl of punch; the life and joy of the old hall, when the squire and his household and his neighbourhood were as one. I like the idea of what has gone, and I can still enjoy the reality of what remains. I have no doubt Harry’s father bums the Yule-log, and taps the old October. Perhaps, instead of the beef, he produces a fat pig roasted «hole, like Eumaeus, the divine swineherd in the Odyssey. How Harry will burn the Yule-log if he can realise this day-dream of himself and his six friends with the seven sisters! I shall make myself acquainted with the position and characters of these young suitors. To be sure, it is not my business, and I ought to recollect the words of Cicero: “Est enim difficilis cura rerum alienarum: quamquam Terentianus ille Chrêmes humani nihil a se alienum putat.”2 I hold with. Chrêmes too. I am not without hope, from some symptoms I have lately seen, that rumour, in the present case, is in a fair way of being right; and if, with the accordance of the young gentleman as key-note, these two heptachords should harmonise into a double octave, I do not see why I may not take my part as fundamental bass.’

1 An agistor was a forest officer who superintended the taking in of strange cattle to board and lodge, and accounted for the profit to the sovereign. I have read the word, but never heard it. I am inclined to think that in modern times the duty was carried on under another name, or merged in the duties of another office.

2 It is a hard matter to take active concern in the affairs of others; although the Chrêmes of Terence thinks nothing human alien to himself. — De Officiis: i. 9.

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