The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. VIIX: British
A Mediæval Mistake
By James Payn (18301898)
From High Spirits
BUT few of my readers can, I conclude, remember the Young England days, when there was an attempt made to revive in this country some fine old mediæval customs. Certain high-souled individuals who shall be namelessthough some of them have made great names for themselves in the interim, under very unexpected circumstancesconceived that they had actually put their fingers upon that illusory date the good old times, and would fain have galvanised them back to life:
They revived all usages thoroughly worn out,
The souls of them fumed forth, the hearts of them torn out,
and even got up a tournament. A few old fellows still remember it, with poor Theodore Hooks joke upon Sir Campbell of Saddel, who, more by good luck than good guidance of his adversarys lance, was somehow thrown out of his family seat. It was the Renaissance period, of Yule-logs and happy tenantrieswhose bread, however, was not cheapand it was hoped by certain noble enthusiasts that condescension and patronage would lose all unpleasantness, and indeed fail to be recognised under the guise of a paternal feudalism.
It was a failure of course; no one can revive the mastodona circumstance for which those who, like myself, find mere bulls sufficiently alarming, have reason to be grateful. But though the scheme fairly glittered with tinsel and gewgaws, and was much too gorgeously advertised, it was not all pinchbeck; or at all events some of those who believed in it had about them the ring of the true metalalbeit a little cracked.
Among the nobility, and in certain great houses in the country, hospitality was revived upon the most extensive scale, and in some cases so splendidly, that it made almost as great a hole in the estates of the family as though it had taken to mining. Oxen were roasted whole where formerly the guest only got his mutton cutlet, and instead of a kitchen range there was a bonfire.
Frank Selwyn, a young medical friend of mine at that time, used to speak in high terms of this mediæval revival, because he foresaw that one of its consequences, if generally carried out, would be a universal indigestion.
It was said that the Marquis of Millefleurs (who had the best Norman blood in Yorkshire) had discarded gas and even colza, and had his dining-room lit by men in steel with flambeaux; and that Lord de Buf slept on an ivory couch between the blankets and without night-gear, because that was the mode in the Middle Ages.
Frank Selwyn, however, knew nothing of the doings of these great people, except by report. He was of good family, but they were not good enough to indulge in these eccentricities without the risk of being shut up as lunatics; and even if he had had a taste that way himself, he wanted his money for a very modern use indeednamely, to buy a practice with in London. At six-and-twenty he purchased a partnership with old Dr. Dalrymple, of Brown Street, Park Lane, who attended some of the first folks in the land, and never took a fee from an untitled person without being fully persuaded that he could afford it. His notions were of the old school; he dosed and bled his noble patients till they were like the ruined shells of hollow towers, and then he built them up again and filled them out with beef-steaks and port wine. He had, indeed, no fancy for this new fashion of old fashionsno doctor is a fanatic, it may be observed, in anything but medicine and surgerybut as some of his clients were addicted to it, he looked upon the weakness with a very charitable eye.
It is not enough nowadays to take things as we find them, my dear Selwyn, he would say good-humouredly, but as we used to find them. If a patient thinks a fumigation of boiled hollyhock and fennel will do him good because his ancestor in King Johns time used it, let him be fumigated. Never cross a patient in little things. Lord Vavasour thinks there is nothing like gold for his system because Galen speaks of it as a fine old remedy. In a general waythat is, to the general practitionerthis might be dangerous, because, once in the system, gold remains there, and one must wait for the post-mortem to get it out again; but with our patients we always see our money back. Therefore, give them gold.
Whatever Selwyn may have thought of Dr. Dalrymple professionally, he had no doubt of his wisdom as a man of the world, and was quite willing to profit by it. Moreover, his own conscience was not burdened by adopting these abnormal modes of treatment, since his practice lay among the middle class of patientswho were rarely bitten by this maniawhile his principal kept the bigwigs for himself. But on one occasion Dr. Dalrymple fell a victim to the very malady which it was his chief office to cure in othersthe gout. It was his own impression that he caught it of some of his patients. He felt certain, living so moderately as he did, with only a glass or two of Madeira at luncheon, and one bottle of wholesome port, without a headache in a hogshead of itafter dinner, that he couldnt have got it in any other way. Claret, indeed, he took with his meals in considerable quantities, and his feeding was rather extensive, considering that he never set foot on the ground save from his brougham to his clients door; but then he never touched beer (because he didnt like it), and what business has a man to get the gout who does not touch beer?
His reasoning was sound enough, no doubt; but still he got the gout, and in both feet. And while in that abject condition an express arrived from Lord de Bracy, of Donjon Towers, to request his immediate attendance. It was, of course, impossible that he could move, so he sent for Selwyn.
Oh, I forgot; you dont know his peculiarities. Lord de Bracy is about twenty-four generations behind his time. He ought to have been bornI mean, to have flourished (thats the word)in the thirteenth century. It is generally the young people who take up with these notions, but there is no fool like an old fool, and De Bracy has been bitten by them. You will find everything about him but his daughtersfor theyre young and charmingmediæval. And whatever you do, take care that you keep a grave face. Youre a capital fellow, you know, but a littleshall I say skittish? At Donjon Towers skittishness would be fatal. If you make a joke down there, it must be in Latin; and not in good Latin either; it must be monkish.
Good Heavens! of course he will. You will surely be serious when prescribing for him. I take it for granted that professional feeling will enable you to withstand any temptation to the contrary. He is the proudest man in Englandthe very proudest.
Pass them? I hope not; nor ever reach them. I am afraid you are too young, my dear sir; I tremble for what may happen. Upon my life, if you were to laugh at him, I dont know to what lengths he might not go; he believes he has feudal rights, and may hang you. At all events, we should lose our best patient.
Certainly. I have ordered the carriage and posters on. You are doing double work now and have no time to lose. His lordship will give you a bed, of course; he is the very soul of hospitality. It is like a page out of Ivanhoe to dine with him. He will treat you with the utmost consideration, you may be sure of that. But you must return from the Towers the first thing in the morning.
Dr. Dalrymple shook his head; that was not the frame of mind, he thought, in which a medical man should start upon a professional visit. Still, though Selwyn was young and impulsive, and much too natural, not to say honest, for a fashionable physician, he knew he had plenty of common-sense, and to that he trusted.
The evening had not fallen when he came in sight of Donjon Towers. The edifice stood on a hill, and, being of great magnitude, could be seen as far off as Windsor Castle. The park, through which the private road led, seemed as though it would never end; and when he reached the last avenue of stately oaks, such was its length that it appeared to meet ahead of him, and bar his progress after all.
Two lackeys descended them as he drove up, and another stood at the top of them who received him with a profound obeisance. The former were draped in russet with linen girdles, the latter in broadcloth of curious cut, but it was not livery; in the hall a groom-of-the-chambers at once took him up to his room; such, he said, being his masters orders when guests came off a journey. From this it seemed, since Selwyn had mentioned his errand, that his lordships malady was not of a very pressing nature.
The apartment into which he was ushered would have contained his own little house in Bayswater, roof and all, but it lacked its cheerfulness. The floor was of polished oak, and the walls were tapestried; the bed seemed several stories high, and had a canopy of black velvet. In such a bed, if one cannot sleep, thought poor Selwyn, one could be very suitably interred.
His lordship was in the library, and, as the doctor entered, rose and advanced three steps to meet him. He was a tall pale man of aristocratic appearance, with snow-white hair and beard, but inclining to corpulence.
I have done all that the wisdom of our ancestors has recommended, continued his lordship. I have had a hole made in my night-cap to carry off the ill-humours, and have always lain on my left side. I have chewed mastic before going to rest, and I have resisted all temptation to sleep after a full meal, especially of porpoise.
No; I am sorry to say it is very difficult to obtain; the prejudices of modern days have almost prohibited it as an article of consumption. You have no personal objection to porpoise, I trust, Dr. Selwyn?
I am delighted to find Dr. Dalrymple has so intelligent a partner; in country places, such as this, I find the most obstinate objections on the part of medical men to the most simple food, unless it happens to be of modern acceptance.
A noise equal to a flourish of trumpets had been going on for some minutes, and there now entered a major-domo with a long white wand, who ushered his master and his guest through two lines of serving-men, into the banquet-hall. Covers were laid but for two persons, which rather disappointed the young doctor. The earl, he knew, was a widower, but he had hoped to meet some of his daughters, who had a great reputation for beauty.
There were a great many servants, each with a towel round his neck as well as on his arm, and the dishes they brought inwhich were enough for ten times the number of guestswere wonderful. There were no plats such as might be expected at a noblemans table who kept a French cook; all was solid and huge. Pea-soup and frumenty were brought in in great silver tureens. Then lampreys with onions, a dish of which his lordship partook so plentifully as to remind his guest of a certain historical association with it, and also to suggest a very reasonable explanation of his humours. There was a baron of beef, of course; and then a cygnet served with liver sauce. And here, the larger dishes having come to an end, a curious difference was made in the waiting. All the male servitors disappeared, and were succeeded by four neat-handed and pretty girls in a sort of white-and-blue uniform made of some old-fashioned material. The first delicacy they served Selwyn with was a beavers tail; and he almost fancied that the extreme caution he manifested in taking the first morsel induced one of themthe prettiestto smile. Lord de Bracy ate of this very heartily, and washed it down with ypocras, a drink spiced (as Selwyn was afterward informed) with cinnamon and heliotrope, but at all events with something very nasty. After this there was kid and ginger sauce, and a curlew with salt and sugar. And then came the sutiltees, as they were termed: sweets (or devices), pretty substantial castles of pie-crust or sweetmeatsto all which the noble host did such justice as to leave the origin of his maladies in no doubt. Then to the sideboard, groaning with gold plate, the waiting-maids brought two silver basins full of rose-water, wherein their lord and the doctor dipped their hands, and dinner at last was over.
The effect of lampreys and beavers tails, when accompanied by ypocras in any quantity, is somnolence, and Lord de Bracy seemed by no means inclined for conversation. So, after half-an-hours bald disjointed chat, Selwyn wrote out his prescription, and bade his noble host good-night upon the plea that he had to start for town next morning at a very early hour. He did not sleep particularly well; he dreamt that he was being put to death by the Swanhoppers Companythis was the cygnet and liver sauce, no doubtfor killing a curlew; and was glad enough to wake and find himself in a century when the laws are not so severe. It was quite a relief to him, too, to remember that his host would not be up to breakfast with him and see him off; for though he had been treated with the utmost hospitality, Lord de Bracys society was on the whole oppressive, and he had by no means enjoyed his visit to Donjon Towers. It was an interesting experience, no doubt, but that is often a matter less pleasant in action than to talk about afterward. He had had to act a part from first to last, to restrain all natural expressions of impatience or incredulity; and, in short, he was pining for fresh air.
He could but toy with the boars head that was the pièce de résistànce upon the sideboard, and declined with unhesitating frankness the cup of mead that was offered him by one of the serving-men. When his carriage was announced, he was following the groom-of-the-chambers who had come up to his room for his portmanteau, when his attention was suddenly arrested by a pretty housemaid. It was the prettiestthe dark oneof the girls that had waited at table, and she had been doubtless watching outside his door, as servants will do, even in the best conducted households, for a little present. Nay, in all probability, in Donjon Towers the old system of vails was in full operation, and he felt (considering, too, how pretty she was) that he could hardly give her less than gold. He took, therefore, half a sovereign from his purse, and seeing her smile roguishly as he did so, and also that the groom was well out of sight, he accompanied the gift with a chuck under the chin. It was not right of him, of course; but the delight of getting away from that tremendous mansion (as he subsequently explained) no doubt put him in abnormally high spirits. At all events, he did it; and as she only blushed, and didnt say a word, he flattered himself that he had done rather a handsome thing in a pleasant fashion.
Ah, you found out that! returned the other, rubbing his hands. I have attended him these twenty years. Certainly one ought to be well paid, when one has to dineehand listen to a patient out of the way of business. Well, and how is his rheum, as he calls it?
Well, Id much sooner have his rheum than his company, said Selwyn, laughing. The fact is, there is nothing at all the matter with him but over-eating. And such things, too, porpoises and peacocks!
And then the girls came in! interrupted the old doctor excitedly. That always happens when you dine at the Towers for the first time. Its his lordships notion of doing the honours of hospitalityborrowed from the time of Edward the Confessor, I believe. The ladies of the family wait on the guest.
Well, I wonder you did not see they had an aristocratic air. Perhaps I ought to have told you how it would be, beforehand. However, De Bracy will like you all the better for taking the thing as a matter of course. Some men will jump up and hand the dishes themselves, because it distresses them to be waited on in that way; but it is better to fall in with the hosts fancy.
Of course I do; youve a sharp eye, you young dog! Shes the youngest, and the beautyLady Ermengarde. They tell me that, when not playing at being mediæval, she is full of fun. I hope you are not hit, because she is a leetle above you, my dear Selwyn. Perhaps the best blood in all England.
For weeks he was in expectation of some terrible vengeance overtaking him at the hands of reckless minions of feudalism, but, as it happened, nothing was done. It would have been an immense relief to his mind to have known that Lady Ermengarde Plantagenet had some humour (not of the sort for which her noble father took tansy pudding), and that she had taken his mistake in excellent part. She was accustomed to wear for years upon her châtelaine, in company with many less useful articles, a certain half-sovereign with a hole through it, the history of which she would never reveal. It was a present, she said, from a young gentleman. But, though Lord de Bracy had the rheum again and again (he eventually died of it), and sent for Dr. Dalrymple many times, always with the polite proviso that, if it should be inconvenient for the doctor, his junior partner would be equally acceptable, Frank Selwyn never again set foot in Donjon Towers.