Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
My Witch’s-Caldron
By Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837–1919)
From ‘Chapters from Some Unwritten Memoirs’

I REMEMBER a visit from another hero of those times. We were walking across Kensington Square early one morning when we heard some one hurrying after us and calling, “Thackeray, Thackeray!” This was also one of Byron’s friends,—a bright-eyed, active old man; with long wavy white hair and a picturesque cloak flung over one shoulder. I can see him still, as he crossed the corner of the square and followed us with a light, rapid step. My father, stopping short, turned back to meet him; greeting him kindly, and bringing him home with us to the old brown house at the corner where we were then living. There was a sort of eagerness and vividness of manner about the stranger which was very impressive. You could not help watching him and his cloak, which kept slipping from its place, and which he caught at again and again. We wondered at his romantic foreign looks, and his gayety and bright eager way. Afterwards we were told that this was Leigh Hunt. We knew his name very well; for on the drawing-room table, in company with various Ruskins and Punches, lay a pretty shining book called ‘A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla,’—from which, in that dilettante childish fashion which is half play, half impatience and search for something else, we had contrived to extract our own allowance of honey. It was still an event to see a real author in those days, specially an author with a long cloak flung over his shoulder; though for the matter of that, it is still and always will be an event to see the faces and hear the voices of those whose thoughts have added something delightful to our lives. Not very long afterwards came a different visitor, still belonging to that same company of people. I had thrown open the dining-room door and come in, looking for something; and then I stopped short, for the room was not empty. A striking and somewhat alarming-looking person stood alone by the fireplace with folded arms,—a dark, impressive-looking man, not tall, but broad and brown and weather-beaten,—gazing with a sort of scowl at his own reflection in the glass. As I entered he turned slowly, and looked at me over his shoulder. This time it was Trelawny, Byron’s biographer and companion, who had come to see my father. He frowned, walked deliberately and slowly from the room, and I saw him no more…. All these people now seem almost like figures out of a fairy tale. One could almost as well imagine Sindbad, or Prince Charming, or the Seven Champions of Christendom, dropping in for an hour’s chat. But each generation, however matter-of-fact it may be, sets up fairy figures in turn to wonder at and delight in. I had not then read any of the books which have since appeared; though I had heard my elders talking, and I knew from hearsay something of the strange, pathetic, irrational histories of these bygone wanderers, searching the world for the Golden Fleece and the Enchanted Gardens. These were the only members of that special, impracticable, romantic crew of Argonauts I ever saw; though I have read and re-read their histories and diaries so that I seem to know them all, and can almost hear their voices.  1
  One of the most notable persons who ever came into our old bow-windowed drawing-room in Young Street is a guest never to be forgotten by me,—a tiny, delicate little person, whose small hand nevertheless grasped a mighty lever which set all the literary world of that day vibrating. I can still see the scene quite plainly!—the hot summer evening, the open windows, the carriage driving to the door as we all sat silent and expectant; my father, who rarely waited, waiting with us; our governess and my sister and I all in a row, and prepared for the great event. We saw the carriage stop, and out of it sprang the active, well-knit figure of young Mr. George Smith, who was bringing Miss Brontë to see our father. My father, who had been walking up and down the room, goes out into the hall to meet his guests; and then, after a moment’s delay, the door opens wide and the two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious little lady, pale, with fair, straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This, then, is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books—the wonderful books. To say that we little girls had been given ‘Jane Eyre’ to read, scarcely represents the facts of the case; to say that we had taken it without leave, read bits here and read bits there, been carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind into things, times, places, all utterly absorbing and at the same time absolutely unintelligible to us, would more accurately describe our states of mind on that summer’s evening as we look at Jane Eyre—the great Jane Eyre—the tiny little lady. The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, especially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. Mr. George Smith has since told me how she afterwards remarked upon my father’s wonderful forbearance and gentleness with our uncalled-for incursions into the conversation. She sat gazing at him with kindling eyes of interest, lighting up with a sort of illumination every now and then as she answered him. I can see her bending forward over the table, not eating, but listening to what he said as he carved the dish before him.  2
  I think it must have been on this very occasion that my father invited some of his friends in the evening to meet Miss Brontë, for everybody was interested and anxious to see her. Mrs. Crowe, the reciter of ghost stories, was there. Mrs. Brookfield, Mrs. Carlyle—Mr. Carlyle himself was present, so I am told, railing at the appearance of cockneys upon Scotch mountainsides; there were also too many Americans for his taste; “but the Americans were as God compared to the cockneys,” says the philosopher. Besides the Carlyles, there were Mrs. Elliott and Miss Perry, Mrs. Procter and her daughter, most of my father’s habitual friends and companions. In the recent life of Lord Houghton, I was amused to see a note quoted in which Lord Houghton also was convened. Would that he had been present!—perhaps the party would have gone off better. It was a gloomy and a silent evening. Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess, Miss Truelock. The room looked very dark; the lamp began to smoke a little; the conversation grew dimmer and more dim; the ladies sat round still expectant; my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all.  3
  Mrs. Brookfield, who was in the doorway by the study, near the corner in which Miss Brontë was sitting, leaned forward with a little commonplace, since brilliance was not to be the order of the evening. “Do you like London, Miss Brontë?” she said. Another silence; a pause; then Miss Brontë answers “Yes” and “No,” very gravely. My sister and I were much too young to be bored in those days: alarmed, impressed, we might be, but not yet bored. A party was a party, a lioness was a lioness; and—shall I confess it?—at that time an extra dish of biscuits was enough to mark the evening. We felt all the importance of the occasion—tea spread in the dining-room, ladies in the drawing-room. We roamed about inconveniently, no doubt, and excitedly; and in one of my excursions crossing the hall, towards the close of the entertainment, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him. When I went back to the drawing-room again, the ladies asked me where he was. I vaguely answered that I thought he was coming back. I was puzzled at the time; nor was it all made clear to me till long years afterwards, when one day Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened once when my father had invited a party to meet Jane Eyre at his house. It was one of the dullest evenings she had ever spent in her life, she said. And then with a good deal of humor she described the situation: the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation; and how as the evening went on, the gloom and the constraint increased; and how finally, after the departure of the more important guests, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club. The ladies waited, wondered, and finally departed also; and as we were going up to bed with our candles, after everybody was gone, I remember two pretty Miss L——s, in shiny silk dresses, arriving, full of expectation…. We still said we thought our father would soon be back; but the Miss L——s declined to wait upon the chance, laughed, and drove away again almost immediately….  4
  I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes; an impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterize the woman…. I fancied an austere little Joan of Arc marching in upon us, and rebuking our easy lives, our easy morals. She gave me the impression of being a very pure and lofty and high-minded person. A great and holy reverence of right and truth seemed to be with her always. Such in our brief interview she appeared to me. As one thinks of that life, so noble, so lonely,—of that passion for truth,—of those nights and nights of eager study, swarming fancies, invention, depression, elation, and prayer; as one reads of the necessarily incomplete though most touching and admirable history of the heart that throbbed in this one little frame, of this one among the myriads of souls that have lived and died on this great earth,—this great earth! this little speck in the infinite universe of God,—with what wonder do we think of to-day, with what awe await to-morrow, when that which is now but darkly seen shall be clear!…  5
  I am suddenly conscious as I write that my experiences are very partial; but a witch’s-caldron must needs after all contain heterogeneous scraps, and mine, alas! can be no exception to the rest. It produces nothing more valuable than odds and ends, happily harmless enough; neither sweltered venom nor fillet of finny snake, but the back of one great man’s head, the hat and umbrella of another. The first time I ever saw Mr. Gladstone, I only saw the soles of his boots. A friend had taken me into the ventilator of the House of Commons, where we listened to a noble speech, and watched the two shadows on the grating overhead, of the feet of the messenger of glad tidings. One special back I cannot refrain from writing down, in a dark-blue frock coat and strapped trousers, walking leisurely before us up Piccadilly. The sun is shining, and an odd sort of brass buckle which fastens an old-fashioned stock flashes like a star. “Do look!” I say: “who is that old gentleman?” “That old gentleman! Why, that is the Duke of Wellington,” said my father. On another occasion I remember some one coming up to us and beginning to talk very charmingly, and among other things describing some new lord mayor who had been in state to a theatrical performance, by which it seemed he had been much affected. “I cried, I do assure you,” the lord mayor had said; “and as for the lady mayoress, she cry too:” and the gentleman smiled, and told the little story so dryly and drolly that my sister and I couldn’t help laughing; and we went on repeating to one another afterwards, “As for the lady mayoress, she cry too.” And then as usual, we asked who was that. “Don’t you know Lord Palmerston by sight?” said my father….  6
  Another miscellaneous apparition out of my caldron rises before me as I write. On a certain day we went to call at Mrs. Procter’s with our father. We found an old man standing in the middle of the room, taking leave of his hostess, nodding his head: he was a little like a Chinese mandarin with an ivory face. His expression never changed, but seemed quite fixed. He knew my father, and spoke to him and to us too, still in this odd, fixed way. Then he looked at my sister. “My little girl,” he said to her, “will you come and live with me? You shall be as happy as the day is long; you shall have a white pony to ride, and feed upon red-currant jelly.” This prospect was so alarming and unexpected that the poor little girl suddenly blushed up and burst into tears. The old man was Mr. Samuel Rogers; but happily he did not see her cry, for he was already on his way to the door….  7
  My father used to write in his study at the back of the house in Young Street. The vine shaded his two windows, which looked out upon the bit of garden, and the medlar-tree, and the Spanish jasmines, of which the yellow flowers scented our old brick walls. I can remember the tortoise belonging to the boys next door crawling along the top of the wall where they had set it, and making its way between the jasmine sprigs. Jasmines won’t grow now any more, as they did then, in the gardens of Kensington, nor will medlars and vine-trees take root and spread their green branches: only herbs and bulbs, such as lilies and Solomon’s-seals, seem to flourish; though I have a faint hope that all the things people put in will come up all right some centuries hence, when London is resting and at peace, and has turned into the grass-grown ruin one so often hears described. Our garden was not tidy (though on one grand occasion a man came to mow the grass), but it was full of sweet things. There were verbenas—red, blue, and scented; and there were lovely stacks of flags, blades of green with purple heads between, and bunches of London-pride growing luxuriantly; and there were some blush-roses at the end of the garden, which were not always quite eaten up by the caterpillars. Lady Duff Gordon came to stay with us once (it was on that occasion, I think, that the grass was mowed); and she afterwards sent us some doves, which used to hang high up in a wicker cage from the windows of the school-room.  8
  The top school-room was over my father’s bedroom, and the bedroom was over the study where he used to write. I liked the top school-room the best of all the rooms in the dear old house: the sky was in it, and the evening bells used to ring into it across the garden, and seemed to come in dancing and clanging with the sunset; and the floor sloped so that if you put down a ball, it would roll in a leisurely way right across the room of its own accord. And then there was a mystery,—a small trap-door between the windows which we never could open. Where did not that trap-door lead to? It was the gateway of paradise, of many paradises, to us. We kept our dolls, our bricks, our books, our baby-houses, in the top room, and most of our stupid little fancies. My little sister had a menagerie of snails and flies in the sunny window-sill: these latter, chiefly invalids rescued out of milk-jugs, lay upon rose-leaves in various little pots and receptacles. She was very fond of animals, and so was my father—at least, he always liked our animals. Now, looking back, I am full of wonder at the number of cats we were allowed to keep, though De la Pluche the butler, and Gray the housekeeper, waged war against them. The cats used to come to us from the garden; for then, as now, the open spaces of Kensington abounded in fauna. My sister used to adopt and christen them all in turn by the names of her favorite heroes: she had Nicholas Nickleby, a huge gray tabby, and Martin Chuzzlewit, and a poor little half-starved Barnaby Rudge, and many others. Their saucers used to be placed in a row on the little terrace at the back of my father’s study, under the vine where the sour green grapes grew—not at all out of reach; and at the farther end of which was an empty greenhouse ornamented by the busts of my father as a boy and of a relation in a military cloak.  9
  One of my friends—she never lived to be an old woman—used to laugh and say that she had reached the time of life when she loved to see even the people her parents had particularly disliked, just for the sake of old times. I don’t know how I should feel if I were to meet one agreeable, cordial gentleman, who used to come on horseback, and invite us to all sorts of dazzling treats and entertainments,—which, to our great disappointment, my father invariably refused, saying, “No, I don’t like him; I don’t want to have anything to do with him.” The wretched man fully justified these objections by getting himself transported long after for a protracted course of peculiarly deliberate and cold-blooded fraud. On one occasion, a friend told me, he was talking to my father, and mentioning some one in good repute at the time, and my father incidentally spoke as if he knew of a murder that person had committed. “You know it, then!” said the other man. “Who could have told you?” My father had never been told, but he had known it all along, he said; and indeed he sometimes spoke of this curious feeling he had about people at times, as if uncomfortable facts in their past history were actually revealed to him. At the same time I do not think anybody had a greater enjoyment than he in other people’s goodness and well-doing: he used to be proud of a boy’s prizes at school, he used to be proud of a woman’s sweet voice or of her success in housekeeping. He had a friend in the Victoria Road hard by, whose delightful household ways he used to describe; and I can still hear the lady he called Jingleby warbling “O du schöne Müllerin,” to his great delight.  10
  Any generous thing or word seemed like something happening to himself. I can remember, when ‘David Copperfield’ came out, hearing him saying in his emphatic way to my grandmother, that “little Em’ly’s letter to old Peggotty was a masterpiece.” I wondered to hear him at the time, for that was not at all the part I cared for most; nor, indeed, could I imagine how little Em’ly ever was so stupid as to run away from Peggotty’s enchanted house-boat. But we each and all enjoyed in turn our share of those thin green books full of delicious things; and how glad we were when they came to our hands at last, after our elders and our governess and our butler had all read them in turn!  11
  It is curious to me now to remember, considering how little we met and what a long way off they lived, what an important part the Dickens household played in our childhood. But the Dickens books were as much a part of our home as our own father’s.  12
  Certainly the Dickens children’s-parties were shining facts in our early London days; nothing came in the least near them. There were other parties, and they were very nice, but nothing to compare to these: not nearly so light, not nearly so shining, not nearly so going round and round. Perhaps—so dear K. P. suggests—it was not all as brilliantly wonderful as I imagined it; but most assuredly the spirit of mirth and kindly jollity was a reality to every one present, and the master of the house had that wondrous fairy gift of leadership. I know not what to call that power by which he inspired every one with spirit and interest. One special party I remember, which seemed to me to go on for years, with its kind, gay hospitality, its music, its streams of children passing and repassing. We were a little shy coming in alone, in all the consciousness of new shoes and ribbons; but Mrs. Dickens called us to sit beside her till the long sweeping dance was over, and talked to us as if we were grown up,—which is always flattering to little girls. Then Miss Hogarth found us partners; and we too formed part of the throng. I remember watching the white satin shoes and long flowing white sashes of the little Dickens girls, who were just about our own age, but how much more graceful and beautifully dressed! Our sashes were bright plaids of red and blue, (tributes from one of our father’s Scotch admirers;—is it ungrateful to confess now, after all these years, that we could not bear them?) our shoes were only bronze. Shall I own to this passing shadow amid all that radiance? But when people are once dancing, they are all equal again, and happy.  13
  Somehow after the music we all floated into a long supper-room, and I found myself sitting near the head of the table by Mr. Dickens, with another little girl much younger than myself; she wore a necklace, and pretty little sausage curls all round her head. Mr. Dickens was very kind to the little girl, and presently I heard him persuading her to sing, and he put his arm round her to encourage her; and then, wonderful to say, the little girl stood up (she was little Miss Hullah) and began very shyly, trembling and blushing at first, but as she blushed and trembled she sang more and more sweetly; and then all the jeunesse dorée, consisting of the little Dickens boys and their friends, ranged along the supper table, clapped and clapped, and Mr. Dickens clapped too, smiling and applauding her. And then he made a little speech, with one hand on the table; I think it was thanking the jeunesse dorée for their applause, and they again clapped and laughed;—but here my memory fails me, and everything grows very vague and like a dream.  14
  Only this much I do remember very clearly: that we had danced and supped and danced again, and that we were all standing in a hall lighted and hung with bunches of Christmas green, and as I have said, everything seemed altogether magnificent and important; more magnificent and important every minute, for as the evening went on, more and more people kept arriving. The hall was crowded, and the broad staircase was lined with little boys—thousands of little boys—whose heads and legs and arms were waving about together. They were making a great noise, and talking and shouting; and the eldest son of the house seemed to be marshaling them. Presently their noise became a cheer, and then another; and we looked up and saw that our own father had come to fetch us, and that his white head was there above the others: then came a third final ringing cheer, and some one went up to him—it was Mr. Dickens himself—who laughed and said quickly, “That is for you!” and my father looked up,—surprised, pleased, touched,—settled his spectacles, and nodded gravely to the little boys.  15

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