The Adventures of a Tale by Mrs. Erskine Norton

"I could [and will] a tale unfold!"—Hamlet.

It is with indignation such only as a literary composition, conscious of its own high value, and smarting under injustice and neglect, can be supposed to feel, that I lift up my voice from behind the serried ranks of my companions, long tales and short, the light effusion of three pages, or the decided weight of three volumes; serious tales or gay; moral or profane; fine French or low Irish; tales without an end, and tales that ought never to have had a beginning; tales in ponderous verse or in gossamer prose; the delicate and brittle ware called travellers' tales; or those more substantial and important-looking matters, political economy tales. I say, that from behind this prodigious phalanx I rise up like Erskine from behind the big-wigs of the first law-court he addressed, elevating myself as the young counsellor on his bench, and making myself heard,—not, it is true, in the general cause of justice, liberty, humanity, and so forth, but in that cause in which all, if not eloquent, are at least earnest and sincere,—in the cause of self.

It is said that Minerva (a goddess) sprang from the brain of Jupiter without a mamma; I, Seraphina (a tale), issued forth from the lovely head (I am not quite so sure of the brain) of a fair romantic young lady, without a papa;—at least so I presume, for my composition is purely feminine; my slight and delicate texture could only have been woven by an unassisted female imagination.

While yet in embryo, I was christened Seraphina, and was to be composed in three or four reasonably long letters (ladies' letters, crossed and re-crossed with different coloured inks,) to Clementina. My respected parent decided that there was nothing equal to the epistolary form for describing the sentiments and adventures of a heroine; for who like herself can lay open all those finer and minuter feelings of the inmost heart, pouring into the ear of sympathising friendship every wish, every hope, every thought? Soul meets soul, even through the vulgar medium of pens, ink, and paper; "thoughts that glow and words that burn," are traced by the delicate fingers that "resume the pen," with a celerity altogether surprising; no agitation can delay, no fatigue can excuse; the half-dozen sheets of foolscap that are to be run over before she can lay her throbbing temples on her pillow, her white drapery (i. e. her night-gown) floating round her, her long hair unbound (very much out of curl), her snowy feet on the cold marble (she has lost her slippers), her door carefully locked, but her trellised casement left open, that the pale moonbeams may peep through it; her lamp is decaying, her hands are trembling, her eyes swimming in tears;—n'importe, the six sheets of foolscap are finished! O, there is nothing like the epistolary form! Seraphina shall be in letters to Clementina;

"Sure, letters were invented for some wretch's aid,
Some absent lover, or some captive maid."—Pope.

I can just recollect, as I began to assume form and consistency, how much and how dearly I was fondled by my young and doting mother; indeed, at times, I ran some danger of being killed by kindness. While transcribing some of the deeply affecting scenes and sentiments with which I abound, I was nearly obliterated by her tears, my material parts being composed with a very fine pen and very pale ink; at other times, when the stronger passions took possession of the scene, and revenge, hatred, and fury predominated, she would crush me in her hand, "her eyes in a fine frenzy rolling," and throw me to the other end of the room. Of course she had some difficulty in smoothing me out again. Nevertheless I grew in stature, and in favour with mamma, myself, and four young ladies, her neighbours, (all under fifteen,) who were at home for the holidays. On the assembling of this little coterie, I was mysteriously brought forth from my perfumed drawer, where I lay covered with dried rose-leaves, and read by the author of my being, in a way in which an author only can read. My young auditory listened in profound attention and admiration, secretly resolving that they too would try their unfledged wings in authorship, when they had left off school and finished their education. Except to these four interesting girls, my existence was a profound secret.

My composition is certainly enough to excite emulation, however hopeless. I am (though I say it myself) an exquisite tale. My heroine is a model of beauty, virtue, tenderness, and thrilling sensibility; "a perfect wonder that the world ne'er saw;" therefore the world ought the more to appreciate so rare a conception. Her mother was a suffering angel on earth; but, happily for herself, she removed to a more congenial abode, while her cherub child was yet in infancy. The surviving parent is, of course, a horrid tyrant, who cannot comprehend the highly-wrought sensibilities of his daughter, and therefore will not give way to them. There is the suitor favoured by the father, and the lover favoured by the daughter. There are a locking up, an elopement, delicate and dubious situations full of excitement, misapprehensions of all kinds, a false female friend, libertine lords, fine unfeeling ladies, dark stormy nights, and a catastrophe of the most extraordinary, pathetic, and soul-subduing interest. And then my descriptions of nature! my silver moon and diamond stars! my rustling trees! my woodbine, jessamine, and violets!

A little conceit I acknowledge to, when copied on pale pink, gilt-edged paper, curiously ornamented with embossed loves and doves, written in a neat small running-hand, the tails of my letters prettily curled, plenty of dashes, and very few stops, I was thus headed:

SERAPHINA; OR, SUFFERING SENSIBILITY.
A TALE.
BY A FAIR UNKNOWN.

"Love rules the camp, the court, the grove,
And man below, and saints above,
For love is heaven, and heaven is love."

Lay of the Last Minstrel.

I was highly scented, and sealed in green wax, with a device of Cupid tormenting a heart.

The dignified Half-yearly was selected for my debut. It rarely admitted literature of my class, and such only of acknowledged merit; consequently it was considered my proper and natural medium. From it, I was to be commented on and extracted in the monthlies, as well in Edinburgh and Dublin as in London; I was to be pirated by the Americans and translated by the French; and at the end of the year I was, by express permission, to appear in one of the most fashionable annuals, my tenderest scene forming the subject of a gorgeous frontispiece, on which the most celebrated artists were to lavish their talents. The identification of the "Fair Unknown" was to become the puzzle of the season; and already many scenes of admiring wonder on the part of others, and of dignified modesty on her own, had been played off in the active imagination of my dear parent; the acknowledgement of Evelina by its young authoress to her father, and the final recognition of the Great Unknown, were her models.

At length, with this dazzling perspective before me, I was dismissed from the maternal embrace. Betty the housemaid slipped with me out of the street-door, holding me with a piece of white paper between her finger and thumb, to prevent her soiling my envelope; while my mother watched us from the window with tears in her eyes. On reaching the twopenny post-office, Betty without any ceremony pushed me through a slit beneath a window, and, to my great discomposure, I fell head over heels into a dirty box full of all sorts of queer-looking epistles. As might be expected, I painfully felt this my first tumble (for I cannot call it step) into real from imaginary life. I had scarcely time to recover from the shock before the box was withdrawn, and we were all turned out by a fat woman on a horrid thing called a counter, where we were sorted, as she termed it, and distributed, with a rapidity that was quite confounding, to three or four shabby-looking men having bags under their arms. I, being the first turned out, was the last the post-mistress clawed up. She retained me a full minute, twirled me round, examined my seal, thrust her great finger between my delicate side folds, and brought me up to her eye to peer if possible into my inside, when the monster who held his bag open to receive me, called out,

"Come, mistress,—can't wait no longer!"

"Well," she replied, "bless me, if this don't look for all the world like a walentine!" and into the bag she reluctantly dropped me, writhing as I was with pain and indignation.

When I had somewhat smoothed my ruffled plumes, I ventured to look round on my fellow-travellers, in search of some congenial spirit with whom I might beguile the tediousness of time, as we jolted along on the shoulders of the postman; but I looked round in vain. My nearest neighbour, to my great annoyance, was a butcher's bill, with whom every jolt brought me in contact; the dirty thing had a wet wafer prest down by a greasy thumb. I shrank from it with horror, and fell back on an epistle from a young gentleman at school, which was at least clean, and in fair round characters; so I attended to what it had to say. The date took up a large portion of the paper, and then: "My dear mamma,—I have the pleasure to inform you that our Christmas vacation begins on the 20th. I am very well. I hope you are very well. I hope my papa is very well; and my brothers and sisters, my uncles, aunts, and cousins. I beg my duty to my papa, my love to my brothers and sisters, my respects to my uncles and aunts, and my remembrances to my cousins; and believe me your dutiful son." I sighed, and turned to a business-like looking letter, directed in a precise hand to Messrs. ——, in some dark lane in the city. The names of the persons addressed, and a very exact date, took up, as in the schoolboy's letter, a vast deal of room, and then it began: "Gentlemen,—We beg to acknowledge your favour of the 1st instant—" I could not get any further, for I was suddenly attracted by a smart-looking and very highly scented affair, sealed, and directed to a lord; but was disappointed on finding it was only a Bond-street perfumer's little yearly account of one hundred and fifty pounds for perfumes, fine soaps, cold-cream, and tooth-brushes. There was no other very close to me, so I ventured gently to push my way to a curiously folded epistle directed to Miss Matilda Dandeville, Oxford-street: "Dear Tilly,—Pray send me, as soon as you can, my close bonnet, for my nose is nearly off from wearing my pink silk and blonde this freezing weather. Full of life and fun here! Shall tell you all when we meet. It will be your turn next; meantime, business, business! money, money! Love to all inquiring friends." I felt disgusted. Do not gentlemen and ladies write by the twopenny-post? Nothing but duns, bills, business, and money! Is there no sense, sentiment, or sensibility, to be found in a twopenny-postbag? I certainly did observe some fashionable-looking letters, and one decidedly with a coronet; but they were too far down, quite unattainable; so I drew myself up as much apart as possible from the things by which I was so unhappily surrounded, and remained the rest of the way in dignified stillness. My wounded feelings were somewhat soothed by observing the awe, mingled with curiosity, with which I was regarded; and somewhat amused by the perfumer's genteel account turning its back on the butcher's bill, and the lady of the pink and blonde squeezing herself into a corner to avoid contact with a housemaid. The schoolboy alone was at perfect liberty,—and a great annoyance he was,—evidently delighting to jumble us all together by a single jump, and constantly peering at my seal, trying to read my address, and touching my embossed and gilded edges.

At length we reached our district, and that nervous sound, the postman's rap, was heard in rapid succession down the street; heads were popped out at windows, and doors were opened, and pence ready, before we reached. Out hopped the housemaid, out jumped the school-boy; and, as my fellow-travellers departed, I sank gradually lower, until I arrived among the genteel-looking letters I had spied at a distance; a slight shuffle was perceptible among them: their black and red seals were erected with great gravity, and my pink dye became almost crimson when I found that, from the gaiety of my attire, they evidently thought me "no better than I should be;" however I had scarcely time to feel uneasy, so swift were our evolutions, and so completely were we all turned topsy-turvy every time the postman's hand was introduced among us, and that was every minute; the big-wigs lost their dignity, and as to me, I felt my seal crack like a lady's stay-lace; I thought my envelope was torn away, and that I myself would have been displayed. Shocked at the very idea of such a catastrophe, I sank senseless to the bottom of the bag, and only recovered on being violently shaken from it, and hearing my brutal conductor exclaim: "Why, here it is, to be sure; and if it isn't the walentine itself, I declare!" He seized his pence, and, folding up his empty bag, strode off.

I found myself in the hands of a respectable man-servant out of livery, who, after having examined me with a look of surprise, introduced me up stairs into rather a dark and heavy drawing-room, with, however, a cheerful fire, bookcases, and portraits of distinguished authors. I lay for some time on a circular table, which was covered with newspapers and periodicals: there was a dead silence; if I had had a heart, it would have beaten audibly. At length a side-door opened, and a young gentleman stept in from an adjoining room; he glanced his eyes over the table, evidently in search of letters from the post; and, when he saw me, he smiled, and, picking me up, carried me into the room he had just left. I am sure he must have felt me tremble in his grasp. In this apartment, the only furniture was chairs and three writing-tables, the two smaller of which were occupied by my bearer and another young gentleman; but at that in the centre was seated a grave elderly personage, rather large in person, with bushy eyebrows, and keen penetrating eyes. I, who was extremely ignorant at that time, and had heard much of the knowledge, power, and dignity of the Half-yearly, without exactly knowing what it was, took this gentlemen for it himself. My introducer held me up to his young companion, and a stifled laugh passed between them; but, recovering his gravity, he laid me on the Half-yearly's desk, as near under his spectacles as he could bring me without interrupting his pen. The old gentleman started, frowned, and, lowering his head, looked at me from above his spectacles, (an awful way of looking, as is well known,) inquiring gruffly, "What's this?" "A letter by the twopenny, sir; a lady's verses I should think, by its appearance." "D—— ladies' verses! Take it away." "Shall we open it, sir?" "Don't pester me!" and in an instant afterwards he was lost in his important meditations.

The two young gentlemen cut round my seal, and perused the note of the Fair Unknown, with tears—but not of sympathy. I was then taken up, and passages here and there recited in an under-tone with mock gravity, eliciting, in spite of their dread of their superior, bursts of irrepressible laughter: these, at last, attracted his attention, and, looking over his shoulder, he angrily inquired what they were about. "Pray, sir, do look at this! it is quite a curiosity;" and my note was handed to him.

"A fair unknown, with that modesty which ever accompanies genius; with faltering accent, timid step, and eyes that seek the ground, presumes to lay at the feet of the great Half-yearly the first-born of her imagination! She prays him not to spurn the babe; but to take it, cherish it, and usher it into the world!—It is his own!"

"Mine!" exclaimed the Half-yearly, settling his wig; "I hope she does not mean to swear it to me; such scrapes are marvellously difficult to get out of. Wafer up the babe, if you please, gentlemen, in a sheet of foolscap, (its proper swaddling band,) and add a sentence to our Notices to Correspondents."

In a few weeks after this memorable scene, my young and tender parent was at breakfast with her family, when her father entered, carrying a new Half-yearly, with leaves uncut, and hot from the press, under his arm. My mother's heart leaped in her bosom, her face became scarlet, and her mouthful of bread and butter nearly choked her. Her father dawdled a little over the advertisements and answers to correspondents: at the latter he smiled. "What amuses you, sir?" inquired his anxious daughter in a tone of forced calmness: he read, "A Fair Unknown is earnestly requested to send for her babe immediately; the Half-yearly having no intention of cherishing, fostering, furthering, or fathering it in any way whatever." It was well for his thunderstricken auditor that the reader became immediately too much absorbed in a political paper to notice the effect of this appalling blow. She made her escape unobserved: I was instantly sent for, torn from my coarse envelope, and pressed to her agonised bosom.

Her four friends had returned to school, she could not therefore have the benefit of their advice and condolence; and, to tell truth, she did not appear much to regret this circumstance,—the mortification of their presence would have been too great.

Betty was not even let into the secret: I was placed in a plain white envelope, accompanied by a note much less romantic than the first, addressed to a Monthly; and, being sealed with a more respectable and well-behaved seal, she hid me in her muff, and dropped me herself into the same dirty box as before.

The Monthly was not nearly so terrible a person as the Half-yearly. He was not at home on my arrival in the evening, and I was laid with several other very literary-looking letters on a table in his dressing-room, near a good fire, with a lamp ready to light, a pair of slippers on the hearth-rug, and a large easy chair with a dressing-gown thrown over it. All this looked sociable and comfortable; and, feeling quite in spirits, I curtsied respectfully to a moral paper, shook hands with a political argument, chatted with a jeu d'esprit, and flirted with a sonnet.

The Monthly returned home about midnight in exceeding good humour, humming an opera tune; he lit his lamp, donned his dressing-gown, thrust his feet into his slippers, and, having mused a little while over the fire, ventured a glance at the table. "The deuce take it, what a lot there are of them!" he exclaimed; "politics, morality, and poetry I am not fit for to-night, that's very clear; something entertaining—what's this?" (taking up me)—"a woman's hand—prose—a tale—just the very thing!" and forthwith I was begun.

Reader, can you imagine—no, you cannot, so there is no use in appealing to your sympathy—the state of agitation I was in? He read amazingly fast, and hummed and ha'ed as he proceeded; and, to my utter astonishment, at one of my most pathetic appeals he burst into a fit of laughter: in short—I grieve to say it—but I fear the Monthly, as indeed he himself had hinted, had indulged a little too freely,—had taken a little drop too much; for, soon after this unaccountable explosion of merriment, he yawned, settled himself more decidedly in his chair, read very much slower, and at last, on observing that he turned over two of my pages at once without finding it out, I ventured to look up, and, behold! his eyes were closing,—sleep was creeping over him! I lay aghast, every moment inclining more and more backwards, till I reposed upon his knee. The pangs of wounded pride, acute as they were, began to give way to apprehensions of the most serious nature; his hold momentarily relaxed, and at length I fell—fell over the fender, reader! and there I lay, roasting like a Spanish priest cooked by a French soldier, (the French, they say, are excellent cooks,) until he should discover the hidden treasures of his monastery.

Alas! I thought my treasures were lost for ever to the literary world! There they lay, scorching and melting, until at last fortunately a cinder, inspired no doubt by the Muses, leapt out to my protection, and, by destroying a small portion, saved the remainder; for the smell of fire became so strong, that a servant, who had just let himself into the house from a high-life-below-stairs party, came rushing in with a nose extended to its utmost width, rousing and alarming his sleeping master. "Deuce take it!" exclaimed the Monthly on perceiving me, "in ten minutes more we should have been all set on fire by this d—d soporific (I think that is what he called me). Who would have thought it had spirit enough to burn!" The next morning I was despatched home, without a single line, not even an apology, for my miserable condition.

The curse of Cain was upon me: my own mother (who had become engaged in the creation of another offspring) received me with mortifying coolness, and beheld my burnt and disfigured tale with horror and contempt. She gave up all thoughts of the London annuals, (her new pet was intended for one of them,) and, having coarsely repaired me, I was put into the general post, addressed to a country annual, the "Rosebud" of Diddle-town.

The glowing aspirations of youth were chilled, misfortune had set her seal upon me; but, although hope was diminished, pride remained unquelled, for, as I glided over high-ways, and jolted over by-ways, in the Diddle-town coach, I recalled to my recollection all that I had heard (especially while I lay smothered up for six weeks on the learned Half-yearly's table) of the many great luminaries of literature who had struggled into light and life through the dark and chilling mists of neglect, ignorance, and envy. I had no doubt but that I should yet burst forth from my cloud, astonishing and dazzling the weak eyes which had hitherto refused to encounter, or were incapable of dwelling upon, my beauty and brilliancy.

On being presented to the Diddle-town editor, he immediately seized upon me with great glee, and carried me off, without reading me, to the printer's devil; and, to my utter astonishment, I found myself in the process of printing an hour after my arrival. Although this consummation had long been devoutly wished, I cannot say I was much flattered at its mode.

I appeared in the "Rosebud" of Diddle-town. The editor gave out that I was the production of a celebrated lady-author, anonymous on the occasion to all but him. I was demurely listened to by a coterie of old maids, who, on my conclusion, curtsied to the reader and curtsied to each other, sighed, and inquired if there were a picture; I was hummed over by two or three lazy half-pay officers; I was spelt over by a cottage-full of young lace-makers; and I was wept over by the Diddle-town milliners' apprentice girls.

But my desire for a larger and nobler sphere of action can no longer be suppressed: I am determined to make known that I exist, and to inform the reading world, and all who, like many great philosophers of old, are eager to seek what they are never likely to find, that the Tale of Seraphina reposes in all its neglected sweetness, and unappreciated, because unappreciable beauty, on the leaves of the "Rosebud" of Diddle-town.