The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 07, No. 40, February, 1861 online

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ones, _d, e, f!_ Yes, there they lay, _plus_ and _minus,_ each in his
compartment, convulsed and distorted, as if their last agonies had been
terrible to endure! Stiff and dead! _Mon Dieu, Monsieur!_ and I had
pledged the name and credit of the house of John Meavy and Co. to an
extent from which there _could_ be no recovery, if aught untoward had
happened! _Eh, bien. Monsieur!_ César Prévost is fortunate in a very
elastic temperament. Yet I did not dare think of John Meavy. However, if
the thing was done, it was too late for remedy now. _Eh, bien!_ I
would wait. Meantime, I carefully examined to see if any cause was
discoverable to have produced these deaths. None. 'T was irresistible,
then, that the cause was at John's end. What? An accident, - perhaps,
nervous, he had dosed them too heavily; but - I dared not think about
it, - I would only - wait!

"_Eh, bien, Monsieur!_ It would be seven days yet before I could get
news. I waited, - waited calmly and composedly. _Mon Dieu!_ they talk of
heroism in leading a forlorn hope, - César Prévost was a hero for those
eight days. I do not think about them even now.

"On the third day came a steamer with news of uncertain import, but on
the whole favorable. By the same advice a letter reached me from my old
comrade, John Meavy: his affairs were prosperous, he and his wife very
happy, and _Don Juan_ more charming than ever.

"Monsieur, the fourth day came, - the fifth, - the sixth, - the
seventh, - finding me still waiting. No one, to see me, could have
guessed I had not slept for a week. _Eh, bien!_ I will not dwell upon

"The morning of the eighth day came. I breakfasted, read my paper,
smoked my cigar, and walked leisurely to my counting-room. I answered
the letters. I sauntered round to bank, paid a note that had fallen due,
got a check cashed, and, having counted the money and secured it in my
pocket-book, I walked out and stood upon the bank-steps, talking with a
business-friend, who inquired after John Meavy. 'T was a pleasant theme
to converse about, this, - for _me!_

"A news-boy came running down Wall Street, with papers under his arm.
'Here you are!' he cried. 'Extray! Steamer just in! Latest news from
Europe! All 'bout the new alliance! Consols firm, - cotton riz! Extray,

"I bought one, and the boy ran off as I paid him and snatched the paper
from his hand.

"'You gave that rascal a gold dollar for a half-dime,' said my friend.

"'Did I?'

"A gold dollar! I wondered very quaintly what he would say, when, in a
few days, he heard of the failure of John Meavy & Co. for three millions
of dollars. A gold dollar!

"_Eh, bien, Monsieur!_ I shall not dwell upon it. Enough, - we were
ruined. I had played my grand _coup,_ and lost. For myself, nothing.
But - John Meavy! Oh, Monsieur, I could not think! I went to my office,
and sat there all day, stupid, only twirling my watch-key, and repeating
to myself, - 'A gold dollar! a gold dollar!' The afternoon had nearly
gone when one of my clerks roused me: - 'A letter for you, Mr. Prévost;
it came by the steamer to-day.'

"Monsieur," said the little Frenchman, producing a well-worn
pocket-book, and taking out from it a tattered, yellow sheet, which he
unfolded before me, - "Monsieur, you shall read that letter."

It was this: -


"You must blame me and poor _Don Juan_ for the suspension of your
Telegraph. I write, myself, to tell you how careless I have been; for
poor John is in such a state of agitation, and seems to fear such
calamities, that I will not let him write; - though what evil can come
of it, beyond the inconvenience, I cannot see, nor will he tell me. You
must answer this immediately, so as to prove to John that nothing has
gone wrong; and so give me a chance to scold this good husband of mine
for his vain and womanish apprehensions. But let me tell you how it
happened to the poor snails, - _Don Juan_ is so tame, that I do not
pretend to keep him shut up in his cage, but let him fly about our
sitting-room, just as he pleases. The next room to this, you know, is
the one where we kept the snails. I have been helping John with these
for some time, and it is my custom, when he goes on 'Change, to look
after the ugly creatures, and especially to open the boxes and give them
air. Well, this morning, - you must not scold me, César, for I have wept
enough for my carelessness, and as I write am trembling all over like
a leaf, - this morning, I went into the snail-room as usual, opened the
boxes, noted how well all six looked, and then, going to the window,
stood there for some minutes, looking out at the people across the way
preparing for the illumination to-night, (for we are going to have peace
at last, and every one is so rejoiced!) and forgetting entirely that I
had left open both the door of this room and that of the sitting-room
also, until I heard the flutter of _Don Juan's_ wings behind me. I
turned, and was horror-stricken to find him perched on the boxes,
and pecking away at the poor snails, as if they were strawberries! I
screamed, and ran to drive him off, but I was too late, - for, just as I
caught him, the greedy fellow picked up and swallowed the last one of
the entire six! I felt almost like killing _him,_ then; but I could
not, - nor could _you_ have done it, César, had you but seen the arch
defiance of his eye, as he fluttered out of my hands, flew back to his
cage, and began to pour forth a whole world of melody!

"My dear César, I know my carelessness was most culpable, but it
_cannot_ be so bad as John fears. Oh, if anything should happen now, by
my fault, when we are so prosperous and happy, I could never forgive
myself! Do write to me as soon as possible, and relieve the anxiety of

"Affectionately yours, CORNELIA."

The little Frenchman looked at me with a glance half sad, half comical,
as I returned the letter to him.

"_Eh, bien, Monsieur!_" said he, shrugging his shoulders, - "you've heard
my story. 'Twas fate, - what could one do?"

"But that is not all, - John Meavy," - said I.

The little Frenchman looked very grave and sad.

"Monsieur, my brave _camarade,_ John Meavy, had been brought up in a
stern school. His ideas of credit and of mercantile honor were pitched
very high indeed. He imagined himself disgraced forever, and - he did not
survive it."

"You do not mean" - -

"I mean, Monsieur, that I lost the bravest and truest and most generous
friend that ever man had, when John Meavy died. And that dose of Prussic
Acid should properly have gone to me, whose fault it all was, instead
of to him, so innocent. _Eh, bien, Monsieur!_ his lot was the happiest,
after all."

"But Cornelia?" said I, after a pause.

The little Frenchman rose, with a quiet and graceful air, full of
sadness, yet of courtesy; and I knew then that he was no longer my guest
and entertainer, but once more the chapman with his wares.

"Monsieur, Cornelia is under my protection. You will comprehend
_that_ - after that - she has not escaped with impunity. Some little
strings snapped in the harp. She is _touchée_, here," said he, resting
one finger lightly upon his forehead, - "but 'tis all for the best, _sans
doute._ She is quiet, peaceable, - and she does not remember. She sits in
my house, working, and the bird sings to her ever. 'Tis a gallant bird,
Monsieur. And though I am poor, I can yet make some provision for her
comfort. She has good taste, and is very industrious. These baskets are
all of her make; when I have no other employ, I sell them about, and
use the money for her. _Eh, bien!_ 'tis a small price, - fifty cents; if
Monsieur will purchase one, he will possess a basket really handsome,
and will have contributed something to the comfort of one of the
Good God's _protégées. Mille remerciements, Monsieur,_ - for this
purchase, - for your entertainment, - for your courtesy!

"_Bon jour, Monsieur!_"

* * * * *

About half an hour after this, I had occasion to traverse one of the
corridors of Barnan's Hotel, when I saw a group of gentlemen, most of
whom sported "Atlantic Cable Charms" on their watchchains, gathered
about a person who had secured their rapt attention to some story he was

"_Eh, bien, Messieurs!_" I heard him say, in a peculiar naïve broken
English, "it would be yet seven days before I could get ze news, - and - I
wait. Oui! calm_lie_, composed_lie_, with insouciance beyond guess, I
wait" -

"I wonder," said I to myself, as I passed on, "I wonder if M. César
Prévost's account of his remarkable invention of the First Atlantic
Telegraph have not some subtile connection with his desire to find as
speedy and remunerative a sale as possible for his pretty baskets!"


It is seldom that a woman becomes the world's talk but by some great
merit or fault of her own, or some rare qualification so bestowed by
Nature as to be incapable of being hidden. Great genius, rare beauty, a
fitness for noble enterprise, the venturous madness of passion, account
for ninety-nine cases in the hundred of a woman becoming the subject of
general conversation and interest. Lady Byron's was the hundredth case.
There was a time when it is probable that she was spoken of every day in
every house in England where the family could read; and for years the
general anxiety to hear anything that could be told of her was almost as
striking in Continental society and in the United States as in her own
country. Yet she had neither genius, nor conspicuous beauty, nor "a
mission," nor any quality of egotism which could induce her to brave the
observation of the world for any personal aim. She had good abilities,
well cultivated for the time when she was young; she was rather pretty,
and her countenance was engaging from its expression of mingled
thoughtfulness and brightness; she was as lady-like as became her birth
and training; and her strength of character was so tempered with modesty
and good taste that she was about the last woman that could have been
supposed likely to become celebrated in any way, or, yet more, to be
passionately disputed about and censured, in regard to her temper and
manners: yet such was her lot. No breath of suspicion ever dimmed her
good repute, in the ordinary sense of the expression: but to this day
she is misapprehended, wherever her husband's genius is adored; and she
is charged with precisely the faults which it was most impossible for
her to commit. For the original notoriety she was not answerable; but
for the protracted misapprehension of her character she was. She early
decided that it was not necessary or desirable to call the world into
council on her domestic affairs; her husband's doing it was no reason
why she should; and for nearly forty years she preserved a silence,
neither haughty nor sullen, but merely natural, on matters in which
women usually consider silence appropriate. She never inquired what
effect this silence had on public opinion in regard to her, nor
countenanced the idea that public opinion bore any relation whatever to
her private affairs and domestic conduct. Such independence and such
reticence naturally quicken the interest and curiosity of survivors;
and they also stimulate those who knew her as she was to explain her
characteristics to as many as wish to understand them, after disputing
about them for the lifetime of a whole generation.

Anne Isabella Noel Milbanke (that was her maiden name) was an only
child. Her father, Sir Ralph Milbanke, was the sixth baronet of that
name. Her mother was a Noel, daughter of Viscount and Baron Wentworth,
and remotely descended from royalty, - that is, from the youngest son of
Edward I. After the death of Lady Milbanke's father and brother, the
Barony of Wentworth was in abeyance between the daughter of Lady
Milbanke and the son of her sister till 1856, when, by the death of that
cousin, Lord Scarsdale, Lady Byron became possessed of the inheritance
and title. During her childhood and youth, however, her parents were not
wealthy; and it was understood that Miss Milbanke would have no fortune
till the death of her parents, though her expectations were great.
Though this want of immediate fortune did not prove true, the report of
it was probably advantageous to the young girl, who was sought for other
things than her fortune. When Lord Byron thought of proposing, the
friend who had brought him to the point of submitting to marriage
objected to Miss Milbanke on two grounds, - that she had no fortune, and
that she was a learned lady. The gentleman was as wrong in his facts
as mischievous in his advice to the poet to many. Miss Milbanke had
fortune, and she was not a learned lady. Such men as the two who held
a consultation on the points, whether a man entangled in intrigues and
overwhelmed with debts should release himself by involving a trusting
girl in his difficulties, and whether the girl should be Miss Milbanke
or another, were not likely to distinguish between the cultivated
ability of a sensible girl and the pedantry of a blue-stocking; and
hence, because Miss Milbanke was neither ignorant nor silly, she was
called a learned lady by Lord Byron's associates. He bore testimony, in
due time, to her agreeable qualities as a companion, - her brightness,
her genial nature, her quiet good sense; and we heard no more of her
"learning" and "mathematics," till it suited her enemies to get up a
theory of incompatibility of temper between her and her husband. The
fact was, she was well-educated, as education was then, and had the
acquirements which are common in every house among the educated classes
of English society.

She was born in 1792, and passed her early years chiefly on her father's
estates of Halnaby, near Darlington, Yorkshire, and Seaham, in Durham.
She retained a happy recollection of her childhood and youth, if one may
judge by her attachment to the old homes, when she had lost the power of
attaching herself, in later life, to any permanent home. When an offer
of service was made to her, some years since, by a person residing on
the Northumberland coast, the service she asked was that a pebble might
be sent her from the beach at Seaham, to be made into a brooch, and worn
for love of the old place.

Her father, as a Yorkshire baronet, spent his money freely. A good deal
of it went in election-expenses, and the hospitality of the house was
great. It was too orderly and sober and old-fashioned for Lord Byron's
taste, and he quizzed it accordingly; but he admitted the kindliness of
it, and the amiability which made guests glad to go there and sorry to
come away. His special records of Miss Milbanke's good-humor, spirit,
and pleasantness indicate the source of subsequent misrepresentations of
her. Till he saw it, he could not conceive that order and dutifulness
could coexist with liveliness and great charms of mind and manners; and
when the fact was out of sight, he went back to his old notion, that
affectionate parents and dutiful daughters must be dull, prudish, and

"Bell" was beloved as only daughters are, but so unspoiled as to be
sought in marriage as eagerly as if she had been a merry member of a
merry tribe. Lord Byron himself offered early, and was refused, like
many other suitors. Her feelings were not the same, however, to him as
to others. It is no wonder that a girl not out of her teens should be
captivated by the young poet whom the world was beginning to worship for
his genius as very few men are worshipped in their prime, and who could
captivate young and old, man, woman, and child, when he chose to try.
As yet, his habits of life and mind had not told upon his manners,
conversation, and countenance as they did afterwards. The beauty of his
face, the reserved and hesitating grace of his manner, and the pith and
strength of such conversation as he was tempted into might well win
the heart of a girl who was certainly far more fond of poetry than of
mathematics. Yet she refused him. Perhaps she did not know him enough.
Perhaps she did not know her own feelings at the moment. She afterwards
found that she had always loved him. His renewed offers at the close
of two years made her very happy. She was drawing near the end of her
portion of life's happiness; and she seems to have had no suspicion of
the baselessness of her natural and innocent bliss. It is probable that
nobody about her knew, any more than herself, how and why Lord Byron
offered to her a second time, till Moore published the facts in his
"Life" of the poet. The thrill of disgust which ran through every good
heart, on reading the story, made all sympathizers ask how she
could bear to learn how she had been treated in the confidences of
profligates. Perhaps she had known it long before, as her husband had
repeatedly tried his powers of terrifying and depressing her; but, at
all events, she could bear anything, - not only with courage and in
silence, but with calmness and inexhaustible mercy. According to Moore's
account, a friend of Byron's urged him to marry, as a remedy for the
melancholy restlessness and disorder of his life; "and, after much
discussion, he consented." The next proceedings were in character with
this "consent." Byron named Miss Milbanke: the friend objected, on the
grounds of her possession of learning and supposed want of fortune; and
Byron actually commissioned his adviser to propose for him to the lady
he did not prefer. She refused him; and then future proceedings were
determined by his friend's admiration of the letter he had got ready for
Miss Milbanke. It was such a pretty letter, it would be a pity not to
send it. So it was sent.

If she could have known, as she hung over that letter, what eyes had
read lines that should have been her own secret property, and as what
kind of alternative the letter had been prepared, what a different life
might hers have been! But she could not dream of being laid hold of as a
speculation in that style, and she was happy, - as women are for once in
their lives, and as she deserved to be. There was another alternative,
besides that of two ladies to be weighed in the balance. Byron was
longing to go abroad again, and he would have preferred that to
marrying; but the importunity of his friends decided him for marriage.
In a short time, and for a short time, Miss Milbanke's influence was too
strong for his wayward nature and his pernicious friends to resist. His
heart was touched, his mind was soothed, and he thought better of women,
and perhaps of the whole human race, than he had ever done before. He
wrote to Moore, who owned he had "never liked her," and who boded evil
things from the marriage, that she was so good that he wished he was
better, - that he had been quite mistaken in supposing her of "a very
cold disposition." These gentlemen had heard of her being regarded as "a
pattern lady in the North"; and they had made up an image of a prude and
a blue in their own minds, which Byron presently set himself to work to
pull down. He wrote against Moore's notion of her as "strait-laced," in
a spirit of justice awakened by his new satisfactions and hopes: but
there are in the narrative no signs of love on his part, - nothing more
than an amiable complacency in the discovery of her attachment to him.

The engagement took place in September, 1814, and the marriage in the
next January. Moore saw him in the interval, and had no remaining hope,
from that time, that Byron could ever make or find happiness in
married life. He was satisfied that love was, in Byron's case, only an
imagination; and he pointed to a declaration of Byron's, that, when in
the society of the woman he loved, even at the happiest period of his
attachment, he found himself secretly longing to be alone. Secretly
during the courtship, but not secretly after marriage.

"Tell me, Byron," said his wife, one day, not long after they were
married, and he was moodily staring into the fire, - "am I in your way?"

"Damnably," was the answer.

It will be remembered by all readers that the reason he assigned for the
good terms on which he remained with his half-sister, Mrs. Leigh, was
that they seldom or never saw each other.

When Moore saw him in London, he was in a troubled state of mind about
his affairs. His embarrassments were so pressing that he meditated
breaking off the match; but it was within a month of the wedding-day,
and he said he had gone too far to retract. - How it was that Sir Ralph
Milbanke did not make it his business to ascertain all the conditions
of a union with a man of Byron's reputation it is difficult to imagine.
Every movement of the idolized poet was watched, anecdotes of his life
and ways were in all mouths; and a prudent father, if encouraging his
addresses at all, should naturally have ascertained the chances of his
daughter having an honorable and happy home. Sir Ralph probably thought
so, when there were ten executions in the house in the first few months
after the marriage. Those difficulties, however, did not affect the
happiness of the marriage unfavorably. The wife was not the less of the
heroic temperament for being "a pattern young lady." She was one whose
spirit was sure to rise under pressure, and who was always most cheerful
when trouble called forth her energies on behalf of others. Liberal with
her own property, making light of privation, full of clear and practical
resource in emergency, she won her husband's admiration in the midst of
the difficulties into which he had plunged her. For a time he was not
ashamed of that admiration; and his avowals of it are happily on record.

They were married on the second of January. The wedding-day was
miserable. Byron awoke in one of his melancholy moods, and wandered
alone in the grounds till called to be married. His wayward mind was
full of all the associations that were least congenial with the day.
His thoughts were full of Mary Chaworth, and of old scenes in his life,
which he fancied he loved because he was now leaving them behind.
He declared that his poem of "The Dream" was a true picture of his
wedding-morning; and there are circumstances, not told in his "Life,"
which render this probable. After the ceremony and breakfast, the young
couple left Seaham for Sir Ralph's seat at Halnaby. Towards dusk of that
winter-day, the carriage drove up to the door, where the old butler
stood ready to receive his young lady and her bridegroom. The moment the
carriage-door was opened, the bridegroom jumped out and walked away.
When his bride alighted, the old servant was aghast. She came up
the steps with the listless gait of despair. Her face and movements
expressed such utter horror and desolation, that the old butler longed
to offer his arm to the lonely young creature, as an assurance of
sympathy and protection. Various stories got abroad as to the cause of
this horror, one probably as false as another; and, for his own part,
Byron met them by a false story of Miss Milbanke's lady's-maid having
been stuck in, bodkin-wise, between them. As Lady Byron certainly soon
got over the shock, the probability is that she satisfied herself that
he had been suffering under one of the dark moods to which he was
subject, both constitutionally and as the poet of moods.

It is scarcely possible at our time of day to make sufficient allowance
for such a woman having entered upon such a marriage, in spite of the
notoriety of the risks. Byron was then the idol of much more than the
literary world. His poetry was known by heart by multitudes of men and
women who read very little else; and one meets, at this day, elderly
men, who live quite outside of the regions of literature, who believe
that there never could have been such a poet before, and would say, if
they dared, that there will never be such another again. He appeared at
the moment when society was restless and miserable, and discontented
with the Fates and the universe and all that it contained. The general
sensibility had not for long found any expression in poetry. Literature
seemed something quite apart from experience, and with which none but
a particular class had any concern. At such a time, when Europe
lay desolate under the ravage and incessant menace of the French
Empire, - when England had an insane King, a profligate Regent, an
atrocious Ministry, and a corrupt Parliament, - when the war drained the
kingdom of its youth, and every class of its resources, - when there was
chronic discontent in the manufacturing districts, and hunger among the
rural population, with a perpetual extension of pauperism, swallowing
up the working and even the middle classes, - when everybody was full of

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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 07, No. 40, February, 1861 → online text (page 9 of 21)