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Tales of the Islanders
By Charlotte Brontë
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2011 Jessica Cox
All rights reserved.
The Play of the Islanders was formed, in December 1827, in the following manner. One night, about the time when the cold sleet and dreary fogs of November are succeeded by the snow storms and high piercing nightwinds of confirmed winter, we were all sitting round the warm blazing kitchen fire, having just concluded a quarrel with Taby concerning the propriety of lighting a candle from which she came off victorious, no candle having been produced. A long pause succeeded, which was at last broken by Branwell saying in a lazy manner, 'I don't know what to do.' This was re-echoed by Emily and Anne.
Taby: 'Wha' ya may go t'bed.'
Branwell: 'I'd rather do anything than that.'
Charlotte: 'You're so glum tonight. Well, suppose we had each an island.'
Branwell: 'If we had, I would choose the Island of Man.'
Charlotte: 'And I would choose the Isle of Wight.'
Emily: 'The Isle of Arran for me.'
Anne: 'And mine should be Guernsey.'
Charlotte: 'The Duke of Wellington should be my chief man.'
Branwell: 'Herries should be mine.'
Emily: 'Walter Scott should be mine.'
Anne: 'I should have Bentinck.'
Here our conversation was interrupted by the, to us, dismal sound of the clock striking seven and we were summoned off to bed. The next day we added several others to our list of names till we had got almost all the chief men in the kingdom.
After this, for a long time nothing worth noticing occurred. In June 1828, we erected a school on a fictitious island which was to contain a thousand children. The manner of the building was as follows: the island was fifty miles in circumference and certainly it appeared more like the region of enchantment or a beautiful fiction than sober reality. In some parts made terribly sublime by mighty rocks, rushing streams and roaring cataracts with here and there an oak either scathed by lightning or withered by time and, as if to remind the lonely passenger of what it once was, a green young scion twisting round its old grey trunk. In other parts of the island there were greenswards glittering, fountains springing in the flowery meadows or among the pleasant woods where fairies were said to dwell. Its borders embroidered by the purple, violet and the yellow primroses and the air perfumed by the sweet wild flowers and ringing with the sound of the cuckoo and turtledove or the merry music of the blackbird and thrush, formed the beautiful scenery.
One speciality around the palace school was a fine large park in which the beautiful undulations of hill and plain variegated the scenery which might otherwise have been monotonous. Shady groves crowned the hills, pure streams wandered through the plains watering the banks with a lovelier verdure, as clear lakes whose borders are overhung by the drooping willow, the elegant larch, the venerable oak and the evergreen laurel seemed the crystal, emerald-framed mirrors of some huge giant. Often at times it is said of one of the most beautiful of these lakes, that, when all is quiet, the music of fairyland may be heard and a tiny barge of red sandalwood, its mast of amber, its sails and cordage of silk and its oars of fine ivory may be seen skimming across the lake and, when its small crew have gathered the water lily plant, back again and, landing on the flowery bank, spread their transparent wings and melt away at the sound of mortal footsteps like the mists of the morning before the splendour of the sun.
From a beautiful grove of winter roses and twining woodbine, towers a magnificent palace of pure white marble whose elegant and finely wrought pillars and majestic turrets seem the work of mighty Genii and not of feeble men. Ascending a flight of marble steps you come to a grand entrance which leads into a hall surrounded by Corinthian pillars of white marble. In the midst of the hall is a colossal statue holding, in each hand, a vase of crystal from which rushes a stream of clear water and, breaking into a thousand diamonds and pearls, falls into a basin of pure gold and, disappearing through an opening, rises again in different parts of the park in the form of brilliant fountains – these, falling, part into numerous rills which, winding through the ground, throw themselves into a river which runs into the sea.
At the upper end of the hall was a grove of orange trees bearing the golden fruit and fragrant blossoms, often upon the same branch. From this hall you pass into another splendid and spacious apartment, all hung with rich, deep, crimson velvet and from the grand dome is suspended a magnificent lustre of fine gold, the drops of which are pure crystal. The whole length of the room run long sofas covered also with crimson velvet. At each end are chimneypieces of dove-colour Italian marble, the pillars of which are of the Corinthian order, fluted and wreathed with gold. From this, we pass into a smaller but very elegant room, the sofas of which are covered with light-blue velvet flowered with silver and surrounded with small white marble columns.
And now from fine halls and splendid drawing rooms, I must begin to describe scenes of a very different nature. In the hall of the fountain, behind a statue, is a small door over which is drawn a curtain of white silk. This door, when opened, discovers a small apartment, at the further end of which is a very large iron door which leads to a long dark passage at the end of which is a flight of steps leading to a subterranean dungeon which I shall now endeavour to describe.
It has the appearance of a wide vault dimly lit by a lamp of asphalt which casts a strange death like lustre over part of the dungeon and leaves the rest in the gloom and darkness of midnight. In the middle is a slab of black marble supported by four pillars of the same. At the head of it stands a throne of iron. In several parts of the vault are instruments of torture for this place is the dreadful hall where wicked cockneys are judged by that most unjust of judges: C.N. and his gang S, T.O.D and the rest. At the end of this dungeon is the entrance to the cells which are appropriated to the private and particular use of Hal B. Stunt, the cockneys and the naughty schoolchildren. These cells are dark, vaulted, arched and so far down in the earth that the loudest shriek could not be heard by any inhabitant of the upper world, and in these, as well as the dungeon, the most unjust torturing might go on without any fear of detection if it was not that I keep the key of the dungeon and Emily keeps the key of the cells and the huge strong iron entrances will brave any assault except with the lawful instruments.
The children which inhabit this magnificent palace are composed only of the young nobles of the land, except such as Johnny Lockhart. The chief governor under us is the Duke of Wellington. This, however, is only an honorary distinction as, when applied to, his Grace returned the following answer:
Little King and Queens (these are our titles), I am sorry to say my avocations of soldier and statesman will not allow me to comply with your requests that I would be governor of some hundreds, not to say any thousands, of children, unless the title be merely honorary and I am to have a few scores of subordinates under me.
With the request that it may be I remain your obedient subject, W.
The request was complied with.
The guards for keeping the children in order and taking them out to walk are the Marquis of Douro and Lord Charles Wellesley for which they are peculiarly fitted as they lead them into the wildest and most dangerous parts of the country, leaping rocks, precipices, chasms etc. and little caring whether the children go before or stop behind and finally coming home with about a dozen wanting, who are found a few days after in hedges or ditches with legs or heads broken and affording a fine field for Sir A. Hume, Sir A. Cooper and Sir H. Halford to display their different modes of setting and trepanning.
The guards for threshing the children when they do wrong (sometimes they exercise the privilege when they do not need it) are Colonel O'Shaugnesy and his nephew Fogharty. These are often eminently useful. I forgot to mention that Branwell has a large black club with which he thumps the children upon occasion and that most unmercifully. I have now done my notices of the school children for the present.
Among our islanders there are the Baines': three sons T., E. and T., who go by the separate names of Toltol, Nedned (or sometimes R.R. and Raten) and Tomtom. These three are the most mischievous trio in existence: Tol is about two foot long, Nedned is half the length of his brother and Tom is three-quarters as long as Ned. Tol is dressed in a lawyer's gown and a huge wig which reaches to his feet and wraps round him; Rat is attired in a coarse piece of sackcloth tied round the neck and feet with rope and having the appearance of a tail and ears and Tom is dressed in the dress of a reporter.
About a year ago, as we were wandering in one of the woods which belong to the great domain of Strathfeildsay, we heard a low voice behind us saying, 'There has been a storm today and the now blue and radiant arch of the mighty firmament has been overcast with dark clouds, the gloom of which was only broken by fierce gleams of lightning which shot across the black vapours like the word of revenge through the clouds; hatred which obscured the bright dawn of Whigish intellect! And I was appointed to be their avenger! Yes, this arm,' (here we saw an arm of little more than an inch long dart through the foliage), 'this arm shall wreak their spite upon the head of that stern Duke in whose domains I am. But soon I shall bring his pride down to the dust and make him bow. To the sovereign people.' Then with a rush through the tangled grass (for the spiteful creature did not reach higher than the grass) it reached the park gate, but here a great obstacle presented itself, for the keeper of the gate is an old veteran who has followed the Duke through all his wars and attended him in all his battles and if he had seen the animal he would certainly have taken it for a rat and would have treated it accordingly. Ned turned round and, seeing us, he said 'Little Queens will you open that gate?' As we wished to see the end of this adventure we took Raten up and threw him over the high wall and then knocked at the gate. We presently heard a rustling among the trees and the soldier stood before us.
Little Queen: 'If you please, Orderly-Man, will you open that gate for us.'
Orderly-Man: 'I must first know who you are.'
Little Queen: 'We're little Queens.'
Orderly-Man: 'O, you are, are you? Come then.'
So saying, he opened the gate and we entered. Raten ran swiftly up the park and narrowly escaped been trodden to death by a deer which bounded close past him. There was, however, one thing which threatened to stop his progress and that was a river that gently and silently was winding its way through the park. For a while, he stood still on its banks and looked around, and behind him was the large wood he had just quitted. It was situated on a high hill and covered to the top with dark green foliage interspersed here and there with the lightly waving branches of the purple beech or the pale green of the white poplar. On each side of him lay the extensive and beautiful park, bounded by the wide domains of the great Duke, before him was the splendid mansion of Strathfeildsay and close to his feet was the river, on the opposite banks of which stood a deer – stooping its head and branching antlers to drink of the pure waters which flowed before it. On the branches of a young oak, which grew close by to the stream, sat a nightingale which was beginning its early song to the silver moon that now appeared like a pale crescent in the clear sky of the east. Over all the setting sun shed a golden radiance which invested everything with a splendour that made it appear like burning gold.
For a while, Raten seemed moved by the beauty of the scene but suddenly exclaiming 'R.R., no weakness!' he leaped into the river and, swimming across, he gained the opposite bank, then running with inconceivable swiftness up the rest of the park he reached the house, ran through the hall, the gallery, the stairs and at last reached the Duke's library. Nobody was there and upon the table stood a tumbler of water; into this Raten put something which however did not change its colour, then leaping from the table, he hid himself behind a large book which lay on the carpet.
Just then, the sound of footsteps was heard in the gallery, the door opened and a tall man with the air and carriage of a soldier entered, followed by another who was likewise tall but very stout. The first was his grace the Duke of Wellington and the second was Sir Alexander Hume. As soon as they entered, the Duke took from a shelf a volume and, sitting down, the following conversation ensued.
Wellington: 'Hume, what do you think of Walter Scott's History of Napoleon?'
Hume: 'Do you mean me to take the fact of it being written by a pekin into consideration my lord?'
Hume: 'Then, I think it is written as well as a pekin is capable of writing.'
Wellington: 'Do you think it has any truth in it?'
Hume: 'A great deal, my Lord.'
Wellington: 'You have given it a high meed of praise.'
Hume: 'Do you think I have praised it too highly?'
Wellington: 'Oh no.'
Hume: 'I would never wish to praise a pekin too much.'
After this a silence of about half an hour ensued and still the Duke did not touch the water. Raten began to be impatient and to fear for the success of his enterprise. At last his grace took up the glass and drained its contents. Raten was on the point of giving a shriek through joy but restrained himself. Just then Hume said, 'I never thought much good came of drinking cold water.' And a few minutes after, he exclaimed, 'My Lord are you well? How pale, how very pale you are. I never saw anybody more so.'
Here, Raten shouted out 'And pale he will always be.' The Duke fixed his stern eye on him and the creature shrank shuddering back to his corner. 'My Lord, are you dying? Ring the bell, little Queens.'
His Grace's features collapsed with agony, the volume fell from his hand and he sank back in his chair. Just then a loud yell rang in our ears, a rushing noise was heard and a giant of clouds stood before us. He touched the Duke and new life seemed to be given him. He stood up and in a firm tone demanded the name of the giant. It answered with a voice of thunder 'Mystery' and then slowly vanished.
His grace then ordered everyone out of his presence and a few days after Raten was found in his father's house at Leeds pale with horror trembling and half dead but how he got there is uncertain. Nor could he ever be induced to give any explanation and truly a mystery doth the whole affair remain to this day.
Prince Leopold and Sir George Hill have always entertained a great dislike to the Marquis of Douro and Lord Charles Wellesley. Prince Leopold, it is well known, is a very mean sort of personage with an appearance of cunning about him that is very disagreeable. Sir George Hill is frank and brave, somewhat given to gambling and an undue dislike of pekins. It has been lately surmised that he only pretends to dislike Arthur and Charles Wellesley for a little amusement and this is most likely true.
A little while ago, as Emily and me one stormy night were going through the wood which leads to school, we saw by the light of the moon which just then broke through a cloud, the flashing of some bright substance. The moon then became obscured and we could discern nothing more but see very black cloud. We heard a well-known voice saying, 'O, Arthur, I wish we had never come! What will my father say if he ever gets to know of it? And I am beginning to get very cold for it rains fast and the wind is high.'
'Wrap your fur cloak closer round you, Charles, and let us lean against this old tree for I shall not be able to stand much longer without some support. The sky is quite covered with dark clouds and how dismally the wind is moaning among the trees.'
'Arthur, what was that noise I heard? Listen.'
'It is a raven, Charles. I am not much given to superstition but I remember hearing my grandmother say it is a sign that something bad is coming to pass.'
'If we were to die here tonight and, remember, Arthur, we came here by appointment of two of our worst enemies, what would my mother do, and my father -'
Excerpted from Tales of the Islanders by Charlotte Brontë. Copyright © 2011 Jessica Cox. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
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