An Extract From The Story: “The Saunters of Saunter Castle” (1835)

The Saunters of Saunter Castle

…A polite note, in form of a triangle, on rose-coloured paper, was written by Mrs. Fleetwood, conveying the request in the most winning terms, and Frederick, her eldest son —a lad of about sixteen, then at home for the vacation—was appointed envoy-extraordinary to present it to Miss Saunter.

And a most extraordinary envoy indeed he proved! Never did ambassador make his appearance at a foreign court after a fashion less likely to make an impression in his favour. It was just the time when velocipedes, or accelerators, as they were sometimes called, were all the rage; and it struck our young bazaar-commissioner that it would be capital fun to perform the journey to Castle Saunter upon one of these whimsical vehicles which had but a few days before come into his possession. The thing was done almost as soon as imagined. The road being perfectly smooth and level, in little more than half an hour Mr. Frederick Fleetwood made his entree, going as fast as a lamp-lighter, between the stone tortoises which had figured so grotesquely in aunt Catherine’s dream. “The Lord save us and keep us 1” exclaimed the gate-keeper.

The gatekeeper thought it was “the crack of doom;” he had no conception of any more unequivocal prognostic of the general dissolution. He followed the apparition with a gaze of astonishment and horror, until a clump of trees hid it from his view, and then returned to the lodge, murmuring between his few remaining teeth, whether a benison upon himself, or a malison upon young Fleetwood, (whom he ever afterwards with bitter irony called “a promising boy,”) it was not easy to determine. But who shall paint the consternation of the castle?  Who shall take it upon him to describe the mingled terror and petrifaction of its inmates, from the baronet in his blue velvet arm-chair, down to Dorothy, the fat scullery-maid in the kitchen. All intense feelings are speechless—the “infernal machine” was within a hundred yards of the door before the amazement which its first appearance spread through the family was sufficiently mitigated to be susceptible of utterance. Lady Saunter recovered her voice first. She let Baxter’s Saints’ Rest fall from her hands; clapped them to her eyes; and exclaimed, with the look of one who had seen a ghost, “Oh ! Catherine, Catherine!” Catherine was in no condition to answer; she had fallen on the floor in a kind of swoon. “What can it be?” said Letitia, pale as any snow-drop in February. “How frightful!” said Augusta, with a ghastly stare, now at her mother, now at the horrid object which came careering up the avenue like Mazeppa on the wild horse. “Oh, Hildebrand!” said Henrietta, “did you ever see any thing so shocking; can you guess what it is?” “It’s the velocipede,” replied Hildebrand, who had seen one at Oxford. “The velocipede, the velocipede!” exclaimed all the girls at once. “The velocipede!” cried her ladyship, “my love, what can bring the velocipede to Castle Saunter?” “Of all places in the world,” added Letitia, trying at the same time, by dint of smelling-salts, to recall her aunt’s senses. The cry of “the velocipede,” soon found its way through every part of the castle. Lucy, the ladies’ maid, had been in the drawing-room when Hildebrand announced the name, without explaining the nature of this novel and terrific visitor, and she flew immediately to the servants’ hall, screaming as she went, “the velocipede, the velocipede!” I met Ralph at the corner of the corridor leading to my bed-room, and asked him what was the matter. “The velocipede sir! the velocipede,” was the only answer I could get as he scampered up the back-stairs as if Halley’s great comet was at his heels. Ralph was the most consummate coward I ever met with; when the hubbub was over he was discovered, after a long search, at the bottom of a huge trunk in the house-keeper’s room, covered a foot deep with blankets. He never could give any clear account of the meaning he attached to the word velocipede; but I suppose he took it for some “horrible wild-fowl,” as Bottom (that prince of stage managers) says of the lion. Proceeding to the drawing-room, in order to learn what had taken place, from the ladies, and having to traverse a dark passage, I heard a female voice a few paces before me, exclaiming in the stifled accents of extreme terror, “Joseph, will it eat us?” The reply was worthy of as gallant a Perseus as ever drew sword for an Andromeda. “I’ll defend you, Dorothy, with my life. I will, Dorothy, my darling.” I had no occasion for day-light to tell me that I had stumbled on the coachman and the fat scullery-maid, playing Celadon and Amelia.

“Hers the mild lustre of the blooming morn,
And his the radiance of the risen day.”

The coachman afterwards acknowledged; that they both conceived the velocipede to be some dreadful beast of prey, escaped from an itinerant menagerie which had been very lately in the neighbourhood. Scarcely able to move with laughing, I made my way to the drawing-room. To my surprise I found nobody there but the baronet’s maiden sister, who was stretched on a sofa, looking miserably ill, and unable to articulate a syllable. I repaired to the library. I found the poor baronet in a fit, with his wife and all his children about him, uniting all their strength to carry him back from the window, where he had fallen, to his established seat at the fire-place. With my aid this was soon accomplished ; and then I begged of Henrietta, who was the least agitated, to tell me, in heaven’s name, what was the matter; that something awful had happened, there was very little room to doubt. “He saw it, he saw it!” was the only explanation I could get. I asked all the girls, and then her ladyship, the same question, but without avail. “He saw it!” was the only answer. “Saw what?”  said I to Hildebrand, with some impatience.  “Did he see a ghost or a goblin?” Almost as bad,” was the reply;” one of those confounded Fleetwoods on his accelerator. “Hildebrand said this with an energy that surprised me; but I was still more astonished when I heard him propose to ride off for Dr. Diddler, of Bedford. This I had too much regard for Sir Simon to allow; I took that office on myself, representing to Hildebrand that, in the dangerous state in which his father was, it would be wrong for any of his children to leave him but for an instant. I had to saddle my horse with my own hands: not a stable-boy was to be found. An earthquake could not have produced more general trepidation. Hiding round by the front of the castle, the first object I beheld was the innocent but unlucky author of all this confusion, just preparing, after an ineffectual battery for nearly half an-hoar at the hall door, to retrace his way to Bustle Hall, under the firm impression, from the uproar that reached his ears from the interior of the castle, that the whole Saunter family had gone stark staring mad. Not wishing to expose the foible of my relatives, I made the best apology in my power to young Fleetwood for the length of time he had been detained outside the fortress; told him that it was entirely owing to the sudden illness of the baronet; and offered to take upon myself the commission with which he came charged to my cousin. I then galloped off for the doctor by the back entrance to the demesne; leaving the knight of the velocipede to return by the road he came, and astound the weak understanding of the gate-keeper a second time by a degree of speed identified in his mind with a violation of all laws, human and divine, besides being an affront of the most outrageous kind to the family he served. Sir Simon was gradually restored by medical aid so far as to be able to totter upon crutches from one apartment to another; all the skill of Dr. Diddler could do no more. The velocipede was a blow at the very centre of his system; it unhinged the whole frame of his constitution; every body that knew him was aware from the first that his complete recovery was out of the question. He lingered, however, some months longer than was generally expected: nearly a year had elapsed from the unhappy event which has just been related, when Onslow, going into the library one morning about an hour after breakfast, found his venerable uncle dead in his chair, with one hand (steady to the last!) in his breeches-pocket, and the other grasping a crumpled letter which he had just received from his agent in London. The letter ran thus; it sufficiently accounts for Sir Simon’s sudden demise —the only hasty step he was ever known to take!

The Museum of foreign literature, science and art, Volume 26, Ekliam Littell, 1835, p. 707-709

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