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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

James Payn (1830–1898)

A Mediæval Mistake

From “High Spirits”

BUT few of my readers can, I conclude, remember the “Young England” days, when there was an attempt made to revive in this country some fine old mediæval customs. Certain high-souled individuals who shall be nameless—though some of them have made great names for themselves in the interim, under very unexpected circumstances—conceived that they had actually put their fingers upon that illusory date “the good old times,” and would fain have galvanised them back to life:
  • “They revived all usages thoroughly worn out,
  • The souls of them fumed forth, the hearts of them torn out,”
  • and even got up a tournament. A few old fellows still remember it, with poor Theodore Hook’s joke upon Sir Campbell of Saddel, who, more by good luck than good guidance of his adversary’s lance, was somehow “thrown out of his family seat.” It was the “Renaissance period,” of Yule-logs and happy tenantries—whose bread, however, was not cheap—and it was hoped by certain noble enthusiasts that condescension and patronage would lose all unpleasantness, and indeed fail to be recognised under the guise of a paternal feudalism.

    It was a failure of course; no one can “revive the mastodon”—a circumstance for which those who, like myself, find mere bulls sufficiently alarming, have reason to be grateful. But though the scheme fairly glittered with tinsel and gewgaws, and was much too gorgeously advertised, it was not all pinchbeck; or at all events some of those who believed in it had about them the ring of the true metal—albeit a little cracked.

    Among the nobility, and in certain great houses in the country, hospitality was revived upon the most extensive scale, and in some cases so splendidly, that it made almost as great a hole in the estates of the family as though it had taken to mining. Oxen were roasted whole where formerly the guest only got his mutton cutlet, and instead of a kitchen range there was a bonfire.

    Frank Selwyn, a young medical friend of mine at that time, used to speak in high terms of this mediæval revival, because he foresaw that one of its consequences, if generally carried out, would be a universal indigestion.

    With plenty, however, it was held necessary for historical consistency to mix discomfort.

    It was said that the Marquis of Millefleurs (who had the best Norman blood in Yorkshire) had discarded gas and even colza, and had his dining-room lit by men in steel with flambeaux; and that Lord de Bœuf slept on an ivory couch between the blankets and without night-gear, because that was the mode in the Middle Ages.

    Frank Selwyn, however, knew nothing of the doings of these great people, except by report. He was of good family, but they were not good enough to indulge in these eccentricities without the risk of being shut up as lunatics; and even if he had had a taste that way himself, he wanted his money for a very modern use indeed—namely, to buy a practice with in London. At six-and-twenty he purchased a partnership with old Dr. Dalrymple, of Brown Street, Park Lane, who attended some of the first folks in the land, and never took a fee from an untitled person without being fully persuaded that he could afford it. His notions were of the old school; he dosed and bled his noble patients till they were like “the ruined shells of hollow towers,” and then he built them up again and filled them out with beef-steaks and port wine. He had, indeed, no fancy for this new fashion of old fashions—no doctor is a fanatic, it may be observed, in anything but medicine and surgery—but as some of his clients were addicted to it, he looked upon the weakness with a very charitable eye.

    “It is not enough nowadays to take things as we find them, my dear Selwyn,” he would say good-humouredly, “but as we used to find them. If a patient thinks a fumigation of boiled hollyhock and fennel will do him good because his ancestor in King John’s time used it, let him be fumigated. Never cross a patient in little things. Lord Vavasour thinks there is nothing like gold for his system because Galen speaks of it as a fine old remedy. In a general way—that is, to the general practitioner—this might be dangerous, because, once in the system, gold remains there, and one must wait for the post-mortem to get it out again; but with our patients we always see our money back. Therefore, give them gold.”

    Whatever Selwyn may have thought of Dr. Dalrymple professionally, he had no doubt of his wisdom as a man of the world, and was quite willing to profit by it. Moreover, his own conscience was not burdened by adopting these abnormal modes of treatment, since his practice lay among the middle class of patients—who were rarely bitten by this mania—while his principal kept the bigwigs for himself. But on one occasion Dr. Dalrymple fell a victim to the very malady which it was his chief office to cure in others—the gout. It was his own impression that he caught it of some of his patients. He felt certain, living so moderately as he did, with only a glass or two of Madeira at luncheon, and one bottle of wholesome port, “without a headache in a hogshead of it”—after dinner, that he couldn’t have got it in any other way. Claret, indeed, he took with his meals in considerable quantities, and his feeding was rather extensive, considering that he never set foot on the ground save from his brougham to his client’s door; but then he never touched beer (because he didn’t like it), and what business has a man to get the gout who does not touch beer?

    His reasoning was sound enough, no doubt; but still he got the gout, and in both feet. And while in that abject condition an express arrived from Lord de Bracy, of Donjon Towers, to request his immediate attendance. It was, of course, impossible that he could move, so he sent for Selwyn.

    “My dear friend,” he said, “you must be off into Kent at once; his lordship has the rheum.”

    “The what?” inquired Selwyn.

    “Oh, I forgot; you don’t know his peculiarities. Lord de Bracy is about twenty-four generations behind his time. He ought to have been born—I mean, to have flourished (that’s the word)—in the thirteenth century. It is generally the young people who take up with these notions, but there is no fool like an old fool, and De Bracy has been bitten by them. You will find everything about him but his daughters—for they’re young and charming—mediæval. And whatever you do, take care that you keep a grave face. You’re a capital fellow, you know, but a little—shall I say skittish? At Donjon Towers skittishness would be fatal. If you make a joke down there, it must be in Latin; and not in good Latin either; it must be monkish.”

    “And will Lord de Bracy really talk about his rheum, sir?” inquired Selwyn.

    “Good Heavens! of course he will. You will surely be serious when prescribing for him. I take it for granted that professional feeling will enable you to withstand any temptation to the contrary. He is the proudest man in England—the very proudest.”

    “My dear Dr. Dalrymple, not a smile shall pass my lips,” said Selwyn confidently.

    “Pass them? I hope not; nor ever reach them. I am afraid you are too young, my dear sir; I tremble for what may happen. Upon my life, if you were to laugh at him, I don’t know to what lengths he might not go; he believes he has feudal rights, and may hang you. At all events, we should lose our best patient.”

    “Indeed, sir,” pleaded Selwyn, “you may rely on me. I will be as cautious as though I were brushing flies off a sleeping Venus.”

    “Heavens, what a simile!” murmured the doctor to himself; “he is certainly very young. However, we must take our chance.”

    “I had better start at once, I suppose?” said the junior partner.

    “Certainly. I have ordered the carriage and posters on. You are doing double work now and have no time to lose. His lordship will give you a bed, of course; he is the very soul of hospitality. It is like a page out of ‘Ivanhoe’ to dine with him. He will treat you with the utmost consideration, you may be sure of that. But you must return from the Towers the first thing in the morning.”

    “You may depend upon that, sir; I shall be glad enough to get away, I’m sure.”

    Dr. Dalrymple shook his head; that was not the frame of mind, he thought, in which a medical man should start upon a professional visit. Still, though Selwyn was young and impulsive, and much too “natural,” not to say honest, for a fashionable physician, he knew he had plenty of common-sense, and to that he trusted.

    Within half an hour Dr. Selwyn (for he had got his diploma) was whirling down the Old Kent Road in a carriage-and-four.

    The evening had not fallen when he came in sight of Donjon Towers. The edifice stood on a hill, and, being of great magnitude, could be seen as far off as Windsor Castle. The park, through which the private road led, seemed as though it would never end; and when he reached the last avenue of stately oaks, such was its length that it appeared to meet ahead of him, and bar his progress after all.

    “This is tremendous,” thought Selwyn; “but I much prefer the villa residences in the Regent’s Park.”

    The court-yard in front of the mansion could have accommodated the whole Household troops, and the stone steps that led to it were of an extent that suggested steppes in Siberia.

    Two lackeys descended them as he drove up, and another stood at the top of them who received him with a profound obeisance. The former were draped in russet with linen girdles, the latter in broadcloth of curious cut, but it was not livery; in the hall a groom-of-the-chambers at once took him up to his room; such, he said, being his master’s orders when guests came off a journey. From this it seemed, since Selwyn had mentioned his errand, that his lordship’s malady was not of a very pressing nature.

    The apartment into which he was ushered would have contained his own little house in Bayswater, roof and all, but it lacked its cheerfulness. The floor was of polished oak, and the walls were tapestried; the bed seemed several stories high, and had a canopy of black velvet. “In such a bed, if one cannot sleep,” thought poor Selwyn, “one could be very suitably interred.”

    Having put on his dinner-clothes, the groom-of-the-chambers led him to his master’s presence.

    His lordship was in the library, and, as the doctor entered, rose and advanced three steps to meet him. He was a tall pale man of aristocratic appearance, with snow-white hair and beard, but inclining to corpulence.

    “I am sorry that Dr. Dalrymple is indisposed,” said he very civilly, though with great stateliness of manner; “but I am nevertheless pleased to make the acquaintance of his substitute.”

    Selwyn bowed his thanks, and at once inquired what ailed his lordship.

    “The old malady,” answered Lord de Bracy solemnly, “the rheum.”

    “Umph—ah,” returned Selwyn, looking as wise as he could, and full of sympathy.

    “It is accompanied this time,” continued his lordship, “by ill-humours in the head. I have tried tansy pudding, which is generally soverayne against it, but without effect.”

    “Are you sure you have taken nothing to disturb the digestion, my lord—no unusual food, for example?”

    “I had some peacock for lunch yesterday; but nothing—you may read it in Chaucer—is more wholesome; all my family eat peacock. On the other hand, I must confess that I had boiled veal for dinner.”

    “I don’t think that would have hurt you any more than the peacock,” said Selwyn gravely.

    “It was, however, served with verjuice, a most capital sauce, and greatly admired by our ancestors—but my system seems to reject it.”

    “I think it was very possibly the verjuice,” observed Selwyn.

    “I have done all that the wisdom of our ancestors has recommended,” continued his lordship. “I have had a hole made in my night-cap to carry off the ill-humours, and have always lain on my left side. I have chewed mastic before going to rest, and I have resisted all temptation to sleep after a full meal, especially of porpoise.”

    “Do you eat much porpoise?” inquired Selwyn.

    “No; I am sorry to say it is very difficult to obtain; the prejudices of modern days have almost prohibited it as an article of consumption. You have no personal objection to porpoise, I trust, Dr. Selwyn?”

    “Not the least, my lord. I approve of it myself no less than I do of peacock.”

    “I am delighted to find Dr. Dalrymple has so intelligent a partner; in country places, such as this, I find the most obstinate objections on the part of medical men to the most simple food, unless it happens to be of modern acceptance.”

    “Your appetite is tolerably good, my lord?”

    “Yes, indeed. You shall judge for yourself, however; there strikes the dinner-hour. You shall give me your advice in the evening.”

    A noise equal to a flourish of trumpets had been going on for some minutes, and there now entered a major-domo with a long white wand, who ushered his master and his guest through two lines of serving-men, into the banquet-hall. Covers were laid but for two persons, which rather disappointed the young doctor. The earl, he knew, was a widower, but he had hoped to meet some of his daughters, who had a great reputation for beauty.

    The repast, however, was a sufficiently notable one to make up for the absence of company.

    There were a great many servants, each with a towel round his neck as well as on his arm, and the dishes they brought in—which were enough for ten times the number of guests—were wonderful. There were no plats such as might be expected at a nobleman’s table who kept a French cook; all was solid and huge. Pea-soup and frumenty were brought in in great silver tureens. Then lampreys with onions, a dish of which his lordship partook so plentifully as to remind his guest of a certain historical association with it, and also to suggest a very reasonable explanation of his “humours.” There was a baron of beef, of course; and then a cygnet served with liver sauce. And here, the larger dishes having come to an end, a curious difference was made in the waiting. All the male servitors disappeared, and were succeeded by four neat-handed and pretty girls in a sort of white-and-blue uniform made of some old-fashioned material. The first delicacy they served Selwyn with was a beaver’s tail; and he almost fancied that the extreme caution he manifested in taking the first morsel induced one of them—the prettiest—to smile. Lord de Bracy ate of this very heartily, and washed it down with ypocras, a drink spiced (as Selwyn was afterward informed) with cinnamon and heliotrope, but at all events with something very nasty. After this there was kid and ginger sauce, and a curlew with salt and sugar. And then came the “sutiltees,” as they were termed: sweets (or “devices”), pretty substantial castles of pie-crust or sweetmeats—to all which the noble host did such justice as to leave the origin of his maladies in no doubt. Then to the sideboard, groaning with gold plate, the waiting-maids brought two silver basins full of rose-water, wherein their lord and the doctor dipped their hands, and dinner at last was over.

    The effect of lampreys and beavers’ tails, when accompanied by ypocras in any quantity, is somnolence, and Lord de Bracy seemed by no means inclined for conversation. So, after half-an-hour’s “bald disjointed chat,” Selwyn wrote out his prescription, and bade his noble host good-night upon the plea that he had to start for town next morning at a very early hour. He did not sleep particularly well; he dreamt that he was being put to death by the Swanhoppers’ Company—this was the cygnet and liver sauce, no doubt—for killing a curlew; and was glad enough to wake and find himself in a century when the laws are not so severe. It was quite a relief to him, too, to remember that his host would not be up to breakfast with him and see him off; for though he had been treated with the utmost hospitality, Lord de Bracy’s society was on the whole oppressive, and he had by no means enjoyed his visit to Donjon Towers. It was an interesting experience, no doubt, but that is often a matter less pleasant in action than to talk about afterward. He had had to act a part from first to last, to restrain all natural expressions of impatience or incredulity; and, in short, he was pining for fresh air.

    He could but toy with the boar’s head that was the pièce de résistànce upon the sideboard, and declined with unhesitating frankness the cup of mead that was offered him by one of the serving-men. When his carriage was announced, he was following the groom-of-the-chambers who had come up to his room for his portmanteau, when his attention was suddenly arrested by a pretty housemaid. It was the prettiest—the dark one—of the girls that had waited at table, and she had been doubtless watching outside his door, as servants will do, even in the best conducted households, for a little present. Nay, in all probability, in Donjon Towers the old system of “vails” was in full operation, and he felt (considering, too, how pretty she was) that he could hardly give her less than gold. He took, therefore, half a sovereign from his purse, and seeing her smile roguishly as he did so, and also that the groom was well out of sight, he accompanied the gift with a chuck under the chin. It was not right of him, of course; but the delight of getting away from that tremendous mansion (as he subsequently explained) no doubt put him in abnormally high spirits. At all events, he did it; and as she only blushed, and didn’t say a word, he flattered himself that he had done rather a handsome thing in a pleasant fashion.

    As to the whole visit, he felt indeed that he had acquitted himself, under very trying circumstances, exceedingly well, and had made a good impression.

    He found Dr. Dalrymple not much improved in health, the fact being, as he confessed, that he had been in considerable anxiety as to the result of his young partner’s visit to the Towers.

    “Well, and how did it all go off?” was his first question.

    “Oh, capitally; nothing could have been kinder than his lordship, but he’s very heavy in hand.”

    “Ah, you found out that!” returned the other, rubbing his hands. “I have attended him these twenty years. Certainly one ought to be well paid, when one has to dine—eh—and listen to a patient out of the way of business. Well, and how is his rheum, as he calls it?”

    “Well, I’d much sooner have his rheum than his company,” said Selwyn, laughing. “The fact is, there is nothing at all the matter with him but over-eating. And such things, too, porpoises and peacocks!”

    “Ah, I’ve eaten porpoise at the Towers,” sighed the old doctor, with the air of one who recalls a self-sacrifice.

    “I dare say it is no worse than a beaver’s tail,” protested Selwyn. “However, it was a very interesting dinner. After the big things had been disposed of, the serving-men retired, and——”

    “And then the girls came in!” interrupted the old doctor excitedly. “That always happens when you dine at the Towers for the first time. It’s his lordship’s notion of doing the honours of hospitality—borrowed from the time of Edward the Confessor, I believe. The ladies of the family wait on the guest.”

    “The ladies of the family!” reiterated Selwyn, aghast with horror. “Do you mean to say those four girls in blue and white were Lord de Bracy’s daughters?”

    “Of course they were; did you think they were housemaids?”

    Selwyn answered nothing, though he was quite certain he had taken at least one of them for such.

    “Well, I wonder you did not see they had an aristocratic air. Perhaps I ought to have told you how it would be, beforehand. However, De Bracy will like you all the better for taking the thing as a matter of course. Some men will jump up and hand the dishes themselves, because it distresses them to be waited on in that way; but it is better to fall in with the host’s fancy.”

    “Do you remember,” gasped poor Selwyn, “what was the name of the darkest of the young ladies?”

    “Of course I do; you’ve a sharp eye, you young dog! She’s the youngest, and the beauty—Lady Ermengarde. They tell me that, when not playing at being mediæval, she is full of fun. I hope you are not ‘hit,’ because she is a leetle above you, my dear Selwyn. Perhaps the best blood in all England.”

    And nevertheless Frank had given her half a sovereign, and chucked her under the chin!

    For weeks he was in expectation of some terrible vengeance overtaking him at the hands of reckless minions of feudalism, but, as it happened, nothing was done. It would have been an immense relief to his mind to have known that Lady Ermengarde Plantagenet had some humour (not of the sort for which her noble father took tansy pudding), and that she had taken his mistake in excellent part. She was accustomed to wear for years upon her châtelaine, in company with many less useful articles, a certain half-sovereign with a hole through it, the history of which she would never reveal. It was a present, she said, from a young gentleman. But, though Lord de Bracy had the rheum again and again (he eventually died of it), and sent for Dr. Dalrymple many times, always with the polite proviso that, if it should be inconvenient for the doctor, his junior partner would be equally acceptable, Frank Selwyn never again set foot in Donjon Towers.