Secure he'd rise to-morrow.
I therefore called at the great man's house, and found the umbrella in the exact corner in the ante-room where it had been left a fortnight before, and told the porter to announce my name to his master. I waited in anxiety in the hall a few moments. The footman returned, saying his master was engaged, but if I would walk upstairs Mr. Beckford would come to me. The servant led the way to the Duchess Drawing Room, opened the door, and on my entering he retired, leaving me alone in this gorgeous apartment, wondering what the dickens I did there. You may suppose I was not a little delighted at this mark of confidence, and spent several minutes examining the pictures till the author of "Vathek" entered, his countenance beaming with good nature and affability. He extended his hand in the kindest manner, and said he was extremely glad to see me. I instantly declared the purport of my visit, that I had some copies of pictures that were once in his possession, and that it would give me the greatest possible pleasure to show them to him. "I shall be delighted to see them" was the reply, "but for some days I am rather busy; I will come next week." "You have had a visit from the author of 'Italy'," I observed; "people say that you like Mr. R.'s poem." "Oh yes, some passages are very beautiful. He is a man of considerable talent; but who was that person he brought with him? What a delightful man! I suppose it was Mr. L." I replied, "I believe they are great friends."
"What an awful state the country is in (he observed)! One has scarcely time to think about poetry or painting, or anything else, when our stupid, imbecile Government allows public meetings of 150,000 men, where the most inflammatory language is used and the common people are called on to arm, beginning, too, with solemn prayer. Their prayer will never succeed. No, no, their solemn prayer is but a solemn mockery. They seemed to have forgotten the name of the only Mediator, without whose intercession all prayer is worse than useless. Well, well (said Mr.
Beckford), depend upon it we shall have a tremendous outbreak before long. The ground we stand on is trembling, and gives signs of an approaching earthquake. Then will come a volcanic eruption; you will have fire, stones, and lava enough. Afterwards, when the lava has cooled, there will be an inquiry for works of art. I assure you I expect everything to be swept away." I ventured to differ from him in that opinion, and said I was convinced that whatever political changes might happen, property was perfectly secure. "Some reforms," I said, "would take place, and many pensions perhaps be swept away, but such changes would never affect him or his, and after all it was but a matter of pounds, shillings, and pence." "There you are right," he exclaimed. "If anything can save us 'twill be pounds, shillings, and pence," meaning, I suppose, a union of all classes who possessed property, from the pound of the peer to the penny of the plebeian. "But the present times are really very critical. Have you time to go through the rooms with me?" he demanded. I replied that nothing would give me greater pleasure. "But perhaps you are going somewhere?" I answered that I was perfectly disengaged. Passing along the landing of the stairs he paused before the Alderman's portrait, and observed, "Had my father's advice been taken we should not now be in danger of starvation." I ventured to say that in those days there was more reciprocal feeling between the poor and the rich than at present; now a-days classes are so divided by artificial barriers that there is little or no sympathy between any. "You are mistaken," he replied. "As long as I remember anything there was always discontent, always heartburning; but at the time of my father's speech dissatisfaction had risen to such a pitch that I assure you these people were on the point of being sent back to the place they came from." (He alluded to the present Royal Family).
Mr. Beckford opened the door of the great library, and on entering I immediately discovered the cause of my being so much puzzled as to its architecture. There are two doors in this magnificent room; one leads to the Duchess Drawing Room, the other to the landing, and to produce the air of privacy so delightful to a bookworm the latter is covered with imitative books, exactly corresponding with the rest of the library. I remembered on my first entering the room from the staircase, and when the servant had closed the door, there appeared but one entrance, which was that by which we left this noble room, passing thence into the Duchess's room. I puzzled my brains in vain to make out the geography of the place, but could make neither top nor tail, and should never have solved the enigma but for this third visit. "I have been to Fonthill," he said, "since I saw you. I don't think much of what Papworth has done there. I rode thirty-eight miles in one day without getting out of the saddle.
That was pretty well, eh?" I thought so indeed for a man in his seventy- ninth year.
On the 28th of October, 1844, we left Bath determined to examine the once far-famed Abbey of Fonthill, and to see if its scenery was really as fine as report had represented. The morning was cold and inauspicious, but when we reached Warminster the sun burst out through the mists that had obscured him, and the remainder of the day was as genial and mild as if had been May. We procured the aid of a clownish bumpkin to carry our carpet bag, and left Warminster on foot. About four miles from that town those barren and interminable downs are reached which seem to cover the greater part of Wiltshire. The country is as wild as the mountain scenery of Wales, and the contrast between it and the polished city we had left in the morning was truly singular. We took the road to _Hindon_, but a worthy old man, of whom we asked particulars, pointed out a pathway, which cut off at least a mile and a half. We followed his direction, and left the high road. Mounting the hill by a steep and chalky road we reached a considerable elevation; before us extended a succession of downs, and in the extreme distance a blue hill of singular form, at least nine miles off, was crowned by buildings of very unusual appearance. Curiosity as to the place was at its utmost stretch, but our ignorant bumpkin could tell nothing about it. It surely cannot be Fonthill was the instant suggestion? Impossible. Can we see the remains at this distance? We continued our walk for about two miles, without losing sight of this interesting edifice, and at length all doubts were cleared in the certainty that the long wished-for object was absolutely before us. It is impossible to describe the feelings of interest experienced by the sight of these gigantic remains. The eastern transept still rises above the woods, a point, pinnacle, and round tower.
Descending the hill towards Hindon we lost sight of the Abbey. A most singular specimen of country life was presented by an old shepherd, of whom we inquired the way. "How far is it to Hindon?" "About four miles." "Is this the right road?" "Yes, you cannot miss it, but I haven't been there these forty years. Naa, this is forty years agone save two that I went to Hindon: 'twas in 1807."
This place, which once sent members to Parliament, and which the author of "Vathek" himself represented for many years, is not so large as the village of Batheaston! There are neither lamps nor pavement, but it possesses a most picturesque little church. It was one of the rotten boroughs swept away, and properly enough, by the Reform Bill. Here our rustic relinquished his burden to a Hindon lad, who acted as our future cicerone, and undertook to show us the way to the inn called the Beckford Arms. Soon after leaving Hindon the woods of Fonthill were reached. We mounted a somewhat steep hill, and here met with a specimen of the gigantic nature of the buildings. A tunnel about 100 feet long passed under the noble terrace, reaching from Knoyle to Fonthill Bishop, at least three miles in length; the tunnel was formed to keep the grounds private. The beech trees, now arrayed in gaudy autumnal tints, seen through this archway have a lovely effect. Emerging from the tunnel, the famous wall, seven miles long, was just in front. To the left you trace the terrace, on a charming elevation, leading to Fonthill Gardens, and here and there you have glimpses of the great lake. The ground is broken and varied in the most picturesque fashion. You pass some cottages that remind you of Ryswick, and soon come to the church of Fonthill Gifford.
This church is perfectly unique in form, its architecture purely Italian; one would think it was designed by Palladio. There is a pretty portico supported by four tall Doric columns, and its belfry is a regular cupola.
We at last gained the inn, and were shown into a lovely parlour that savoured of the refined taste that once reigned in this happy solitude.
It is lofty, spacious, and surrounded by oak panels; it has a charming bow window, where are elegantly represented, in stained glass on distinct shields, the arms of Alderman Beckford, his wife, and their eccentric son.
The evening was most lovely. A soft haze had prevailed the whole afternoon, and as there was still an hour's daylight I determined on instantly visiting the ruins. Just without the sacred enclosure that once prevented all intrusion to this mysterious solitude is the lovely little village of Fonthill Gifford; its charming cottages, with their neat gardens and blooming roses, are a perfect epitome of English rusticity. A padlocked gate admits the visitor within the barrier; a steep road, but gently winding so as to make access easy, leads you to the hill, where once stood "the gem and the wonder of earth."
The road is broad and entirely arched by trees. Emerging suddenly from their covert an astonishing assemblage of ruins comes into view. Before you stands the magnificent eastern transept with its two beautiful octangular towers, still rising to the height of 120 feet, but roofless and desolate; the three stately windows, 60 feet high, as open to the sky as Glastonbury Abbey; in the rooms once adorned with choicest paintings and rarities trees are growing. Oh what a scene of desolation! What the noble poet said of "Vathek's" residence in Portugal we may now literally say of Fonthill.
Here grown weeds a passage scarce allow To halls deserted, portals gaping wide.
Fresh lessons, ye thinking bosoms, how Vain are the pleasures by earth supplied, Swept into wrecks anon by Time's ungentle tide.
Of all desolate scenes there are none so desolate as those which we now see as ruins, and which were lately the abode of splendour and magnificence. Ruins that have been such for ages, whose tenants have long since been swept away, recall ideas of persons and times so far back that we have no sympathy with them at all; but if you wish for a sight of all that is melancholy, all that is desolate, visit a modern ruin. We passed through briars and brambles into the great octagon. Straight before us stands the western doorway of the noble entrance hall; but where is its oaken roof, with its proud heraldic emblazonments, where its lofty painted windows, where its ponderous doors, more than 30 feet high?
The cross still remains above, as if symbolical that religion triumphs over all, and St. Anthony still holds out his right hand as if to protect the sylvan and mute inhabitants of these groves that here once found secure shelter from the cruel gun and still more cruel dog. But he is tottering in his niche, and when the wind is high is seen to rock, as if his reign were drawing to a close.
Of the noble octagon but two sides remain. Looking up, but at such an amazing elevation that it makes one's neck ache, still are seen two windows of the four nunneries that adorned its unique and unrivalled circuit. And what is more wonderful than all, the noble organ screen, designed by "Vathek" himself, has still survived; its gilded lattices, though exposed for twenty years to the "pelting of the pitiless storm,"
yet glitter in the last rays of the setting sun. We entered the doorway of the southern entrance hall, that door which once admitted thousands of the curious when Fonthill was in its glory. This wing, though not yet in ruins, not yet entirely dismantled, bears evident signs of decay.
Standing on the marble floor you look up through holes in the ceiling, and discover the once beautifully fretted roof of St. Michael's Gallery.
We entered the brown parlour. This is a really noble room, 52 feet long, with eight windows, painted at the top in the most glorious manner. This room has survived the surrounding desolation, and gives you a slight idea of the former glories of the place. Each window consists of four gigantic pieces of plate-glass, and in the midst of red, purple, lilac, and yellow ornaments are painted four elegant figures, designed by the artist, Hamilton, of kings and knights, from whom Mr. Beckford was descended. As there are eight windows there are thirty-two figures, drawn most correctly. What reflections crowd the mind on beholding this once gorgeous room! There stood the sideboard, once groaning beneath the weight of solid gold salvers. In this very room dined frequently the magnificent "Vathek" on solid gold, and there, where stood his table, covered with every delicacy to tempt the palate, is now a pool of water, for the roof is insecure, and the rain streams through in torrents. On the right hand is the famous cedar boudoir, whose odoriferous perfume is smelt even here. We entered the Fountain Court, but sought in vain the stream that was once forced up, at vast expense, from the vale below and trickled over its marble bason.
For the stream has shrunk from its marble bed, Where the weeds and desolate dust are spread.
One would almost imagine Byron had written his lines in the "Giaour"
describing Hassan's residence amidst the ruins of Fonthill, so striking, so tangible, is the resemblance. He says of the fountains--
'Twas sweet of yore to hear it play And chase the sultriness of day, As springing high the silver dew In whirls fantastically flew And flung luxurious coolness round The air, and verdure o'er the ground.
'Twas sweet, when cloudless stars were bright, To view the wave of watery light And hear its melody by night.
But the shades of evening, now rapidly advancing, warned us to depart while there was yet light enough to trace our path through the gloomy wood. We entered its thick and umbrageous covert, and were near losing our road before we reached the barrier gate. The road was strewed with dry leaves, which reminded me of the earthly hopes of man.
He builds too low who builds beneath the skies,
and he who wishes for solid happiness must rest on a broader base than that afforded by momentary enjoyment, tempting and blooming as the foliage of summer, but evanescent as its withered leaves.
The next morning was finer than our most sanguine wishes could have anticipated. We were not long dispatching our comfortable breakfast, and hastened to the barrier gate. We here met a venerable woman, whose noble features and picturesque dress would have served as a splendid model for Gainsborough or Ben Barker. Stopping to inquire a nearer road to the Abbey, as she seemed indigenous to the place, I was tempted to ask if she knew Mr. Beckford. "I have seen him, sir, many, many times; but he is gone, and I trust--I do trust--to rest. He was a good man to the poor, never was there a better." "You astonish me; I had heard that he never gave away anything." "Good gracious, sir, who could have invented such lies? There never was a kinder friend to the poor, and when he left they lost a friend indeed. Not give away anything! Why, sir, in the winter, when snow was on the ground and firing dear, he used to send wagons and wagons for coal to Warminster, and make them cut through the snow to fetch it, and gave the poor souls plenty of firing, besides money, blankets, and clothing, too, and as for me I can answer for three half- sovereigns he gave me himself at different times with his own hand." "You surprise me." "I saw him coming once with his servants. I had my baby in my arms--that's she that lives in that cottage yonder, she's grown a woman now--and I was shuffling along to get out of his way, when he called out, 'What a beautiful little babe, let me look at it,' and then he smiled and made as though he would shake hands with the child, and, bless you, he slipped half-a-sovereign into my hand." I confess I was delighted at the little anecdote, and I am sure the good woman's praise was perfectly disinterested. Those who know anything of the poor are convinced they never flatter those from whom they can never again derive any benefit. I had almost expected to hear curses, if not loud at least deep.
A bailiff resides in the Abbey stables, who has charge of the place, but the "steeds are vanished from the stalls." We inquired if we could see the remaining apartments, but found the bailiff was gone to Hindon, and had taken the keys with him. Here was a difficulty indeed. "Perhaps,"
said his daughter, "you can get into the great Tower staircase; I think the door is open." We proceeded thither, but alas! a ponderous door and locked most unequivocally denied all entrance. "Perhaps father has left the key in his old coat; I will run and see" said our interesting young cicerone. She scuttled off, and we waited in anxiety, till in five minutes she returned with a large bunch of keys, the passport to the extraordinary apartments still remaining. My joy was as great at hearing the lock turn as was ever "Vathek's" when he discovered the Indian at the gate of the Hall of Eblis with his _clef d'or_. The great circular staircase survived the shock of the falling tower. The stairs wind round a massive centre, or newel, three feet in diameter; the ascent is gentle, the stairs at least six feet broad. They form an approach light, elegant, and so lofty that you cannot touch with the hand the stairs above your head. Numerous small windows make the staircase perfectly light, and the inside is so clean that it is difficult to believe it is not continually scoured and whitened, but this I was assured was not the case. Two hundred and ten steps lead to a leaden roof, the view from which beggars description. You have here a bird's eye view of the lovely estate. Majestic trees, hanging woods, and luxuriant plantations cover the ground for two or three miles round, whilst beyond this begin those immense and interminable downs for which Wiltshire is so noted; they are dreary and barren enough in themselves, but at such a point as this, where the foreground and middle distance are as verdant and richly clad with trees as can possibly be desired, their effect is very beautiful.
The absence of enclosures produces breadth and repose, and the local colour melts gradually into the grey distance in the most charming manner. Looking westward the great avenue, a mile in length, presents itself; to the south the Beacon-terrace, a green road more than two miles long, leads to a high hill, where the Alderman commenced, but never finished, a triangular tower. This road, or rather avenue, has a most charming effect; the trees that bound its sides are planted in a zigzag direction, so as to destroy the appearance of formality, whilst in reality it is a straight road, and you walk at once in a direct line, without losing the time you would if the road were more tortuous. On the south side the view is most fascinating. In a deep hollow not half-a- mile off, enbosomed, nay almost buried amidst groves of pine and beech, are discovered the dark waters of the bittern lake. The immense plantations of dark pines give it this sombre hue, but in reality the waters are clear as crystal. Beyond these groves, still looking south, you discover the woods about Wardour Castle, and amongst them the silvery gleam of another sheet of water. To the south-west is the giant spire of Salisbury, which since the fall of Fonthill Tower now reigns in solitary stateliness over these vast regions of down and desert. Stourton Tower presents itself to the north, whilst to the west, in the extreme distance, several high hills are traced which have quite a mountainous character--
Naveled in the woody hills, And calm as cherished hate, its surface wears A deep, cold, settled aspect nought can shake.
The north wing of the Abbey, containing the oratory, does not seem to have suffered from the fall of the Tower, and we next proceeded to inspect it. A winding staircase from the kitchen court leads you at once to that portion of the gallery called the vaulted corridors. The ceilings of four consecutive rooms are beautiful beyond all expectation.
Prepared as I was by the engravings in Rutter and Britton to admire these ceilings, I confess that the real thing was finer than I could possibly have imagined. King Edward's ceiling of dark oak (and its ornaments in strong relief) is as fresh as if just painted, and the beautiful cornice round the four walls of this stately gallery is still preserved, with its three gilded mouldings, but the seventy-two emblazoned shields that formed an integral part of the frieze have been ruthlessly torn off. The roof of the vaulted corridor with its gilded belts is the most perfect of the series of rooms, and that of the sanctum is beautifully rich; it is fretted in the most elegant way with long drops, pendants, or hangings like icicles, at least nine inches deep. Here alas! the hands of vandals have knocked off the gilded roses and ornaments that were suspended.
These three apartments are painted in oak, and gold is most judiciously introduced on prominent parts. But the ceiling of the last compartment is beyond all praise; it gleams as freshly with purple, scarlet, and gold as if painted yesterday. Five slender columns expand into and support a gilded reticulation on a dark crimson ground. In the centre of the ceiling is still hanging the dark crimson cord which formerly supported the elegant golden lamp I had formerly admired in Lansdown-crescent; it seemed to have been hastily cut down, and its height from the floor and its deep colour, the same as the ceiling, has probably prevented its observation and removal. The southern end of the gallery has been stripped of its floor, and it was with difficulty, and not without danger, I got across a beam; and, standing with my back against the brick wall that has been built up at the end, where were once noble glazed doors opening into the grand octagon, I surveyed the whole lovely perspective; the length from this spot is 120 feet. The beautiful reddish alabaster chimney-piece still remains, but it is split in the centre, whether from the weight of wall or a fruitless attempt to tear it out I know not. The recesses, once adorned with the choicest and rarest books, still retain their sliding shelves, but the whole framework of the windows has been removed, and they are open to the inclemency of the weather, or roughly boarded up. The stove, once of polished steel, is now brown and encrusted with rust as if the iron were 500 years old. It is impossible for an architect or artist to survey the ruthless and wanton destruction of this noble wing, unscathed and uninjured but by the hands of barbarous man, without feelings of the deepest regret and sorrow. How forcibly do the lines of the noble bard recur to the mind on surveying these apartments, still magnificent, yet neglected, and slowly and surely falling into ruin--
For many a gilded chamber's here, Which solitude might well forbear, Within this dome, ere yet decay Hath slowly worked her cankering way.
I ran up the circular staircase, and entered the noble state bedroom. The enormous plate glasses still remain; the ceiling is of carved oak relieved by gold ornaments. With what emotion did I turn through the narrow gallery, leading to the state room, to the tribune, which looked into the great octagon. A lofty door was at the extremity. I attempted to open it; it yielded to the pressure, and I stood on the very balcony that looked into the octagon.
Here the whole scene of desolation is surveyed at a glance. How deep were my feelings of regret at the destruction of the loftiest domestic apartment in the world. Twenty years ago this glorious place was in all its splendour. High in the air are still seen two round windows that once lighted the highest bedrooms in the world. What an extraordinary idea! On this lofty hill, 120 feet from the ground, were four bedrooms.
Below these round windows are the windows of two of the chambers called nunneries. Landing on this balcony I quickly conjured up a vision of former glory. There were the lofty windows gleaming with purple and gold, producing an atmosphere of harmonious light peculiar to this place, the brilliant sunshine covering everything within its influence with yellow quatrefoils. From that pointed arch once descended draperies 50 feet long! The very framework of these vast windows was covered with gold. There was the lovely gallery opening to the nunneries, through whose arches ceilings were discovered glittering with gold, and walls covered with pictures. Exactly opposite was another tribune similar to this; below it the immense doors of St. Michael's Gallery, whose crimson carpet, thickly strewed with white roses; was seen from this place, whilst far, far above, at an elevation of 130 feet, was seen the lofty dome, its walls pierced with eight tall windows, and even these were painted and their frames gilded. The crimson list to exclude draught still remained on these folding doors, but the lock was torn off! I closed the doors, not without a feeling of sadness, and returning to the small gallery again ran up the Lancaster Gallery to another noble bedroom. Finding the stairs still intact I mounted them, and found a door, which opened on to the roof. We were now on the top of the Lancaster Tower. Though not so extensive as the view from the platform of the great staircase, there is a peep here that is most fascinating; it is the extreme distance seen through the ruined window of the opposite nunnery.
The glimpse I had of the bittern lake having sharpened my appetite to see it, I descended the staircase of the Lancaster turret, and marching off in a southerly direction hastened towards its shores. But it is so buried in wood that it was not without some difficulty we found it. Never in happy England did I see a spot that so forcibly reminded me of Switzerland. Though formed by Art, so happily is it concealed that Nature alone appears, and this lovely lake seems to occupy the crater of an extinct volcano. It is much larger than I anticipated. A walk runs all round it; I followed its circuit, and soon had a glorious view of the Abbey, standing in solitary stateliness on its wooded hill on the opposite side. The waters were smooth as a mirror, and reflected the ruined building; its lofty towers trembled on the crystal wave, as if they were really rocking and about to share the fate of the giant Tower that was once here reflected. We followed the banks of the lake. Passing some noble oaks that were dipping their extended boughs in the water, we soon gained the opposite side. Here is a labyrinth of exotic plants, a maze of rhododendrons, azaleas, and the productions of warmer climes, growing as if indigenous to the soil. We passed between great walls of rhododendrons, in some places 15 feet high, and reached a seat, from whence you see the whole extent of this lovely sheet of water. What I had seen and admired so much on Lansdown was here carried to its utmost perfection; I mean the representation of a southern wilderness. In this spot the formality of gardening is absolutely lost. These enormous exotic plants mingle with the oak, the beech, and the pine, so naturally that they would delight a landscape painter. These dark and solemn groves of fir, contrasting so strikingly with the beech woods, now arrayed in their last gaudiest dress, remind me forcibly of Switzerland and the Jura Mountains, which I saw at this very season. Nature at this period is so gaudily clad that we may admire her for her excessive variety of tints, but cannot dare to copy her absolutely. In this sheltered and sequestered spot the oaks, though brown and leafless elsewhere, are still verdant as July. Every varied shade of the luxuriant groves--yellow, red, dark, and light green--every shade is reflected in these clear waters. Three tall trees on the opposite shore have, however, quite lost their leaves, and their reflection in the wave is so exactly like Gothic buildings, that one is apt to imagine you see beneath the waters the fairy palace of the Naiads, the guardians of this terrestrial Paradise.