THE GOLDEN AGE

Unless a book starts with some interest it finds no readers. The first
page is often the key to the whole.

But how is one to be interesting about such commonplace events as being
born and vaccinated, cutting one’s first tooth or having measles and
whooping-cough? They are all so uneventful, and while important to the
little “ego” are so dull to the public. Therefore I refuse to be either
“born” or even cut a wisdom tooth within these pages anent a busy
woman’s life, except to say that on the night of my birth my father and
his friend, the famous surgeon John Erichsen (later Sir John), walked
home from a meeting of the Royal Society together, and on reaching the
old house in Harley Street a servant greeted them with the announcement
that my mother was very ill.

Up the stairs my father hurried, while his colleague went off for
the nurse. I was too small to be dressed, so my early days were
spent rolled up in cotton wool—which fact did not deter my further
development, as at fourteen years of age I stood five feet eight inches
high. On my second day of existence I was introduced in my cradle to
him who for nearly thirty years was as a second father to me—him whom I
always called “dear Uncle John.”

What a horribly egotistical thing it is to write about one’s self!

Until now I have generally managed to keep _I_ out of books by using
that delightful editorial _WE_, but somehow this volume cannot be
written as WE, and the hunting of the snark never afforded more
trouble than the hunting out of _I_. There it is and there it remains.
It refuses to be removed. It glares upon the pages, and spurns all
attempts to be suppressed.

Let me humbly apologise, once and for all, for

“I.”

Some people are born smart, just as others are born good—some are
born stupid—and some are born haunted by the first personal pronoun.
People believe they are relating the honest truth when they speak ill
of themselves, and yet it is so pleasant to relate appreciative little
stories of “ego.”

Why mention my early youth in a book only meant to treat of working
years?—it may be asked. Well, for this friends are to blame. Folk have
constantly asked, “What first made you write? Was it an inherited gift?”

Did my second baptismal name predestine my career? On this subject my
father wrote in a diary:

“The next favours I received from Fortune were domestic ones—a boy
and a girl. The name of Ethel was given the little maid to please
her mother, that of Brilliana to please me. Brilliana, I called her,
out of respect for the only woman of the name of Harley who added by
her writings to the celebrity of the race. _The Letters of the Lady
Brilliana Harley_, 1625-43, wife of Sir Robert Harley, of Brampton
Bryan, Knight of the Bath, were reprinted by the Camden Society,
with introductions and notes by Thomas Taylor Lewis, M.A., Vicar of
Bridstow, Herefordshire.[2]

“Of men authors we have had abundance: of women only one. No wonder,
then, I wished our daughter to perpetuate her name.”

Thus it seems to have been my father’s wish to dedicate me to the
memory of the well-known Dame Brilliana who shone in both social and
literary circles in the seventeenth century. Did he, perhaps, remember
that the old Romans, at the birth of a child, used to choose for it the
name of some ancestor, whose career they wished to be its example, in
the belief that the deceased would protect and influence the infant to
follow in the same path?

This second name of mine is queer enough, and seems to have suggested
penmanship, followed by a number of strange nicknames, chosen
promiscuously by my friends, but all tending in two directions:

“Madame la Duchesse.”

“Liege Lady.”

“She who would be obeyed.”

“Grande Dame.”

“Esmeralda.”

“Carmen.”

“Vixen.”

Do these denote character?—for they apparently run from the sublime to
the ridiculous.

My parents seem to have been less careful about choosing me a nurse of
a literary turn, however otherwise excellent the woman was, for the
following quaint letter to my mother from my old attendant, who was for
nearly forty years in the family, is not exactly a model of epistolary
art:

“I am wrighting to thank you for Papers you so kindly sent Mrs.
B—— she wished me to do so i told her i would do so but there was
plenty of time for doing it but on Monday morning she very quietly
took her long departyer not being any the worse the Delusions was
to much for her and she just went off hoping you are quite well
also your four Gran children and there parents the wether is very
cold for May i remain your Obident

“S. D.”

Apart from the undoubted virtues of my illiterate old nurse, my
education proceeded on the usual infantile lines. My father taught us
children a great deal about natural history, which we loved, as most
children do, and many odds and ends of heterogeneous information picked
up from him in those early days proved a mine of “copy” in years to
come.

A sage once said the child should choose its own parents. He might have
gone farther and said that the child should choose its own school,
because if school-fellows have often had as much influence as mine did
on me, then school companions are a matter of importance. Youth is the
time of selfishness and irresponsibility. How cruel we are through
thoughtlessness! How we stab and wound by quick, unmeditated words! The
journey onwards is a stony one, but we all have to pass along if we are
to attain either worldly success or, greatest of all blessings, mastery
of self. I often wonder why people are so horrid at home. We know it,
we deprecate it, but we don’t seem to have the pluck or the courage to
change it. We suffer the loneliness of soul we all endure at times,
even more than we need, because of our own foolish pride and want of
sympathy with our surroundings. We could be so much nicer and more
considerate if we really tried. We mean to be delightful, of course;
but we signally fail.

In those far-away kindergarten days in Harley Street there were a
little boy and three grown-up gentlemen with whom I made friends. The
little boy grew up and went to Mexico, where I met him after a lapse
of twenty-five years, a merchant in a good position. He was able to do
a great deal for me during my stay there, and proved as a brother in
occasions of difficulty.

Sir Felix Semon became a great physician, and Dr. von Mühlberg a German
Ambassador. The more elderly gentleman was studying at the British
Museum, and only lodged at the house. Dr. von Rottenburg was also a
German, and he used to pat my head every morning on the stairs and
talk to me about my playthings, calling me “leetle mees.” When I grew
up this famous philosopher, diplomat, and writer never forgot the
little black-eyed girl going to school with her doll, and was one of my
dearest and best friends in Germany.

On his return to Berlin he published, in 1878, a book called _Begriff
des Staates_. It was a learned volume and created much sensation in
Germany. One day he was sitting in the Foreign Office when he received
an invitation to dine with the great Bismarck. He was amazed, but
naturally accepted. At the dinner were only two other men, the Imperial
Chancellor and his son Herbert. The former talked to von Rottenburg
about his book in most flattering terms. On his return home that night
his wife asked him how he had got on.

“Not particularly well,” he replied. “I was so awe-stricken by the
wondrous capacity, the bulk of both body and mind of Bismarck, that I
seemed paralysed of speech and said practically nothing.

“Why were you invited?” enquired his spouse.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” was his reply. “Anyway, I am afraid I
made but a poor impression.”

A week later von Rottenburg was again sitting in his room when Count
Wilhelm Bismarck was announced.

“My father wishes to see you to-morrow,” he said.

“Indeed, and may I ask what for?”

“That is his business, not mine. Be pleased to call at such an hour.”

Perplexed as to the repetition of the invitation the young diplomat
called as desired. Bismarck was sitting at his table writing. The man
who held the destiny of Europe in his hands looked up and nodded.

“Sit down,” he said, and went on signing letters.

When he had finished blotting the last bold signature, turning to von
Rottenburg, he said:

“Do you wonder why I sent for you?”

“To tell the truth, I do.”

“I wish to make you Chief of the Chancellery.”

Von Rottenburg was naturally amazed, but said nothing.

“Do you understand what I say?” repeated Bismarck. “I wish to make you
Chief of the Chancellery.”

“Well—er—but——”

“There is no _well_ or _but_ about it.”

“But, you see, I am rather ambitious.”

“Are you? I am glad to hear it.”

“And such being the case, perhaps——”

“Man!” thundered Bismarck from his seat as he thumped the table; “Do
you understand the importance of what I am offering you?”

“I quite realise the immense _honour_, but at the same time I am
interested in my present work, and am doing so well at the Foreign
Office that I should be sorry to relinquish——”

“Are you married?” interrupted the Chancellor.

“Yes, to an English lady.”

“I congratulate you. I believe English women are the best wives and
companions in the world.”

Here let it be remarked that Bismarck was a great English scholar. He
spoke the language fluently, he read _Tom Jones_ from cover to cover
four times, and was never without his Shakespeare in the original,
whole pages from which he could quote.

“Go home,” said the Prince; “tell your wife what I have offered you
and ask her advice. But mind, if you come to me you will have to be my
slave. Where I go you must go, and it is only fair that you should ask
her permission. Women should be more considered than they are. Go home,
I tell you, and ask your wife.”

[Illustration: ORIGINAL LETTER FROM BISMARCK WITH A TRANSLATION BY HIS
INTIMATE FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE DR. VON ROTTENBURG]

Still bewildered, flattered but faltering, von Rottenburg went home. He
told his wife of his extraordinary interview with the Chancellor, and
she at once exclaimed:

“Of course, you must accept.”

“Must I?”

“Why, of course you must. A chance comes once to every man; let him
accept it gladly when it does come.”

Accordingly he accepted the post of Chief of the Chancellery, and began
his ten years’ service directly under the Iron Chancellor.

This post is by appointment for three years, and, as a rule, men are
not reappointed, but von Rottenburg was enjoying his fourth term when
Bismarck went out of office. During all those ten years von Rottenburg
rarely left the side of his Chief—the greatest man of his day.

Speaking of the storm and stress of those years, he once said:

“No one can realise the strain of that time. Bismarck was the most
remarkable man in the world. His physical health was as wonderful as
his mental capacity. He had so much to do, so much to bear, so much to
arrange, that I naturally saved him in every way I could, therefore
nearly everything of importance went through me. That alone was a
great responsibility. I settled all I could, arranged what interviews
I thought necessary, and played buffer between him and the great world
outside. But I often felt he reposed too much confidence in me.”

Bismarck objected to German being written or printed in Latin
characters, and never read a book not printed in German letters. Von
Rottenburg told me Bismarck had the greatest mathematical head he ever
knew and a colossal brain. A man of huge bulk, vast appetite, and
unending thirst, he was once at a supper-party in Berlin where six
hundred oysters were ordered for ten people. He ate the greater share.

“Thank Heaven!” once exclaimed von Rottenburg; “during all those ten
years of constant attendance and companionship with Bismarck we hardly
ever had a disagreeable word, and instead of taking power from me, year
by year he placed more upon my shoulders.”

“Practically nothing went to the Chancellor that did not pass through
my hands. I shiver to think of the times I was disturbed at night with
messages of importance, telegrams, special messengers, or letters
marked _Private_; all these things seemed to have a particularly
unhappy knack of arriving during the hours one should have had repose.
It was very seldom, however, that I went to Bismarck, as I never
disturbed him at night unless on a matter of urgent business, feeling
that his sleep was as important to him as his health was to the German
nation.”




“No, I don’t think I am tidy,” von Rottenburg once exclaimed. “I had
to be tidy for so many years that I fear I am a little lax nowadays,
although I can always find the papers I want myself, and generally know
where I have put everything. During those years with Bismarck I had to
be so careful, so exact and methodical. One of his little hobbies was
that when he was staying in an hotel, or anywhere away from home, he,
or I, would carefully search the waste-paper baskets to see no scrap
of paper that could in any way be made into political capital was left
therein.

“Bismarck was most particular about this. He destroyed everything that
might, he thought, make mischief, or would do harm of any kind.”

Did von Rottenburg destroy his wondrous diaries which I saw a few weeks
before he died? Of them I may have more to say in the future.

Another of my very earliest recollections is of Madame Antoinette
Sterling. She came from America to sing in England, and often stayed
at the residence of my grandfather, James Muspratt, of Seaforth Hall,
near Liverpool. In this house in earlier years James Sheridan Knowles
wrote some of his plays, and in it also Baron Justus von Liebig—who
invented his famous soup to save my mother’s life—Charlotte Cushman
(the American tragedienne), Charles Dickens, and Samuel Lover had been
frequent and ever-welcome guests.

At the time that Antoinette Sterling arrived in this country sundry
cousins, who were all quite little children, sat, open-mouthed and
entranced, before the fire in that beautifully panelled, well-filled
library at Seaforth Hall, while she squatted on the floor amongst us
and sang, “There was an old Nigger and his name was Uncle Ned,” or
“Baby Bye, here’s a fly.” How we loved it! Again and again we wildly
demanded another song, clapping our hands, and again and again that
good, kind soul sang to her juvenile admirers—maybe her first English
audience.

Seaforth Hall was built by my grandfather about 1830, at which time
four miles of beach divided him from Liverpool. The docks of that
city are eleven miles long to-day, and the Gladstone Dock is now in
the field in which we children used to ride and play. It was named
“Gladstone Dock” because that great statesman was born at a house near
by. The next dock will probably be on the site of my grandfather’s
dining-room, and may berth the largest ship in the world, that monster
now being built by Lord Aberconway (John Brown and Co.).

During his early years my father went a great deal into Society, being
presumably considered a clever, rising young physician who had seen a
good deal of the world, and was an excellent linguist: so by the time
he moved to the house now numbered “25, Harley Street,” in 1860—a step
followed later by his marriage with Emma, daughter of the above-named
James Muspratt—he was well established in the social world.

I often heard him speak of the delightful gatherings he attended and
so much enjoyed in those early days before I had opened my eyes on
this wonderful world, when women like Charlotte Cushman, Catherine
Hayes, Helen Faucit, Mrs. Charles Kean, Mrs. Kemble, and Mrs. Sterling
added grace and charm to the company: when the scientific giants were
Faraday, Tyndall, Sir David Brewster, Graham, Sir Henry Holland, and
William Fergusson: and in the literary world he was brought into
contact with Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Samuel
Lover, Theodore Hook, and Mark Lemon.

The people at whose houses he visited became his constant guests; so
later his children grew up in a delightful atmosphere, in a home of
culture, where art, science, and literature were amply represented.

Meetings like these, even in earliest childhood, with bright souls,
persons of culture, intellect, polished manners, and brilliant gifts,
all leave strong impressions on a plastic youthful mind, and the memory
is undoubtedly an influence through life.

But the commanding figure in Harley Street in my early years was
not to be found among the doctors: it was Mr. Gladstone, while Mrs.
Gladstone’s individuality was hardly second to that of her husband.

When Mr. Gladstone first came to live there the mob broke his windows,
and shouted and yelled outside his house because of his hostility to
Disraeli’s policy in the Russo-Turkish War (1876-8). The Jingo fever
was at its height. There was tremendous excitement, and ultimately
the street had to be cleared by mounted police. To the surprise of
everyone, in the full tide of the tumult, the Gladstones’ front door
opened, and out walked the old couple, arm-in-arm, and passed right
into the midst of the very people who had been hurling stones through
their windows. With the grand manner of an old courtier the statesman
took off his hat, made a profound bow to the populace, and before the
mob had recovered from its astonishment, he had walked away down the
street with his wife.

It was a plucky act, and one which so surprised the boisterous assembly
that they utterly subsided, and soon dispersed quietly.

Mr. Gladstone’s habit every morning was to leave home about half-past
nine or ten o’clock and walk down to his work. My sister Olga (wife of
Dr. Francis Goodbody), then a very little girl, used to go out with her
nurse about the same time to Regent’s Park for her airing in a “pram.”
Some twenty or thirty houses divided my father’s from Mr. Gladstone’s,
and therefore, as the elderly statesman and the little girl both left
home about the same time, they often met.

“Well, how is dolly this morning?” he would say, and then he would
chaff the child on not having washed dolly’s face, or tell her that
the prized treasure wanted a new bonnet. In fact, he never passed her
without stopping to pat her on the head, and make some little joke such
as children love. She became very fond of her acquaintance and came
home quite disappointed if she had not seen “my friend Mr. Gladstone,”
as she always called him.

Years afterwards, when Mr. Gladstone had ceased all association with
Harley Street, and was Prime Minister, I fell a victim to the desire to
possess his autograph. Few people now realise how difficult a thing it
was to secure, for the public imagined that the statesman showered post
cards, then a somewhat new invention, on his correspondents by hundreds
and thousands. I asked his friend Sir Thomas Bond what was best to do.
His advice was shrewdness itself. Mr. Gladstone, he assured me, had
great objections to giving his autograph. He could not himself ask him
point-blank for his signature. “But if,” said he, “you will send one
of your books as a presentation copy to him, with a little note on the
title page, ‘To Mr. Gladstone, from the Author,’ I will take it across
and ask him to write you an acknowledgment.”

I did so, and Mr. Gladstone wrote me a charming little letter in his
own hand:

“10 DOWNING STREET, WHITEHALL.

“To convey his best thanks for Mrs. Alec Tweedie’s kindness in
sending him a book of so much interest.

“W. E. GLADSTONE.”

Not long before his death I had another letter from him, short, as
all his communications were, but always long enough to include the
gracefully drawn compliment which, one fears, has died out of the art
of letter-writing as now practised:

“DEAR MADAM,

“I received your obliging gift and letter yesterday. I consider
Finland a singularly interesting country, singularly little known;
and I am reading your work in earnest and with great interest.

“Your very faithful

“W. E. GLADSTONE.

“Jul. 13, ’97.”

The mention of Mr. Gladstone in connection with Harley Street brings to
mind his famous physician, Sir Andrew Clarke, who was a great personal
friend of my father.

At one time Sir Andrew Clarke had the largest practice in London,
besides holding the proud position of President of the Royal College of
Physicians. Thanks chiefly to a charming personality, he was one of the
most successful and most beloved of all the London medical men, and to
him is doubtless due the widespread discovery that a careful diet is a
better means to health than promiscuous floods of medicine.

These were some of the friendships and associations that surrounded
my childhood: such was the soil that nourished my infant roots in
kindliness and encouraged my green idea-buds to put forth into leaf.

FOOTNOTES:

[2] Lady Brilliana Harley was the daughter of Sir Edward Conway, and
was born in the year 1600, at the Brill, of which her father was
Governor. She became the third wife of Sir Robert Harley, of Brampton
Bryan, in 1623.

From her letters published by the Camden Society one gathers she was a
woman of considerable education, and of deep religious feeling imbued
with Calvinistic doctrine, while devotion to her home and children is
the keynote of her correspondence.

In the Great Rebellion, however, when Sir Robert Harley’s Parliamentary
duties necessitated his absence from Brampton Bryan, the Royalists
in the neighbourhood of the Castle alleged that Lady Brilliana was
sheltering rebels; and, after various threats and efforts to gain
possession of the stronghold, a Royalist force under Sir William
Vavasour laid siege to Brampton Bryan Castle on July 26th, 1643.

There Lady Brilliana with her children and household, and several
neighbours who had joined her in resisting the encroachments of the
Royalists, were shut up for six weeks, during which time she, usually
spoken of as “the Governess,” conducted the defence with both skill and
courage. Shots were daily fired into the Castle and frequently poisoned
bullets were used: one of these wounded the cook, who died from its
effects; and two ladies among the besieged party were also wounded.

Finding that Lady Brilliana was obdurate and would not surrender,
Charles I sent her a personal letter by special messenger—Sir John
Scudamore—whom Lady Brilliana received with calm dignity; but with
unflinching endurance she determined to continue her defence. She
replied to the King by a letter setting forth the attacks to which her
husband’s property had been subjected, and humbly petitioned that all
her goods should be restored to her.

Sir John Scudamore hurried back with another Royal document, offering
free pardon to Lady Brilliana and her supporters in the Castle, if she
would surrender, and also granting free licence to all to depart from
the Castle.

But Lady Brilliana stood her ground when the Royal messenger arrived on
September 1st. “By this time,” an “eye-witness” wrote later, “the fame
of the noble lady was spread over most of the kingdom, with admiration
and applause….”

And this courageous determination was all the more pronounced as she
was too unwell to receive Sir John on his return, having contracted a
chill which terminated fatally about a month later.

On September 9th, the defeat of the Royal troops elsewhere necessitated
the withdrawal of Sir William Vavasour’s force from Brampton Bryan, and
the siege was suddenly raised.

The relief was too late. Strain of deprivation and anxiety had taken
their toll and weakened the frame of the plucky heart that knew no
surrender.

“This honourable lady,” continued her historian, “of whom the world was
not worthy, as she was a setting forward the work of God suddenly and
unexpectedly fell sick of an apoplexy with a defluxion of the lungs….
Never was a holy life concluded with a more heavenly and happy ending.”

Her body was encased in lead and carried to the top of the Castle to
await burial in more peaceful days; but when the siege of Brampton
Bryan was renewed, and the Castle taken, her coffin was desecrated in
the search for plunder.

Her three beloved children, who had been through the first attack with
her, were taken prisoner at the end of the second siege in 1644.

You may also like