I was immensely gratified the other day to get a parcel from Peter Scupham, poet and bookseller. Mr Scupham is in the habit of issuing an annual challenge to his customers in the Christmas catalogue. He lists thirty-odd titles chosen from among the books in his catalogue, and states a theme – this year, ‘First Love’. The challenge is to write a poem or a piece of prose in than 750 words incorporating as many titles as possible, but in any case, no fewer than ten. Six months later, I have been told that I am this year’s winner, which pleased me greatly ––though I say it myself, I think I was diabolically ingenious, so here it is, with the titles at the end.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man stricken by first love in his fiftieth decade is the object alike of pity and contempt. Nobody could be more aware of it than General Gondibert. As he stood bowing over Miss Aston’s hand amid the bustling gaieties of Vauxhall Gardens, it crossed his mind that he would rather have faced the Iron Duke in person than the mistress of Headlong Hall.
‘I believe you are acquainted with my friend the Admiral? he asked, and realised that he was blushing.
‘Indeed’, she replied, and bowed.
The General found himself at a loss. English nuances sometimes escaped him: had he received a rebuff, or was Miss Aston merely indicating that she did not greatly admire Admiral Wentworth? Usually women siezed on his remarks, eager to draw him out; his breeding and distinction, and above all, his wealth, far outweighed his disadvantages of age and foreign birth: he was perfectly well aware that he represented a considerable catch. But Miss Aston, handsome, clever, and rich, was a Minerva among young ladies, and, it was rumoured, immune to the tender passion. This is perverse and foolish, he told himself; if I wanted a wife, I could make choice of a dozen; yet here am I doting on Miss Aston, who seems not to care twopence for me!
He felt as if he had been standing blushing for a year, but it must only have been moments before she smiled at him. ‘Admiral Wentworth is in Malta, I believe, aboard the Ionica. Mrs Wentworth waits at Radletts like another Penelope, sighing and shedding tears, but I fear that the Admiral is no better a husband than Ulysses –– Shall we walk together for a little?’ she asked. ‘Vauxhall is full of interest for a philosophical observer. There are conversation pieces to every side of us –– see, over by the lanterns, that young lady of forty who is trying to look twenty, talking with a young lady of fourteen trying to look thirty! But murder will out; bouncing Bet is still a schoolgirl at heart and cannot maintain her stately airs, and while the other may simper all she pleases, maturity shows in her every glance.’
‘You are sharp-eyed, madam’, he said.
‘And sharp-tongued, alas –– I fear I was born under a mocking star. But there are subjects I am not inclined to jest on. If you could bear to tell me a little of your adventures between the Lines, I would dearly like to hear you. I read the account in the History of the Peninsular War –– it is unpatriotic in me to have thrilled to an account of an enemy, as you then were, but I did, I confess.’
The General laughed shortly. ‘What can I say, Miss Aston, without sounding like a braggart? I was a young man then, and in love with my own honour. I should have been killed, but was not. It was all very long ago.’
Miss Aston nodded; in the flickering light of the lanterns, the General thought her expression was serious. ‘I understand that you cannot speak of it’, she said, ‘but to a country miss reading in her study, such accounts of high courage and endeavour are glimpses of the wonderful. I am something of an unquiet soul, General. My life of visits and rent-rolls, and walking on fine days amid my laurels and rosemary sometimes seems to me a very small one.’
The General found his spirits lifting; he offered her his arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, she took it. ‘But yours is a goodly heritage, Miss Aston’, he said. ‘you have infinitely improved Headlong Hall, and your tenants must surely rise up and called you blessed.’
‘That is true, and I am not ungrateful for my lot. But if I had been born a man, I would have taken the road to Xanadu, or circumnavigated the globe! Yet as things are, walking in Vauxhall with a man to whom I am not related must be the limit of my adventures’.
‘But there is one adventure which might open the way to others, Miss Aston’, he said.
‘And what is that?’
‘Oh, I do not think of marriage.’
‘I do, Miss Aston. I am thinking of it now.’
Her eyebrows rose. ‘My dear General. You might find me more of a trial of your courage than the Duke of Wellington.’
My Friend the Admiral
Perverse and Foolish
Murder Will Out
Between the Lines
Glimpses of the Wonderful
An Unquiet Soul
Laurels and Rosemary
A Goodly Heritage
The Road to Xanadu