LADIES and gentlemen, be good enough to sit down quietly! We are obliged reluctantly to keep you in the darkness, to give greater effect to the pictures we are now about to display under the strongest possible light - pictures which, I pledge you my sacred word of honour as a showman, will be ready for exhibition in one little moment more. Therefore, pray keep silence! Can you store your memories with historical associations while your tongues are wagging incessantly with the chit-chat of the nineteenth century ? - Certainly not! Then, once again, for your own sakes, keep silence!
Intelligent and orderly public! I respectfully beg leave to communicate that we are now about to exhibit a short series of historical pictures of the far-famed St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall, through the approved modern medium of dissolving views. These views will display something of the earlier history of the Mount, and something of the later. You will find them, as pictures, quite a superior article compared to the pictures you are accustomed to see at the Royal Academy. Here, everything moveable that we present to you, moves as it does in Nature. Here, you may not only see the javelin uplifted in the hunter's hand, but, just at the right moment, and in the most approved ancient fashion, see it thrown, too! Here, our figures will nimbly walk and distinctly speak - here, on our landscapes, shadows will shift, clouds will change, tides will ebb and flow - nay, in reference to the excellence of our scenery, I may state even more than this; I may safely prophesy (so far do we carry the power of illusion) that when the wind is supposed to be blowing from the North-north-east, you will actually perceive the leaves of our trees all fluttering together, in one direction towards the South-south-west!
But the bell is ringing for the first dissolving view. I have only time to tell you that I shall explain everything, as everything goes on. You, gentlemen of the orchestra, who have been provided, regardless of expense, to supply appropriate music, take up the cithara, or lute, and the Pan's-pipes - the earliest known instruments. We are about to go back into the remotest regions of antiquity; play a barbaric strain, therefore, as loud as you possibly can. And now, silence, silence, silence!
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The first picture dawns through the darkness - dimly enough, just yet. But now, the colours brighten; and as objects grow clearer and clearer, we behold this scene: - A wide bay sweeping in one grand semicircle from the foreground to the distance of the view; with hills rising all along the shore, thickly wooded almost to the water's edge.
The tide is flowing - the sea runs heavy. Behold it, dashing against what appears to be an island, a furlong or two away from the mainland - an island close in the foreground, towering up to a point in the shape of a beautiful natural pyramid. This is the place that we moderns know as St. Michael's Mount; the bay round it is what we call Mount's Bay.
But these were the names of an after time; they were not thought of at the period which the picture we now examine is intended to illustrate. Look forth searchingly over the view, and you will guess what this period is. You see no large towns, no neat villages, no fertile fields: here and there, a few miserable huts peep out among trees, briars, and weeds: yonder, in that wood, men clothed in rough skins, and brandishing rude, heavy javelins, are hunting the wild boar and the wolf. It is England, during England's darkest age, that we now behold. We are carried back over long past centuries to a long past period, before the time when the first Caesar landed as a conqueror on the shores of Britain.
Fix your eyes again on the island. See how bare and desolate are the rugged granite rocks, starting into huge, wild forms, and rising all round, up to its summit. No sign of a habitation appears on any part of it, save at one corner, low down near the beach, where two or three coarse, clumsy structures are visible, made of mud and wattles, and propped up at certain places by slabs of unhewn granite. Below these, a rude pier runs out into the sea, and forms, with an accidental projection of the land opposite, a snug little haven, where a few boats might run for refuge. Now, look closer yet at this part of the island, and you will see that it is alive with human beings. Men with long elfish hair hanging over their shoulders; men rough in gesture and savage in feature, armed with bow and arrow, spear and shield, are hurrying impatiently backwards and forwards, or standing vigilantly on the watch. Wherefore this haste and confusion on one side, and this anxiety and attention on the other?
Turn once more towards the sea. Behold, in the offing, labouring heavily in the swell, a little fleet of vessels making for the land. They are all formed on the same strange, unwieldy model; carved dragons' heads rise from their gaudily-painted bows; their clumsy sails flap against the clumsier masts; rows of oars appear all along their sides, rising and falling in long, regular strokes. Now, as they approach the island, rolling perilously with every wave, we see armed men on deck, collected together on a platform above the rowers; and, now, as the vessels near the harbour, the larger are hove to, while the smaller proceed until they touch the sides of the rude wooden pier. Then, the men on shore shout in token of exultation and welcome. The men from the vessels advance, meanwhile, in good order, to meet them; some carry heavy packages, others march as guards by their companions' sides. When the two parties meet together, a scene of confusion ensues. Signs and gestures are exchanged, sometimes abruptly varied, sometimes repeated over and over again: words of anger and impatience are spoken in two different languages; weapons are even raised threateningly. At last the tumult is calmed; the men of the island run to their mud-huts, and drag forth from them heavy ingots of tin which they carry down to the men from the vessels, and receive in return the packages which these last have brought ashore with them; packages containing salt, earthenware, and metal utensils. When the men of the island begin to examine closely the goods they have received in barter, it soon becomes evident that they have not had the best of the bargain. They quarrel among each other, and howl menacingly after the men from the vessels, who, on their part, care little for threats, and carry off their merchandise, confident in their good discipline, and triumphing insolently in their superior sagacity and skill.
But now, ere we can follow them as they join once more their fleet outside, the whole view softly and slowly begins to dissolve - the first picture exists no longer! You have just been made acquainted with the earliest passage in the history of St. Michael's Mount, when the place was used by the ancient British tribes as a deposit for the tin they drew from the Cornish mines, and the adventurous Phoenicians - the great merchants and colonists of the old world - traded to it to barter their goods for the metal which our savage ancestors had already learnt to find in the earth of their native land.
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So much for our first picture! The second will be very different, and will illustrate some of the customs of a very different age. Now, let the attendant music cease the barbarian strain, and change to sonorous chaunts and solemn masses, pealed out grandly with the organ's fullest power; for these sounds alone may fitly accompany the second view, which already brightens through the darkness, in the place left vacant by the first.
Again we have the Mount and the Bay; but under altered aspects. The tide is ebbing; the sea is calm; the island of the last picture appears an island no longer; we see a narrow causeway - visible only at low water - which joins it to the shore. The clustering woods are thinned in certain places: the mud huts are succeeded by cottages and farm-houses, solidly constructed of stone and surrounded by cornfields. Such peasants as we can observe, are neatly, though coarsely, clad. The accoutrements of those armed men whom we see near yonder fortress - built where briars grew thick, and wolves skulked for refuge heretofore - are of glittering steel, complete at all points. The manners and customs of Englishmen have changed now; and many features of the landscape have changed with them.
Turn towards the causeway that joins the Mount and the shore. What procession is that moving slowly over it from the land? Men and women of all ages - even little children - form the throng.
Long grey gowns clothe them, whitened with the dust of travel: shells and little leaden images are sewn round their broad hats; crosses, fastened to rows of beads, fall over their breasts; their leader carries a large crucifix, elevated on high. Hark! as they advance, they all chaunt in unison a solemn and sacred strain. The peasants watching them, uncover their heads reverently, and the peasants' wives and children kneel and cross themselves as they pass. What is this procession? and whither is it bound?
Look up at the Mount. Behold, where the naked granite alone rose before, a chapel with a tower, built on the pinnacle of the eminence, and a range of buildings by its side; both superb with the massive adornments of Saxon architecture, and both rising like crowns of beauty on the noble summit of the Mount. See, on that stone terrace before the chapel, which overlooks the causeway, a row of men in black robes, with the sign of the cross worked on them. Hear the music of the organ rising sublimely, and mingling with the chaunt of the advancing procession, as it already begins to toil up the steep ascent. Now, while the foremost ranks approach the terrace, one man steps forth from his brethren who stand there, and speaks, holding up a crucifix in his hand. His words, as he addresses those beneath him, fall slowly and distinctly from his lips. He tells his audience that here, on the pinnacle of the Mount, the Archangel Michael first descended to earth; he commends them for coming from afar to visit the holy place; he promises remission of their sins, by the authority which he and his brethren hold from the Apostles of Christ, to all who have journeyed to St. Michael's Chapel for religion's sake. When he ceases, the pealing of the organ swells louder and louder on the air, and the members of the throng below kneel together, bareheaded, on the earth. As the robed Abbot, who has just addressed them, stretches out his hands over the whole assembly and speaks the blessing of the Church, the scene fades, darkens, vanishes; and this view dissolves in its turn, as the last dissolved before it. You have just beheld the Mount as it was in the eleventh century, when the shrines of religion grew many in the land - as it was when King Edward the Confessor gave the place to Benedictine monks, and when pilgrims journeyed to it reverently from all parts of our native country.
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Hush! the music is changing again, ere the third picture appears. The drum and trumpet now sound the inspiring music of war: we are about to advance to a time of fierce passions and intestine strife; to the eventful seventeenth century, and the reign of Charles the First of England.
See how differently the Mount dawns upon us for the third time! Since it was first consecrated as a place of worship, it has been fortified as a place of strength. The chapel still remains, but the solemn notes of the organ sound from it no longer. The monastery by its side has changed its character; the Benedictine monks have been all driven from it years on years ago; its walls are loop-holed and bristling with guns; strong towers are built, at intervals, all around it. We have the castle now, where we had the priory before. From this fortress the brilliant and ill-fated adventurer, Perkin Warbeck, started to try his last vain struggle for the crown of England. Here he left his nobly-born and beautiful wife to await the triumph which he was never destined to achieve. Long years of struggle and slaughter have passed over the Mount since we last beheld the peaceful throng of pilgrims climbing to its summit: and those years are not ended yet. The bloody track that rebellion has traced over it in past centuries, rebellion is still destined to renew.
Look at the crowd around and within the fortress. We see nobles and soldiers where we last saw pilgrims and monks. How brightly the polished morions reflect the sun! how gaily plumes and ribbons flutter in the soft genial breezes of a calm day on the Cornish coast! What hilarity and enthusiasm pervade all ranks! every man is a royalist here.
In the great struggle between Charles the First and the Parliament of England, Cornwall has taken the loyal side. Already, during the past year, the king has acknowledged its services by writing a public letter of thanks to the county, dated from his camp at Sudely Castle; and now he himself is in Cornwall, to encourage his adherents in person; sturdy miners and peasants gather by hundreds to fight for the throne; a victory has been achieved; the king has beaten the rebel, Essex; the insurgents are driven out of the county; and St. Michael's Mount is garrisoned by the royalists, as one of their principal strongholds in the West.
Remark that little group standing apart from the crowd, at one extremity of the fortress; every eye is turned to it, partly in eager curiosity, partly in deep respect; - the persons composing it are silent just now - all stand with uncovered heads but one: this man is of grave and noble bearing; his dress is of darker colour, and has less ornament than the dresses of the rest; mournfulness rests like a shadow on his handsome, refined features; his dark, gentle, melancholy eyes are fixed on the sea that lies smooth and fair before them in the sunlight; - there may be now and then a slight trembling on his lip, but he does not speak. Not one of those around him utters a word, or moves to depart. His few moments of sorrowful thought are sacred moments in their estimation: and well they may be, for this man, who is looking on the bright sea and thinking as he looks, is the most ill-fated of his ill-fated race - he is Charles the First!
The King has already remained in Cornwall a month, from August to September, 1644. Having obliged the army of Essex to retreat, he is now about to depart, leaving the county in the entire possession of the Royalists. See! he rouses himself at length from his reflections - bitter reflections on all that has happened of bloodshed among brethren, and on all that may happen yet; and addresses himself to one of his adherents standing near. This gentleman is Sir Francis Basset, Sheriff of Cornwall, and to him the King speaks his last words at parting: - " Mr. Sheriff, I now leave the county entirely at peace in your hands." He then waves a farewell to the rest, and passes slowly out of the fortress. The Cornish Volunteers raise a great shout of enthusiasm, as he goes, and swear to defend the Mount against the armies of the Parliament to the last drop of their blood. The King bows in acknowledgment of their attachment; but the grieving, care-worn expression does not leave his countenance. Is it that the fatal destiny in
store for him is even now darkly heralding its approach by some secret presentiment that weighs on his heart? Is it that his mind bitterly compares the storm of rebellion that is wasting the best blood in the land, with the lovely calm of Nature that he has just seen reposing over the landscape of that land? Who shall say? He speaks no word more as he descends the Mount; - he hides his thoughts - perhaps in mercy hides them, - from the devoted men around him, who are still to die, and die vainly, in his cause!
The tide is at the flow as the King reaches the foot of the Mount and prepares to embark for the main land. He pauses for a moment ere he steps into the boat, again to thank his Cornish friends for their loyalty, in few but kind words, and then gives the signal to proceed. The towers of the fortress above are crowded with spectators, anxiously watching his progress. He touches the shore at the town of Marazion, where a great concourse of armed men is assembled to meet him. There he mounts his horse, and rides forward slowly a few paces; - then those men in the fortress whose eye-sight is keenest, observe that he stops, wheels round, and looks once more, with a sorrowful attention, as they fancy, towards his trusty garrison and the sunbright sea beyond.
Viewing this, and remembering too the royal letter of thanks to the Volunteers in the West, the Cornish wave their caps to a man, and renew their shouting with tenfold enthusiasm. From the distance their cheering voices sound clear and musical on the ear of the doomed monarch, as he turns again, and sets forth in earnest to leave Cornwall: still, as long as he is in sight, the burly miners and peasants sustain their cry of "Long live the King!" and still the martial music in the fortress joins them gaily! Little do those hardy adherents of a fatal cause think how soon the man whom they thus delight to honour, shall die forsaken under the headsman's
hands! Little do they now imagine that Charles's letter of thanks shall soon be all that remains of him to his faithful Cornish subjects - the one precious relic, the honoured words of the dead, which they shall hand down from generation to generation, in after years; which they still copy and hang up on the walls of the Cornish churches, as an heirloom for the whole county to reverence and preserve!
Fade, fade fast, fleeting picture of the prosperity of a few hours! fade, while the royal train is still in sight and still brilliant to look on; while the brave men in the fortress keep their stronghold, though but for a little time, in triumph! Fade, as the evening sun is already fading on St. Michael's Mount; and as the deceitful sun of prosperity shall soon fade on the fortunes of Charles the First!
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Let us now prepare for the last view - to our modern sympathies, perhaps, the most interesting of all - the view of St. Michael's Mount as it is in our own time. Away with the martial music, and all the thrilling and gloomy associations arising with it! Pour forth a thanksgiving psalm of prosperity, awake joyously the pleasant harmonies of peace, touch the strings to the simple melody of the ballad, or the lively measure of the dance; and thus fitly herald a picture of industry and security, - a picture of our own country in our own age!
Behold the Mount again! - the scene of strife and change, and the war and waste of human passions through so many generations of men, - still rising lofty and beautiful as ever from the surface of the deep! The Benedictine chapel yet crowns the summit; but of the fortress, only some of the walls remain. What is left of the monastery is now changed into a summer dwelling-house by the owner of the Mount. Below, instead of mud huts of the ancient Britons, or the few scattered cottages of the middle ages, we have quite a little town, with a fine granite-built harbour, large enough to contain merchantmen of five hundred tons burden. Not less altered is the prospect along the shores of the bay. Half the town of Marazion lay in ruins (the result of former insurrections), when we last saw Charles the First landing at it from the Mount; the houses are now rebuilt. Look on, some three miles away on the beach, and observe those long ranges of white walls fronting the sea; extending up the base of the hill, inland; and backed by fields, plantations, gardens, and country dwelling-houses, all intermingled charmingly on the broad surface of the rising ground. This place has grown out of a few cottages built by fishermen: it is the most western town in Cornwall - Penzance.
Hark! Sounds of laughter and music, of happy voices and merry tunes intermingled, are audible from the Mount. A large pic-nic party is assembled there. All is glee and gaiety; the sun is shining - brilliantly; it is the season of the pilchard fishery; multitudes of boats are in sight; fishermen are working hard; industry and activity are paramount, and - what we have not hitherto seen in the past pictures - are peaceable too! Merchants on the wharf are driving bargains, paying wages, talking politics, watching workpeople, all at once. Business is not transacted now, as we saw it transacted among the ancient Britons. St. Michael's harbour is filled with vessels waiting to be laden with fish; but they want no soldiers to protect them, like the galleys of the Phoenicians. Here is no bartering with the goods in one hand, and the weapon in the other. The noisiest speculators understand each other's interests, and pay and receive, offer and reject in perfect security and ease - the veterans of commercial discipline, just as their savage ancestors were the rawest of recruits.
And above, on the top of the Mount, what a change appears after all that we have seen there before. On a small space of flat ground, hard by what was once the monastery, the girls and young men of the pic-nic party are dancing merrily - dancing to the music of flute and fiddle, where the haggard Benedictines of bygone days muttered their Latin formularies, or welcomed the penitent toiling up to confess to them from the world below. A little lower down, where the Cornish Volunteers sharpened their rude weapons to fight for King Charles, and drum and trumpet sounded for the bloody skirmish, the elders of the pleasure-party are comfortably sipping their wine, and looking lazily upon the busy workmen on the quay beneath them. And, in place of the procession of pilgrims, with their sad-coloured dresses and solemn order of march, what have we got now? A company of excursionists from a remote inland district of the county, who have clubbed together to pay a holiday visit to St. Michael's Mount, and look at the pilchard fishery in the bay - a happy set of home-tourists of all ages, from the child who is running himself out of breath up the steep path to the ancient chapel, to the heavy old gentleman who picks his steps with slow discretion, pokes loose stones out of his way with his stick, and talks laboriously about Cornish antiquities to everybody around him, whether they will hear him or not.
Do you look with satisfaction on this our last view, albeit less striking and less dramatic than the rest. Here, it is true, you see nothing to excite your curiosity, like the ancient Britons trading with their tin - nothing to impress your imagination, like the black-robed Benedictines and the train of pilgrims kneeling before them - nothing to move your national sympathies to the quick, like an episode in the Civil War of the time of Charles the First. But does not the homely picture of prosperous labour and innocent recreation, now before you - drawn faithfully from the life - harmonize most completely, after all, with the lovely prospect of natural scenery which has formed the common basis of our four Views? Concluding with the spectacle of a people at peace, and of the industry and ease which peace brings with it, we conclude with the spectacle of St. Michael's Mount, which is the best of all that have been shown; for it is the only one of them that we could fairly and safely desire to see continued in the reality, unchanged!
But the last picture is fading, though more softly and slowly than the rest; and with it, while it disappears, the showman of the present Exhibition takes his leave. If he has been able to interest his audience a little about St. Michael's Mount, and to invest it for any of them - should they ever visit it themselves - with something of that additional attraction which local association can impart to the charms of beautiful scenery - why then, he has amply and happily fulfilled his purpose in endeavouring to afford them a Glance at History through