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Peter Wilkins's Discovery of a Flying Womau
The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish man, is the only imitation of Robinson Crusoe that has stood its ground, with the exception of the inferior, but still not unmeritorious History of Philip Qrarll. It is a Crusoe with the novelty of a Flying people; as Quarll is another, with the substitution of an affectionate ape, or Chimpanzee, for Man Friday. The modest author, who seems to have taken no steps to make either himself or his book known, has been but lately discovered; if indeed the receiver of the money for its copyright was the same person. And it is most likely he was, the initials by which the dedication of the work is signed being those of the receiver's name. The circumstances of the discovery is thus stated in the latest edition, published by Mr. Smith of Fleet Street.
“In the year 1835, Mr. Nicol, the printer, sold by auction a number of books and manuscripts in his possession, which had formerly be. longed to the well-known publisher Dodsley; and in arranging them for sale, the original agreement for the sale of the manuscript of ‘Peter Wilkins,' by the author, ‘Robert Pultock of Clement's Inn,' to Dodsley, was discovered.
From this document it appears, that Mr. Pultock received twenty pounds, twelve copies of the work, and 'cuts of the first impression,' i. e., a set of proof impressions of the fanciful engravings that professed to illustrate the first edition, as the price of the entire copyright. This curious document was sold to John Wilks, Esq., M. P., on the 17th of December, 1835."
The reader will observe, that the words “by the author,” in this extract, are not accompanied by marks of quotation. The fact, however, is stated as if he knew it for such, by the quoter of the document.
The Dedication is to Elizabeth, Countess of Northumberland, the lady to whom Percy addressed his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. She was a Wriothesley, descended of Shakspeare's Earl of Southampton, and appears to have been a very amiable woman. “R. P.” professes himself to be under obligations to her; and says, that it was after the pattern of her virtues that he drew the “mind” of his Youwarkee.
It is interesting to fancy “R. P.,” or “Mr. Robert Pultock of Clement's Inn," a gentle lover of books, not successful enough perhaps as a barrister to lead a public or profitable life, but eking out a little employment, or a bit of a patrimony, with literature congenial to him, and looking oftener to Purchas's Pilgrims on his shelves than to Coke upon Littleton. We picture him to ourselves, with Robinson Crusoe on one side of him, and Gaudentio di Lucca on the other, hearing the pen go over his paper in one of those quiet rooms in Clement's Inn, that look out of its old-fashioned buildings into the little garden with the dial in it, held by the negro; one of the prettiest corners in London, and extremely fit for a sequestered fancy that cannot get any farther. There he sits, the unknown, ingenious, and amiable Mr. Robert Pultock, thinking of an imaginary beauty for want of a better; and creating her for the delight of posterity, though his contemporaries were to know little or nothing of her. We shall never go through the place again, without regarding him as its crowning interest.
Peter Wilkins is no common production in any respect, though it is far inferior to Crusoe in contrivance and detail; and falls off, like all these imaginary works, in the latter part, when they begin laying down the law in politics and religion. It has been well observed too, that the author has not made his Flying People in general light and airy enough, or of sufficiently unvulgar materials, either in body or mind, to warrant the ethereal advantages of their wings. And it may be said on the other hand, that the kind of wing, the graundee, or elastic natural drapery, which opens and shuts at pleasure, however ingeniously and even beautifully contrived, would necessitate a creature, whose modifications of humanity, bodily and mental, though never so good after their kind, might have startled the inventor had he been more of a naturalist; might have developed a being very different from the feminine, sympathizing, and lovely Youwarkee. Muscles and nerves, not human, must have been associated with inhuman wants and feelings; probably have necessitated talons and a beak! At best, the woman would have been wilder; more elvish, capricious, and unaccountable. She would have ruffled her whalebones when angry; been horribly intimate perhaps with birds' nests, and fights with eagles; and frightened Wilkins out of his wits with dasbing betwixt rocks, and pulling the noses of seals and gulls. So far the book is wanting in verisimilitude and imagination.
But then how willing we are to gain the fair winged creature at the expense of Zoonomyl and after all, how founded in nature itself is the human desire to fly! We do so in dreams; we all long for the power when children: we think of it in poetry and in sorrow. “Oh that I had the wings of a dove! then would I fly away and be at rest.” Wilkins fled away into a beautiful twilight country, far from his unresting self and vulgar daylight; and not being able to give himself wings, he invented a wife that had them instead. Now a sweeter creature is not to be found in books; and she does him immortal honour. She is all tenderness and vivacity; all born good taste and blessed companionship. Her pleasure consists but in his: she prevents all his wishes; has neither prudery nor immodesty; sheds not a tear but from right feeling; is the good of his home, and the grace of his fancy. It is a pity the account of his bridal cannot be given; for never were love and purity better united; but to draw it forth from the general history, might give it in too many eyes a freedom which does not belong to it. We must content ourselves with extracting the account of the charmer's discovery, and of the way in which Peter first became acquainted with her powers of flight. The voices which he hears at night, the fall of some unknown weight at his door, the puzzle about the graundee that has been slit, and the first movements of the winged beauty over the lake, are all points particularly well-felt and interesting
The reader is to understand, that Peter had by this time settled himself, à la Crusoe, in his solitary abode; which is in a cavern by the side of a lake, into which he had been drifted through a long subterraneous passage from the sea. It was a very beautiful place, but so far out of the ordinary course of the sun, that “the brightest daylight never exceeded that of half an hour after sunset in the summer-time in England, and tle more than just reddened the sky.” In consequence of this nature of her climate, Youwarkee was in all respects a very tender-eyed thing, and could not bear a strong light.
HAD now well stored my grotto with all sorts of winter
provisions; and feeling the weather grow very cold, I expected, and waited patiently for, the total darkness. I went little abroad, and employed myself within doors, endeavouring to fence against the approaching extremity of the cold. For this purpose I prepared a quantity of rushes, which being very dry, I spread them smoothly on the floor of my bed-chamber a good thickness, and over them I laid my mattress : then I made a double sheet of the boat's awning, or sail, that I had brought to cover my goods; and having skewered together several of the jackets and clothes I found in the chest, of them I made a coverlid; so that I lay very commodiously, and made very long nights of it, now the dark season was set in.
As I lay awake one night, or day, I know not whether, I very plainly heard the sound of several human voices, and sometimes very loud; but though I could easily distinguish the articulations, I could not understand the least word that was said ; nor did the voices seem at all to me like such as I had anywhere heard before, but much softer and more musical. This startled me, and I rose immediately, slipping on my clothes and taking my gun in my hand (which I always kept charged, being my constant travelling companion), and my cutlass. Thus equipped, I walked into my antechamber, where I heard the voices inuch plainer ; till, after some little time, they quite died away. After watching here, and hearkening a good while, hearing nothing, I walked back into the grotto, and laid me down again on my bed. I was inclined to open the door of my antechamber, but I own I was afraid; beside, I considered, that if I did, I could discover nothing at any distance, by reason of the thick and gloomy wood that enclosed me.
I had a thousand different surmises about the meaning of this odd incident; and could not conceive how
human creature should be in my kingdom (as I called it) but myself, and I never yet see them or any traces of their habitation. But then again I reflected, that though I had surrounded the whole lake, yet I had not traced the outbounds of the wood, next the rock, where there might be innumerable grottos like mine; nay, perhaps some as spacious as that I had sailed through to the lake; and that though I had not perceived it yet, this beautiful spot might be very well peopled. But, says I again, if there be any such beings as I am fancying here, surely they don't skulk in their dens, like savage beasts, by daylight, and only patrol for prey by night; if so, I shall probably become a delicious morsel for them ere long, if they meet with me. This kept me still more within doors than before, and I hardly ever stirred out but for water or firing. At length, hearing no more voices, or seeing any one, I began to be more composed in my mind, and at last grew persuaded it was all a mere delusion, and only a fancy of mine without
any real foundation; and sometimes, though I was sure I was fully awake when I heard them, I persuaded myself I had rose in my sleep upon a dream of voices, and recollected with myself the various stories I had heard when a boy of walking in one's sleep, and the surprising effects of it; so the whole notion was now blown over.
I had not enjoyed my tranquillity above a week, before my fears were roused afresh, hearing the same sound of voices twice the same night, þut not many minutes at a time. What gave me most pain was, that they were at such a distance, as I judged by the languor of the sound, that if I had opened my door I could not have seen the utterers through the trees, and I was resolved not to venture out;