William Beckford (1760-1844)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

A DISTANT connection of mine, who, I must presume, was a person of an inquiring mind, found himself involved in a curious adventure. . . . There was one house, and that the most interesting of all, that shut its door against my inquisitive friend and everybody else. Fonthill Abbey, or Fonthill Splendour as it was sometimes called, situated a few miles from Bath, was a treasure-house of beauty. Every picture was said to be a gem, and the gardens were unequalled by any in England, the whole being guarded by a dragon in the form of Mr. Beckford. `Not only,' says an authority, `had the art-treasures of that princely place been sealed against the public, but the park itself—known by rumour as a beautiful spot—had for several years been inclosed by a most formidable wall, about seven miles in circuit, twelve feet high, and crowned by a chevaux-defrise.' These formidable obstacles my distant cousin undertook to surmount, and he laid a wager of a considerable sum that he would walk in the gardens, and even penetrate into the house itself.

Having nothing better to do, he spent many an anxious hour in watching the great gate in the wall, in the hope that by some inadvertence it might be left open and unguarded; and one day the happy moment arrived. The porter was ill, and his wife opened the gate to a tradesman, who, after depositing his goods at the lodge (no butcher or baker was permitted to go to the Abbey itself), retired, leaving the gate open, relying probably upon the woman's shutting it. Quick as thought my relative passed the awful portals, and made his way across the park. Guided by the high tower called `Beckford's Folly'—my inquisitive friend made his way to the gardens, and not being able immediately to find the entrance, was leaning on a low wall that shut the gardens from the park, and taking his fill of delight at that gorgeous display—the garden being in full beauty—when a man with a spud in his hand—perhaps the head-gardener—approached, and asked the intruder how he came there, and what he wanted.

`The fact is, I found the gate in the wall open, and having heard a great deal about this beautiful place, I thought I should like to see it.'

`Ah,' said the gardener, `you would, would you? Well, you can't see much where you are. Do you think you could manage to jump over the wall? If you can, I will show you the gardens.'

My cousin looked over the wall, and found such a palpable obstacle—in the shape of a deep ditch-that he wondered at the proposal.

`Oh, I forgot the ditch! Well, go to the door; you will find it about a couple of hundred yards to your right, and I will admit you.'

In a very short time, to his great delight, my cousin found himself listening to the learned names of rare plants, and inhaling the perfume of lovely flowers. Then the fruit-gardens and hot-houses—`acres of them', as he afterwards declared—were submitted to his inspection. After the beauties of the gardens and grounds had been thoroughly explored, and the wager half won, the inquisitive one's pleasure may be imagined when his guide said:

`Now, would you like to see the house and its contents? There are some rare things in it—fine pictures and so on. Do you know anything about pictures?'

`I think I do, and should, above all things, like to see those of which I have heard so much; but are you sure that you will not get yourself into a scrape with Mr. Beckford? I've heard he is so very particular.'

`Oh no!' said the gardener, `I don't think Mr. Beckford will mind what I do. You see, I have known him all my life, and he lets me do pretty well what I like here.'

`Then I shall be only too much obliged.'

'Follow me, then,' said the guide.

My distant cousin was really a man of considerable taste and culture, a great lover of art, with some knowledge of the old masters and the different schools; and he often surprised his guide, who, catalogue in hand, named the different, pictures and their authors, by his acute and often correct criticism.... When the pictures had been thoroughly examined, there remained bric-à-brac of all kinds, costly suits of armour, jewelry of all ages, bridal coffers beautifully painted by Italian artists, numbers of ancient and modern musical instruments, with other treasures, all to be carefully and delightfully examined, till, the day nearing fast towards evening, the visitor prepared to depart, and was commencing a speech of thanks in his best manner, when the gardener said, looking at his watch:

`Why, bless me, it's five o'clock! ain't you hungry? You must stop and have some dinner.'

`No, really, I couldn't think of taking such a liberty. I am sure Mr. Beckford would be offended.!

'No, he wouldn't. You must stop and dine with me; I am Mr. Beckford.'

My far-off cousin's state of mind may be imagined. He had won his wager, and he was asked, actually asked, to dine with the man whose name was a terror to the tourist, whose walks abroad were so rare that his personal appearance was unknown to his neighbours. What a story to relate to his circle at Bath! How Mr. Beckford had been belied, to be sure! The dinner was magnificent, served on massive plate—the wines of the rarest vintage. Rarer still was Mr. Beckford's conversation. He entertained his guest with stories of Italian travel, with anecdotes of the great in whose society he had mixed, till he found the shallowness of it; in short, with the outpouring of a mind of great power and thorough cultivation. My cousin was well read enough to be able to appreciate the conversation and contribute to it, and thus the evening passed delightfully away. Candles were lighted, and host and guest talked till a fine Louis Quatorze clock struck eleven. Mr. Beckford rose and left the room. The guest drew his chair to the fire, and waited the return of his host. He thought he must have dozed, for he started to find the room in semi-darkness, and one of the solemn powdered footmen putting out the lights.

`Where is Mr. Beckford?' said my cousin.

`Mr. Beckford is gone to bed,' said the man, as he extinguished the last candle.

The dining-room door was open, and there was a dim light in the hall.

`Mr. Beckford ordered me to present his compliments to you, sir, and I am to say that as you found your way into Fonthill Abbey without assistance, you may find your way out again as best you can; and he hopes you will take care to avoid the bloodhounds that are let loose in the gardens every night. I wish you good-evening. No, thank you, sir: Mr. Beckford never allows vails.'

My cousin climbed into the branches of the first tree that promised a safe shelter from the dogs, and there waited for daylight; and it was not till the sun showed itself that he made his way, terror attending each step, through the gardens into the park, and so to Bath. `The wager was won,' said my relative; `but not for fifty million times the amount would I again pass such a night as I did at Fonthill Abbey.'

From W. P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (1887), ii. 132-7.

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