I grew up in a small town in a remote part of the British Isles; and rumour has it, and I encourage you to mark the word ‘rumour’ here for there is certainly no proof to the effect, that Lord Byron once came to the house in which I had lived. That he came to the town is beyond dispute. That he stayed in the local inn is a matter of record although, off the record, he was evidently displeased by both the furnishings and the services offered by the establishment. But it seemed that the story of his visit to our house that night, although less plausible, was far more keenly spoken of by all who professed knowledge of the event.
The house, of course, was not in my family’s possession in Byron’s day, the title deeds having passed through many hands in the subsequent years, culminating in the purchase by my father when I was barely three years old. The owner back then, and this too is a matter of public record, was a seafarer and captain of a modest trading vessel that plied routes along the coast and to the nearest ports on the continent. And in that occupation, the captain found himself away from home more often than not.
Now at this point, I imagine that there are some among you who wish that I would hasten to the moment where Lord Byron, enters the picture; while there are others, I fancy, who are apprised of his Lordship’s reputation and are possessed of a fertile imagination of their own that has carried them already well down the track on which I am presently embarked. So let me put your minds all at rest and tell you that not only did the captain have a wife in the town, but the couple had two fetching daughters, both of a marriageable age.
The captain was a man of the world and of continental experiences who understood the dangers his daughters might face should he fail to ensure their protection; and as a result, they were never permitted to be in the company of others without the presence of either or both parents, a responsibility which fell more often than not to their mother since the captain was frequently at sea (in a manner of speaking). Their mother, on the other hand, was many years the junior of her husband, a circumstance that she considered fortuitous, or not, largely depending upon his whereabouts and her disposition.
As it happened, on the day of Lord Byron’s arrival, the captain was well on his way to Cherbourg and whilst there had been no prescience of the poet’s visit, it was the nature of the town that word of his arrival spread to every nook and cranny with lightening speed. In the face of an impending cataclysm whose severity began with the Lord’s rakish reputation and compounded with every breathless retelling of the news, waves of panic and excitement rolled alternately through the cobbled streets, prompting unattached women to dust off their bonnets and fathers to figuratively, and sometimes literally, lock up their daughters. All but the captain that is; who was blissfully ignorant of the hysteria, authoritatively strutting the decks of his modest trader somewhere on the high seas.
Now, the last person in the town to hear of this crescendo of ecstasy was Lord Byron himself; and when word made its way to the ear of his servant and thence to his own, even he was somewhat taken aback. Fearing that his peace would be irrevocably disturbed, he called for his hat and cape and bid his servant pack their trunk and have their coach and horses readied. In fact, the only thing he was unable to prepare at that short notice was a suitable destination. He did not know this part of the country, nor of any bolt holes in the vicinity; but at the same time was already too fatigued from the journey hence to brook a further excursion in the dead of night, through cold and rain, to who knows where. So he bade his servant make discreet enquiries to determine where they might spend the night, as it were, incognito.
The captain’s house stood alone, on a promontory affording it an uninterrupted view of the shipping channel in both directions. It was accessed by a rough track, bounded by tall trees that contributed greatly to its seclusion and ending at a fine wrought iron gate that opened to a gravelled courtyard. Sheer cliffs on three sides contributed to the fortifications but the most powerful defence that the house had to offer was the rumour that it was haunted; and it was precisely this rumour that caught the attention of the poet, convincing him that no more suitable sanctuary could be found within a tolerable carriage ride.
The captain’s daughters, as is sometimes the case with siblings, were markedly different in character and demeanour. Penelope, the elder, was quiet and contemplative, preferring books to parties. She was capable of painting watercolours of great delicacy and it was said, by those in a position to judge, that her needlepoint was exquisite. Emma, on the other hand, bubbled like a fountain on a hot summer’s day and every boy in the town was greatly affected by her. So, when it was announced that none other than Lord Byron, himself, was seeking lodgings for the night in their home, Penelope blushed and let her gaze fall discreetly to the floor, while Emma effervesced and welcomed him effusively.
The captain’s wife, however, was not at all sure of the propriety of such an arrangement and was most reluctant at first to give her assent to the request. But poets, as one might expect, have a facility with words to fashion compelling arguments and she was duly convinced that their integrity would be respected and their reputations preserved. While Emma clapped her hands gleefully and Penelope retired to the library to read, the good servant fetched his master’s luggage; and so it came about that George Gordon, Lord Byron, spent the night in the house that came eventually to be ours – or so the story goes.
For those of you who were expecting this account to culminate in scandal I am sorry to disappoint you for I have none to report. Of course there was much speculation and pernicious gossip in the town in the weeks and even months that followed; but the complete lack of evidence to support the conjecture suggests that either the rumours were without foundation, or alternatively, those present in the house that night were impeccable in their discretion. And whilst there may be some who think that such a mundane ending renders the tale unworthy of the telling, I vouch that it is not my purpose to invent lurid scenes of debauchery in the captain’s house that night merely to satiate one’s thirst for titillation. I have told the tale I set out to tell and all I shall say further is that the captain put the house up for sale soon after his return from Cherbourg and the family moved forthwith.
Penelope never married, while Emma later moved to London and took to the stage. As for the captain’s wife, she continued to perform the role of spouse and mother as long for as nature required it of her. But some of her closest friends observed that, once settled in her subsequent abode, she seemed possessed of a new-found serenity that oft-times, in moments of contemplation and especially when she was reading by the fireside or in the garden, glowed quietly in her eyes, and at the corners of her mouth.