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The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1814.

Chapter I.

THE Vicar of a small parish church, whose turrets nodded over one of the most picturesque lakes of Westmoreland, although no believer in necromancy, stood aghast one day at perceiving the increased bulk of his velvet cushion. Few men could have better pretensions to be intimately acquainted with this throne of theology than himself. He had pressed with a succession of excellent sermons, for five and thirty years, that side of it which was now uppermost. And he was scarcely less familiar with the other side. For, on his first institution to the living, he had, in the true spirit of economy, used that face which was worst for [1/2] upwards of ten years. But, when his zeal had actually beaten a hole in it, the dignity of the establishment demanded a change; and this brought the other side into use. Nor was it merely his sabbatical intercourse with the cushion which had given him this intimate knowledge of it. His attention, since the moment of his induction to the vicarage, had been particularly drawn to it by many current rumours in the parish. It was reported, for instance, to be one of the oldest cushions in the three kingdoms. It had certainly afforded a resting place to the divinity of fifteen or twenty of his predecessors in the vicarage. Nor had even they known it in the earliest stages of its ecclesiastical career. Report said that it had seen many vicissitudes, and travelled through successive ages--that it had been swept by the tunic of a Pope's nuncio--had descended to the pulpit of one of the first puritans--had been expelled by some of the second puritans, as an impious [2/3] adjunct to the simplicity of primitive worship--had risen again with the rising fortunes of the monarchy--and, after many chances and changes, had climbed the mountains of Westmoreland, to spend the years of its grand climacteric in the quiet and unambitious pulpit of the vicarage. Now, as our vicar was somewhat of an antiquarian, all these rumours invested the cushion with inconceivable dignity in his eyes. He considered it as a sort of monarch in retirement. He never touched it without feeling himself, as by a chariot of fire, carried back into the most remote periods. He would often display it with a smile of triumph to his clerical visitors, whose larger benefices were, in his view, but a poor compensation for so splendid a possession. And this he continued to do, though he rarely succeeded in creating any other surprise in his auditors, than that the parish should not be liberal enough to find him a better. Being moreover a thinking man, he would often [3/4] philosophize over his cushion; and marvel what effect the same number and variety of sermons which had been delivered in its presence, would have produced upon the mind of a sentient being--which of the systems, all equally indifferent to the cushion, he would have embraced--whether he would have settled down, as the vicar deemed he ought, into a sound churchman, or whether, amidst conflicting opinions, he would, like a vessel amidst contending tides, have been left as neutral and motionless as the cushion itself. "O!" he would add, "that I could but see the history of my cushion." And, as he began to fall into that common infirmity of age, the recurring often to a few darling topics, his neighbours were compelled to hear the wish pretty often repeated. I mention this circumstance as tending, perhaps, in some measure, to explain its present mysterious expansion. But to return to our history.

Putting these various circumstances [4/5] together, I may surely venture to repeat the assertion, that few divines could have better pretensions than our venerable Vicar to be acquainted with their cushions. Neither time, nor opportunity, nor importunity, had been wanting for the fullest scrutiny of its shape, bulk, and complexion. Whence, then, could the aforesaid expansion of the cushion arise? He put on his glasses, then rubbed his eyes, and then the glasses themselves--but he still saw his old friend with a new face. Conceiving, however, that his eyes and glasses, however long and confidently trusted, might not, after all, be infallible--conceiving, in short, any thing more probable than the mutability of his immutable cushion, he resolved to bring it to the test of another sense. What, then, was his confusion and dismay when, having put his hand on it, instead of finding it yield, as usual, to his touch, he felt some resistance to his pressure. Here was, indeed, cause for terror. He absolutely started back. It happened, [5/6] unfortunately, to be verging towards November, and the fifth of that terrible month at once arose, like an apparition, before him. A rumour had lately reached him, that the Catholics were petitioning our good old king for emancipation; but what if they were secretly taking a more summary method for the accomplishment of their wishes. What, if instead of filling cellars with combustibles, their scheme should be to cram velvet cushions with them! What, if the very instruments of ecclesiastical dignity and usefulness were now to be converted into instruments of assassination! What, if every true son of the Church was designed, at some given moment, at some critical conjuncture, perhaps in the precise act of praying for Church and King, to receive the contents of his cushion in his bosom. Horror, doubt, suspicion, the pride of discovery, the fancied smell of gun-powder, the fear of a premature explosion, were almost too much for the old [6/7] gentleman. Such a trembling of nerves--such a revulsion of blood to the heart, he had scarcely ever experienced before. As his system, however, began to recover, he discovered somewhat less ground for alarm. But, whether his suspicions might be well or ill-founded, nothing appeared to be of such importance as investigation and secrecy. His resolution, therefore, was soon taken. In the dusk" of the evening he mustered courage to enter the church alone, to seize the supposed organ of conspiracy, and to carry it to his own study. But, when there, what was to be done with it? There was one bosom which shared all his joys and sorrows. He had a wife who was the pillar of his little fabric of worldly comforts. Their two heads, laid together, rarely failed to hit upon a contrivance for every daily emergency; and, at length, after a much longer conference than usual, it was resolved, at once and heroically, to unbowel the cushion. The solemnity may be conceived [7/8] with which the aged couple seated themselves to the task of ripping up their velvet friend with a view of tearing from the womb those plots on which the destiny of the nation might be suspended. But how shall I describe the amazement and the joy with which he; and therefore she, saw inscribed at the head of a large roll of paper, which soon met their eager eyes,--"My own history." It scarcely occurred to our ecclesiastic, that velvet cushions cannot ordinarily either think or write--for having just begun to study the new system of education, he did not know to what perfection it might have been suddenly brought. Nor did it at all occur to him, that his above-mentioned philosophisings on the cushion had been often listened to with profound attention by a thin, queer, ill-looking, dirty, retired sort of man in the next village, who was said by the country-folks to be either a conjurer or an author. The wish of his heart was granted to him--a history [8/9] of his velvet cushion--and little recked he whence it came, or who was the historian. Another candle was instantly lighted, his glasses polished, the sofa wheeled nearer to the fire, and he began to read the memoir which follows.

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