Mary Russell Mitford (1787 – 1855) was an English author and dramatist. She was born at Alresford in Hampshire. She is best known for Our Village, a series of sketches of village scenes and vividly drawn characters based upon life in Three Mile Cross, a hamlet in the parish of Shinfield, near Reading in Berkshire, where she lived.
Mitford was an especially prolific and successful writer in a range of genres, from poetry to drama as well as the prose for which she has been best known. Her writings have been celebrated for their spontaneous humour, combined with quick wit and literary skill.
Her youthful ambition had been to be the greatest English poetess, and her first publications were poems in the manner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Walter Scott (Miscellaneous Verses, 1810, reviewed by Scott in the Quarterly; Christina, the Maid of the South Seas, a metrical tale based on the first news of discovery of the last surviving mutineer of the H. M. S. Bounty and a generation of British-Tahitian children on Pitcairn Island in 1811; and Blanche, part of a projected series of "Narrative Poems on the Female Character", in 1813). Her play Julian was produced at Covent Garden, with William Charles Macready in the title role, in 1823; Foscari at Covent Garden, with Charles Kemble as the hero, in 1826; while Rienzi, 1828, the best of her plays, ran for 34 performances, and Mitford's friend, Thomas Noon Talfourd, supposed that its popularity detracted from the success of his own play, Ion. Charles the First was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, but was played at the Surrey Theatre in 1834.
The prose, to which she was driven by the need to earn a living, was the most successful and financially rewarding of her literary productions. The first series of Our Village sketches appeared in book form in 1824 (having first appeared in The Lady's Magazine five years previously), a second in 1826, a third in 1828, a fourth in 1830, a fifth in 1832. They were reprinted several times. Belford Regis, another series of literary sketches in which the neighbourhood and society of Reading were idealised, was published in 1835. Her description of village cricket in Our Village has been called "the first major prose on the game".
Her Recollections of a Literary Life (1852) is a series of causeries about her favourite books. Her talk was said by her friends, Elizabeth Browning and Hengist Horne, to have been even more amusing than her books, and five volumes of her Life and Letters, published in 1870 and 1872, show her to have been a delightful letter-writer. The many collections available of her letters provide especially useful commentary and criticism of her Romantic and Victorian literary contemporaries.
Once upon a time, a certain ronin, Tajima Shume by name, an able and well-read man, being on his travels to see the world, went up to Kiyoto by the Tokaido. [The road of the Eastern Sea, the famous highroad leading from Kiyoto to Yedo. The name is also used to indicate the provinces through which it runs.] One day, in the neighbourhood of Nagoya, in the province of Owari, he fell in with a wandering priest, with whom he entered into conversation. Finding that they were bound for the same place, they agreed to travel together, beguiling their weary way by pleasant talk on divers matters; and so by degrees, as they became more intimate, they began to speak without restraint about their private affairs; and the priest, trusting thoroughly in the honour of his companion, told him the object of his journey.
“For some time past,” said he, “I have nourished a wish that has engrossed all my thoughts; for I am bent on setting up a molten image in honour of Buddha; with this object I have wandered through various provinces collecting alms, and (who knows by what weary toil?) we have succeeded in amassing two hundred ounces of silver enough, I trust, to erect a handsome bronze figure.”
What says the proverb ? “He who bears a jewel in his bosom bears poison.” Hardly had the ronin heard these words of the priest than an evil heart arose within him, and he thought to himself, “Man’s life, from the womb to the grave, is made up of good and of ill luck. Here am I, nearly forty years old, a wanderer, without a calling, or even a hope of advancement in the world. To be sure, it seems a shame; yet if I could steal the money this priest is boasting about, I could live at ease for the rest of my days;” and so he began casting about how best he might compass his purpose. But the priest, far from guessing the drift of his comrade’s thoughts, journeyed cheerfully on till they reached the town of Kuana. Here there is an arm of the sea, which is crossed in ferry-boats, that start as soon as some twenty or thirty passengers are gathered together; and in one of these boats the two travellers embarked. About halfway across, the priest was taken with a sudden necessity to go to the side of the boat; and the ronin, following him, tripped him up while no one was looking, and flung him into the sea. When the boatmen and passengers heard the splash, and saw the priest struggling in the water, they were afraid, and made every effort to save him; but the wind was fair, and the boat running swiftly under the bellying sails; so they were soon a few hundred yards off from the drowning man, who sank before the boat could be turned to rescue him.
When he saw this, the ronin feigned the utmost grief and dismay, and said to his fellow-passengers, “This priest, whom we have just lost, was my cousin; he was going to Kiyoto, to visit the shrine of his patron; and as I happened to have business there as well, we settled to travel together. Now, alas! by this misfortune, my cousin is dead, and I am left alone.”
He spoke so feelingly, and wept so freely, that the passengers believed his story, and pitied and tried to comfort him. Then the ronin said to the boatmen:
“We ought, by rights, to report this matter to the authorities; but as I am pressed for time, and the business might bring trouble on yourselves as well, perhaps we had better hush it up for the present; I will at once go on to Kiyoto and tell my cousin’s patron, besides writing home about it. What think you, gentlemen ?” added he, turning to the other travellers.
They, of course, were only too glad to avoid any hindrance to their onward journey, and all with one voice agreed to what the ronin had proposed; and so the matter was settled. When, at length, they reached the shore, they left the boat, and every man went his way; but the ronin, overjoyed in his heart, took the wandering priest’s luggage, and, putting it with his own, pursued his journey to Kiyoto.
On reaching the capital, the ronin changed his name from Shume to Tokubei, and, giving up his position as a samurai, turned merchant, and traded with the dead man’s money. Fortune favouring his speculations, he began to amass great wealth, and lived at his ease, denying himself nothing; and in course of time he married a wife, who bore him a child.
Thus the days and months wore on, till one fine summer’s night, some three years after the priest’s death, Tokubei stepped out on the veranda of his house to enjoy the cool air and the beauty of the moonlight. Feeling dull and lonely, he began musing over all kinds of things, when on a sudden the deed of murder and theft, done so long ago, vividly recurred to his memory, and he thought to himself, “Here am I, grown rich and fat on the money I wantonly stole. Since then, all has gone well with me; yet, had I not been poor, I had never turned assassin nor thief. Woe betide me! what a pity it was !” and as he was revolving the matter in his mind, a feeling of remorse came over him, in spite of all he could do. While his conscience thus smote him, he suddenly, to his utter amazement, beheld the faint outline of a man standing near a fir-tree in the garden; on looking more attentively, he perceived that the man’s whole body was thin and worn, and the eyes sunken and dim; and in that poor ghost that was before him he recognised the very priest whom he had thrown into the sea at Kuana. Chilled with horror, he looked again, and saw that the priest was smiling in scorn. He would have fled into the house, but the ghost stretched forth its withered arm, and, clutching the back of his neck, scowled at him with a vindictive glare and a hideous ghastliness of mien so unspeakably awful that any ordinary man would have swooned with fear. But Tokubei, tradesman though he was, had once been a soldier, and was not easily matched for daring; so he shook off the ghost, and, leaping into the room for his dirk, laid about him boldly enough; but, strike as he would, the spirit, fading into the air, eluded his blows, and suddenly reappeared only to vanish again; and from that time forth Tokubei knew no rest, and was haunted night and day.
At length, undone by such ceaseless vexation, Tokubei fell ill, and kept muttering, “Oh, misery ! misery ! the wandering priest is coming to torture me!” Hearing his moans and the disturbance he made, the people in the house fancied he was mad, and called in a physician, who prescribed for him. But neither pill nor potion could cure Tokubei, whose strange frenzy soon became the talk of the whole neighbourhood.
Now it chanced that the story reached the ears of a certain wandering priest who lodged in the next street. When he heard the particulars, this priest gravely shook his head as though he knew all about it, and sent a friend to Tokubei’s house to say that a wandering priest, dwelling hard by, had heard of his illness, and, were it never so grievous, would undertake to heal it by means of his prayers; and Tokubei’s wife, driven half wild by her husband’s sickness, lost not a moment in sending for the priest and taking him into the sick man’s room.
But no sooner did Tokubei see the priest than he yelled out, “Help ! help! Here is the wandering priest come to torment me again. Forgive ! forgive !” and hiding his head under the coverlet, he lay quivering all over. Then the priest turned all present out of the room, put his mouth to the affrighted man’s ear, and whispered:
“Three years ago, at the Kuana ferry, you flung me into the water; and well you remember it.”
But Tokubei was speechless, and could only quake with fear.
“Happily,” continued the priest, “I had learned to swim and to dive as a boy; so I reached the shore, and, after wandering through many provinces, succeeded in setting up a bronze figure to Buddha, thus fulfilling the wish of my heart. On my journey homeward, I took a lodging in the next street, and there heard of your marvellous ailment. Thinking I could divine its cause, I came to see you, and am glad to find I was not mistaken. You have done a hateful deed; but am I not a priest, and have I not forsaken the things of this world, and would it not ill become me to bear malice ? Repent, therefore, and abandon your evil ways. To see you do so I should esteem the height of happiness. Be of good cheer, now, and look me in the face, and you will see that I am really a living man, and no vengeful goblin come to torment you.”
Seeing he had no ghost to deal with, and overwhelmed by the priest’s kindness, Tokubei burst into tears, and answered, “Indeed, indeed, I don’t know what to say. In a fit of madness I was tempted to kill and rob you. Fortune befriended me ever after; but the richer I grew, the more keenly I felt how wicked I had been, and the more I foresaw that my victim’s vengeance would some day overtake me. Haunted by this thought, I lost my nerve, till one night I beheld your spirit, and from that time fell ill. But how you managed to escape, and are still alive, is more than I can understand.”
“A guilty man,” said the priest, with a smile, “shudders at the rustling of the wind or the chattering of a stork’s beak; a murderer’s conscience preys upon his mind till he sees what is not. Poverty drives a man to crimes which he repents of in his wealth. How true is the doctrine of Moshi [Mencius], that the heart of man, pure by nature, is corrupted by circumstances !”
Thus he held forth; and Tokubei, who had long since repented of his crime, implored forgiveness, and gave him a large sum of money, saying, “Half of this is the amount I stole from you three years since; the other half I entreat you to accept as interest, or as a gift.”
The priest at first refused the money; but Tokubei insisted on his accepting it, and did all he could to detain him, but in vain; for the priest went on his way, and bestowed the money on the poor and needy. As for Tokubei himself, he soon shook off his disorder, and thenceforward lived at peace with all men, revered both at home and abroad, and ever intent on good and charitable deeds.