Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Fontelautus

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IT may seem in fact, it must seem strange to have included in a volume of notices of remarkable Devonshire characters a biography of an infant who did not attain to the age of two years; but I leave the reader to judge from the sequel whether I should have been justified in omitting a notice of Fontelautus.

For an account of the life and adventures of this precocious infant we are obliged to refer to the following work, published 1826: Subversion of Materialism by Credible Attestation of Supernatural Occurrences … Pt. I. Memoirs of Fontelautus, infant son of Prebendary Dennis, comprising his demoniacal obsession, and diversified apparition, with his father's ante-nuptial vision and revelations. Pt. II. Supernatural Anecdotes of various Families' Farewell Apparitions, Supernatural Fire tokens … By Jonas Dennis, B.C.L., Prebendary of the Royal Collegiate Church of Exeter Castle."

Prebendary Dennis hurls his son Fontelautus as a bomb into the camp of atheists, materialists, and rationalists. If Fontelautus does not shatter their unbelief, they are past arguing with, past praying for.

Prebendary Dennis begins with the ancestry of Fontelautus, who was derived in direct lineal descent from Sir Thomas Dennis of Holcombe Burnell, the rapacious and insatiable devourer of ecclesiastical estates, made fat on the plunder of Church property by Henry VIII. Mr. Jonas Dennis is led to observe that there was an hereditary tendency in the Dennis family to acquisitiveness, to avarice; but this proclivity, like gout, jumped a generation, and he informs us that he himself was so entirely free from the family taint that he declined a benefice from scruples respecting the administration of the sacraments; that he further rejected the advances of a lady with a fortune of £50,000, on the discovery of incompatibility of inclination; and that he subsequently married "a lady with ten pounds for her fortune, calculating probability of conjugal felicity from the endowment of amiable qualities, placid disposition, compilable temper, serious principles, polite accomplishments, and last, though not least, domestic habits." But if acquisitiveness jumped a generation, it manifested itself in Fontelautus, who from the earliest age clawed and endeavoured to ram into his mouth whatever he could lay his hands on.

The Dennis family had been one of warriors: their arms were battle-axes; and the Rev. Jonas admits that combativeness remained as a pronounced feature in his own character, the hereditary principle in himself prompting him to engage in controversy. Some of his achievements he records. It seems that the priest vicars of the cathedral of Exeter had petitioned the Dean and Chapter to suppress the week-day matins. The Chapter was more than half inclined to agree, when the stalwart Jonas threw himself into the midst, and stormed, threatened, pointed to the Constitutions, dared the Chapter to give way, and so saved the choral matins in the minster.

The cathedral, he informs us, was kept open, and was used for assignations and for various objectionable gatherings. At his instigation the doors were locked between the hours of Divine service. It is possible that what he here refers to may be the performance of the Gloria in Excelsis by the choir in the Minstrel Gallery at midnight on Christmas Eve. This was stopped about the same time on account of the disorderly scenes that took place in the nave; but he does not specially refer to this.

Every now and then information reached his ear of intended jobs by the Bishop (Carey) to accommodate noblemen, and rich squires of the diocese, by putting very undesirable scions of these families into some of his best livings. Dennis wrote to the Bishop, told him that if he proceeded in these appointments he would publish what he knew about the character of those whom he presented and of the negotiations undertaken to obtain these benefices.

He also strove to get Convocation to transact business. "It was a point gained to make a torpid tribe stretch and flap their wings, although speedily drooping into a seven years' rest."

The mother of Prebendary Dennis was a daughter of John Cobley, of Crediton—in fact, the Fontelautus who was to be would be a kinsman through his grandmother of the immortal Uncle Tom Cobley.

The Prebendary having no church near him at Exmouth, where he resided, that was open for daily prayer, was wont to recite his office when walking or riding. One day when he was on horseback and engaged in prayer, he saw a sudden illumination of the sky in the east, that grew brighter and ever more brilliant till it exceeded that of the sun, and the light appeared to pulsate in waves. Dazzled and overcome he reined in his horse, when from the depths of the light he heard a voice, "The discipline of the Church shall be restored through you!" Then a pause, and the light swelled and enveloped him, and he heard, "Miss Shore will marry you!" After a pause a third voice fell from heaven, "You shall recover your health by observing the fasts of the Church." Then the light gradually faded away.

"Of the three predictions," writes Prebendary Dennis, "attended with a vision, two have already been fulfilled, i.e. his engagement and marriage to Miss Shore (Juliana Susannah) daughter of the Rev. Thomas Shore, vicar of Otterton, and brother of Lord Teignmouth; next his recovery of sound health. Toward the fulfilment of the other the author has from that day laboured with might and main. To it he has devoted prayer, thought, money, speech, travel, exerting every effort within compass of attainment." According to him, Papal supremacy had been abolished in the Church of England, Royal supremacy existed but as a shadow, that supremacy under which the Church was crushed, but did not groan and seem inconvenienced, or to dislike, was the supremacy of Mammon. And he traced this supremacy to the coming over of William of Orange, and the filling of the bishoprics, and all preferments with men who were mere timeservers and political partisans. He was an advocate for the restoration of clinical unction; he preached it, and records several instances of healing through it. He also regarded madness as in many cases due to demoniacal possession, and urged the use of exorcism.

The following is an extract from the Register of Baptisms of Exmouth for the year 1824:—

"Fontelautus, first-born son and fifth child of Jonas and Juliana Susanna … Dennis, Prebendary of Kerswell, in the R. Collegiate Church of the Castle of Exeter. Baptised by me, Jonas Dennis, B.C.L., the aforesaid Prebendary. Sponsors: Sir W. T. Pole, Bart., by his proxy, the Rev. R. Prat, vicar; the Rev. Jno. Dennis, A.B., and Elizabeth his wife. Supposed to be the first instance of trine immersion since its suppression by the Presbyterian Directory of the Long Parliament."

Fontelautus means, of course, "washed in the (sacred) fount." What could a wretched infant do with such a name? Could it possibly live?

"Peaceful was his countenance, engaging was his manner, penetrating his looks. In family worship his attention and serious aspect was striking to the spectators."

But, alas! there was something of the hereditary taint in Fontelautus—the love of admiration. "Every little cunning trick was resorted to for its gratification. Every description of expedient was equally adopted by him as by a vain adult. Approaching home in his attendant's arms, on her return from executing any commission, he studiously assumed appearance of having been bearer of the purchased article by grasping it in his extended fingers, merely to excite admiration. Rather than not excite attention, he courted notice by laying his head on the floor in preference to other support."

Here follows an exquisite specimen of the style of the Rev. Jonas: "The few moments spent in his father's arms were marked by ecstacy; and the privilege of attendance on tonsorial operations"—he means watching the barber cut his father's hair and shave him—"was highly estimated by the animated boy. But the son of a scholar commands an inferior portion of paternal time and caresses, than he ensures in maternal embraces or sartorial attention! His mother, of course, was the paramount object of regard. He could not obliterate the associated delight of a suckling."

Fontelautus seemed to be progressing lustily with his pap and his bottle, and dribbling effusively as indication of teething, when about a fortnight before the end of May, as the cook-maid sat at night in the kitchen, she saw the headless form of a child enter the door from the court, walk or glide through the kitchen into the pantry, and suddenly vanish.

On 1 June, seven weeks before Fontelautus had completed his second year, rising to meet his father who had been absent from home for some months, the boy got his foot entangled in a bedside carpet, and falling on his right arm bent the bone, or, as Jonas words it, "the pressure of the superincumbent weight gave it an unprecedented degree of incurvation." Before he had recovered from this he had a fall on his head, and soon water on the brain began to gather, and he had convulsions during ten days, and from the appearance of his eyes it was clear that the child could no longer see. The father was convinced that this was a case of obsession by an evil spirit, not of possession, as he is careful to explain, and he had recourse to exorcism, which temporarily relieved the distressed infant. The contortions, the expression of the face, the foaming of the mouth, all satisfied the father that the child was beset by evil spirits, and his exorcisms were always conducive to relief of the patient; an expression of repose and relief stole over the distressed countenance of the child; and when he died it was during such a pause of relief; as the Prebendary says, "His soul was not extracted from the body by the coercive agency of an infernal envoy."

So far we do not see how that Fontelautus should be such a crushing argument against materialism. Yet the Memoirs were addressed to "Mr. William Lawrence, surgeon, as chief British apostle of the system of Natural Philosophy completely reducing man to a biped featherless brute; therefore eradicating apprehensions of future responsibility, consequently destructive of every moral feeling in the heart."

But wait, Mr. Apostle Lawrence, the evidence against materialism is coming!

It must be premised that the family lived at the time at Belmont House, in Bicton Street, Exmouth, and this was the scene of what followed:—

"On the night succeeding the decease of Fontelautus, for preclusion of the body from renewed maternal inspection, it was removed to an attic apartment, having an unglazed window open to the staircase. With the same view, the lid of the coffin was screwed until the following day, when it was unscrewed on suggestion of hazard to bearers from condensation of putrescent exhalation."

At the Prebendary's desire, the head of his child had been cut off and the skull opened to examine the condition of the brain, and to ascertain the amount of water that was in it. And it is remarkable that this operation took place in the room immediately above the kitchen in which a few weeks before the cook had seen the apparition of the headless child.

"Pending the intervening night, the inmates of the nursery being removed to another sleeping room, the nursemaid, during half an hour, while lying in bed, heard his accustomed tones of voice as distinctly as when occasionally lying with her during lifetime. Sitting up, she heard the voice continued precisely in the usual mode constantly resorted to by the affectionate child, to engage his nurse's nocturnal attention, if through fatigue reluctant to be disturbed. His vocal tones were peculiarly winning, coaxing, and caressing. They retained their pristine character during the period of apparition. Forgetful, for the time, of all impossibility of reanimation, through dissection of the cerebellum, she concluded, through protraction of the phenomenon, that life was restored. On walking out on the staircase, and remaining ten minutes, the voice continued to attend her, until hastening to the coffin and without success endeavouring to force open the lid. His favourite sister, Maria, lying in a crib in the same room, heard her brother's voice with equal distinctness, both that night and the two following days. She, indeed, heard the sound of his voice so frequently transmitted from the attic room, as repeatedly to be induced to hasten thither in expectation of finding him alive. Her mother, sitting in the drawing-room, likewise heard the same articulate sound. At one time, the girl at the foot of the stairs, and the servant at the nursery door, both heard the infant's tones repeated at the same time from the attic room. At another time, Maria, during five minutes, saw the apparition of her brother's hand stretching out of the room window where his body lay; and she knocked at her mother's door, calling her out to see Lautus, as he was alive. Before her mother arrived, she saw the hand turned round and drawn in at the window. She continued to hear his voice coming in the same direction the succeeding day.

"At night, her mother, entreated by her father to deny herself the pleasure of saluting her deceased darling's icy lips, reluctantly yielded to the injunction. She was subsequently awakened from sound sleep by sensible perception of a wing fluttering on her lips, with such rapidity as nearly to suspend breathing. Sitting up in the bed, she then heard the more distant sound of which fluttering, equally distinct to the ear as previously perceptible by contact. It continued for some time in the upper part of the room. On searching the following morning, no material object elucidating the phenomena was by any means discoverable, both window and door having through the night been closely shut and locked."

That this was none other than a moth that escaped notice by day by clinging to a curtain with folded wings is obvious enough.

The reader is by this time doubtless so tired of the inflated style of the Prebendary, that he will be grateful to have the rest of the story told in plain English.

The Rev. Jonas had made up his mind to have Fontelautus buried in the garden of his home, and arrangements were made that his five sisters were to be the bearers. But this was at once met by the positive refusal of Maria, who declared that she would be no party to the burial of her brother, who, she was assured, was still alive. After the funeral she remained in an agony of distress, and this idea continued to possess her, and so firmly impressed her mind, that at length, to appease her and satisfy her that Fontelautus was really dead, he was dug up again.

Such is the story that the Prebendary thought would be annihilation to materialism.

He was the author of a good many books. I give the titles of a few.

Church Reform, by a Church Radical, and Other Tracts. Exeter, 1834-5.

Alliance of Church and State, Neither Sinful nor Unscriptural. London, 1834.

Key to the Regalia, with Anecdotes of the Late King. London, 1820.

Architectura Sacra. Exeter, 1819.

Cat o' Nine Tails. Exeter, 1823.

The Landscape Gardener. Chelsea, 1835.

The Rev. Jonas Dennis himself died at Polsloe Park on 6 December, 1846, aged seventy-one. His only ecclesiastical preferment in life was the prebend of Carswell, one of the four prebends attached to the church of St. Mary, in the Castle of Exeter, which he held from 1799 to the day of his death, receiving the yearly emolument of £2 13s. 4d.

He was buried at Otterton, and his grave and tombstone, as well as those of his wife, are in the churchyard.

If Providence had chosen him, as the voice from heaven intimated, to reform the Church, it made a most unhappy selection, as his inflated and absurd style of writing and speaking made him an object of ridicule not of respect, and deprived his efforts of success.

I will add some of the stories from the second part of his Hammer of Materialists.

Prebendary Salter, M.A., tutor to the son of the former Bishop Fisher, of Exeter, translated to Salisbury in 1807, declared that one night he saw his father's apparition standing by the bedside. At the same time his little child began to whimper, and this roused his wife, who also saw the spectre, and both particularly noticed the peculiar plaiting of the shirt. In a short time a special messenger arrived bringing information that the old gentleman was dead.

Sarah, wife of James Smith, of Peckham, Russia merchant, and herself a descendant of General Monk and mother-in-law of John Dennis, the brother of Prebendary Jonas, saw a female friend's apparition at the foot of her bed. Next day a letter arrived announcing the dying anxiety of the party for an interview with Mrs. Smith, to entreat her kind attention to her surviving orphans. The moment of dissolution coincided with that of the apparition. Mrs. Burrow, aunt of Baron Giffard, informed the author that going up Fore Street, Exeter, one night, she saw, walking at a little distance before her, an intimate acquaintance named Jones, a retired silversmith. Perceiving him to halt at the door of the house where he had been formerly established in business, she hurried her pace to catch him up, when he vanished as she reached the spot. Next morning a messenger arrived to announce his death, which had occurred at the very time of her seeing the spectre.

Mrs. Woodall, of Dartmouth, a widow, blind, was informed by letter from her daughter-in-law in November, 1797, of the death of her cousin, her sister-in-law; Miss Sarah Woodall replied through an amanuensis that she had previously known of the death, by feeling the clay-cold hand of her cousin clasp her own as she lay in bed.

The late Lady Rolle was reported to have been seen after her decease by the gardener at Bicton, at the gate of the Dutch garden.

The gardener of Franklyn, in St. Thomas by Exeter, then in the possession of a family named Jones, said that he saw his father's ghost whilst he was at work in one of the gardens of the mansion.

Mr. Pearce, of Exeter, a retired wine merchant, informed the author that his little child had been wont in the mornings to leave his crib in the nursery and run to his father's room and cuddle into his bed. Once when the child was very ill Mr. Pearce saw him come in as usual in his nightshirt, whereat he shouted angrily to the nurse in another room to rebuke her for allowing the child to leave its crib whilst so ill. The child had not left it—at that moment it had died.

A male servant of the late Colonel Templer, of Teignmouth, in November, 1810, during an incessant fall of rain, swelling the rivers and carrying away bridges, had three successive dreams the same night, in which he thought that some one, in danger of death on the Dawlish road, was calling to him to come to his aid. So persuaded was the man that he was truly summoned, that he hastily dressed, saddled and mounted one of his master's horses, and proceeded along the road in the darkness, till his horse suddenly drew up and refused to proceed. Dismounting, he found a woman apparently dying in a channel of water furrowed deep across the highway. By this means her life was preserved.

The late Mr. Smith, of Exeter, proprietor of a muslin warehouse, in three successive dreams in the same night, which he separately repeated to his wife, was summoned to go at once to Bodmin. He obeyed, and on arriving there, heard that the assizes were being held. Out of curiosity he went into the court and heard the judge ask whether any one had seen the prisoner on the day and at the hour at which he was charged with having committed a murder in the west of Cornwall. Looking at the accused, Mr. Smith exclaimed, "Why! he was in my shop in Exeter on that very day." Through such conclusive evidence an alibi was established, and the prisoner was acquitted and discharged.

The Rev. Mr. Reynolds was master of the Grammar School, Exeter. He lost his wife, and after that, possibly because his spirits failed him and he lacked energy, the school declined seriously and he thought of giving it up. While he was debating this in his mind, one night he saw the figure of a woman stand by his bedside. She told him that she was his mother who had died in childbed at his birth, and that she had been suffered to come to him to encourage him, and bid him go on with the school, for that a notable improvement in his circumstances would take place if he remained at his post. He communicated this to Dr. Rennel, rector of Drewsteignton.

The last story I shall quote is of a different character. Mr. Tuckfield, of Little Fulford by Crediton, was presumedly dead, and was laid in his shell, and men were set to watch through the night. They were plentifully supplied with candles and spirits. In the dead of the night one pulled out a pack of cards and the two began to play, and as they played they drank, till they became intoxicated.

Then said one to the other: "I say, Bill, old Squire Tuckfield he did like a drop o' spirits in his day. I reckon it won't do him a crumb o' harm to give him a drop now." And taking his glass of almost neat spirits, he poured it down the throat of the deceased. Thereat, to their dismay, the supposed corpse gasped, opened its eyes, sat up, and said: "Give me another drop and I'll take a hand of cards with you."