Even when condemned to the prosaic duties which fell to my lot in the
office, I continued faithful to my first love. I have introduced pieces of
word-painting into the most commonplace business letters which have, I am
told, considerably astonished the recipients. My refined sarcasm has made
defaulting creditors writhe and wince. Occasionally, like the great Silas
Wegg, I would drop into poetry, and so raise the whole tone of the
correspondence. Thus what could be more elegant than my rendering of the
firm's instructions to the captain of one of their vessels. It ran in this way:—
"From England, Captain, you must steer a
Course directly to Madeira,
Land the casks of salted beef,
Then away to Teneriffe.
Pray be careful, cool, and wary
With the merchants of Canary.
When you leave them make the most
Of the trade winds to the coast.
Down it you shall sail as far
As the land of Calabar,
And from there you'll onward go
To Bonny and Fernando Po"——
and so on for four pages. The captain, instead of treasuring up this
little gem, called at the office next day, and demanded with quite
unnecessary warmth what the thing meant, and I was compelled to translate
it all back into prose. On this, as on other similar occasions, my
employer took me severely to task—for he was, you see, a man
entirely devoid of all pretensions to literary taste!
All this, however, is a mere preamble, and leads up to the fact that after
ten years or so of drudgery I inherited a legacy which, though small, was
sufficient to satisfy my simple wants. Finding myself independent, I
rented a quiet house removed from the uproar and bustle of London, and
there I settled down with the intention of producing some great work which
should single me out from the family of the Smiths, and render my name
immortal. To this end I laid in several quires of foolscap, a box of quill
pens, and a sixpenny bottle of ink, and having given my housekeeper
injunctions to deny me to all visitors, I proceeded to look round for a
I was looking round for some weeks. At the end of that time I found that I
had by constant nibbling devoured a large number of the quills, and had
spread the ink out to such advantage, what with blots, spills, and
abortive commencements, that there appeared to be some everywhere except
in the bottle. As to the story itself, however, the facility of my youth
had deserted me completely, and my mind remained a complete blank; nor
could I, do what I would, excite my sterile imagination to conjure up a
single incident or character.
In this strait I determined to devote my leisure to running rapidly
through the works of the leading English novelists, from Daniel Defoe to
the present day, in the hope of stimulating my latent ideas and of getting
a good grasp of the general tendency of literature. For some time past I
had avoided opening any work of fiction because one of the greatest faults
of my youth had been that I invariably and unconsciously mimicked the
style of the last author whom I had happened to read. Now, however, I made
up my mind to seek safety in a multitude, and by consulting ALL the
English classics to avoid?? the danger of imitating any one too closely. I
had just accomplished the task of reading through the majority of the
standard novels at the time when my narrative commences.
It was, then, about twenty minutes to ten on the night of the fourth of
June, eighteen hundred and eighty-six, that, after disposing of a pint of
beer and a Welsh rarebit for my supper, I seated myself in my arm-chair,
cocked my feet upon a stool, and lit my pipe, as was my custom. Both my
pulse and my temperature were, as far as I know, normal at the time. I
would give the state of the barometer, but that unlucky instrument had
experienced an unprecedented fall of forty-two inches—from a nail to
the ground—and was not in a reliable condition. We live in a
scientific age, and I flatter myself that I move with the times.
Whilst in that comfortable lethargic condition which accompanies both
digestion and poisoning by nicotine, I suddenly became aware of the
extraordinary fact that my little drawing-room had elongated into a great
salon, and that my humble table had increased in proportion. Round this
colossal mahogany were seated a great number of people who were talking
earnestly together, and the surface in front of them was strewn with books
and pamphlets. I could not help observing that these persons were dressed
in a most extraordinary mixture of costumes, for those at the end nearest
to me wore peruke wigs, swords, and all the fashions of two centuries
back; those about the centre had tight knee-breeches, high cravats, and
heavy bunches of seals; while among those at the far side the majority
were dressed in the most modern style, and among them I saw, to my
surprise, several eminent men of letters whom I had the honour of knowing.
There were two or three women in the company. I should have risen to my
feet to greet these unexpected guests, but all power of motion appeared to
have deserted me, and I could only lie still and listen to their
conversation, which I soon perceived to be all about myself.
"Egad!" exclaimed a rough, weather-beaten man, who was smoking a long
churchwarden pipe at my end of the table, "my heart softens for him. Why,
gossips, we've been in the same straits ourselves. Gadzooks, never did
mother feel more concern for her eldest born than I when Rory Random went
out to make his own way in the world."
"Right, Tobias, right!" cried another man, seated at my very elbow.
"By my troth, I lost more flesh over poor Robin on his island, than had I
the sweating sickness twice told. The tale was well-nigh done when in
swaggers my Lord of Rochester—a merry gallant, and one whose word in
matters literary might make or mar. 'How now, Defoe,' quoth he, 'hast a
tale on hand?' 'Even so, your lordship,' I returned. 'A right merry one, I
trust,' quoth he. 'Discourse unto me concerning thy heroine, a comely
lass, Dan, or I mistake.' 'Nay,' I replied, 'there is no heroine in the
matter.' 'Split not your phrases,' quoth he; 'thou weighest every word
like a scald attorney. Speak to me of thy principal female character, be
she heroine or no.' 'My lord,' I answered, 'there is no female character.'
'Then out upon thyself and thy book too!' he cried. 'Thou hadst best burn
it!'—and so out in great dudgeon, whilst I fell to mourning over my
poor romance, which was thus, as it were, sentenced to death before its
birth. Yet there are a thousand now who have read of Robin and his man
Friday, to one who has heard of my Lord of Rochester."
"Very true, Defoe," said a genial-looking man in a red waistcoat, who was
sitting at the modern end of the table. "But all this won't help our good
friend Smith in making a start at his story, which, I believe, was the
reason why we assembled."
"The Dickens it is!" stammered a little man beside him, and everybody
laughed, especially the genial man, who cried out, "Charley Lamb, Charley
Lamb, you'll never alter. You would make a pun if you were hanged for it."
"That would be a case of haltering," returned the other, on which
everybody laughed again.
By this time I had begun to dimly realise in my confused brain the
enormous honour which had been done me. The greatest masters of fiction in
every age of English letters had apparently made a rendezvous beneath my
roof, in order to assist me in my difficulties. There were many faces at
the table whom I was unable to identify; but when I looked hard at others
I often found them to be very familiar to me, whether from paintings or
from mere description. Thus between the first two speakers, who had
betrayed themselves as Defoe and Smollett, there sat a dark, saturnine
corpulent old man, with harsh prominent features, who I was sure could be
none other than the famous author of Gulliver. There were several others
of whom I was not so sure, sitting at the other side of the table, but I
conjecture that both Fielding and Richardson were among them, and I could
swear to the lantern-jaws and cadaverous visage of Lawrence Sterne. Higher
up I could see among the crowd the high forehead of Sir Walter Scott, the
masculine features of George Eliott, and the flattened nose of Thackeray;
while amongst the living I recognised James Payn, Walter Besant, the lady
known as "Ouida," Robert Louis Stevenson, and several of lesser note.
Never before, probably, had such an assemblage of choice spirits gathered
under one roof.
"Well," said Sir Walter Scott, speaking with a pronounced accent, "ye ken
the auld proverb, sirs, 'Ower mony cooks,' or as the Border minstrel sang—
'Black Johnstone wi' his troopers ten
Might mak' the heart turn cauld,
But Johnstone when he's a' alane
Is waur ten thoosand fauld.'
The Johnstones were one of the Redesdale families, second cousins of the
Armstrongs, and connected by marriage to——"
"Perhaps, Sir Walter," interrupted Thackeray, "you would take the
responsibility off our hands by yourself dictating the commencement of a
story to this young literary aspirant."
"Na, na!" cried Sir Walter; "I'll do my share, but there's Chairlie over
there as full o' wut as a Radical's full o' treason. He's the laddie to
give a cheery opening to it."
Dickens was shaking his head, and apparently about to refuse the honour,
when a voice from among the moderns—I could not see who it was for
"Suppose we begin at the end of the table and work round, any one
contributing a little as the fancy seizes him?"
"Agreed! agreed!" cried the whole company; and every eye was turned on
Defoe, who seemed very uneasy, and filled his pipe from a great
tobacco-box in front of him.
"Nay, gossips," he said, "there are others more worthy——" But
he was interrupted by loud cries of "No! no!" from the whole table; and
Smollett shouted out, "Stand to it, Dan—stand to it! You and I and
the Dean here will make three short tacks just to fetch her out of
harbour, and then she may drift where she pleases." Thus encouraged, Defoe
cleared his throat, and began in this way, talking between the puffs of
"My father was a well-to-do yeoman of Cheshire, named Cyprian Overbeck,
but, marrying about the year 1617, he assumed the name of his wife's
family, which was Wells; and thus I, their eldest son, was named Cyprian
Overbeck Wells. The farm was a very fertile one, and contained some of the
best grazing land in those parts, so that my father was enabled to lay by
money to the extent of a thousand crowns, which he laid out in an
adventure to the Indies with such surprising success that in less than
three years it had increased fourfold. Thus encouraged, he bought a part
share of the trader, and, fitting her out once more with such commodities
as were most in demand (viz., old muskets, hangers and axes, besides
glasses, needles, and the like), he placed me on board as supercargo to
look after his interests, and despatched us upon our voyage.
"We had a fair wind as far as Cape de Verde, and there, getting into the
north-west trade-winds, made good progress down the African coast. Beyond
sighting a Barbary rover once, whereat our mariners were in sad distress,
counting themselves already as little better than slaves, we had good luck
until we had come within a hundred leagues of the Cape of Good Hope, when
the wind veered round to the southward and blew exceeding hard, while the
sea rose to such a height that the end of the mainyard dipped into the
water, and I heard the master say that though he had been at sea for
five-and-thirty years he had never seen the like of it, and that he had
little expectation of riding through it. On this I fell to wringing my
hands and bewailing myself, until the mast going by the board with a
crash, I thought that the ship had struck, and swooned with terror,
falling into the scuppers and lying like one dead, which was the saving of
me, as will appear in the sequel. For the mariners, giving up all hope of
saving the ship, and being in momentary expectation that she would
founder, pushed off in the long-boat, whereby I fear that they met the
fate which they hoped to avoid, since I have never from that day heard
anything of them. For my own part, on recovering from the swoon into which
I had fallen, I found that, by the mercy of Providence, the sea had gone
down, and that I was alone in the vessel. At which last discovery I was so
terror-struck that I could but stand wringing my hands and bewailing my
sad fate, until at last taking heart, I fell to comparing my lot with that
of my unhappy camerados, on which I became more cheerful, and descending
to the cabin, made a meal off such dainties as were in the captain's
Having got so far, Defoe remarked that he thought he had given them a fair
start, and handed over the story to Dean Swift, who, after premising that
he feared he would find himself as much at sea as Master Cyprian Overbeck
Wells, continued in this way:—
"For two days I drifted about in great distress, fearing that there should
be a return of the gale, and keeping an eager look-out for my late
companions. Upon the third day, towards evening, I observed to my extreme
surprise that the ship was under the influence of a very powerful current,
which ran to the north-east with such violence that she was carried, now
bows on, now stern on, and occasionally drifting sideways like a crab, at
a rate which I cannot compute at less than twelve or fifteen knots an
hour. For several weeks I was borne away in this manner, until one
morning, to my inexpressible joy, I sighted an island upon the starboard
quarter. The current would, however, have carried me past it had I not
made shift, though single-handed, to set the flying-jib so as to turn her
bows, and then clapping on the sprit-sail, studding-sail, and fore-sail, I
clewed up the halliards upon the port side, and put the wheel down hard
a-starboard, the wind being at the time north-east-half-east."
At the description of this nautical manoeuvre I observed that Smollett
grinned, and a gentleman who was sitting higher up the table in the
uniform of the Royal Navy, and who I guessed to be Captain Marryat, became
very uneasy and fidgeted in his seat.
"By this means I got clear of the current and was able to steer within a
quarter of a mile of the beach, which indeed I might have approached still
nearer by making another tack, but being an excellent swimmer, I deemed it
best to leave the vessel, which was almost waterlogged, and to make the
best of my way to the shore.
"I had had my doubts hitherto as to whether this new-found country was
inhabited or no, but as I approached nearer to it, being on the summit of
a great wave, I perceived a number of figures on the beach, engaged
apparently in watching me and my vessel. My joy, however, was considerably
lessened when on reaching the land I found that the figures consisted of a
vast concourse of animals of various sorts who were standing about in
groups, and who hurried down to the water's edge to meet me. I had scarce
put my foot upon the sand before I was surrounded by an eager crowd of
deer, dogs, wild boars, buffaloes, and other creatures, none of whom
showed the least fear either of me or of each other, but, on the contrary,
were animated by a common feeling of curiosity, as well as, it would
appear, by some degree of disgust."
"A second edition," whispered Lawrence Sterne to his neighbour; "Gulliver
served up cold."
"Did you speak, sir?" asked the Dean very sternly, having evidently
overheard the remark.
"My words were not addressed to you, sir," answered Sterne, looking rather
"They were none the less insolent," roared the Dean. "Your reverence would
fain make a Sentimental Journey of the narrative, I doubt not, and find
pathos in a dead donkey—though faith, no man can blame thee for
mourning over thy own kith and kin."
"Better that than to wallow in all the filth of Yahoo-land," returned
Sterne warmly, and a quarrel would certainly have ensued but for the
interposition of the remainder of the company. As it was, the Dean refused
indignantly to have any further hand in the story, and Sterne also stood
out of it, remarking with a sneer that he was loth to fit a good blade on
to a poor handle. Under these circumstances some further unpleasantness
might have occurred had not Smollett rapidly taken up the narrative,
continuing it in the third person instead of the first:—
"Our hero, being considerably alarmed at this strange reception, lost
little time in plunging into the sea again and regaining his vessel, being
convinced that the worst which might befall him from the elements would be
as nothing compared to the dangers of this mysterious island. It was as
well that he took this course, for before nightfall his ship was
overhauled and he himself picked up by a British man-of-war, the
Lightning, then returning from the West Indies, where it had formed part
of the fleet under the command of Admiral Benbow. Young Wells, being a
likely lad enough, well-spoken and high-spirited, was at once entered on
the books as officer's servant, in which capacity he both gained great
popularity on account of the freedom of his manners, and found an
opportunity for indulging in those practical pleasantries for which he had
all his life been famous.
"Among the quartermasters of the Lightning there was one named Jedediah
Anchorstock, whose appearance was so remarkable that it quickly attracted
the attention of our hero. He was a man of about fifty, dark with exposure
to the weather, and so tall that as he came along the 'tween decks he had
to bend himself nearly double. The most striking peculiarity of this
individual was, however, that in his boyhood some evil-minded person had
tattooed eyes all over his countenance with such marvellous skill that it
was difficult at a short distance to pick out his real ones among so many
counterfeits. On this strange personage Master Cyprian determined to
exercise his talents for mischief, the more so as he learned that he was
extremely superstitious, and also that he had left behind him in
Portsmouth a strong-minded spouse of whom he stood in mortal terror. With
this object he secured one of the sheep which were kept on board for the
officers' table, and pouring a can of rumbo down its throat, reduced it to
a state of utter intoxication. He then conveyed it to Anchorstock's berth,
and with the assistance of some other imps, as mischievous as himself,
dressed it up in a high nightcap and gown, and covered it over with the
"When the quartermaster came down from his watch our hero met him at the
door of his berth with an agitated face. 'Mr. Anchorstock,' said he, 'can
it be that your wife is on board?' 'Wife!' roared the astonished sailor.
'Ye white-faced swab, what d'ye mean?' 'If she's not here in the ship it
must be her ghost,' said Cyprian, shaking his head gloomily. 'In the ship!
How in thunder could she get into the ship? Why, master, I believe as how
you're weak in the upper works, d'ye see? to as much as think o' such a
thing. My Poll is moored head and starn, behind the point at Portsmouth,
more'n two thousand mile away.' 'Upon my word,' said our hero, very
earnestly, 'I saw a female look out of your cabin not five minutes ago.'
'Ay, ay, Mr. Anchorstock,' joined in several of the conspirators. 'We all
saw her—a spanking-looking craft with a dead-light mounted on one
side.' 'Sure enough,' said Anchorstock, staggered by this accumulation of
evidence, 'my Polly's starboard eye was doused for ever by long Sue
Williams of the Hard. But if so be as she be there I must see her, be she
ghost or quick;' with which the honest sailor, in much perturbation and
trembling in every limb, began to shuffle forward into the cabin, holding
the light well in front of him. It chanced, however, that the unhappy
sheep, which was quietly engaged in sleeping off the effects of its
unusual potations, was awakened by the noise of this approach, and finding
herself in such an unusual position, sprang out of the bed and rushed
furiously for the door, bleating wildly, and rolling about like a brig in
a tornado, partly from intoxication and partly from the night-dress which
impeded her movements. As Anchorstock saw this extraordinary apparition
bearing down upon him, he uttered a yell and fell flat upon his face,
convinced that he had to do with a supernatural visitor, the more so as
the confederates heightened the effect by a chorus of most ghastly groans
"The joke had nearly gone beyond what was originally intended, for the
quartermaster lay as one dead, and it was only with the greatest
difficulty that he could be brought to his senses. To the end of the
voyage he stoutly asserted that he had seen the distant Mrs. Anchorstock,
remarking with many oaths that though he was too woundily scared to take
much note of the features, there was no mistaking the strong smell of rum
which was characteristic of his better half.
"It chanced shortly after this to be the king's birthday, an event which
was signalised aboard the Lightening by the death of the commander under
singular circumstances. This officer, who was a real fair-weather Jack,
hardly knowing the ship's keel from her ensign, had obtained his position
through parliamentary interest, and used it with such tyranny and cruelty
that he was universally execrated. So unpopular was he that when a plot
was entered into by the whole crew to punish his misdeeds with death, he
had not a single friend among six hundred souls to warn him of his danger.
It was the custom on board the king's ships that upon his birthday the
entire ship's company should be drawn up upon deck, and that at a signal
they should discharge their muskets into the air in honour of his Majesty.
On this occasion word had been secretly passed round for every man to slip
a slug into his firelock, instead of the blank cartridge provided. On the
boatswain blowing his whistle the men mustered upon deck and formed line,
whilst the captain, standing well in front of them, delivered a few words
to them. 'When I give the word,' he concluded, 'you shall discharge your
pieces, and by thunder, if any man is a second before or a second after
his fellows I shall trice him up to the weather rigging!' With these words
he roared 'Fire!' on which every man levelled his musket straight at his
head and pulled the trigger. So accurate was the aim and so short the
distance, that more than five hundred bullets struck him simultaneously,
blowing away his head and a large portion of his body. There were so many
concerned in this matter, and it was so hopeless to trace it to any
individual, that the officers were unable to punish any one for the affair—the
more readily as the captain's haughty ways and heartless conduct had made
him quite as hateful to them as to the men whom they commanded.
"By his pleasantries and the natural charm of his manners our hero so far
won the good wishes of the ship's company that they parted with infinite
regret upon their arrival in England. Filial duty, however, urged him to
return home and report himself to his father, with which object he posted
from Portsmouth to London, intending to proceed thence to Shropshire. As
it chanced, however, one of the horses sprained his off foreleg while
passing through Chichester, and as no change could be obtained, Cyprian
found himself compelled to put up at the Crown and Bull for the night.
"Ods bodikins!" continued Smollett, laughing, "I never could pass a
comfortable hostel without stopping, and so, with your permission, I'll
e'en stop here, and whoever wills may lead friend Cyprian to his further
adventures. Do you, Sir Walter, give us a touch of the Wizard of the
With these words Smollett produced a pipe, and filling it at Defoe's
tobacco-pot, waited patiently for the continuation of the story.
"If I must, I must," remarked the illustrious Scotchman, taking a pinch of
snuff; "but I must beg leave to put Mr. Wells back a few hundred years,
for of all things I love the true mediaeval smack. To proceed then:—
"Our hero, being anxious to continue his journey, and learning that it
would be some time before any conveyance would be ready, determined to
push on alone mounted on his gallant grey steed. Travelling was
particularly dangerous at that time, for besides the usual perils which
beset wayfarers, the southern parts of England were in a lawless and
disturbed state which bordered on insurrection. The young man, however,
having loosened his sword in his sheath, so as to be ready for every
eventuality, galloped cheerily upon his way, guiding himself to the best
of his ability by the light of the rising moon.
"He had not gone far before he realised that the cautions which had been
impressed upon him by the landlord, and which he had been inclined to look
upon as self-interested advice, were only too well justified. At a spot
where the road was particularly rough, and ran across some marsh land, he
perceived a short distance from him a dark shadow, which his practised eye
detected at once as a body of crouching men. Reining up his horse within a
few yards of the ambuscade, he wrapped his cloak round his bridle-arm and
summoned the party to stand forth.
"'What ho, my masters!' he cried. 'Are beds so scarce, then, that ye must
hamper the high road of the king with your bodies? Now, by St. Ursula of
Alpuxerra, there be those who might think that birds who fly o' nights
were after higher game than the moorhen or the woodcock!'
"'Blades and targets, comrades!' exclaimed a tall powerful man, springing
into the centre of the road with several companions, and standing in front
of the frightened horse. 'Who is this swashbuckler who summons his
Majesty's lieges from their repose? A very soldado, o' truth. Hark ye,
sir, or my lord, or thy grace, or whatsoever title your honour's honour
may be pleased to approve, thou must curb thy tongue play, or by the seven
witches of Gambleside thou may find thyself in but a sorry plight.'
"'I prythee, then, that thou wilt expound to me who and what ye are,'
quoth our hero, 'and whether your purpose be such as an honest man may
approve of. As to your threats, they turn from my mind as your caitiffly
weapons would shiver upon my hauberk from Milan.'
"'Nay, Allen,' interrupted one of the party, addressing him who seemed to
be their leader; 'this is a lad of mettle, and such a one as our honest
Jack longs for. But we lure not hawks with empty hands. Look ye, sir,
there is game afoot which it may need such bold hunters as thyself to
follow. Come with us and take a firkin of canary, and we will find better
work for that glaive of thine than getting its owner into broil and
bloodshed; for, by my troth! Milan or no Milan, if my curtel axe do but
ring against that morion of thine it will be an ill day for thy father's
"For a moment our hero hesitated as to whether it would best become his
knightly traditions to hurl himself against his enemies, or whether it
might not be better to obey their requests. Prudence, mingled with a large
share of curiosity, eventually carried the day, and dismounting from his
horse, he intimated that he was ready to follow his captors.
"'Spoken like a man!' cried he whom they addressed as Allen. 'Jack Cade
will be right glad of such a recruit. Blood and carrion! but thou hast the
thews of a young ox; and I swear, by the haft of my sword, that it might
have gone ill with some of us hadst thou not listened to reason!'
"'Nay, not so, good Allen—not so,' squeaked a very small man, who
had remained in the background while there was any prospect of a fray, but
who now came pushing to the front. 'Hadst thou been alone it might indeed
have been so, perchance, but an expert swordsman can disarm at pleasure
such a one as this young knight. Well I remember in the Palatinate how I
clove to the chine even such another—the Baron von Slogstaff. He
struck at me, look ye, so; but I, with buckler and blade, did, as one
might say, deflect it; and then, countering in carte, I returned in
tierce, and so—St. Agnes save us! who comes here?'
"The apparition which frightened the loquacious little man was
sufficiently strange to cause a qualm even in the bosom of the knight.
Through the darkness there loomed a figure which appeared to be of
gigantic size, and a hoarse voice, issuing apparently some distance above
the heads of the party, broke roughly on the silence of the night.
"'Now out upon thee, Thomas Allen, and foul be thy fate if thou hast
abandoned thy post without good and sufficient cause. By St. Anselm of the
Holy Grove, thou hadst best have never been born than rouse my spleen this
night. Wherefore is it that you and your men are trailing over the moor
like a flock of geese when Michaelmas is near?'
"'Good captain,' said Allen, doffing his bonnet, an example followed by
others of the band, 'we have captured a goodly youth who was pricking it
along the London road. Methought that some word of thanks were meet reward
for such service, rather than taunt or threat.'
"'Nay, take it not to heart, bold Allen,' exclaimed their leader, who was
none other than the great Jack Cade himself. 'Thou knowest of old that my
temper is somewhat choleric, and my tongue not greased with that unguent
which oils the mouths of the lip-serving lords of the land. And you,' he
continued, turning suddenly upon our hero, 'are you ready to join the
great cause which will make England what it was when the learned Alfred
reigned in the land? Zounds, man, speak out, and pick not your phrases.'
"'I am ready to do aught which may become a knight and a gentleman,' said
the soldier stoutly.
"'Taxes shall be swept away!' cried Cade excitedly—'the impost and
the anpost—the tithe and the hundred-tax. The poor man's salt-box
and flour-bin shall be as free as the nobleman's cellar. Ha! what sayest
"'It is but just,' said our hero.
"'Ay, but they give us such justice as the falcon gives the leveret!'
roared the orator. 'Down with them, I say—down with every man of
them! Noble and judge, priest and king, down with them all!'
"'Nay,' said Sir Overbeck Wells, drawing himself up to his full height,
and laying his hand upon the hilt of his sword, 'there I cannot follow
thee, but must rather defy thee as traitor and faineant, seeing that thou
art no true man, but one who would usurp the rights of our master the
king, whom may the Virgin protect!'
"At these bold words, and the defiance which they conveyed, the rebels
seemed for a moment utterly bewildered; but, encouraged by the hoarse
shout of their leader, they brandished their weapons and prepared to fall
upon the knight, who placed himself in a posture for defence and awaited
"There now!" cried Sir Walter, rubbing his hands and chuckling, "I've put
the chiel in a pretty warm corner, and we'll see which of you moderns can
take him oot o't. Ne'er a word more will ye get frae me to help him one
way or the other."
"You try your hand, James," cried several voices, and the author in
question had got so far as to make an allusion to a solitary horseman who
was approaching, when he was interrupted by a tall gentleman a little
farther down with a slight stutter and a very nervous manner.
"Excuse me," he said, "but I fancy that I may be able to do something
here. Some of my humble productions have been said to excel Sir Walter at
his best, and I was undoubtedly stronger all round. I could picture modern
society as well as ancient; and as to my plays, why Shakespeare never came
near 'The Lady of Lyons' for popularity. There is this little thing——"
(Here he rummaged among a great pile of papers in front of him). "Ah!
that's a report of mine, when I was in India! Here it is. No, this is one
of my speeches in the House, and this is my criticism on Tennyson. Didn't
I warm him up? I can't find what I wanted, but of course you have read
them all—'Rienzi,' and 'Harold,' and 'The Last of the Barons.' Every
schoolboy knows them by heart, as poor Macaulay would have said. Allow me
to give you a sample:—
"In spite of the gallant knight's valiant resistance the combat was too
unequal to be sustained. His sword was broken by a slash from a brown
bill, and he was borne to the ground. He expected immediate death, but
such did not seem to be the intention of the ruffians who had captured
him. He was placed upon the back of his own charger and borne, bound hand
and foot, over the trackless moor, in the fastnesses of which the rebels
"In the depths of these wilds there stood a stone building which had once
been a farm-house, but having been for some reason abandoned had fallen
into ruin, and had now become the headquarters of Cade and his men. A
large cowhouse near the farm had been utilised as sleeping quarters, and
some rough attempts had been made to shield the principal room of the main
building from the weather by stopping up the gaping apertures in the
walls. In this apartment was spread out a rough meal for the returning
rebels, and our hero was thrown, still bound, into an empty outhouse,
there to await his fate."
Sir Walter had been listening with the greatest impatience to Bulwer
Lytton's narrative, but when it had reached this point he broke in
"We want a touch of your own style, man," he said. "The
animal-magnetico-electro-hysterical-biological-mysterious sort of story is
all your own, but at present you are just a poor copy of myself, and
There was a murmur of assent from the company, and Defoe remarked, "Truly,
Master Lytton, there is a plaguey resemblance in the style, which may
indeed be but a chance, and yet methinks it is sufficiently marked to
warrant such words as our friend hath used."
"Perhaps you will think that this is an imitation also," said Lytton
bitterly, and leaning back in his chair with a morose countenance, he
continued the narrative in this way:—
"Our unfortunate hero had hardly stretched himself upon the straw with
which his dungeon was littered, when a secret door opened in the wall and
a venerable old man swept majestically into the apartment. The prisoner
gazed upon him with astonishment not unmixed with awe, for on his broad
brow was printed the seal of much knowledge—such knowledge as it is
not granted to the son of man to know. He was clad in a long white robe,
crossed and chequered with mystic devices in the Arabic character, while a
high scarlet tiara marked with the square and circle enhanced his
venerable appearance. 'My son,' he said, turning his piercing and yet
dreamy gaze upon Sir Overbeck, 'all things lead to nothing, and nothing is
the foundation of all things. Cosmos is impenetrable. Why then should we
"Astounded at this weighty query, and at the philosophic demeanour of his
visitor, our hero made shift to bid him welcome and to demand his name and
quality. As the old man answered him his voice rose and fell in musical
cadences, like the sighing of the east wind, while an ethereal and
aromatic vapour pervaded the apartment.
"'I am the eternal non-ego,' he answered. 'I am the concentrated negative—the
everlasting essence of nothing. You see in me that which existed before
the beginning of matter many years before the commencement of time. I am
the algebraic x which represents the infinite divisibility of a
"Sir Overbeck felt a shudder as though an ice-cold hand had been placed
upon his brow. 'What is your message?' he whispered, falling prostrate
before his mysterious visitor.
"'To tell you that the eternities beget chaos, and that the immensities
are at the mercy of the divine ananke. Infinitude crouches before a
personality. The mercurial essence is the prime mover in spirituality, and
the thinker is powerless before the pulsating inanity. The cosmical
procession is terminated only by the unknowable and unpronounceable'——
"May I ask, Mr. Smollett, what you find to laugh at?"
"Gad zooks, master," cried Smollett, who had been sniggering for some time
back. "It seems to me that there is little danger of any one venturing to
dispute that style with you."
"It's all your own," murmured Sir Walter.
"And very pretty, too," quoth Lawrence Sterne, with a malignant grin.
"Pray sir, what language do you call it?"
Lytton was so enraged at these remarks, and at the favour with which they
appeared to be received, that he endeavoured to stutter out some reply,
and then, losing control of himself completely, picked up all his loose
papers and strode out of the room, dropping pamphlets and speeches at
every step. This incident amused the company so much that they laughed for
several minutes without cessation. Gradually the sound of their laughter
sounded more and more harshly in my ears, the lights on the table grew dim
and the company more misty, until they and their symposium vanished away
altogether. I was sitting before the embers of what had been a roaring
fire, but was now little more than a heap of grey ashes, and the merry
laughter of the august company had changed to the recriminations of my
wife, who was shaking me violently by the shoulder and exhorting me to
choose some more seasonable spot for my slumbers. So ended the wondrous
adventures of Master Cyprian Overbeck Wells, but I still live in the hopes
that in some future dream the great masters may themselves finish that
which they have begun.