Elia and The Last Essays of Elia / Charles Lamb, by Charles Lamb

The South-Sea House

Reader, in thy passage from the Bank — where thou hast been receiving thy half-yearly dividends (supposing thou art a lean annuitant like myself)— to the Flower Pot, to secure a place for Dalston, or Shacklewell, or some other thy suburban retreat northerly — didst thou never observe a melancholy looking, handsome, brick and stone edifice, to the left — where Threadneedle-street abuts upon Bishopsgate? I dare say thou hast often admired its magnificent portals ever gaping wide, and disclosing to view a grave court, with cloisters and pillars, with few or no traces of goers-in or comers-out — a desolation something like Balclutha’s.1

This was once a house of trade — a centre of busy interests. The throng of merchants was here — the quick pulse of gain — and here some forms of business are still kept up, though the soul be long since fled. Here are still to be seen stately porticos; imposing staircases; offices roomy as the state apartments in palaces — deserted, or thinly peopled with a few straggling clerks; the still more sacred interiors of court and committee rooms, with venerable faces of beadles, door-keepers — directors seated in form on solemn days (to proclaim a dead dividend,) at long worm-eaten tables, that have been mahogany, with tarnished gilt-leather coverings, supporting massy silver inkstands long since dry; — the oaken wainscots hung with pictures of deceased governors and sub-governors, of queen Anne, and the two first monarchs of the Brunswick dynasty; — huge charts, which subsequent discoveries have antiquated; — dusty maps of Mexico, dim as dreams — and soundings of the Bay of Panama! — The long passages hung with buckets, appended, in idle row, to walls, whose substance might defy any, short of the last, conflagration; — with vast ranges of cellarage under all, where dollars and pieces of eight once lay, an “unsunned heap,” for Mammon to have solaced his solitary heart withal — long since dissipated, or scattered into air at the blast of the breaking of that famous BUBBLE. —

Such is the SOUTH-SEA HOUSE. At least, such it was forty years ago, when I knew it — a magnificent relic! What alterations may have been made in it since, I have had no opportunities of verifying. Time, I take for granted, has not freshened it. No wind has resuscitated the face of the sleeping waters. A thicker crust by this time stagnates upon it. The moths, that were then battening upon its obsolete ledgers and day-books, have rested from their depredations, but other light generations have succeeded, making fine fretwork among their single and double entries. Layers of dust have accumulated (a superfoetation of dirt!) upon the old layers, that seldom used to be disturbed, save by some curious finger, now and then, inquisitive to explore the mode of book-keeping in Queen Anne’s reign; or, with less hallowed curiosity, seeking to unveil some of the mysteries of that tremendous HOAX, whose extent the petty peculators of our day look back upon with the same expression of incredulous admiration, and hopeless ambition of rivalry, as would become the puny face of modern conspiracy contemplating the Titan size of Vaux’s superhuman plot.

Peace to the manes of the BUBBLE! Silence and destitution are upon thy walls, proud house, for a memorial!

Situated as thou art, in the very heart of stirring and living commerce — amid the fret and fever of speculation — with the Bank, and the ‘Change, and the India-house about thee, in the hey-day of present prosperity, with their important faces, as it were, insulting thee, their poor neighbour out of business— to the idle and merely contemplative — to such as me, old house! there is a charm in thy quiet:— a cessation — a coolness from business — an indolence almost cloistral — which is delightful! With what reverence have I paced thy great bare rooms and courts at eventide! They spoke of the past:— the shade of some dead accountant, with visionary pen in ear, would flit by me, stiff as in life. Living accounts and accountants puzzle me. I have no skill in figuring. But thy great dead tomes, which scarce three degenerate clerks of the present day could lift from their enshrining shelves — with their old fantastic flourishes, and decorative rubric interlacings — their sums in triple columniations, set down with formal superfluity of cyphers — with pious sentences at the beginning, without which our religious ancestors never ventured to open a book of business, or bill of lading — the costly vellum covers of some of them almost persuading us that we are got into some better library — are very agreeable and edifying spectacles. I can look upon these defunct dragons with complacency. Thy heavy odd-shaped ivory-handled penknives (our ancestors had every thing on a larger scale than we have hearts for) are as good as any thing from Herculaneum. The pounce-boxes of our days have gone retrograde.

The very clerks which I remember in the South–Sea House — I speak of forty years back — had an air very different from those in the public offices that I have had to do with since. They partook of the genius of the place!

They were mostly (for the establishment did not admit of superfluous salaries) bachelors. Generally (for they had not much to do) persons of a curious and speculative turn of mind. Old-fashioned, for a reason mentioned before. Humorists, for they were of all descriptions; and, not having been brought together in early life (which has a tendency to assimilate the members of corporate bodies to each other), but, for the most part, placed in this house in ripe or middle age, they necessarily carried into it their separate habits and oddities, unqualified, if I may so speak, as into a common stock. Hence they formed a sort of Noah’s ark. Odd fishes. A lay-monastery. Domestic retainers in a great house, kept more for show than use. Yet pleasant fellows, full of chat — and not a few among them had arrived at considerable proficiency on the German flute.

The cashier at that time was one Evans, a Cambro–Briton. He had something of the choleric complexion of his countrymen stamped on his visage, but was a worthy sensible man at bottom. He wore his hair, to the last, powdered and frizzed out, in the fashion which I remember to have seen in caricatures of what were termed, in my young days, Maccaronies. He was the last of that race of beaux. Melancholy as a gib-cat over his counter all the forenoon, I think I see him, making up his cash (as they call it) with tremulous fingers, as if he feared every one about him was a defaulter; in his hypochondry ready to imagine himself one; haunted, at least, with the idea of the possibility of his becoming one: his tristful visage clearing up a little over his roast neck of veal at Anderton’s at two (where his picture still hangs, taken a little before his death by desire of the master of the coffee-house, which he had frequented for the last five-and-twenty years), but not attaining the meridian of its animation till evening brought on the hour of tea and visiting. The simultaneous sound of his well-known rap at the door with the stroke of the clock announcing six, was a topic of never-failing mirth in the families which this dear old bachelor gladdened with his presence. Then was his forte, his glorified hour! How would he chirp, and expand, over a muffin! How would he dilate into secret history! His countryman, Pennant himself, in particular, could not be more eloquent than he in relation to old and new London — the site of old theatres, churches, streets gone to decay — where Rosamond’s pond stood — the Mulberry-gardens — and the Conduit in Cheap — with many a pleasant anecdote, derived from paternal tradition, of those grotesque figures which Hogarth has immortalized in his picture of Noon — the worthy descendants of those heroic confessors, who, flying to this country, from the wrath of Louis the Fourteenth and his dragoons, kept alive the flame of pure religion in the sheltering obscurities of Hog-lane, and the vicinity of the Seven Dials!

Deputy, under Evans, was Thomas Tame. He had the air and stoop of a nobleman. You would have taken him for one, had you met him in one of the passages leading to Westminster-hall. By stoop, I mean that gentle bending of the body forwards, which, in great men, must be supposed to be the effect of an habitual condescending attention to the applications of their inferiors. While he held you in converse, you felt strained to the height in the colloquy. The conference over, you were at leisure to smile at the comparative insignificance of the pretensions which had just awed you. His intellect was of the shallowest order. It did not reach to a saw or a proverb. His mind was in its original state of white paper. A sucking babe might have posed him. What was it then? Was he rich? Alas, no! Thomas Tame was very poor. Both he and his wife looked outwardly gentlefolks, when I fear all was not well at all times within. She had a neat meagre person, which it was evident she had not sinned in over-pampering; but in its veins was noble blood. She traced her descent, by some labyrinth of relationship, which I never thoroughly understood — much less can explain with any heraldic certainty at this time of day — to the illustrious, but unfortunate house of Derwentwater. This was the secret of Thomas’s stoop. This was the thought — the sentiment — the bright solitary star of your lives — ye mild and happy pair — which cheered you in the night of intellect, and in the obscurity of your station! This was to you instead of riches, instead of rank, instead of glittering attainments: and it was worth them altogether. You insulted none with it; but, while you wore it as a piece of defensive armour only, no insult likewise could reach you through it. Decus et solamen.

Of quite another stamp was the then accountant, John Tipp. He neither pretended to high blood, nor in good truth cared one fig about the matter. He “thought an accountant the greatest character in the world, and himself the greatest accountant in it.” Yet John was not without his hobby. The fiddle relieved his vacant hours. He sang, certainly, with other notes than to the Orphean lyre. He did, indeed, scream and scrape most abominably. His fine suite of official rooms in Threadneedle-street, which, without any thing very substantial appended to them, were enough to enlarge a man’s notions of himself that lived in them, (I know not who is the occupier of them now) resounded fortnightly to the notes of a concert of “sweet breasts,” as our ancestors would have called them, culled from club-rooms and orchestras — chorus singers — first and second violoncellos — double basses — and clarionets — who ate his cold mutton, and drank his punch, and praised his ear. He sate like Lord Midas among them. But at the desk Tipp was quite another sort of creature. Thence all ideas, that were purely ornamental, were banished. You could not speak of any thing romantic without rebuke. Politics were excluded. A newspaper was thought too refined and abstracted. The whole duty of man consisted in writing off dividend warrants. The striking of the annual balance in the company’s books (which, perhaps, differed from the balance of last year in the sum of 25l. 1s. 6d.) occupied his days and nights for a month previous. Not that Tipp was blind to the deadness of things (as they call them in the city) in his beloved house, or did not sigh for a return of the old stirring days when South Sea hopes were young —(he was indeed equal to the wielding of any the most intricate accounts of the most flourishing company in these or those days):— but to a genuine accountant the difference of proceeds is as nothing. The fractional farthing is as dear to his heart as the thousands which stand before it. He is the true actor, who, whether his part be a prince or a peasant, must act it with like intensity. With Tipp form was every thing. His life was formal. His actions seemed ruled with a ruler. His pen was not less erring than his heart. He made the best executor in the world: he was plagued with incessant executorships accordingly, which excited his spleen and soothed his vanity in equal ratios. He would swear (for Tipp swore) at the little orphans, whose rights he would guard with a tenacity like the grasp of the dying hand, that commended their interests to his protection. With all this there was about him a sort of timidity —(his few enemies used to give it a worse name)— a something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic. Nature certainly had been pleased to endow John Tipp with a sufficient measure of the principle of self-preservation. There is a cowardice which we do not despise, because it has nothing base or treacherous in its elements; it betrays itself, not you: it is mere temperament; the absence of the romantic and the enterprising; it sees a lion in the way, and will not, with Fortinbras, “greatly find quarrel in a straw,” when some supposed honour is at stake. Tipp never mounted the box of a stage-coach in his life; or leaned against the rails of a balcony; or walked upon the ridge of a parapet; or looked down a precipice; or let off a gun; or went upon a water-party; or would willingly let you go if he could have helped it: neither was it recorded of him, that for lucre, or for intimidation, he ever forsook friend or principle.

Whom next shall we summon from the dusty dead, in whom common qualities become uncommon? Can I forget thee, Henry Man, the wit, the polished man of letters, the author, of the South–Sea House? who never enteredst thy office in a morning, or quittedst it in mid-day —(what didst thou in an office?)— without some quirk that left a sting! Thy gibes and thy jokes are now extinct, or survive but in two forgotten volumes, which I had the good fortune to rescue from a stall in Barbican, not three days ago, and found thee terse, fresh, epigrammatic, as alive. Thy wit is a little gone by in these fastidious days — thy topics are staled by the “new-born gauds” of the time:— but great thou used to be in Public Ledgers, and in Chronicles, upon Chatham, and Shelburne, and Rockingham, and Howe, and Burgoyne, and Clinton, and the war which ended in the tearing from Great Britain her rebellious colonies — and Keppel, and Wilkes, and Sawbridge, and Bull, and Dunning, and Pratt, and Richmond — and such small politics. —

A little less facetious, and a great deal more obstreperous, was fine rattling, rattleheaded Plumer. He was descended — not in a right line, reader, (for his lineal pretensions, like his personal, favoured a little of the sinister bend) from the Plumers of Hertfordshire. So tradition gave him out; and certain family features not a little sanctioned the opinion. Certainly old Walter Plumer (his reputed author) had been a rake in his days, and visited much in Italy, and had seen the world. He was uncle, bachelor-uncle, to the fine old whig still living, who has represented the county in so many successive parliaments, and has a fine old mansion near Ware. Walter flourished in George the Second’s days, and was the same who was summoned before the House of Commons about a business of franks, with the old Duchess of Marlborough. You may read of it in Johnson’s Life of Cave. Cave came off cleverly in that business. It is certain our Plumer did nothing to discountenance the rumour. He rather seemed pleased whenever it was, with all gentleness, insinuated. But, besides his family pretensions, Plumer was an engaging fellow, and sang gloriously. —

Not so sweetly sang Plumer as thou sangest, mild, child-like, pastoral M——; a flute’s breathing less divinely whispering than thy Arcadian melodies, when, in tones worthy of Arden, thou didst chant that song sung by Amiens to the banished Duke, which proclaims the winter wind more lenient than for a man to be ungrateful. Thy sire was old surly M—— the unapproachable church-warden of Bishopsgate. He knew not what he did, when he begat thee, like spring, gentle offspring of blustering winter:— only unfortunate in thy ending, which should have been mild, conciliatory, swan-like. —

Much remains to sing. Many fantastic shapes rise up, but they must be mine in private:— already I have fooled the reader to the top of his bent; — else could I omit that strange creature Woollett, who existed in trying the question, and bought litigations? — and still stranger, inimitable, solemn Hepworth, from whose gravity Newton might have deduced the law of gravitation. How profoundly would he nib a pen — with what deliberation would he wet a wafer! —

But it is time to close — night’s wheels are rattling fast over me — it is proper to have done with this solemn mockery.

Reader, what if I have been playing with thee all this while — peradventure the very names, which I have summoned up before thee, are fantastic — insubstantial — like Henry Pimpernel, and old John Naps of Greece:—

Be satisfied that something answering to them has had a being. Their importance is from the past.

1 I passed by the walls of Balclutha, and they were desolate. — Ossian.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38