Headlong Hall, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter X

The Skull

When Mr Escot entered the breakfast-room he found the majority of the party assembled, and the little butler very active at his station. Several of the ladies shrieked at the sight of the skull; and Miss Tenorina, starting up in great haste and terror, caused the subversion of a cup of chocolate, which a servant was handing to the Reverend Doctor Gaster, into the nape of the neck of Sir Patrick O’Prism. Sir Patrick, rising impetuously, to clap an extinguisher, as he expressed himself, on the farthing rushlight of the rascal’s life, pushed over the chair of Marmaduke Milestone, Esquire, who, catching for support at the first thing that came in his way, which happened unluckily to be the corner of the table-cloth, drew it instantaneously with him to the floor, involving plates, cups and saucers, in one promiscuous ruin. But, as the principal matériel of the breakfast apparatus was on the little butler’s side-table, the confusion occasioned by this accident was happily greater than the damage. Miss Tenorina was so agitated that she was obliged to retire: Miss Graziosa accompanied her through pure sisterly affection and sympathy, not without a lingering look at Sir Patrick, who likewise retired to change his coat, but was very expeditious in returning to resume his attack on the cold partridge. The broken cups were cleared away, the cloth relaid, and the array of the table restored with wonderful celerity.

Mr Escot was a little surprised at the scene of confusion which signalised his entrance; but, perfectly unconscious that it originated with the skull of Cadwallader, he advanced to seat himself at the table by the side of the beautiful Cephalis, first placing the skull in a corner, out of the reach of Mr Cranium, who sate eyeing it with lively curiosity, and after several efforts to restrain his impatience, exclaimed, “You seem to have found a rarity.”

“A rarity indeed,” said Mr Escot, cracking an egg as he spoke; “no less than the genuine and indubitable skull of Cadwallader.”

“The skull of Cadwallader!” vociferated Mr Cranium; “O treasure of treasures!”

Mr Escot then detailed by what means he had become possessed of it, which gave birth to various remarks from the other individuals of the party: after which, rising from table, and taking the skull again in his hand,

“This skull,” said he, “is the skull of a hero, παλαι κατατεϑνειωτος1, and sufficiently demonstrates a point, concerning which I never myself entertained a doubt, that the human race is undergoing a gradual process of diminution, in length, breadth, and thickness. Observe this skull. Even the skull of our reverend friend, which is the largest and thickest in the company, is not more than half its size. The frame this skull belonged to could scarcely have been less than nine feet high. Such is the lamentable progress of degeneracy and decay. In the course of ages, a boot of the present generation would form an ample chateau for a large family of our remote posterity. The mind, too, participates in the contraction of the body. Poets and philosophers of all ages and nations have lamented this too visible process of physical and moral deterioration. ‘The sons of little men’, says Ossian. ‘Οιοι νυν βροτοι εισιν,’ says Homer: ‘such men as live in these degenerate days.’ ‘All things,’ says Virgil, ‘have a retrocessive tendency, and grow worse and worse by the inevitable doom of fate.’2 ‘We live in the ninth age,’ says Juvenal, ‘an age worse than the age of iron; nature has no metal sufficiently pernicious to give a denomination to its wickedness.’3 ‘Our fathers,’ says Horace, ‘worse than our grandfathers, have given birth to us, their more vicious progeny, who, in our turn, shall become the parents of a still viler generation.’4 You all know the fable of the buried Pict, who bit off the end of a pickaxe, with which sacrilegious hands were breaking open his grave, and called out with a voice like subterranean thunder, I perceive the degeneracy of your race by the smallness of your little finger! videlicet, the pickaxe. This, to be sure, is a fiction; but it shows the prevalent opinion, the feeling, the conviction, of absolute, universal, irremediable deterioration.”

“I should be sorry,” said Mr Foster, “that such an opinion should become universal, independently of my conviction of its fallacy. Its general admission would tend, in a great measure, to produce the very evils it appears to lament. What could be its effect, but to check the ardour of investigation, to extinguish the zeal of philanthropy, to freeze the current of enterprising hope, to bury in the torpor of scepticism and in the stagnation of despair, every better faculty of the human mind, which will necessarily become retrograde in ceasing to be progressive?”

“I am inclined to think, on the contrary,” said Mr Escot, “that the deterioration of man is accelerated by his blindness — in many respects wilful blindness — to the truth of the fact itself, and to the causes which produce it; that there is no hope whatever of ameliorating his condition but in a total and radical change of the whole scheme of human life, and that the advocates of his indefinite perfectibility are in reality the greatest enemies to the practical possibility of their own system, by so strenuously labouring to impress on his attention that he is going on in a good way, while he is really in a deplorably bad one.”

“I admit,” said Mr Foster, “there are many things that may, and therefore will, be changed for the better.”

“Not on the present system,” said Mr Escot, “in which every change is for the worse.”

“In matters of taste I am sure it is,” said Mr Gall: “there is, in fact, no such thing as good taste left in the world.”

“Oh, Mr Gall!” said Miss Philomela Poppyseed, “I thought my novel ——”

“My paintings,” said Sir Patrick O’Prism ——

“My ode,” said Mr Mac Laurel ——

“My ballad,” said Mr Nightshade ——

“My plan for Lord Littlebrain’s park,” said Marmaduke Milestone, Esquire ——

“My essay,” said Mr Treacle ——

“My sonata,” said Mr Chromatic ——

“My claret,” said Squire Headlong ——

“My lectures,” said Mr Cranium ——

“Vanity of vanities,” said the Reverend Doctor Gaster, turning down an empty egg-shell; “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

1 Long since dead.

2 Georg. I. 199.

3 Sat. XIII. 28.

4 Carm. III. 6, 46.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24