The Fatal Boots, by William Makepeace Thackeray

NOVEMBER. — A GENERAL POST DELIVERY.

I was a free man when I went out of the Court; but I was a beggar — I, Captain Stubbs, of the bold North Bungays, did not know where I could get a bed, or a dinner.

As I was marching sadly down Portugal Street, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a rough voice which I knew well.

“Vell, Mr. Stobbs, have I not kept my promise? I told you dem boots would be your ruin.”

I was much too miserable to reply; and only cast my eyes towards the roofs of the houses, which I could not see for the tears.

“Vat! you begin to gry and blobber like a shild? you vood marry, vood you? and noting vood do for you but a vife vid monny — ha, ha — but you vere de pigeon, and she was de grow. She has plocked you, too, pretty vell — eh? ha! ha!”

“Oh, Mr. Stiffelkind,” said I, “don’t laugh at my misery: she has not left me a single shilling under heaven. And I shall starve: I do believe I shall starve.” And I began to cry fit to break my heart.

“Starf! stoff and nonsense! You vill never die of starfing — you vill die of HANGING, I tink — ho! ho! — and it is moch easier vay too.” I didn’t say a word, but cried on; till everybody in the street turned round and stared.

“Come, come,” said Stiffelkind, “do not gry, Gaptain Stobbs — it is not goot for a Gaptain to gry — ha! ha! Dere — come vid me, and you shall have a dinner, and a bregfast too — vich shall gost you nothing, until you can bay vid your earnings.”

And so this curious old man, who had persecuted me all through my prosperity, grew compassionate towards me in my ill-luck; and took me home with him as he promised. “I saw your name among de Insolvents, and I vowed, you know, to make you repent dem boots. Dere, now, it is done and forgotten, look you. Here, Betty, Bettchen, make de spare bed, and put a clean knife and fork; Lort Cornvallis is come to dine vid me.”

I lived with this strange old man for six weeks. I kept his books, and did what little I could to make myself useful: carrying about boots and shoes, as if I had never borne his Majesty’s commission. He gave me no money, but he fed and lodged me comfortably. The men and boys used to laugh, and call me General, and Lord Cornwallis, and all sorts of nicknames; and old Stiffelkind made a thousand new ones for me.

One day I can recollect — one miserable day, as I was polishing on the trees a pair of boots of Mr. Stiffelkind’s manufacture — the old gentleman came into the shop, with a lady on his arm.

“Vere is Gaptain Stobbs?” said he. “Vere is dat ornament to his Majesty’s service?”

I came in from the back shop, where I was polishing the boots, with one of them in my hand.

“Look, my dear,” says he, “here is an old friend of yours, his Excellency Lort Cornvallis! — Who would have thought such a nobleman vood turn shoeblack? Captain Stobbs, here is your former flame, my dear niece, Miss Grotty. How could you, Magdalen, ever leaf such a lof of a man? Shake hands vid her, Gaptain; — dere, never mind de blacking!” But Miss drew back.

“I never shake hands with a SHOEBLACK,” said she, mighty contemptuous.

“Bah! my lof, his fingers von’t soil you. Don’t you know he has just been VITEVASHED?”

“I wish, uncle,” says she, “you would not leave me with such low people.”

“Low, because he cleans boots? De Gaptain prefers PUMPS to boots I tink — ha! ha!”

“Captain indeed! a nice Captain,” says Miss Crutty, snapping her fingers in my face, and walking away: “a Captain who has had his nose pulled! ha! ha!”— And how could I help it? it wasn’t by my own CHOICE that that ruffian Waters took such liberties with me. Didn’t I show how averse I was to all quarrels by refusing altogether his challenge? — But such is the world. And thus the people at Stiffelkind’s used to tease me, until they drove me almost mad.

At last he came home one day more merry and abusive than ever. “Gaptain,” says he, “I have goot news for you — a goot place. Your lordship vill not be able to geep your garridge, but you vill be gomfortable, and serve his Majesty.”

“Serve his Majesty?” says I. “Dearest Mr. Stiffelkind, have you got me a place under Government?”

“Yes, and somting better still — not only a place, but a uniform: yes, Gaptain Stobbs, a RED GOAT.”

“A red coat! I hope you don’t think I would demean myself by entering the ranks of the army? I am a gentleman, Mr. Stiffelkind — I can never — no, I never —”

“No, I know you will never — you are too great a goward — ha! ha! — though dis is a red goat, and a place where you must give some HARD KNOCKS too — ha! ha! — do you gomprehend? — and you shall be a general instead of a gaptain — ha! ha!”

“A general in a red coat, Mr. Stiffelkind?”

“Yes, a GENERAL BOSTMAN! — ha! ha! I have been vid your old friend, Bunting, and he has an uncle in the Post Office, and he has got you de place — eighteen shillings a veek, you rogue, and your goat. You must not oben any of de letters you know.”

And so it was — I, Robert Stubbs, Esquire, became the vile thing he named — a general postman!

*****

I was so disgusted with Stiffelkind’s brutal jokes, which were now more brutal than ever, that when I got my place in the Post Office, I never went near the fellow again: for though he had done me a favor in keeping me from starvation, he certainly had done it in a very rude, disagreeable manner, and showed a low and mean spirit in SHOVING me into such a degraded place as that of postman. But what had I to do? I submitted to fate, and for three years or more, Robert Stubbs, of the North Bungay Fencibles, was —

I wonder nobody recognized me. I lived in daily fear the first year: but afterwards grew accustomed to my situation, as all great men will do, and wore my red coat as naturally as if I had been sent into the world only for the purpose of being a letter-carrier.

I was first in the Whitechapel district, where I stayed for nearly three years, when I was transferred to Jermyn Street and Duke Street — famous places for lodgings. I suppose I left a hundred letters at a house in the latter street, where lived some people who must have recognized me had they but once chanced to look at me.

You see that when I left Sloffemsquiggle, and set out in the gay world, my mamma had written to me a dozen times at least; but I never answered her, for I knew she wanted money, and I detest writing. Well, she stopped her letters, finding she could get none from me:— but when I was in the Fleet, as I told you, I wrote repeatedly to my dear mamma, and was not a little nettled at her refusing to notice me in my distress, which is the very time one most wants notice.

Stubbs is not an uncommon name; and though I saw MRS. STUBBS on a little bright brass plate, in Duke street, and delivered so many letters to the lodgers in her house, I never thought of asking who she was, or whether she was my relation, or not.

One day the young woman who took in the letters had not got change, and she called her mistress. An old lady in a poke-bonnet came out of the parlor, and put on her spectacles, and looked at the letter, and fumbled in her pocket for eightpence, and apologized to the postman for keeping him waiting. And when I said, “Never mind, Ma’am, it’s no trouble,” the old lady gave a start, and then she pulled off her spectacles, and staggered back; and then she began muttering, as if about to choke; and then she gave a great screech, and flung herself into my arms, and roared out, “MY SON, MY SON!”

“Law, mamma,” said I, “is that you?” and I sat down on the hall bench with her, and let her kiss me as much as ever she liked. Hearing the whining and crying, down comes another lady from up stairs — it was my sister Eliza; and down come the lodgers. And the maid gets water and what not, and I was the regular hero of the group. I could not stay long then, having my letters to deliver. But, in the evening, after mail-time, I went back to my mamma and sister; and, over a bottle of prime old port, and a precious good leg of boiled mutton and turnips, made myself pretty comfortable, I can tell you.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/fatal/chapter11.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07