Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On A Lazy Idle Boy.

I had occasion to pass a week in the autumn in the little old town of Coire or Chur, in the Grisons, where lies buried that very ancient British king, saint, and martyr, Lucius,1 who founded the Church of St. Peter, on Cornhill. Few people note the church now-a-days, and fewer ever heard of the saint. In the cathedral at Chur, his statue appears surrounded by other sainted persons of his family. With tight red breeches, a Roman habit, a curly brown beard, and a neat little gilt crown and sceptre, he stands, a very comely and cheerful image: and, from what I may call his peculiar position with regard to Cornhill, I beheld this figure of St. Lucius with more interest than I should have bestowed upon personages who, hierarchically, are, I dare say, his superiors.

1 Stow quotes the inscription, still extant, from the table fast chained in St. Peter’s Church, Cornhill; and says, “he was after some chronicle buried at London, and after some chronicle buried at Glowcester”— but, oh! these incorrect chroniclers! when Alban Butler, in the “Lives of the Saints,” v. xii., and Murray’s “Handbook,” and the Sacristan at Chur, all say Lucius was killed there, and I saw his tomb with my own eyes!

The pretty little city stands, so to speak, at the end of the world — of the world of today, the world of rapid motion, and rushing railways, and the commerce and intercourse of men. From the northern gate, the iron road stretches away to Zurich, to Basle, to Paris, to home. From the old southern barriers, before which a little river rushes, and around which stretch the crumbling battlements of the ancient town, the road bears the slow diligence or lagging vetturino by the shallow Rhine, through the awful gorges of the Via Mala, and presently over the Splugen to the shores of Como.

I have seldom seen a place more quaint, pretty, calm, and pastoral, than this remote little Chur. What need have the inhabitants for walls and ramparts, except to build summer-houses, to trail vines, and hang clothes to dry on them? No enemies approach the great mouldering gates: only at morn and even the cows come lowing past them, the village maidens chatter merrily round the fountains, and babble like the ever-voluble stream that flows under the old walls. The schoolboys, with book and satchel, in smart uniforms, march up to the gymnasium, and return thence at their stated time. There is one coffee-house in the town, and I see one old gentleman goes to it. There are shops with no customers seemingly, and the lazy tradesmen look out of their little windows at the single stranger sauntering by. There is a stall with baskets of queer little black grapes and apples, and a pretty brisk trade with half a dozen urchins standing round. But, beyond this, there is scarce any talk or movement in the street. There’s nobody at the book-shop. “If you will have the goodness to come again in an hour,” says the banker, with his mouthful of dinner at one o’clock, “you can have the money.” There is nobody at the hotel, save the good landlady, the kind waiters, the brisk young cook who ministers to you. Nobody is in the Protestant church —(oh! strange sight, the two confessions are here at peace!)— nobody in the Catholic church: until the sacristan, from his snug abode in the cathedral close, espies the traveller eying the monsters and pillars before the old shark-toothed arch of his cathedral, and comes out (with a view to remuneration possibly) and opens the gate, and shows you the venerable church, and the queer old relics in the sacristy, and the ancient vestments (a black velvet cope, amongst other robes, as fresh as yesterday, and presented by that notorious “pervert,” Henry of Navarre and France), and the statue of St. Lucius who built St. Peter’s Church, on Cornhill.

What a quiet, kind, quaint, pleasant, pretty old town! Has it been asleep these hundreds and hundreds of years, and is the brisk young Prince of the Sidereal Realms in his screaming car drawn by his snorting steel elephant coming to waken it? Time was when there must have been life and bustle and commerce here. Those vast, venerable walls were not made to keep out cows, but men-at-arms, led by fierce captains, who prowled about the gates, and robbed the traders as they passed in and out with their bales, their goods, their pack-horses, and their wains. Is the place so dead that even the clergy of the different denominations can’t quarrel? Why, seven or eight, or a dozen, or fifteen hundred years ago (they haven’t the register at St. Peter’s up to that remote period. I dare say it was burnt in the fire of London)— a dozen hundred years ago, when there was some life in the town, St. Lucius was stoned here on account of theological differences, after founding our church in Cornhill.

There was a sweet pretty river walk we used to take in the evening and mark the mountains round glooming with a deeper purple; the shades creeping up the golden walls; the river brawling, the cattle calling, the maids and chatter-boxes round the fountains babbling and bawling; and several times in the course of our sober walks we overtook a lazy slouching boy, or hobble-dehoy, with a rusty coat, and trousers not too long, and big feet trailing lazily one after the other, and large lazy hands dawdling from out the tight sleeves, and in the lazy hands a little book, which my lad held up to his face, and which I dare say so charmed and ravished him, that he was blind to the beautiful sights around him; unmindful, I would venture to lay any wager, of the lessons he had to learn for tomorrow; forgetful of mother, waiting supper, and father preparing a scolding; — absorbed utterly and entirely in his book.

What was it that so fascinated the young student, as he stood by the river shore? Not the Pons Asinorum. What book so delighted him, and blinded him to all the rest of the world, so that he did not care to see the apple-woman with her fruit, or (more tempting still to sons of Eve) the pretty girls with their apple cheeks, who laughed and prattled round the fountain! What was the book? Do you suppose it was Livy, or the Greek grammar? No; it was a NOVEL that you were reading, you lazy, not very clean, good-for-nothing, sensible boy! It was D’Artagnan locking up General Monk in a box, or almost succeeding in keeping Charles the First’s head on. It was the prisoner of the Chateau d’If cutting himself out of the sack fifty feet under water (I mention the novels I like best myself — novels without love or talking, or any of that sort of nonsense, but containing plenty of fighting, escaping, robbery, and rescuing)— cutting himself out of the sack, and swimming to the island of Monte Cristo. O Dumas! O thou brave, kind, gallant old Alexandre! I hereby offer thee homage, and give thee thanks for many pleasant hours. I have read thee (being sick in bed) for thirteen hours of a happy day, and had the ladies of the house fighting for the volumes. Be assured that lazy boy was reading Dumas (or I will go so far as to let the reader here pronounce the eulogium, or insert the name of his favorite author); and as for the anger, or it may be, the reverberations of his schoolmaster, or the remonstrances of his father, or the tender pleadings of his mother that he should not let the supper grow cold — I don’t believe the scapegrace cared one fig. No! Figs are sweet, but fictions are sweeter.

Have you ever seen a score of white-bearded, white-robed warriors, or grave seniors of the city, seated at the gate of Jaffa or Beyrout, and listening to the story-teller reciting his marvels out of “Antar” or the “Arabian Nights?” I was once present when a young gentleman at table put a tart away from him, and said to his neighbor, the Younger Son (with rather a fatuous air), “I never eat sweets.”

“Not eat sweets! and do you know why?” says T.

“Because I am past that kind of thing,” says the young gentleman.

“Because you are a glutton and a sot!” cries the Elder (and Juvenis winces a little). “All people who have natural, healthy appetites, love sweets; all children, all women, all Eastern people, whose tastes are not corrupted by gluttony and strong drink.” And a plateful of raspberries and cream disappeared before the philosopher.

You take the allegory? Novels are sweets. All people with healthy literary appetites love them — almost all women; — a vast number of clever, hard-headed men. Why, one of the most learned physicians in England said to me only yesterday, “I have just read So-and-So for the second time” (naming one of Jones’s exquisite fictions). Judges, bishops, chancellors, mathematicians, are notorious novel-readers; as well as young boys and sweet girls, and their kind, tender mothers. Who has not read about Eldon, and how he cried over novels every night when he was not at whist?

As for that lazy naughty boy at Chur, I doubt whether HE will like novels when he is thirty years of age. He is taking too great a glut of them now. He is eating jelly until he will be sick. He will know most plots by the time he is twenty, so that HE will never be surprised when the Stranger turns out to be the rightful earl — when the old waterman, throwing off his beggarly gabardine, shows his stars and the collars of his various orders, and clasping Antonia to his bosom, proves himself to be the prince, her long-lost father. He will recognize the novelist’s same characters, though they appear in red-heeled pumps and ailes-de-pigeon, or the garb of the nineteenth century. He will get weary of sweets, as boys of private schools grow (or used to grow, for I have done growing some little time myself, and the practice may have ended too)— as private school-boys used to grow tired of the pudding before their mutton at dinner.

And pray what is the moral of this apologue? The moral I take to be this: the appetite for novels extending to the end of the world; far away in the frozen deep, the sailors reading them to one another during the endless night; — far away under the Syrian stars, the solemn sheikhs and elders hearkening to the poet as he recites his tales; far away in the Indian camps, where the soldiers listen to ——‘s tales, or ——‘s, after the hot day’s march; far away in little Chur yonder, where the lazy boy pores over the fond volume, and drinks it in with all his eyes; — the demand being what we know it is, the merchant must supply it, as he will supply saddles and pale ale for Bombay or Calcutta.

But as surely as the cadet drinks too much pale ale, it will disagree with him; and so surely, dear youth, will too much novels cloy on thee. I wonder, do novel-writers themselves read many novels? If you go into Gunter’s, you don’t see those charming young ladies (to whom I present my most respectful compliments) eating tarts and ices, but at the proper eventide they have good plain wholesome tea and bread-and-butter. Can anybody tell me does the author of the “Tale of Two Cities” read novels? does the author of the “Tower of London” devour romances? does the dashing “Harry Lorrequer” delight in “Plain or Ringlets” or “Sponge’s Sporting Tour?” Does the veteran, from whose flowing pen we had the books which delighted our young days, “Darnley,” and “Richelieu,” and “Delorme,”2 relish the works of Alexandre the Great, and thrill over the “Three Musqueteers?” Does the accomplished author of the “Caxtons” read the other tales in Blackwood? (For example, that ghost-story printed last August, and which for my part, though I read it in the public reading-room at the “Pavilion Hotel” at Folkestone, I protest frightened me so that I scarce dared look over my shoulder.) Does “Uncle Tom” admire “Adam Bede;” and does the author of the “Vicar of Wrexhill” laugh over the “Warden” and the “The Three Clerks?” Dear youth of ingenuous countenance and ingenuous pudor! I make no doubt that the eminent parties above named all partake of novels in moderation — eat jellies — but mainly nourish themselves upon wholesome roast and boiled.

2 By the way, what a strange fate is that which befell the veteran novelist! He was appointed her Majesty’s Consul-General in Venice, the only city in Europe where the famous “Two Cavaliers” cannot by any possibility be seen riding together.

Here, dear youth aforesaid! our Cornhill Magazine owners strive to provide thee with facts as well as fiction; and though it does not become them to brag of their Ordinary, at least they invite thee to a table where thou shalt sit in good company. That story of the “Fox”3 was written by one of the gallant seamen who sought for poor Franklin under the awful Arctic Night: that account of China4 is told by the man of all the empire most likely to know of what he speaks: those pages regarding Volunteers5 come from an honored hand that has borne the sword in a hundred famous fields, and pointed the British guns in the greatest siege in the world.

3 “The Search for Sir John Franklin. (From the Private Journal of an Officer of the ‘Fox.’)”

4 “The Chinese and the Outer Barbarians.” By Sir John Bowring.

5 “Our Volunteers.” By Sir John Burgoyne.

Shall we point out others? We are fellow-travellers, and shall make acquaintance as the voyage proceeds. In the Atlantic steamers, on the first day out (and on high-and holy-days subsequently), the jellies set down on table are richly ornamented; medioque in fonte leporum rise the American and British flags nobly emblazoned in tin. As the passengers remark this pleasing phenomenon, the Captain no doubt improves the occasion by expressing a hope, to his right and left, that the flag of Mr. Bull and his younger Brother may always float side by side in friendly emulation. Novels having been previously compared to jellies — here are two (one perhaps not entirely saccharine, and flavored with an amari aliquid very distasteful to some palates)— two novels6 under two flags, the one that ancient ensign which has hung before the well-known booth of “Vanity Fair;” the other that fresh and handsome standard which has lately been hoisted on “Barchester Towers.” Pray, sir, or madam, to which dish will you be helped?

6 “Lovel the Widower” and “Framley Parsonage.”

So have I seen my friends Captain Lang and Captain Comstock press their guests to partake of the fare on that memorable “First day out,” when there is no man, I think, who sits down but asks a blessing on his voyage, and the good ship dips over the bar, and bounds away into the blue water.

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