Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On A Hundred Years Hence.

Where have I just read of a game played at a country house? The party assembles round a table with pens, ink, and paper. Some one narrates a tale containing more or less incidents and personages. Each person of the company then writes down, to the best of his memory and ability, the anecdote just narrated, and finally the papers are to be read out. I do not say I should like to play often at this game, which might possibly be a tedious and lengthy pastime, not by any means so amusing as smoking a cigar in the conservatory; or even listening to the young ladies playing their piano-pieces; or to Hobbs and Nobbs lingering round the bottle and talking over the morning’s run with the hounds but surely it is a moral and ingenious sport. They say the variety of narratives is often very odd and amusing. The original story becomes so changed and distorted that at the end of all the statements you are puzzled to know where the truth is at all. As time is of small importance to the cheerful persons engaged in this sport, perhaps a good way of playing it would be to spread it over a couple of years. Let the people who played the game in ‘60 all meet and play it once more in ‘61, and each write his story over again. Then bring out your original and compare notes. Not only will the stories differ from each other, but the writers will probably differ from themselves. In the course of the year the incidents will grow or will dwindle strangely. The least authentic of the statements will be so lively or so malicious, or so neatly put, that it will appear most like the truth. I like these tales and sportive exercises. I had begun a little print collection once. I had Addison in his nightgown in bed at Holland House, requesting young Lord Warwick to remark how a Christian should die. I had Cambronne clutching his cocked hat and uttering the immortal la Garde meurt et ne se rend pas. I had the “Vengeur” going down, and all the crew hurraying like madmen. I had Alfred toasting the muffin; Curtius (Haydon) jumping into the gulf; with extracts from Napoleon’s bulletins, and a fine authentic portrait of Baron Munchausen.

What man who has been before the public at all has not heard similar wonderful anecdotes regarding himself and his own history? In these humble essaykins I have taken leave to egotize. I cry out about the shoes which pinch me, and, as I fancy, more naturally and pathetically than if my neighbor’s corns were trodden under foot. I prattle about the dish which I love, the wine which I like, the talk I heard yesterday — about Brown’s absurd airs — Jones’s ridiculous elation when he thinks he has caught me in a blunder (a part of the fun, you see, is that Jones will read this, and will perfectly well know that I mean him, and that we shall meet and grin at each other with entire politeness.) This is not the highest kind of speculation, I confess, but it is a gossip which amuses some folks. A brisk and honest small-beer will refresh those who do not care for the frothy outpourings of heavier taps. A two of clubs may be a good, handy little card sometimes, and able to tackle a king of diamonds, if it is a little trump. Some philosophers get their wisdom with deep thought and out of ponderous libraries; I pick up my small crumbs of cogitation at a dinner-table; or from Mrs. Mary and Miss Louisa, as they are prattling over their five-o’clock tea.

Well, yesterday at dinner Jucundus was good enough to tell me a story about myself, which he had heard from a lady of his acquaintance, to whom I send my best compliments. The tale is this. At nine o’clock on the evening of the 31st of November last, just before sunset, I was seen leaving No. 96, Abbey Road, St. John’s Wood, leading two little children by the hand, one of them in a nankeen pelisse, and the other having a mole on the third finger of his left hand (she thinks it was the third finger, but is quite sure it was the left hand). Thence I walked with them to Charles Boroughbridge’s, pork and sausage man, No. 29, Upper Theresa Road. Here, whilst I left the little girl innocently eating a polony in the front shop, I and Boroughbridge retired with the boy into the back parlor, where Mrs. Boroughbridge was playing cribbage. She put up the cards and boxes, took out a chopper and a napkin, and we cut the little boy’s little throat (which he bore with great pluck and resolution), and made him into sausage-meat by the aid of Purkis’s excellent sausage-machine. The little girl at first could not understand her brother’s absence, but, under the pretence of taking her to see Mr. Fechter in Hamlet, I led her down to the New River at Sadler’s Wells, where a body of a child in a nankeen pelisse was subsequently found, and has never been recognized to the present day. And this Mrs. Lynx can aver, because she saw the whole transaction with her own eyes, as she told Mr. Jucundus.

I have altered the little details of the anecdote somewhat. But this story is, I vow and declare, as true as Mrs Lynx’s. Gracious goodness! how do lies begin? What are the averages of lying? Is the same amount of lies told about every man, and do we pretty much all tell the same amount of lies? Is the average greater in Ireland than in Scotland, or vice versa — among women than among men? Is this a lie I am telling now? If I am talking about you, the odds are, perhaps, that it is. I look back at some which have been told about me, and speculate on them with thanks and wonder. Dear friends have told them of me, have told them to me of myself. Have they not to and of you, dear friend? A friend of mine was dining at a large dinner of clergymen, and a story, as true as the sausage story above given, was told regarding me, by one of those reverend divines, in whose frock sits some anile chatter-boxes, as any man who knows this world knows. They take the privilege of their gown. They cabal, and tattle, and hiss, and cackle comminations under their breath. I say the old women of the other sex are not more talkative or more mischievous than some of these. “Such a man ought not to be spoken to,” says Gobemouche, narrating the story — and such a story! “And I am surprised he is admitted into society at all.” Yes, dear Gobemouche, but the story wasn’t true; and I had no more done the wicked deed in question than I had run away with the Queen of Sheba.

I have always longed to know what that story was (or what collection of histories), which a lady had in her mind to whom a servant of mine applied for a place, when I was breaking up my establishment once and going abroad. Brown went with a very good character from us, which, indeed, she fully deserved after several years’ faithful service. But when Mrs. Jones read the name of the person out of whose employment Brown came, “That is quite sufficient,” says Mrs. Jones. “You may go. I will never take a servant out of THAT house.” Ah, Mrs. Jones, how I should like to know what that crime was, or what that series of villanies, which made you determine never to take a servant out of my house. Do you believe in the story of the little boy and the sausages? Have you swallowed that little minced infant? Have you devoured that young Polonius? Upon my word you have maw enough. We somehow greedily gobble down all stories in which the characters of our friends are chopped up, and believe wrong of them without inquiry. In a late serial work written by this hand, I remember making some pathetic remarks about our propensity to believe ill of our neighbors — and I remember the remarks, not because they were valuable, or novel, or ingenious, but because, within three days after they had appeared in print, the moralist who wrote them, walking home with a friend, heard a story about another friend, which story he straightway believed, and which story was scarcely more true than that sausage fable which is here set down. O mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! But though the preacher trips, shall not the doctrine be good? Yea, brethren! Here be the rods. Look you, here are the scourges. Choose me a nice long, swishing, buddy one, light and well-poised in the handle, thick and bushy at the tail. Pick me out a whip-cord thong with some dainty knots in it — and now — we all deserve it — whish, whish, whish! Let us cut into each other all round.

A favorite liar and servant of mine was a man I once had to drive a brougham. He never came to my house, except for orders, and once when he helped to wait at dinner so clumsily that it was agreed we would dispense with his further efforts. The (job) brougham horse used to look dreadfully lean and tired, and the livery-stable keeper complained that we worked him too hard. Now, it turned out that there was a neighboring butcher’s lady who liked to ride in a brougham; and Tomkins lent her ours, drove her cheerfully to Richmond and Putney, and, I suppose, took out a payment in mutton-chops. We gave this good Tomkins wine and medicine for his family when sick — we supplied him with little comforts and extras which need not now be remembered — and the grateful creature rewarded us by informing some of our tradesmen whom he honored with his custom, “Mr. Roundabout? Lor’ bless you! I carry him up to bed drunk every night in the week.” He, Tomkins, being a man of seven stone weight and five feet high; whereas his employer was — but here modesty interferes, and I decline to enter into the avoirdupois question.

Now, what was Tomkins’s motive for the utterance and dissemination of these lies? They could further no conceivable end or interest of his own. Had they been true stories, Tomkins’s master would still, and reasonably, have been more angry than at the fables. It was but suicidal slander on the part of Tomkins — must come to a discovery — must end in a punishment. The poor wretch had got his place under, as it turned out, a fictitious character. He might have stayed in it, for of course Tomkins had a wife and poor innocent children. He might have had bread, beer, bed, character, coats, coals. He might have nestled in our little island, comfortably sheltered from the storms of life; but we were compelled to cast him out, and send him driving, lonely, perishing, tossing, starving, to sea — to drown. To drown? There be other modes of death whereby rogues die. Good-by, Tomkins. And so the nightcap is put on, and the bolt is drawn for poor T.

Suppose we were to invite volunteers amongst our respected readers to send in little statements of the lies which they know have been told about themselves; what a heap of correspondence, what an exaggeration of malignities, what a crackling bonfire of incendiary falsehoods, might we not gather together! And a lie once set going, having the breath of life breathed into it by the father of lying, and ordered to run its diabolical little course, lives with a prodigious vitality. You say, “Magna est veritas et praevalebit.” Psha! Great lies are as great as great truths, and prevail constantly, and day after day. Take an instance or two out of my own little budget. I sit near a gentleman at dinner, and the conversation turns upon a certain anonymous literary performance which at the time is amusing the town. “Oh,” says the gentleman, “everybody knows who wrote that paper: it is Momus’s.” I was a young author at the time, perhaps proud of my bantling: “I beg your pardon,” I say, “it was written by your humble servant.” “Indeed!” was all that the man replied, and he shrugged his shoulders, turned his back, and talked to his other neighbor. I never heard sarcastic incredulity more finely conveyed than by that “indeed.” “Impudent liar,” the gentleman’s face said, as clear as face could speak. Where was Magna Veritas, and how did she prevail then? She lifted up her voice, she made her appeal, and she was kicked out of court. In New York I read a newspaper criticism one day (by an exile from our shores who has taken up his abode in the Western Republic), commenting upon a letter of mine which had appeared in a contemporary volume, and wherein it was stated that the writer was a lad in such and such a year, and, in point of fact, I was, at the period spoken of, nineteen years of age. “Falsehood, Mr. Roundabout,” says the noble critic: “You were then not a lad; you were then six-and-twenty years of age.” You see he knew better than papa and mamma and parish register. It was easier for him to think and say I lied, on a twopenny matter connected with my own affairs, than to imagine he was mistaken. Years ago, in a time when we were very mad wags, Arcturus and myself met a gentleman from China who knew the language. We began to speak Chinese against him. We said we were born in China. We were two to one. We spoke the mandarin dialect with perfect fluency. We had the company with us; as in the old, old days, the squeak of the real pig was voted not to be so natural as the squeak of the sham pig. O Arcturus, the sham pig squeaks in our streets now to the applause of multitudes, and the real porker grunts unheeded in his sty!

I once talked for some little time with an amiable lady: it was for the first time; and I saw an expression of surprise on her kind face, which said as plainly as face could say, “Sir, do you know that up to this moment I have had a certain opinion of you, and that I begin to think I have been mistaken or misled?” I not only know that she had heard evil reports of me, but I know who told her — one of those acute fellows, my dear brethren, of whom we spoke in a previous sermon, who has found me out — found out actions which I never did, found out thoughts and sayings which I never spoke, and judged me accordingly. Ah, my lad! have I found YOU out? O risum teneatis. Perhaps the person I am accusing is no more guilty than I.

How comes it that the evil which men say spreads so widely and lasts so long, whilst our good, kind words don’t seem somehow to take root and bear blossom? Is it that in the stony hearts of mankind these pretty flowers can’t find a place to grow? Certain it is that scandal is good, brisk talk, whereas praise of one’s neighbor is by no means lively hearing. An acquaintance grilled, scored, devilled, and served with mustard and cayenne pepper, excites the appetite; whereas a slice of cold friend with currant jelly is but a sickly, unrelishing meat.

Now, such being the case, my dear worthy Mrs. Candor, in whom I know there are a hundred good and generous qualities: it being perfectly clear that the good things which we say of our neighbors don’t fructify, but somehow perish in the ground where they are dropped, whilst the evil words are wafted by all the winds of scandal, take root in all sods, and flourish amazingly — seeing, I say, that this conversation does not give us a fair chance, suppose we give up censoriousness altogether, and decline uttering our opinions about Brown, Jones, and Robinson (and Mesdames B., J., and R.) at all. We may be mistaken about every one of them, as, please goodness, those anecdote-mongers against whom I have uttered my meek protest have been mistaken about me. We need not go to the extent of saying that Mrs. Manning was an amiable creature, much misunderstood; and Jack Thurtell a gallant, unfortunate fellow, not near so black as he was painted; but we will try and avoid personalities altogether in talk, won’t we? We will range the fields of science, dear madam, and communicate to each other the pleasing results of our studies. We will, if you please, examine the infinitesimal wonders of nature through the microscope. We will cultivate entomology. We will sit with our arms round each other’s waists on the pons asinorum, and see the stream of mathematics flow beneath. We will take refuge in cards, and play at “beggar my neighbor,” not abuse my neighbor. We will go to the Zoological Gardens and talk freely about the gorilla and his kindred, but not talk about people who can talk in their turn. Suppose we praise the High Church? we offend the Low Church. The Broad Church? High and Low are both offended. What do you think of Lord Derby as a politician? And what is your opinion of Lord Palmerston? If you please, will you play me those lovely variations of “In my cottage near a wood?” It is a charming air (you know it in French, I suppose? Ah! te dirai-je, maman!) and was a favorite with poor Marie Antoinette. I say “poor,” because I have a right to speak with pity of a sovereign who was renowned for so much beauty and so much misfortune. But as for giving any opinion on her conduct, saying that she was good or bad, or indifferent, goodness forbid! We have agreed we will not be censorious. Let us have a game at cards — at ecarte, if you please. You deal. I ask for cards. I lead the deuce of clubs . . . .

What? there is no deuce! Deuce take it! What? People WILL go on talking about their neighbors, and won’t have their mouths stopped by cards, or ever so much microscopes and aquariums? Ah, my poor dear Mrs. Candor, I agree with you. By the way, did you ever see anything like Lady Godiva Trotter’s dress last night? People WILL go on chattering, although we hold our tongues; and, after all, my good soul, what will their scandal matter a hundred years hence?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/roundabout/chapter13.html

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