Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Two Roundabout Papers Which I Intended to Write.15

15 The following paper was written in 1861, after the extraordinary affray between Major Murray and the money-lender in a house in Northumberland Street, Strand, and subsequent to the appearance of M. Du Chaillu’s book on Gorillas.

We have all heard of a place paved with good intentions — a place which I take to be a very dismal, useless, and unsatisfactory terminus for many pleasant thoughts, kindly fancies, gentle wishes, merry little quips and pranks, harmless jokes which die as it were the moment of their birth. Poor little children of the brain! He was a dreary theologian who huddled you under such a melancholy cenotaph, and laid you in the vaults under the flagstones of Hades! I trust that some of the best actions we have all of us committed in our lives have been committed in fancy. It is not all wickedness we are thinking, que diable! Some of our thoughts are bad enough I grant you. Many a one you and I have had here below. Ah mercy, what a monster! what crooked horns! what leering eyes! what a flaming mouth! what cloven feet, and what a hideous writhing tail! Oh, let us fall down on our knees, repeat our most potent exorcisms, and overcome the brute. Spread your black pinions, fly — fly to the dusky realms of Eblis, and bury thyself under the paving-stones of his hall, dark genie! But ALL thoughts are not so. No — no. There are the pure: there are the kind: there are the gentle. There are sweet unspoken thanks before a fair scene of nature: at a sun-setting below a glorious sea: or a moon and a host of stars shining over it: at a bunch of children playing in the street, or a group of flowers by the hedge-side, or a bird singing there. At a hundred moments or occurrences of the day good thoughts pass through the mind, let us trust, which never are spoken; prayers are made which never are said; and Te Deum is sung without church, clerk, choristers, parson, or organ. Why, there’s my enemy: who got the place I wanted; who maligned me to the woman I wanted to be well with; who supplanted me in the good graces of my patron. I don’t say anything about the matter: but, my poor old enemy, in my secret mind I have movements of as tender charity towards you, you old scoundrel, as ever I had when we were boys together at school. You ruffian! do you fancy I forget that we were fond of each other? We are still. We share our toffy; go halves at the tuck-shop; do each other’s exercises; prompt each other with the word in construing or repetition; and tell the most frightful fibs to prevent each other from being found out. We meet each other in public. Ware a fight! Get them into different parts of the room! Our friends hustle round us. Capulet and Montague are not more at odds than the houses of Roundabout and Wrightabout, let us say. It is, “My dear Mrs. Buffer, do kindly put yourself in the chair between those two men!” Or, “My dear Wrightabout, will you take that charming Lady Blancmange down to supper? She adores your poems, and gave five shillings for your autograph at the fancy fair.” In like manner the peacemakers gather round Roundabout on his part; he is carried to a distant corner, and coaxed out of the way of the enemy with whom he is at feud.

When we meet in the Square at Verona, out flash rapiers, and we fall to. But in his private mind Tybalt owns that Mercutio has a rare wit, and Mercutio is sure that his adversary is a gallant gentleman. Look at the amphitheatre yonder. You do not suppose those gladiators who fought and perished, as hundreds of spectators in that grim Circus held thumbs down, and cried, “Kill, kill!”— you do not suppose the combatants of necessity hated each other? No more than the celebrated trained bands of literary sword-and-buckler men hate the adversaries whom they meet in the arena. They engage at the given signal; feint and parry; slash, poke, rip each other open, dismember limbs, and hew off noses: but in the way of business, and, I trust, with mutual private esteem. For instance, I salute the warriors of the Superfine Company with the honors due among warriors. Here’s at you, Spartacus, my lad. A hit, I acknowledge. A palpable hit! Ha! how do you like that poke in the eye in return? When the trumpets sing truce, or the spectators are tired, we bow to the noble company: withdraw; and get a cool glass of wine in our rendezvous des braves gladiateurs.

By the way, I saw that amphitheatre of Verona under the strange light of a lurid eclipse some years ago: and I have been there in spirit for these twenty lines past, under a vast gusty awning, now with twenty thousand fellow-citizens looking on from the benches, now in the circus itself, a grim gladiator with sword and net, or a meek martyr — was I? — brought out to be gobbled up by the lions? or a huge, shaggy, tawny lion myself, on whom the dogs were going to be set? What a day of excitement I have had to be sure! But I must get away from Verona, or who knows how much farther the Roundabout Pegasus may carry me?

We were saying, my Muse, before we dropped and perched on earth for a couple of sentences, that our unsaid words were in some limbo or other, as real as those we have uttered; that the thoughts which have passed through our brains are as actual as any to which our tongues and pens have given currency. For instance, besides what is here hinted at, I have thought ever so much more about Verona: about an early Christian church I saw there; about a great dish of rice we had at the inn; about the bugs there; about ever so many more details of that day’s journey from Milan to Venice; about Lake Garda, which lay on the way from Milan, and so forth. I say what fine things we have thought of, haven’t we, all of us? Ah, what a fine tragedy that was I thought of, and never wrote! On the day of the dinner of the Oystermongers’ Company, what a noble speech I thought of in the cab, and broke down — I don’t mean the cab, but the speech. Ah, if you could but read some of the unwritten Roundabout Papers, how you would be amused! Aha! my friend, I catch you saying, “Well, then, I wish THIS was unwritten with all my heart.” Very good. I owe you one. I do confess a hit, a palpable hit.

One day in the past month, as I was reclining on the bench of thought, with that ocean The Times newspaper spread before me, the ocean cast up on the shore at my feet two famous subjects for Roundabout Papers, and I picked up those waifs, and treasured them away until I could polish them and bring them to market. That scheme is not to be carried out. I can’t write about those subjects. And though I cannot write about them, I may surely tell what are the subjects I am going NOT to write about.

The first was that Northumberland Street encounter, which all the papers have narrated. Have any novelists of our days a scene and catastrophe more strange and terrible than this which occurs at noonday within a few yards of the greatest thoroughfare in Europe? At the theatres they have a new name for their melodramatic pieces, and call them “Sensation Dramas.” What a sensation Drama this is! What have people been flocking to see at the Adelphi Theatre for the last hundred and fifty nights? A woman pitched overboard out of a boat, and a certain Miles taking a tremendous “header,” and bringing her to shore? Bagatelle! What is this compared to the real life-drama, of which a midday representation takes place just opposite the Adelphi in Northumberland Street? The brave Dumas, the intrepid Ainsworth, the terrible Eugene Sue, the cold-shudder-inspiring “Woman in White,” the astounding author of the “Mysteries of the Court of London,” never invented anything more tremendous than this. It might have happened to you and me. We want to borrow a little money. We are directed to an agent. We propose a pecuniary transaction at a short date. He goes into the next room, as we fancy, to get the bank-notes, and returns with “two very pretty, delicate little ivory-handled pistols,” and blows a portion of our heads off. After this, what is the use of being squeamish about the probabilities and possibilities in the writing of fiction? Years ago I remember making merry over a play of Dumas, called Kean, in which the “Coal-Hole Tavern” was represented on the Thames, with a fleet of pirate-ships moored alongside. Pirate-ships? Why not? What a cavern of terror was this in Northumberland Street, with its splendid furniture covered with dust, its empty bottles, in the midst of which sits a grim “agent,” amusing himself by firing pistols, aiming at the unconscious mantel-piece, or at the heads of his customers!

After this, what is not possible? It is possible Hungerford Market is mined, and will explode some day. Mind how you go in for a penny ice unawares. “Pray, step this way,” says a quiet person at the door. You enter — into a back room:— a quiet room; rather a dark room. “Pray, take your place in a chair.” And she goes to fetch the penny ice. Malheureux! The chair sinks down with you — sinks, and sinks, and sinks — a large wet flannel suddenly envelopes your face and throttles you. Need we say any more? After Northumberland Street, what is improbable? Surely there is no difficulty in crediting Bluebeard. I withdraw my last month’s opinions about ogres. Ogres? Why not? I protest I have seldom contemplated anything more terribly ludicrous than this “agent” in the dingy splendor of his den, surrounded by dusty ormolu and piles of empty bottles, firing pistols for his diversion at the mantel-piece until his clients come in! Is pistol-practice so common in Northumberland Street, that it passes without notice in the lodging-houses there?

We spake anon of good thoughts. About bad thoughts? Is there some Northumberland Street chamber in your heart and mine, friend: close to the every-day street of life visited by daily friends: visited by people on business; in which affairs are transacted; jokes are uttered; wine is drunk; through which people come and go; wives and children pass; and in which murder sits unseen until the terrible moment when he rises up and kills? A farmer, say, has a gun over the mantel-piece in his room where he sits at his daily meals and rest: caressing his children, joking with his friends, smoking his pipe in his calm. One night the gun is taken down: the farmer goes out: and it is a murderer who comes back and puts the piece up and drinks by that fireside. Was he a murderer yesterday when he was tossing the baby on his knee, and when his hands were playing with his little girl’s yellow hair? Yesterday there was no blood on them at all: they were shaken by honest men: have done many a kind act in their time very likely. He leans his head on one of them, the wife comes in with her anxious looks of welcome, the children are prattling as they did yesterday round the father’s knee at the fire, and Cain is sitting by the embers, and Abel lies dead on the moor. Think of the gulf between now and yesterday. Oh, yesterday! Oh, the days when those two loved each other and said their prayers side by side! He goes to sleep, perhaps, and dreams that his brother is alive. Be true, O dream! Let him live in dreams, and wake no more. Be undone, O crime, O crime! But the sun rises: and the officers of conscience come: and yonder lies the body on the moor. I happened to pass, and looked at the Northumberland Street house the other day. A few loiterers were gazing up at the dingy windows. A plain ordinary face of a house enough — and in a chamber in it one man suddenly rose up, pistol in hand, to slaughter another. Have you ever killed any one in your thoughts? Has your heart compassed any man’s death? In your mind, have you ever taken a brand from the altar, and slain your brother? How many plain ordinary faces of men do we look at, unknowing of murder behind those eyes? Lucky for you and me, brother, that we have good thoughts unspoken. But the bad ones? I tell you that the sight of those blank windows in Northumberland Street — through which, as it were, my mind could picture the awful tragedy glimmering behind — set me thinking, “Mr. Street-Preacher, here is a text for one of your pavement sermons. But it is too glum and serious. You eschew dark thoughts: and desire to be cheerful and merry in the main.” And, such being the case, you see we must have no Roundabout Essay on this subject.

Well, I had another arrow in my quiver. (So, you know, had William Tell a bolt for his son, the apple of his eye; and a shaft for Gessler, in case William came to any trouble with the first poor little target.) And this, I must tell you, was to have been a rare Roundabout performance — one of the very best that has ever appeared in this series. It was to have contained all the deep pathos of Addison; the logical precision of Rabelais; the childlike playfulness of Swift; the manly stoicism of Sterne; the metaphysical depth of Goldsmith; the blushing modesty of Fielding; the epigrammatic terseness of Walter Scott; the uproarious humor of Sam Richardson; and the gay simplicity of Sam Johnson; — it was to have combined all these qualities, with some excellences of modern writers whom I could name:— but circumstances have occurred which have rendered this Roundabout Essay also impossible.

I have not the least objection to tell you what was to have been the subject of that other admirable Roundabout Paper. Gracious powers! the Dean of St. Patrick’s never had a better theme. The paper was to have been on the Gorillas, to be sure. I was going to imagine myself to be a young surgeon-apprentice from Charleston, in South Carolina, who ran away to Cuba on account of unhappy family circumstances, with which nobody has the least concern; who sailed thence to Africa in a large, roomy schooner with an extraordinary vacant space between decks. I was subject to dreadful ill treatment from the first mate of the ship, who, when I found she was a slaver, altogether declined to put me on shore. I was chased — we were chased — by three British frigates and a seventy-four, which we engaged and captured; but were obliged to scuttle and sink, as we could sell them in no African port: and I never shall forget the look of manly resignation, combined with considerable disgust, of the British Admiral as he walked the plank, after cutting off his pigtail, which he handed to me, and which I still have in charge for his family at Boston, Lincolnshire, England.

We made the port of Bpoopoo, at the confluence of the Bungo and Sgglolo rivers (which you may see in Swammerdahl’s map) on the 31st April last year. Our passage had been so extraordinarily rapid, owing to the continued drunkenness of the captain and chief officers, by which I was obliged to work the ship and take her in command, that we reached Bpoopoo six weeks before we were expected, and five before the coffres from the interior and from the great slave depot at Zbabblo were expected. Their delay caused us not a little discomfort, because, though we had taken the four English ships, we knew that Sir Byam Martin’s iron-cased squadron, with the “Warrior,” the “Impregnable,” the “Sanconiathon,” and the “Berosus,” were cruising in the neighborhood, and might prove too much for us.

It not only became necessary to quit Bpoopoo before the arrival of the British fleet or the rainy season, but to get our people on board as soon as might be. While the chief mate, with a detachment of seamen, hurried forward to the Pgogo lake, where we expected a considerable part of our cargo, the second mate, with six men, four chiefs, King Fbumbo, an Obi man, and myself, went N.W. by W., towards King Mtoby’stown, where we knew many hundreds of our between-deck passengers were to be got together. We went down the Pdodo river, shooting snipes, ostriches, and rhinoceros in plenty, and I think a few elephants, until, by the advice of a guide, who I now believe was treacherous, we were induced to leave the Pdodo, and march N.E. by N.N. Here Lieutenant Larkins, who had persisted in drinking rum from morning to night, and thrashing me in his sober moments during the whole journey, died, and I have too good reason to know was eaten with much relish by the natives. At Mgoo, where there are barracoons and a depot for our cargo, we had no news of our expected freight; accordingly, as time pressed exceedingly, parties were despatched in advance towards the great Washaboo lake, by which the caravans usually come towards the coast. Here we found no caravan, but only four negroes down with the ague, whom I treated, I am bound to say, unsuccessfully, whilst we waited for our friends. We used to take watch and watch in front of the place, both to guard ourselves from attack, and get early news of the approaching caravan.

At last, on the 23rd September, as I was in advance with Charles Rogers, second mate, and two natives with bows and arrows, we were crossing a great plain skirted by a forest, when we saw emerging from a ravine what I took to be three negroes — a very tall one, one of a moderate size, and one quite little.

Our native guide shrieked out some words in their language, of which Charles Rogers knew something. I thought it was the advance of the negroes whom we expected. “No!” said Rogers (who swore dreadfully in conversation), “it is the Gorillas!” And he fired both barrels of his gun, bringing down the little one first, and the female afterwards.

The male, who was untouched, gave a howl that you might have heard a league off; advanced towards us as if he would attack us, and then turned and ran away with inconceivable celerity towards the wood.

We went up towards the fallen brutes. The little one by the female appeared to be about two years old. It lay bleating and moaning on the ground, stretching out its little hands, with movements and looks so strangely resembling human, that my heart sickened with pity. The female, who had been shot through both legs, could not move. She howled most hideously when I approached the little one.

“We must be off,” said Rogers, “or the whole Gorilla race may be down upon us.” “The little one is only shot in the leg,” I said. “I’ll bind the limb up, and we will carry the beast with us on board.”

The poor little wretch held up its leg to show it was wounded, and looked to me with appealing eyes. It lay quite still whilst I looked for and found the bullet, and, tearing off a piece of my shirt, bandaged up the wound. I was so occupied in this business, that I hardly heard Rogers cry “Run! run!” and when I looked up —

When I looked up, with a roar the most horrible I ever heard — a roar? ten thousand roars — a whirling army of dark beings rushed by me. Rogers, who had bullied me so frightfully during the voyage, and who had encouraged my fatal passion for play, so that I own I owed him 1,500 dollars, was overtaken, felled, brained, and torn into ten thousand pieces; and I dare say the same fate would have fallen on me, but that the little Gorilla, whose wound I had dressed, flung its arms round my neck (their arms, you know, are much longer than ours). And when an immense gray Gorilla, with hardly any teeth, brandishing the trunk of a gollyboshtree about sixteen feet long, came up to me roaring, the little one squeaked out something plaintive, which, of course, I could not understand; on which suddenly the monster flung down his tree, squatted down on his huge hams by the side of the little patient, and began to bellow and weep.

And now, do you see whom I had rescued? I had rescued the young Prince of the Gorillas, who was out walking with his nurse and footman. The footman had run off to alarm his master, and certainly I never saw a footman run quicker. The whole army of Gorillas rushed forward to rescue their prince, and punish his enemies. If the King Gorilla’s emotion was great, fancy what the queen’s must have been when SHE came up! She arrived, on a litter, neatly enough made with wattled branches, on which she lay, with her youngest child, a prince of three weeks old.

My little protege with the wounded leg, still persisted in hugging me with its arms (I think I mentioned that they are longer than those of men in general), and as the poor little brute was immensely heavy, and the Gorillas go at a prodigious pace, a litter was made for us likewise; and my thirst much refreshed by a footman (the same domestic who had given the alarm) running hand over hand up a cocoanut-tree, tearing the rinds off, breaking the shell on his head, and handing me the fresh milk in its cup. My little patient partook of a little, stretching out its dear little unwounded foot, with which, or with its hand, a Gorilla can help itself indiscriminately. Relays of large Gorillas relieved each other at the litters at intervals of twenty minutes, as I calculated by my watch, one of Jones and Bates’s, of Boston, Mass., though I have been unable to this day to ascertain how these animals calculate time with such surprising accuracy. We slept for that night under —

And now, you see, we arrive at really the most interesting part of my travels in the country which I intended to visit, viz. the manners and habits of the Gorillas chez eux. I give the heads of this narrative only, the full account being suppressed for a reason which shall presently be given. The heads, then, of the chapters, are briefly as follows:—

The author’s arrival in the Gorilla country. Its geographical position. Lodgings assigned to him up a gum-tree. Constant attachment of the little prince. His royal highness’s gratitude. Anecdotes of his wit, playfulness, and extraordinary precocity. Am offered a portion of poor Larkins for my supper, but decline with horror. Footman brings me a young crocodile: fishy but very palatable. Old crocodiles too tough: ditto rhinoceros. Visit the queen mother — an enormous old Gorilla, quite white. Prescribe for her majesty. Meeting of Gorillas at what appears a parliament amongst them: presided over by old Gorilla in cocoanut-fibre wig. Their sports. Their customs. A privileged class amongst them. Extraordinary likeness of Gorillas to people at home, both at Charleston, S. C., my native place; and London, England, which I have visited. Flat-nosed Gorillas and blue-nosed Gorillas; their hatred, and wars between them. In a part of the country (its geographical position described) I see several negroes under Gorilla domination. Well treated by their masters. Frog-eating Gorillas across the Salt Lake. Bull-headed Gorillas — their mutual hostility. Green Island Gorillas. More quarrelsome than the Bull-heads, and howl much louder. I am called to attend one of the princesses. Evident partiality of H. R. H. for me. Jealousy and rage of large red-headed Gorilla. How shall I escape?

Ay, how indeed? Do you wish to know? Is your curiosity excited? Well, I DO know how I escaped. I could tell the most extraordinary adventures that happened to me. I could show you resemblances to people at home, that would make them blue with rage and you crack your sides with laughter. . . . And what is the reason I cannot write this paper, having all the facts before me? The reason is, that walking down St. James Street yesterday, I met a friend who says to me, “Roundabout my boy, have you seen your picture? Here it is!” And he pulls out a portrait, executed in photography, of your humble servant, as an immense and most unpleasant-featured baboon, with long hairy hands, and called by the waggish artist “A Literary Gorilla.” O horror! And now you see why I can’t play off this joke myself, and moralize on the fable, as it has been narrated already DE ME.

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