Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On A Pear-Tree.

A gracious reader no doubt has remarked that these humble sermons have for subjects some little event which happens at the preacher’s own gate, or which falls under his peculiar cognizance. Once, you may remember, we discoursed about a chalk-mark on the door. This morning Betsy, the housemaid, comes with a frightened look, and says, “Law, mum! there’s three bricks taken out of the garden wall, and the branches broke, and all the pears taken off the pear-tree!” Poor peaceful suburban pear-tree! Gaol-birds have hopped about thy branches, and robbed them of their smoky fruit. But those bricks removed; that ladder evidently prepared, by which unknown marauders may enter and depart from my little Englishman’s castle; is not this a subject of thrilling interest, and may it not BE CONTINUED IN A FUTURE NUMBER? — that is the terrible question. Suppose, having escaladed the outer wall, the miscreants take a fancy to storm the castle? Well — well! we are armed; we are numerous; we are men of tremendous courage, who will defend our spoons with our lives; and there are barracks close by (thank goodness!) whence, at the noise of our shouts and firing, at least a thousand bayonets will bristle to our rescue.

What sound is yonder? A church bell. I might go myself, but how listen to the sermon? I am thinking of those thieves who have made a ladder of my wall, and a prey of my pear-tree. They may be walking to church at this moment, neatly shaved, in clean linen, with every outward appearance of virtue. If I went, I know I should be watching the congregation, and thinking, “Is that one of the fellows who came over my wall?” If, after the reading of the eighth Commandment, a man sang out with particular energy, “Incline our hearts to keep this law,” I should think, “Aha, Master Basso, did you have pears for breakfast this morning?” Crime is walking round me, that is clear. Who is the perpetrator? . . . What a changed aspect the world has, since these last few lines were written! I have been walking round about my premises, and in consultation with a gentleman in a single-breasted blue coat, with pewter buttons, and a tape ornament on the collar. He has looked at the holes in the wall, and the amputated tree. We have formed our plan of defence — PERHAPS OF ATTACK. Perhaps some day you may read in the papers, “DARING ATTEMPT AT BURGLARY— HEROIC VICTORY OVER THE VILLAINS,” &c. &c. Rascals as yet unknown! perhaps you, too, may read these words, and may be induced to pause in your fatal intention. Take the advice of a sincere friend, and keep off. To find a man writhing in my man-trap, another mayhap impaled in my ditch, to pick off another from my tree (scoundrel! as though he were a pear) will give me no pleasure; but such things may happen. Be warned in time, villains! Or, if you MUST pursue your calling as cracksmen, have the goodness to try some other shutters. Enough! subside into your darkness, children of night! Thieves! we seek not to have YOU hanged — you are but as pegs whereon to hang others.

I may have said before, that if I were going to be hanged myself, I think I should take an accurate note of my sensations, request to stop at some Public-house on the road to Tyburn and be provided with a private room and writing-materials, and give an account of my state of mind. Then, gee up, carter! beg your reverence to continue your apposite, though not novel, remarks on my situation; — and so we drive up to Tyburn turnpike, where an expectant crowd, the obliging sheriffs, and the dexterous and rapid Mr. Ketch are already in waiting.

A number of laboring people are sauntering about our streets and taking their rest on this holiday — fellows who have no more stolen my pears than they have robbed the crown jewels out of the Tower — and I say I cannot help thinking in my own mind, “Are you the rascal who got over my wall last night?” Is the suspicion haunting my mind written on my countenance? I trust not. What if one man after another were to come up to me and say, “How dare you, sir, suspect me in your mind of stealing your fruit? Go be hanged, you and your jargonels!” You rascal thief! it is not merely three-halfp’orth of sooty fruit you rob me of, it is my peace of mind — my artless innocence and trust in my fellow-creatures, my childlike belief that everything they say is true. How can I hold out the hand of friendship in this condition, when my first impression is, “My good sir, I strongly suspect that you were up my pear-tree last night?” It is a dreadful state of mind. The core is black; the death-stricken fruit drops on the bough, and a great worm is within — fattening, and feasting, and wriggling! WHO stole the pears? I say. Is it you, brother? Is it you, madam? Come! are you ready to answer — respondere parati et cantare pares? (O shame! shame!)

Will the villains ever be discovered and punished who stole my fruit? Some unlucky rascals who rob orchards are caught up the tree at once. Some rob through life with impunity. If I, for my part, were to try and get up the smallest tree, on the darkest night, in the most remote orchard, I wager any money I should be found out — be caught by the leg in a man-trap, or have Towler fastening on me. I always am found out; have been; shall be. It’s my luck. Other men will carry off bushels of fruit, and get away undetected, unsuspected; whereas I know woe and punishment would fall upon me were I to lay my hand on the smallest pippin. So be it. A man who has this precious self-knowledge will surely keep his hands from picking and stealing, and his feet upon the paths of virtue.

I will assume, my benevolent friend and present reader, that you yourself are virtuous, not from a fear of punishment, but from a sheer love of good: but us you and I walk through life, consider what hundreds of thousands of rascals we must have met, who have not been found out at all. In high places and low, in Clubs and on ‘Change, at church or the balls and routs of the nobility and gentry, how dreadful it is for benevolent beings like you and me to have to think these undiscovered though not unsuspected scoundrels are swarming! What is the difference between you and a galley-slave? Is yonder poor wretch at the hulks not a man and a brother too? Have you ever forged, my dear sir? Have you ever cheated your neighbor? Have you ever ridden to Hounslow Heath and robbed the mail? Have you ever entered a first-class railway carriage, where an old gentleman sat alone in a sweet sleep, daintily murdered him, taken his pocket-book, and got out at the next station? You know that this circumstance occurred in France a few months since. If we have travelled in France this autumn we may have met the ingenious gentleman who perpetrated this daring and successful coup. We may have found him a well-informed and agreeable man. I have been acquainted with two or three gentlemen who have been discovered after — after the performance of illegal actions. What? That agreeable rattling fellow we met was the celebrated Mr. John Sheppard? Was that amiable quiet gentleman in spectacles the well-known Mr. Fauntleroy? In Hazlitt’s admirable paper, “Going to a Fight,” he describes a dashing sporting fellow who was in the coach, and who was no less a man than the eminent destroyer of Mr. William Weare. Don’t tell me that you would not like to have met (out of business) Captain Sheppard, the Reverend Doctor Dodd, or others rendered famous by their actions and misfortunes, by their lives and their deaths. They are the subjects of ballads, the heroes of romance. A friend of mine had the house in May Fair, out of which poor Doctor Dodd was taken handcuffed. There was the paved hall over which he stepped. That little room at the side was, no doubt, the study where he composed his elegant sermons. Two years since I had the good fortune to partake of some admirable dinners in Tyburnia — magnificent dinners indeed; but rendered doubly interesting from the fact that the house was that occupied by the late Mr. Sadleir. One night the late Mr. Sadleir took tea in that dining-room, and, to the surprise of his butler, went out, having put into his pocket his own cream-jug. The next morning, you know, he was found dead on Hampstead Heath, with the cream-jug lying by him, into which he had poured the poison by which he died. The idea of the ghost of the late gentleman flitting about the room gave a strange interest to the banquet. Can you fancy him taking his tea alone in the dining-room? He empties that cream-jug and puts it in his pocket; and then he opens yonder door, through which he is never to pass again. Now he crosses the hall: and hark! the hall-door shuts upon him, and his steps die away. They are gone into the night. They traverse the sleeping city. They lead him into the fields, where the gray morning is beginning to glimmer. He pours something from a bottle into a little silver jug. It touches his lips, the lying lips. Do they quiver a prayer ere that awful draught is swallowed? When the sun rises they are dumb.

I neither knew this unhappy man, nor his countryman — Laertes let us call him — who is at present in exile, having been compelled to fly from remorseless creditors. Laertes fled to America, where he earned his bread by his pen. I own to having a kindly feeling towards this scapegrace, because, though an exile, he did not abuse the country whence he fled. I have heard that he went away taking no spoil with him, penniless almost; and on his voyage he made acquaintance with a certain Jew; and when he fell sick, at New York, this Jew befriended him, and gave him help and money out of his own store, which was but small. Now, after they had been awhile in the strange city, it happened that the poor Jew spent all his little money, and he too fell ill, and was in great penury. And now it was Laertes who befriended that Ebrew Jew. He fee’d doctors; he fed and tended the sick and hungry. Go to, Laertes! I know thee not. It may be thou art justly exul patriae. But the Jew shall intercede for thee, thou not, let us trust, hopeless Christian sinner.

Another exile to the same shore I knew: who did not? Julius Caesar hardly owed more money than Cucedicus: and, gracious powers! Cucedicus, how did you manage to spend and owe so much? All day he was at work for his clients; at night he was occupied in the Public Council. He neither had wife nor children. The rewards which he received for his orations were enough to maintain twenty rhetoricians. Night after night I have seen him eating his frugal meal, consisting but of a fish, a small portion of mutton, and a small measure of Iberian or Trinacrian wine, largely diluted with the sparkling waters of Rhenish Gaul. And this was all he had; and this man earned and paid away talents upon talents; and fled, owing who knows how many more! Does a man earn fifteen thousand pounds a year, toiling by day, talking by night, having horrible unrest in his bed, ghastly terrors at waking, seeing an officer lurking at every corner, a sword of justice for ever hanging over his head — and have for his sole diversion a newspaper, a lonely mutton-chop, and a little sherry and seltzer-water? In the German stories we read how men sell themselves to — a certain Personage, and that Personage cheats them. He gives them wealth; yes, but the gold-pieces turn into worthless leaves. He sets them before splendid banquets yes, but what an awful grin that black footman has who lifts up the dish-cover; and don’t you smell a peculiar sulphurous odor in the dish? Faugh! take it away; I can’t eat. He promises them splendors and triumphs. The conqueror’s ear rolls glittering through the city, the multitude shout and huzza. Drive on, coachman. Yes, but who is that hanging on behind the carriage? Is this the reward of eloquence, talents, industry? Is this the end of a life’s labor? Don’t you remember how, when the dragon was infesting the neighborhood of Babylon, the citizens used to walk dismally out of evenings, and look at the valleys round about strewed with the bones of the victims whom the monster had devoured? O insatiate brute, and most disgusting, brazen, and scaly reptile! Let us be thankful, children, that it has not gobbled us up too. Quick. Let us turn away, and pray that we may be kept out of the reach of his horrible maw, jaw, claw!

When I first came up to London, as innocent as Monsieur Gil Blas, I also fell in with some pretty acquaintances, found my way into several caverns, and delivered my purse to more than one gallant gentleman of the road. One I remember especially — one who never eased me personally of a single maravedi — one than whom I never met a bandit more gallant, courteous, and amiable. Rob me? Rolando feasted me; treated me to his dinner and his wine; kept a generous table for his friends, and I know was most liberal to many of them. How well I remember one of his speculations! It was a great plan for smuggling tobacco. Revenue officers were to be bought off; silent ships were to ply on the Thames; cunning depots were to be established, and hundreds of thousands of pounds to be made by the coup. How his eyes kindled as he propounded the scheme to me! How easy and certain it seemed! It might have succeeded, I can’t say: but the bold and merry, the hearty and kindly Rolando came to grief — a little matter of imitated signatures occasioned a Bank persecution of Rolando the Brave. He walked about armed, and vowed he would never be taken alive: but taken he was; tried, condemned, sentenced to perpetual banishment; and I heard that for some time he was universally popular in the colony which had the honor to possess him. What a song he could sing! ’Twas when the cup was sparkling before us, and heaven gave a portion of its blue, boys, blue, that I remember the song of Roland at the “Old Piazza Coffee-house.” And now where is the “Old Piazza Coffee-house?” Where is Thebes? where is Troy? where is the Colossus of Rhodes? Ah, Rolando, Rolando! thou wert a gallant captain, a cheery, a handsome, a merry. At ME thou never presentedst pistol. Thou badest the bumper of Burgundy fill, fill for me, giving those who preferred it champagne. Caelum non animum, &c. Do you think he has reformed now that he has crossed the sea, and changed the air? I have my own opinion. Howbeit, Rolando, thou wert a most kind and hospitable bandit. And I love not to think of thee with a chain at thy shin.

Do you know how all these memories of unfortunate men have come upon me? When they came to frighten me this morning by speaking of my robbed pears, my perforated garden wall, I was reading an article in the Saturday Review about Rupilius. I have sat near that young man at a public dinner, and beheld him in a gilded uniform. But yesterday he lived in splendor, had long hair, a flowing beard, a jewel at his neck, and a smart surtout. So attired, he stood but yesterday in court; and today he sits over a bowl of prison cocoa, with a shaved head, and in a felon’s jerkin.

That beard and head shaved, that gaudy deputy-lieutenant’s coat exchanged for felon uniform, and your daily bottle of champagne for prison cocoa, my poor Rupilius, what a comfort it must be to have the business brought to an end! Champagne was the honorable gentleman’s drink in the House of Commons dining-room, as I am informed. What uncommonly dry champagne that must have been! When we saw him outwardly happy, how miserable he must have been! when we thought him prosperous, how dismally poor! When the great Mr. Harker, at the public dinners, called out —“Gentlemen, charge your glasses, and please silence for the Honorable Member for Lambeth!” how that Honorable Member must have writhed inwardly! One day, when there was a talk of a gentleman’s honor being questioned, Rupilius said, “If any man doubted mine, I would knock him down.” But that speech was in the way of business. The Spartan boy, who stole the fox, smiled while the beast was gnawing him under his cloak: I promise you Rupilius had some sharp fangs gnashing under his. We have sat at the same feast, I say: we have paid our contribution to the same charity. Ah! when I ask this day for my daily bread, I pray not to be led into temptation, and to be delivered from evil.

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