Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Some Carp at Sans Souci.

We have lately made the acquaintance of an old lady of ninety, who has passed the last twenty-five years of her old life in a great metropolitan establishment, the workhouse, namely, of the parish of Saint Lazarus. Stay — twenty-three or four years ago, she came out once, and thought to earn a little money by hop-picking; but being overworked, and having to lie out at night, she got a palsy which has incapacitated her from all further labor, and has caused her poor old limbs to shake ever since.

An illustration of that dismal proverb which tells us how poverty makes us acquainted with strange bed-fellows, this poor old shaking body has to lay herself down every night in her workhouse bed by the side of some other old woman with whom she may or may not agree. She herself can’t be a very pleasant bed-fellow, poor thing! with her shaking old limbs and cold feet. She lies awake a deal of the night, to be sure, not thinking of happy old times, for hers never were happy; but sleepless with aches, and agues, and rheumatism of old age. “The gentleman gave me brandy-and-water,” she said, her old voice shaking with rapture at the thought. I never had a great love for Queen Charlotte, but I like her better now from what this old lady told me. The Queen, who loved snuff herself, has left a legacy of snuff to certain poorhouses; and, in her watchful nights, this old woman takes a pinch of Queen Charlotte’s snuff, “and it do comfort me, sir, that it do!” Pulveris exigui munus. Here is a forlorn aged creature, shaking with palsy, with no soul among the great struggling multitude of mankind to care for her, not quite trampled out of life, but past and forgotten in the rush, made a little happy, and soothed in her hours of unrest by this penny legacy. Let me think as I write. (The next month’s sermon, thank goodness! is safe to press.) This discourse will appear at the season when I have read that wassail-bowls make their appearance; at the season of pantomime, turkey and sausages, plum-puddings, jollifications for schoolboys; Christmas bills, and reminiscences more or less sad and sweet for elders. If we oldsters are not merry, we shall be having a semblance of merriment. We shall see the young folks laughing round the holly-bush. We shall pass the bottle round cosily as we sit by the fire. That old thing will have a sort of festival too. Beef, beer, and pudding will be served to her for that day also. Christmas falls on a Thursday. Friday is the workhouse day for coming out. Mary, remember that old Goody Twoshoes has her invitation for Friday, 26th December! Ninety is she, poor old soul? Ah! what a bonny face to catch under a mistletoe! “Yes, ninety, sir,” she says, “and my mother was a hundred, and my grandmother was a hundred and two.”

Herself ninety, her mother a hundred, her grandmother a hundred and two? What a queer calculation!

Ninety! Very good, granny: you were born, then, in 1772.

Your mother, we will say, was twenty-seven when you were born, and was born therefore in 1745.

Your grandmother was thirty when her daughter was born, and was born therefore in 1715.

We will begin with the present granny first. My good old creature, you can’t of course remember, but that little gentleman for whom your mother was laundress in the Temple was the ingenious Mr. Goldsmith, author of a “History of England,” the “Vicar of Wakefield,” and many diverting pieces. You were brought almost an infant to his chambers in Brick Court, and he gave you some sugar-candy, for the doctor was always good to children. That gentleman who wellnigh smothered you by sitting down on you as you lay in a chair asleep was the learned Mr. S. Johnson, whose history of “Rasselas” you have never read, my poor soul; and whose tragedy of “Irene” I don’t believe any man in these kingdoms ever perused. That tipsy Scotch gentleman who used to come to the chambers sometimes, and at whom everybody laughed, wrote a more amusing book than any of the scholars, your Mr. Burke and your Mr. Johnson, and your Doctor Goldsmith. Your father often took him home in a chair to his lodgings; and has done as much for Parson Sterne in Bond Street, the famous wit. Of course, my good creature, you remember the Gordon Riots, and crying No Popery before Mr. Langdale’s house, the Popish distiller’s, and, that bonny fire of my Lord Mansfield’s books in Bloomsbury Square? Bless us, what a heap of illuminations you have seen! For the glorious victory over the Americans at Breed’s Hill; for the peace in 1814, and the beautiful Chinese bridge in St. James’s Park; for the coronation of his Majesty, whom you recollect as Prince of Wales, Goody, don’t you? Yes; and you went in a procession of laundresses to pay your respects to his good lady, the injured Queen of England, at Brandenburg House; and you remember your mother told you how she was taken to see the Scotch lords executed at the Tower. And as for your grandmother, she was born five years after the battle of Malplaquet, she was; where her poor father was killed, fighting like a bold Briton for the Queen. With the help of a “Wade’s Chronology,” I can make out ever so queer a history for you, my poor old body, and a pedigree as authentic as many in the peerage-books.

Peerage-books and pedigrees? What does she know about them? Battles and victories, treasons, kings, and beheadings, literary gentlemen, and the like, what have they ever been to her? Granny, did you ever hear of General Wolfe? Your mother may have seen him embark, and your father may have carried a musket under him. Your grandmother may have cried huzza for Marlborough but what is the Prince Duke to you, and did you ever, so much as hear tell of his name? How many hundred or thousand of years had that toad lived who was in the coal at the defunct Exhibition? — and yet he was not a bit better informed than toads seven or eight hundred years younger.

“Don’t talk to me your nonsense about Exhibitions, and Prince Dukes, and toads in coals, or coals in toads, or what is it?” says granny. “I know there was a good Queen Charlotte, for she left me snuff; and it comforts me of a night when I lie awake.”

To me there is something very touching in the notion of that little pinch of comfort doled out to granny, and gratefully inhaled by her in the darkness. Don’t you remember what traditions there used to be of chests of plate, bulses of diamonds, laces of inestimable value, sent out of the country privately by the old Queen, to enrich certain relations in M-ckl-nb-rg Str-l-tz? Not all the treasure went. Non omnis moritur. A poor old palsied thing at midnight is made happy sometimes as she lifts her shaking old hand to her nose. Gliding noiselessly among the beds where lie the poor creatures huddled in their cheerless dormitory, I fancy an old ghost with a snuff-box that does not creak. “There, Goody, take of my rappee. You will not sneeze, and I shall not say ‘God bless you.’ But you will think kindly of old Queen Charlotte, won’t you? Ah! I had a many troubles, a many troubles. I was a prisoner almost so much as you are. I had to eat boiled mutton every day: entre nous, I abominated it. But I never complained. I swallowed it. I made the best of a hard life. We have all our burdens to bear. But hark! I hear the cock-crow, and snuff the morning air.” And with this the royal ghost vanishes up the chimney — if there be a chimney in that dismal harem, where poor old Twoshoes and her companions pass their nights — their dreary nights, their restless nights, their cold long nights, shared in what glum companionship, illumined by what a feeble taper!

“Did I understand you, my good Twoshoes, to say that, your mother was seven-and-twenty years old when you were born, and that she married your esteemed father when she herself was twenty-five? 1745, then, was the date of your dear mother’s birth. I dare say her father was absent in the Low Countries, with his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, under whom he had the honor of carrying a halberd at the famous engagement of Fontenoy — or if not there, he may have been at Preston Pans, under General Sir John Cope, when the wild highlanders broke through all the laws of discipline and the English lines; and, being on the spot, did he see the famous ghost which didn’t appear to Colonel Gardiner of the Dragoons? My good creature, is it possible you don’t remember that Doctor Swift, Sir Robert Walpole (my Lord Orford, as you justly say), old Sarah Marlborough, and little Mr. Pope, of Twitnam, died in the year of your birth? What a wretched memory you have! What? haven’t they a library, and the commonest books of reference at the old convent of Saint Lazarus, where you dwell?”

“Convent of Saint Lazarus, Prince William, Dr. Swift, Atossa, and Mr. Pope, of Twitnam! What is the gentleman talking about?” says old Goody, with a “Ho! ho!” and a laugh like an old parrot — you know they live to be as old as Methuselah, parrots do, and a parrot of a hundred is comparatively young (ho! ho! ho!). Yes, and likewise carps live to an immense old age. Some which Frederick the Great fed at Sans Souci are there now, with great humps of blue mould on their old backs; and they could tell all sorts of queer stories, if they chose to speak — but they are very silent, carps are — of their nature peu communicatives. Oh! what has been thy long life, old Goody, but a dole of bread and water and a perch on a cage; a dreary swim round and round a Lethe of a pond? What are Rossbach or Jena to those mouldy ones, and do they know it is a grandchild of England who brings bread to feed them?

No! Those Sans Souci carps may live to be a thousand years old and have nothing to tell but that one day is like another; and the history of friend Goody Twoshoes has not much more variety than theirs. Hard labor, hard fare, hard bed, numbing cold all night, and gnawing hunger most days. That is her lot. Is it lawful in my prayers to say, “Thank heaven, I am not as one of these?” If I were eighty, would I like to feel the hunger always gnawing, gnawing? to have to get up and make a bow when Mr. Bumble the beadle entered the common room? to have to listen to Miss Prim, who came to give me her ideas of the next world? If I were eighty, I own I should not like to have to sleep with another gentleman of my own age, gouty, a bad sleeper, kicking in his old dreams, and snoring; to march down my vale of years at word of command, accommodating my tottering old steps to those of the other prisoners in my dingy, hopeless old gang; to hold out a trembling hand for a sicky pittance of gruel, and say, “Thank you, ma’am,” to Miss Prim, when she has done reading her sermon. John! when Goody Twoshoes comes next Friday, I desire she may not be disturbed by theological controversies. You have a very fair voice, and I heard you and the maids singing a hymn very sweetly the other night, and was thankful that our humble household should be in such harmony. Poor old Twoshoes is so old and toothless and quaky, that she can’t sing a bit; but don’t be giving yourself airs over her, because she can’t sing and you can. Make her comfortable at our kitchen hearth. Set that old kettle to sing by our hob. Warm her old stomach with nut-brown ale and a toast laid in the fire. Be kind to the poor old school-girl of ninety, who has had leave to come out for a day of Christmas holiday. Shall there be many more Christmases for thee? Think of the ninety she has seen already; the four-score and ten cold, cheerless, nipping New Years!

If you were in her place, would you like to have a remembrance of better early days, when you were young, and happy, and loving, perhaps; or would you prefer to have no past on which your mind could rest? About the year 1788, Goody, were your cheeks rosy, and your eyes bright, and did some young fellow in powder and a pigtail look in them? We may grow old, but to us some stories never are old. On a sudden they rise up, not dead, but living — not forgotten, but freshly remembered. The eyes gleam on us as they used to do. The dear voice thrills in our hearts. The rapture of the meeting, the terrible, terrible parting, again and again the tragedy is acted over. Yesterday, in the street, I saw a pair of eyes so like two which used to brighten at my coming once, that the whole past came back as I walked lonely, in the rush of the Strand, and I was young again in the midst of joys and sorrows, alike sweet and sad, alike sacred and fondly remembered.

If I tell a tale out of school, will any harm come to my old school-girl? Once, a lady gave her a half-sovereign, which was a source of great pain and anxiety to Goody Twoshoes. She sewed it away in her old stays somewhere, thinking here at least was a safe investment —(vestis — a vest — an investment — pardon me, thou poor old thing, but I cannot help the pleasantry). And what do you think? Another pensionnaire of the establishment cut the coin out of Goody’s stays — AN OLD WOMAN WHO WENT UPON TWO CRUTCHES! Faugh, the old witch! What! Violence amongst these toothless, tottering, trembling, feeble ones? Robbery amongst the penniless? Dogs coming and snatching Lazarus’s crumbs out of his lap? Ah, how indignant Goody was as she told the story! To that pond at Potsdam where the carps live for hundreds of hundreds of years, with hunches of blue mould on their back, I dare say the little Prince and Princess of Preussen-Britannien come sometimes with crumbs and cakes to feed the mouldy ones. Those eyes may have goggled from beneath the weeds at Napoleon’s jack-boots: they have seen Frederick’s lean shanks reflected in their pool; and perhaps Monsieur de Voltaire has fed them — and now, for a crumb of biscuit they will fight, push, hustle, rob, squabble, gobble, relapsing into their tranquillity when the ignoble struggle is over. Sans souci, indeed! It is mighty well writing “Sans souci” over the gate; but where is the gate through which Care has not slipped? She perches on the shoulders of the sentry in the sentry-box: she whispers the porter sleeping in his arm-chair: she glides up the staircase, and lies down between the king and queen in their bed-royal: this very night I dare say she will perch upon poor old Goody Twoshoes’s meagre bolster, and whisper, “Will the gentleman and those ladies ask me again? No, no; they will forget poor old Twoshoes.” Goody! For shame of yourself! Do not be cynical. Do not mistrust your fellow-creatures. What? Has the Christmas morning dawned upon thee ninety times? For four-score and ten years has it been thy lot to totter on this earth, hungry and obscure? Peace and good-will to thee, let us say at this Christmas season. Come, drink, eat, rest awhile at our hearth, thou poor old pilgrim! And of the bread which God’s bounty gives us, I pray, brother reader, we may not forget to set aside a part for those noble and silent poor, from whose innocent hands war has torn the means of labor. Enough! As I hope for beef at Christmas, I vow a note shall be sent to Saint Lazarus Union House, in which Mr. Roundabout requests the honor of Mrs. Twoshoes’s company on Friday, 26th December.

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