Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Autour De Mon Chapeau.

Never have I seen a more noble tragic face. In the centre of the forehead there was a great furrow of care, towards which the brows rose piteously. What a deep solemn grief in the eyes! They looked blankly at the object before them, but through it, as it were, and into the grief beyond. In moments of pain, have you not looked at some indifferent object so? It mingles dumbly with your grief, and remains afterwards connected with it in your mind. It may be some indifferent thing — a book which you were reading at the time when you received her farewell letter (how well you remember the paragraph afterwards — the shape of the words, and their position on the page); the words you were writing when your mother came in, and said it was all over — she was MARRIED— Emily married — to that insignificant little rival at whom you have laughed a hundred times in her company. Well, well; my friend and reader, whoe’er you be — old man or young, wife or maiden — you have had your grief-pang. Boy, you have lain awake the first night at school, and thought of home. Worse still, man, you have parted from the dear ones with bursting heart: and, lonely boy, recall the bolstering an unfeeling comrade gave you; and, lonely man, just torn from your children — their little tokens of affection yet in your pocket — pacing the deck at evening in the midst of the roaring ocean, you can remember how you were told that supper was ready, and how you went down to the cabin and had brandy-and-water and biscuit. You remember the taste of them. Yes; for ever. You took them whilst you and your Grief were sitting together, and your Grief clutched you round the soul. Serpent, how you have writhed round me, and bitten me. Remorse, Remembrance, &c., come in the night season, and I feel you gnawing, gnawing! . . . I tell you that man’s face was like Laocoon’s (which, by the way, I always think over-rated. The real head is at Brussels, at the Duke Daremberg’s, not at Rome).

That man! What man? That man of whom I said that his magnificent countenance exhibited the noblest tragic woe. He was not of European blood, he was handsome, but not of European beauty. His face white — not of a Northern whiteness; his eyes protruding somewhat, and rolling in their grief. Those eyes had seen the Orient sun, and his beak was the eagle’s. His lips were full. The beard, curling round them, was unkempt and tawny. The locks were of a deep, deep coppery red. The hands, swart and powerful, accustomed to the rough grasp of the wares in which he dealt, seemed unused to the flimsy artifices of the bath. He came from the Wilderness, and its sands were on his robe, his cheek, his tattered sandal, and the hardy foot it covered.

And his grief — whence came his sorrow? I will tell you. He bore it in his hand. He had evidently just concluded the compact by which it became his. His business was that of a purchaser of domestic raiment. At early dawn nay, at what hour when the city is alive — do we not all hear the nasal cry of “Clo?” In Paris, Habits Galons, Marchand d’habits, is the twanging signal with which the wandering merchant makes his presence known. It was in Paris I saw this man. Where else have I not seen him? In the Roman Ghetto — at the Gate of David, in his fathers’ once imperial city. The man I mean was an itinerant vender and purchaser of wardrobes — what you call an . . . Enough! You know his name.

On his left shoulder hung his bag; and he held in that hand a white hat, which I am sure he had just purchased, and which was the cause of the grief which smote his noble features. Of course I cannot particularize the sum, but he had given too much for that hat. He felt he might have got the thing for less money. It was not the amount, I am sure; it was the principle involved. He had given fourpence (let us say) for that which threepence would have purchased. He had been done: and a manly shame was upon him, that he, whose energy, acuteness, experience, point of honor, should have made him the victor in any mercantile duel in which he should engage, had been overcome by a porter’s wife, who very likely sold him the old hat, or by a student who was tired of it. I can understand his grief. Do I seem to be speaking of it in a disrespectful or flippant way? Then you mistake me. He had been outwitted. He had desired, coaxed, schemed, haggled, got what he wanted, and now found he had paid too much for his bargain. You don’t suppose I would ask you to laugh at that man’s grief? It is you, clumsy cynic, who are disposed to sneer, whilst it may be tears of genuine sympathy are trickling down this nose of mine. What do you mean by laughing? If you saw a wounded soldier on the field of battle, would you laugh? If you saw a ewe robbed of her lamb, would you laugh, you brute? It is you who are the cynic, and have no feeling: and you sneer because that grief is unintelligible to you which touches my finer sensibility. The OLD-CLOTHES’-MAN had been defeated in one of the daily battles of his most interesting, chequered, adventurous life.

Have you ever figured to yourself what such a life must be? The pursuit and conquest of twopence must be the most eager and fascinating of occupations. We might all engage in that business if we would. Do not whist-players, for example, toil, and think, and lose their temper over sixpenny points? They bring study, natural genius, long forethought, memory, and careful historical experience to bear upon their favorite labor. Don’t tell me that it is the sixpenny points, and five shillings the rub, which keeps them for hours over their painted pasteboard. It is the desire to conquer. Hours pass by. Night glooms. Dawn, it may be, rises unheeded; and they sit calling for fresh cards at the “Portland,” or the “Union,” while waning candles splutter in the sockets, and languid waiters snooze in the ante-room. Sol rises. Jones has lost four pounds: Brown has won two; Robinson lurks away to his family house and (mayhap indignant) Mrs. R. Hours of evening, night, morning, have passed away whilst they have been waging this sixpenny battle. What is the loss of four pounds to Jones, the gain of two to Brown? B. is, perhaps, so rich that two pounds more or less are as naught to him; J. is so hopelessly involved that to win four pounds cannot benefit his creditors, or alter his condition; but they play for that stake: they put forward their best energies: they ruff, finesse (what are the technical words, and how do I know?) It is but a sixpenny game if you like; but they want to win it. So as regards my friend yonder with the hat. He stakes his money: he wishes to win the game, not the hat merely. I am not prepared to say that he is not inspired by a noble ambition. Caesar wished to be first in a village. If first of a hundred yokels, why not first of two? And my friend the old-clothes’-man wishes to win his game, as well as to turn his little sixpence.

Suppose in the game of life — and it is but a twopenny game after all — you are equally eager of winning. Shall you be ashamed of your ambition, or glory in it? There are games, too, which are becoming to particular periods of life. I remember in the days of our youth, when my friend Arthur Bowler was an eminent cricketer. Slim, swift, strong, well-built, he presented a goodly appearance on the ground in his flannel uniform. Militasti non sine gloria, Bowler my boy! Hush! We tell no tales. Mum is the word. Yonder comes Chancy his son. Now Chancy his son has taken the field and is famous among the eleven of his school. Bowler senior, with his capacious waistcoat, &c., waddling after a ball, would present an absurd object, whereas it does the eyes good to see Bowler junior scouring the plain — a young exemplar of joyful health, vigor, activity. The old boy wisely contents himself with amusements more becoming his age and waist; takes his sober ride; visits his farm soberly — busies himself about his pigs, his ploughing, his peaches, or what not! Very small routinier amusements interest him; and (thank goodness!) nature provides very kindly for kindly-disposed fogies. We relish those things which we scorned in our lusty youth. I see the young folks of an evening kindling and glowing over their delicious novels. I look up and watch the eager eye flashing down the page, being, for my part, perfectly contented with my twaddling old volume of “Howel’s Letters,” or the Gentleman’s Magazine. I am actually arrived at such a calm frame of mind that I like batter-pudding. I never should have believed it possible; but it is so. Yet a little while, and I may relish water-gruel. It will be the age of mon lait de poule et mon bonnet de nuit. And then — the cotton extinguisher is pulled over the old noddle, and the little flame of life is popped out.

Don’t you know elderly people who make learned notes in Army Lists, Peerages, and the like? This is the batter-pudding, water-gruel of old age. The worn-out old digestion does not care for stronger food. Formerly it could swallow twelve-hours’ tough reading, and digest an encyclopaedia.

If I had children to educate, I would, at ten or twelve years of age, have a professor, or professoress, of whist for them, and cause them to be well grounded in that great and useful game. You cannot learn it well when you are old, any more than you can learn dancing or billiards. In our house at home we youngsters did not play whist because we were dear obedient children, and the elders said playing at cards was “a waste of time.” A waste of time, my good people! Allons! What do elderly home-keeping people do of a night after dinner? Darby gets his newspaper; my dear Joan her Missionary Magazine or her volume of Cumming’s Sermons — and don’t you know what ensues? Over the arm of Darby’s arm-chair the paper flutters to the ground unheeded, and he performs the trumpet obligato que vous savez on his old nose. My dear old Joan’s head nods over her sermon (awakening though the doctrine may be). Ding, ding, ding: can that be ten o’clock? It is time to send the servants to bed, my dear — and to bed master and mistress go too. But they have not wasted their time playing at cards. Oh, no! I belong to a Club where there is whist of a night, and not a little amusing is it to hear Brown speak of Thompson’s play, and vice versa. But there is one man — Greatorex let us call him — who is the acknowledged captain and primus of all the whist-players. We all secretly admire him. I, for my part, watch him in private life, hearken to what he says, note what he orders for dinner, and have that feeling of awe for him that I used to have as a boy for the cock of the school. Not play at whist? “Quelle triste vieillesse vous vous preparez!” were the words of the great and good Bishop of Autun. I can’t. It is too late now. Too late! too late! Ah! humiliating confession! That joy might have been clutched, but the life-stream has swept us by it — the swift life-stream rushing to the nearing sea. Too late! too late! Twentystone my boy! when you read in the papers “Valse a deux temps,” and all the fashionable dances taught to adults by “Miss Lightfoots,” don’t you feel that you would like to go in and learn? Ah, it is too late! You have passed the choreas, Master Twentystone, and the young people are dancing without you.

I don’t believe much of what my Lord Byron the poet says; but when he wrote, “So for a good old gentlemanly vice, I think I shall put up with avarice,” I think his lordship meant what he wrote, and if he practised what he preached, shall not quarrel with him. As an occupation in declining years, I declare I think saving is useful, amusing, and not unbecoming. It must be a perpetual amusement. It is a game that can be played by day, by night, at home and abroad, and at which you must win in the long run. I am tired and want a cab. The fare to my house, say, is two shillings. The cabman will naturally want half a crown. I pull out my book. I show him the distance is exactly three miles and fifteen hundred and ninety yards. I offer him my card — my winning card. As he retires with the two shillings, blaspheming inwardly, every curse is a compliment to my skill. I have played him and beat him; and a sixpence is my spoil and just reward. This is a game, by the way, which women play far more cleverly than we do. But what an interest it imparts to life! During the whole drive home I know I shall have my game at the journey’s end; am sure of my hand, and shall beat my adversary. Or I can play in another way. I won’t have a cab at all, I will wait for the omnibus: I will be one of the damp fourteen in that steaming vehicle. I will wait about in the rain for an hour, and ‘bus after ‘bus shall pass, but I will not be beat. I WILL have a place, and get it at length, with my boots wet through, and an umbrella dripping between my legs. I have a rheumatism, a cold, a sore throat, a sulky evening — a doctor’s bill tomorrow perhaps? Yes, but I have won my game, and am gainer of a shilling on this rubber.

If you play this game all through life it is wonderful what daily interest it has, and amusing occupation. For instance, my wife goes to sleep after dinner over her volume of sermons. As soon as the dear soul is sound asleep, I advance softly and puff out her candle. Her pure dreams will be all the happier without that light; and, say she sleeps an hour, there is a penny gained.

As for clothes, parbleu! there is not much money to be saved in clothes, for the fact is, as a man advances in life — as he becomes an Ancient Briton (mark the pleasantry)— he goes without clothes. When my tailor proposes something in the way of a change of raiment, I laugh in his face. My blue coat and brass buttons will last these ten years. It is seedy? What then? I don’t want to charm anybody in particular. You say that my clothes are shabby? What do I care? When I wished to look well in somebody’s eyes, the matter may have been different. But now, when I receive my bill of 10L. (let us say) at the year’s end, and contrast it with old tailors’ reckonings, I feel that I have played the game with master tailor, and beat him; and my old clothes are a token of the victory.

I do not like to give servants board-wages, though they are cheaper than household bills: but I know they save out of board-wages, and so beat me. This shows that it is not the money but the game which interests me. So about wine. I have it good and dear. I will trouble you to tell me where to get it good and cheap. You may as well give me the address of a shop where I can buy meat for fourpence a pound, or sovereigns for fifteen shillings apiece. At the game of auctions, docks, shy wine-merchants, depend on it there is no winning; and I would as soon think of buying jewellery at an auction in Fleet Street as of purchasing wine from one of your dreadful needy wine-agents such as infest every man’s door. Grudge myself good wine? As soon grudge my horse corn. Merci! that would be a very losing game indeed, and your humble servant has no relish for such.

But in the very pursuit of saving there must be a hundred harmless delights and pleasures which we who are careless necessarily forego. What do you know about the natural history of your household? Upon your honor and conscience, do you know the price of a pound of butter? Can you say what sugar costs, and how much your family consumes and ought to consume? How much lard do you use in your house? As I think on these subjects I own I hang down the head of shame. I suppose for a moment that you, who are reading this, are a middle-aged gentleman, and paterfamilias. Can you answer the above questions? You know, sir, you cannot. Now turn round, lay down the book, and suddenly ask Mrs. Jones and your daughters if THEY can answer? They cannot. They look at one another. They pretend they can answer. They can tell you the plot and principal characters of the last novel. Some of them know something about history, geology, and so forth. But of the natural history of home — Nichts, and for shame on you all! Honnis soyez! For shame on you? for shame on us!

In the early morning I hear a sort of call or jodel under my window: and know ’tis the matutinal milkman leaving his can at my gate. O household gods! have I lived all these years and don’t know the price or the quantity of the milk which is delivered in that can? Why don’t I know? As I live, if I live till tomorrow morning, as soon as I hear the call of Lactantius, I will dash out upon him. How many cows? How much milk, on an average, all the year round? What rent? What cost of food and dairy servants? What loss of animals, and average cost of purchase? If I interested myself properly about my pint (or hogshead, whatever it be) of milk, all this knowledge would ensue; all this additional interest in life. What is this talk of my friend, Mr. Lewes, about objects at the seaside, and so forth?30 Objects at the seaside? Objects at the area-bell: objects before my nose: objects which the butcher brings me in his tray: which the cook dresses and puts down before me, and over which I say grace! My daily life is surrounded with objects which ought to interest me. The pudding I eat (or refuse, that is neither here nor there; and, between ourselves, what I have said about batter-pudding may be taken cum grano — we are not come to that yet, except for the sake of argument or illustration)— the pudding, I say, on my plate, the eggs that made it, the fire that cooked it, the tablecloth on which it is laid, and so forth — are each and all of these objects a knowledge of which I may acquire — a knowledge of the cost and production of which I might advantageously learn? To the man who DOES know these things, I say the interest of life is prodigiously increased. The milkman becomes, a study to him; the baker a being he curiously and tenderly examines. Go, Lewes, and clap a hideous sea-anemone into a glass: I will put a cabman under mine, and make a vivisection of a butcher. O Lares, Penates, and gentle household gods, teach me to sympathize with all that comes within my doors! Give me an interest in the butcher’s book. Let me look forward to the ensuing number of the grocer’s account with eagerness. It seems ungrateful to my kitchen-chimney not to know the cost of sweeping it; and I trust that many a man who reads this, and muses on it, will feel, like the writer, ashamed of himself, and hang down his head humbly.

30 “Seaside Studies.” By G. H. Lewes.

Now, if to this household game you could add a little money interest, the amusement would be increased far beyond the mere money value, as a game at cards for sixpence is better than a rubber for nothing. If you can interest yourself about sixpence, all life is invested with a new excitement. From sunrise to sleeping you can always be playing that game — with butcher, baker, coal-merchant, cabman, omnibus man — nay, diamond merchant and stockbroker. You can bargain for a guinea over the price of a diamond necklace, or for a sixteenth per cent in a transaction at the Stock Exchange. We all know men who have this faculty who are not ungenerous with their money. They give it on great occasions. They are more able to help than you and I who spend ours, and say to poor Prodigal who comes to us out at elbow, “My dear fellow, I should have been delighted: but I have already anticipated my quarter, and am going to ask Screwby if he can do anything for me.”

In this delightful, wholesome, ever-novel twopenny game, there is a danger of excess, as there is in every other pastime or occupation of life. If you grow too eager for your twopence, the acquisition or the loss of it may affect your peace of mind, and peace of mind is better than any amount of twopences. My friend, the old-clothes’-man, whose agonies over the hat have led to this rambling disquisition, has, I very much fear, by a too eager pursuit of small profits, disturbed the equanimity of a mind that ought to be easy and happy. “Had I stood out,” he thinks, “I might have had the hat for threepence,” and he doubts whether, having given fourpence for it, he will ever get back his money. My good Shadrach, if you go through life passionately deploring the irrevocable, and allow yesterday’s transactions to embitter the cheerfulness of today and tomorrow — as lief walk down to the Seine, souse in, hats, body, clothes-bag and all, and put an end to your sorrow and sordid cares. Before and since Mr. Franklin wrote his pretty apologue of the Whistle have we not all made bargains of which we repented, and coveted and acquired objects for which we have paid too dearly! Who has not purchased his hat in some market or other? There is General M’Clellan’s cocked hat for example: I dare say he was eager enough to wear it, and he has learned that it is by no means cheerful wear. There were the military beavers of Messeigneurs of Orleans:31 they wore them gallantly in the face of battle; but I suspect they were glad enough to pitch them into the James River and come home in mufti. Ah, mes amis! A chacun son schakot! I was looking at a bishop the other day, and thinking, “My right reverend lord, that broad-brim and rosette must bind your great broad forehead very tightly, and give you many a headache. A good easy wideawake were better for you, and I would like to see that honest face with a cutty-pipe in the middle of it.” There is my Lord Mayor. My once dear lord, my kind friend, when your two years’ reign was over, did not you jump for joy and fling your chapeau-bras out of window: and hasn’t that hat cost you a pretty bit of money? There, in a splendid travelling chariot, in the sweetest bonnet, all trimmed with orange-blossoms and Chantilly lace, sits my Lady Rosa, with old Lord Snowden by her side. Ah, Rosa! what a price have you paid for that hat which you wear; and is your ladyship’s coronet not purchased too dear! Enough of hats. Sir, or Madam, I take off mine, and salute you with profound respect.

31 Two cadets of the House of Orleans who served as Volunteers under General M’Clellan in his campaign against Richmond.

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