Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Letts’s Diary.

Mine is one of your No. 12 diaries, three shillings cloth boards; silk limp, gilt edges, three-and-six; French morocco, tuck ditto, four-and-six. It has two pages, ruled with faint lines for memoranda, for every week, and a ruled account at the end, for the twelve months from January to December, where you may set down your incomings and your expenses. I hope yours, my respected reader, are large; that there are many fine round sums of figures on each side of the page: liberal on the expenditure side, greater still on the receipt. I hope, sir, you will be “a better man,” as they say, in ‘62 than in this moribund ‘61, whose career of life is just coming to its terminus. A better man in purse? in body? in soul’s health? Amen, good sir, in all. Who is there so good in mind, body or estate, but bettering won’t still be good for him? O unknown Fate, presiding over next year, if you will give me better health, a better appetite, a better digestion, a better income, a better temper in ‘62 than you have bestowed in ‘61, I think your servant will be the better for the changes. For instance, I should be the better for a new coat. This one, I acknowledge, is very old. The family says so. My good friend, who amongst us would not be the better if he would give up some old habits? Yes, yes. You agree with me. You take the allegory? Alas! at our time of life we don’t like to give up those old habits, do we? It is ill to change. There is the good old loose, easy, slovenly bedgown, laziness, for example. What man of sense likes to fling it off and put on a tight guinde prim dress-coat that pinches him? There is the cozy wraprascal, self-indulgence — how easy it is! How warm! How it always seems to fit! You can walk out in it; you can go down to dinner in it. You can say of such what Tully says of his books: Pernoctat nobiscum, peregrinatur, rusticatur. It is a little slatternly — it is a good deal stained — it isn’t becoming — it smells of cigar-smoke; but, allons donc! let the world call me idle and sloven. I love my ease better than my neighbor’s opinion. I live to please myself; not you, Mr. Dandy, with your supercilious airs. I am a philosopher. Perhaps I live in my tub, and don’t make any other use of it —. We won’t pursue further this unsavory metaphor; but, with regard to some of your old habits let us say —

1. The habit of being censorious, and speaking ill of your neighbors.

2. The habit of getting into a passion with your man-servant, your maid-servant, your daughter, wife, &c.

3. The habit of indulging too much at table.

4. The habit of smoking in the dining-room after dinner.

5. The habit of spending insane sums of money in bric-a-brac, tall copies, binding, Elzevirs, &c.; ‘20 Port, outrageously fine horses, ostentatious entertainments, and what not? or,

6. The habit of screwing meanly, when rich, and chuckling over the saving of half a crown, whilst you are poisoning your friends and family with bad wine.

7. The habit of going to sleep immediately after dinner, instead of cheerfully entertaining Mrs. Jones and the family: or,

8. LADIES! The habit of running up bills with the milliners, and swindling paterfamilias on the house bills.

9. The habit of keeping him waiting for breakfast.

10. The habit of sneering at Mrs. Brown and the Miss Browns, because they are not quite du monde, or quite so genteel as Lady Smith.

11. The habit of keeping your wretched father up at balls till five o’clock in the morning, when he has to be at his office at eleven.

12. The habit of fighting with each other, dear Louisa, Jane, Arabella, Amelia.

13. The habit of ALWAYS ordering John Coachman, three-quarters of an hour before you want him.

SUCH habits, I say, sir or madam, if you have had to note in your diary of ‘61, I have not the slightest doubt you will enter in your pocket-book of ‘62. There are habits Nos. 4 and 7, for example. I am morally sure that some of us will not give up those bad customs, though the women cry out and grumble, and scold ever so justly. There are habits Nos. 9 and 13. I feel perfectly certain, my dear young ladies, that you will continue to keep John Coachman waiting; that you will continue to give the most satisfactory reasons for keeping him waiting: and as for (9), you will show that you once (on the 1st of April last, let us say,) came to breakfast first, and that you are ALWAYS first in consequence.

Yes; in our ‘62 diaries, I fear we may all of us make some of the ‘61 entries. There is my friend Freehand, for instance. (Aha! Master Freehand, how you will laugh to find yourself here!) F. is in the habit of spending a little, ever so little, more than his income. He shows you how Mrs. Freehand works, and works (and indeed Jack Freehand, if you say she is an angel, you don’t say too much of her); how they toil, and how they mend, and patch, and pinch; and how they CAN’T live on their means. And I very much fear — nay, I will bet him half a bottle of Gladstone 14s. per dozen claret — that the account which is a little on the wrong side this year, will be a little on the wrong side in the next ensuing year of grace.

A diary. Dies. Hodie. How queer to read are some of the entries in the journal! Here are the records of dinners eaten, and gone the way of flesh. The lights burn blue somehow, and we sit before the ghosts of victuals. Hark at the dead jokes resurging! Memory greets them with the ghost of a smile. Here are the lists of the individuals who have dined at your own humble table. The agonies endured before and during those entertainments are renewed, and smart again. What a failure that special grand dinner was! How those dreadful occasional waiters did break the old china! What a dismal hash poor Mary, the cook, made of the French dish which she WOULD try out of Francatelli! How angry Mrs. Pope was at not going down to dinner before Mrs. Bishop! How Trimalchio sneered at your absurd attempt to give a feast; and Harpagon cried out at your extravagance and ostentation! How Lady Almack bullied the other ladies in the drawing-room (when no gentlemen were present): never asked you back to dinner again: left her card by her footman: and took not the slightest notice of your wife and daughters at Lady Hustleby’s assembly! On the other hand, how easy, cozy, merry, comfortable, those little dinners were; got up at one or two days’ notice; when everybody was contented; the soup as clear as amber; the wine as good as Trimalchio’s own; and the people kept their carriages waiting, and would not go away until midnight!

Along with the catalogue of bygone pleasures, balls, banquets, and the like, which the pages record, comes a list of much more important occurrences, and remembrances of graver import. On two days of Dives’s diary are printed notices that “Dividends are due at the Bank.” Let us hope, dear sir, that this announcement considerably interests you; in which case, probably, you have no need of the almanac-maker’s printed reminder. If you look over poor Jack Reckless’s note-book, amongst his memoranda of racing odds given and taken, perhaps you may read:—“Nabbam’s bill, due 29th September, 142l. 15s. 6d.” Let us trust, as the day has passed, that the little transaction here noted has been satisfactorily terminated. If you are paterfamilias, and a worthy kind gentleman, no doubt you have marked down on your register, 17th December (say), “Boys come home.” Ah, how carefully that blessed day is marked in THEIR little calendars! In my time it used to be, Wednesday, 13th November, “5 WEEKS FROM THE HOLIDAYS;” Wednesday, 20th November, “4 WEEKS FROM THE HOLIDAYS;” until sluggish time sped on, and we came to WEDNESDAY 18th DECEMBER. O rapture! Do you remember pea-shooters? I think we only had them on going home for holidays from private schools — at public schools men are too dignified. And then came that glorious announcement, Wednesday, 27th, “Papa took us to the Pantomime;” or if not papa, perhaps you condescended to go to the pit, under charge of the footman.

That was near the end of the year — and mamma gave you a new pocket-book, perhaps, with a little coin, God bless her, in the pocket. And that pocket-book was for next year, you know; and, in that pocket-book you had to write down that sad day, Wednesday, January 24th, eighteen hundred and never mind what — when Dr. Birch’s young friends were expected to re-assemble.

Ah me! Every person who turns this page over has his own little diary, in paper or ruled in his memory tablets, and in which are set down the transactions of the now dying year. Boys and men, we have our calendar, mothers and maidens. For example, in your calendar pocket-book, my good Eliza, what a sad, sad day that is — how fondly and bitterly remembered — when your boy went off to his regiment, to India, to danger, to battle perhaps. What a day was that last day at home, when the tall brother sat yet amongst the family, the little ones round about him wondering at saddle-boxes, uniforms, sword-cases, gun-cases, and other wondrous apparatus of war and travel which poured in and filled the hall; the new dressing-case for the beard not yet grown; the great sword-case at which little brother Tom looks so admiringly! What a dinner that was, that last dinner, when little and grown children assembled together, and all tried to be cheerful! What a night was that last night, when the young ones were at roost for the last time together under the same roof, and the mother lay alone in her chamber counting the fatal hours as they tolled one after another, amidst her tears, her watching, her fond prayers. What a night that was, and yet how quickly the melancholy dawn came! Only too soon the sun rose over the houses. And now in a moment more the city seemed to wake. The house began to stir. The family gathers together for the last meal. For the last time in the midst of them the widow kneels amongst her kneeling children, and falters a prayer in which she commits her dearest, her eldest born, to the care of the Father of all. O night, what tears you hide — what prayers you hear! And so the nights pass and the days succeed, until that one comes when tears and parting shall be no more.

In your diary, as in mine, there are days marked with sadness, not for this year only, but for all. On a certain day — and the sun perhaps, shining ever so brightly — the housemother comes down to her family with a sad face, which scares the children round about in the midst of their laughter and prattle. They may have forgotten — but she has not — a day which came, twenty years ago it may be, and which she remembers only too well: the long night-watch; the dreadful dawning and the rain beating at the pane; the infant speechless, but moaning in its little crib; and then the awful calm, the awful smile on the sweet cherub face, when the cries have ceased, and the little suffering breast heaves no more. Then the children, as they see their mother’s face, remember this was the day on which their little brother died. It was before they were born; but she remembers it. And as they pray together, it seems almost as if the spirit of the little lost one was hovering round the group. So they pass away: friends, kindred, the dearest-loved, grown people, aged, infants. As we go on the down-hill journey, the mile-stones are grave-stones, and on each more and more names are written; unless haply you live beyond man’s common age, when friends have dropped off, and, tottering, and feeble, and unpitied, you reach the terminus alone.

In this past year’s diary is there any precious day noted on which you have made a new friend? This is a piece of good fortune bestowed but grudgingly on the old. After a certain age a new friend is a wonder, like Sarah’s child. Aged persons are seldom capable of bearing friendships. Do you remember how warmly you loved Jack and Tom when you were at school; what a passionate regard you had for Ned when you were at college, and the immense letters you wrote to each other? How often do you write, now that postage costs nothing? There is the age of blossoms and sweet budding green: the age of generous summer; the autumn when the leaves drop; and then winter, shivering and bare. Quick, children, and sit at my feet: for they are cold, very cold: and it seems as if neither wine nor worsted will warm ’em.

In this past year’s diary is there any dismal day noted in which you have lost a friend? In mine there is. I do not mean by death. Those who are gone, you have. Those who departed loving you, love you still; and you love them always. They are not really gone, those dear hearts and true; they are only gone into the next room: and you will presently get up and follow them, and yonder door will close upon YOU, and you will be no more seen. As I am in this cheerful mood, I will tell you a fine and touching story of a doctor which I heard lately. About two years since there was, in our or some other city, a famous doctor, into whose consulting-room crowds came daily, so that they might be healed. Now this doctor had a suspicion that there was something vitally wrong with himself, and he went to consult another famous physician at Dublin, or it may be at Edinburgh. And he of Edinburgh punched his comrade’s sides; and listened at his heart and lungs; and felt his pulse, I suppose; and looked at his tongue; and when he had done, Doctor London said to Doctor Edinburgh, “Doctor, how long have I to live?” And Doctor Edinburgh said to Doctor London, “Doctor, you may last a year.”

Then Doctor London came home, knowing that what Doctor Edinburgh said was true. And he made up his accounts, with man and heaven, I trust. And he visited his patients as usual. And he went about healing, and cheering, and soothing and doctoring; and thousands of sick people were benefited by him. And he said not a word to his family at home; but lived amongst them cheerful and tender, and calm, and loving; though he knew the night was at hand when he should see them and work no more.

And it was winter time, and they came and told him that some man at a distance — very sick, but very rich — wanted him; and, though Doctor London knew that he was himself at death’s door, he went to the sick man; for he knew the large fee would be good for his children after him. And he died; and his family never knew until he was gone, that he had been long aware of the inevitable doom.

This is a cheerful carol for Christmas, is it not? You see, in regard to these Roundabout discourses, I never know whether they are to be merry or dismal. My hobby has the bit in his mouth; goes his own way; and sometimes trots through a park, and sometimes paces by a cemetery. Two days since came the printer’s little emissary, with a note saying, “We are waiting for the Roundabout Paper!” A Roundabout Paper about what or whom? How stale it has become, that printed jollity about Christmas! Carols, and wassail-bowls, and holly, and mistletoe, and yule-logs de commande — what heaps of these have we not had for years past! Well, year after year the season comes. Come frost, come thaw, come snow, come rain, year after year my neighbor the parson has to make his sermons. They are getting together the bonbons, iced cakes, Christmas trees at Fortnum and Mason’s now. The genii of the theatres are composing the Christmas pantomime, which our young folks will see and note anon in their little diaries.

And now, brethren, may I conclude this discourse with an extract out of that great diary, the newspaper? I read it but yesterday, and it has mingled with all my thoughts since then. Here are the two paragraphs, which appeared following each other:—

“Mr. R., the Advocate-General of Calcutta, has been appointed to the post of Legislative Member of the Council of the Governor-General.”

“Sir R. S., Agent to the Governor-General for Central India, died on the 29th of October, of bronchitis.”

These two men, whose different fates are recorded in two paragraphs and half a dozen lines of the same newspaper, were sisters’ sons. In one of the stories by the present writer, a man is described tottering “up the steps of the ghaut,” having just parted with his child, whom he is despatching to England from India. I wrote this, remembering in long, long distant days, such a ghaut, or river-stair, at Calcutta; and a day when, down those steps, to a boat which was in waiting, came two children, whose mothers remained on the shore. One of those ladies was never to see her boy more; and he, too, is just dead in India, “of bronchitis, on the 29th October.” We were first-cousins; had been little playmates and friends from the time of our birth; and the first house in London to which I was taken, was that of our aunt, the mother of his Honor the Member of Council. His Honor was even then a gentleman of the long robe, being, in truth, a baby in arms. We Indian children were consigned to a school of which our deluded parents had heard a favorable report, but which was governed by a horrible little tyrant, who made our young lives so miserable that I remember kneeling by my little bed of a night, and saying, “Pray God, I may dream of my mother!” Thence we went to a public school; and my cousin to Addiscombe and to India.

“For thirty-two years,” the paper says, “Sir Richmond Shakespear faithfully and devotedly served the Government of India, and during that period but once visited England, for a few months and on public duty. In his military capacity he saw much service, was present in eight general engagements, and was badly wounded in the last. In 1840, when a young lieutenant, he had the rare good fortune to be the means of rescuing from almost hopeless slavery in Khiva 416 subjects of the Emperor of Russia; and, but two years later, greatly contributed to the happy recovery of our own prisoners from a similar fate in Cabul. Throughout his career this officer was ever ready and zealous for the public service, and freely risked life and liberty in the discharge of his duties. Lord Canning, to mark his high sense of Sir Richmond Shakespear’s public services, had lately offered him the Chief Commissionership of Mysore, which he had accepted, and was about to undertake, when death terminated his career.”

When he came to London the cousins and playfellows of early Indian days met once again, and shook hands. “Can I do anything for you?” I remember the kind fellow asking. He was always asking that question: of all kinsmen; of all widows and orphans; of all the poor; of young men who might need his purse or his service. I saw a young officer yesterday to whom the first words Sir Richmond Shakespear wrote on his arrival in India were, “Can I do anything for you?” His purse was at the command of all. His kind hand was always open. It was a gracious fate which sent him to rescue widows and captives. Where could they have had a champion more chivalrous, a protector more loving and tender?

I write down his name in my little book, among those of others dearly loved, who, too, have been summoned hence. And so we meet and part; we struggle and succeed; or we fail and drop unknown on the way. As we leave the fond mother’s knee, the rough trials of childhood and boyhood begin; and then manhood is upon us, and the battle of life, with its chances, perils, wounds, defeats, distinctions. And Fort William guns are saluting in one man’s honor,18 while the troops are firing the last volleys over the other’s grave — over the grave of the brave, the gentle, the faithful Christian soldier.

18 W. R. obiit March 22, 1862.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00