Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On A Medal of George the Fourth.

Before me lies a coin bearing the image and superscription of King George IV., and of the nominal value of two-and-sixpence. But an official friend at a neighboring turnpike says the piece is hopelessly bad; and a chemist tested it, returning a like unfavorable opinion. A cabman, who had brought me from a Club, left it with the Club porter, appealing to the gent who gave it a pore cabby, at ever so much o’clock of a rainy night, which he hoped he would give him another. I have taken that cabman at his word. He has been provided with a sound coin. The bad piece is on the table before me, and shall have a hole drilled through it, as soon as this essay is written, by a loyal subject who does not desire to deface the Sovereign’s image, but to protest against the rascal who has taken his name in vain. Fid. Def. indeed! Is this what you call defending the faith? You dare to forge your Sovereign’s name, and pass your scoundrel pewter as his silver? I wonder who you are, wretch and most consummate trickster? This forgery is so complete that even now I am deceived by it — I can’t see the difference between the base and sterling metal. Perhaps this piece is a little lighter; — I don’t know. A little softer:— is it? I have not bitten it, not being a connoisseur in the tasting of pewter or silver. I take the word of three honest men, though it goes against me: and though I have given two-and-sixpence worth of honest consideration for the counter, I shall not attempt to implicate anybody else in my misfortune, or transfer my ill-luck to a deluded neighbor.

I say the imitation is so curiously successful, the stamping, milling of the edges, lettering, and so forth, are so neat, that even now, when my eyes are open, I cannot see the cheat. How did those experts, the cabman, and pikeman, and tradesman, come to find it out? How do they happen to be more familiar with pewter and silver than I am? You see, I put out of the question another point which I might argue without fear of defeat, namely, the cabman’s statement that I gave him this bad piece of money. Suppose every cabman who took me a shilling fare were to drive away and return presently with a bad coin and an assertion that I had given it to him! This would be absurd and mischievous; an encouragement of vice amongst men who already are subject to temptations. Being homo, I think if I were a cabman myself, I might sometimes stretch a furlong or two in my calculation of distance. But don’t come TWICE, my man, and tell me I have given you a bad half-crown. No, no! I have paid once like a gentleman, and once is enough. For instance, during the Exhibition time I was stopped by an old country-woman in black, with a huge umbrella, who, bursting into tears, said to me, “Master, be this the way to Harlow, in Essex?” “This the way to Harlow? This is the way to Exeter, my good lady, and you will arrive there if you walk about 170 miles in your present direction,” I answered courteously, replying to the old creature. Then she fell a-sobbing as though her old heart would break. She had a daughter a-dying at Harlow. She had walked already “vifty dree mile that day.” Tears stopped the rest of her discourse, so artless, genuine, and abundant that — I own the truth — I gave her, in I believe genuine silver, a piece of the exact size of that coin which forms the subject of this essay. Well. About a month since, near to the very spot where I had met my old woman, I was accosted by a person in black, a person in a large draggled cap, a person with a huge umbrella, who was beginning, “I say, Master, can you tell me if this be the way to Har —” but here she stopped. Her eyes goggled wildly. She started from me, as Macbeth turned from Macduff. She would not engage with me. It was my old friend of Harlow, in Essex. I dare say she has informed many other people of her daughter’s illness, and her anxiety to be put upon the right way to Harlow. Not long since a very gentleman-like man, Major Delamere let us call him (I like the title of Major very much), requested to see me, named a dead gentleman who he said had been our mutual friend, and on the strength of this mutual acquaintance, begged me to cash his cheque for five pounds!

It is these things, my dear sir, which serve to make a man cynical. I do conscientiously believe that had I cashed the Major’s cheque there would have been a difficulty about payment on the part of the respected bankers on whom he drew. On your honor and conscience, do you think that old widow who was walking from Tunbridge Wells to Harlow had a daughter ill, and was an honest woman at all? The daughter couldn’t always, you see, be being ill, and her mother on her way to her dear child through Hyde Park. In the same way some habitual sneerers may be inclined to hint that the cabman’s story was an invention — or at any rate, choose to ride off (so to speak) on the doubt. No. My opinion, I own, is unfavorable as regards the widow from Tunbridge Wells, and Major Delamere; but, believing the cabman was honest, I am glad to think he was not injured by the reader’s most humble servant.

What a queer, exciting life this rogue’s march must be: this attempt of the bad half-crowns to get into circulation! Had my distinguished friend the Major knocked at many doors that morning, before operating on mine? The sport must be something akin to the pleasure of tiger or elephant hunting. What ingenuity the sportsman must have in tracing his prey — what daring and caution in coming upon him! What coolness in facing the angry animal (for, after all, a man on whom you draw a cheque a bout portant will be angry). What a delicious thrill of triumph, if you can bring him down! If I have money at the banker’s and draw for a portion of it over the counter, that is mere prose — any dolt can do that. But, having no balance, say I drive up in a cab, present a cheque at Coutts’s, and, receiving the amount, drive off? What a glorious morning’s sport that has been! How superior in excitement to the common transactions of every-day life! . . . I must tell a story; it is against myself, I know, but it WILL out, and perhaps my mind will be the easier.

More than twenty years ago, in an island remarkable for its verdure, I met four or five times one of the most agreeable companions with whom I have passed a night. I heard that evil times had come upon this gentleman; and, overtaking him in a road near my own house one evening, I asked him to come home to dinner, In two days, he was at my door again. At breakfast-time was this second appearance. He was in a cab (of course he was in a cab, they always are, these unfortunate, these courageous men). To deny myself was absurd. My friend could see me over the parlor blinds, surrounded by my family, and cheerfully partaking of the morning meal. Might he have a word with me? and can you imagine its purport? By the most provoking delay, his uncle the admiral not being able to come to town till Friday — would I cash him a cheque? I need not say it would be paid on Saturday without fail. I tell you that man went away with money in his pocket, and I regret to add that his gallant relative has not COME TO TOWN YET!

Laying down the pen, and sinking back in my chair, here, perhaps, I fall into a five minutes’ reverie, and think of one, two, three, half a dozen cases in which I have been content to accept that sham promissory coin in return for sterling money advanced. Not a reader, whatever his age, but could tell a like story. I vow and believe there are men of fifty, who will dine well today, who have not paid their school debts yet, and who have not taken up their long-protested promises to pay. Tom, Dick, Harry, my boys, I owe you no grudge, and rather relish that wince with which you will read these meek lines and say, “He means me.” Poor Jack in Hades! Do you remember a certain pecuniary transaction, and a little sum of money you borrowed “until the meeting of Parliament?” Parliament met often in your lifetime: Parliament has met since: but I think I should scarce be more surprised if your ghost glided into the room now, and laid down the amount of our little account, than I should have been if you had paid me in your lifetime with the actual acceptances of the Bank of England. You asked to borrow, but you never intended to pay. I would as soon have believed that a promissory note of Sir John Falstaff (accepted by Messrs. Bardolph and Nym, and payable in Aldgate,) would be as sure to find payment, as that note of the departed — nay, lamented — Jack Thriftless.

He who borrows, meaning to pay, is quite a different person from the individual here described. Many — most, I hope — took Jack’s promise for what it was worth — and quite well knew that when he said, “Lend me,” he meant “Give me” twenty pounds. “Give me change for this half-crown,” said Jack; “I know it’s a pewter piece;” and you gave him the change in honest silver, and pocketed the counterfeit gravely.

What a queer consciousness that must be which accompanies such a man in his sleeping, in his waking, in his walk through life, by his fireside with his children round him! “For what we are going to receive,” &c. — he says grace before his dinner. “My dears! Shall I help you to some mutton? I robbed the butcher of the meat. I don’t intend to pay him. Johnson my boy, a glass of champagne? Very good, isn’t it? Not too sweet. Forty-six. I get it from So-and-so, whom I intend to cheat.” As eagles go forth and bring home to their eaglets the lamb or the pavid kid, I say there are men who live and victual their nests by plunder. We all know highway robbers in white neck-cloths, domestic bandits, marauders, passers of bad coin. What was yonder cheque which Major Delamere proposed I should cash but a piece of bad money? What was Jack Thriftless’s promise to pay? Having got his booty, I fancy Jack or the Major returning home, and wife and children gathering round about him. Poor wife and children! They respect papa very likely. They don’t know he is false coin. Maybe the wife has a dreadful inkling of the truth, and, sickening, tries to hide it from the daughters and sons. Maybe she is an accomplice: herself a brazen forgery. If Turpin and Jack Sheppard were married, very likely Mesdames Sheppard and Turpin did not know, at first, what their husbands’ real profession was, and fancied, when the men left home in the morning, they only went away to follow some regular and honorable business. Then a suspicion of the truth may have come: then a dreadful revelation; and presently we have the guilty pair robbing together, or passing forged money each on his own account. You know Doctor Dodd? I wonder whether his wife knows that he is a forger, and scoundrel? Has she had any of the plunder, think you, and were the darling children’s new dresses bought with it? The Doctor’s sermon last Sunday was certainly charming, and we all cried. Ah, my poor Dodd! Whilst he is preaching most beautifully, pocket-handkerchief in hand, he is peering over the pulpit cushions, looking out piteously for Messrs. Peachum and Lockit from the police-office. By Doctor Dodd you understand I would typify the rogue of respectable exterior, not committed to gaol yet, but not undiscovered. We all know one or two such. This very sermon perhaps will be read by some, or more likely — for, depend upon it, your solemn hypocritic scoundrels don’t care much for light literature — more likely, I say, this discourse will be read by some of their wives, who think, “Ah mercy! does that horrible cynical wretch know how my poor husband blacked my eye, or abstracted mamma’s silver teapot, or forced me to write So-and-so’s name on that piece of stamped paper, or what not?” My good creature, I am not angry with YOU. If your husband has broken your nose, you will vow that he had authority over your person, and a right to demolish any part of it: if he has conveyed away your mamma’s teapot, you will say that she gave it to him at your marriage, and it was very ugly, and what not? if he takes your aunt’s watch, and you love him, you will carry it ere long to the pawnbroker’s, and perjure yourself — oh, how you will perjure yourself — in the witness-box! I know this is a degrading view of woman’s noble nature, her exalted mission, and so forth, and so forth. I know you will say this is bad morality. Is it? Do you, or do you not, expect your womankind to stick by you for better or for worse? Say I have committed a forgery, and the officers come in search of me, is my wife, Mrs. Dodd, to show them into the dining-room and say, “Pray step in, gentlemen! My husband has just come home from church. That bill with my Lord Chesterfield’s acceptance, I am bound to own, was never written by his lordship, and the signature is in the doctor’s handwriting?” I say, would any man of sense or honor, or fine feeling, praise his wife for telling the truth under such circumstances? Suppose she made a fine grimace, and said, “Most painful as my position is, most deeply as I feel for my William, yet truth must prevail, and I deeply lament to state that the beloved partner of my life DID commit the flagitious act with which he is charged, and is at this present moment located in the two-pair back, up the chimney, whither it is my duty to lead you.” Why, even Dodd himself, who was one of the greatest humbugs who ever lived, would not have had the face to say that he approved of his wife telling the truth in such a case. Would you have had Flora Macdonald beckon the officers, saying, “This way, gentlemen! You will find the young chevalier asleep in that cavern.” Or don’t you prefer her to be splendide mendax, and ready at all risks to save him? If ever I lead a rebellion, and my women betray me, may I be hanged but I will not forgive them: and if ever I steal a teapot, and MY women don’t stand up for me, pass the article under their shawls, whisk down the street with it, outbluster the policeman, and utter any amount of fibs before Mr. Beak, those beings are not what I take them to be, and — for a fortune — I won’t give them so much as a bad half-crown.

Is conscious guilt a source of unmixed pain to the bosom which harbors it? Has not your criminal, on the contrary, an excitement, an enjoyment within quite unknown to you and me who never did anything wrong in our lives? The housebreaker must snatch a fearful joy as he walks unchallenged by the policeman with his sack full of spoons and tankards. Do not cracksmen, when assembled together, entertain themselves with stories of glorious old burglaries which they or bygone heroes have committed? But that my age is mature and my habits formed, I should really just like to try a little criminality. Fancy passing a forged bill to your banker; calling on a friend and sweeping his sideboard of plate, his hall of umbrellas and coats; and then going home to dress for dinner, say — and to meet a bishop, a judge, and a police magistrate or so, and talk more morally than any man at table! How I should chuckle (as my host’s spoons clinked softly in my pocket) whilst I was uttering some noble speech about virtue, duty, charity! I wonder do we meet garroters in society? In an average tea-party, now, how many returned convicts are there? Does John Footman, when he asks permission to go and spend the evening with some friends, pass his time in thuggee; waylay and strangle an old gentleman, or two; let himself into your house, with the house-key of course, and appear as usual with the shaving-water when you ring your bell in the morning? The very possibility of such a suspicion invests John with a new and romantic interest in my mind. Behind the grave politeness of his countenance I try and read the lurking treason. Full of this pleasing subject, I have been talking thief-stories with a neighbor. The neighbor tells me how some friends of hers used to keep a jewel-box under a bed in their room; and, going into the room, they thought they heard a noise under the bed. They had the courage to look. The cook was under the bed — under the bed with the jewel-box. Of course she said she had come for purposes connected with her business; but this was absurd. A cook under a bed is not there for professional purposes. A relation of mine had a box containing diamonds under her bed, which diamonds she told me were to be mine. Mine! One day, at dinner-time, between the entrees and the roast, a cab drove away from my relative’s house containing the box wherein lay the diamonds. John laid the dessert, brought the coffee, waited all the evening — and oh, how frightened he was when he came to learn that his mistress’s box had been conveyed out of her own room, and it contained diamonds —“Law bless us, did it now?” I wonder whether John’s subsequent career has been prosperous? Perhaps the gentlemen from Bow Street were all in the wrong when they agreed in suspecting John as the author of the robbery. His noble nature was hurt at the suspicion. You conceive he would not like to remain in a family where they were mean enough to suspect him of stealing a jewel-box out of a bedroom — and the injured man and my relatives soon parted. But, inclining (with my usual cynicism) to think that he did steal the valuables, think of his life for the month or two whilst he still remains in the service! He shows the officers over the house, agrees with them that the coup must have been made by persons familiar with it; gives them every assistance; pities his master and mistress with a manly compassion; points out what a cruel misfortune it is to himself as an honest man, with his living to get and his family to provide for, that this suspicion should fall on him. Finally he takes leave of his place, with a deep, though natural melancholy that ever he had accepted it. What’s a thousand pounds to gentle-folks! A loss, certainly, but they will live as well without the diamonds as with them. But to John his Hhhonor was worth more than diamonds, his Hhonor was. Whohever is to give him back his character? Who is to prevent hany one from saying, “Ho yes. This is the footman which was in the family where the diamonds was stole?” &c.

I wonder has John prospered in life subsequently? If he is innocent he does not interest me in the least. The interest of the case lies in John’s behavior supposing him to be guilty. Imagine the smiling face, the daily service, the orderly performance of duty, whilst within John is suffering pangs lest discovery should overtake him. Every bell of the door which he is obliged to open may bring a police officer. The accomplices may peach. What an exciting life John’s must have been for a while. And now, years and years after, when pursuit has long ceased, and detection is impossible, does he ever revert to the little transaction? Is it possible those diamonds cost a thousand pounds? What a rogue the fence must have been who only gave him so and so! And I pleasingly picture to myself an old ex-footman and an ancient receiver of stolen goods meeting and talking over this matter, which dates from times so early that her present Majesty’s fair image could only just have begun to be coined or forged.

I choose to take John at the time when his little peccadillo is suspected, perhaps, but when there is no specific charge of robbery against him. He is not yet convicted: he is not even on his trial; how then can we venture to say he is guilty? Now think what scores of men and women walk the world in a like predicament; and what false coin passes current! Pinchbeck strives to pass off his history as sound coin. He knows it is only base metal, washed over with a thin varnish of learning. Poluphloisbos puts his sermons in circulation: sounding brass, lacquered over with white metal, and marked with the stamp and image of piety. What say you to Drawcansir’s reputation as a military commander? to Tibbs’s pretensions to be a fine gentleman? to Sapphira’s claims as a poetess, or Rodoessa’s as a beauty? His bravery, his piety, high birth, genius, beauty — each of these deceivers would palm his falsehood on us, and have us accept his forgeries as sterling coin. And we talk here, please to observe, of weaknesses rather than crimes. Some of us have more serious things to hide than a yellow cheek behind a raddle of rouge, or a white poll under a wig of jetty curls. You know, neighbor, there are not only false teeth in this world, but false tongues: and some make up a bust and an appearance of strength with padding, cotton, and what not? while another kind of artist tries to take you in by wearing under his waistcoat, and perpetually thumping, an immense sham heart. Dear sir, may yours and mine be found, at the right time, of the proper size and in the right place.

And what has this to do with half-crowns, good or bad? Ah, friend! may our coin, battered, and clipped, and defaced though it be, be proved to be Sterling Silver on the day of the Great Assay!

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