Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

“Strange to Say, On Club Paper.”

Before the Duke of York’s column, and between the “Athenaeum” and “United Service” Clubs, I have seen more than once, on the esplanade, a preacher holding forth to a little congregation of badauds and street-boys, whom he entertains with a discourse on the crimes of a rapacious aristocracy, or warns of the imminent peril of their own souls. Sometimes this orator is made to “move on” by brutal policemen. Sometimes, on a Sunday, he points to a white head or two visible in the windows of the Clubs to the right and left of him, and volunteers a statement that those quiet and elderly Sabbath-breakers will very soon be called from this world to another, where their lot will by no means be so comfortable as that which the reprobates enjoy here, in their arm-chairs by their snug fires.

At the end of last month, had I been a Pall Mall preacher, I would have liked to send a whip round to all the Clubs in St. James’s, and convoke the few members remaining in London to hear a discourse sub Dio on a text from the Observer newspaper. I would have taken post under the statue of Fame, say, where she stands distributing wreaths to the three Crimean Guardsmen. (The crossing-sweeper does not obstruct the path, and I suppose is away at his villa on Sundays.) And, when the congregation was pretty quiet, I would have begun:—

In the Observer of the 27th September, 1863, in the fifth page and the fourth column, it is thus written:—

“The codicil appended to the will of the late Lord Clyde, executed at Chatham, and bearing the signature of Clyde, F. M., is written, strange to say, on a sheet of paper BEARING THE ‘ATHENAEUM CLUB’ MARK.”

What the codicil is, my dear brethren, it is not our business to inquire. It conveys a benefaction to a faithful and attached friend of the good Field-Marshal. The gift may be a lakh of rupees, or it may be a house and its contents — furniture, plate, and wine-cellar. My friends, I know the wine-merchant, and, for the sake of the legatee, hope heartily that the stock is large.

Am I wrong, dear brethren, in supposing that you expect a preacher to say a seasonable word on death here? If you don’t, I fear you are but little familiar with the habits of preachers, and are but lax hearers of sermons. We might contrast the vault where the warrior’s remains lie shrouded and coffined, with that in which his worldly provision of wine is stowed away. Spain and Portugal and France — all the lands which supplied his store — as hardy and obedient subaltern, as resolute captain, as colonel daring but prudent — he has visited the fields of all. In India and China he marches always unconquered; or at the head of his dauntless Highland brigade he treads the Crimean snow; or he rides from conquest to conquest in India once more; succoring his countrymen in the hour of their utmost need; smiting down the scared mutiny, and trampling out the embers of rebellion; at the head of an heroic army, a consummate chief. And now his glorious old sword is sheathed, and his honors are won: and he has bought him a house, and stored it with modest cheer for his friends (the good old man put water in his own wine, and a glass or two sufficed him)— behold the end comes, and his legatee inherits these modest possessions by virtue of a codicil to his lordship’s will, written, “strange to say, upon a sheet of paper, bearing the ‘Athenaeum Club’ mark.”

It is to this part of the text, my brethren, that I propose to address myself particularly, and if the remarks I make are offensive to any of you, you know the doors of our meeting-house are open, and you can walk out when you will. Around us are magnificent halls and palaces frequented by such a multitude of men as not even the Roman Forum assembled together. Yonder are the Martium and the Palladium. Next to the Palladium is the elegant Viatorium, which Barry gracefully stole from Rome. By its side is the massive Reformatorium: and the — the Ultratorium rears its granite columns beyond. Extending down the street palace after palace rises magnificent, and under their lofty roofs warriors and lawyers, merchants and nobles, scholars and seamen, the wealthy, the poor, the busy, the idle assemble. Into the halls built down this little street and its neighborhood the principal men of all London come to hear or impart the news; and the affairs of the state or of private individuals, the quarrels of empires or of authors, the movements of the court, or the splendid vagaries of fashion, the intrigues of statesmen or of persons of another sex yet more wily, the last news of battles in the great occidental continents, nay, the latest betting for the horse-races, or the advent of a dancer at the theatre — all that men do is discussed in these Pall Mall agorae, where we of London daily assemble.

Now among so many talkers, consider how many false reports must fly about: in such multitudes imagine how many disappointed men there must be; how many chatterboxes; how many feeble and credulous (whereof I mark some specimens in my congregation); how many mean, rancorous, prone to believe ill of their betters, eager to find fault; and then, my brethren, fancy how the words of my text must have been read and received in Pall Mall! (I perceive several of the congregation looking most uncomfortable. One old boy with a dyed moustache turns purple in the face, and struts back to the Martium: another, with a shrug of the shoulder and a murmur of “Rubbish,” slinks away in the direction of the Togatorium, and the preacher continues.) The will of Field-Marshal Lord Clyde — signed AT CHATHAM, mind, where his lordship died — is written, STRANGE TO SAY, on a sheet of paper bearing the “Athenaeum Club” mark!

The inference is obvious. A man cannot get Athenaeum paper except at the “Athenaeum.” Such paper is not sold at Chatham, where the last codicil to his lordship’s will is dated. And so the painful belief is forced upon us, that a Peer, a Field-Marshal, wealthy, respected, illustrious, could pocket paper at his Club, and carry it away with him to the country. One fancies the hall-porter conscious of the old lord’s iniquity, and holding down his head as the Marshal passes the door. What is that roll which his lordship carries? Is it his Marshal’s baton gloriously won? No; it is a roll of foolscap conveyed from the Club. What has he on his breast, under his greatcoat? Is it his Star of India? No; it is a bundle of envelopes, bearing the head of Minerva, some sealing-wax, and a half-score of pens.

Let us imagine how in the hall of one or other of these Clubs this strange anecdote will be discussed.

“Notorious screw,” says Sneer. “The poor old fellow’s avarice has long been known.”

“Suppose he wishes to imitate the Duke of Marlborough,” says Simper.

“Habit of looting contracted in India, you know; ain’t so easy to get over, you know,” says Snigger.

“When officers dined with him in India,” remarks Solemn, “it was notorious that the spoons were all of a different pattern.”

“Perhaps it isn’t true. Suppose he wrote his paper at the Club?” interposes Jones.

“It is dated at Chatham, my good man,” says Brown. “A man if he is in London says he is in London. A man if he is in Rochester says he is in Rochester. This man happens to forget that he is using the Club paper; and he happens to be found out: many men DON’T happen to be found out. I’ve seen literary fellows at Clubs writing their rubbishing articles; I have no doubt they take away reams of paper. They crib thoughts: why shouldn’t they crib stationery? One of your literary vagabonds who is capable of stabbing a reputation, who is capable of telling any monstrous falsehood to support his party, is surely capable of stealing a ream of paper.”

“Well, well, we have all our weaknesses,” sighs Robinson. “Seen that article, Thompson, in the Observer about Lord Clyde and the Club paper? You’ll find it up stairs. In the third column of the fifth page towards the bottom of the page. I suppose he was so poor he couldn’t afford to buy a quire of paper. Hadn’t fourpence in the world. Oh, no!”

“And they want to get up a testimonial to this man’s memory — a statue or something!” cries Jawkins. “A man who wallows in wealth and takes paper away from his Club! I don’t say he is not brave. Brutal courage most men have. I don’t say he was not a good officer: a man with such experience MUST have been a good officer unless he was a born fool. But to think of this man loaded with honors — though of a low origin — so lost to self-respect as actually to take away the ‘Athenaeum’ paper! These parvenus, sir, betray their origin — betray their origin. I said to my wife this very morning, ‘Mrs. Jawkins,’ I said, ‘there is talk of a testimonial to this man. I will not give one shilling. I have no idea of raising statues to fellows who take away Club paper. No, by George, I have not. Why, they will be raising statues to men who take Club spoons next! Not one penny of MY money shall they have!’”

And now, if you please, we will tell the real story which has furnished this scandal to a newspaper, this tattle to Club gossips and loungers. The Field-Marshal, wishing to make a further provision for a friend, informed his lawyer what he desired to do. The lawyer, a member of the “Athenaeum Club,” there wrote the draft of such a codicil as he would advise, and sent the paper by the post to Lord Clyde at Chatham. Lord Clyde finding the paper perfectly satisfactory, signed it and sent it back: and hence we have the story of “the codicil bearing the signature of Clyde, F. M., and written, strange to say, upon paper bearing the ‘Athenaeum Club’ mark.”

Here I have been imagining a dialogue between a half-dozen gossips such as congregate round a Club fireplace of an afternoon. I wonder how many people besides — whether any chance reader of this very page has read and believed this story about the good old lord? Have the country papers copied the anecdote, and our “own correspondents” made their remarks on it? If, my good sir, or madam, you have read it and credited it, don’t you own to a little feeling of shame and sorrow, now that the trumpery little mystery is cleared? To “the new inhabitant of light,” passed away and out of reach of our censure, misrepresentation, scandal, dulness, malice, a silly falsehood matters nothing. Censure and praise are alike to him —

“The music warbling to the deafened ear,
The incense wasted on the funeral bier,”

the pompous eulogy pronounced over the gravestone, or the lie that slander spits on it. Faithfully though this brave old chief did his duty, honest and upright though his life was, glorious his renown — you see he could write at Chatham on London paper; you see men can be found to point out how “strange” his behavior was.

And about ourselves? My good people, do you by chance know any man or woman who has formed unjust conclusions regarding his neighbor? Have you ever found yourself willing, nay, eager to believe evil of some man whom you hate? Whom you hate because he is successful, and you are not: because he is rich, and you are poor: because he dines with great men who don’t invite you: because he wears a silk gown, and yours is still stuff: because he has been called in to perform the operation though you lived close by: because his pictures have been bought and yours returned home unsold: because he fills his church, and you are preaching to empty pews? If your rival prospers have you ever felt a twinge of anger? If his wife’s carriage passes you and Mrs. Tomkins, who are in a cab, don’t you feel that those people are giving themselves absurd airs of importance? If he lives with great people, are you not sure he is a sneak? And if you ever felt envy towards another, and if your heart has ever been black towards your brother, if you have been peevish at his success, pleased to hear his merit depreciated, and eager to believe all that is said in his disfavor — my good sir, as you yourself contritely own that you are unjust, jealous, uncharitable, so, you may be sure, some men are uncharitable, jealous, and unjust regarding YOU.

The proofs and manuscript of this little sermon have just come from the printer’s, and as I look at the writing, I perceive, not without a smile, that one or two of the pages bear, “strange to say,” the mark of a Club of which I have the honor to be a member. Those lines quoted in a foregoing page are from some noble verses written by one of Mr. Addison’s men, Mr. Tickell, on the death of Cadogan, who was amongst the most prominent “of Marlborough’s captains and Eugenio’s friends.” If you are acquainted with the history of those times, you have read how Cadogan had his feuds and hatreds too, as Tickell’s patron had his, as Cadogan’s great chief had his. “The Duke of Marlborough’s character has been so variously drawn” (writes a famous contemporary of the duke’s), “that it is hard to pronounce on either side without the suspicion of flattery or detraction. I shall say nothing of his military accomplishments, which the opposite reports of his friends and enemies among the soldiers have rendered problematical. Those maligners who deny him personal valor, seem not to consider that this accusation is charged at a venture, since the person of a general is too seldom exposed, and that fear which is said sometimes to have disconcerted him before action might probably be more for his army than himself.” If Swift could hint a doubt of Marlborough’s courage, what wonder that a nameless scribe of our day should question the honor of Clyde?

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