Roundabout Papers, by William Makepeace Thackeray

On Some Late Great Victories.

On the 18th day of April last I went to see a friend in a neighboring Crescent, and on the steps of the next house beheld a group something like that here depicted. A newsboy had stopped in his walk, and was reading aloud the journal which it was his duty to deliver; a pretty orange-girl, with a heap of blazing fruit, rendered more brilliant by one of those great blue papers in which oranges are now artfully wrapped, leant over the railing and listened; and opposite the nympham discentem there was a capering and acute-eared young satirist of a crossing-sweeper, who had left his neighboring professional avocation and chance of profit, in order to listen to the tale of the little newsboy.

That intelligent reader, with his hand following the line as he read it out to his audience, was saying:—“And — now — Tom — coming up smiling — after his fall — dee — delivered a rattling clinker upon the Benicia Boy’s — potato-trap — but was met by a — punisher on the nose — which,” &c. &c.; or words to that effect. Betty at 52 let me in, while the boy was reading his lecture and, having been some twenty minutes or so in the house and paid my visit, I took leave.

The little lecturer was still at work on the 51 doorstep, and his audience had scarcely changed their position. Having read every word of the battle myself in the morning, I did not stay to listen further; but if the gentleman who expected his paper at the usual hour that day experienced delay and a little disappointment I shall not be surprised.

I am not going to expatiate on the battle. I have read in the correspondent’s letter of a Northern newspaper, that in the midst of the company assembled the reader’s humble servant was present, and in a very polite society, too, of “poets, clergymen, men of letters, and members of both Houses of Parliament.” If so, I must have walked to the station in my sleep, paid three guineas in a profound fit of mental abstraction, and returned to bed unconscious, for I certainly woke there about the time when history relates that the fight was over. I do not know whose colors I wore — the Benician’s, or those of the Irish champion; nor remember where the fight took place, which, indeed, no somnambulist is bound to recollect. Ought Mr. Sayers to be honored for being brave, or punished for being naughty? By the shade of Brutus the elder, I don’t know.

In George II.‘s time, there was a turbulent navy lieutenant (Handsome Smith he was called — his picture is at Greenwich now, in brown velvet, and gold and scarlet; his coat handsome, his waistcoat exceedingly handsome; but his face by no means the beauty)— there was, I say, a turbulent young lieutenant who was broke on a complaint of the French ambassador, for obliging a French ship of war to lower her topsails to his ship at Spithead. But, by the King’s orders, Tom was next day made Captain Smith. Well, if I were absolute king, I would send Tom Sayers to the mill for a month, and make him Sir Thomas on coming out of Clerkenwell. You are a naughty boy, Tom! but then, you know, we ought to love our brethren, though ever so naughty. We are moralists, and reprimand you; and you are hereby reprimanded accordingly. But in case England should ever have need of a few score thousand champions, who laugh at danger; who cope with giants; who, stricken to the ground, jump up and gayly rally, and fall, and rise again, and strike, and die rather than yield — in case the country should need such men, and you should know them, be pleased to send lists of the misguided persons to the principal police stations, where means may some day be found to utilize their wretched powers, and give their deplorable energies a right direction. Suppose, Tom, that you and your friends are pitted against an immense invader — suppose you are bent on holding the ground, and dying there, if need be — suppose it is life, freedom, honor, home, you are fighting for, and there is a death — dealing sword or rifle in your hand, with which you are going to resist some tremendous enemy who challenges your championship on your native shore? Then, Sir Thomas, resist him to the death, and it is all right: kill him, and heaven bless you. Drive him into the sea, and there destroy, smash, and drown him; and let us sing Laudamus. In these national cases, you see, we override the indisputable first laws of morals. Loving your neighbor is very well, but suppose your neighbor comes over from Calais and Boulogne to rob you of your laws, your liberties, your newspapers, your parliament (all of which SOME dear neighbors of ours have given up in the most self-denying manner): suppose any neighbor were to cross the water and propose this kind of thing to us? Should we not be justified in humbly trying to pitch him into the water? If it were the King of Belgium himself we must do so. I mean that fighting, of course, is wrong; but that there are occasions when, &c. — I suppose I mean that that one-handed fight of Sayers is one of the most spirit-stirring little stories ever told and, with every love and respect for Morality — my spirit says to her, “Do, for goodness’ sake, my dear madam, keep your true, and pure, and womanly, and gentle remarks for another day. Have the great kindness to stand a LEETLE aside, and just let us see one or two more rounds between the men. That little man with the one hand powerless on his breast facing yonder giant for hours, and felling him, too, every now and then! It is the little ‘Java’ and the ‘Constitution’ over again.”

I think it is a most fortunate event for the brave Heenan, who has acted and written since the battle with a true warrior’s courtesy, and with a great deal of good logic too, that the battle was a drawn one. The advantage was all on Mr. Sayers’s side. Say a young lad of sixteen insults me in the street, and I try and thrash him, and do it. Well, I have thrashed a young lad. You great, big tyrant, couldn’t you hit one of your own size? But say the lad thrashes me? In either case I walk away discomfited: but in the latter, I am positively put to shame. Now, when the ropes were cut from that death-grip, and Sir Thomas released, the gentleman of Benicia was confessedly blind of one eye, and speedily afterwards was blind of both. Could Mr. Savers have held out for three minutes, for five minutes, for ten minutes more? He says he could. So we say WE could have held out, and did, and had beaten off the enemy at Waterloo, even if the Prussians hadn’t come up. The opinions differ pretty much according to the nature of the opinants. I say the Duke and Tom could have held out, that they meant to hold out, that they did hold out, and that there has been fistifying enough. That crowd which came in and stopped the fight ought to be considered like one of those divine clouds which the gods send in Homer:

“Apollo shrouds
The godlike Trojan in a veil of clouds.”

It is the best way of getting the godlike Trojan out of the scrape, don’t you see? The nodus is cut; Tom is out of chancery; the Benicia Boy not a bit the worse, nay, better than if he had beaten the little man. He has not the humiliation of conquest. He is greater, and will be loved more hereafter by the gentle sex. Suppose he had overcome the godlike Trojan? Suppose he had tied Tom’s corpse to his cab-wheels, and driven to Farnham, smoking the pipe of triumph? Faugh! the great hulking conqueror! Why did you not hold your hand from yonder hero? Everybody, I say, was relieved by that opportune appearance of the British gods, protectors of native valor, who interfered, and “withdrew” their champion.

Now, suppose six-feet-two conqueror, and five-feet-eight beaten; would Sayers have been a whit the less gallant and meritorious? If Sancho had been allowed REALLY to reign in Barataria, I make no doubt that, with his good sense and kindness of heart, he would have devised some means of rewarding the brave vanquished, as well as the brave victors in the Baratarian army, and that a champion who had fought a good fight would have been a knight of King Don Sancho’s orders, whatever the upshot of the combat had been. Suppose Wellington overwhelmed on the plateau of Mont St. John; suppose Washington attacked and beaten at Valley Forge — and either supposition is quite easy — and what becomes of the heroes? They would have been as brave, honest, heroic, wise; but their glory, where would it have been? Should we have had their portraits hanging in our chambers? have been familiar with their histories? have pondered over their letters, common lives, and daily sayings? There is not only merit, but luck which goes to making a hero out of a gentleman. Mind, please you, I am not saying that the hero is after all not so very heroic; and have not the least desire to grudge him his merit because of his good fortune.

Have you any idea whither this Roundabout Essay on some late great victories is tending? Do you suppose that by those words I mean Trenton, Brandywine, Salamanca, Vittoria, and so forth? By a great victory I can’t mean that affair at Farnham, for it was a drawn fight. Where, then, are the victories, pray, and when are we coming to them?

My good sir, you will perceive that in this Nicaean discourse I have only as yet advanced as far as this — that a hero, whether he wins or loses, is a hero; and that if a fellow will but be honest and courageous, and do his best, we are for paying all honor to him. Furthermore, it has been asserted that Fortune has a good deal to do with the making of heroes; and thus hinted for the consolation of those who don’t happen to be engaged in any stupendous victories, that, had opportunity so served, they might have been heroes too. If you are not, friend, it is not your fault, whilst I don’t wish to detract from any gentleman’s reputation who is. There. My worst enemy can’t take objection to that. The point might have been put more briefly perhaps; but, if you please, we will not argue that question.

Well, then. The victories which I wish especially to commemorate in this paper, are the six great, complete, prodigious, and undeniable victories, achieved by the corps which the editor of the Cornhill Magazine has the honor to command. When I seemed to speak disparagingly but now of generals, it was that chief I had in my I (if you will permit me the expression). I wished him not to be elated by too much prosperity; I warned him against assuming heroic imperatorial airs, and cocking his laurels too jauntily over his ear. I was his conscience, and stood on the splash-board of his triumph-car, whispering, “Hominem memento te.” As we rolled along the way, and passed the weathercocks on the temples, I saluted the symbol of the goddess Fortune with a reverent awe. “We have done our little endeavor,” I said, bowing my head, “and mortals can do no more. But we might have fought bravely and not won. We might have cast the coin, calling, ‘Head,’ and lo! Tail might have come uppermost.” O thou Ruler of Victories! — thou Awarder of Fame! — thou Giver of Crowns (and shillings)— if thou hast smiled upon us, shall we not be thankful? There is a Saturnine philosopher, standing at the door of his book-shop, who, I fancy, has a pooh-pooh expression as the triumph passes. (I can’t see quite clearly for the laurels, which have fallen down over my nose.) One hand is reining in the two white elephants that draw the car; I raise the other hand up to — to the laurels, and pass on, waving him a graceful recognition. Up the Hill of Ludgate — around the Pauline Square — by the side of Chepe — until it reaches our own Hill of Corn — the procession passes. The Imperator is bowing to the people; the captains of the legions are riding round the car, their gallant minds struck by the thought, “Have we not fought as well as yonder fellow, swaggering in the chariot, and are we not as good as he?” Granted, with all my heart, my dear lads. When your consulship arrives, may you be as fortunate. When these hands, now growing old, shall lay down sword and truncheon, may you mount the car, and ride to the temple of Jupiter. Be yours the laurel then. Neque me myrtus dedecet, looking cosily down from the arbor where I sit under the arched vine.

I fancy the Imperator standing on the steps of the temple (erected by Titus) on the Mons Frumentarius, and addressing the citizens: “Quirites!” he says, “in our campaign of six months, we have been engaged six times, and in each action have taken near upon a HUNDRED THOUSAND PRISONERS. Go to! What are other magazines compared to our magazine? (Sound, trumpeter!) What banner is there like that of Cornhill? You, philosopher yonder!” (he shirks under his mantle.) “Do you know what it is to have a hundred and ten thousand readers? A hundred thousand readers? a hundred thousand BUYERS!” (Cries of “No!”—“Pooh!” “Yes, upon my honor!” “Oh, come!” and murmurs of applause and derision)—“I say more than a hundred thousand purchasers — and I believe AS MUCH AS A MILLION readers!” (Immense sensation.) “To these have we said an unkind word? We have enemies; have we hit them an unkind blow? Have we sought to pursue party aims, to forward private jobs, to advance selfish schemes? The only persons to whom wittingly we have given pain are some who have volunteered for our corps — and of these volunteers we have had THOUSANDS.” (Murmurs and grumbles.) “What commander, citizens, could place all these men! — could make officers of all these men?” (cries of “No — no!” and laughter)—“could say, ‘I accept this recruit, though he is too short for our standard, because he is poor, and has a mother at home who wants bread?’ could enroll this other, who is too weak to bear arms, because he says, ‘Look, sir, I shall be stronger anon.’ The leader of such an army as ours must select his men, not because they are good and virtuous, but because they are strong and capable. To these our ranks are ever open, and in addition to the warriors who surround me”—(the generals look proudly conscious)—“I tell you, citizens, that I am in treaty with other and most tremendous champions, who will march by the side of our veterans to the achievement of fresh victories. Now, blow, trumpets! Bang, ye gongs! and drummers, drub the thundering skins! Generals and chiefs, we go to sacrifice to the gods.”

Crowned with flowers, the captains enter the temple, the other Magazines walking modestly behind them. The people huzza; and, in some instances, kneel and kiss the fringes of the robes of the warriors. The Philosopher puts up his shutters, and retires into his shop, deeply moved. In ancient times, Pliny (apud Smith) relates it was the custom of the Imperator “to paint his whole body a bright red;” and, also, on ascending the Hill, to have some of the hostile chiefs led aside “to the adjoining prison, and put to death.” We propose to dispense with both these ceremonies.

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