English Literature

Japhet in Search of A Father by Frederick Marryat

Japhet in Search of A Father by Frederick Marryat

Part 1—Chapter I.

Like most other Children, who should be my Godfather is decided by Mammon—So precocious as to make some Noise in the World, and be hung a few days after I was born—Cut down in Time, and produce a Scene of Bloodshed—My early Propensities fully developed by the Choice of my Profession.

Those who may be pleased to honour these pages with a perusal, will not be detained with a long introductory history of my birth, parentage, and education. The very title implies that, at this period of my memoirs, I was ignorant of the two first; and it will be necessary for the due development of my narrative, that I allow them to remain in the same state of bliss; for in the perusal of a tale, as well as in the pilgrimage of life, ignorance of the future may truly be considered as the greatest source of happiness.

The little that was known of me at this time I will however narrate as concisely, and as correctly, as I am able. It was on the — I really forget the date, and must rise from my chair, look for a key, open a closet, and then open an iron safe to hunt over a pile of papers—it will detain you too long—it will be sufficient to say that it was on a night—but whether the night was dark or moonlit, or rainy or foggy, or cloudy or fine, or starlight, I really cannot tell; but it is of no very great consequence. Well, it was on a night about the hour—there again I’m puzzled, it might have been ten, or eleven, or twelve, or between any of these hours; nay, it might have been past midnight, and far advancing to the morning, for what I know to the contrary. The reader must excuse an infant of — there again I am at a nonplus; but we will assume of some days old—if, when wrapped up in flannel and in a covered basket, and, moreover, fast asleep at the time, he does not exactly observe the state of the weather, and the time by the church clock. I never before was aware of the great importance of dates in telling a story; but it is now too late to recover these facts, which have been swept away into oblivion by the broad wing of Time. I must therefore just tell the little I do know, trusting to the reader’s good nature, and to blanks. It is as follows:—that, at the hour — of the night—the state of the weather being also —:—I, an infant of a certain age — was suspended by somebody or somebodies — at the knocker of the Foundling Hospital. Having made me fast, the said somebody or somebodies rang a peal upon the bell which made the old porter start up in so great a hurry, that, with the back of his hand he hit his better half a blow on the nose, occasioning a great suffusion of blood from that organ, and a still greater pouring forth of invectives from the organ immediately below it.

All this having been effected by the said peal on the bell, the said somebody or somebodies did incontinently take to their heels, and disappear long before the old porter could pull his legs through his nether garments and obey the rude summons. At last the old man swang open the gate and the basket swang across his nose; he went in again for a knife and cut me down, for it was cruel to hang a baby of a few days old; carried me into the lodge, lighted a candle, and opened the basket. Thus did I metaphorically first come to light.

When he opened the basket I opened my eyes, and although I did not observe it, the old woman was standing at the table in very light attire, sponging her nose over a basin.

“Verily, a pretty babe with black eyes!” exclaimed the old man in a tremulous voice.

“Black eyes, indeed,” muttered the old woman. “I shall have two to-morrow.”

“Beautiful black eyes, indeed!” continued the old man.

“Terrible black eyes, for sartain,” continued the old woman, as she sponged away.

“Poor thing, it must be cold,” murmured the old porter.

“Warrant I catch my death a-cold,” muttered the wife.

“But, dear me, here’s a paper!” exclaimed the old man.

“Vinegar and brown paper,” echoed the old woman.

“Addressed to the governors of the hospital,” continued the porter.

“Apply to the dispenser of the hospital,” continued his wife.

“And sealed,” said he.

“Get it healed,” said she.

“The linen is good; it must be the child of no poor people. Who knows?”—soliloquised the old man.

“My poor nose!” exclaimed the old woman.

“I must take it to the nurses, and the letter I will give to-morrow,” said the old porter, winding up his portion of this double soliloquy, and tottering away with the basket and your humble servant across the court-yard.

“There, it will do now,” said the old wife, wiping her face on a towel, and regaining her bed, in which she was soon joined by her husband, and they finished their nap without any further interruption during that night.

The next morning I was reported and examined, and the letter addressed to the governors was opened and read. It was laconic, but still, as most things laconic are, very much to the point.

“This child was born in wedlock—he is to be named Japhet. When circumstances permit, he will be reclaimed.”

But there was a postscript by Abraham Newland, Esquire, promising to pay the bearer, on demand, the sum of fifty pounds. In plainer terms, there was a bank note to that amount inclosed in the letter. As in general the parties who suspend children in baskets, have long before suspended cash payments, or, at all events, forget to suspend them with the baskets, my arrival created no little noise, to which I added my share, until I obtained a share of the breast of a young woman, who, like Charity, suckled two or three babies at one time.

We have preparatory schools all over the kingdom; for young gentlemen, from three to five years of age, under ladies, and from four to seven, under either, or both sexes, as it may happen; but the most preparatory of all preparatory schools, is certainly the Foundling Hospital, which takes in its pupils, if they are sent, from one to three days old, or even hours, if the parents are in such extreme anxiety about their education. Here it commences with their weaning, when they are instructed in the mystery of devouring pap, next, they are taught to walk—and as soon as they can walk—to sit still; to talk—and as soon as they can talk—to hold their tongues; thus are they instructed and passed on from one part of the establishment to another, until they finally are passed out of its gates, to get on in the world, with the advantages of some education, and the still further advantage of having no father or mother to provide for, or relatives to pester them with their necessities. It was so with me: I arrived at the age of fourteen, and notwithstanding the promise contained in the letter, it appeared that circumstances did not permit of my being reclaimed. But I had a great advantage over the other inmates of the hospital; the fifty pounds sent with me were not added to the funds of the establishment, but generously employed for my benefit by the governors, who were pleased with my conduct, and thought highly of my abilities. Instead of being bound ’prentice to a cordwainer, or some other mechanic, by the influence of the governors, added to the fifty pounds and interest, as a premium, I was taken by an apothecary, who engaged to bring me up to the profession. And now, that I am out of the Foundling, we must not travel quite so fast. The practitioner who thus took me by the hand was a Mr Phineas Cophagus, whose house was most conveniently situated for business, one side of the shop looking upon Smithfield Market, the other presenting a surface of glass to the principal street leading out of the same market. It was a cornerhouse, but not in a corner. On each side of the shop were two gin establishments, and next to them were two public-houses and then two eating-houses, frequented by graziers, butchers, and drovers. Did the men drink so much as to quarrel in their cups, who was so handy to plaster up the broken heads as Mr Cophagus? Did a fat grazier eat himself into an apoplexy, how very convenient was the ready lancet of Mr Cophagus. Did a bull gore a man, Mr Cophagus appeared with his diachylon and lint. Did an ox frighten a lady, it was in the back parlour of Mr Cophagus that she was recovered from her syncope. Market-days were a sure market to my master; and if an overdriven beast knocked down others, it only helped to set him on his legs. Our window suffered occasionally; but whether it were broken heads, or broken limbs, or broken windows, they were well paid for. Everyone suffered but Mr Phineas Cophagus, who never suffered a patient to escape him. The shop had the usual allowance of green, yellow, and blue bottles; and in hot weather, from our vicinity, we were visited by no small proportion of bluebottle flies. We had a white horse in one window, and a brown horse in the other, to announce to the drovers that we supplied horse-medicines. And we had all the patent medicines in the known world, even to the “all-sufficient medicine for mankind” of Mr Enouy; having which, I wondered, on my first arrival, why we troubled ourselves about any others. The shop was large, and at the back part there was a most capacious iron mortar, with a pestle to correspond. The first floor was tenanted by Mr Cophagus, who was a bachelor; the second floor was let; the others were appropriated to the housekeeper, and to those who formed the establishment. In this well-situated tenement, Mr Cophagus got on swimmingly. I will, therefore, for the present, sink the shop, that my master may rise in the estimation of the reader, when I describe his person and his qualifications.

Mr Phineas Cophagus might have been about forty-five years of age when I first had the honour of an introduction to him in the receiving-room of the Foundling Hospital. He was of the middle height, his face was thin, his nose very much hooked, his eyes small and peering, with a good-humoured twinkle in them, his mouth large, and drawn down at one corner. He was stout in his body, and carried a considerable protuberance before him, which he was in the habit of patting with his left hand very complacently; but although stout in his body, his legs were mere spindles, so that, in his appearance, he reminded you of some bird of the crane genus. Indeed, I may say, that his whole figure gave you just such an impression as an orange might do, had it taken to itself a couple of pieces of tobacco pipes as vehicles of locomotion. He was dressed in a black coat and waistcoat, white cravat and high collar to his shirt, blue cotton net pantaloons and Hessian boots, both fitting so tight, that it appeared as if he was proud of his spindle shanks. His hat was broad-brimmed and low, and he carried a stout black cane with a gold top in his right hand, almost always raising the gold top to his nose when he spoke, just as we see doctors represented at a consultation in the caricature prints. But if his figure was strange, his language and manners were still more so. He spoke, as some birds fly, in jerks, intermixing his words, for he never completed a whole sentence, with umum—and ending it with “so on,” leaving his hearers to supply the context from the heads of his discourse. Almost always in motion, he generally changed his position as soon as he had finished speaking, walking to any other part of the room, with his cane to his nose, and his head cocked on one side, with a self-sufficient tiptoe gait. When I was ushered into his presence, he was standing with two of the governors. “This is the lad,” said one of them, “his name is Japhet.”

“Japhet,” replied Mr Cophagus; “um, scriptural—Shem, Ham, um—and so on. Boy reads?”

“Very well, and writes a very good hand. He is a very good boy, Mr Cophagus.”

“Read—write—spell—good, and so on. Bring him up—rudiments—spatula—write labels—um—M.D. one of these days—make a man of him—and so on,” said this strange personage, walking round and round me with his cane to his nose, and scrutinising my person with his twinkling eyes. I was dismissed after this examination and approval, and the next day, dressed in a plain suit of clothes, was delivered by the porter at the shop of Mr Phineas Cophagus, who was not at home when I arrived.

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