English Literature

Arthur O’Leary by Charles James Lever

Arthur O'Leary by Charles James Lever.jpg


Old Woodcock says, that if Providence had not made him a Justice of the Peace, he’d have been a vagabond himself. No such kind interference prevailed in my case. I was a vagabond from my cradle. I never could be sent to school, alone, like other children—they always had to see me there safe, and fetch me back again. The rambling bump monopolized my whole head. I’m sure my god-father must have been the wandering Jew, or a king’s messenger. Here I am again, en route, and sorely puzzled to know whither? There’s the fellow for my trunk.

“What packet, sir?”

“Eh? What packet? The vessel at the Tower stairs?”

“Yes, sir; there are two with the steam up, the Rotterdam and the Hamburgh.”

“Which goes first?”

“Why, I think the Attwood, sir.”

“Well, then, shove aboard the Attwood. Where is she for?”

“She’s for Rotterdam.——He’s a queer cove too,” said the fellow under his teeth, as he moved out of the room, “and don’t seem to care where he goes.”

A capital lesson in life may be learned from the few moments preceding departure from an inn. The surly waiter that always said “coming” when he was leaving the room, and never came, now grown smiling and smirking; the landlord expressing a hope to see you again, while he watches your upthrown eyebrows at the exorbitancy of his bill: the boots attentively looking from your feet to your face, and back again; the housemaid passing and repassing a dozen times, on her way, no where, with a look half saucy, half shy; the landlord’s son, an abortion of two feet high, a kind of family chief remembrancer, that sits on a high stool in the bar, and always detects something you have had, that was not “put down in the bill”—two shillings for a cab, or a “brandy and water;” a curse upon them all; this poll-tax upon travellers is utter ruin; your bill, compared to its dependencies, is but Falstaffs “pennyworth of bread,” to all the score for sack.

Well, here I am at last. “Take care I say! you’ll upset us. Shove off, Bill; ship your oar,” splash, splash. “Bear a hand. What a noise, they make,” bang, crash, buzz; what a crowd of men in pilot coats and caps; women in plaid shawls and big reticules, band-boxes, bags, and babies, and what higgling for sixpences with the wherrymen.

All the places round the companion are taken by pale ladies in black silk, with a thin man in spectacles beside them; the deck is littered with luggage, and little groups seated thereon; some very strange young gentlemen with many-coloured waistcoats are going to Greenwich, and one as far as Margate; a widow and daughters, rather prettyish girls, for Herne Bay; a thin, bilious-looking man of about fifty, with four outside coats, and a bearskin round his legs, reading beside the wheel, occasionally taking a sly look at the new arrivals.—I’ve seen him before; he is the Secretary of Embassy at Constantinople; and here’s a jolly-looking, rosy-cheeked fellow, with a fat florid face, and two dashing-looking girls in black velvet. Eh! who’s this? Sir Peter, the steward calls him; a London Alderman going up the Rhine for two months—he’s got his courier, and a strong carriage, with the springs well corded for the pavé;—but they come too fast for counting: so now I’ll have a look after my berth.

Alas! the cabin has been crowded all the while by some fifty others, wrangling, scolding, laughing, joking, complaining, and threatening, and not a berth to be had.

“You’ve put me next the tiller,” said one; “I’m over the boiler,” screamed another.

“I have the pleasure of speaking to Sir Willoughby Steward,” said the captain, to a tall, gray-headed, soldier-like figure, with a closely-buttoned blue, frock. “Sir Willoughby, your berth is No. 8.”

“Eh! that’s the way they come it,” whispers a Cockney to his friend. “That ere chap gets a berth before us all.”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” says the baronet mildly, “I took mine three days ago.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean anything,” stammers out the other, and sneaks off.

“Laura-Mariar—where’s Laurar?” calls out a shrill voice from the aft-cabin.

“Here, Ma,” replies a pretty girl, who is arranging her ringlets at a glass, much to the satisfaction of a young fellow in a braided frock, that stands gazing at her in the mirror with something very like a smile on his lip.

There’s no mistaking that pair of dark-eyed fellows with aquiline noses and black ill-shaven beards—Hamburgh or Dutch Jews, dealers in smuggled lace, cigars, and Geneva watches, and occasionally small money-lenders. How they scan the company, as if calculating the profit they might turn them to! The very smile they wear seems to say, ‘Comment c’est doux de tromper les Chrétiens.’ But, holloa! there was a splash! we are moving, and the river is now more amusing than the passengers.

I should like to see the man that ever saw London from the Thames; or any part of it, save the big dome of St. Paul’s, the top of the Monument, or the gable of the great black wharf inscribed with “Hodson’s Pale Ale.” What a devil of a row they do make. I thought we were into that fellow. See, here’s a wherry actually under our bow; where is she now? are they all lost already? No! there they go bobbing up and down, and looking after us, as if asking, why we didn’t sail over them. Ay! there comes an Indiaman, and that little black slug that ‘s towing her up against the stream, is one of the Tug Company’s craft; and see how all the others at anchor keep tossing and pitching about, as we pass by, like an awkward room full of company, rising at each new arrival.

There’s Greenwich! a fine thing Greenwich. I like the old fellows that the first lord always makes stand in front, without legs or arms; a cheery sight: and there’s a hulk, or an hospital ship, or something of that kind.

“That’s the Hexcellent,” saith a shrill voice behind me.

“Ah! I know her, she’s a revenue cruizer.”

Lord, what liars are the Cockneys! The plot thickens every moment; here come little bright green and gold things, shooting past, like dragon-flies skimming the water, steaming down to Gravesend. What a mob of parasols cover the deck, and what kissing of hands and waving of handkerchiefs to anonymous acquaintances nowhere. More steamers—here’s the “Boulogne boat,” followed by the Ostender, and there, rounding the reach, comes the Ramsgate; and a white funnel, they say, is the Cork packet; and yonder, with her steam escaping, is the Edinburgh, her deck crowded with soldiers.

“Port—port it is—steady there—steady.”

“Do you dine, sir!” quoth the steward to the pale gentleman. A faint “Yes,” “And the ladies too?” A more audible “No.”

“I say, steward,” cries Sir Peter, “what’s the hour for dinner?”

“Four o’clock, sir, after we pass Gravesend.”

“Bring me some brandy and water and a biscuit, then.”

“Lud, Pa!”

“To be sure, dear, we shall be sick in the pool. They say there’s a head wind.”

How crowded they are on the fore-part of the vessel! six carriages and eight horses; the latter belong to a Dutch dealer, who, by-the-by, seems a shrewd fellow, who, well knowing the extreme sympathy between horses and asses, leaves the care of his, to some Cockneys, who come down every half hour to look after the tarpaulins, inspect the coverings, see the knee-caps safe, find ask if they want “‘ay;” and all this, that to some others on board, they may appear as sporting characters, well versed in turf affairs, and quite up to stable management.

When the life and animation of the crowded river is passed, how vexatious it is to hear for the thousandth time the dissertation’s on English habits, customs, and constitution, delivered by some ill-informed, underbred fellow or other, to some eager German—a Frenchman happily is too self-sufficient ever to listen—who greedily swallows the farrago of absurdity, which, according to the politics of his informant, represents the nation in a plethora of prosperity, or the last stage of inevitable ruin. I scarcely know which I detest the more: the insane toryism of the one, is about as sickening as the rabid radicalism of the other. The absurd misapprehensions foreigners entertain about us, are, in nine cases out of ten, communicated by our own people; and in this way, I have always remarked a far greater degree of ignorance about England and the English, to prevail among those who have passed some weeks in the country, than, among such, as had never visited our shores. With the former the Thames Tunnel is our national boast; raw beef and boxing our national predilections; the public sale of our wives a national practice.

“But what’s this? our paddles are backed. Anything wrong, steward?”

“No, sir, only another passenger coming aboard.” “How they pull, and there’s a stiff sea tunning too. A queer figure that is in the stern sheets; what a beard he has!”

I had just time for the observation, when a tall, athletic man, wrapped in a wide blue cloak, sprang on the deck—his eyes were shaded by large green spectacles and the broad brim of a very projecting hat; a black beard, a rabbi might have envied, descended from his chin, and hung down upon his bosom; he chucked a crown-piece to the boatman as he leaned over the bulwark, and then turning to the steward, called out—“Eh, Jem! all right?”

“Yes, sir, all right,” said the man, touching his hat respectfully! The tall figure immediately disappeared down the companion-ladder, leaving me in the most puzzling state of doubt as to what manner of man he could possibly be. Had the problem been more easy of solution I should scarcely have resolved it when he again emerged—but how changed! The broad beaver had given place to a blue cloth foraging cap with a gold band around it; the beard had disappeared totally, and left no successor save a well-rounded chin; the spectacles also had vanished, and a pair of sharp, intelligent, grey eyes, with a most uncommon degree of knowingness in their expression, shone forth; and a thin and most accurately-curled moustache graced his upper lip and gave a character of Vandykism to his features, which were really handsome. In person he was some six feet two, gracefully but strongly built; his costume, without anything approaching conceit, was the perfection of fashionable attire—even to his gloves there was nothing which D’Orsay could have criticised; while his walk was the very type of that mode of progression which is only learned thoroughly by a daily stroll down St. James Street, and the frequent practice of passing to and from Crockford’s, at all hours of the day and night.

The expression of his features was something so striking, I cannot help noting it: there was a jauntiness, an ease, no smirking, half-bred, self-satisfied look, such as a London linendraper might wear on his trip to Margate; but a consummate sense of his own personal attractions and great natural advantages, had given a character to his features which seemed to say—it’s quite clear there’s no coming up to me; don’t try it—nascitur non fit. His very voice implied it. The veriest commonplace fell from him with a look, a smile, a gesture, a something or other that made it tell; and men repeated his sayings without knowing, that his was a liquor, that was lost in decanting. The way he scanned the passengers, and it was done in a second, was the practised observance of one, who reads character at a glance. Over the Cockneys, and they were numerous, his eyes merely passed without bestowing any portion of attention; while to the lady part of the company his look was one of triumphant satisfaction, such as Louis XIV. might have bestowed when he gazed at the thousands in the garden of Versailles, and exclaimed, “Oui! ces sont mes sujets.” Such was the Honourable Jack Smallbranes, younger son of a peer, ex-captain in the Life Guards, winner of the Derby, but now the cleared-out man of fashion flying to the Continent to escape from the Fleet, and cautiously coming aboard in disguise below Gravesend, to escape the bore of a bailiff, and what he called the horror of bills “detested.”

We read a great deal about Cincinnatus cultivating his cabbages, and we hear of Washington’s retirement when the active period of his career had passed over, and a hundred similar instances are quoted for our admiration, of men, who could throw themselves at once from all the whirlwind excitement of great events, and seek, in the humblest and least obtrusive position, an occupation and an enjoyment. But I doubt very much if your ex-man of fashion, your ci-devant winner of the Derby—the adored of Almack’s—the enfant chéri of Crockford’s and the Clarendon, whose equipage was a model, whose plate was perfection, for whom life seemed too short for all the fascinations wealth spread around him, and each day brought the one embarrassment how to enjoy enough. I repeat it, I doubt much if he, when the hour of his abdication arrives—and that it will arrive sooner or later not even himself entertains a doubt—when Holditch protests, and Bevan proceeds; when steeds are sold at Tattersall’s, and pictures at Christie’s; when the hounds pass over to the next new victim, and the favourite for the St. Léger, backed with mighty odds, is now entered under another name; when in lieu of the bright eyes and honied words that make life a fairy tale, his genii are black-whiskered bailiffs and auctioneers’ appraisers—if he, when the tide of fortune sets in so strong against him, can not only sustain himself for a while against it, and when too powerful at last, can lie upon the current and float as gaily down, as ever he did joyously, up, the stream—then, say I, all your ancient and modern instances are far below him: all your warriors and statesmen are but poor pretenders compared to him, they have retired like rich shopkeepers, to live on the interest of their fortune, which is fame; while he, deprived of all the accessories which gave him rank, place, and power, must seek within his own resources for all the future springs of his pleasure, and be satisfied to stand spectator of the game, where he was once the principal player. A most admirable specimen of this philosophy was presented by our new passenger, who, as he lounged against the binnacle, and took a deliberate survey of his fellow-travellers, seemed the very ideal of unbroken ease and undisturbed enjoyment: he knew he was ruined; he knew he had neither house in town, or country; neither a steed, nor a yacht, nor a preserve; he was fully aware, that Storr and Mortimer, who would have given him a mountain of silver but yesterday, would not trust him with a mustard-pot today; that even the “legs” would laugh at him if he offered the odds on the Derby; and yet if you were bound on oath to select the happiest fellow on board, by the testimony of your eyes, the choice would not have taken you five minutes. His attitude was ease itself: his legs slightly crossed, perhaps the better to exhibit a very well-rounded instep, which shone forth in all the splendour of French varnish: his travelling cap jauntily thrown on one side, so as to display to better advantage his perfumed locks, that floated in a graceful manner somewhat lengthily on his neck; the shawl around his neck had so much of negligence, as to show that the splendid enamel pin that fastened it, was a thing of little moment to the wearer: all were in keeping with the nonchalant ease, and self-satisfaction of his look, as with half-drooping lids he surveyed the deck, caressing with his jewelled fingers the silky line of his moustache, and evidently enjoying in his inmost soul the triumphant scene of conquest his very appearance excited. Indeed, a less practised observer than himself could not fail to remark the unequivocal evidences the lady portion of the community bore to his success: the old ones looked boldly at him with that fearless intrepidity that characterizes conscious security—their property was insured, and they cared not how near the fire came to them; the very young participated in the sentiment from an opposite reason—theirs was the unconsciousness of danger; but there was a middle term, what Balzac calls, “la femme de trente ans,” and she either looked over the bulwarks, or at the funnel, or on her book, any where in short but at our friend, who appeared to watch this studied denial on her part, with the same kind of enjoyment the captain of a frigate would contemplate the destruction his broadsides were making on his enemy’s rigging—and perhaps the latter never deemed his conquest more assured by the hauling down of he enemy’s colours, than did the “Honourable Jack,” when a letdown veil convinced him that the lady could bear no more.

I should like to have watched the proceedings on deck, where, although no acquaintance had yet been formed, the indications of such were clearly visible: the Alderman’s daughters evincing a decided preference for walking on that side where Jack was standing, he studiously performing some small act of courtesy from time to time as they passed, removing a seat, kicking any small fragment of rope, &c.; but the motion of the packet began to advertize me that note-taking was at an end, and the best thing I could do would be to compose myself.

“What’s the number, sir?” said the steward, as I staggered down the companion.

“I have got no berth,” said I mournfully.

“A dark horse, not placed,” said the Honourable Jack, smiling pleasantly as he looked after me, while I threw myself on a sofa, and cursed the sea.



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