Charles James Lever.

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Mrs. Davis, relict of Thomas John Davis, was a character
so associated with Quebec, that to speak of that city without
her, would be like writing an account of Newfoundland and
never alluding to the article " cod-fish." For a great number
of years her house had been the rendezvous of everything
houseless, from the newly come " married " officer to the
flash commercial traveller from the States ; from the agent
of an unknown land company to the " skipper " of a rank
pretentious enough to dine at a boarding-house. The esta-
blishment as she loved to style it combined all the free-
and-easy air of domesticity with the enjoyment of society.
It was an "acted newspaper," where paragraphs, military
and naval, social, scandalous, and commercial, were fabri-
cated with a speed no " compositor " could have kept up
with. Here the newly-arrived subaltern heard all the pipeclay
gossip, not of the garrison, but of the Province ; here the
bagman made contracts and took orders ; here the " French
Deputy " picked up what he called afterwards in the
Chamber " 1'opinion publique;" and here the men of pine-
logs and white deal imbibed what they fervently believed to
be the habits and manners of the " English aristocracy."

L 2


"To invest the establishment with this character," to make
it go forth to the world as the mirror of high and fashionable
life, had been the passion of Mrs. D.'s existence. Never did
monarch labour for the safeguard that might fence and
hedge round his dynasty more zealously : never did minister
strive for the guarantees that should ensure the continuance
of his system. It was the moving purpose of her life ; in it
she had invested all her activity, both of mind and body ; and
as she looked back to the barbarism from which her generous
devotion had rescued hundreds, she might well be pardoned
if a ray of self-glorification lighted up her face. " When I
think of Quebec, when T. J." her familiar mode of alluding
to the defunct Thomas John " and myself first beheld it,"
would she say, " and see it now, I believe I may be proud."
The social habits were indeed at a low ebb. The skippers,
and there were few other strangers, had a manifest con-
tempt for the use of the fork at dinner, and performed a
kind of sword-exercise while eating, of the most fearful kind.
Napkins were always misconstrued the prevailing impres-
sion being that they were pocket-handkerchiefs. No man
had any vested interest in his own wine-glass ; while thirsty
souls even dispensed with such luxuries, and drank from the
bottle itself.

Then sea-usages had carried themselves into shore life.
The company were continually getting up to look out of
windows, watching the vessels that passed, remarking on the
state of the tide, and then resuming their places with a
muttering over the " half ebb," and that the wind was
" northing-by-west," looked for change. All the conversa-
tion smacked of salt-water ; every allusion had an odour of
tar and seaweed about it.

Poor Mrs. Davis ! how was she to civilize these savages ?
how invest their lives with any interest above timber ? They
would not listen to the polite news of " Government House ;"
they would not vouchsafe the least attention to the interest-
ing paragraphs she recited as table-talk, how the Prince
of Hohenhumbughousen had arrived at Windsor on a visit to
Majesty ; nor how Royalty walked in " The Slopes," or sat
for its picture.

Of the Duke of Northumberland, they only knew a troop-
ship of the name, and even that had been water-logged !
The Wellington traded to Mirimachi, and the Robert Peel
was a barque belonging to Newfoundland, and employed in
general traffic, and not believed very seaworthy.

Some may make the ungracious remark, that she might


have spared herself this task of humanizing that she could
have left these "ligneous Christians," these creatures of tar
and turpentine, where she found them. The same observa-
tion will apply equally to Cooke, to Franklin, to Brooke of
Borneo, and a hundred other civilizers : so Mrs. D. felt it,
and so she laboured to make T. J. feel it ; but he wouldn't.
The ungrateful old bear saw the ordinary grow daily thinner
he perceived that Banquo might have seated himself at
any part of the table, and he actually upbraided his wife with
the fact. Every day he announced some new defection from,
the list of their old supporters. Now it was old Ben Crosseley,
of the Lively Biddy, that wouldn't stand being ordered to
shake out his canvas that is, to spread his napkin when
he was taking in sea store : then it was Tom Galket, grew
indignant at not being permitted to beat " to quarters " with
his knuckles at every pause in the dinner. Some were put
out by being obliged to sit with their legs under the table,
being long habituated to dine at a cask with a plank on it,
and of course keeping their limbs " stowed away" under the
seat; and one, an old and much respected river pilot, was
carried away insensible from table, on hearing that grog
was not a recognized table beverage throughout the British

The banishment of lobscouse and sea-pie, pork, with its
concomitant cataplasm of peas, and other similar delicacies
from the bill of fare, completed the defection ; and at last,
none remained of the " once goodlie company," save an old
attenuated Guernsey skipper, too much in debt to leave, but
who attributed his fealty to the preference he entertained for
"les usages de la bonne societe, etla charmante Mde. Davis."
T. J. could never hold up his head again ; he moped about the
docks and quays, like the restless spirit of some Ancient
Mariner. Every one pitied him ; and he grew so accustomed
to condolence so dependent, in fact, on commiseration that
he spent his days in rowing from one ship to the other in the
harbour, drinking grog with the skippers, till, by dint of pure
sympathy, he slipped quietly into his grave, after something
like a two year*' attack of delirium tremens.

The same week that sasv T. J. descend to the tomb, saw
his widow ascend to the " Upper Town'* the more congenial
locality for aspirations like hers. If no eulogistic inscription
marked his resting-place, a very showy brass plate adorned
hers. From that hour she was emancipated : it seemed, in-
deed, as if she had turned a corner in life, and at once
emerged from gloom and darkness into sunshine. It chanced


that the barracks were at that very moment undergoing re-
pair, and several officers were glad to find, at a convenient
distance, the comforts and accommodations which a plausible
advertisement in the Quebec Messenger assured them were to
be obtained for one pound one shilling weekly.

There are people who tell you that we live in a heartless,
selfish, grabbing, grasping age, where each preys upon his
neighbour, and where gain is the spirit of every contract ;
and yet, in what period of the world was maternal tender-
ness, the comforts of a home, the watchful anxieties of
parental love, to be had so cheaply ? Who ever heard of
bachelors being admitted into families, where music and the
arts formed the evening's recreation, in the Middle Ages ?
Does Herodotus inform us, that " young and attractive ladies
would take charge of a widower's household, and superintend
the care of his family ? " Not a bit of it ! On this point,
at least, the wisdom of our ancestors has no chance with us.
There is not a wish of the heart, there is not a yearning of
the affections, that a three-and-sixpenny advertisement in the
Times will not evoke a remedy for. You can make love, or a
book, or a speech, by deputy ; for every relative you lose,
there are fifty kind-hearted creatures to supply the place ;
and not only may you travel over half the globe without
more personal exertion than it costs you to go to bed, but you
can be measured either for a wife or a suit of clothes without
ever seeing the lady or the tailor.

The " Hotel Davis," so said the newspaper, " was situated
in the most airy and healthful locality of the Upper Town."
No one ever rung the bell of the hall-door from the first of
October to May, but would acknowledge the truth of the
first epithet. " The society, for admission to which the most
particular references are required, embraces all that is intel-
lectual, high-bred, and refined. The table, where preside the
' feast of reason and the flow of soul,' combines the elegance
and delicacy of the French, with the less sophisticated suc-
culence of English cookery. Intellectual resources, the
humanizing influences of song and poetry, the varied plea-
sures of cultivated and kindred spirits, which have won for
this establishment the epithet of the Davisian Aci'opolis, con-
tinue to make it the chosen retreat of gentlemen connected
with civil and military pursuits, who are lodged and boarded
for one guinea weekly.

" Beceptions every Thursday. Balls, during the winter,
on the first Monday of each month."

Such was one among many I select it as the shortest


announcements of this cheap Elysium : and now, two words
about Mrs. D. herself. She was a poor, thin, shrivelled-up
little . woman, with a rugged, broken-up face, whose profile
looked like a jagged saw. Next to elegance of manner, her
passion was personal appearance by which she meant the
adventitious aid of false hair, rouge, and cosmetics, and these
she employed with such ever- varying ingenuity, that her com-
plexion changed daily from classic pallor to Spanish richness,
while the angle of incidence of her eyebrows took in every
thing from forty-five degrees to the horizontal. Her style
was " sylph," and so she was gauzy and floating in all her
drapery. A black veil to the back of her head a filmy,
gossamer-kind of scarf across her shoulders assisted this
deception, and, when she crossed the room, gave her the air
of a clothes'-line in a high wind.

Black mittens, over fingers glowing in all the splendour
of imitation rings, and a locket about the size of a cheese-
plate, containing the hair some said, the scalp of the late
T. J., completed a costume which Mrs. D. herself believed
Parisian, but to which no revolution, democratic or social,
could reduce a Frenchwoman.

She borrowed her language as well as her costume from
the Grande Nation, and with this comfortable reflection, that
she was not likely to be asked to restore the loan. Her
French was about as incongruous as her dress but Quebec,
fortunately, was not Paris ; and she drove her coach and six
through " Adelow," with a hardihood that outstripped, if it
did not defy, criticism.

By the military and naval people she was deemed the best
" fun " going ; her pretension, her affectation, her shrewdness,
and her simplicity ; her religious homage to fashion ; her
unmerciful tyranny towards what she thought vulgarity,
made her the subject of many a joke and much amusement.
The other classes, the more regular habitues of the " house,"
thought she was a princess in disguise ; they revered her
opinions as oracles, and only wondered how the court-end
could spare one so evidently formed to be the glass of

If I have been too prolix in my sketch, kind reader, attri-
bute it to the true cause my anxiety to serve those who are
good enough to place themselves under my guidance. Mrs.
D. still lives ; the establishment still survives ; at five o'clock
each day ay, this very day, I have no doubt her table is
crowded by " the rank and fashion " of the Quebec world :
and the chances are, if you yourself, worthy reader, should


visit that city, that you may be glad to give your blank days
to the fare of Madam Davis.

It was ten o'clock in the forenoon as I arrived at her door,
and sent in Captain Pike's letter, announcing my arrival. I
found Mrs. D. in what she called her own room a little den
of about eleven feet square, shelved all round, and showing
an array of jars and preserve-pots that was most imposing
the offerings of skippers from the West India Islands and
Madeira, who paid a kind of black-mail in preserved ginger,
guavas, yams, pepper-pots, chili, and potted crabs, that would
have given liver complaints to half the Province.

Mrs. D. was standing on a step-ladder, arranging her
treasures by the aid of a negro-boy of about twelve years
old, as I entered ; and not feeling that I was of consequence
sufficient to require a more formal audience, she took a steady
and patient observation of me, and then resumed her labours.
The little window, about six feet from the ground, threw a
fine Rembrandt light upon me, as I stood in my showy
habiliments, endeavouring, by an imposing attitude, to exhibit
myself to the best advantage.

" Forty-seven ; Guava jelly, Sambo ! where is forty-
seven ? "

"Me no see him," said Sambo; "missus eat him up,

" Monsonze ! you filthy creature look for it, sirrah ; " so
saying, Mrs. Davis applied her double eye-glass to her eyes,
and again surveyed me for some seconds.

"You are the" she hesitated "the young person my
friend Pike brought out, I believe ? "

" Yes, my lady," said I, bowing profoundly.

"What's your name; the captain has not written it
clearly ? "

" Cregan, my lady Con Cregan."

" Con Con," repeated she twice or thrice ; " what docs
Con mean ? "

" It's the short for Cornelius, my lady."

" Ah, the abbreviation for Cornelius ! and where have
you lived, Cornelius ? "

" My last place, my lady, was Sir Miles O'Ryan's, of
Roaring Water."

"What are you doing, you wretch? take your filthy
fingers out of that pot this instant ! " screamed she, suddenly.

"Me taste him, an' he be dam hot! " cried the nigger,
dancing from one foot to the other, as his mouth was on fire
from tasting capsicum pods.

Con fell hi witr t^'e "Wirlow l^avi.s


I thought of my own mustard experience, and then, turn-
ing a glance of ineffable contempt upon my black friend, said,
" Those creatures, my lady, are so ignorant, they really do
not know the nature of the commonest condiments."

" Very true, Cornelius ; I would wish, however, to observe
to you, that although my family are all persons of rank, I
have no title myself that is to say," added she, with a
pleasing smile, " I do not assume it here therefore, until
we return to England, you needn't address me as ladyship."

" No, my lady I beg your ladyship's pardon for forgetting,
but as I have always lived in high families, I've got the
habit, my lady, of saying my lady."

" I am Madam plain Madam Davis there, I knew you'd
do it, you nasty little beast, you odious black creature ! "
This sudden apostrophe was evoked by the nigger endeavour-
ing to balance a jam-pot on his thumb, while he spun it
round with the other hand an exploit that ended in a smash
of the jar, and a squash of the jam all over my silk stock*

" It's of no consequence, my lady, I shall change them
when I dress for dinner," said I, with consummate ease.

" The jam is lost, however will you kindly beat him
about the head with that candlestick beside you ? "

I seized the implement, as if in most choleric mood ; but
my black was not to be caught so easily ; and with a dive
between my legs he bolted for the door whilst I was pitched
forward against the step-ladder, head foremost. In my
terror I threw out my hands to save myself, and caught not
the ladder, but Madam Davis's legs and down we went
together, with a small avalanche of brown jars and preserve-
pots clattering over us.

As I had gone head foremost, my head through the ladder,
and as Mrs. Davis had fallen on the top of me her head
being reversed there we lay, like herrings in a barrel, till
her swoon had passed away. At last she did rally ; and
gathering herself up, sat against the wall, a most rueful
picture of bruises and disorder, while I, emerging from
between the steps of the ladder, began to examine whether
it were marmalade or my brains that I felt coming down my

"You'll never mention this shocking event, Cornelius,"
said she, trying to adjust her wig, which now faced over the
left shoulder.

" Never, my lady. Am I to consider myself engaged?"

" Yes, on the terms of Captain Pike's note ten pounds ;


no wine nor tea-money, no passage- fare out, no livery, no "
I was afraid she was going to add no prog, but she grew
faint, and merely said, " bring me a glass of water."

" I'll put you in charge of the lamps and plate to-morrow,"
said she, recovering.

" Very well, madam," said I aloud while to myself I
muttered, " they might easily be in better hands."

" You'll wait at table to-day."

" Yes, my lady madam, I mean."

" Soup always goes first to Mrs. Trussford black velvet,
and very fat ; then to the lady in blue spectacles ; afterwards
Miss Moriarty. Ah, I'm too weak for giving directions ; I'm
in what they call ' an etat de fuillete ;' " and with these words
Mrs. Davis retired, leaving me to the contemplation of the
battle-field and my own bruises.

My next care was to present myself below stairs; and
although some may smile at the avowal, I had far more mis-
givings about how I should pass muster with the under-
lings, than with the head of the department. Is the reader
aware that it .was a farrier of the Emperor Alexander's
guard who first predicted the destruction of the " grand
army " in Russia ? A French horseshoe was shown to him,
as a curiosity ; and he immediately exclaimed, " What ! not
yet frost^roughed ! these fellows don't know the climate ; the
snows begin to-morrow ! " so is it ignorance and pretension
are infallibly discovered by " routine " people ; they look to
details, and they at once detect him who mistakes or over-
looks them.

Resolving, at all events, to make my " Old World " habits
stand my part in every difficulty, and to sneer down every-
thing I did not understand, I put on a bold face, and
descended to the lower regions.

Great people, "Ministers," and Secretaries for the "Home"
and " Foreign," little know how great their privilege is, that
in taking office, they are spared all unpleasant meetings with
their predecessors. At least, I conclude such to be the case ;
and that my Lord Palmerston " stepping in " does not come
abruptly upon Lord Aberdeen " going out," nor does an
angry altercation arise between him who arrives to stay and he
who is packing his portmanteau to be ofF. I say that I opine
as much, and that both the entrance and the departure are
conducted with due etiquette and propriety ; in fact, that
Lord A. has called his cab and slipped away, before Lord P.
has begun to " take up " the " spoons;" not a bad metaphor,
by the way for an entrance into the Foreign Office.


No such decorous reserve presides over the change of a
domestic ministry. The whole warfare of opposition is con-
densed into one angry moment, and the rival parties are brought
face to face in the most ungracious fashion.

Now, my system in life was that so well and popularly
known by the name of M. Guizot, " la paix a tout prix ;" and
I take pride to myself in thinking that I have carried it out
with more success. With a firm resolve, therefore, that no
temptation should induce me to deviate from a pacific policy,
I entered the kitchen, where the " lower house " was then
" in committee," the " cook in the chair! "

"Here he com, now!" said Blackie ; and the assembly
grew hushed as I entered.

" Ay, here he comes ! " said I, re-echoing the speech ;
"and let us see if we shall not be merry comrades.''

The address was a happy one ; and that evening-'closed upon
me in the very pinnacle of popularity.

I have hesitated for some time whether I should not ask of
my reader to enrol himself for a short space, as a member of
"the establishment;" or even to sojourn one day beneath a
roof where so many originals were congregated ; to witness
the very table itself, set out with its artificial fruits and
flowers, its pine-apples in wax, and its peaches of paper ; all
the appliances by which Mrs. D., in her ardent zeal, hoped to
propagate refinement and abstemiousness ; high-breeding and
low diet being, in her esteem, inseparably united. To see the
company the poor old faded and crushed flowers of mock
gentility widows and unmarried daughters of tax-collectors
long " gathered ; " polite storekeepers, and apothecaries to
the " Forces," cultivating the Graces at the cost of their
appetites, and descending, in costumes of twenty years back,
in the pleasing delusion of being " dressed " for dinner :
while here and there some unhappy skipper, undergoing a
course of refinement, looked like a bear in a " ballet,"
ashamed of his awkwardness, and even still more ashamed
of the company wherein he found himself; and lastly, some
old Seigneur of the Lower Province a poor, wasted,
wrinkled creature, covered with hair-powder and snuff, but
yet, strangely enough, preserving some " taste of his once
quality," and not altogether destitute of the graces of the
land he sprung from ; curious and incongruous elements to
make up society, and worthy of the presidency of that greater
incongruity who ruled them.

Condemned to eat food they did not relish, and discuss
themes they did not comprehend, what a noble zeal was


theirs ! What sacrifices did they not make to the genius of
"gentility!" If they would sneer at a hash, Mrs. D.'s
magic waud charmed it into a " ragout ;" when they almost
sneezed at the sour wine, Mrs. D. called for another glass of
" La Rose." " Rabbits," they were assured, were the daily
diet of the Duke of Devonshire, and Lady Laddington ate
kid every day at dinner. In the same way potatoes were
vulgar things, but "Pommes de terre a la maitre d'h6tel "
were a delicacy for royalty.

To support these delusions of diet, I was everlastingly
referred to. " Cregan," would she say, placing her glass to
her eye, and fixing on some dish, every portion of which her
own dainty fingers had compounded, " Cregan, what is
that ? "

" Poulet a la George quatre, Madame ! " she always per-
mitted me to improvise the nomenclature, " the receipt came
from the Bishop of Beldoff's cook."

" Ah ! prepared with olives, I believe ? "

"Exactly, Madame," would I say, presenting the dish,
whose success was at once assured.

If a wry face, or an unhappy contortion of the mouth
from any guest, announced disappointment, Mrs. D. at once
appealed to me for the explanation. " What is it, Cregan?
Mrs. Blotter, I fear you don't like that ' plat? ' "

" The truffles were rather old, Madame;" or, " the ancho-
vies were too fresh;" or, " there was too little caviar," or
something of the kind, I would unhesitatingly aver; for my
head was stocked with a strong catalogue from an old French
Cookery-hook' which I used to study each morning. The
more abstruse my explanation, the more certain of its
being indorsed by the company only too happy to be sup-
posed capable of detecting the subtle deficiency ; all but the
old French Deputy, who on such occasions would give a
little shake of his narrow head, and mutter to himself, " Ah ;
il est mut in, ce gaillard-la ! "

Under the influence of great names, they would have eaten
a stewed mummy from the Pyramids. What the Marquis of
Asheldown, or the Earl of Brockmore invariably ordered,
could not without risk be despised by these " small boys "
of refinement. It is true, they often mourned in secret over
the altered taste of the old country, which preferred kick-
shaws and trumpery to its hallowed ribs and sirloins ; but,
like the folk who sit at the Opei-a while they long for the
Haymarket, and who listen to Jenny Lind while their hearts
are with Mrs. Keeley, they " took out" in fashion what they


lost in amusement, a very English habit, by the way. To
be sure, and to their honour be it spoken, they wished the
Queen would be pleased to fancy legs of mutton and loins of
veal, just as some others are eager for royalty to enjoy the
national drama ; but they innocently forgot the while, that
" they " might have the sirloin, and " the others " Shakspeare,
even without majesty partaking of either, and that a roast
goose and Falstaff can be relished even without such august
precedent. Dear, good souls they were, never deviating from
that fine old sturdy spirit of independence which makes us
feel ourselves a match for the whole world in arms, as we

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 16 of 50)