Charles James Lever.

[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) online

. (page 17 of 50)
Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 17 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

read the Times, and hum " Rule Britannia."

All this devout homage of a class with whom they had
nothing in common, and with which they could never come
into contact, produced in me a very strange result ; and in
place of being ready to smile at the imitators, I began to
conceive a stupendous idea of the natural greatness of those
who could so impress the ranks beneath them. " Con," said
I to myself, " that is the class in life would suit you perfectly.
There is no trade like that of a gentleman. He who does
nothing is always ready for everything ; the little shifts and
straits of a handicraft or a profession narrow and confine the
natural expansiveness of the intellect, which, like a tide over
a flat shore, should swell and spread itself out, free and with-
out effort. See to this, Master Con ; take care that you don't
sit down contented with a low round on the ladder of life,
but strive ever upwards ; depend on it, the view is best from
the top, even if it only enable you to look down on your

These imaginings, as might be easily imagined, led me
to form a very depreciating estimate of my lords and masters
of the " establishment." Not only their little foibles and
weaknesses, their small pretensions and their petty attempts
at fine life, were all palpable to my eyes, but their humble
fortunes and narrow means to support such assumption were
equally so ; and there is nothing which a vulgar mind I ivas
vulgar at that pei'iocl so unhesitatingly seizes on for sarcasm,
as the endeavour of a poor man to " do the fine gentleman."

If no man is a hero to his valet, he who has no valet is
never a hero at all is nobody. I conceived, then, the most
insulting contempt for the company, on whom I practised a
hundred petty devices of annoyance. I would drop gravy on
a fine satin dress, in which the wearer only made her appear-
ance at festivals, or stain with sauce the " russia ducks"
destined to figure through half a week. Sometimes, by an


adroit change of decanters during dinner, I would produce
a scene of almost irremediable confusion, when the owner of
sherry would find himself taking toast-and-water, he of the
last beverage having improved the time and finished the
racier liquid. Such reciprocities, although strictly in ac-
cordance with "free-trade," invariably led to very warm
discussions, that lasted through the remainder of the

Then I removed plates ere the eater was satisfied, and that
with an air of such imposing resolve as to silence remon-
strance. When a stingy guest passed up his decanter to
a friend, in a moment of enthusiastic munificence, I never
suffered it to return till it was emptied ; while to the elderly
ladies I measured out the wine like laudanum ; every now
and then, too, I would forget to hand the dish to some one
or other of the company, and affect only to discover my error
as the last spoonful was disappearing.

Nor did my liberties end here. I was constantly intro-
ducing innovations in the order of dinner, that produced
most ludicrous scenes of discomfiture now insisting on the
use of a fork, now of a spoon, under circumstances where no
adroitness could compensate for the implement ; and one day
I actually went so far as to introduce soap with the finger-
glasses, averring that " it was always done at Devonshire
House on grand occasions." I thought I should have
betrayed myself, as I saw the efforts of the party to perform
their parts with suitable dignity ; all I could do was to restrain
a burst of open laughter.

So long as I prosecuted my reforms on the actual staff of
the establishment, all went well. Now and then, it is true, I
used to overhear in French, of which they believed me to bo
ignorant, rather sharp comments on the " free-and-easy tone
of my manners how careless I had become," and so on;
complaints, however, sure to be met by some assurance that
" my manners were quite London " that what I did was the
type of fashionable servitude ; apologies made less to screen
me than to exalt those who invented them, as thoroughly
conversant with high life in England.

At last, partly from being careless of consequences, for I
was getting very weary of this kind of life the great amuse-
ment of which used to be, repeating my performances for the
ear of Captain Pike, and he was now removed with his regi-
ment to Kingstown and partly wishing for some incidents,
of what kind I cared not, that might break the monotony of
my existence, I contrived one day to stretch my prerogative


too far, or, in the phrase of the Gulf, " I harpooned a bottle-
nose," the periphrasis for making a gross mistake.

I had been some years at Mrs. Davis's in fact, I felt and
thought myself a man when the last ball of the season was
announced an entertainment at which usually a more
crowded assemblage used to congregate than at any of the
previous ones.

It was the choice occasion for the habitues of the house to
invite their grand friends, for Mrs. D. was accustomed to
put forth all her strength, and the arrangements were made
on a scale of magnificence that invariably occasioned a petty
famine for the fortnight beforehand. Soup never appeared,
that there might be "bouillon" for the dancers; everyone
was on a short allowance of milk, eggs, and sugar ; meat be-
came almost a tradition : even candles waned and went out,
in waiting for the auspicious night when they should blaze
like noon-day. Nor did the company fail to participate in
these preparatory schoolings. What frightful heads in
curl-papers would appear at breakfast and dinner ! What
buttoned-up coats and black cravats refuse all investigation
on the score of linen ! What mysterious cookings of cosme-
tics at midnight, with petty thefts of lard and thick cream !
What washings of kid gloves, that when washed would never
go on again ! What inventions of French-polish that refused
all persuasions to dry, but continued to stick to and paint
everything it came in contact with ! Then there were high
dresses cut down, like frigates razeed ; frock-coats reduced
to dress ones ; mock lace and false jewellery were at a pre-
mium ; and all the little patchwork devices of ribbons, bows,
and carnations, gimp, gauze, and geraniums, were put into
requisition, petty acts of deception that each saw through
in her neighbour, but firmly believed were undetectable in

Then what caballings about the invited ! what scrutiny
into rank and station "what set they were in," and whom
did they visit ; with little Star-chamber inquisitions as to cha-
racter, all breaches of which, it is but fair to state, were most
charitably deemed remediable if the party had any preten-
sion to social position ; for not only the saint in crape was
twice a saint in lawn, but the satin sinner was pardonable,
where the "washing silk" would have been found guilty
without a "recommendation."

Then there was eternal tuning of the pianoforte, which
most perversely insisted on not suiting voices that might
have sung duets with a peacock. Quadrilles were practised


in empty rooms ; and Miss Timmock was actually seen trying
to teach Blotter to waltz a proceeding, I rejoice to say, that
the moral feeling of the household at once suppressed. And
then, what a scene of decoration went forward in all the
apartments ! As in certain benevolent families, whatever is
uneatable is always given to the poor ; so here, all the
artificial flowers unavailable for the toilet were generously
bestowed to festoon along the walls to conceal tin sconces,
and to wreathe round rickety chandeliers. Contrivance
that most belauded phenomenon in Nature's craft was
everywhere. If necessity be the mother of invention, poor
gentility is the " step-mother." Never were made greater
efforts, or greater sacrifices incurred, to make Mrs. D. appear
like a West-end leader of fashion, and to make the establish-
ment itself seem a Holderness House.

As for me, I was the type of a stage servant one of those
creatures who hand round coffee in the " School for Scandal."
My silk stockings were embroidered with silver, and my
showy coat displayed a bouquet that might have filled a vase.

In addition to these personal graces, I had long been head
of my department ; all the other officials, from the negro knife-
cleaner upwards, besides all those begged, borrowed, and I
believe I might add, stolen domestics of other families, being
placed under my orders.

Among the many functions committed to me, the drilling
of these gentry stood first in difficulty, not only because they
were rebellious under control, but because I had actually to
invent " the discipline during parade." One golden rule, how-
ever, I had adopted, and never suffered myself to deviate from,
viz., to do nothing as it had been done before a maxim
which relieved me from all the consequences of inexperience.
Traditions are fatal things for a radical reformer; and I re-
membered having heard it remarked, how Napoleon himself
first sacrificed his dignity by attempting an imitation of the
monarchy. By this one precept I ruled and squared all my

The most refractory of my subordinates was a jackanapes
about my own age, who, having once waited on the " young
gentlemen " in the cock-pit of a man-of-war, fancied he had
acquired very extended views of life. Among other traits of
his fashionable experience, he remembered that at a deje&ncr
given by the officers at Cadiz once, the company, who break-
fasted in the gun-room, had all left their hats and cloaks in
the midshipman's berth, receiving each a small piece of card
with a number on it, and a similar one being attached to the


property a process so universal now in our theatres and
assemblies, that I ask pardon for particularly describing it;
but it was a novelty at the time I speak of, and had all the
merits of a new discovery.

Smush this was my deputy's name had been so struck
with the admirable success of the arrangement, that he had
actually preserved the pieces of card, and now produced
them, black and ragged, from the recesses of his trunk.

" Mr. Cregan " such was the respectful title by which
I was now always addressed "Mr. Cregan can tell us,"
said he, " if this is not the custom at great balls in

" It used to be so, formerly," said I, with an air of most
consummate coolness, as I sat in an arm-chair, regaling
myself with a cigar ; " the practice you allude to, Smush, did
prevail, I admit. But our fashionable laws change ; one day
it is all ultra-refinement and Sybarite luxury, the next, they
affect a decree of mock simplicity in their manners : any-
thing for novelty ! Now, for instance, eating fish with the
fingers "

" Do they, indeed, go so far ? "

" Do they ! ay, and fifty things worse. At a race-dinner
the same silver cup goes round the table, drunk out of by
every one, I have seen strange things in my time."

"That you must, Mr. Cregan."

" Latterly," said I, warming with my subject, and seeing
my auditory ready to believe anything, " they began the
same system with the soup, and always passed the tureen
round, each tasting it as it went. This was an innovation
of the Duke of Struttenham's, but I don't fancy it will

" And how do they manage about the hats, Mr. Cregan? "

" The last thing, in that way, was what I saw at Lord
Mudbrooke's, at Richmond, where, not to hamper the guests
with these foolish bits of card, which they were always losing,
the servant in waiting chalked a number on the hat or coat,
or whatever it might be, and then marked the same on the
gentleman's back ! "

Had it not been for the imposing gravity of my manner,
the absurdity of this suggestion had been at once apparent ,
but I spoke like an oracle, and I impressed my words with
the simple gravity of a commonplace truth.

" If you wish to do the very newest thing, Smnsh, that's
the latest ; quite a fresh touch : and, I'll venture to say, per-
fectly unknown here. It saves a world of trouble to all



parties ; and as you brush it off before they leave, it is always
another claim for the parting douceur ! "

" I'll do it," said Smush, eagerly ; " they cannot be

" Angry ! angry at what is done with the very first people
in London ! " said I, affecting horror at the bare thought.
The train was now laid ; I had only to wait for its explosion.
At first, I did this with eager impatience for the result ; then,
as the time drew near, with somewhat of anxiety ; and, at
last, with downright fear of the consequences. Yet to revoke
the order, to confess that I was only hoaxing on so solemn a
subject, would have been the downfall of my ascendency for
ever. What was to be done ?

I could imagine but one escape from the difficulty ; which
was to provide myself with a clothes-brush, and as my station
was at the drawing-room door, to erase the numerals before
their wearers entered. In this way I should escape the for-
feiture of my credit, and the risk of maintaining it.

I would willingly recall some of the strange incidents of
that great occasion, but my mind can only dwell upon one ;
as, brush in hand, I asked permission to remove some acci-
dental dust, a leave most graciously accorded, and ascribed
to my town-bred habits of attention. At last it was nigh
midnight, and for above an hour the company had received
no accession to its ranks ; quadrilles had succeeded quadrilles,
and the business of the scene went swimmingly on, all the
time-honoured events of similar assemblages happening with
that rigid regularity which, if evening parties were managed
by steam, and regulated by a fly-wheel, could not proceed
with more ordinary routine. " Heads of houses " with bald
scalps led out simpering young boarding-school misses, and
danced with a noble show of agility, to refute any latent
suspicion of coming age. There were the usual number of
very old people, who vowed the dancing was only a shuffling
walk, not the merry movement they had practised half a
century ago ; and there were lack-a-daisical young gentlemen,
with waistcoats variegated as a hearth-rug, and magnificent
breast-pins like miniature pokers who lounged and lolled
about, as thongh youth were the most embarrassing and
wearying infliction mortality was heir to.

There were, besides, all the varieties of the class, young
lady as seen in every land where muslin is sold and white
shoes are manufactured. There was the slight young lady,
who floated about with her gauzy dross daintily pinched in
two ; then there was the short and dumpling young lady,


who danced with a duck in her gait ; and there were a large
proportion of the flouncing, flaunting kind, who took the
figures of the quadrille by storni, and went at the " right and
left " as if they were escaping from a fire : and there was
Mrs. Davis herself, in a spangled toque and red shoes, potter-
ing about from place to place, with a terrible eagerness to be
agreeable and fashionable at the same time.

It was, I have said, nigh midnight, as I stood at the half-
open door, watching the animated and amusing scene within,
when Mrs. Davis, catching sight of me, and doubtless for the
purpose of displaying my specious livery, ordered me to
open a window, or close a shutter, or something of like im-
portance. I had scarcely performed the service, when a kind
of half titter through the room made me look round, and, to
my unspeakable horror, I beheld, in the centre of the room,
Town-Major McCan, the most passionate little man in
Quebec, making his obeisances to Mrs. Davis, while a circle
around were, with handkerchiefs to their mouths, stifling as
they best could, a burst of laughter ; since exactly between
his shoulders, in marks of about four inches long, stood the
numerals " 158," a great flourish underneath proclaiming
that the roll had probably concluded, and that this was the
" last man."

Of the Major, tradition had already consecrated one
exploit ; he had once kicked an impertinent tradesman down
the great flight of iron stairs which leads from the Upper
Town to Diamond Harbour, a feat, to appreciate which, it
is necessary to bear in mind that the stair in question is
almost perpendicular, and contains six hundred and forty-
eight steps ! My very back ached by anticipation as 1
thought of it ; and as I retreated towards the door, it was
in a kind of shuffle, feeling like one who had been well

" A large party, Mrs. D. ; a very brilliant and crowded
assembly," said the Major, pulling out his bushy whiskers,
and looking importantly around. " Now what number have
you here? "

" I cannot even guess, Major ; but we have had very few
apologies. Could you approximate to our numbers this
evening, Mr. Cox? " said she, addressing a spiteful-looking
old man, who sat eyeing the company through an opera-

" I have counted one hundred and thirty -four, madam ;
but the major makes them more numerous still! "

" How do you mean, Cox ? " said he, getting fiery red.

M 2


" If you'll look in that glass yonder, which is opposite the
mirror, you'll soon see ! " wheezed out the old man, mali-
ciously. I did not wait for more ; with one spring I de-
scended the first flight ; another brought me to the hall ; but
not before a terrible shout of laughter apprised me that all
was discovered. I had just time to open the clock-case, and
step into it, as Major McCan came thundering down stairs,
with his coat on his arm.

A shrill yell from Sambo now told me that one culprit at
least was " up " for punishment. " Tell the truth, you d d
piece of carved ebony ! who did this ? "

" Not me, Massa ! not me, Massa ! Smush did him ! "

Smush was at this instant emerging from the back parlour
with a tray of coloured fluids for the dancers. With one
vigorous kick the major sent the whole flying ; and ere the
terrified servitor knew what the assault portended, a strong
grasp caught him by the throat, and ran him up bang ! against
the clock-case. Oh, what a terrible moment was that for me !
I heard the very gurgling rattle in his throat, like choking,
and felt as if when he ceased to breathe that I should expire
with him

" You confess it ! you own it, then ! you infernal rascal ! "
said the major, almost hoarse with rage.

" Oh, forgive me, sir ! oh, forgive me ! It was Mr.

Cregan, sir, the butler, who told me! Oh dear, I'm "

what, he couldn't finish ; for the major, in relinquishing his
grasp, flung him backwards, and he fell against the

" So it was Mr. Cregan, the butler, was it ? " said
the major, with an emphasis on each word, as though he had
bitten the syllables. u Well ! as sure as my name is Tony
McCan, Mr. Cregan shall pay for this ! Turn about is fair
play ; } r ou have marked me, and may I be drummer to the
Cape Fencibles if I don't mark you/" and with this denun-
ciation, uttered in a tone, every accent of which vouched for
truth, he took a hat the first next to him and issued from
the house.

Shivering with terror and not without cause I waited
till Smush had, with Sambo's aid, carried downstairs
the broken fragments ; and then, the coast being clear, I
stepped from my hiding-place, and opening the hall-door,
fled ; ay, ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I crossed
the grass terrace in front of the barrack, not heeding the
hoarse " Who goes there ? " of the sentry ; and then, dashing
along the battery-wall, hastened down the stairs that lead in


successive flights to the filthy "Lower Town;" in whose
dingy recesses I well knew that crime or shame could soon
find a sanctuary.



IF I say that the Lower Town of Quebec is the St. Giles's of
the metropolis, I convey but a very faint notion indeed of
that terrible locality. I have seen life in some of its least
attractive situations. I am not ignorant of the Liberties of
Dublin and the Claddagh of Galway ; I have passed more
time than I care to mention in the Isle St. Louis of Paris ;
while the Leopoldstadt of Vienna, and the Ghetto of Rome,
are tolerably familiar to me ; but still, for wickedness in its
most unwashed state, I give palm to the Lower Town of

The population, originally French, became gradually inter-
mixed with emigrants, most of whom came from Ireland,
and who, having expended the little means they could scrapo
together for the voyage, firmly believing that once landed in
America, gold was a "chimera" not worth troubling one'3
head about, they were unable to go farther, and either be-
came labourers in the city, or, as the market grew speedily
overstocked, sunk down into a state of pauperism, the very
counterpart of that they had left on the other side of the
ocean. Their turbulence, their drunkenness, the reckless
violence of all their habits, at first shocked, and then terrified
the poor timid Canadians of all people the most submis-
sive and yielding so that very soon, feeling how impossible
it was to maintain co-partnery with such associates, they left
the neighbourhood, and abandoned the field to the new race.
Intermarriages had, however, taken place to a great extent ;
from which, and the daily intercourse with the natives, a
species of language came to be spoken which was currently
called French ; but which might, certainly with equal pro-
priety, be called Cherokee. Of course this new tongue
modified itself with the exigencies of those who spoke it ;
and as the French ingredient declined, the Milesian prepon-
derated, till at length it became far more Irish than French.


Nothing assists barbarism like a dialect adapted to its own
wants. Slang is infinitely more conducive to the propaga-
tion of vice than is generally believed ; it is the " paper cur-
rency " of iniquity, and each man issues as much as he likes.
If I wanted an evidence of this fact I should " call up " the
place I am speaking of, where the very jargon at once defied
civilization, and ignored the " schoolmaster." The authori-
ties, either regarding the task as too hopeless, or too danger-
ous, or too troublesome, seemed to slur over the existence of
this infamous locality. It is not impossible that they saw
with some satisfaction that wickedness had selected its only
peculiar and appropriate territory, and that they had left
this den of vice, as Yankee farmers are accustomed to leave
a spot of tall grass to attract the snakes, by way of prevent-
ing them scattering and spreading over a larger surface.

As each emigrant ship arrived, hosts of these idlers of the
Lower Town beset the newly-landed strangers, and by their
voice and accent imposed upon the poor wanderers. The
very tones of the old country were a magic the new-comers
could not withstand, after weeks of voyaging that seemed
like years of travel. Whatever reminded them of the
country they had quitted, ay, strange inconsistency of the
human heart ! of the land they had left for very hopelessness,
touched their hearts, and moved them to the very tenderest
emotions. To trade on this susceptibility became a recog-
nized livelihood; so that the quays were crowded with idle
vagabonds, who sought out the prey with as much skill as a
West-end waiter displays in detecting the rank of a new

This filthy locality, too, contained all the lodging-houses
resorted to by the emigrants, who were easily persuaded to
follow their " countryman " wherever he might lead. Here
were spent the days sometimes, unhappily, the weeks be-
fore they could fix upon the part of the country to which
they should bend their steps ; and here, but too often, were
wasted in excess and debauchery the little hoards that had
cost years to accumulate, till farther progress became impos-
sible; and the stranger who landed but a few weeks back,
full of strong hope, sunk down into the degraded condition
of those who had been his ruin the old story, the dupe
become blackleg.

It were well if deceit and falsehood, if heartless treachery
and calculating baseness, were all that went forward here.
But not so ; crimes of every character were rife also, and
not an inhabitant of the city, with money or character, would


have, for any consideration, put foot within this district after
nightfall. The very cries that broke upon the stillness of

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 17 of 50)