Charles Lamb.

Charles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 online

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a little more carefully and fairly for the grown-up tragedy ladies of the
establishment. But such as they were, blotted and scrawled, as for a
child's use, she kept them all ; and in the zenith of her after reputation
it was a delightful sight to behold them bound up in costliest Morocco,
each single— each small part making a hook — with fine clasps3 gilt-
splashed, &c. She had conscientiously kept them as they had been de-
livered to her ; not a blot had been effaced or tampered with. They
were precious to her for their affecting remembrancings. They were
her principia, her rudiments ; the elementary atoms ; the little steps by
which she pressed forwards to perfection. " What," she would say,
" could Indian rubber, or a pumice stone, have done for these darlings ? "

I am in no hurry to begin my story — indeed I have little or none to
tell ^- so I will just mention an observation of hers connected with that
interesting time. '

Not long before she died I had been discoursing with her (5n the quantity
of real present emotion which a great tragic perfonner experiences during

512 «AiiBAiiA « . CAprii,

acting. I ventured to think, that though in the first instance such
players must have possessed the feelings which they so powerfully called
up in others, yet by frequent repetition those feelings must become
deadened in great measure, and the performer trust to the memory
of past emotion, rather than express a present one. She indignantly
repelled the notion, that with a truly great tragedian the operation, by
which such effects were produced upon an audience, could ever degrade
itself into what was purely mechanical. With much delicacy, avoiding
to instance in her *e//-experience, she told me, that so long ago as when
she used to play the part of the Little Son to Mrs. Porter's Isabella, (I
think it was) when that impressive actress has been bending over her in
some heart-rending colloquy, she has felt real hot tears come trickling
from her, which (to use her powerful expression) have perfectly scalded
her back.

I am not quite so sure that it was Mrs. Porter ; but it was some great
actress of that day. The name is indifferent ; but the fact of the
scalding tears 1 most distinctly remember.

I was always fond of the society of the players, and am not sure that
an impediment in my speech (which certainly kept me out of the pulpit)
even more than certain personal disqualifications, which are often got
over in that profession, did not prevent me at one time of life from
adopting it. I have had the honour (I must ever call it) once to have
been admitted to the tea-table of Miss Kelly. I have played at serious
whist with Mr. Listen. I have chatted with ever good-humoured Mrs.
Charles Kemble. I have conversed as friend to friend with her accom-
plished husband. I have been indulged with a classical conference with
Macready ; and with a sight of the Player-picture gallery at Mr.
Mattliews's, when the kind owner, to remunerate me for my love of the
old actors (whom he loves so much) went over it with me, supplying to
his capital collection, what alone the artist could not give them — voice ;
and their living motions. Old tones, half-faded, of Dodd, and Parsons,
and Baddeley, have lived again for m.e at his bidding. Only Edwin he

could not restore to nie. I lia^^e supped with ; but I am growing

a coxcomb.

As I was about to say — at the desk of the then treasurer of the old
Bath theatre — not Diamond's — presented herself the little Bar-
bara S .

The parents of Barbara had been in reputable circumstances. The
father had practised, I beKeve, as an apothecary in the town. But his
practice fixmi causes which I feel my own infirmity too sensibly that way
to arraign — or perhaps from that pure infelicity which accompanies
some people in their Walk through life, and which it is impossible to lay
at the door of imprudence — was now reduced to nothing. They were
in fact in the very teeth of starvation, when the manager, who knew
and respected ' them in better days, tcwk the little Barbara into his
company. x

1825.]] BARBARAS . 5^3

* At the period I commenced with, her slender earnings were the sole
support of the family, including two younger sisters. I must throw a
veil over some mortifying circumstances. Enough to say, that her Sa-
turday's pittance was the only chance of a Sunday's (generally their
only) meal of meat.

One thing I will only mention, that in some child's part, where in her
theatrical character she was to sup off a roast fowl (O joy to Barbara !)
some comic actor, who was for the night caterer for this stage dainty —
in the misguided humour of his part, threw over the dish such a quantity
of salt (O grief and pain of heart to Barbara!) that when he crammed
a portion of it into her mouth, she was obliged sputteringly to reject it;
and what with shame of her ill-acted part, and pain of real appetite at
missing such a dainty, her little heart sobbed almost to breaking, till a
flood of tears, which the well-fed spectators were totally unable to com-
prehend, mercifully relieved her.

This was the little starved, meritorious maid, who stood before old
Ravenscroft, the treasurer, for her Saturday's payment.

Ravenscroft was a man, I have heard many old theatrical people
besides herself say, of all men least calculated for a treasurer. He had
no head for accounts, paid away at random, kept scarce any books, and
summing up at the week's end, if he found himself a pound or so defi-
cient, blest himself that it was no worse.

Now Barbara's weekly stipend was a bare half guinea. — By mistake
he popped into her hand a — whole one.

Barbara tripped away.

She was entirely unconscious at first of the mistake : God knows that
Ravenscroft would never have discovered it.

But when she had got down to the first of those uncouth landing-
places, she became sensible of an unusual weight of metal pressing her
little hand.

Now mark the dilemma.

She was by nature a good child. From her parents and those about
her she had imbibed no contrary influence. But then they had taught
her nothing. Poor men's smoky cabins are not always porticoes of moral
philosophy. This little maid had no instinct to evil, but then she might
be said to have no fixed principle. She had heard honesty commended,
but never dreamed of its application to herself. She thought of it as
something which concerned grown-up people — men and women. She
had never known temptation, or thought of preparing resistance against

Her first impulse was to go back to the old treasurer, and explain to
him his blunder. He was already so confused with age, besides a natural
want of punctuality, that she would have had some difiiculty in making
him understand it. She saw that in an instant. And then it was such a
bit of money ! and then the image of a larger allowance of butcher's

514 BARBARA S . ^ [[[April,

meat on their table next day came across her, till her little eyes glistenetl,
and her mouth moistened. But then Mr. Ravenscroft had always been
so good-natured, had stood her friend behind the scenes, and even recom-
mended her promotion to some of her little parts. But again the old
man was reputed to be worth a world of money. He was supposed to
have fifty pounds a year clear of the theatre. And then came staring
upon her the figures of her little stockingless and shoeless sisters. And
when she looked at her own neat white cotton stockings, which her
situation at the theatre had made it indispensable for her mother to pro-
vide for her, with hard straining and pinching from the family stock,
and thought how glad she should be to cover their poor feet with the
same — and how then they could accompany her to rehearsals, which
they had hitherto been precluded from doing, by reason of their un-
fashionable attire, — in these thoughts she reached the second landing-
place — the second,^ I mean from the top— for there was still another left
to traverse.

Now virtue support Barbara !

And that never-failing friend did step in — for at that moment a
strength not her own, I have heard her say, was revealed to her — a
reason above reasoning — and without her own agency, as it seemed (for
she never felt her feet to move) she found herself transported back to the
individual desk she had just quitted, and her hand in the old hand of
Ravenscroft, who in silence took back the refunded treasure, and who
had been sitting (good man) insensible to the lapse of minutes, which to
her were anxious ages ; and from that moment a deep peace fell upon her
heart, and she knew the quality of honesty.

A year or two's unrepining application to her profession brightened up
the feet, and the prospects, of her little sisters, set the whole family upon
their legs again, and released her from the difficulty of discussing moral
dogmas upon a landing-place.

I have heard her say, that it was a surprise, not much short of mor-
tification to her, to see the coolness with which the old man pocketed
the difference, which had cost her such mortal throes.

This anecdote of herself I had in the year 1800, from the mouth of
the late Mrs. Crawford* then sixty-seven years of age (she died soon
after) ; and to her struggles upon this childish occasion I have some-
times ventured to think her indebted for that power of rending the heart
in the representation of conflicting emotions, for which in after years she
was considered as little inferior (if at all so in the part of Lady Ran-
dolph) even to Mrs. Siddons. Elia.

* The maiden name of this lady was Street, which she changed, by successive mar-
riages, for those of Dancer, Barry, and Crawford. She was Mrs. Crawford, and a third
lime a widow, when I knew her.


Written during the time, now happily almost forgotten, of the Spy System,

Close by the ever-burning brimstone beds.

Where Bedloe, Oates, and Judas, hide their heads,

I saw great Satan like a Sexton stand.

With his intolerable spade in hand.

Digging three graves. Of coffin shape they were.

For those who, coffinless, must enter there

With unblest rites. The shrouds were of that cloth.

Which Clotho weaveth in her blackest wrath;

The dismal tinct oppress'd the eye, that dwelt

Upon it long, like darkness to be felt.

The pillows to these baleful beds were teads.

Large, living, livid, melancholy loads.

Whose softness shock'd. Worms of all monstrous size

Crawl'd round ; and one, upcoil'd, which never dies.

A doleful bell, inculcating despair.

Was always ringing in the heavy air.

And all about the detestable pit

Strange headless ghosts, and quartered forms, did flit ;

Rivers of blood, from dripping traitors spilt.

By treachery stung from poverty to guilt.

I ask'd the Fiend, for whom those rites were meant ?

" These graves," quoth he, " when life's brief oil is spent.

When the dark night comes, and they're sinking bedwards,

I mean for C , O , and £ ."


I LIKE you, and your book, ingenuous Hone !

In whose capacious, all-embracing leaves
The very marrow of tradition's shown ;

And all that history — much that fiction — weaves.

By every sort of taste your work is graced.

Vast stores of modern anecdote we find.
With good old story quaintly interlaced —

The theme as various as the reader's mind.

Rome's lie-fraught legends you so truly paint —
Yet kindly — that the half-tum'd Catholic

Scarcely forbears to smile at his own saint.
And cannot curse the candid Heretic.

Rags, relics, witches, ghosts, fiends, crowd your page ;

Our fathers' mummeries we well-pleased behold ;
And, proudly conscious of a purer age.

Forgive some fopperies in the times of old.

Verse-honouring Phoebus, Father of bright Days,
Must needs bestow on you both good and many.

Who, building trophies to his children's praise.
Run their rich Zodiac through, not missing any.

Dan Phoebus loves your book — trust me, friend HoneH"

The title only errs, he bids me say :
For while such art — wit — ^reading — there are shown.

He swears, 'tis not a work of every day.

C. Lam^


■ Sera tamen respexit

If peradventure. Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years
of thy life — thy shining youth — in the irksome continement of an office ;
to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepi-
tude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite ; to have lived
to forget that there are such things as holidays, or to remember them
but as the prerogatives of childhood ; then, and then only, will you be
able to appreciate my deliverance.

It is now six and thirty years since I took my seat at the desk in
Mincing-lane. Melancholy was the transition at fourteen from tlie
abundant play-time, and frequently-intervening vacations of school
days, to the eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours' a-day attendance at a
counting-house. But time partially reconciles us to any thing. I
gradually became content — doggedly contented, as wild animals in

It is true I had my Sundays to myself ; but Sundays, admirable as
the institution of them is for purposes of worship, are for that very
reason the very worst adapted for days of unbending and recreation.*

* Our ancestors, the noble old Puritans of Cromwell's day, could distinguish between
a day of religious rest and a day of recreation ; and while they exacted a rigorous
abstinence from all amusements (even to the walking out of nursery maids with their
little charges in the fields) upon the Sabbath ; in the lieu of the superstitious observ-
ance of the Saints days, which they abrogated, they humanely gave to the apprentices,
and poorer sort of people, every alternate Thursday for a day of entire sport and re-
creation. A strain of piety and policy to be commended above the profane mockery of
the Stuarts and their Book of Sports.



In particular, there is a gloom for me attendant upon a city Sunday,
a weight in the air. I miss the cheerful cries of London, the music,
and the ballad singers — the buzz and stirring murmur of the streets.
Those eternal bells depress me. The closed shops repel me. Prints,
pictures, all the glittering and endless succession of knacks and gewgaws,
and ostentatiously displayed ^vares of tradesmen, which make a week-
day saunter through the less busy parts of the metropolis so delightful —
are shut out. No book-stalls deliciously to idle over — No busy faces to
recreate the idle man who contemplates them ever passing by — the very
face of business a charm by contrast to his temporary relaxation from it.
Nothing to be seen but unhappy countenances — or half-happy at best —
of emancipated prentices and little tradesfolks, with here and there a
servant maid that has got leave to go out, who, slaving all the week,
with the habit has lost almost the capacity of enjoying a free hour ;
and livelily expressing the hollowness of a day's pleasuring. The very
strollers in the fields on that day look any thing but comfortable.

But besides Sundays I had a day at Easter, and a day at Christmas,
with a full week in the summer to go and air myself in my native
fields of Hertfordshire. This last was a great indulgence; and the
prospect of its recurrence, I believe, alone kept me up through the year,
and made my durance tolerable. But when the week came round, did
the glittering phantom of the distance keep touch with me ? or rather
was it not a series of seven uneasy days, spent in restless pursuit of
pleasure, and a wearisome anxiety to find out how to make the most of
them ? Where was the quiet, where the promised rest ? Before I had
a taste of it, it was vanished. I was at the desk again, counting upon
the fifty-one tedious weeks that must intervene before such another
snatch would come. Still the prospect of its coming threw something of
an illumination upon the darker side of my captivity. Without it, as I
have said, 1 could scarcely have sustained my thraldom.

Independently of the rigours of attendance, 1 have ever been haunted
with a sense (perhaps a mere caprice) of incapacity for business. This,
* during my latter years, had increased to such a degree, that it was
visible in all the lines of my countenance. My health and my good
spirits flagged. I had perpetually a dread of some crisis, to which I
should be found unequal. Besides my day-light servitude, I served over
again all night in my sleep, and would awake with terrors of imaginary
false entries, errors in my accounts, and the like. I was fifty years of
age, and no prospect of emancipation presented itself. I had grown to
my desk, as it were ; and the wood had entered into my soul.

My fellows in the office would sometimes rally me upon the trouble
legible in my countenance ; but I did not know that it liad raised the
suspicions of any of my employers, when, on the 5 th of last month, a

day ever to be remembered by me, L , the junior partner in the firm,

calling me on one side, directly taxed me with my bad looks, and frankly


inquired the cause of them. So taxed, I honestly made confession of
my infirmity, and added that I was afraid I should eventually he obliged
to resign his service. He spoke some words of course to hearten me,
and there the matter rested. A whole week I remained labouring under
the impression that I had acted imprudently in my disclosure ; that I
had foolishly given a handle against myself, and had been anticipating
my own dismissal. A week passed in this manner, the most anxious
one, I verily believe, in my whole life, when on the evening of the 12 th
of April, just as I was about quitting my desk to go home (it might be
about eight o'clock) I received an awful summons to attend the presence
of the whole assembled firm in the formidable back parlour. I thought,
now my time is surely come, I have done for myself, I am going to be

told that they have no longer occasion for me. L , I could see,

smiled at the terror I was in, which was a little relief to me, — when to

my utter astonishment B , the eldest partner, began a formal

harangue to me on the length of my services, my very meritorious con-
duct during the whole of the time (the deuce, thought I, how did he
find out that ? I protest I never had the confidence to think as much).
He went on to descant upon the expediency of retiring at a certain time
of life (how my heart panted !) and asking me a few questions as to the
amount of my own property, of which I have a little, ended with a pro-
posal, to which his three partners nodded a grave assent, that I should
accept from the house, which I had served so well, a pension for life to
the amount of two-thirds of my accustomed salary — a magnificent ofter !
I do not know what I answered between surprise and gratitude, but it
was understood that I accepted their proposal, and I was told that I was
free from that hour to leave their service. I stammered out a bow, and
at just ten minutes after eight I went home — for ever. This noble
benefit — gratitude forbids me to conceal their names — I owe to the
kindness of the most munificent firm in the world — the house of Boldero,
Merryweather, Bosanquet, and Lacy.

JEsto Perpetua !
For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only
apprehend my felicity ; I was too confused to taste it sincerely. I wan-
dered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not. I was
in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after
a forty years' confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It
was like passing out of Time into Eternity — for it is a sort of Eternity
for a man to have his Time all to himself. It seemed to me that I had
more Time on my hands than I could ever manage. From a poor man, poor
in Time, I was suddenly lifted up into a vast revenue ; I could see no
end of my possessions ; I wanted some steward, or judicious bailifi', to
manage my estates in Time for me. And here let me caution persons
grown old in active business, not lightly, nor without weighing their
own resources, to forego their customary employment all at once, for


there may be danger in it. I feel it by myself, but I know that my re-
sources are sufficient ; and now that those first giddy raptures have sub-
sided, I have a quiet home-feeling of the blessedness of my condition. I am
in no hurry. Having all holidays, I am as though I had none. If Time
hung heavy upon me, I could walk it away ; but I do not walk all day
long, as I used to do in those old transient holidays, thirty miles a day,
to make the most of them. If Time were troublesome, I could read it
away, but I do not read in that violent measure, with which, having no
Time my own but candle-light Time, I used to weary out my head and
eye-sight in by-gone winters. I walk, read or scribble (as now) just
when the fit seizes me. I no longer hunt after pleasure ; I let it come to
me. I am like the man

That's born, and has his years come to him,

In some green desart.

" Years," you will say ! " what is this superannuated simpleton cal-
culating upon ? He has already told us, he is past fifty."

I have indeed lived nominally fifty years, but deduct out of them the
hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you
will find me still a young fellow. For that is the only true Time, which
a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the
rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people's
time, not his. The remnant of my poor days, long or short, is at least
multiplied for me three-fold. My ten next years, if I stretch so far, will
be as long as any preceding thirty. 'Tis a fair rule-of- three sum.

Among the strange fantasies which beset me at the commencement of
my freedom, and of which all traces are not yet gone, one was, that a
vast tract of time had intervened since I quitted the Counting House. I
could not conceive of it as an affair of yesterday. The partners, and the
clerks, with whom I had so many years and for so many hours in each
day of the year been closely associated — being suddenly removed from
them — they seemed as dead to me. There is a fine passage, which may
serve to illustrate this fancy, in a Tragedy by Sir Robert Howard,
speaking of a friend's death :

. 'Twas but just now he went away 5

I have not since had time to shed a tear ;

And yet the distance does the same appear

As if he had been a thousand years from me.

Time takes no measure in Eternity.

To dissipate this awkward feeling, I have been fain to go among
them once or twice since ; to visit my old desk-fellows — my co-brethren
of the quill — that I had left below in the state militant. Not all the
kindness with which they received me could quite restore to me that
pleasant familiarity, which I had heretofore enjoyed among them. We
cracked some of our old jokes, but methought they went off but faintly.
My pld desk, the peg where I hung my hat, were appropriated to


another. I knew it must be, but I could not take it kindly. D 1

take me, if I did not feel some remorse — ^beast, if I had not, — at quitting
my old compeers, the faithful partners of my toils for six and thirty
years, that smoothed for me with their jokes and their conundrums the
ruggedness of my professional road. Had it been so rugged then after
all ? or was I a coward simply ? Well, it is too late to repent ; and I
also know, that these suggestions are a common fallacy of the mind on
such occasions. But my heart smote me. I had violently broken the
bands betwixt us. It was at least not courteous. I shall be some time
before I get quite reconciled to the separation. Farewell, old cronies,
yet not for long, for again and again I will come among ye, if I shall

have your leave. Farewell Ch , dry, sarcastic, and friendly !

Do——, mild, slow to move, and gentlemanly ! PI , officious

to do, and to volunteer, good services ! — and thou, thou dreary pile, fit
mansion for a Gresham or a Whittington of old, stately House of Mer-
chants ; with thy labyrinthine passages, and light-excluding, pent-up
offices, where candles for one half the year supplied the place of the sun's
light ; unhealthy contributor to my weal, stem fosterer of my living,
farewell ! In thee remain, and not in the obscure collection of some
wandering bookseller, my " works ! " There let them rest, as I do
from my labours, piled on thy massy shelves, more MSS. in folio than

Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 → online text (page 30 of 33)