« ForrigeFortsæt »
wanderings; not going (as I had originally planned) to the English Lakes, but making first of all for St. John's Priory, Chester, at that time my mother's residence. There I found my maternal uncle, Captain Penson, of the Bengal establishment, just recently come home on a two years' leave of absence; and there I had an interview with my mother. By a temporary arrangement I received a weekly allowance, which would have enabled me to live in any district of Wales, either North or South; for Wales, both North and South, is (or at any rate was) a land of exemplary cheapness. For instance, at Talyllyn, in Merionethshire, or anywhere off the line of tourists, I and a lieutenant in our English navy paid sixpence uniformly for a handsome dinner; sixpence, I mean, apiece. But two months later came a golden blockhead, who instructed the people that it was sinful" to charge less than three shillings. In Wales, meantime, I suffered grievously from want of books; and fancying, in my profound ignorance of the world, that I could borrow money upon my own expectations, or, at least, that I could do so with the joint security of Lord Westport (now Earl of Altamont, upon his father's elevation to the Marquisate of Sligo), or (failing that) with the security of his amiable and friendly cousin, the Earl of Desart, I had the unpardonable folly to quit the deep tranquillities of North Wales for the uproars, and perils, and the certain miseries, of London. I had borrowed ten guineas from Lady Carbery; and at that time, when my purpose was known to nobody, I might have borrowed any sum I pleased. But I could never again avail myself of that resource, because I must
have given some address, in order to insure the receipt of Lady Carbery's answer; and in that case, so sternly conscientious was she, that, under the notion of saving me from ruin, my address would have been immediately communicated to my guardians, and by them would have been confided to the unrivalled detective talents, in those days, of Townsend, or some other Bow-street officer.
That episode, or impassioned parenthesis in my life, which is comprehended in "The Confessions of the Opium-Eater," had finished; suppose it over and gone, and once more, after the storms of London, suppose me resting from my dreadful remembrances, in the deep monastic tranquillity, of St. John's Priory; and just then, by accident, with no associates except my mother and my uncle. What was the Priory like? Was it young or old, handsome or plain? What was my uncle the captain like ?. Young or old, handsome or plain? Wait a little, my reader; give me time, and I will tell you all. My uncle's leave of absence from India had not expired; in fact, it had nine or ten months still to run; and this accident furnished us all with an opportunity of witnessing his preternatural activity. One morning early in April of the year 1803, a gentleman called at the Priory, and mentioned, as the news of the morning brought down by the London mail, that there had been a very hot and very sudden "press " along the Thames, and simultaneously at the outports. Indeed, before this the spiteful tone of Sebastiani's Report, together with the arrogant comment in the Moniteur on the supposed inability of Great Britain to
contend" single-handed" with France; and, finally, the public brutality to our ambassador, had prepared us all for war. But, then, might not all this blow over? No; apart from any choice or preference of war on the part of Napoleon, his very existence depended upon war. He lived by and through the army. Without a succession of wars and martial glories in reserve for the army, what interest had they in Napoleon? This was obscurely acknowledged by everybody. More or less consciously perceived, a feeling deep and strong ran through the nation. that it was vain to seek expedients or delays; a mighty strife had to be fought out, which could not be evaded. Thence it was that the volunteer system was so rapidly and earnestly developed. As a first stage in the process of national enthusiasm, this was invaluable. The first impulse drew out the material.
Next, as might have been foreseen, came an experience which taught us seasonably that these redundant materials, crude and miscellaneous, required a winnowing and sifting, which very soon we had; and the result was, an incomparable militia. Chester shone conspicuously in this noble competition. But here, as elsewhere, at first there was no cavalry. Upon that arose a knot of gentlemen, chiefly those who hunted, and in a very few hours laid the foundation of a small cavalry force. Three troops were raised in the city of Chester, one of the three being given to my uncle. The whole were under the command of Colonel Dod, who had a landed estate in the county, and who (like my uncle) had been in India. But Colonel Dod and the captains of the two other troops gave comparatively little aid. The
whole working activities of the system rested with my uncle. Then first I saw energy: then first I knew what it meant. All the officers of the three troops exchanged dinner-parties with each other; and consequently they dined at the Priory often enough to make us acquainted with their characteristic qualities. That period had not yet passed away, though it was already passing, when gentlemen did not willingly leave the dinner-table in a state of absolute sobriety. Colonel Dod and my uncle had learned in Bengal, under the coërcion of the climate, habits of temperance. But the others (though few, perhaps, might be systematic drinkers) were careless in this respect, and drank under social excitement quite enough to lay bare the ruling tendencies of their several characters. Being English, naturally the majority were energetic, and beyond all things despised dreaming fainéans (such, for instance, as we find the politicians, or even the conspirators, of Italy, Spain, and Germany, whose whole power of action evaporates in talking, and histrionically gesticulating). Yet still the best of them seemed inert by comparison with my uncle, and to regard his standard of action and exertion as trespassing to a needless degree upon ordinary human comfort.
Commonplace, meantime, my uncle was in the character of his intellect; there he fell a thousand leagues below my mother, to whom he looked up with affectionate astonishment. But, as a man of action, he ran so far ahead of men generally, that he ceased to impress one as commonplace. He, if any man ever did, realized the Roman poet's description of being natus rebus agendis - sent into this world not
for talking, but for doing; not for counsel, but for execution. On that field he was a portentous man, a monster; and, viewing him as such, I am disposed to concede a few words to what modern slang denominates his "antecedents."
Two brothers and one sister (namely, my mother) composed the household choir of children gathering round the hearth of my maternal grand-parents, whose name was Penson. My grandfather at one time held an office under the king; how named, I once heard, but have forgotten; only this I remember, that it was an office which conferred the title of Esquire; so that upon each and all of his several coffins, lead, oak, mahogany, he was entitled to proclaim himself an Armiger; which, observe, is the newest, oldest, most classic mode of saying that one is privileged to bear arms in a sense intelligible only to the Herald's College. This Armiger, this undeniable Squire, was doubly distinguished: first, by his iron constitution and impregnable health; which were of such quality, and like the sword of Michael, the warrior-angel ("Paradise Lost," B. vi.), had "from the armory of God been given him tempered so," that no insurance office, trafficking in life-annuities, would have ventured to look him in the face. People thought him good, like a cat, for eight or nine generations; nor did any man perceive at what avenue death could find, or disease could force, a practicable breach; and yet, such anchorage have all human hopes, in the very midst of these windy anticipations, this same granite grandpapa of mine, not yet very far ahead of sixty, being in fact three-score years and none, suddenly struck his flag, and found himself, in his privileged 10