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An essay by Charles Lever


Title:     Myself
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

Bland Reader,--If you ever look into the Irish papers--and I hope you are not so exclusive regarding them as is Mr Cobden with the 'Times'--you will see that, under the title, "Landed Estates Court, County Mayo," Judge Dobbs has just sold the town and lands of Kilmuray-nabachlish, Ballaghy, and Gregnaslattery, the property of Cornelius O'Dowd, Esq. of Dowd's Folly, in the same county.

Now the above-recited lands, measuring seven hundred and fourteen acres, two roods, and eleven perches, statute measure, were mine, and I am the Cornelius O'Dowd, Esq., referred to in the same paragraph.

Though it is perfectly true that, what between mortgages, settlement claims, and bonds, neither my father nor myself owned these lands any more than we did the island of Jamaica, it was a great blow to me to be sold out; for, somehow or other, one can live a long time in Ireland on parchment--I mean on the mere documents of an estate that has long since passed away; but if you come once to an open sale and Judge Dobbs, there's an end of you, and you'll not get credit for a pair of shoes the day after.

My present reason for addressing you does not require that I should go into my family history, or mention more of myself than that I was called to the Bar in '42; that I stood an unsuccessful election for Athlone; that I served as a captain in the West Coast Rifles; that I married a young lady of great personal attractions; and completed my misfortunes by taking the chairmanship of the Vichnasehneshee silver mines, that very soon left me with nothing but copper in my own pocket, and sent me to Judge Dobbs and his Court on the Inns Quay.

Like the rest of my countrymen, I was always hoping the Government would "do something" for me. I have not missed a levee for fourteen years, and I have shown the calves of my legs to every viceroyalty since Lord Clarendon's day; but though they all joked and talked very pleasantly with me, none said, "O'Dowd, we must do something for you;" and if it was to rain commissionerships in lunacy, or prison inspectorships, I don't believe one would fall upon C. O'D. I never knew rightly how it was, but though I was always liked at the Bar mess, and made much of on circuit, I never got a brief. People were constantly saying to me, "Con, if you were to do this, that, or t'other," you'd make a hit; but it was always conditional on my being somewhere, or doing something that I never had attempted before.

It was clear, if I was the right man, I wasn't in the right place; and this was all the more provoking, because, let me do what I would, some one was sure to exclaim, "Con, my boy, don't try that; it is certainly not your line." "What a capital agent for a new assurance company you'd be!" "What a success you'd have had on the stage! You'd have played Sir Lucius better than any living actor. Why don't you go on the boards? Why not start a penny newspaper? Why not give readings?" I wonder why they didn't tell me to turn organist or a painter in oils.

"You're always telling us how much you know of the world, Mr O'Dowd," said my wife; "I wish you could turn the knowledge to some account."

This was scarcely generous, to say the least of it.

Mrs O'D. knew well that I was vain of the quality--that I regarded it as a sort of specialty. In fact, deeming, with the poet, that the proper study of mankind was man, I had devoted a larger share of my life to the inquiry than quite consisted with professional advancement; and while others pored over their Blackstone, I was "doing Baden;" and instead of term reports and Crown cases, I was diverting myself in the Oberland or on the Lago Maggiore.

"And with all your great knowledge of life," continued she, "I don't exactly see what it has done for you."

Now, Mrs O'Dowd being, as you may apprehend, a woman, I didn't waste my time in arguing with her--I didn't crush her, as I might, by telling her that the very highest and noblest of a man's acquirements are, _ipso facto_, the least marketable; and that the boasted excellence of all classical education is in nothing so conspicuous as in the fact that Greek and Latin cannot be converted into money as readily as vulgar fractions and a bold handwriting. Being a woman, as I have observed, Mrs O'D. would have read the argument backwards, and stood out for the rule-of-three against Sophocles and "all his works." I simply replied, with that dignity which is natural to me, "I _am_ proud of my knowledge of life; I do recognise in myself the analyst of that strange mixture that makes up human chemistry; but it has never occurred to me to advertise my discovery for sale, like Holloway's Pills or somebody's cod-liver oil." "Perhaps you knew nobody would buy it," cried she, and flounced out of the room, the bang of the door being one of the "epigrams in action" wives are skilled in.

Now, with respect to my knowledge of life, I have often compared myself to those connoisseurs in art who, without a picture or an engraving of their own, can roam through a gallery, taking the most intense pleasure in all it contains, gazing with ecstasy at the Raffaeles, and lingering delighted over the sunny landscapes of Claude. To me the world has, for years, imparted a sense of much enjoyment. Human nature has been my gallery, with all its variety, its breadth, its effect, its warm colouring, and its cold tints.

It has been my pride to think that I can recognise every style and every "handling," and that no man could impose a copy upon me for an original. "And can it be possible," cried I aloud, "that while picture-dealers revel in fortune--fellows whose traffic goes no higher than coloured canvass--that I, the connoisseur of humanity, the moral toxicologist--I, who read men as I read a French comedy--that I should be obliged to deny myself the generous claret my doctor thinks essential to my system, and that repose and change of scene he deems of more consequence to me than mere physic?"

I do not--I will not--I cannot, believe it. No class of persons could be less spared than pilots. Without their watchful skill the rich argosy that has entered the chops of the Channel would never anchor in the Pool. And are there no sand-banks, no sunk rocks, no hidden reefs, no insidious shoals, in humanity? Are there no treacherous lee-shores, no dangerous currents, no breakers? It is amidst these and such as these I purpose to guide my fellow-men, not pretending for a moment to the possession of any heaven-born instinct, or any inspired insight into Nature. No; I have toiled and laboured in the cause. The experience that I mean to offer for sale I have myself bought, occasionally far more dearly than I intend to dispose of it. _Haud ignarus mali_; I am willing to tell where I have been shipwrecked, and who stole my clothes. "Don't tell me of your successes," said a great physician to his colleague, "tell me of your blunders; tell me of the people you've killed." I am ready to do this, figuratively of course, for they were all ladies; and more, I will make no attempt to screen myself from the ridicule that may attach to an absurd situation, nor conceal those experiences which may subject me to laughter.

You may deem me boastful if I have to set forth my qualifications; but what can I do? It is only when I have opened my pack and displayed my wares that you may feel tempted to buy. I am driven, then, to tell you that I know everybody that is worth knowing in Europe, and some two or three in America; that I have been everywhere--eaten of everything--seen everything. There's not a railway guard from Norway to Naples doesn't grin a recognition to me; not a waiter from the Trois Freres to the Wilde Mann doesn't trail his napkin to earth as he sees me. Ministers speak up when I stroll into the Chamber, and _prima donnas_ soar above the orchestra, and warble in ecstasy as I enter the pit.

I don't like--I declare to you I do not like--saying these things; it smacks of vanity. Now for my plan. I purpose to put these my gifts at your disposal The year before us will doubtless be an eventful one. What between Danes, Poles, and Italians, there must be a row somewhere. The French are very eager for war; and the Austrians, as Paddy says, "are blue-moulded for want of a beatin'." There will be grand "battle-pieces" to paint; but, better than these, portraits, groups, "tableaux de genre"--Teniers bits, too, at the porch of an ale-house, and warm little interiors, in the style of Mieris. I shall be instructive at times--very instructive; and whenever I am very nice and dull, be assured that I'm "full of information, and know my subject thoroughly."

As "your own correspondent," I am free to go wherever I please. I have left Mrs O'D. in Ireland, and I revel in an Arcadian liberty. These are all my credentials; and if with their aid I can furnish you any amusement as to the goings-on of the world and its wife, or the doings of that amiable couple in politics, books, theatres, or socialities, I seek for nothing more congenial to my taste, nor more adapted to my nature, as a bashful Irishman.

If I will not often obtrude, I will not altogether avoid, my personal experiences; for there is this to be said, that no testimony is worth much unless we know something of the temper, the tastes, and the character of the witness. We have all heard, for instance, of the gentleman who couldn't laugh at Munden's drolleries on the stage for thinking of a debt of ten pounds that the actor owed him: and this same spirit has a great deal to do--far more than we like to own--with our estimate of foreign countries. It is so hard to speak well of the climate where we had that horrible rheumatism, or laud the honesty of a people when we think of that rascally scoundrel of the Hotel d'Odessa. For these reasons I mean to come into the witness-box occasionally, and give you frankly, not merely my opinions, but the way they were come by. I don't affect to be superior to prejudices; I have as many of these as a porcupine has bristles. There's all the egotism I mean to inflict on you, unless it comes under the guise of an incident--"a circumstance which really occurred to the author"--and now, _en route_.

I wonder am I right in thinking that the present race of travelling English know less about the Continent and foreigners generally than their predecessors of, say, five-and-twenty years ago. Railroads and rapid travelling might be one cause; another is, that English is now more generally spoken by all foreigners than formerly; and it may be taken as a maxim, that nothing was ever asked or answered in broken phraseology that was worth the hearing. People with a limited knowledge of a strange language do not say what they _wish_, but what they _can_; and there is no name for the helplessness of him who is tied up in his preter-pluperfect tense. Now we English are not linguists; even our diplomatists are remarkable for their little proficiency in French. I'm not sure that we don't benefit by this in the long-run. "Reden ist silber, aber Schweigen ist gold"--"Speech is silver, but silence is gold," says the German adage; and what a deal of wisdom have I seen attributed to a man who was posed by his declensions into a listener! One of the only countrymen of my own who has made a great career lately in public life is not a little indebted to deafness for it. He was so unlike those rash, impetuous, impatient Irish, who _would_ interrupt--he listened, or seemed to listen, and he even smiled at the sarcasms that he did not hear.

Listening, if we did but know it, sits more gracefully on us than speech, when that speech involves the denial of genders, and the utter confusion of all cases and tenses.

Next to holding their tongues, there's another thing I wish you English would do abroad, which is, to dress like sane and responsible people. Men are simply absurd; but the women, with their ill-behaved hoops and short petticoats, are positively indecent; but the greatest of all their travelling offences is the proneness to form acquaintance at _tables-d'hote_.

It is, first of all, a rank indiscretion for any but men to dine at these places. They are almost, as a rule, the resort of all that is disreputable in both sexes. You are sure to eat badly, and in the very worst of company. My warning is, however, meant for my countrywomen only: men can, or at least ought, to take care of themselves. As for myself, don't be shocked; but I do like doubtful company--that is, I am immensely interested by all that class of people which the world calls adventurers, whether the same be railroad speculators, fortune-hunters, discoverers of inexhaustible mines, or Garibaldians. Your respectable man, with a pocket-book well stored with his circular notes, and his passport in order, is as uninteresting as a "Treckshuyt" on a Dutch canal; but your "martyr to circumstance" is like a smart felucca in a strong Levanter; and you can watch his course--how he shakes out his reefs or shortens sail--how he flaunts out his bunting, or hides his colours--with an unflagging interest I have often thought what a deal of cleverness--what stores of practical ability--were lost to the world in these out-at-elbow fellows, who speak every language fluently, play every game well, sing pleasingly, dance, ride, row, and shoot, especially with the pistol, to perfection. There they are, with a mass of qualities that win success! and, what often is harder, win goodwill in life! There they are, by some unhappy twist in their natures, preferring the precarious existence of the race-course or the billiard-table; while others, with about a tithe of their talents, are high in place and power. I met one of these men to-day, and a strong specimen of the class, well dressed, well whiskered, very quiet in manner, almost subdued in tone, but with a slight restlessness in his eye that was very significant. We found ourselves at table, over our coffee, when the others had left, and fell into conversation. He declined my offered cigar with much courtesy, preferring to smoke little cigarettes of his own making; and really the manufacture was very adroit, and, in its way, a study of the maker's habits. We talked over the usual topics--the bad dinner we had just eaten, the strange-looking company, the discomfort of the hotel generally, and suchlike.

"Have we not met before?" asked he, after a pause. "If I don't mistake, we dined together aboard of Leslie's yacht, the Fawn."

I shook my head. "Only knew Sir Francis Leslie by name; never saw the Fawn."

The shot failed, but there was no recoil in his gun, and he merely bowed a half apology.

"A yacht is a mistake," added he, after another interval. "One is obliged to take, not the men one wants, but the fellows who can bear the sea. Leslie, for instance, had such a set that I left him at Messina. Strange enough, they took us for pirates there."

"For pirates!"

"Yes. There were three fishing-boats--what they call _Bilancelle_--some fifteen or sixteen miles out at sea, and when they saw us coming along with all canvass set, they hauled up their nets and ran with all speed for shore. Rather absurd, wasn't it? but, as I told Leslie about his friends, 'the blunder wasn't so great after all; there was only a vowel between Raffs and Riffs.'"

The disparagement of "questionable people" is such an old device of adventurers, that I was really surprised such a master of his art as my present friend would condescend to it. It belonged altogether to an inferior practitioner; and, indeed, he quickly saw the effect it had produced upon me, as he said, "Not that I care a straw for the fellows I associate with; my theory is, a gentleman can know any one."

Richard was himself again as he uttered this speech, lying well back in his chair, and sending a thin cloud of incense from the angle of his mouth.

"What snobs they were in Brummel's day, for instance, always asking if this or that man was fit to be known! Why, sir, it was the very fellows they tabooed were the cream of the set; 'it was the cards they threw out were the trumps.'"

The illustration came so pat that he smiled as he perceived by a twinkle of my eye that I appreciated it.

"My father," continued he, "knew Brummel well, and he told me that his grand defect was a want of personal courage--the very quality, of all others, his career required. His impertinences always broke down when brought to this test. I remember an instance he mentioned.

"Amongst the company that frequented Carlton House was a certain old Admiral P------, whom the Prince was fond of inviting, though he did not possess a single agreeable quality, or any one convivial gift, except a great power of drinking the very strongest port without its producing the slightest show of effect upon him.

"One night Brummel, evidently bent on testing the old sailor's head, seated himself next him, making it his business to pass the decanters as briskly as he could. The admiral asked nothing better; filled and drank bumpers. Not content with this legitimate test, Brummel watched his opportunity when the admiral's head was turned, and filled his glass up to the brim. Four or five times was the trick repeated, and with success; when at last the admiral, turning quickly around, caught him in the very act, with the decanter still in his hand. Fixing his eyes upon him with the fierceness of a tiger, the old man said, 'Drink it, sir--drink it!' and so terrified was Brummel by the manner and the look that he raised the glass to his lips and drained it, while all at the table were convulsed with laughter."

The Brummel school--that is, the primrose-glove adventurers--were a very different order of men from the present-day fellows, who take a turn in Circassia or China, or a campaign with Garibaldi; and who, with all their defects, are men of mettle and pluck and daring. Of these latter I found my new acquaintance to be one.

He sketched off the early part of the "expedition" graphically enough for me, showing the disorder and indiscipline natural to a force where every nationality of Europe was represented, and not by its most favourable types.

"I had an Irish servant," said he, "whose blunders would fill a volume. His prevailing impression, perhaps not ill-founded on the whole, was, that we all had come out for pillage; and while a certain reserve withheld most of us from avowing this fact, he spoke of it openly and freely, expatiating admiringly on Captain This and Major That, who had done a fine stroke of work in such a store, or such another country-house. As for his blunders, they never ceased. I was myself the victim of an absurd one. On the march from Melazzo I got a severe strain in the chest by my horse falling and rolling over me. No bone was broken, but I was much bruised, and a considerable extravasation of blood took place under the skin. Of course I could not move, and I was provided with a sort of litter, and slung between two mules. The doctor prescribed a strong dose of laudanum, which set me to sleep, and despatched Peter back to Melazzo with an order for a certain ointment, which he was to bring without delay, as the case was imminent; this was impressed upon him, as the fellow was much given to wandering off, when sent of a message, after adventures of his own.

"Fully convinced that I was in danger, away went Peter, very sad about me, but even more distressed lest he should forget what he was sent for. He kept repeating the words over and over as he went, till they became by mere repetition something perfectly incomprehensible, so that when he reached Melazzo nobody could make head or tail of his message. Group after group gathered about and interrogated him, and at last, by means of pantomime, discovered that his master was very ill. Signs were made to inquire if bleeding was required, or if it was a case for amputation, but he still shook his head in negative. 'Is he dying?' asked one, making a gesture to indicate lying down. Peter assented. 'Oh, then it is the _unzione estrema_ he wants!' 'That's it,' cried Peter, joyfully--'unzione it is.' Two priests were speedily found and despatched; and I awoke out of a sound sleep under a tree to see three lighted candles on each side of me, and two priests in full vestments standing at my feet and gabbling away in a droning sort of voice, while Peter blubbered and wrung his hands unceasingly. A jolly burst of laughter from me soon dispelled the whole illusion, and Peter had to hide himself for shame for a week after."

"What became of the fellow--was he killed in the campaign?"

"Killed! nothing of the kind; he rose to be an officer, served on Nullo's staff, and is at this very hour in Poland, and, if I mistake not, a major."

"Men of this stamp make occasionally great careers," said I, carelessly.

"No, sir," replied he, very gravely. "To do anything really brilliant, the adventurer must have been a gentleman at one time or other: the common fellow stops short at petty larcenies; the man of good blood always goes in for the mint."

"There was, then," asked I, "a good deal of what the Yankees call 'pocketing' in that campaign of Garibaldi's?"

"Less than one might suppose. Have you not occasionally seen men at a dinner-party pass this and refuse that, waiting for the haunch, or the pheasant, or the blackcock that they are certain is coming, when all of a sudden the jellies and ices make their appearance, and the curtain falls? So it was with many of us; we were all waiting for Rome, and licking our lips for the Vatican and the Cardinals' palaces, when in came the Piedmontese and finished the entertainment. If I meet you here to-morrow, I can tell you more about this;" and so saying he arose, gave me an easy nod, and strolled away.

"Who is that most agreeable gentleman who took his coffee with me?" asked I of the waiter as I entered the _salle_.

"It's the Generale Inglese, who served with Garibaldi."

"And his name?"

"Ah, _per bacco!_ I never heard his name--Garibaldi calls him Giorgio, and the ladies who call here to take him out to drive now and then always say Giorgino--not that he's so very small, for all that."

My Garibaldian friend failed in his appointment with me this morning. We were to have gone together to a gallery, or a collection of ancient armour, or something of this sort, but he probably saw, as your clever adventurer _will_ see, with half an eye, that I could be no use to him--that I was a wayfarer like himself on life's highroad; and prudently turned round on his side and went to sleep again.

There is no quality so distinctive in this sort of man or woman--for adventurer has its feminine--as the rapid intuition with which he seizes on all available people, and throws aside all the unprofitable ones. A money-changer detecting a light napoleon is nothing to it. What are the traits by which they guide their judgment--what the tests by which they try humanity, I do not know, but that they do read a stranger at first sight is indisputable. That he found out Cornelius O'Dowd wasn't a member of the British Cabinet, or a junior partner in Baring's, was, you may sneeringly conjecture, no remarkable evidence of acuteness. But why should he discover the fact--fact it is--that he'd never be one penny the richer by knowing me, and that intercourse with me was about as profitable as playing a match at billiards "for the table"?

Say what people will against roguery and cheating, rail as they may at the rapacity and rascality one meets with, I declare and protest, after a good deal of experience, that the world is a very poor world to him who is not the mark of some roguery! When you are too poor to be cheated, you are too insignificant to be cherished; and the man that is not worth humbugging isn't very far from bankruptcy.

It gave me a sort of shock, therefore, when I saw that my friend took this view of me, and I strolled down moodily enough to the Chamber of Deputies. Turin is a dreary city for a lounger; even a resident finds that he must serve a seven years' apprenticeship before he gets any footing in its stiff ungenial society--for of all Italians, nothing socially is less graceful than a Piedmontese. They have none of the courteous civility, none of the urbane gentleness of the peninsular Italians. They are cold, reserved, proud, and eminently awkward; not the less so, perhaps, that their habitual tongue is the very vilest jargon that ever disfigured a human mouth. Of course this is an efficient barrier against intercourse with strangers; and though French is spoken in society, it bears about the same relation to that language at Paris, as what is called pigeon-English at Hong-Kong does to the tongue in use in Belgravia.

When I reached the Palazzo Carignan, as the Chamber is called, the _seance_ was nearly over, and a scene of considerable uproar prevailed. There had been a somewhat sharp altercation between General Bixio and the "Left," and M. Mordini had repeatedly appealed to the President to make the General recall some offensive epithets he had bestowed on the "party of movement." There were the usual cries and gesticulations, the shouts of derision, the gestures of menace; and, above all, the tinkle-tinkle of the Presidents bell, which was no more minded than the summons for a waiter in an Irish inn; and on they went in this hopeless way, till some one, I don't know why, cried out, "That's enough--we are satisfied;" by which it seemed that somebody had apologised, but for what, or how, or to whom, I have not the very vaguest conception.

With all their depreciation of France, the Italians are the most persistent imitators of Frenchmen, and the Chamber was exactly a copy of the French Chamber in the old Louis Philippe days--all violence, noise, sensational intensity, and excitement.

I have often heard public speakers mention the difficulty of adjusting the voice to the size of a room in which they found themselves for the first time, and the remark occurred to me as figuratively displaying one of the difficulties of Italian public men. The speakers in reality never clearly knew how far their words were to carry--whether they spoke to the Chamber or to the Country.

Is there or is there not a public opinion in Italy? Can the public speaker direct his words over the heads of his immediate surrounders to countless thousands beyond them? If he cannot, Parliament is but a debating-club, with the disadvantage of not being able to select the subjects for discussion.

The glow of patriotism is never rightly warm, nor is the metal of party truly malleable, without the strong blast of a public opinion.

The Turin Chamber has no echo in the country; and, so far as I see, the Italians are far more eager to learn what is said in the French Parliament than in their own.

I remember an old waiter at the Hibernian Hotel in Dublin, who got a prize in the lottery and retired into private life, but who never could hear a bell ring without crying out, "Coming, sir." The Italians remind me greatly of him: they have had such a terrible time of flunkeyism, that they start at every summons, no matter what hand be on the bell-rope.

To be sure the French did bully them awfully in the last war. Never was an alliance more dearly paid for. We ourselves are not a very compliant or conciliating race, but we can remember what it cost us to submit to French insolence and pretension in the Crimea; and yet we did submit to it, not always with a good grace, but in some fashion or other.

Here comes my Garibaldino again, and with a proposal to go down to Genoa and look at the Italian fleet. I don't suppose that either of us know much of the subject; and indeed I feel, in my ignorance, that I might be a senior Lord of the Admiralty--but that is only another reason for the inquiry. "One is nothing," says Mr Puff, "if he ain't critical" So Heaven help the Italian navy under the conjoint commentaries of myself and my friend! Meanwhile, and before we start, one word more of Turin.

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Myself