Yesterdays with Authors
By James T. Fields
DEAR old Thackeray!--as everybody who knew him intimately calls him, now he is gone. That is his face, looking out upon us, next to Pope's. What a contrast in bodily appearance those two English men of genius present! Thackeray's great burly figure, broad-chested, and ample as the day, seems to overshadow and quite blot out of existence the author of " The Essay on Man." But what friends they would have been had they lived as contemporaries under Queen Anne or Queen Victoria! One can imagine the author of "Pendennis" gently lifting poor little Alexander out of his "chariot " into the club, and revelling in talk with him all night long. Pope's high-bred and gentlemanly manner, combined with his extraordinary sensibility and dread of ridicule, would have modified Thackeray's usual gigantic fun and sometimes boisterous sarcasm into a rich and strange adaptability to his little guest. We can imagine them talking together now, with even a nobler wisdom and ampler charity than were ever vouchsafed to them when they were busy amid the turmoils of their crowded literary lives.
As a reader and lover of all that Thackeray has written and published, as well as a personal friend, I will relate briefly something of his literary habits as I can recall them. It is now nearly twenty years since I first saw him and came to know him familiarly in London. I was very much in earnest to have him come to America, and read his series of lectures on "The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century," and when I talked the matter over with some of his friends at the little Garrick Club, they all said he could never be induced to leave London long enough for such an expedition. Next morning, after this talk at the Garrick, the elderly damsel of all work announced to me, as I was taking breakfast at my lodgings, that Mr. Sackville had called to see me, and was then waiting below. Very soon I heard a heavy tread on the stairs, and then entered a tall, white-haired stranger, who held out his hand, bowed profoundly, and with a most comical expression announced himself as Mr. Sackville. Recognizing at once the face from published portraits, I knew that my visitor was none other than Thackeray himself, who, having heard the servant give the wrong name, determined to assume it on this occasion. For years afterwards, when he would drop in unexpectedly, both at home and abroad, he delighted to call himself Mr. Sackville, until a certain Milesian waiter at the Tremont House addressed him as Mr. Thackuary, when he adopted that name in preference to the other.
Questions are frequently asked as to the habits of thought and composition of authors one has happened to know, as if an author's friends were commonly invited to observe the growth of works he was by and by to launch from the press. It is not customary for the doors of the writer's work-shop to be thrown open, and for this reason it is all the more interesting to notice, when it is possible, how an essay, a history, a novel, or a poem is conceived, grows up, and is corrected for publication. One would like very much to be informed how Shakespeare put together the scenes of Hamlet or Macbeth, whether the subtile thought accumulated easily on the page before him, or whether he struggled for it with anxiety and distrust. We know that Milton troubled himself about little matters of punctuation, and obliged the printer to take special note of his requirements, scolding him roundly when he neglected his instructions. We also know that Melanchthon was in his library hard at work by two or three o'clock in the morning both in summer and winter, and that Sir William Jones began his studies with the dawn.
The most popular female writer of America, whose great novel struck a chord of universal sympathy throughout the civilized world, has habits of composition peculiarly her own, and unlike those belonging to any author of whom we have record. She croons, so to speak, over her writings, and it makes very little difference to her whether there is a crowd of people about her or whether she is alone during the composition of her books. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was wholly prepared for the press in a little wooden house in Maine, from week to week, while the story was coming out in a Washington newspaper. Most of it was written by the evening lamp, on a pine table, about which the children of the family were gathered together conning their various lessons for the next day. Amid the busy hum of earnest voices, constantly asking questions of the mother, intent on her world-renowned task, Mrs. Stowe wove together those thrilling chapters which were destined to find readers in so many languages throughout the globe. No work of similar importance, so far as we know, was ever written amid so much that seemed hostile to literary composition.
I had the opportunity, both in England and America, of observing the literary habits of Thackeray, and it always seemed to me that he did his work with comparative ease, but was somewhat influenced by a custom of procrastination. Nearly all his stories were written in monthly instalments for magazines, with the press at his heels. He told me that when he began a novel he rarely knew how many people were to figure in it, and, to use his own words, he was always very shaky about their moral conduct. He said that sometimes, especially if he had been dining late and did not feel in remarkably good-humor next morning, he was inclined to make his characters villanously wicked; but if he rose serene with an unclouded brain, there was no end to the lovely actions he was willing to make his men and women perform. When he had written a passage that pleased him very much he could not resist clapping on his hat and rushing forth to find an acquaintance to whom he might instantly read his successful composition. Gilbert Wakefield, universally acknowledged to have been the best Greek scholar of his time, said he would have turned out a much better one, if he had begun earlier to study that language; but unfortunately he did not begin till he was fifteen years of age. Thackeray, in quoting to me this saying of Wakefield, remarked: "My English would have been very much better if I had read Fielding before I was ten." This observation was a valuable hint, on the part of Thackeray, as to whom he considered his master in art.
James Hannay paid Thackeray a beautiful compliment when he said: " If he had had his choice he would rather have been famous as an artist than as a writer; but it was destined that he should paint in colors which will never crack and never need restoration." Thackeray's characters are, indeed, not so much inventions as existences, and we know them as we know our best friends or our most intimate enemies.
When I was asked, the other day, which of his books I like best, I gave the old answer to a similar question, "The last one I read." If I could possess only one of his works, I think I should choose "Henry Esmond." To my thinking, it is a marvel in literature, and I have read it oftener than any of the other works. Perhaps the reason of my partiality lies somewhat in this little incident. One day, in the snowy winter of 1852, I met Thackeray sturdily ploughing his way down Beacon Street with a copy of "Henry Esmond" (the English edition, then just issued) under his arm. Seeing me some way off, he held aloft the volumes and began to shout in great glee. When I came up to him he cried out, " Here is the very best I can do, and I am carrying it to Prescott as a reward of merit for having given me my first dinner in America. I stand by this book, and am willing to leave it, when I go, as my card."
As he wrote from month to month, and liked to put off the inevitable chapters till the last moment, he was often in great tribulation. I happened to be one of a large company whom he had invited to a six-o'clock dinner at Greenwich one summer afternoon, several years ago. We were all to go down from London, assemble in a particular room at the hotel, where he was to meet us at six o'clock, sharp. Accordingly we took steamer and gathered ourselves together in the reception-room at the appointed time. When the clock struck six, our host had not fulfilled his part of the contract. His burly figure was yet wanting among the company assembled. As the guests were nearly all strangers to each other, and as there was no one present to introduce us, a profound silence fell upon the room, and we anxiously looked out of the windows, hoping every moment that Thackeray would arrive. This untoward state of things went on for one hour, still no Thackeray and no dinner. English reticence would not allow any remark as to the absence of our host. Everybody felt serious and a gloom fell upon the assembled party. Still no Thackeray. The landlord, the butler, and the waiters rushed in and out the room, shrieking for the master of the feast, who as yet had not arrived. It was confidentially whispered by a fat gentleman, with a hungry look, that the dinner was utterly spoiled twenty minutes ago, when we heard a merry shout in the entry and Thackeray bounced into the room. He had not changed his morning dress, and ink was still visible upon his fingers. Clapping his hands and pirouetting briskly on one leg, he cried out, "Thank Heaven, the last sheet of The Virginians has just gone to the printer." He made no apology for his late appearance, introduced nobody, shook hands heartily with everybody, and begged us all to be seated as quickly as possible. His exquisite delight at completing his book swept away every other feeling, and we all shared his pleasure, albeit the dinner was overdone throughout.
The most finished and elegant of all lecturers, Thackeray often made a very poor appearance when he attempted to deliver a set speech to a public assembly. He frequently broke down after the first two or three sentences. He prepared what he intended to say with great exactness, and his favorite delusion was that he was about to astonish everybody with a remarkable effort. It never disturbed him that he commonly made a woful failure when he attempted speech-making, but he sat down with such cool serenity if he found that he could not recall what he wished to say, that his audience could not help joining in and smiling with him when he came to a stand-still. Once he asked me to travel with him from London to Manchester to hear a great speech he was going to make at the founding of the Free Library Institution in that city. All the way down he was discoursing of certain effects he intended to produce on the Manchester dons by his eloquent appeals to their pockets. This passage was to have great influence with the rich merchants, this one with the clergy, and so on. He said that although Dickens and Bulwer and Sir James Stephen, all eloquent speakers, were to precede him, he intended to beat each of them on this special occasion. He insisted that I should be seated directly in front of him, so that I should have the full force of his magic eloquence. The occasion was a most brilliant one; tickets had been in demand at unheard-of prices several weeks before the day appointed; the great hall, then opened for the first time to the public, was filled by an audience such as is seldom convened, even in England. The three speeches which came before Thackeray was called upon were admirably suited to the occasion, and most eloquently spoken. Sir John Potter, who presided, then rose, and after some complimentary allusions to the author of "Vanity Fair" introduced him to the crowd, who welcomed him with ringing plaudits. As he rose, he gave me a half-wink from under his spectacles, as if to say: "Now for it; the others have done very well, but I will show 'em a grace beyond the reach of their art." He began in a clear and charming manner, and was absolutely perfect for three minutes. In the middle of a most earnest and elaborate sentence he suddenly stopped, gave a look of comic despair at the ceiling, crammed both hands into his trousers' pockets, and deliberately sat down. Everybody seemed to understand that it was one of Thackeray's unfinished speeches and there were no signs of surprise or discontent among his audience. He continued to sit on the platform in a perfectly composed manner; and when the meeting was over he said to me, without a sign of discomfiture, "My boy, you have my profoundest sympathy; this day you have accidentally missed hearing one of the finest speeches ever composed for delivery by a great British orator." And I never heard him mention the subject again.
Thackeray rarely took any exercise, thus living in striking contrast to the other celebrated novelist of our time, who was remarkable for the number of hours he daily spent in the open air. It seems to be almost certain now, from concurrent testimony, gathered from physicians and those who knew him best in England, that Thackeray's premature death was hastened by an utter disregard of the natural laws. His vigorous frame gave ample promise of longevity, but he drew too largely on his brain and not enough on his legs. High living and high thinking, he used to say, was the correct reading of the proverb.
He was a man of the tenderest feelings, very apt to be cajoled into doing what the world calls foolish things, and constantly performing feats of unwisdom, which performances he was immoderately laughing at all the while in his books. No man has impaled snobbery with such a stinging rapier, but he always accused himself of being a snob, past all cure. This I make no doubt was one of his exaggerations, but there was a grain of truth in the remark, which so sharp an observer as himself could not fail to notice, even though the victim was so near home.
Thackeray announced to me by letter in the early autumn of 1852 that he had determined to visit America, and would sail for Boston by the Canada on the 30th of October. All the necessary arrangements for his lecturing tour had been made without troubling him with any of the details. He arrived on a frosty November evening, and went directly to the Tremont House, where rooms had been engaged for him. I remember his delight in getting off the sea, and the enthusiasm with which he hailed the announcement that dinner would be ready shortly. A few friends were ready to sit down with him, and he seemed greatly to enjoy the novelty of an American repast. In London he had been very curious in his inquiries about American oysters, as marvellous stories, which he did not believe, had been told him of their great size. We apologized--although we had taken care that the largest specimens to be procured should startle his unwonted vision when he came to the table--for what we called the extreme smallness of the oysters, promising that we would do better next time. Six bloated Falstaffian bivalves lay before him in their shells. I noticed that he gazed at them anxiously with fork upraised; then he whispered to me, with a look of anguish, "How shall I do it?" I described to him the simple process by which the free-born citizens of America were accustomed to accomplish such a task. He seemed satisfied that the thing was feasible, selected the smallest one in the half-dozen (rejecting a large one, "because," he said, "it resembled the High Priest's servant's ear that Peter cut off"); and then bowed his head as if he were saying grace. All eyes were upon him to watch the effect of a new sensation in the person of a great British author. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, and then all was over. I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells. I broke the perfect stillness by asking him how he felt. "Profoundly grateful," he gasped, "and as if I had swallowed a little baby." It was many years ago since we gathered about him on that occasion, but, if my memory serves me, we had what might be called a pleasant evening. Indeed, I remember much hilarity, and sounds as of men laughing and singing far into midnight. I could not deny, if called upon to testify in Court, that we had a good time on that frosty November evening.
We had many happy days and nights together both in England and America, but I remember none happier than that evening we passed with him when the Punch people came to dine at his own table with the silver statuette of Mr. Punch in full dress looking down upon the hospitable board from the head of the table. This silver figure always stood in a conspicuous place when Tom Taylor, Mark Lemon, Shirley Brooks, and the rest of his jolly companions and life-long cronies were gathered together. If I were to say here that there were any dull moments on that occasion, I should not expect to be strictly believed.
Thackeray's playfulness was a marked peculiarity; a great deal of the time he seemed like a school-boy, just released from his task. In the midst of the most serious topic under discussion he was fond of asking permission to sing a comic song, or he would beg to be allowed to enliven the occasion by the instant introduction of a brief double-shuffle. Barry Cornwall told me that when he and Charles Lamb were once making up a dinner-party together, Charles asked him not to invite a certain lugubrious friend of theirs. "Because," said Lamb, "he would cast a damper even over a funeral." I have often contrasted the habitual qualities of that gloomy friend of theirs with the astounding spirits of both Thackeray and Dickens. They always seemed to me to be standing in the sunshine, and to be constantly warning other people out of cloudland. During Thackeray's first visit to America his jollity knew no bounds, and it became necessary often to repress him when he was walking in the street. I well remember his uproarious shouting and dancing when he was told that the tickets to his first course of readings were all sold, and when we rode together from his hotel to the lecture-hall he insisted on thrusting both his long legs out of the carriage window, in deference, as he said, to his magnanimous ticketholders. An instance of his procrastination occurred the evening of his first public appearance in America. His lecture was advertised to take place at half past seven, and when he was informed of the hour, he said he would try and be ready at eight o'clock, but thought it very doubtful. Horrified at this assertion, I tried to impress upon him the importance of punctuality on this, the night of his first bow to an American audience. At a quarter past seven I called for him, and found him not only unshaved and undressed for the evening, but rapturously absorbed in making a pen-and-ink drawing to illustrate a passage in Goethe's Sorrows of Werther, for a lady, which illustration,--a charming one, by the way, for he was greatly skilled in drawing,--he vowed he would finish before he would budge an inch in the direction of the (I omit the adjective) Melodeon. A comical incident occurred just as he was about leaving the hall, after his first lecture in Boston. A shabby, ungainly looking man stepped briskly up to him in the anteroom, seized his hand and announced himself as "proprietor of the Mammoth Rat," and proposed to exchange season tickets. Thackeray, with the utmost gravity, exchanged cards and promised to call on the wonderful quadruped next day.
Thackeray's motto was 'Avoid performing to-day, if possible, what can be postponed till to-morrow.' Although he received large sums for his writings, he managed without much difficulty to keep his expenditures fully abreast, and often in advance of, his receipts. His pecuniary object in visiting America the second time was to lay up, as he said, a "pot of money" for his two daughters, and he left the country with more than half his lecture engagements unfulfilled. He was to have visited various cities in the Middle and Western States; but he took up a newspaper one night, in his hotel in New York, before retiring, saw a steamer advertised to sail the next morning for England, was seized with a sudden fit of homesickness, rang the bell for his servant, who packed up his luggage that night, and the next day he sailed. The first intimation I had of his departure was a card which he sent by the pilot of the steamer, with these words upon it: " Good by, Fields; good by, Mrs. Fields; God bless everybody, says W. M. T." Of course he did not avail himself of the opportunity afforded him for receiving a very large sum in America, and he afterwards told me in London, that if Mr. Astor had offered him half his fortune if he would allow that particular steamer to sail without him, he should have declined the well-intentioned but impossible favor, and gone on board.
No man has left behind him a tenderer regard for his genius and foibles among his friends than Thackeray. He had a natural love of good which nothing could wholly blur or destroy. He was a most generous critic of the writings of his contemporaries, and no one has printed or spoken warmer praise of Dickens, in one sense his great rival, than he.
Thackeray was not a voluminous correspondent, but what exquisite letters he has left in the hands of many of his friends! "Should any letters arrive," he says in a little missive from Philadelphia, "addressed to the care of J. T. F. for the ridiculous author of this, that, and the other, F. is requested to send them to Mercantile Library, Baltimore. My ghostly enemy will be delighted (or will gnash his teeth with rage) to hear that the lectures in the capital of Pa. have been very well attended. No less than 750 people paid at the door on Friday night, and though last night there was a storm of snow so furious that no reasonable mortal could face it, 500 (at least) amiable maniacs were in the lecture-room, and wept over the fate of the last king of these colonies."
Almost every day, while he was lecturing in America, he would send off little notes exquisitely written in point of penmanship, and sometimes embellished with characteristic pen-drawings. Having attended an extemporaneous supper festival at "Porter's," he was never tired of "going again." Here is a scrap of paper holding these few words, written in 1852.
" Nine o'clock, P. M. Tremont.
"Arrangements have just been concluded for a meeting somewhere to-night, which we much desire you should attend. Are you equal to two nights running of good time?"
Then follows a pen portrait of a friend of his with a cloven foot and a devil's tail just visible under his cloak. Sometimes, to puzzle his correspondent, he would write in so small a hand that the note could not be read without the aid of a magnifying-glass. Calligraphy was to him one of the fine arts, and he once told Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh, that if all trades failed, he would earn sixpences by writing the Lord's Prayer and the Creed (not the Athanasian) in the size of that coin. He greatly delighted in rhyming and lisping notes and billets. Here is one of them, dated from Baltimore without signature:--
"Dear F---th! The thanguinary fateth (I don't know what their anger meanth) brought me your letter of the eighth, yethterday, only the fifteenth! What blunder cauthed by chill delay (thee Doctor Johnthon'th noble verthe) Thuth kept my longing thoul away, from all that motht I love on earth? Thankth for the happy contenth!--thothe Dithpatched to J. G. K. and Thonth, and that thmall letter you inclothe from Parith, from my dearetht oneth! I pray each month may tho increathe my thmall account with J. G. King, that all the thipth which croth the theath, good tidingth of my girlth may bring!--that every blething fortune yieldth, I altho pray, may come to path on Mithter and Mrth. J. T. F---th, and all good friendth in Bothton, Math.!"
While he was staying at the Clarendon Hotel, in New York, every morning's mail brought a few lines, sometimes only one line, sometimes only two words, from him, reporting progress. One day he tells me: " Immense hawdience last night." Another day he says: "Our shares look very much up this morning." On the 29th of November, 1852, he writes: "I find I have a much bigger voice than I knew of, and am not afraid of anybody." At another time he writes: "I make no doubt you have seen that admirable paper, the New York Herald, and are aware of the excellent reception my lectures are having in this city. It was a lucky Friday when first I set foot in this country. I have nearly saved the fifty dollars you lent me in Boston." In a letter from Savannah, dated the 19th of March, 1853, in answer to one I had written to him, telling him that a charming epistle, which accompanied the gift of a silver mug he had sent to me some time before, had been stolen from me, he says:--
" My dear fellow, I remember I asked you in that letter to accept a silver mug in token of our pleasant days together, and to drink a health sometimes in it to a sincere friend.... Smith and Elder write me word they have sent by a Cunard to Boston a packet of paper, stamped etc. in London. I want it to be taken from the Custom-House, dooties paid etc., and dispatched to Miss ----, New York. Hold your tongue, and don't laugh, you rogue. Why should n't she have her paper, and I my pleasure, without your wicked, wicked sneers and imperence? I 'm only a cipher in the young lady's estimation, and why should n't I sigh for her if I like. I hope I shall see you all at Boston before very long. I always consider Boston as my native place, you know."
I wish I could recall half the incidents connected with the dear, dear old Thackeray days, when I saw him so constantly and enjoyed him so hugely; but, alas! many of them are gone, with much more that is lovely and would have been of good report, could they be now remembered;--they are dead as--(Holmes always puts your simile quite right for you),--
"Dead as the bulrushes round little Moses,
On the old banks of the Nile."
But while I sit here quietly, and have no fear of any bad, unsympathizing listeners who might, if some other subject were up, frown upon my levity, let me walk through the dusky chambers of my memory and report what I find there, just as the records turn up, without regard to method.
I once made a pilgrimage with Thackeray (at my request, of course, the visits were planned) to the various houses where his books had been written; and I remember when we came to Young Street, Kensington, he said, with mock gravity, "Down on your knees, you rogue, for here 'Vanity Fair' was penned! And I will go down with you, for I have a high opinion of that little production myself." He was always perfectly honest in his expressions about his own writings, and it was delightful to hear him praise them when he could depend on his listeners. A friend congratulated him once on that touch in "Vanity Fair" in which Becky "admires" her husband when he is giving Steyne the punishment which ruins her for life. "Well," he said, "when I wrote the sentence, I slapped my fist on the table and said, 'That is a touch of genius!'"
He told me he was nearly forty years old before he Was recognized in literature as belonging to a class of writers at all above the ordinary magazinists of his day. "I turned off far better things then than I do now," said he, "and I wanted money sadly, (my parents were rich but respectable, and I had spent my guineas in my youth,) but how little I got for my work! It makes me laugh," he continued, "at what The Times pays me now, when I think of the old days, and how much better I wrote for them then, and got a shilling where I now get ten."
One day he wanted a little service done for a friend, and I remember his very quizzical expression, as he said, "Please say the favor asked will greatly oblige a man of the name of Thackeray, whose only recommendation is, that he has seen Napoleon and Goethe, and is the owner of Schiller's sword."
I think he told me he and Tennyson were at one time intimate; but I distinctly remember a description he gave me of having heard the poet, when a young man, storming about in the first rapture of composing his poem of "Ulysses." One line of it Tennyson greatly revelled in,--
" And see the great Achilles, whom we knew."
"He went through the streets," said Thackeray, "screaming about his great Achilles, whom we knew," as if we had all made the acquaintance of that gentleman, and were very proud of it.
One of the most comical and interesting occasions I remember, in connection with Thackeray, was going with him to a grand concert given fifteen or twenty years ago by Madame Sontag. We sat near an entrance door in the hall, and every one who came in, male and female, Thackeray pretended to know, and gave each one a name and brief chronicle, as the presence flitted by. It was in Boston, and as he had been in town only a day or two, and knew only half a dozen people in it, the biographies were most amusing. As I happened to know several people who passed, it was droll enough to hear this great master of character give them their dues. Mr. Choate moved along in his regal, affluent manner. The large style of the man, so magnificent and yet so modest, at once arrested Thackeray's attention, and he forbore to place him in his extemporaneous catalogue. I remember a pallid, sharp-faced girl fluttering past, and how Thackeray exulted in the history of this "frail little bit of porcelain," as he called her. There was something in her manner that made him hate her, and he insisted she had murdered somebody on her way to the hall. Altogether this marvellous prelude to the concert made a deep impression on Thackeray's one listener, into whose ear he whispered his fatal insinuations. There is one man living and moving about the streets I walk in occasionally, whom I never encounter wihout a shudder, remembering as I do the unerring shaft which Thackeray sent that night into the unknown man's character.
One day, many years ago, I saw him chaffing on the sidewalk in London, in front of the Athenaeum Club, with a monstrous-sized, "copiously ebriose" cabman, and I judged from the driver's ludicrously careful way of landing the coin deep down in his breeches-pocket, that Thackeray had given him a very unusual fare. "Who is your fat friend?" I asked, crossing over to shake hands with him. "O, that indomitable youth is an old crony of mine," he replied; and then, quoting Falstaff, "a goodly, portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent, of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage." It was the manner of saying this, then, and there in the London street, the cabman moving slowly off on his sorry vehicle, with one eye (an eye dewy with gin and water, and a tear of gratitude, perhaps) on Thackeray, and the great man himself so jovial and so full of kindness!
It was a treat to hear him, as I once did, discourse of Shakespeare's probable life in Stratford among his neighbors. He painted, as he alone could paint, the great poet sauntering about the lanes without the slightest show of greatness, having a crack with the farmers, and in very earnest talk about the crops. "I don't believe," said Thackeray, "that these village cronies of his ever looked upon him as the mighty poet,
'Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air,'
but simply as a wholesome, good-natured citizen, with whom it was always pleasant to have a chat. I can see him now," continued Thackeray, "leaning over a cottage gate, and tasting good Master Such-a-one's home-brewed, and inquiring with a real interest after the mistress and her children." Long before he put it into his lecture, I heard him say in words to the same erect: "I should like to have been Shakespeare's shoe-black, just to have lived in his house, just to have worshipped him, to have run on his errands, and seen that sweet, serene face." To have heard Thackeray depict, in his own charming manner, and at considerable length, the imaginary walks and talks of Shakespeare, when he would return to his home from occasional visits to London, pouring into the ready ears of his unsophisticated friends and neighbors the gossip from town which he thought would be likely to interest them, is something to remember all one's days.
The enormous circulation achieved by the Cornhill Magazine, when it was first started with Thackeray for its editor in chief, is a matter of literary history. The announcement by his publishers that a sale of a hundred and ten thousand of the first number had been reached made the editor half delirious with joy, and he ran away to Paris to be rid of the excitement for a few days. I met him by appointment at his hotel in the Rue de la Paix, and found him wild with exultation and full of enthusiasm for excellent George Smith, his publisher. "London," he exclaimed, "is not big enough to contain me now, and I am obliged to add Paris to my residence! Great heavens," said he, throwing up his long arms, "where will this tremendous circulation stop! Who knows but that I shall have to add Vienna and Rome to my whereabouts? If the worst comes to the worst, New York, also, may fall into my clutches, and only the Rocky Mountains may be able to stop my progress!" Those days in Paris with him were simply tremendous. We dined at all possible and impossible places together. We walked round and round the glittering court of the Palais Royal, gazing in at the windows of the jewellers' shops, and all my efforts were necessary to restrain him from rushing in and ordering a pocketful of diamonds and "other trifles," as he called them; "for," said he, "how can I spend the princely income which Smith allows me for editing the Cornhill, unless I begin instantly somewhere?" If he saw a group of three or four persons talking together in an excited way, after the manner of that then riant Parisian people, he would whisper to me with immense gesticulation: "There, there, you see the news has reached Paris, and perhaps the number has gone up since my last accounts from London." His spirits during those few days were colossal, and he told me that he found it impossible to sleep, "for counting up his subscribers."
I happened to know personally (and let me modestly add, with some degree of sympathy) what he suffered editorially, when he had the charge and responsibility of a magazine. With first-class contributors he got on very well, he said, but the extortioners and revilers bothered the very life out of him. He gave me some amusing accounts of his misunderstandings with the "fair" (as he loved to call them), some of whom followed him up so closely with their poetical compositions, that his house (he was then living in Onslow Square) was never free of interruption. "The darlings demanded," said he, "that I should re-write, if I could not understand their nonsense and put their halting lines into proper form." "I was so appalled," said he, "when they set upon me with their 'ipics and their ipecacs,' that you might have knocked me down with a feather, sir. It was insupportable, and I fled away into France." As he went on, waxing drolly furious at the recollection of various editorial scenes, I could not help remembering Mr. Yellowplush's recommendation, thus characteristically expressed: "Take my advice, honrabble sir,-listen to a humble footmin: it 's genrally best in poetry to understand puffickly what you mean yourself, and to igspress your meaning clearly afterwoods,--in the simpler words the better, p'r'aps."
He took very great delight in his young daughter's first contributions to the Cornhill, and I shall always remember how he made me get into a cab, one day in London, that I might hear, as we rode along, the joyful news he had to impart, that he had just been reading his daughter's first paper, which was entitled "Little Scholars." "When I read it," said he, "I blubbered like a child, it is so good, so simple, and so honest; and my little girl wrote it, every word of it."
During his second visit to Boston I was asked to invite him to attend an evening meeting of a scientific club, which was to be held at the house of a distinguished member. I was very reluctant to ask him to be present, for I knew he could be easily bored, and I was fearful that a prosy essay or geological speech might ensue, and 1 knew he would be exasperated with me, even although I were the innocent cause of his affliction. My worst fears were realized. We had hardly got seated, before a dull, bilious-looking old gentleman rose, and applied his auger with such pertinacity that we were all bored nearly to distraction. I dared not look at Thackeray, but I felt that his eye was upon me. My distress may be imagined, when he got up quite deliberately from the prominent place where a chair had been set for him, and made his exit very noiselessly into a small anteroom leading into the larger room, and in which no one was sitting. The small apartment was dimly lighted, but he knew that I knew he was there. Then commenced a series of pantomimic feats impossible to describe adequately. He threw an imaginary person (myself, of course) upon the floor, and proceeded to stab him several times with a paper-folder, which he caught up for the purpose. After disposing of his victim in this way, he was not satisfied, for the dull lecture still went on in the other room, and he fired an imaginary revolver several times at an imaginary head. Still, the droning speaker proceeded with his frozen subject (it was something about the Arctic regions, if I remember rightly), and now began the greatest pantomimic scene of all, namely, murder by poison, after the manner in which the player king is disposed of in Hamlet. Thackeray had found a small vial on the mantel-shelf, and out of that he proceeded to pour the imaginary "juice of cursed hebenon" into the imaginary porches of somebody's ears. The whole thing was inimitably done, and I hoped nobody saw it but myself; but years afterwards, a ponderous, fat-witted young man put the question squarely to me: "What was the matter with Mr. Thackeray, that night the club met at Mr. -----'s house?"
Overhearing me say one morning something about the vast attractions of London to a greenhorn like myself, he broke in with, "Yes, but you have not seen the grandest one yet! Go with me to-day to St. Paul's and hear the charity children sing." So we went, and I saw the "head cynic of literature," the "hater of humanity," as a critical dunce in the Times once called him, hiding his bowed face, wet with tears, while his whole frame shook with emotion, as the children of poverty rose to pour out their anthems of praise. Afterwards he wrote in one of his books this passage, which seems to me perfect in its feeling and tone:--
" And yet there is one day in the year when I think St. Paul's presents the noblest sight in the whole world; when live thousand charity children, with cheeks like nosegays, and sweet, fresh voices, sing the hymn which makes every heart thrill with praise and happiness. I have seen a hundred grand sights in the world,--coronations, Parisian splendors, Crystal Palace openings, Pope's chapels with their processions of long-tailed cardinals and quavering choirs of fat soprani,--but think in all Christendom there is no such sight as Charity Children's day. Non Angelei, sed angeli. As one looks at that beautiful multitude of innocents: as the first note strikes: indeed one may almost fancy that cherubs are singing."
I parted with Thackeray for the last time in the street, at midnight, in London, a few months before his death. The Cornhill Magazine, under his editorship, having proved a very great success, grand dinners were given every month in honor of the new venture. We had been sitting late at one of these festivals, and, as it was getting toward morning, I thought it wise, as far as I was concerned, to be moving homeward before the sun rose. Seeing my intention to withdraw, he insisted on driving me in his brougham to my lodgings. When we reached the outside door of our host, Thackeray's servant, seeing a stranger with his master, touched his hat and asked where he should drive us. It was then between one and two o'clock,--time certainly for all decent diners-out to be at rest. Thackeray put on one of his most quizzical expressions, and said to John, in answer to his question, "I think we will make a morning call on the Lord Bishop of London." John knew his master's quips and cranks too well to suppose he was in earnest, so I gave him my address, and we went on. When we reached my lodgings the clocks were striking two, and the early morning air was raw and piercing. Opposing all my entreaties for leave-taking in the carriage, he insisted upon getting out on the sidewalk and escorting me up to my door, saying, with a mock heroic protest to the heavens above us, "That it would be shameful for a full-blooded Britisher to leave an unprotected Yankee friend exposed to ruffians, who prowl about the streets with an eye to plunder." Then giving me a gigantic embrace, he sang a verse of which he knew me to be very fond; and so vanished out of my sight the great-hearted author of "Pendennis" and "Vanity Fair." But I think of him still as moving, his own stately way, up and down the crowded thoroughfares of London, dropping in at the Garrick, or sitting at the window of the Athenaeum Club, and watching the stupendous tide of life that is ever moving past in that wonderful city.
Thackeray was a master in every sense, having as it were, in himself, a double quantity of being. Robust humor and lofty sentiment alternated so strangely in him, that sometimes he seemed like the natural son of Rabelais, and at others he rose up a very twin brother of the Stratford Seer. There was nothing in him amorphous and unconsidered. Whatever he chose to do was always perfectly done. There was a genuine Thackeray flavor in everything he was willing to say or to write. He detected with unfailing skill the good or the vile wherever it existed. He had an unerring eye, a firm understanding, and abounding truth. "Two of his great master powers," said the chairman at a dinner given to him many years ago in Edinburgh, "are satire and sympathy." George Brimley remarked, "That he could not have painted Vanity Fair as he has, unless Eden had been shining in his inner eye." He had, indeed, an awful insight, with a world of solemn tenderness and simplicity, in his composition. Those who heard the same voice that withered the memory of King George the Fourth repeat "The spacious firmament on high" have a recollection not easily to be blotted from the mind, and I have a kind of pity for all who were born so recently as not to have heard and understood Thackeray's Lectures. But they can read him, and I beg of them to try and appreciate the tenderer phase of his genius, as well as the sarcastic one. He teaches many lessons to young men, and here is one of them, which I quote memoriter from "Barry Lyndon": "Do you not, as a boy, remember waking of bright summer mornings and finding your mother looking over you? had not the gaze of her tender eyes stolen into your senses long before you woke, and cast over your slumbering spirit a sweet spell of peace, and love, and fresh-springing joy?" My dear friend, John Brown, of Edinburgh (whom may God long preserve to both countries where he is so loved and honored), chronicles this touching incident. " We cannot resist here recalling one Sunday evening in December, when Thackeray was walking with two friends along the Dean Road, to the west of Edinburgh,--one of the noblest outlets to any city. It was a lovely evening; such a sunset as one never forgets; a rich dark bar of cloud hovered over the sun, going down behind the Highland hills, lying bathed in amethystine bloom; between this cloud and the hills there was a narrow slip of the pure ether, of a tender cowslip color, lucid, and as if it were the very body of heaven in its clearness; every object standing out as if etched upon the sky. The northwest end of Corstorphine Hill, with its trees and rocks, lay in the heart of this pure radiance; and there a wooden crane, used in the granary below, was so placed as to assume the figure of a cross; there it was, unmistakable, lifted up against the crystalline sky. All three gazed at it silently. As they gazed, Thackeray gave utterance in a tremulous, gentle, and rapid voice to what all were feeling, in the word, 'CALVARY!' The friends walked on in silence, and then turned to other things. All that evening he was very gentle and serious, speaking, as he seldom did, of divine things,--of death, of sin, of eternity, of salvation, expressing his simple faith in God and in his Saviour."
Thackeray was found dead in his bed on Christmas morning, and he probably died without pain. His mother and his daughters were sleeping under the same roof when he passed away alone. Dickens told me that, looking on him as he lay in his coffin, he wondered that the figure he had known in life as one of such noble presence could seem so shrunken and wasted; but there had been years of sorrow, years of labor, years of pain, in that now exhausted life. It was his happiest Christmas morning when he heard the Voice calling him homeward to unbroken rest.