Midwinter/Preface

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PREFACE

By the Editor

Last year my friend, Mr Sebastian Derwent, on becoming senior partner of the reputable firm of solicitors which bears his name, instituted a very drastic clearing out of cupboards and shelves in the old house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Among a mass of derelict papers—cancelled deeds, mouldy files of correspondence, copies of pleadings in cases long ago forgotten—there was one little bundle which mystified him, since it had no apparent relation to the practice of the law. He summoned me to dinner, and, with our chairs drawn up to a bright fire and a decanter of his famous brown sherry between us, we discussed its antecedents.

First there was a document of three quarto pages, which appeared to be a fair copy in a scrivener's hand. It started and finished abruptly, so we judged it to be a portion of a larger work. Then came a long ill-written manuscript, partly in a little volume of which the clasp and lock had been broken, and partly on loose paper which seemed to have been torn from the beginnings and ends of printed books. The paper had no watermark that we could discover, but its quality suggested the eighteenth century. Last there was a bundle of letters in various hands, all neatly docketed and dated. Mr Derwent entrusted me with the papers, for certain words and phrases in the quarto sheets had stirred my interest. After considerable study I discovered that the packet contained a story, obscure in parts, but capable of being told with some pretence of continuity.

First for the matter copied by the amanuensis. It was clearly a fragment, intended by the compiler to form part of an introduction to the work. On first reading it I rubbed my eyes and tasted the joy of the discoverer, for I believed that I had stumbled upon an unknown manuscript of Mr James Boswell, written apparently after the publication of his Life of Johnson, and designed for a supplementary volume, which, Dr Johnson being dead, he felt at liberty to compile. On reflection I grew less certain. The thing was undoubtedly the work of an intimate friend of the Great Lexicographer, but, though there were mannerisms of style and thought which suggested Mr Boswell, I did not feel able to claim his authorship with any confidence. It might be the production of one or other of the Wartons, or of Sir Robert Chambers, or of some Oxford friend of Johnson whose name has not come down to us. Mr Derwent at my request explored the records of his firm, which extended back for the better part of a century, but could find no evidence that it had ever done business for any member of the family of Auchinleck. Nevertheless I incline to attribute the thing to Mr Boswell, for he alone of Johnson's circle was likely to have the eager interest in Scotland which the manuscript reveals, and the dates do not conflict with what we know of his movements.

Here, at all events, is the text of it:

 

In the last week of June in the year 1763 Johnson was in Oxford, and I had the honour to accompany him one afternoon to the village of Elsfield, some four miles from the city, on a visit to Mr Francis Wise, one of the fellows of Trinity College and Radcliffe's librarian. As I have already mentioned, there were certain episodes in the past life of my illustrious friend as to which I knew nothing, and certain views, nay, I venture to say prejudices, in his mind, for the origin of which I was at a loss to account. In particular I could never receive from him any narrative of his life during the years 1745 and 1746, the years of our last civil war, during which his literary career seems to have been almost totally suspended. When I endeavoured to probe the matter, he answered me with some asperity, so that I feared to embarrass him with further questions. "Sir, I was very poor," he once said, "and misery has no chronicles." His reticence on the point was the more vexatious to me, since, though a loyal supporter of the present Monarchy and Constitution, he always revealed a peculiar tenderness towards the unfortunate House of Stuart, and I could not but think that in some episode in his past lay the key to a sentiment which was at variance with his philosophy of government. I was also puzzled to explain to my own mind the reason for his attitude towards Scotland and the Scotch nation, which afforded him matter for constant sarcasms and frequent explosions of wrath. As the world knows, he had a lively interest in the primitive life of the Highlands, and an apparent affection for those parts, but towards the rest of Scotland he maintained a demeanour so critical as to be liable to the reproach of harshness. These prejudices, cherished so habitually that they could not be attributed to mere fits of spleen, surprised me in a man of such pre-eminent justice and wisdom, and I was driven to think that some early incident in his career must have given them birth; but my curiosity remained unsatisfied, for when I interrogated him, I was met with a sullen silence, if we were alone, and, if company were present, a tempestuous ridicule which covered me with blushes.

On this occasion at Elsfield that happened which whetted my curiosity, but the riddle remained unread till at this late stage of my life, when my revered Master has long been dead, fortune has given the key into my hand. Mr Francis Wise dwelt in a small ancient manor of Lord North's, situated on the summit of a hill with a great prospect over the Cherwell valley and beyond it to the Cotswold uplands. We walked thither, and spent the hour before dinner very pleasantly in a fine library, admiring our host's collection of antiquities and turning the pages of a noble folio wherein he had catalogued the coins in the Bodleian collection. Johnson was in a cheerful humour, the exercise of walking had purified his blood, and at dinner he ate heartily of veal sweetbreads, and drank three or four glasses of Madeira wine. I remember that he commended especially a great ham. "Sir," he said, "the flesh of the pig is most suitable for Englishmen and Christians. Foreigners love it little, Jews and infidels abhor it."

When the meal was over we walked in the garden, which was curiously beautified with flowering bushes and lawns adorned with statues and fountains. We assembled for tea in an arbour, constructed after the fashion of a Roman temple, on the edge of a clear pool. Beyond the water there was a sharp declivity, which had been utilised to make a cascade from the pool's overflow. This descended to a stone tank like an ancient bath, and on each side of the small ravine lines of beeches had been planted. Through the avenue of the trees there was a long vista of meadows in the valley below, extending to the wooded eminence of the Duke of Marlborough's palace of Blenheim, and beyond to the Cotswold hills. The sun was declining over these hills, and, since the arbour looked to the west, the pool and the cascade were dappled with gold, and pleasant beams escaped through the shade to our refuge.

Johnson was regaled with tea, while Mr Wise and I discussed a fresh bottle of wine. It was now that my eminent friend's demeanour, which had been most genial during dinner, suffered a sudden change. The servant who waited upon us was an honest Oxfordshire rustic with an open countenance and a merry eye. To my surprise I observed Johnson regarding him with extreme disfavour. "Who is that fellow?" he asked when the man had left us. Mr Wise mentioned his name, and that he was of a family in the village. "His face reminds me of a very evil scoundrel," was the reply. "A Scotchman," he added. "But no nation has the monopoly of rogues."

After that my friend's brow remained cloudy, and he stirred restlessly in his chair, as if eager to be gone. Our host talked of the antiquities in the neighbourhood, notably of the White Horse in Berkshire and of a similar primitive relic in Buckinghamshire, but he could elicit no response, though the subject was one to which I knew Johnson's interest to be deeply pledged. He remained with his chin sunk on his breast, and his eyes moody as if occupied with painful memories. I made anxious inquiries as to his health, but he waved me aside. Once he raised his head, and remained for some time staring across the valley at the declining sun.

"What are these hills?" he asked.

Mr Wise repeated names—Woodstock, Ditchley, Enstone. "The trees on the extreme horizon," he said, "belong to Wychwood Forest."

The words seemed to add to Johnson's depression. "Is it so?" he murmured. "Verily a strange coincidence. Sir, among these hills, which I now regard, were spent some of the bitterest moments of my life."

He said no more, and I durst not question him, nor did I ever succeed at any later date in drawing him back to the subject. I have a strong recollection of the discomfort of that occasion, for Johnson relapsed into glumness and presently we rose to leave. Mr Wise, who loved talking and displayed his treasures with the zest of the owner of a raree-show, would have us visit, before going, a Roman altar which, he said, had lately been unearthed on his estate. Johnson viewed it peevishly, and pointed out certain letters in the inscription which seemed fresher than the rest. Mr Wise confessed that he had himself re-cut these letters, in conformity, as he believed, with the purpose of the original. This threw Johnson into a transport of wrath. "Sir," he said, "the man who would tamper with an ancient monument, with whatever intentions, is capable of defiling his father's tomb." There was no word uttered between us on the walk back to Oxford. Johnson strode at such a pace that I could scarcely keep abreast of him, and I would fain have done as he did on an earlier occasion, and cried Sufflamina.[1]

The incident which I have recorded has always remained vivid in my memory, but I despaired of unravelling the puzzle, and believed that the clue was buried for ever in the grave of the illustrious dead. But, by what I prefer to call Providence rather than Chance, certain papers have lately come into my possession, which enable me to clear up the mystery of that summer evening, to add a new chapter to the life of one of the greatest of mankind, and to portray my dear and revered friend in a part which cannot fail to heighten our conception of the sterling worth of his character.

 

Thus far the quarto pages. Their author—Mr Boswell or some other—no doubt intended to explain how he received the further papers, and to cast them into some publishable form. Neither task was performed. The rest of the manuscript, as I have said, was orderly enough, but no editorial care had been given it. I have discovered nothing further about Alastair Maclean save what the narrative records, and my research among the archives of Oxfordshire families has not enabled me to add much to the history of the other figures. But I have put such materials as I had into the form of a tale, which seems of sufficient interest to present to the world. I could wish that Mr Boswell had lived to perform the task, for I am confident that he would have made a better job of it.


  1. See Boswell's Life of Johnson, anno 1754.