Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A billiard room acquaintance

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VII  (1862) 
A billiard room acquaintance

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There is a pleasant story told by some old writer, of a fine lady and a curate viewing the moon through a telescope.

“I perceive,” said the lady, “two shadows inclining towards each other; doubtless they are two happy lovers.”

“Not at all:” replied the curate: “they are two steeples of a cathedral.”

It is an illustration of the influence that propensity exercises over opinion and belief. Sympathy and propensity are closely related. In youth our sympathies, rarely penetrating beneath the surface, are easily ensnared by outward appearances: and it is thus, said to me one evening, a hale, vigorous, and portly gentleman of some seventy-five years, that I philosophise over a very egregious mistake I made in the estimate of two men, notorious in the annals of crime, whom chance threw across my path in early life. I was then a clerk in the counting-house of a merchant in the city of London; and, unlike my brother employés, who either lived in the house, or in the immediate neighbourhood, anticipated the habits of the present generation, inasmuch as I affected the—at that time—pretty rural suburb of Islington. One consequence of this taste for the rus in urbe was, that I was compelled to dine at an eating-house; and usually eat my solitary chop in an old tavern in New Court, Lombard Street. Upstairs there was a billiard-room in which was usually spent the remainder of my hour’s mid-day relaxation from toil. I doubt very much if I could hit a ball now, and as at my age it is inglorious to be beaten, I have long since given it up altogether, content to repose on the laurels of my youth; but, at the time I am speaking of, I was passionately fond of the game. The marker was a little shrivelled-up, prematurely-aged creature, with a malignant, cunning, leering countenance, expressive of every odious quality; an abortion, in short, who had only come into the world by mistake. Though a magnificent player, his style of play was as grotesque, uncouth, and puny as his person. The violent antipathy with which this misshapen libel on humanity inspired me, was probably as ill-grounded and unjust, as my prepossession in favour of two frequenters of the room whose ingenuous friendship seemed to emulate the fabled self-negation of Nisus and Euryalus. Their intimacy was the more extraordinary through the apparent dissimilarity between the two men. Nisus was a stout middle-sized man, of rubicund visage, beaming with good-nature and joviality. The snow-white wristbands drawn down to the top of his knuckles; the high-rolled velvet collar encircling a large expanse of shirt-frill, in the centre of which sparkled a magnificent diamond brooch; and the enormous bunch of seals and trinkets depending from his fob, appeared to my unsophisticated vision to be the outward signs of a prosperous Boniface, with an ill-regulated taste for dress and jewellery. In striking contrast was the gentlemanly, albeit threadbare, attire of Euryalus; nor less so his tall, spare figure, and care-worn, intellectual countenance. A high-bred gentleman, thought I, whom the fickle goddess has cruelly maltreated.

If I had seen these men with the eyes of my old age, would my opinion have been the same? Perhaps the grotesque marker would have excited more pity than aversion. The jovial Boniface might have been metamorphosed into a vulgar, over-dressed, and not over-scrupulous moneylender; and in the pale, haggard features of his Pythias, I should probably have traced the impress of long years of profligacy.

A circumstance that occurred about this time connected with the firm in which I was engaged, caused me to lose sight of these men; and, for a time, to forget their existence. A merchant in the Levant, with whom we had extensive business relations, failed, and I was selected to proceed thither, and save what I could out of the wreck. I was absent three years. When I returned to London the whole town was in the greatest state of excitement about the murder of Mr. Ware. A day or so afterwards I repaired to my old haunt near Lombard Street. There was a new marker in the billiard-room.

“What has become,” I inquired, “of the one who was here three years ago?”

“He hung himself,” was the reply.

“And the two gentlemen who were in the habit of playing here so constantly,” said I, describing them. “Do they still come as usual?”

“Dear me! sir! Did you not know? Why the tall one was Mr. Thurtell; and the short, stout gentleman, Mr. Ware.”