The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 6/The Great Event of the Century

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THE GREAT EVENT OF THE CENTURY.

 

A LETTER FROM PAUL TOTTER, OF NEW YORK, TO THE DON ROBERTO WAGONERO, COMMORANT OF WASHINGTON, IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.

22,728 Five Hundred and Fifty-First St.,
New York, May 1, 1858.

Dear Don Bobus,—Pardon my abruptness. In medias res is the rule, you know, formose puer, my excellent old boy! Bring out the Saint Peray, if there be a bottle of that flavorous and flavous tipple in your extensive cellars,—which I doubt, since you never had more than a single flask thereof, presented to you by a returned traveller, who bought it, to my certain knowledge, of a mixer in Congress Street, in Boston. We drank it, O ale-knight, sub teg. pat. fag. more than five years ago, of a summer evening, in dear old Cambridge, then undisfigured by the New Chapel. That it did not kill us as dead as Stilpo of Megara (vide Seneca de Const. for a notice of that foolish old Stoic) was entirely owing to my abstinence and your naturally strong constitution; for I remember that you bolted nearly the whole of it. You proved yourself to be a Mithridates of white lead; while I—but I say no more. I could quote you an appropriate passage from the tippler of Teos, and in the original Greek, if I had not long ago pawned my copy of Anacreon (Barnes, 12 mo. Cantab. 1721) to a fellow in Cornhill, who sold it on the very next day to a total-abstinence tutor. Episodically I may say, that the purchaser read it to such purpose, that within a week he rose to the honor of sleeping in the station-house, from which keep he was rescued by a tearful friend, who sent him to the country, solitude, and spruce-beer.

"It is useless," says the Staggerite, "for a sober man to knock at the door of the Muses." It may also be useless for a sober man to try to write letters to "The New York Scorpion." In your perilous and unhappy situation you must be a rule unto yourself. But remember, O Bobus, the saying of Montaigne, that "apoplexy will knock down Socrates as well as a porter." You are not exactly Socrates; but your best friends have remarked that you are getting to be exceedingly stout. Stick to your cups, but forbear, as Milton says, "to interpose them oft." In medio tutissimus,—Half a noggin is better than no wine. For the sake of the dear old times, spare me the pain of seeing you a reformed inebriate or a Martha Washington!

Between Drunken Barnaby and Neal Dow there is, I trust, a position which a gentleman may occupy. Because I have a touch of Charles Surface in my constitution, I need not make a Toodles of myself. So bring out the smallest canakin and let it clink softly,—for I have news to tell you.

I remember, Bob, my boy, once upon a certain Fourth of July,—I leave the particular Fourth as indefinite as Mr. Webster's "some Fourth" upon which we were to go to war with England,—while there was a tintinnabulation of the bells, and an ear-splitting tantivy of brass-bands, and an explosion of squibs, which, properly engineered, would have prostrated the great Chinese Wall, or the Porcelain Tower itself, —in short, a noise loud enough to make a Revolutionary patriot turn with joy in his coffin,—that I left my Pottery, after dutifully listening to Mrs. Potter's performance of twenty-eight brilliant variations, pour le piano, on "Yankee Doodle," by H. Hertz, (Op. 22,378,)—and sought the punches and patriotism, the joy and the juleps of the Wagonero Cottage. I found you, Bobus, as cool as if Fahrenheit and Reaumur were not bursting around you. Well do I remember the patriarchal appearance which you presented, seated in your own garden, (I think you took the prize for pompions at the county exhibition soon after,) under your own wide-spreading elm-tree, reading for facts in one of those confounded cigars, with which, being proof against them yourself, you were in the habit of poisoning your friends. Solitary and alone, you would have reminded me of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,—three distinguished heads of families rolled into one,—but, surrounded as you were by the fruits of a happy union, the triple comparison was not to be resisted. Notwithstanding your hearty welcome, I was a little dispirited,—for I had come from a childless home. God had taken my sole little lamb,—and many miles away, with none to care for the flowers which in the first winter of our bereavement we had scattered upon her rounded grave, she who was the light of our eyes was sleeping. And while we were thus stricken and lonesome and desolate, your quiver was full and running over. I do not mind saying now, that I envied you, as I distributed the squibs, rockets, and other pyrotechnical fodder which I had brought in my pocket for your flock. I gulped it all down, however, with a pretty good grace, and went to my dinner like a philosopher. Do you not remember that I was particularly brilliant upon that occasion, and that I told my best story only three times in the course of the evening? I flatter myself that I know how to conceal my feelings,—although I punished your claret cruelly, and was sick after it.

I have a notion, dear Don, that I am not writing very coherently, as you, whether pransus or impransus, almost always do. Under agitating circumstances you are cool, and I verily think that you would have reported the earthquake at Lisbon without missing one squashed hidalgo, one drop of the blue blood spilt, one convent unroofed, or one convent belle damaged. Your report would have been minutely circumstantial enough to have found favor with Samuel Johnson, L.L. D., who for so long a time refused to believe in the Portuguese convulsion. But we are not all fit by nature to put about butter-tubs in July. I plead guilty to an excitable temperament. The Bowery youth here speak of a kind of perspiration which, metaphorically, they designate as "a cast-iron sweat." This for the last twelve hours has been my own agonizing style of exudation. And, moreover, the startling event of which I am to write has (to borrow again from the sage Montaigne) created in me "so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without design or order, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make them ashamed of themselves." The novelty of my position causes me to shamble and shuffle, now to pause painfully, and then to dance like a droll. I go out from the presence of my household, that I may vent myself by private absurdities and exclusive antics, I retire into remote corners, that I may grin fearfully, unseen of Mistress Gamp and my small servant. I am possessed by a shouting devil, who is continually prompting me to give the "hip-hip-hurrah!" under circumstances which might split apex and base of several of my most important arteries,—which might bring on apoplexy, epilepsy, suffusion of the brain, or hernia,—which might cause death,—yes, Sir,—death of the mother, father, and child. —Really, good friends, I ask your pardon! I do not know what I have done. Did I collar you, Dr. Slop? Send in your bill tomorrow! Did I smash the instruments beyond repair? And should you say now,—just speaking off-hand,—that two hundred and fifty dollars would be money enough to repair them? Of course, I can commit highway robbery, if it be absolutely necessary. My dear Mrs. Gamp, I fully appreciate the propriety of your suggestions. You want one quart of gin;—I comprehend. Shall it be your Hollands, your Aromatic Scheidam, your Nantz, or our own proud Columbian article? You want one quart of rum, potus e saccharo confectus! You want one quart of brandy. You want one gallon of wine. You want a dozen of brown-stout. You want the patent vulcanized India-rubber pump. You want anise,— pimpinella anisum;—I comprehend. You want castor-oil,—a very fine medicine indeed,—I tasted it myself when a boy. You want magnesia. You want the patent Vesuvian night-lamp. Madam, that volcanic utensil shall be forthcoming.

Do I rave, Don Bob? Has reason caught the royal trick of the century, and left her throne? Let me be calm, as becometh one suddenly swelled into ancestral proportions! This small lump of red clay shall inherit my name, and my estate, which I now seriously purpose to acquire. For her will I labor. For her I will gorge "The Clarion" with leading articles. For her I will write the long dreamed-of poem in twenty-four parts. For her I will besiege the private dens of my friends the booksellers. Dear, helpless little atomy! infinitesimal object of love! bud, germ, seed, blossom, tidbit, morsel, mannikin, tomtit, abbreviation, concentration, quintessence! tiny multum in parvo! charming diamond edition! thou small, red possibility! weeping promise of glad days to come! For thee will I put the world under contribution! For thee will I master 'pathy and 'logy and 'nomy and 'sophy! All was and is for thee! For thee sages have written; for thee science has toiled; for thee looms are clanking, ships are sailing, and strong men laboring! Thou art born to a fortune better than one of gold! I am but thy servant, to bring all treasures and lay them at thy feet! Be remorseless, exacting, greedy of our love and our lore! Come, young queen, into thy queendom! All is thine!

Bobus, my friend, you undoubtedly think that I am beside myself. You are a tough, knotty old tree, and I have only one tender shoot. You may sneer, or you may pity,—I care not one baubee for your praise or your blame. I shall take my own course. I feel my responsibility, Sir! I shall not come to you for advice! I shall pursue the path of duty, Sir!—Come to you, forsooth! What could you give? A lot of rubbish from Confucius, with a farrago of useless knowledge anent the breeching and birching of babies in Japan. I shall seek original sources of information. What do you know, for instance, of lactation and the act of sucking, Sir? I have been, like a good Christian, to my Paley already. Hear the Archdeacon of Carlisle! "The teeth are formed within the gums, and there they stop; the fact being, that their farther advance to maturity would not only be useless to the new-born animal, but extremely in its way; as it is evident that the act of sucking, by which it is for some time to be nourished, will be performed with more ease, both to the nurse and to the infant, whilst the inside of the mouth and edges of the gums are smooth and soft, than if set with hard-pointed bones. By the time they are wanted, the teeth are ready." Now, dear Don, is not that an interesting piece of information? You are not a mother, and probably you never will be one; but can you imagine anything more unpleasant to the maternal sensibilities than a child born with teeth? Mentally and prophetically unpleasant, as suggestive of the amiable Duke of Gloser, who came into the world grinning at dentists; physically unpleasant, in respect of bites, and the impossibility of emulating the complying conduct of Osric the water-fly, whose early politeness was vouched for by the Lord Hamlet. Bethink you, moreover, Don, of a wailing infant, full furnished with two rows of teeth—and nothing to masticate! whereas he must have been more cruel than the "parient" of the Dinah celebrated in song as the young lady who did not marry Mr. Villikins, that does not have something ready for them to do by the time the molars and bicuspids appear. I know the perils of dentition. But have we not the whole family of carminatives? Did the immortal Godfrey live and die in vain? Did not a kind Providence vouchsafe to us a Daffy? Are there not corals? Are there not India-rubber rings? And is there not the infinite tenderness and pity which we learn for the small, wailing sufferer, as, during the night which is not stilly, while the smouldering wick paints you, an immense, peripatetic silhouette, upon the wall, you pace to and fro the haunted chamber, and sing the song your mother sang while you were yet a child? What a noble privilege of martyrdom! What but parental love, deathless and irresistible, could tempt you thus, in drapery more classical than comfortable, to brave all dangers, to aggravate your rheumatism, to defy that celebrated god, Tirednature'ssweetrestorer, and to take your snatches of sleep à pied, a kind of fatherly walking Stewart, as if you were doing your thousand miles in a thousand hours for a thousand dollars, and were sure of winning the money? Believe me, my friend, the world has many such martyrs, unknown, obscure, suffering men, whose names Rumor never blows through her miserable conch-shell,—and I am one of them. As Bully Bertram says, in Maturin's pimento play,—"I am a wretch, and proud of wretchedness." A child, the offspring of your own loins, is something worth watching for. Such a father is your true Tapley;—there is some credit in coming out jolly under such circumstances. The unnatural parent, as those warning cries break the silence, may counterfeit Death's counterfeit, and may even be guilty of the surpassing iniquity of simulating a snore. Nunquam dormio; I am like "The Sun" newspaper,—sleepless, tireless, disturbed, but imperturbable. I meet my fate, and find the pang a pleasant one. And so may I ever be, through all febrile, cutaneous, and flatulent vicissitudes,—careful of chicken-pox, mild with mumps and measles, unwearied during the weaning, growing tenderer with each succeeding rash, kinder with every cold, gentler with every grief, and sweeter-tempered with every sorrow sent to afflict my little woman! 'Tis a rough world. We must acclimate her considerately.

Of the matter of education I also have what are called "views." I may be peculiar. School-committee-men who spell Jerusalem with a G, drill-sergeants who believe in black-boards and visible numerators, statistical fellows who judge of the future fate of the republic by the average attendance at the "Primaries," may not agree with me in my idea of bending the twig. I do believe, that, if Dame Nature herself should apply for a school, some of these wise Dogberries would report her "unqualyfide." I will not murder my pretty pet. So she be gentle, kindly, and loving, what care I if at sixteen years of age she cannot paint the baptism of John upon velvet, does not know a word of that accursed French language, breaks down in the "forward and back" of a cotillon, and cannot with spider fingers spin upon the piano the swiftest Tarantelle of Chopin.—♩= 2558 Metronome? We will find something better and braver than all that, my little Alice! Confound your Italianos!—the birds shall be the music-masters of my tiny dame. Moonrise, and sunset, and the autumnal woods shall teach her tint and tone. The flowers are older than the school-botanies;— she shall give them pet names at her own sweet will. We will not go to big folios to find out the big Latin names of the butterflies; but be sure, pet, they and you shall be better acquainted. And long before you have acquired that most profitless of all arts, the art of reading, we will go very deeply into ancient English literature. There is the story of the enterprising mouse, who, at one o'clock precisely, ran down the clock to the cabalistic tune of "Dickory, dickory, dock." There are the bold bowl-mariners of Gotham. There is "the man of our town," who was unwise enough to destroy the organs of sight by jumping into a bramble-bush, and who came triumphantly out of the experiment, and "scratched them in again," by boldly jumping into another bush,—the oldest discoverer on record of the doctrine that similia similibus curantur. There are Jack and Gill, who, not living in the days of the Cochituate, went up the hill for water, and who, in descending, met with cerebral injuries. There are the dietetic difficulties of Mr. and Mrs. Sprat, with the happy solution of a problem at one time threatening the domestic peace of this amiable pair. Be sure, little woman, we will find merry morsels in the silly-wise book! And there will be other silly-wise books. Cinderella shall again lose her slipper, and marry the prince; the wolf shall again eat little Red Ridinghood; and the small eyes grow big at the adventures of Sinbad, the gallant tar. Will not this be better, Don Bob, than pistil and stamen and radicle?—than wearing out B B B lead pencils in drawing tumble-down castles, rickety cottages, and dumpling-shaped trees?—than acquiring a language which has no literature fit for a girl to read?—than mistressing the absurd modern piano music?—than taking diplomas from institutes, which most certainly do not express all that young women learn in those venerable seats of learning? We will not put stays upon our pet until we are obliged to do so. Birdie shall abide in the paternal nest, and sing the old home-songs, and walk in the old home-ways, until she has a nice new nest of her own.

Do I dote, Don Bob? Is there a smirk, a villanous, unfeeling, disagreeable, cynical sneer, lurking under your confounded moustache? I know you of old, you miserable, mocking Mephistopheles!—you sneerer, you scoffer, you misbeliever! No more of that, or I will travel three hundred miles expressly to break your head. Take a glass of claret, Bob, and be true to your better nature; for I suppose you have a better nature packed away somewhere, if one could but get at it. Those who have no children may laugh, but as a paterfamilias you should be ashamed to do so. And after all, this is a pretty serious business. As I sit here and dream and hope and pray, and try to compute the infinite responsibility which has come with this infinite joy, I am very humble, and I murmur, "Who is sufficient? who is sufficient?" And if you will look at the right-hand corner of this page, you will find a great splashy blot. Lachrymal, Bob, upon my word! 'Tis time to write "Yours, &c." Moreover, I am needed for some duty in the nursery. Pleasant dreams! Health and happiness to Señora Wagonero, and all the little doubleyous. With assurances, &c., I remain, &c., &c.,

Paul Potter.

P. S.—Could you tell me the precise age at which Japanese children begin to learn the use of globes?

P. P. S.—Do Spanish nurses use Daffy? Is there any truth in the statement of Don Lopez Cervantes Murillo, that Columbus was "brought up by hand"?

P. P. P. S.—Could you give me the aggregate weight of all the children born in the Island of Formosa, from 1692 to the present time, with the proportion of the sexes, and the average annual mortality, and any other perfectly useless information respecting that island?

P. P.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.