Obrázky stránek


" Are you sure of that ?"--OTHELLO.


There are periods in the age of the world, or in the lives of individuals, when it is absolutely impossible to make sure of any thing. Either the present time constitutes one of these epochs, or our own way of life in particular has taken that perplexed and devious turn which forbids reliance upon facts the most obvious, substitutes mystification and doubt for clear conviction, and renders it exceedingly inexpedient to trust implicitly to the evidence of such fallible witnesses as our own eyes or our own ears. As there are seasons when“ nothing is stirring but stagnation,” so in this, there is nothing quite certain but uncertainty. The only things that we can make sure of are doubts.

Mr. Puff's warning-voice should go forth, not puff-like, but trumpettoned. His caution is a memorable one, and full of meaning.--" Don't be too sure that he is a beefeater.” It turned out, as the reader will remember, that he was not.

“ There was a time when all my youthful thought

Was of the Muse, and of the poet's fame.” That was a time of solids, substances, stubborn truths, and approved realities. The later season spent in communion with the hard world, is the season of doubts, visions, perplexities, and shadows. We belong to the nothing-is-but-what-is-not school, as far as present impressions go-of course we are not sure.

Nothing appeared more certain, the other day, than that a spade was a spade; nothing is so probable now as that it is something else. It may be a diamond-or a pitchfork. What makes the matter more bewildering is that it may be a spade after all; for it does not follow that an object, because it seems one thing, will necessarily be another. There is always the doubt in any case. It is all a puzzle.

When we lately went to the theatre, it was to see a comedy, embracing a numerous set of characters. It turned out to be a farce with only one actor in it. Assured, by the opinions of several profound and impartial critics, that there was no such thing as high tragic genius in dramatic representation existing, and that Lear and Macbeth had no place upon the stage, we repaired to another house, and found the loftiest conceptions of the greatest poet imbodied with such masterly art, such fineness, originality, and truth, as might satisfy the taste and the desires of the most fastidious age. So improbable is it that you will see what you expect to see.

Our friend Mr. Diddler, a grandson of the great Jeremy, repaid and returned to us, within these ten days, two half-crowns, and an umbrella that he had been prevailed upon to borrow of us one wet night. We shall yet live to see him send back the cloak that we lent him, when it was snowing so heavily last July. Such are the eccentricities of human character. There is no end to these contradictions, deceptions, and disappointments.

It was not so formerly. We recollect the time when even a writ, served upon a gentleman of this stamp, would not have been returnable. But such is the state of incertitude and want of fixed principle in which we live, that there is no saying what obligation may not meet its return. It is contrary to all established rule—it is being taken by surprise-to have one's very mackintosh, lent perhaps at some inconvenience, returned upon one's hands, as the bootmakers say. To so strange and startling an extremity has this want of confidence in the consistency of our fellow-creatures advanced, that even when an intimate friend borrows our pet volume~the old quarto that can't be bought, or the book whose absence spoils a handsome set-even when he carries off such a treasure as this, we never feel sure now-we used, but times are altered so never feel sure that he will keep it. It is probable, highly probable, that he will bring it back again ;--scored a good deal, perhaps, down the margin with a hard lead pencil; and with a fairy ring, about the size of the bottom of a tumbler (the work of spirits), distinctly visible here and there, where the favourite passages occur ;—but still the volume is returned to us, baffling our speculations touching friendship, confounding our calculations relative to character, and teaching us, with a volume's force, that we should never make too sure of any thing-in short, that we can trust nobody.

Turn which way we will, examples of the folly of implicit confidence occur to memory Were it consistent with delicacy, we could mention the name of a speculator who embarked a considerable capital in a goldmine affair, and has actually made money. Another adventurous-minded acquaintance of ours married, not six months ago, a very pretty graceful dancer, a figurante, two seasons old, at the opera ;-and positively a more nice or prudent wife few married gentlemen's friends could desire to take particular notice of. The manner in which she scolds the maidservants for being late at church, and for not wearing-habitshirts, we believe they call them--at all hours, is quite edifying,

Only last night, there was old Tarry-behind (as rare old Bunyan would have called him), the very first to arrive, though he was not expected to join the party until half past eight; and there was Mr. Punctuality, who loves his neighbour' as himself when his neighbour gives a dinner,--no, there he was not, for he never arrived at all. More astonishing still, the one guest of all the others who had made a positive promise, who had pledged himself to attend, who was hoped for, and looked for by every body, who had sent a reiterated assurance of his coming by somebody whom he had met at three in the afternoon-well, he actually came at the hour appointed! How can one make sure after this! How can we witness these things, and still maintain the doctrine of likelihood, preserving our faith in the consistency of human character.

Under these circumstances, who, if lotteries were re-established, could be certain beforehand of drawing a blank! One might even dream of a number, and still it might come up a prize.

We may be allowed to cite another example of unlooked-for results. Certain tender juveniles (their “ united ages" hardly exceed twentyfive) whose chance it is to have been brought up among reviewers, editors, and that class of the community, lately started a manuscript journal on their own account, a little weekly gazette of literature and scienceall elegantly written (we speak of the penmanship), in double columns,

on a sheet of letter-paper! But so many patrons came about them, so many friends of the family insisted upon subscribing, that to write out weekly all the copies required, was found to be impossible. Proprietors and editors had not an hour left for tops. What is the consequence ? The next number is to contain an announcement to the following effect, In consequence of the unexpected success which this journal has met with, the proprietors are under the necessity of discontinuing it.” To achieve, therefore, is to fail in some cases. · It is impossible, in these days to calculate with certainty even upon the wearisome stupidity of a comic pantomime. These things will sometimes turn out to be diverting in spite of their inventors; as instruction is occasionally to be drawn from grave pompous moral volumes, the authors of which appear to have taken prodigious pains, and to have exercised considerable ingenuity, in an enlightened endeavour to esclude every chance of edification.

“The thing is as clear as the sun at noonday," is a phrase employed to convey an assurance that the object specified is undeniably apparent. It should more often be used to express the undiscoverableness of the object. Who for weeks past can pretend to have had a glimpse of the sun at noonday !-the hour at which he usually attains his highest pitch of obscurity. Yet whatever the chances, nobody can be certain, that even then he will not take it into his eccentric head to shine forth “unawares;" like the lady who, simply for the sake of seeing a tradesman stare, paid him on the spot. There can be no stronger proof of the especial uncertainty which regulates, or rather which does not regulate, the era in which we live, than that no living creature can settle himself in any part of England to pass his summer-season, without running the chance of two or three--perhaps half-a-dozen, decidedly fine days. It is only a chance, but still there it is. Accidents will happen in the best regulated climates.

There is another comparison sometimes cited in support of the doctrine of certainty—and equally fatal to it. Every reader recollects it, “as sure as eggs is eggs. But “is" they sure that is the question. When we last stopped to breakfast at the crack inn of a certain market-town in one of the midland counties (we scorn the ill-nature of exact specification), “the eggs was young chickens!" So much for making sure.

Railway travellers have now given up their faith in the regularity of overturns, collisions, and explosions. No longer reposing confidence in the punctuality of a shock, they proceed on their journey with no guarantee that they will arrive at the place of their destination with fewer limbs or a smaller quantity of brain than they possessed at the moment of departure. Notwithstanding the steam-boat collisions during the season, in consequence of the number of careful and experienced men, to whom " no blame" can be attributed, that are employed in that branch of navigation—who can make sure of reaching the bottom of the Thames at any hour of the day, from any one point between Richmond and Gravesend! With such regulations as are pow in force, and with such tides of improvement pouring themselves incessantly into one broad and flowing channel, what pedestrian can feel thoroughly secure of being run over by an omnibus, or of being robbed if he gets into it! Would the confident gentleman who calls


a cab from the stand-any one, he may take his choice throughout the range of the metropolis-be quite safe in taking a precautionary and prejudging oath that the driver will attempt to cheat him of at least a sixpence! Why, even the hackney-coachman, who, from the crabbeddess of age, or fancied ill-usage caused by cab and omnibus innovation, or perhaps from superior practice and more matured experience in the arts of cheating and abuse, is decidedly the most knavish and insolent of all the vehicular prodigies of the time—even he will sometimes startle people with a volley of excessive civility, and the demand of his exact fare and not a farthing inore. No; perfect reliance is not to be placed in any man. We cannot confidently reckon, whatever the vehicle the driver, on having our visual organs condemned in even the blandest and most approved style-we cannot assure ourselves that we shall be defrauded even upon the most moderate terms.

There is then no certainty in life. The course of events ever baffles human calculation. Render some profligate a service in sheer unthinking pity, if you will; but do not immediately make up your mind that he will persecute you for similar services twice a week for ten years, and then vilify you without bounds and without compunction for the rest of your life. Make not so sure. Perhaps he will merely, persecute you for favours during nine years, and vilify you during the term of his natural life only!

Set a thief to catch a thief was a safe maxim once; now the thief who used to be caught so, is apt to be safe instead of the maxim. Can you now ensure a man's life in a duel-guarantee him shot-free? is it quite certain that the pistol of his antagonist will be unloaded, or that his second will get winged instead of himself? Is it an established fact that the aeronaut must inevitably break his neck in the long-run, or that it is physically impossible for an alderman to make any but an apoplectic exit!

There is an old saying, “ as regular as death and quarter day.” Even upon these established certainties, there can now be no reliance. When so many tenants, judging from the all-but universal complaint, labour under that horrible householder's malady, the impossibility of paying up, how can there be said to be any quarter-day for the landlord ? and when the landlord on the other hand, shows the occupiers of his farms and tenements no quarter, it is surely no-quarter-day to the tenant.

But death! Ay, " death is certain," as Master Shallow boldly alleges, when he hears that his old acquaintance is dead. But it is Shallow that says it. That should be especially noted. In fact, death is no less an uncertainty; for Shallow's old acquaintance, Double, may perchance be as lively all the time as Prince Hal's “old acquaintance,' Falstaff. Lives there a man with soul so dead, as not to feel the presence of Death in the high places of the land? Among the peers of the realm, in the high court of justice, and even upon the stage where Life in all its forms is delineated! Let those who have mourned for Sir James Scarlett, let all who have bewailed Lord Brougham, let each sorrower over the mortal remains of Mr. Braham (a cloud of witnesses) bear testimony now to the uncertainty of death. After what has happened, we shall take no ghost's word for a thousand pounds. In these times we shouldn't feel safe in believing a man to be dead, although, as they say in Ireland, he were to tell us so himself.

[ocr errors]

What is the risk that we incur by our credulity? We burst forth into loud lamentation; we shed more tears than a crocodile, or a widow when unrelieved by solitude from the necessity of aqueous affliction ; we quarrel with our best friend for insisting that we shall be comforted, and for hinting that the deceased was, while yet he lived, a little lower than the angels; we put ourselves to real trouble (that's the worst of it) in inventing impossible virtues for the departed; we rack our minds to absolute torture in discovering and devising all the luminous qualities of intellect and genius that it may be possible to endow him with; we order a suit of deep mourning, taking care to have it made of the patent waterproof cloth for the convenience of crying in torrents; and then all of a sudden, in steps somebody with his “ haven't you heard ?” as the prelude to a blunt, laughing, unceremonious, and we will add unfeeling declaration, that it's all a mistake,

- erratum in our last, for “ dead” read “ quite the reverse”—and that
the illustrious defunct, so far from being food for worms, is just then
hospitably entertaining a particularly hilarious party at dinner. Rather
than run the risk of having the most sacred feelings of our nature
trifled with at this rate, we would live on for ever in disbelief of death
--repudiating the theory of mortality—in doubt, perpetual and anxious,
as to the final departure of Queen Anne.

suppose the erroneous register of a name in the obituary pra. duces—as will happen in some cases— feelings of an opposite nature ! Suppose the seal of death unseals living lips—that the speechlessness of one brings the signal for speaking to many—that we reverse the popular maxim, and adopt the nil nisi malum principle, resolving at last to say openly all we think of the deceased. 'Do we incur less risk of eventual discomfiture, however pleasant the sport may be while it lasts? Grant that we give free loose to our love of truth directly the breath is presumed to be out of the body, and immediately set about proving the dead lion to have been an ass while alive; that we hear the sad news with a shrug, and confess that every thing is ordered for the best, adding, that if the calamity had happened long before, it might have been better still for all parties; that the present is not an occasion when the most sensitive of human plants can be expected to be much moved, and that no created thing will be broken-hearted about the business ; that for our own parts we have not the smallest wish to seize, at such a moment, an opportunity of being ill-natured, but at the same time every body must admit that he was a horrid brute; that we have been acquainted with him from childhood continuing in close intimacy to the day of his death—but that if we were called upon to say what we think of him (as we are not), truth and candour would require us to own that a thicker head or a hollower heart, we never had the misfortune to be bored with or to be injured by; that there may be persons who thought him amiable, but we will venture to say they are all in Bedlam; that some people very possibly thought him not such a fool as he looked ; but that it would have served such boobies right if they had been cona demned to pass an evening in his company, that's all. Grant that we have said all this and much more, substituting for a tearful elegy, a stinging epigram, of which we have just been prevailed upon to give one copy to an especial friend of the deceased-when lo! the door is flung open, his name is pronounced, the deceased himself stalks in in his habit as he lived—the late Mr. Cumagain alive and merry-coga

« PředchozíPokračovat »