The company in the stage-coach consisted of a grocer and his wife, who were going to pay a visit to some of their country friends; a young officer, who took this way of marching to quarters; a middle-aged gentlewoman, who had been hired as housekeeper to some family in the country; and an elderly, well-looking man, with a remarkable old-fashioned periwig.
Harley, upon entering, discovered but one vacant seat, next the grocer’s wife, which, from his natural shyness of temper, he made no scruple to occupy, however aware that riding backwards always disagreed with him.
Though his inclination to physiognomy had met with some rubs in the metropolis, he had not yet lost his attachment to that science. He set himself, therefore, to examine, as usual, the countenances of his companions. Here, indeed, he was not long in doubt as to the preference; for besides that the elderly gentleman, who sat opposite to him, had features by nature more expressive of good dispositions, there was something in that periwig we mentioned, peculiarly attractive of Harley’s regard.
He had not been long employed in these speculations, when he found himself attacked with that faintish sickness, which was the natural consequence of his situation in the coach. The paleness of his countenance was first observed by the housekeeper, who immediately made offer of her smelling bottle, which Harley, however, declined, telling at the same time the cause of his uneasiness. The gentleman, on the opposite side of the coach, now first turned his eye from the side direction in which it had been fixed, and begged Harley to exchange places with him, expressing his regret that he had not made the proposal before. Harley thanked him, and, upon being assured that both seats were alike to him, was about to accept of his offer, when the young gentleman of the sword, putting on an arch look, laid hold of the other’s arm. “So, my old boy,” said he, “I find you have still some youthful blood about you, but, with your leave, I will do myself the honour of sitting by this lady;” and took his place accordingly. The grocer stared him as full in the face as his own short neck would allow, and his wife, who was a little, round-faced woman, with a great deal of colour in her cheeks, drew up at the compliment that was paid her, looking first at the officer, and then at the housekeeper.
This incident was productive of some discourse; for before, though there was sometimes a cough or a hem from the grocer, and the officer now and then humm’d a few notes of a song, there had not a single word passed the lips of any of the company.
Mrs. Grocer observed, how ill-convenient it was for people, who could not be drove backwards, to travel in a stage. This brought on a dissertation on stage-coaches in general, and the pleasure of keeping a chay of one’s own; which led to another, on the great riches of Mr. Deputy Bearskin, who, according to her, had once been of that industrious order of youths who sweep the crossings of the streets for the conveniency of passengers, but, by various fortunate accidents, had now acquired an immense fortune, and kept his coach and a dozen livery servants. All this afforded ample fund for conversation, if conversation it might be called, that was carried on solely by the before-mentioned lady, nobody offering to interrupt her, except that the officer sometimes signified his approbation by a variety of oaths, a sort of phraseology in which he seemed extremely versant. She appealed indeed, frequently, to her husband for the authenticity of certain facts, of which the good man as often protested his total ignorance; but as he was always called fool, or something very like it, for his pains, he at last contrived to support the credit of his wife without prejudice to his conscience, and signified his assent by a noise not unlike the grunting of that animal which in shape and fatness he somewhat resembled.
The housekeeper, and the old gentleman who sat next to Harley, were now observed to be fast asleep, at which the lady, who had been at such pains to entertain them, muttered some words of displeasure, and, upon the officer’s whispering to smoke the old put, both she and her husband purs’d up their mouths into a contemptuous smile. Harley looked sternly on the grocer. “You are come, sir,” said he, “to those years when you might have learned some reverence for age. As for this young man, who has so lately escaped from the nursery, he may be allowed to divert himself.” “Dam’me, sir!” said the officer, “do you call me young?” striking up the front of his hat, and stretching forward on his seat, till his face almost touched Harley’s. It is probable, however, that he discovered something there which tended to pacify him, for, on the ladies entreating them not to quarrel, he very soon resumed his posture and calmness together, and was rather less profuse of his oaths during the rest of the journey.
It is possible the old gentleman had waked time enough to hear the last part of this discourse; at least (whether from that cause, or that he too was a physiognomist) he wore a look remarkably complacent to Harley, who, on his part, shewed a particular observance of him. Indeed, they had soon a better opportunity of making their acquaintance, as the coach arrived that night at the town where the officer’s regiment lay, and the places of destination of their other fellow-travellers, it seems, were at no great distance, for, next morning, the old gentleman and Harley were the only passengers remaining.
When they left the inn in the morning, Harley, pulling out a little pocket-book, began to examine the contents, and make some corrections with a pencil. “This,” said he, turning to his companion, “is an amusement with which I sometimes pass idle hours at an inn. These are quotations from those humble poets, who trust their fame to the brittle tenure of windows and drinking-glasses.” “From our inn,” returned the gentleman, “a stranger might imagine that we were a nation of poets; machines, at least, containing poetry, which the motion of a journey emptied of their contents. Is it from the vanity of being thought geniuses, or a mere mechanical imitation of the custom of others, that we are tempted to scrawl rhyme upon such places?”
“Whether vanity is the cause of our becoming rhymesters or not,” answered Harley, “it is a pretty certain effect of it. An old man of my acquaintance, who deals in apothegms, used to say that he had known few men without envy, few wits without ill-nature, and no poet without vanity; and I believe his remark is a pretty just one. Vanity has been immemorially the charter of poets. In this, the ancients were more honest than we are. The old poets frequently make boastful predictions of the immortality their works shall acquire them; ours, in their dedications and prefatory discourses, employ much eloquence to praise their patrons, and much seeming modesty to condemn themselves, or at least to apologise for their productions to the world. But this, in my opinion, is the more assuming manner of the two; for of all the garbs I ever saw Pride put on, that of her humility is to me the most disgusting.”
“It is natural enough for a poet to be vain,” said the stranger. “The little worlds which he raises, the inspiration which he claims, may easily be productive of self-importance; though that inspiration is fabulous, it brings on egotism, which is always the parent of vanity.”
“It may be supposed,” answered Harley, “that inspiration of old was an article of religious faith; in modern times it may be translated a propensity to compose; and I believe it is not always most readily found where the poets have fixed its residence, amidst groves and plains, and the scenes of pastoral retirement. The mind may be there unbent from the cares of the world, but it will frequently, at the same time, be unnerved from any great exertion. It will feel imperfect, and wander without effort over the regions of reflection.”
“There is at least,” said the stranger, “one advantage in the poetical inclination, that it is an incentive to philanthropy. There is a certain poetic ground, on which a man cannot tread without feelings that enlarge the heart: the causes of human depravity vanish before the romantic enthusiasm he professes, and many who are not able to reach the Parnassian heights, may yet approach so near as to be bettered by the air of the climate.”
“I have always thought so,” replied Harley; “but this is an argument with the prudent against it: they urge the danger of unfitness for the world.”
“I allow it,” returned the other; “but I believe it is not always rightfully imputed to the bent for poetry: that is only one effect of the common cause. - Jack, says his father, is indeed no scholar; nor could all the drubbings from his master ever bring him one step forward in his accidence or syntax: but I intend him for a merchant. - Allow the same indulgence to Tom. - Tom reads Virgil and Horace when he should be casting accounts; and but t’other day he pawned his great-coat for an edition of Shakespeare. - But Tom would have been as he is, though Virgil and Horace had never been born, though Shakespeare had died a link-boy; for his nurse will tell you, that when he was a child, he broke his rattle, to discover what it was that sounded within it; and burnt the sticks of his go-cart, because he liked to see the sparkling of timber in the fire. - ’Tis a sad case; but what is to be done? - Why, Jack shall make a fortune, dine on venison, and drink claret. - Ay, but Tom - Tom shall dine with his brother, when his pride will let him; at other times, he shall bless God over a half-pint of ale and a Welsh-rabbit; and both shall go to heaven as they may. - That’s a poor prospect for Tom, says the father. - To go to heaven! I cannot agree with him.”
“Perhaps,” said Harley, “we now-a-days discourage the romantic turn a little too much. Our boys are prudent too soon. Mistake me not, I do not mean to blame them for want of levity or dissipation; but their pleasures are those of hackneyed vice, blunted to every finer emotion by the repetition of debauch; and their desire of pleasure is warped to the desire of wealth, as the means of procuring it. The immense riches acquired by individuals have erected a standard of ambition, destructive of private morals, and of public virtue. The weaknesses of vice are left us; but the most allowable of our failings we are taught to despise. Love, the passion most natural to the sensibility of youth, has lost the plaintive dignity he once possessed, for the unmeaning simper of a dangling coxcomb; and the only serious concern, that of a dowry, is settled, even amongst the beardless leaders of the dancing-school. The Frivolous and the Interested (might a satirist say) are the characteristical features of the age; they are visible even in the essays of our philosophers. They laugh at the pedantry of our fathers, who complained of the times in which they lived; they are at pains to persuade us how much those were deceived; they pride themselves in defending things as they find them, and in exploding the barren sounds which had been reared into motives for action. To this their style is suited; and the manly tone of reason is exchanged for perpetual efforts at sneer and ridicule. This I hold to be an alarming crisis in the corruption of a state; when not only is virtue declined, and vice prevailing, but when the praises of virtue are forgotten, and the infamy of vice unfelt.”
They soon after arrived at the next inn upon the route of the stage-coach, when the stranger told Harley, that his brother’s house, to which he was returning, lay at no great distance, and he must therefore unwillingly bid him adieu.
“I should like,” said Harley, taking his hand, “to have some word to remember so much seeming worth by: my name is Harley.”
“I shall remember it,” answered the old gentleman, “in my prayers; mine is Silton.”
And Silton indeed it was! Ben Silton himself! Once more, my honoured friend, farewell! - Born to be happy without the world, to that peaceful happiness which the world has not to bestow! Envy never scowled on thy life, nor hatred smiled on thy grave.