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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Colonel Newcome in the Cave of Harmony
By William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
 
From ‘The Newcomes’

THERE was once a time when the sun used to shine brighter than it appears to do in this latter half of the nineteenth century; when the zest of life was certainly keener; when tavern wines seemed to be delicious, and tavern dinners the perfection of cookery; when the perusal of novels was productive of immense delight, and the monthly advent of magazine-day was hailed as an exciting holiday; when to know Thompson, who had written a magazine article, was an honor and a privilege, and to see Brown, the author of the last romance, in the flesh, and actually walking in the Park with his umbrella and Mrs. Brown, was an event remarkable, and to the end of life to be perfectly well remembered; when the women of this world were a thousand times more beautiful than those of the present time, and the houris of the theatres especially so ravishing and angelic, that to see them was to set the heart in motion, and to see them again was to struggle for half an hour previously at the door of the pit; when tailors called at a man’s lodgings to dazzle him with cards of fancy waistcoats; when it seemed necessary to purchase a grand silver dressing-case, so as to be ready for the beard which was not yet born (as yearling brides provide lace caps, and work rich clothes, for the expected darling); when to ride in the Park on a ten-shilling hack seemed to be the height of fashionable enjoyment, and to splash your college tutor as you were driving down Regent Street in a hired cab the triumph of satire; when the acme of pleasure seemed to be to meet Jones of Trinity at the Bedford, and to make an arrangement with him, and with King of Corpus (who was staying at the Colonnade), and Martin of Trinity Hall (who was with his family in Bloomsbury Square) to dine at the Piazza, go to the play and see Braham in ‘Fra Diavolo,’ and end the frolic evening by partaking of supper and a song at the Cave of Harmony. It was in the days of my own youth then that I met one or two of the characters who are to figure in this history; and whom I must ask leave to accompany for a short while, and until, familiarized with the public, they can make their own way. As I recall them the roses bloom again, and the nightingales sing by the calm Bendemeer.  1
  Going to the play then, and to the pit, as was the fashion in those merry days, with some young fellows of my own age; having listened delighted to the most cheerful and brilliant of operas, and laughed enthusiastically at the farce, we became naturally hungry at twelve o’clock at night, and a desire for Welsh rabbits and good old glee-singing led us to the Cave of Harmony, then kept by the celebrated Hoskins, among whose friends we were proud to count.  2
  We enjoyed such intimacy with Mr. Hoskins that he never failed to greet us with a kind nod; and John, the waiter, made room for us near the president of the convivial meeting. We knew the three admirable glee-singers, and many a time they partook of brandy-and-water at our expense. One of us gave his call dinner at Hoskins’s, and a merry time we had of it. Where are you, O Hoskins, bird of the night! Do you warble your songs by Acheron, or troll your choruses by the banks of black Avernus?  3
  The goes of stout, ‘The Chough and Crow,’ the Welsh rabbit, the ‘Red-Cross Knight,’ the hot brandy-and-water, (the brown, the strong!) the ‘Bloom is on the Rye,’ (the bloom isn’t on the rye any more!)—the song and the cup, in a word, passed round merrily, and I daresay the songs and bumpers were encored. It happened that there was a very small attendance at the Cave that night, and we were all more sociable and friendly because the company was select. The songs were chiefly of the sentimental class; such ditties were much in vogue at the time of which I speak.  4
  There came into the Cave a gentleman with a lean brown face and long black mustaches, dressed in very loose clothes, and evidently a stranger to the place. At least he had not visited it for a long time. He was pointing out changes to a lad who was in his company; and calling for sherry-and-water, he listened to the music, and twirled his mustaches with great enthusiasm.  5
  At the very first glimpse of me the boy jumped up from the table, bounded across the room, ran to me with his hands out, and blushing, said, “Don’t you know me?”  6
  It was little Newcome, my schoolfellow, whom I had not seen for six years; grown a fine, tall young stripling now, with the same bright blue eyes which I remembered when he was quite a little boy.  7
  “What the deuce brings you here?” said I.  8
  He laughed, and looked roguish. “My father—that’s my father—would come. He’s just come back from India. He says all the wits used to come here,—Mr. Sheridan, Captain Morris, Colonel Hanger, Professor Porson. I told him your name, and that you used to be very kind to me when I first went to Smithfield. I’ve left now; I’m to have a private tutor. I say, I’ve got such a jolly pony! It’s better fun than old Smiffle.”  9
  Here the whiskered gentleman, Newcome’s father, pointing to a waiter to follow him with his glass of sherry-and-water, strode across the room, twirling his mustaches, and came up to the table where we sat, making a salutation with his hat in a very stately and polite manner, so that Hoskins himself was, as it were, obliged to bow; the glee-singers murmured among themselves (their eyes rolling over their glasses toward one another as they sucked brandy-and-water); and that mischievous little wag, little Nadab the Improvisatore (who had just come in), began to mimic him, feeling his imaginary whiskers after the manner of the stranger, and flapping about his pocket handkerchief in the most ludicrous manner. Hoskins checked this ribaldry by sternly looking toward Nadab; and at the same time called upon the gents to give their orders, the waiter being in the room, and Mr. Bellew about to sing a song.  10
  Newcome’s father came up and held out his hand to me. I daresay I blushed; for I had been comparing him to the admirable Harley in ‘The Critic,’ and had christened him Don Ferolo Whiskerandos.  11
  He spoke in a voice exceedingly soft and pleasant; and with a cordiality so simple and sincere that my laughter shrank away ashamed, and gave place to a feeling much more respectful and friendly. In youth, you see, one is touched by kindness. A man of the world may of course be grateful or not, as he chooses.  12
  “I have heard of your kindness, sir,” says he, “to my boy. And whoever is kind to him is kind to me. Will you allow me to sit down by you? and may I beg you to try my cheroots?” We were friends in a minute—young Newcome snuggling by my side, his father opposite,—to whom, after a minute or two of conversation, I presented my three college friends.  13
  “You have come here, gentlemen, to see the wits,” says the colonel. “Are there any celebrated persons in the room? I have been five-and-thirty years from home, and want to see all that is to be seen.”  14
  King of Corpus (who was an incorrigible wag) was on the point of pulling some dreadful long-bow, and pointing out a half-dozen of people in the room as R—— and H—— and L——, etc., the most celebrated wits of that day; but I cut King’s shins under the table, and got the fellow to hold his tongue.  15
  “Maxima debetur pueris,” says Jones (a fellow of very kind feeling, who has gone into the Church since); and writing on his card to Hoskins, hinted to him that a boy was in the room, and a gentleman who was quite a greenhorn, hence that the songs had better be carefully selected.  16
  And so they were. A lady’s school might have come in, and but for the smell of the cigars and brandy-and-water have taken no harm by what happened. Why should it not always be so? If there are any Caves of Harmony now, I warrant Messieurs the landlords their interests would be better consulted by keeping their singers within bounds. The very greatest scamps like pretty songs, and are melted by them; so are honest people. It was worth a guinea to see the simple colonel, and his delight at the music. He forgot all about the distinguished wits whom he had expected to see, in his ravishment over the glees.  17
  “I say, Clive, this is delightful. This is better than your aunt’s concert with all the Squallinis, hey? I shall come here often. Landlord, may I venture to ask those gentlemen if they will take any refreshments? What are their names?” (to one of his neighbors)—“I was scarcely allowed to hear any singing before I went out, except an oratorio, where I fell asleep; but this, by George, is as fine as Incledon!” He became quite excited over his sherry-and-water: “I’m sorry to see you, gentlemen, drinking brandy-pawnee,” says he. “It plays the deuce with our young men in India.” He joined in all the choruses with an exceedingly sweet voice. He laughed at the Derby Ram so that it did one good to hear him; and when Hoskins sang (as he did admirably) the ‘Old English Gentleman,’ and described in measured cadence the death of that venerable aristocrat, tears trickled down the honest warrior’s cheek, while he held out his hand to Hoskins and said, “Thank you, sir, for that song: it is an honor to human nature.” On which Hoskins began to cry too.  18
  And now young Nadab, having been cautioned, commenced one of those surprising feats of improvisation with which he used to charm audiences. He took us all off, and had rhymes pat about all the principal persons in the room: King’s pins (which he wore very splendidly), Martin’s red waistcoat, etc. The colonel was charmed with each feat, and joined delighted with the chorus—Ritolderolritolderol ritolderolderay (bis). And when, coming to the colonel himself, he burst out,—
  A military gent I see—and while his face I scan,
I think you’ll all agree with me—he came from Hindostan:
And by his side sits laughing free—a youth with curly head;
I think you’ll all agree with me—that he was best in bed.
                Ritolderol, etc.,—
the colonel laughed immensely at this sally, and clapped his son, young Clive, on the shoulder. “Hear what he says of you, sir? Clive, best be off to bed, my boy—ho, ho! No, no. We know a trick worth two of that. ‘We won’t go home till morning, till daylight does appear.’ Why should we? Why shouldn’t my boy have innocent pleasure? I was allowed none when I was a young chap, and the severity was nearly the ruin of me. I must go and speak with that young man—the most astonishing thing I ever heard in my life. What’s his name? Mr. Nadab? Mr. Nadab, sir, you have delighted me. May I make so free as to ask you to come and dine with me to-morrow at six. Colonel Newcome, if you please, Nerot’s Hotel, Clifford Street. I am always proud to make the acquaintance of men of genius, and you are one, or my name is not Newcome.”
  19
  “Sir, you do me Hhonor,” says Mr. Nadab, pulling up his shirt collar, “and perhaps the day will come when the world will do me justice: may I put down your hhonored name for my book of poems?”  20
  “Of course, my dear sir,” says the enthusiastic colonel: “I’ll send them all over India. Put me down for six copies, and do me the favor to bring them to-morrow when you come to dinner.”  21
  And now, Mr. Hoskins asking if any gentleman would volunteer a song, what was our amazement when the simple Colonel offered to sing himself, at which the room applauded vociferously; while methought poor Clive Newcome hung down his head and blushed as red as a peony. I felt for the young lad; and thought what my own sensations would have been, if in that place, my own uncle, Major Pendennis, had suddenly proposed to exert his lyrical powers.  22
  The Colonel selected the ditty of ‘Wapping Old Stairs’ (a ballad so sweet and touching that surely any English poet might be proud to be the father of it); and he sang this quaint and charming old song in an exceedingly pleasant voice, with flourishes and roulades in the old Incledon manner, which has pretty nearly passed away. The singer gave his heart and soul to the simple ballad, and delivered Molly’s gentle appeal so pathetically that even the professional gentlemen hummed and buzzed a sincere applause; and some wags who were inclined to jeer at the beginning of the performance, clinked their glasses and rapped their sticks with quite a respectful enthusiasm. When the song was over, Clive held up his head too; after the shock of the first verse, looked round with surprise and pleasure in his eyes: and we, I need not say, backed our friend, delighted to see him come out of his queer scrape so triumphantly. The colonel bowed and smiled with very pleasant good-nature at our plaudits. It was like Dr. Primrose preaching his sermon in the prison. There was something touching in the naïveté and kindness of the placid and simple gentleman.  23
  Great Hoskins, placed on high amid the tuneful choir, was pleased to signify his approbation, and gave his guest’s health in his usual dignified manner. “I am much obliged to you, sir,” said Mr. Hoskins; “the room ought to be much obliged to you, I drink your ’ealth and song, sir;” and he bowed to the colonel politely over his glass of brandy-and-water, of which he absorbed a little in his customer’s honor. “I have not heard that song,” he was kind enough to say, “better performed since Mr. Incledon sung it. He was a great singer, sir, and I may say, in the words of our immortal Shakespeare, that, ‘take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.’”  24
  The colonel blushed in his turn, and turning round to his boy with an arch smile, said, “I learnt it from Incledon. I used to slip out from Grey Friars to hear him, Heaven bless me, forty years ago; and I used to be flogged afterward, and serve me right too. Lord! Lord! how the time passes!” He drank off his sherry-and-water, and fell back in his chair: we could see he was thinking about his youth—the golden time, the happy, the bright, the unforgotten. I was myself nearly two-and-twenty years of age at that period, and felt as old as,—ay, older than the colonel.  25
  While he was singing his ballad, there had walked, or rather reeled, into the room, a gentleman in a military frock-coat and duck trousers of dubious hue, with whose name and person some of my readers are perhaps already acquainted. In fact, it was my friend Captain Costigan, in his usual condition at this hour of the night.  26
  Holding on by various tables, the captain had sidled up, without accident to himself or any of the jugs and glasses round about him, to the table where we sat, and had taken his place near the writer, his old acquaintance. He warbled the refrain of the colonel’s song, not inharmoniously; and saluted its pathetic conclusion with a subdued hiccough, and a plentiful effusion of tears. “Bedad it is a beautiful song,” says he, “and many a time I heard poor Harry Incledon sing it.”  27
  “He’s a great character,” whispered that unlucky King of Corpus to his neighbor the colonel; “was a captain in the army. We call him the General. Captain Costigan, will you take something to drink?”  28
  “Bedad I will,” says the captain, “and I’ll sing ye a song tu.”  29
  And having procured a glass of whisky-and-water from the passing waiter, the poor old man—settling his face into a horrid grin, and leering as he was wont when he gave what he called one of his prime songs—began his music.  30
  The unlucky wretch, who scarcely knew what he was doing or saying, selected one of the most outrageous performances of his répertoire, fired off a tipsy howl by way of overture, and away he went. At the end of the second verse the colonel started up, clapping on his hat, seizing his stick, and looking as ferocious as though he had been going to do battle with a Pindaree. “Silence!” he roared out.  31
  “Hear, hear!” cried certain wags at a farther table. “Go on, Costigan,” said others.  32
  “Go on!” cries the colonel in his high voice, trembling with anger. “Does any gentleman say ‘Go on’? Does any man who has a wife and sisters, or children at home, say ‘Go on’ to such disgusting ribaldry as this? Do you dare, sir, to call yourself a gentleman, and to say that you hold the king’s commission, and to sit down among Christians and men of honor, and defile the ears of young boys with this wicked balderdash!”  33
  “Why do you bring young boys here, old boy!” cries a voice of the malcontents.  34
  “Why? Because I thought I was coming to a society of gentlemen,” cried out the indignant Colonel. “Because I never could have believed that Englishmen could meet together and allow a man, and an old man, so to disgrace himself. For shame, you old wretch! Go home to your bed, you hoary old sinner! And for my part, I’m not sorry that my son should see, for once in his life, to what shame and degradation and dishonor, drunkenness and whisky may bring a man. Never mind the change, sir! curse the change!” says the colonel, facing the amazed waiter: “keep it till you see me in this place again; which will be never—by George, never!” And shouldering his stick, and scowling round at the company of scared bacchanalians, the indignant gentleman stalked away, his boy after him.  35
  Clive seemed rather shamefaced; but I fear the rest of the company looked still more foolish.  36
  “Aussi que diable venait-il faire dans cette galère?” 1 says King of Corpus to Jones of Trinity: and Jones gave a shrug of his shoulders—which were smarting, perhaps; for that uplifted cane of the colonel’s had somehow fallen on the back of every man in the room.  37
 
Note 1. “But what the devil did he come to a place like this for?” [back]
 
 
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