Imagens da página
PDF
ePub

Mirabeau : orations, letters, lives; all of his own writing, that a woman might fitly read, and almost all that had been written about him, from Dumont's cold unworthy book to the fine étude of Victor Hugo. I do not think I even opened a newspaper until I had gone through the whole collection.

One winter I revelled in all the lore I could procure regarding beasts, and birds, and insects, and reptiles; another I solaced myself by a course of topography, ponderous county histories which are called so dull and are often so amusing, full of odd bits of legend and story and traits of manners that one finds nowhere else ; and once I beguiled the long Christmas evenings by looking through the whole series of the “Monthly Review," reading the cotemporary judgments on Hume and Robertson, on Gibbon and Johnson, on Fielding and Smollett, on Gray and Mason, on Goldsmith and Sterne, and comparing the criticism of the day with the abiding verdict of posterity. Anybody not willing to encounter the trouble of turning over above a hundred heavy volumes may procure for himself a recreation nearly analogous by reading the correspondencewhich Mr.Mitford has just so ably edited between the beforementioned Horace Walpole and Mason; and yet that is hardly a fair example. Prince of letter-writers as Walpole was, created as it seems for nothing else but to chronicle with the adroitest of touches the gossip of the day, it is something wonderful how seldom even

sneer.

and

by accident he shows the slightest perception of the high, the good, or the true. There is hardly a great name of his own time at which he does not

In one passage he ignores them in a body, says

Dr. Johnson and the crew whose names I forget,” or words to that effect. He classes Garth as a poet with Milton; chooses Goldsmith as the object of his supreme contempt, and even amongst his own correspondents he had quarrelled with Gray and was about to quarrel with Mason. He can hardly be said to reflect cotemporary opinion. Perhaps we of the last generation have seen something more nearly approaching it in the judgment of the “Quarterly” upon Keats, and of the “ Edinburgh Review” upon Wordsworth. Time is the one

great critic.

Of all collected works those that I liked best, better than the poets from Chaucer to Tennyson, better than the dramatists from Shakespeare to Talfourd, were those most real and most exciting of all dramas called trials. I began with the French collections, collections consisting of very many small volumes, Lilliputian duodecimoes, some of which are so infinitely curious; and having fairly exhausted them, I betook myself to the Brobdignagian folios of “Hargrave's State Trials.” What between the size of the books and my own short-sightedness, I well remember that I was compelled to move the reading-desk twice in the course of every double

columned page. Little did I care for that, enchanted as I was by the development, now of story, now of character, now of eloquence, and always of form—the question and answer so well calculated to convey narrative and to elicit truth.

With two or three obvious exceptions, I went through the whole collection, most interested perhaps by those contained in the long reign of Charles II., a time when the prisons, the courts of justice, and the scaffolds were hardly ever free from illustrious victims, martyrs to liberty as in the case of the regicides and of Russell and his companions, or for their ancient faith as in the equally iniquitous condemnations of the so-called Popish Plot.

Amongst these trials of the days of Charles II., two have always seemed to me the perfection of judicial comedy and tragedy.

The former relates to a man about whoni much has been written lately; and who certainly, although no doubt he had faults in plenty, was puffed up with vanity as your professors of humanity seldom fail to be, and took no small delight in courts and princes as was to be expected from the leader of a sect whose chief tenet was an ostentatious renunciation of the pomps and vanities of the worldmust be admitted to have had his merits also amongst which I shall always include the manner in which he turned the Mayor and Mr. Recorder

round his fingers. I am talking of William Penn, and the process in question is the trial of William Penn and William Mead for a tumultuous assembly, 22nd. Charles II. (1670), before the Mayor, Recorder, and divers Aldermen at the Old Bailey.

I do not know any cause pleasanter to read than this, because from first to last the parties with whom our sympathies go have the best not only of the reasoning but of the result; such arrant blunderers were the whole of the court. To begin at the beginning :

Clerk.-Bring William Penn and William Mead to the bar.

Mayor.-Sirrah! Who bid you put off their hats ? Put on their hats again.

Whereupon one of the officers putting the prisoners' hats upon their heads, pursuant to the orders of the Court, brought them to the bar.

Recorder.—Do you know where you are ?
Penn.-Yes.

Recorder.—Do you not know it is the King's Court ?

Penn. I know it to be a Court and I suppose it to be the King's Court.

Recorder.—Do you not know there is a respect due to the Court ?

Penn.-Yes.
Recorder.—Why do you not pay it then ?
Penn.-I do so.

Recorder.—Why do you not pull off your hat, then ?

Penn.-Because I do not believe that to be any respect.

Recorder.-Well, the Court sets forty marks apiece upon your heads, as a fine for your contempt of Court.

Penn.—I desire it might be observed, that we came into the court with our hats off (that is taken off) and if they have been put on since, it was by order from the bench, and therefore not we but the bench should be fined.

Then Penn, finding the advantage he had got, began to ask questions of the Recorder, much to the discomposure of that learned official. Here is a sample :

Recorder.—Sir, you are a troublesome fellow, and it is not for the honour of the Court to suffer you

Penn.--I have asked but one question, and you have not answered me, though the right and privileg'es of every Englishman be concerned in it.

Recorder.-If I should suffer you to ask questions till to-morrow morning, you would be never the wiser.

Penn.—That is according as the answers be.

Finally, although the real offence (that of preaching in Gracechurch Street) was I suppose pretty clearly established, it was found absolutely impossible

to

go on,

« AnteriorContinuar »