In the dozy hours, and other papers/Gifts
There is a delightful story, which we owe to Charles Lever's splendid mendacity, of an old English lady who sent to Garibaldi, during that warrior's confinement at Varignano, a portly pincushion well stocked with British pins. Her enthusiastic countrywomen had already supplied their idol with woolen underwear, and fur-lined slippers, and intoxicating beverages, and other articles equally useful to an abstemious prisoner of war in a hot climate; but pins had been overlooked until this thoughtful votary of freedom offered her tribute at its shine.
Absurd though the tale appears, it has its counterparts in more sober annals, and few men of any prominence have not bewailed at times their painful popularity. Sir Walter Scott, who was the recipient of many gifts, had his fair share of vexatious experiences, and laughs at them somewhat ruefully now and then in the pages of his journal. Eight large and very badly painted landscapes, "in great gilded frames," were given him by one "most amiable and accomplished old lady." She had ordered them from an impoverished amateur whom she desired to befriend, and then palmed them off on Sir Walter, who was too gentle and generous to protest. A more "whimsical subject of affliction" was the presentation of two emus by a Mr. Harmer, a settler in Botany Bay, to whom Scott had given some useful letters of introduction. "I wish his gratitude had either taken a different turn, or remained as quiescent as that of others whom I have obliged more materially," writes Sir Walter in his journal. "I at first accepted the creatures, conceiving them, in my ignorance, to be some sort of blue and green parrots, which, though I do not admire their noise, might scream and yell at their pleasure, if hung up in the hall among the armor. But your emu, it seems, stands six feet high on his stocking soles, and is little better than a kind of cassowary or ostrich. Hang them! They might eat up my collection of old arms, for what I know."
Finally, like the girl who was converted at a revival, and who gave her blue ribbons to her sister because she knew they were taking her to hell, Scott got himself out of the scrape by passing on the emus, as a sort of feudal offering, to the Duke of Buccleugh, and leaving that nobleman to solve as best he could the problem of their maintenance. The whole story is very much like the experience of Mr. James Payn's lawyer friend, to whom a "grateful orphan" sent from the far East a dromedary, with the pleasant assurance that its hump was considered extremely delicate eating. As this highly respected member of the London bar could not well have the dromedary butchered for the sake of its hump,—even if he had yearned over the dish,—and as he was equally incapable of riding the beast to his office every morning, he considered himself fortunate when the Zoölogical Gardens opened their hospitable gates and the orphan's tribute disappeared therein, to be seen and heard of no more.
Charles Lamb, on the other hand, if we may trust the testimony of his letters, appears to have derived a keen and kindly pleasure from the more reasonable and modest presents of his friends. Perhaps, like Steele, he looked upon it as a point of morality to be obliged to those who endeavored to oblige him. Perhaps it was easy for one so lovable to detect the honest affection which inspired these varied gifts. It is certain we find him returning genial thanks, now to Hazlitt for a pig, now to Wordsworth for a "great armful" of poetry, and now to Thomas Allsop for some Stilton cheese,—"the delicatest, rainbow-hued, melting piece I ever flavored." He seems equally gratified with an engraving of Pope sent by Mr. Procter, and with another pig,—"a dear pigmy," he calls it,—the gift of Mrs. Bruton. Nor is it only in these letters of acknowledgment—wherein courtesy dispenses occasionally with the companionship of truth—that Lamb shows himself a generous recipient of his friends' good will. He writes to Wordsworth, who has sent him nothing, and expresses his frank delight in some fruit which has been left early that morning at his door:—
"There is something inexpressibly pleasant to me in these presents, be it fruit, or fowl, or brawn, or what not. Books are a legitimate cause of acceptance. If presents be not the soul of friendship, they are undoubtedly the most spiritual part of the body of that intercourse. There is too much narrowness of thinking on this point. The punctilio of acceptance, methinks, is too confined and strait-laced. I could be content to receive money, or clothes, or a joint of meat from a friend. Why should he not send me a dinner as well as a desert? I would taste him in all the beasts of the field, and through all creation. Therefore did the basket of fruit of the juvenile Talfourd not displease me."
It is hard not to envy Talfourd when one reads these lines. It is hard not to envy any one who had the happiness of giving fruit, or cheese, or pigs to Charles Lamb. How gladly would we all have brought our offerings to his door, and have gone away with bounding hearts, exulting in the thought that our pears would deck his table, our pictures his wall, our books his scanty shelves! "People seldom read a book which is given to them," observes Dr. Johnson, with his usual discouraging acumen; but Lamb found leisure, amid heavy toil, to peruse the numerous volumes which small poets as well as big ones thought fit to send him. He accepted his gifts with a charming munificence which suggests those far-off, fabulous days when presents were picturesque accessories of life; when hosts gave to their guests the golden cups from which they had been drinking; and sultans gave their visitors long trains of female slaves, all beautiful, and carrying jars of jewels upon their heads; and Merlin gave to Gwythno the famous hamper which multiplied its contents an hundredfold, and fed the starving hosts in storm-swept Caradigion. In those brave years, large-hearted men knew how to accept as well as how to give, and they did both with an easy grace for which our modern methods offer no adequate opportunity. Even in the veracious chronicles of hagiology, the old harmonious sentiment is preserved, and puts us to the blush. St. Martin sharing his cloak with the beggar at the gates of Tours was hardly what we delight in calling practical; yet not one shivering outcast only, but all mankind would have been poorer had that mantle been withheld. King Canute taking off his golden crown, and laying it humbly on St. Edmund's shrine, stirs our hearts a little even now; while Queen Victoria sending fifty pounds to a deserving charity excites in us no stronger sentiment than esteem. It was easier, perhaps, for a monarch to do a gracious and a princely deed when his crown and sceptre were his own property instead of belonging to the state; and picturesqueness, ignore it as we may, is a quality which, like distinction, "fixes the world's ideals."
These noble and beautiful benefactions, however, are not the only ones which linger pleasantly in our memories. Gifts there have been, of a humble and domestic kind, the mere recollection of which is a continual delight. I love to think of Jane Austen's young sailor brother, her "own particular little brother," Charles, spending his first prize money in gold chains and "topaze crosses" for his sisters. What prettier, warmer picture can be called to mind than this handsome, gallant, light-hearted lad—handsomer, Jane jealously insists, than all the rest of the family—bringing back to his quiet country home these innocent trophies of victory? Surely it was the pleasure Miss Austen felt in that "topaze" cross, that little golden chain, which found such eloquent expression in Fanny Price's mingled rapture and distress when her sailor brother brought her the amber cross from Sicily, and Edmund Bertram offered her, too late, the chain on which to hang it. It is a splendid reward that lies in wait for boyish generosity when the sister chances to be one of the immortals, and hands down to generations of readers the charming record of her gratitude and love.
By the side of this thoroughly English picture should be placed, in justice and in harmony, another which is as thoroughly German,—Rahel Varnhagen sending to her brother money to bring him to Berlin. The letter which accompanies this sisterly gift is one of the most touching in literature. The brilliant, big-hearted woman is yearning for her kinsman's face. She has saved the trifling sum required through many unnamed denials. She gives it as generously as if it cost her nothing. Yet with that wise thrift which goes hand in hand with liberality, she warns her brother that her husband knows nothing of the matter. Not that she mistrusts his nature for a moment. He is good and kind, but he is also a man, and has the customary shortsightedness of his sex. "He will think," she writes, "that I have endless resources, that I am a millionaire, and will forget to economize in the future."
Ah, painful frugality of the poor Fatherland! Here is nothing picturesque, nor lavish, nor light-hearted, to tempt our jocund fancies. Yet here, as elsewhere, the generous soul refuses to be stinted of its joy; and the golden crown of King Canute is not more charming to contemplate than are the few coins wrested from sordid needs, and given with a glad munificence which makes them splendid as the ransom of a prince.