Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Our old enemy


He has been our great national enemy from time out of mind. He seems to delight in giving evidences of his bitter stinging enmity. When once he commences his hostile attacks, you may be well assured that his malignant influence will be exercised for a very long and painful period of time. The mischief he effects is enormous: and no efforts of philosophical or statistical calculation can be ever made to bear upon the amount of evil, moral or physical, commercial or political, which may be reasonably laid to his baneful effects. He was one of the most active agents in bringing about one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest humiliation, which our national pride ever sustained; when, in June, 1667, the Dutch fleet menaced the Thames, almost unopposed, took Sheerness, sailed up the Medway victoriously, burned the greater part of the vaunted wooden walls of Old England, domineered in British harbours, and struck a deadly blow of terror at the heart of the very capital itself. He did his malicious work well during that event, and played the game of our foes with triumphant malignity. Other influences may certainly have been to blame, on this disastrous occasion, in the production of such a great national humiliation—the niggardly parsimony of the Court in all that concerned the truest interests of the country—the incapacity of its favourites—the general corruption and weakness of the times. But our bitter old enemy had much to do with it, notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, we have no power of withstanding his attacks. No Commissions, no Courts of Inquiry, no opposition exposure of abuses, no fulminating letters in “The Times,” can open our eyes to defects in our systems, the removal of which can render us more powerful against the old enemy, can teach us how to husband our resources so as to meet him with more vigour of resistance, or demonstrate the means of parrying more successfully his deadly onslaughts.

He is resistless. When it is his will to charge down upon us in all his strength, a nation succumbs before him. Nothing is left us but resignation and a hope of better days.

When that great questionable French philosopher, Voltaire, first visited England—young then, but yet already great—he discovered our old enemy at once: he found him at his tricks upon his very arrival on our shores. He tells us this fact in a letter, which is very little known among his voluminous works, but which we are disposed to quote, with all its little national errors, and national exaggerations, as characteristic of the celebrated man; at the same time that it is illustrative of the effect made by the visible influence of our old enemy, upon a foreigner, who gives himself the air of having made an important discovery in detecting his malignant agency. Voltaire professed to love England as the land of supreme liberty (even in those days), when contrasted with the wretched condition of his own aristocracy and Jesuit-beridden country. But his real or affected enthusiasm for England and the English could not prevent the Frenchman from using his powers of wit and satire, whenever a favourable opportunity offered itself, to turn into ridicule those for whom he loudly expressed his admiration, and among whom he found for three years a refuge. With all his vaunted enthusiasm he was still a Frenchman at heart; and a little national rancour was balsam to his wounded spirit. Less characteristic in this respect, perhaps, than many other of his Lettres Anglaises, the above-mentioned letter, however, in which he makes his important discovery of the tricks of our old enemy, contains many traits of that satirical exaggeration of prepossessed notions about England, which has so often evidenced itself even in our days, when, so late as the year 1851, a distinguished French journalist assured his readers, that on the night of his arrival in London he had the pleasure of witnessing a pugilistic combat between several young lords and old watchmen! Still, below all its high colouring, lies a sketch of truth, depicting the power of our old enemy.

After telling his friends that, having reached London in the middle of spring, “when the west wind was blowing softly,” he had paid a visit to Greenwich, where he had seen the King and Queen in their gilded barge, and many ladies and gentlemen on horseback, all looking as charming and gay as if they were in la belle France, he writes as follows:

“I was fortunate enough to find amidst the crowd several commercial men, for whom I had letters of recommendation. These gentlemen did the honours of the day to me with the eagerness and cordiality of men who, in the full satisfaction of their own joy, are anxious to communicate the same feelings to others. They sent for a horse for me, offered me refreshments, and took care to place me in a position where I could best see the humours of the holiday crowd, and the view of the river, with London in the distance. I could have fancied myself transported to the Olympian games, had not the crowd of vessels, the beauty of the Thames, and the immensity of the city of London, made me blush to think of comparing ancient Greece to England, as I saw it before my eyes.

“A state messenger, fresh from Denmark, made my acquaintance during the festivities. He was overwhelmed with astonishment and delight. He departed in the belief that the English nation was the gayest in the world; that its women were all beautiful, all full of vivacity; that the sky of England was always pure and serene; that pleasure was the only thought of the country, and that every day was like the day he saw. He actually departed without being undeceived.

“Well! the next day I presented myself in the city, in order to find some of the gentlemen who had done me the honours with so much cordiality at my fancied Olympian games. In a dirty café, ill-furnished, ill-lighted, and ill-served, I found several of the very men who, the previous day, had evinced so much affability and jovial humour. Not one of them seemed to recognise me. I ventured on conversation with some among them; but I got no answer, or, at the best, only a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ I imagined I must have somehow offended them the day before; and I did my best to try to recollect whether I had given the preference to Lyons silk over their own, or declared that French cookery was superior to English, or expressed an opinion that Paris was a more agreeable city than London, and that people enjoyed themselves more at the Court of Versailles than at the Court of St. James, or committed any other similar enormity. But having fully acquitted myself of any crime of the kind, I took the liberty of asking one of them, with a vivacity which seemed to astonish him mightily, why they were all so sad. My man simply replied, with a sulky air, that it was an East Wind. One of their friends came in at the moment, and told them, with an air of cool indifference, that Molly had cut her throat that morning, and that her sweetheart had found her dead in her room with a bloody razor by her side. Poor Molly appears to have been a beautiful girl, who was on the point of being married to the man of her choice. All the gentlemen, who seemed to have known her well, received the news without emotion. For my own part, horrified as I was at so strange a catastrophe, and at the indifference displayed, I could not refrain from inquiring what could possibly have induced a poor girl, to all appearance so happy in her lot, to take away her own life thus cruelly. The only answer I got was, that it was an East Wind. At first I could not, for the life of me, comprehend what the east wind could have to do with the gloomy air of all these men, or the poor girl’s suicide. I hastened away from so unpropitious a spot, and walked off to the Court end of the town, full of that pleasant French prejudice, that a Court must be the seat of gaiety and pleasure. But here again everything looked melancholy and morose. The very court ladies themselves were cold, stiff, and uncharitable in their discourse. For the most part, they only talked in sad strain of the East Wind. I thought of my Danish friend of the previous day, and was inclined to laugh at the erroneous idea of England he had carried off with him. But, to my astonishment, I could not laugh. I was a victim to the influence of the East Wind. One of the celebrated physicians of the Court, to whom I expressed my surprise, told me that what I had seen was nothing to what I should see in the months of November and March,—that people then hanged themselves by dozens, and melancholy pervaded the nation.

‘Those are the seasons of the year,’ said he, ‘when the East Wind is constantly blowing. That wind is the evil genius of our island. The very beasts suffer from it, and hang their heads in despair. Those who are sufficiently robust to preserve their health during the prevalence of this accursed wind, at least lose their temper. Everybody wears a sullen face; and the minds of men are predisposed to the most desperate resolutions. It is an absolute fact, that it was during an east wind that Charles I. was decapitated, and James II. dethroned.’ ‘If you have any favour to ask at Court,’ he added, in my ear, ‘never try your luck, except when the wind is in the west or in the south.

This said quizzing Voltaire of our old enemy. But he was true even in caricature. The enemy was at his deadly work in the time of Voltaire: he was so long centuries before: he is so still. What are our best means of combating our adversary? A recognition of his power,—a steady consciousness that it is he, and he alone, who is in reality the cause of our melancholy, our irritability, our mental and physical depression, during his malignant reign, and not any of the other causes he persuades us to imagine—but, above all, patience!

J. Palgrave Simpson.