FIRST AND LAST

BY WILLIAM MUDFORD.

[MAGA. February 1829.]

Take down from your shelves, gentle reader, your folio edition of Johnson’s Dictionary,—or, if you possess Todd’s edition of Johnson, take down his four ponderous quartos; turn over every leaf, read every word from A to Z, and then confess, that in the whole vocabulary there are not any two words which awaken in your heart such a crowd of mixed and directly opposite emotions as the two which now stare you in the face—FIRST and LAST! In the abstract, they embrace the whole round of our existence: in the detail, all its brightest hopes, its noblest enjoyments, and its most cherished recollections; all its loftiest enterprises, and all its smiles and tears; its pangs of guilt, its virtuous principles, its trials, its sorrows, and its rewards. They give you the dawn and the close of life, the beginning and the end of its countless busy scenes. They are the two extremities of a path which, be it long, or be it short, no man sees at one and the same moment. Happy would it be for us, sometimes, if we could—if we could behold the end of a course of action as certainly as we do the beginning; but oftener, far oftener, would it be our curse and torment, unless, with the foresight or foreknowledge, we had the power to avert the end.

But let me not anticipate my own intentions, which are to portray, in a few sketches, the links that hold together the first and last of the most momentous periods and undertakings of our lives; to trace the dawn, progress, and decline of many of the best feelings and motives of our nature; to touch, with a pensive colouring, the contrasts they present; to stimulate honourable enterprises by the examples they furnish; and to amuse by the form in which the truths they supply are embodied. I shall begin with a subject not exactly falling within the legitimate scope of my design, but it will serve as an appropriate introduction, and I shall call it

THE FIRST AND LAST DINNER.

Twelve friends, much about the same age, and fixed by their pursuits, their family connections, and other local interests, as permanent inhabitants of the metropolis, agreed, one day when they were drinking their wine at the Star and Garter at Richmond, to institute an annual dinner among themselves, under the following regulations: That they should dine alternately at each other’s houses on the first and last day of the year; that the first bottle of wine uncorked at the first dinner, should be recorked and put away, to be drunk by him who should be the last of their number; that they should never admit a new member; that, when one died, eleven should meet, and when another died, ten should meet, and so on; and that, when only one remained, he should, on those two days, dine by himself, and sit the usual hours at his solitary table; but the first time he so dined alone, lest it should be the only one, he should then uncork the first bottle, and, in the first glass, drink to the memory of all who were gone.

There was something original and whimsical in the idea, and it was eagerly embraced. They were all in the prime of life, closely attached by reciprocal friendship, fond of social enjoyments, and looked forward to their future meetings with unalloyed anticipations of pleasure. The only thought, indeed, that could have darkened those anticipations was one not very likely to intrude itself at that moment, that of the hapless wight who was destined to uncork the first bottle at his lonely repast.

It was high summer when this frolic compact was entered into; and as their pleasure-yacht skimmed along the dark bosom of the Thames, on their return to London, they talked of nothing but their first and last feasts of ensuing years. Their imaginations ran riot with a thousand gay predictions of festive merriment. They wantoned in conjectures of what changes time would operate; joked each other upon their appearance, when they should meet,—some hobbling upon crutches after a severe fit of the gout,—others poking about with purblind eyes, which even spectacles could hardly enable to distinguish the alderman’s walk in a haunch of venison—some with portly round bellies and tidy little brown wigs, and others decently dressed out in a new suit of mourning for the death of a great-granddaughter or a great-great-grandson. Palsies, wrinkles, toothless gums, stiff hams, and poker knees, were bandied about in sallies of exuberant mirth, and appropriated, first to one and then to another, as a group of merry children would have distributed golden palaces, flying chariots, diamond tables, and chairs of solid pearl, under the fancied possession of a magician’s wand, which could transform plain brick, and timber, and humble mahogany, into such costly treasures.

“As for you, George,” exclaimed one of the twelve, addressing his brother-in-law, “I expect I shall see you as dry, withered, and shrunken, as an old eel-skin, you mere outside of a man!” and he accompanied the words with a hearty slap on the shoulder.

George Fortescue was leaning carelessly over the side of the yacht, laughing the loudest of any at the conversation which had been carried on. The sudden manual salutation of his brother-in-law threw him off his balance, and in a moment he was overboard. They heard the heavy splash of his fall, before they could be said to have seen him fall. The yacht was proceeding swiftly along; but it was instantly stopped.

The utmost consternation now prevailed. It was nearly dark, but Fortescue was known to be an excellent swimmer, and, startling as the accident was, they felt certain he would regain the vessel. They could not see him. They listened. They heard the sound of his hands and feet. They hailed him. An answer was returned, but in a faint gurgling voice, and the exclamation “Oh God!” struck upon their ears. In an instant two or three, who were expert swimmers, plunged into the river, and swam towards the spot whence the exclamation had proceeded. One of them was within an arm’s length of Fortescue: he saw him; he was struggling and buffeting the water; before he could be reached, he went down, and his distracted friend beheld the eddying circles of the wave just over the spot where he had sunk. He dived after him, and touched the bottom; but the tide must have drifted the body onwards, for it could not be found!

They proceeded to one of the nearest stations where drags were kept, and having procured the necessary apparatus, they returned to the fatal spot. After the lapse of above an hour, they succeeded in raising the lifeless body of their lost friend. All the usual remedies were employed for restoring suspended animation; but in vain; and they now pursued the remainder of their course to London in mournful silence, with the corpse of him who had commenced the day of pleasure with them in the fulness of health, of spirits, and of life! Amid their severer grief, they could not but reflect how soon one of the joyous twelve had slipped out of the little festive circle.

The months rolled on, and cold December came with all its cheering round of kindly greetings and merry hospitalities; and with it came a softened recollection of the fate of poor Fortescue; eleven of the twelve assembled on the last day of the year, and it was impossible not to feel their loss as they sat down to dinner. The very irregularity of the table, five on one side, and only four on the other, forced the melancholy event upon their memory.

There are few sorrows so stubborn as to resist the united influence of wine, a circle of select friends, and a season of prescriptive gaiety. Even those pinching troubles of life, which come home to a man’s own bosom, will light up a smile, in such moments, at the beaming countenances and jocund looks of all the rest of the world; while your mere sympathetic or sentimental distress gives way, like the inconsolable affliction of a widow of twenty closely besieged by a lover of thirty.

A decorous sigh or two, a few becoming ejaculations, and an instructive observation upon the uncertainty of life, made up the sum of tender posthumous “offerings to the manes of poor George Fortescue,” as they proceeded to discharge the more important duties for which they had met. By the time the third glass of champagne had gone round, in addition to sundry potations of fine old hock, and “capital madeira,” they had ceased to discover anything so very pathetic in the inequality of the two sides of the table, or so melancholy in their crippled number of eleven.

The rest of the evening passed off to their hearts’ content. Conversation was briskly kept up amid the usual fire of pun, repartee, anecdote, politics, toasts, healths, jokes, broad laughter, erudite disquisitions upon the vintage of the wines they were drinking, and an occasional song. Towards twelve o’clock, when it might be observed that they emptied their glasses with less symptoms of palating the quality of what they quaffed, and filled them again with less anxiety as to which bottle or decanter they laid hold of, they gradually waxed moral and tender; sensibility began to ooze out; “Poor George Fortescue!” was once more remembered; those who could count, sighed to think there were only eleven of them; and those who could see, felt the tears come into their eyes, as they dimly noted the inequality of the two sides of the table. They all agreed, at parting, however, that they had never passed such a happy day, congratulated each other upon having instituted so delightful a meeting, and promised to be punctual to their appointment the ensuing evening, when they were to celebrate the new-year, whose entrance they had welcomed in bumpers of claret, as the watchman bawled “past twelve!” beneath the window.

They met accordingly; and their gaiety was without any alloy or drawback. It was only the first time of their assembling after the death of “poor George Fortescue,” that made the recollection of it painful; for, though but a few hours had intervened, they now took their seats at the table as if eleven had been their original number, and as if all were there that had been ever expected to be there.

It is thus in everything. The first time a man enters a prison—the first book an author writes—the first painting an artist executes—the first battle a general wins—nay, the first time a rogue is hanged (for a rotten rope may provide a second performance, even of that ceremony, with all its singleness of character), differ inconceivably from their first repetition. There is a charm, a spell, a novelty, a freshness, a delight, inseparable from the first experience (hanging always excepted, be it remembered), which no art or circumstance can impart to the second. And it is the same in all the darker traits of life. There is a degree of poignancy and anguish in the first assaults of sorrow, which is never found afterwards. Ask the weeping widow, who, “like Niobe all tears,” follows her fifth husband to the grave, and she will tell you that the first time she performed that melancholy office, it was with at least five times more lamentations than when she last discharged it. In every case, it is simply that the first fine edge of our feelings has been taken off, and that it can never be restored.

Several years had elapsed, and our eleven friends kept up their double anniversaries, as they might aptly enough be called, with scarcely any perceptible change. But, alas! there came one dinner at last, which was darkened by a calamity they never expected to witness, for on that very day their friend, companion, brother almost, was hanged! Yes! Stephen Rowland, the wit, the oracle, the life of their little circle, had, on the morning of that day, forfeited his life upon a public scaffold, for having made one single stroke of his pen in a wrong place. In other words, a bill of exchange which passed into his hands for £700 passed out of them for £1700; he having drawn the important little prefix to the hundreds, and the bill being paid at the banker’s without examining the words of it. The forgery was discovered,—brought home to Rowland,—and though the greatest interest was used to obtain a remission of the fatal penalty (the particular female favourite of the prime-minister himself interfering), poor Stephen Rowland was hanged. Everybody pitied him; and nobody could tell why he did it. He was not poor; he was not a gambler; he was not a speculator; but phrenology settled it. The organ of acquisitiveness was discovered in his head, after his execution, as large as a pigeon’s egg. He could not help it.

It would be injustice to the ten to say, that even wine, friendship, and a merry season, could dispel the gloom which pervaded this dinner. It was agreed beforehand that they should not allude to the distressing and melancholy theme; and having thus interdicted the only thing which really occupied all their thoughts, the natural consequence was, that silent contemplation took the place of dismal discourse, and they separated long before midnight. An embarrassing restraint, indeed, pervaded the little conversation which grew up at intervals. The champagne was not in good order, but no one liked to complain of its being ropy. A beautiful painting of Vandyke which was in the room, became a topic of discussion. They who thought it was hung in a bad place, shrunk from saying so; and not one ventured to speak of the execution of that great master. Their host was having the front of his house repaired, and at any other time he would have cautioned them, when they went away, as the night was very dark, to take care of the scaffold; but no, they might have stumbled right and left before he would have pronounced that word, or told them not to break their necks. One, in particular, even abstained from using his customary phrase, “this is a drop of good wine;” and another forbore to congratulate the friend who sat next him, and who had been married since he last saw him, because he was accustomed on such occasions to employ figurative language and talk of the holy noose of wedlock.

Some fifteen years had now glided away since the fate of poor Rowland, and the ten remained; but the stealing hand of time had written sundry changes in most legible characters. Raven locks had become grizzled—two or three heads had not as many locks altogether as may be reckoned in a walk of half a mile along the Regent’s Canal—one was actually covered with a brown wig—the crow’s-feet were visible in the corner of the eye—good old port and warm madeira carried it against hock, claret, red burgundy, and champagne—stews, hashes, and ragouts, grew into favour—crusts were rarely called for to relish the cheese after dinner—conversation was less boisterous, and it turned chiefly upon politics and the state of the funds, or the value of landed property—apologies were made for coming in thick shoes and warm stockings—the doors and windows were more carefully provided with list and sand-bags—the fire more in request—and a quiet game of whist filled up the hours that were wont to be devoted to drinking, singing, and riotous merriment. Two rubbers, a cup of coffee, and at home by eleven o’clock, was the usual cry, when the fifth or sixth glass had gone round after the removal of the cloth. At parting, too, there was now a long ceremony in the hall, buttoning up great-coats, tying on woollen comforters, fixing silk handkerchiefs over the mouth and up to the ears, and grasping sturdy walking-canes to support unsteady feet.

Their fiftieth anniversary came, and death had indeed been busy. One had been killed by the overturning of the mail, in which he had taken his place in order to be present at the dinner, having purchased an estate in Monmouthshire, and retired thither with his family. Another had undergone the terrific operation for the stone, and expired beneath the knife—a third had yielded up a broken spirit two years after the loss of an only-surviving and beloved daughter—a fourth was carried off in a few days by a cholera morbus—a fifth had breathed his last the very morning he obtained a judgment in his favour by the Lord Chancellor, which had cost him his last shilling nearly to get, and which, after a litigation of eighteen years, declared him the rightful possessor of ten thousand a-year—ten minutes after he was no more. A sixth had perished by the hand of a midnight assassin, who broke into his house for plunder, and sacrificed the owner of it, as he grasped convulsively a bundle of Exchequer bills, which the robber was drawing from beneath his pillow, where he knew they were every night placed for better security.

Four little old men, of withered appearance and decrepit walk, with cracked voices, and dim, rayless eyes, sat down, by the mercy of Heaven (as they themselves tremulously declared), to celebrate, for the fiftieth time, the first day of the year—to observe the frolic compact which, half a century before, they had entered into at the Star and Garter at Richmond! Eight were in their graves! The four that remained stood upon its confines. Yet they chirped cheerily over their glass, though they could scarcely carry it to their lips, if more than half full; and cracked their jokes, though they articulated their words with difficulty, and heard each other with still greater difficulty. They mumbled, they chattered, they laughed (if a sort of strangled wheezing might be called a laugh); and when the wines sent their icy blood in warmer pulse through their veins, they talked of their past as if it were but a yesterday that had slipped by them,—and of their future, as if it were a busy century that lay before them.

They were just the number for a quiet rubber of whist; and for three successive years they sat down to one. The fourth came, and then their rubber was played with an open dummy; a fifth, and whist was no longer practicable; two could play only at cribbage, and cribbage was the game. But it was little more than the mockery of play. Their palsied hands could hardly hold, or their fading sight distinguish, the cards, while their torpid faculties made them doze between each deal.

At length came the LAST dinner; and the survivor of the twelve, upon whose head fourscore and ten winters had showered their snow, ate his solitary meal. It so chanced that it was in his house, and at his table, they had celebrated the first. In his cellar, too, had remained, for eight-and-fifty years, the bottle they had then uncorked, recorked, and which he was that day to uncork again. It stood beside him. With a feeble and reluctant grasp he took the “frail memorial” of a youthful vow; and for a moment memory was faithful to her office. She threw open the long vista of buried years; and his heart travelled through them all;—their lusty and blithesome spring—their bright and fervid summer—their ripe and temperate autumn—their chill, but not too frozen winter. He saw, as in a mirror, how, one by one, the laughing companions of that merry hour at Richmond, had dropped into eternity. He felt all the loneliness of his condition (for he had eschewed marriage, and in the veins of no living creature ran a drop of blood whose source was in his own); and as he drained the glass which he had filled, “to the memory of those who were gone,” the tears slowly trickled down the deep furrows of his aged face.

He had thus fulfilled one part of his vow, and he prepared himself to discharge the other, by sitting the usual number of hours at his desolate table. With a heavy heart he resigned himself to the gloom of his own thoughts—a lethargic sleep stole over him—his head fell upon his bosom—confused images crowded into his mind—he babbled to himself—was silent—and when his servant entered the room, alarmed by a noise which he heard, he found his master stretched upon the carpet at the foot of the easy-chair, out of which he had slipped in an apoplectic fit. He never spoke again, nor once opened his eyes, though the vital spark was not extinct till the following day. And this was the LAST DINNER.