The Wit in Spite of Himself by Richard Johns

 

Reader, are you a wit? If so, are you a whit the better for so being?

The mere imputation of being a facetious fellow has cost me so dearly, that I can well imagine what fearful consequences the actual possession of a real patent from the court of Momus involves. For mine own part, I may truly say my offences against the gravity of society ought to have been denominated accidents. Unwittingly have I offended: I have no pretension to the art of "making a good hit," cutting up a private acquaintance or a public character, "backbiting," or giving "a slap in the face." I am no alchymist at retorts, to be able to transmute the missile aimed at me, into a crown of triumph. If I say a sharp thing, it is because I did not perceive its point; or I would not have meddled with it. I never had the knack of running other men's jokes to death by clapping riders to them; and as to mine own, such as they are, any one is welcome to the credit of them who will take their responsibilities.

But, ere the speculative reader closes the bargain, let him "listen to my tale of woe." My father was a wit and a man of letters: he proved his good sense by marrying a fool,—I beg my mother's pardon; she died soon after I was born, and I only judge by the character she left behind her, to say nothing of her MS. poems and common-place book, which I inherited. When ten years of age, I lost my remaining parent, he being killed in a duel arising out of a christening-dinner; on which occasion he originated the now standing joke of wishing the heir "long life to be a better man than his father." The worthy host, who was here hinted at, in his relational position, conceiving the expression implied not only an impossibility, but an impertinence, my progenitor was called out, and incontinently sent home again with a hole pinked in his body, which let the existence out of the wittiest man of his day. With such an example before my mental eyes of the consequences of being a bright ornament of society, is it to be wondered that I determined to be the dullest dolt in my school? Alas! it was declared by all, that a "Winkings" must be a wit and a clever fellow, in spite of my endeavours to prove the contrary.

If I committed the most egregious blunders in my class, there was always somebody to say, "Winkings knows better; he is a wag,—a dry dog; very like a whale, that he can't answer such a simple question;" and the cheek of the "dry dog" was often wetted by tears; and the "wag" found the jest no joke; and, if my ignorance was "very like a whale," it was one on mine own shoulders, since, if I really knew better, I certainly got the worst of it. I have been flogged one moment for pretending to be obtuse, when there was no pretence in the matter; and the next, for saying impudent things to the dominie, which I had never intended. I unconsciously quizzed the ushers, to mine own disgrace; while the writing-master declared, if ever I did write, it must be without tuition and by intuition, for I was too busy making the other boys laugh, or worrying them till they cried, to attend to my copy. Such was my character at a school which I quitted early in my nonage, having persuaded my guardians that my education was complete, out of sheer compassion to my master. Had I not left his school, there was a probability of my being his only scholar, so numerous were the complaints from my schoolfellows' parents of "that mischief-making, sly, quarrelsome, impudent little scapegrace, Master Sam Winkings, who, from all they had heard, seemed quite enough to corrupt a whole school." Thus early did my unhappy destiny develope itself; people would have it that I was always saying or imagining evil of them, setting others by the ears for the fun of the fight, and jesting and sneering at all the world holds sacred and respectable.

But in those days unjust accusations were of little consequence to me; if strangers belied me, my immediate relatives were then proud of my "facetious ways," and my "dry humour,—so like his poor father!" Thus lauded and encouraged, matters were at one time going on so pleasantly that I had some intention of favouring the deceit my friends seemed determined to put on themselves, and, professing myself a wit, take all the honours for my fortuitous smart sayings, rather than be accused of affectation in eternally denying them. The tables, however, were soon turned; and it was well I still stuck to the truth, or disasters might have more speedily befallen me. As it was, I in due course of time offended matter-of-fact uncles by jests that I was unconscious of; shocked the ears of fair cousins by double entendre most unmeaningly; and robbed maiden aunts of their good names, when I really meant to compliment their virtues.

But I will at once individualize my misfortunes, and I feel assured of the reader's sympathy. "Sam," said my uncle John, as he was breakfasting with me at my chambers in the Temple, where I did nothing, with an air of business: having been called to the bar, "I want to ask your advice; but you really are such a facetious fellow, that you even laugh at a man's misfortunes."

"Indeed, sir, you wrong me," I replied, anxious to justify myself, for I was his reputed heir. "Only state your case, and I will give you as good advice as if I were your fee'd counsel."

"Well, Sam, you must in the first place know," said the old gentleman, "that I shall be obliged to stand an action for assault."

"Sorry for it, uncle: I hope it is not a bad action on your part, or we had better——" I was going to add "compromise, rather than go into court;" but my worthy relative, who was about one of the most irritable men in existence, interrupted me.

"Confound you, sir! when will you leave off your puns? What bad action did I ever commit in the whole course of my life?"

"Beg pardon, uncle, you quite misunderstand me," apologised I, wishing to explain.

"No, I don't, Sam," retorted he, shaking his head; "your unhappy propensity is too well known. But I will forgive you this once; only do be serious. I tell you, boy, it may cost me a cool hundred, besides expenses."

I again assured him that I was all attention; and as he threw himself back in his chair, in preparation for a lengthy detail, I quietly continued my breakfast, only occasionally putting in a "Yes," "Truly," "Really," and so on, as Uncle John paused for breath.

"I was down at Brighton last week, as you know, Sam: had a dreadful headache, and thought a shower-bath would do me good; so went to the new baths. An attendant almost ran against me in the hall. 'Shower-bath,' said I. 'Yes, sir, in a moment, sir; hot or cold?' 'A hot shower-bath!' exclaimed I in the very extremity of surprise. 'I am not used to be jested with, young man.' The fellow stared as if he did not half understand me; but brushed off, and I walked into the waiting-room. My head throbbed with pain, and not a little with perplexity at what the fellow could mean by a hot shower-bath; I had never heard of such a thing, and thought the rogue was quizzing me. Well, Sam, to go on with my story, I was soon ushered into a little bathing-room, with its tall sentry-box, by the same man I had at first spoken to. 'Get more towels,' said I: there were only three. 'Yes, sir,' and away went my gentleman; while I stripped, and shut myself up in the bath. For the life of me, I could not muster resolution enough, just at first, to pull the string. It is no joke, Sam, to stand the shock of a deluge of cold water. I can assure you it always seems to make my red face hiss again."

"No doubt, sir," said I inadvertently.

"Young gentleman," slowly enunciated my uncle, drawing himself up to his full height in his seat, as if to give greater gravity to his words by causing them to fall from an increased altitude, "it is not becoming in you to make such a remark, though I may choose to be a little facetious on myself. You need not excuse yourself," he added, seeing I was about to reply; "it is your infirmity; but your wit will one day be your only portion."

What could I do?—I sighed, let Uncle John go on with his narrative, and helped myself to an egg.

"Well, nephew, if you can keep from your jokes for a moment, I will come at once to the assault. I had at last made up my mind to endure the cold shock, so I pulled the cord. Never shall I forget it: down came at least six gallons of boiling water! Yes! I am sure it was boiling: the fellow had done it to spite me. The rascal was entering the room with the towels at that very moment, and I had my revenge. I dashed open the door and seized him by the neck. I kicked him, I cuffed him; he cried out 'Murder!' 'You ordered hot water, sir!' I called him a liar, and knocked his head against the wall."

Here my uncle became so animated, that he seemed inclined to enact his story. Reader, I have mentioned that I had helped myself to an egg. Now, there has long been a question as to the proper mode of boiling eggs. I like them put into cold water: thus, by the heat being gradually introduced, the shell is prevented from cracking. My man, on the contrary, is for plunging the egg into water at boiling-point. Obstinate fellow! his perverseness on this occasion cost me a thousand a-year and a house in Lancashire. Uncle John was dashing out his hand towards my wig, which, in all the majesty of curls, decorated a block on the side-table, no doubt fancying that he was again going to throttle the knight of the bath, and I had just discovered my egg-shell full of vile slimy fluid, instead of the luxurious yolk and white it would have contained had my rascal obeyed directions. Behold the consequences! My uncle sprang half out of his seat in the frenzy of scalding recollections; while I on the opposite side of the table rose in an agony of vexation, exclaiming "Cracked! cracked! D—the fellow, always in hot water!"

Reader, did you ever happen to say an ill-natured thing of a person whom you supposed to have just left the room, but who, in point of fact, not having progressed many yards from the back of your chair, suddenly confronts you to thank you for the attention; if so, you may imagine my uncle's sarcastic acknowledgments. "Thank you, sir; I am very much obliged to you," said the old man, in a moment recovering himself from his menacing attitude; "I humbly thank you. Your wit, sir, will make your fortune. I am cracked, am I? I am always in hot water?" Then, changing his tone as he stalked from his chair to possess himself of his hat, he thundered out, "Mr. Samuel Winkings, no longer nephew of mine,—if a scurvy jest is all your sympathy for your invalid uncle, jeered at and parboiled by a rascally bath waiter, I wish you a very good morning!"

In vain I interposed between the old gentleman and the door; I essayed to explain; I offered to put myself, my servant, upon oath; he would not listen to me. He declared all wits were liars,—that I had provoked him past bearing; and away he went, and away went my hopes in that quarter. Never did he forgive me. He died last week, and the only mention he favours me with, in his will, runs thus: "To Samuel Winkings I leave nothing; he can doubtless live by his wit, and I would not insult him by making him any other provision."

Though Uncle John had discarded me, still Aunt Jemima, a legacy-huntress all her life, could not carry her quarry to earth with her. She must in her turn make a bequest; and it was at one time thought this would be in my favour, till, in an unluckly hour, I irretrievably lost my place in her good graces. Aunt Jem, as she was familiarly called by her nephews and nieces, had "great expectations" from Miss Julia and Miss Maria Beech, very rich ancient maidens, sufficiently her seniors to make it worth while to calculate what they would leave behind them. Of course my aunt laid herself out in every possible way to conciliate these ladies; indeed, among all their acquaintance, her anxiety to please them was only rivalled by a Mr. Smith, an elderly gentleman living at Barking, in Essex. He, like Aunt Jem, took great pleasure in toadyism, though wealthy enough to have afforded himself much more respectable amusements. There was a cross-fire of invitations, and a grand struggle every Christmas between the lady and gentleman legacy-hunters for the possession of the Misses Beech; and, during a stay I was making last year at my aunt's abode in Hampshire, I found that, yielding to her superior powers of persuasion, the worthy spinsters were her own from the approaching Christmas-eve even until Twelfth-day. "Then they positively must go to Mr. Smith; he was so pressing, and made such a point of it." This delightful announcement was conveyed in a letter to mine aunt, received at breakfast-time, and triumphantly read to me.

"They each of them bring their own maid," said the hospitable lady as she conned over their epistle; "but I do not mind the expense nor the trouble; the Beeches are such pleasant companions. I dare say they won't die worth less than twenty thousand pounds apiece. Now I hope you intend to make yourself agreeable, Sam. Let us have none of your jests and your dry sayings. They are—they are staid, serious persons, and don't like such things, but are partial to sensible conversation. If I recollect right, the last time Miss Julia was here, she told me she had three thousand pounds in the Long Annuities. Both she and her sister treat me with the greatest confidence. I only wish they would not go to Barking so soon. If we were to make things very agreeable to them, who knows, Sam, but they might break their engagement with that mercenary Mr. Smith?"

Thus ran on my aunt, while I silently acquiesced in all she said.

"Why, Sam, you do not seem pleased at the prospect of company!"

"Indeed, aunt," replied I, "I was only thinking you would like my room."

"Will you have done with your jests?" said Aunt Jem, suspecting a joke in my literal offer, I knowing that ladies' maids are often more fastidious as to their bedchambers than their mistresses.

"It is very provoking," exclaimed I in a pet, "that you always think I am making some foolish pun. I only wish to do my part towards rendering your guests and their attendants comfortable. You know what a fuss they make about their servants; turning the house into a hospital for the slightest cold, and talking of 'dear Mr. Smith's cough medicine!' I was only thinking what I could do, to keep the Beeches from Barking."

I suppose, in my haste to exculpate myself from the charge of punning, I could not have taken due care to elongate the proper name of the fair spinsters, and, doubtless, it must have sounded a most improper one in the ears of my aunt; for her little eyes seemed actually to emit sparks, as a black cat's back is said to do when ruffled in the dark.

"They are gentlewomen, Mr. Winkings!" cried Aunt Jem, almost choked with indignation, "and their attendants are respectable young persons, while you are a disgrace to your family. For shame! for shame!" emphatically continued the angry lady, interrupting the excuses I attempted to make; "I will not listen to you. I beg you will leave my house immediately. Your room is indeed most desirable, as you just now so wittily remarked. I would not subject my friends to the insolent licence of your tongue for worlds!"

Away marched Aunt Jem with the strut of an incensed turkey-cock, and an hour afterwards, I was on my way back to London; nor have I ever been able to convince my mistaken relative of my innocence, and still do I remain under the ban of her displeasure.

It would be wearying the reader to state all I have lost, and all I have suffered from the imputation of being a droll; and so I will content myself with one more instance of my unhappy fatality.

Not long ago I dined with Lord C——, who, though he certainly does not bear the character of being over bright, was still to me a star of great promise, seeing that he had given me assurance of provision under the operation of the "poor laws' bastard legislation," or some such affair, I forget exactly what, since unfortunately it is now no affair of mine.

The dinner in question was the only one I ever got out of his lordship, who on this occasion merely asked me, I believe, on account of my reputation for drollery. In fact, I was intended to be the jack-pudding of the company; but I determined to eat much and say little, for fear of giving offence. This did not suit his lordship, who considered my silence during the early part of the dinner as so much time lost, many of the party having been asked to meet the facetious Sam Winkings.

"We have just had a discussion here," smiled Lord C——, in his attempt to draw me out, "as to the impossibility of real wit making a rankling wound, it being like the clean cut of a razor. For myself, I am but a fool in such matters. What do you say, Mr. Winkings?"

"That I am quite of your lordship's opinion," replied I, most deferentially.

Here, a fit of coughing went round the table, which might or might not have covered a laugh; but looks were exchanged, plainly showing me that something was wrong. Little did I think at the time that, in delivering myself of my first actual sentence, in my hurry to agree with our host, I had called him a noodle. The peer was the only one who indulged in a decided cachinnation. Even he did not laugh comfortably; and I began to imagine that I had made one of my unlucky hits.

"I beg pardon, my lord; I only meant perfectly to agree with your lordship," said I, crossing my knife and fork over a delicious slice from a haunch of Southdown, for which my embarrassment had taken away all relish.

"Don't mention it, Mr. Winkings," rejoined Lord C——, getting up a fresh laugh; "I am sorry I disturbed you till after dinner. You don't like 'to eat mutton cold.' How goes the quotation?"

"'And cut blocks with a razor,' my lord," replied I, with the most imperturbable gravity.

The sensation was immense. Several of the guests palpably scowled at me, as if I had been guilty of an impertinence towards our host. Some stifled their risibility, and others laughed outright. Alas! what had I done? Just helped him to the remembrance of a quotation which there can be no doubt his lordship had forgotten, except as it referred to mutton. But I had the reputation for sarcasm, and of course I had made a personal attack on Lord C——, who, acting under this impression, certainly passed the matter off with a great deal of urbanity.

"Glad you hit him so hard," said a caustic old gentleman on my right. "Can't bear to see men of wit asked to be funny. My lord had much better have let well alone."

"In the name of Heaven, sir," cried I, almost at my wits' end, "what have I done?"

"Ah, you're a wag," said the caustic old gentleman.

"Indeed, sir, I am not a wag, but the most unfortunate individual in the world."

My neighbour was convulsed with laughter; and it was not until we left my lord's house after that luckless dinner that I elicited from him the particulars of my offence. His lordship has, like my uncle and aunt, of course, left me to live by my wits; fortunately, my caustic little friend thinks they will stand me in excellent stead. He has taken the place of my offended patron, and has actually introduced me to a publisher, for whom I am just now engaged in editing a new edition of facetiŠ, in two volumes quarto, comprising the complete reminiscences of the celebrated Joseph Miller.