Legend of the Large Mouth

by Robert Chambers

"Here's a large mouth indeed!"
Shakspeare—King John.

Arriving one evening at an inn in Glasgow, I was shewn into a room which already contained a promiscuous assemblage of travellers. Amongst the rest, there was one whose features struck me as being the most horrible I ever beheld. He was a large, pursy old man, with a head "villainous low," hair like bell-ropes, eyes that were the smallest and most porkish of all possible eyes, and a nose which shewed no more prominence en profile, than that of the moon as exhibited in her first quarter upon a freemason's apron; but all these monstrosities were as beauties—as lovelinesses—as absolute perfections, compared with the mouth—the enormous mouth, which, grinning beneath, formed a sort of rustic basement to the whole superstructure of his facial horrors. This mouth—if mouth it might be called, which had so little resemblance to the mouths of mankind—turned full upon me as I entered; and, happening at the moment to be employed in a yawn, actually seemed as if it would have willingly received me into its prodigious crater, mumbled me to a mummy, and then bolted me, spurs and all!

On sitting down, and proceeding to make myself acquainted with the rest of the company, I discovered this monster to be a person of polite manners and agreeable conversation. He spoke a good deal, and always in a lively style. The best of him was, that he seemed quite at ease upon the subject of his mouth. No doubt, he was conscious of his supernatural ugliness,—for, whatever may be said of vanity and so forth, every person, male and female, with unpleasant features, is so; but he had none of the boggling, unsteady, un-complacent deportment, so remarkable in most of the persons so circumstanced. On the contrary, there was an air of infinite self-satisfaction about him, which told that he was either so familiar with the dreadful fact as to mind it not; or that he was a man of the world, above considering so trivial a particular; or that he was rich, and could afford to be detested. His talk occasionally displayed considerable humour, and even wit; but he never laughed at his own jokes. He evidently dared not. Though his conversation, therefore, was exceedingly agreeable, his deportment was rather grave. He never opened his whole mouth at once. It was like a large car-riage-gate, with a wicket for the convenience of foot-passengers. A small aperture, about the middle of it, sufficed for the emission of his words. And, sometimes, he made an opening at either flank to relieve guard upon the central hole, especially when he happened to speak to some person sitting close by his side. Now and then, it closed altogether, and looked (for it could look) forward into the fire, with an appearance of pensive composure, as if speculating upon the red embers, and auguring the duration of the black coal above.

As the time of supper drew nigh, I began to feel an intense anxiety about the probable conduct of the mouth at table. How so extraordinary a character would behave, what it would ask for, after what manner it would masticate, and, above all, how much it would devour, were to me subjects of the most interesting speculation. I thought of the proverb of my native country, so ungracious to people with large mouths, and wondered if it would be in this case belied or confirmed. Should the appetite, thought I, be in proportion to the mouth, the scene will either be prodigiously Horrible or highly amusing. But, perhaps, after all, this man is misrepresented by his mouth; great eaters have been known to be little, thin, shrivelled persons; while fat men have been supported, ere now, upon two spare meals a-day: more would seem to depend upon the activity of the internal machine, than upon its outward capacity. Who Knows but this man, with all his corporeal size and large mouth, may turn out a perfect example of abstemiousness? The question was one of deep concernment, and I continued to consider it till it was announced that supper was ready. Upon the mention of that interesting word, I observed the mouth suddenly bustle up, and assume an air of promptitude, that seemed rather more favourable to the proverb than I could have desired. The man rose, and, going to a corner of the room where a number of portmanteaus lay heaped, selected and brought forward one. He opened it with a deliberation that was inexpressibly provoking, and, slowly turning up a few articles, at length produced a parcel, wrapped in brown paper. This he laid down upon the table, while I gazed on it with great and impatient curiosity, till the owner as deliberately strapped up, locked, closed, and finally replaced the portmanteau. He then took up the parcel, unfolded the paper, and took out a large strange-looking spoon. The proverb, thought I, will stand yet,—the spoon might have served in the nursery of Glumdalclitch.

It was a silver implement, of peculiar shape. The calix was circular, like the spoons of the Romans, about four inches in diameter, and one deep in the centre, altogether bearing some resemblance to an ordinary saucer; and it had a short, sturdy handle with a whistle at the extremity. Observing the attention of the company to be strongly directed towards his spoon, the old man showed it round, with the most good-natured politeness, telling us, that he had been so long accustomed to use this goodly article at home, that, when he happened to travel, he was always obliged to take it along with him, being unable to make such neat work of his soup with the ordinary implements which he found abroad. "But, indeed, gentlemen," said he, "why should I make this a matter of delicacy with you? The truth is, the spoon has a history, and my mouth—none of the least, you see—has also a history. If you feel any curiosity upon these points, I shall give you a biographical sketch of the one, and an autobiographical sketch of the other, to amuse you till supper is ready." To this frank proposal all the company joyfully assented; and the old man began a narrative, of which the following is the substance:—His mouth was the chieftain and representative of a long ancestral line of illustrious and most extensive mouths, which had flourished, for upwards of two centuries, at a place called Tullibody, somewhere in the western parts of Fife. There was a tradition, that the mouth originally came into the family by marriage. Its introduction was a story of itself. A paternal ancestor of the speaker, woo'd, and was going to marry a lady of great beauty, but no fortune, when his design was knocked on the head by the interference of his father, who very kindly told him, one morning, that, if he married that tocherless dame, he would cut him off with a shilling; whereas, if he took to wife a certain lady of his appointment, he would be so good as—not do that. The youth was somewhat staggered by his father's declarations, and asked time to consider. The result was, that he married the lady of his father's choice, who was the heiress to a large fortune and a large mouth, both bequeathed to her by her father, one of the celebrated kail-suppers of Fife. When this was told to the slighted lady of his love, she was so highly offended, that she wished the mouth of her fortunate rival might descend, in all its latitude, to the latest generation of her faithless swain's posterity; and then took ill, and—married another lover, her second best, next week, by way of revenge. The country people, who pay great attention to the sayings and doings of ladies condemned to wear the willow, waited anxiously for the fulfilment of her malediction; and, accordingly shook their heads, and had their own thoughts, when the kail-supper's daughter brought forth a son, with a mouth reflecting back credit on her own. The triumph of the ill-wisher was considered complete, when the second, and third, and all the other children, were found to be equally distinguished by this feature; and, what gave the triumph still more piquancy, was, that the daughters were found to be no more excepted than the sons from the family doom. In the second generation, moreover, instead of being softened or diluted away, the mouth rather increased; and so it had done in every successive generation since that time. The race having been very prolific, it was now spread so much, that there was scarcely a face in Tullibody altogether free of the contagion: the people there had almost ceased to regard a large mouth as a joke: it was so common as not to be noted; or there were so many, that there was not one mouth to laugh at another.

Fate and fortune are said to be very favourable to people with large mouths. So it proved in this case. After the mouth came into the family, luck also came; and still as the mouth had increased with successive generations, just so had riches increased. The third in line from the "first man," a cooper by profession, became so wealthy before he died, that he might have got his name handed down to immortality on a certain conspicuous, though dusty and illegible, board in the parish church, along with those of other charitable persons by leaving "ane hunder merks Scots to ye pvir."

Despising the humble glory of making such a legacy, and being too poor to found a college, and too wise to endow a cat, he did better; he founded a spoon—a spoon which should go down to future ages as a traditionary joke upon his family-feature, and remain for ever in the hands of those who could appreciate his beneficence. He left it under certain provisions, or statutes of foundation. The main scope of his intentions, was, simply, that the spoon should always be possessed by his largest-mouthed descendant. In the first place, after his own death it was to fall into the hands of his eldest son, a youth of highly promising mouth; or, indeed, whose mouth was fully entitled to the proverbial praise bestowed upon the cooper of Fogo,—"that it was his father's equal and mair," and who moreover, entertained such a respect for the will of his parent, that he seemed likely to preserve and transmit the precious heir-loom with all due zeal and care. At his death, it was to become the property of the son, daughter, nephew, or niece (for it was not limited heredibus masculis, but, with laudable regard for the claims of the fairer sex, destined heredibus quibuscunque), who should appear to him, judging conscientiously, and in his right mind, to have the mouth most fitted to enjoy it in all its latitude. At the death of that person, it was to go to the next largest mouth (isto vel ista, judice), and so on, in all time coming. After passing the second generation, of course uncles, cousins, and grand-nephews, might become eligible, provided that the family should spread itself out into these relationships; but, quibus deficientibus, the nearest of kin and largest of mouth whatsoever, so that they were of the name, might come in as competitors, the same being always subject to the review and choice of the former possessor. In the case of any possessor being cut off suddenly, without appointing a successor to his trust, then the affair was to be decided by a popular election.

It may seem a strange though a liberal and even gallant thing, in the founder of the spoon, that he should have considered the females of his posterity in the statutes, seeing that, according to the ordinary rule of human nature, there was little chance of their ever being found to excel the males in point of mouth. Yet this was a very proper and well-judged article. The truth is, that, as the feature had originally come into the family by a lady, so had it always continued to distinguish the daughters, to an equal, if not superior, degree with the sons. Indeed, the wisdom of the statute was put beyond a doubt, by the circumstance of a daughter having actually been, upon one occasion (nearly a century ago), the possessor of the spoon! And this circumstance was the more remarkable on the following account:—This lady, when her mouth was brought to its last speech, attempted to bequeath the valuable heir-loom to her second, and favourite, and largest-mouthed son—a person, of course, not eligible, on account of his being only the half-blood, and wanting the necessary name By this infraction of the statute, the spoon might have fallen into the possession of a new family altogether, and probably never again reverted to any one of the name and mouth of the founder. It is true, the articles were somewhat defective upon this point, and the question might have stood a discussion before the Fifteen. Yet the thing looked at least against the spirit of the founder's intentions and, any how, the male heirs determined, at all hazards, to oppose her will. Having come to this resolution at a general meeting, they forthwith marched in posse to the bed of their dying relative; and there after lecturing her for some time upon the heinousness of her intentions—which they did cum oribus, not only rotundis, but also both longis et latis, imo etiam perlatis, as Dominie Sampson would have said—they demanded the spoon, which they said, she had fairly forfeited by her misconduct, one of the statutes containing the clause ad vitam aut culpam. The sons of the dying lady proposed to dispute the point: but she told them, that, as she repented of her fault, she would endeavour to repair it, before time and she should part for ever, by surrendering the spoon of her ancestors to its just and lawful claimants; and this she forthwith did. The large-mouthed host then went away satisfied, and proceeded to adjudge it by votes to one of two or three persons of the true blood, who entered as candidates for the highly-prized trust.

After the election, the whole clan entered into a paction, whereby they bound themselves and their posterity to take similar measures in case of the same exigency recurring. They might, however, have spared themselves this trouble, and left posterity free to act as it thought proper; for, thenceforward (fate seeming to take so important a matter into her own hand), to the surprise and satisfaction of the family, the daughters began to be born with less, and the sons with larger mouths than formerly; so that, though the law of Tanistry * still prevailed, that entitled the Salique came into full force, as it were, of its own accord; and no instance had occurred, for a century past, of any female, married or unmarried, becoming so much as a competitor for the invaluable vessel, which now glided peacefully down the current of ages, in the possession of a lineal male line of truly respectable mouths, prized by the happy inheritors, and honoured by the homage and veneration of all the rest of the family. **

* The phrase applicable to the succession of uncles and
nephews, in preference to sons, customary in the early ages
of the Scottish monarchy.

** Since this story was first printed, the author has been
informed of another similar heir-loom which belonged to the
family of Crawfurd of Crawfurdland, in Ayrshire (now extinct
in the male line), and which bore the following
inscription:—
This spoune I leave for a legacie
To the muckle-mou'd Crawfurds after me.

Just as the old gentleman concluded his narrative, supper was introduced, and we all rose, in order to re-arrange ourselves round the table. I now knew the history of his mouth and spoon; but I was still ignorant of the extent of his appetite. The confessions of the Mouth had been ample and explicit; but it had been silent as the grave, which it resembled, upon the corresponding matter of the stomach. My anxiety upon this point was excessive—was painful—was intolerable. I did not know what to expect of it. Ere we sat down, I cast towards it a look of awful curiosity. It was hovering like a prodigious rainbow over the horizon of the table, uncertain where to pitch itself—

"————Avi similis, quae circum litora, circum
Piscosos scopulos,——- volat————"

There was an air of terrible resolution about it, which made me almost tremble for what was to ensue. Still I hoped the best; and I, at last, sat down, with the resigned idea that time would try all.

The Mouth—for so it might be termed par excellence—was preferred by acclamation to the head of the table,—a distinction awarded, as I afterwards understood (secundum morem bagman), not so much on account of its superior greatness, as in consideration of its seniority, though I am sure it deserved the pas on both accounts. The inferior and junior mouths all sat down at different distances from the great mouth, like satellites round a mighty planet. It uttered a short gentleman-like grace, and then began to ask its neighbours what they would have. Some asked for one thing, some for another, and in a short time all were served except itself For its own part, it complained of weak appetite, and expressed a fear that it should not be able to take anything at all. I could scarcely credit the declaration. It added, in a singularly prim tone of voice, that, for its part, it admired the taste of Beau Tibbs in Goldsmith,—"Something nice, and a little will do,—I hate your immense loads of meat; that's country all over!" Hereupon I plucked up courage, and ventured to look at it again. It was still terrible, though placid. Its expression was that of a fresh and strong warrior, who hesitates a moment to consider into what part of a thick battle he shall plunge himself, or what foes he shall select as worthy of particular attack. Its look belied its words; but again I was thrown back by its words belying its look. It said to a neighbour of mine, that it thought it might perhaps manage the half of the tail of one of the herrings at his elbow, if he would be so kind as carve. Was there ever such a puzzling mouth! I was obliged again to give credit to words; yet again was I disappointed. My neighbour, thinking it absurd to mince such a matter as a herring, handed up a whole one to the chairman. The mouth received it, with a torrent of refusals and remonstrances, in the midst of which it began to eat, and I heard it continue to mumble forth expostulations, in a fainter and fainter tone, at the intervals of bites, for a few seconds, till behold, the whole corporate substance of the fish had melted away to a long meager skeleton! When done, its remonstrances changed into a wonder how it should have got through so plump a fish—it was perfectly astonishing—it had never eaten a whole herring in its life before—it was an unaccountable miracle. I did not hear the latter sentences of its wonderments; but, towards the conclusion, heard the word "fowl" distinctly pronounced. The fowls lying to my hand, I found myself under the necessity of entering into conference with it, though I felt a mortal disinclination to look it in the mouth, lest I should betray some symptom of emotion inconsistent with good manners. Drawing down my features into a resolute pucker, and mentally vowing I would speak to it, though it should blast me, I cast my eyes slowly and cautiously towards it, and made inquiry as to its choice of bits. In return for my interrogation, I received a polite convulsion, intended for a smile, and a request, out of which I only caught the important words "breast" and "wing." I made haste to execute the order; and, on handing away the desired viands, received from the Mouth another grateful convulsion; and then—thank God, all was over! Well, thought I, at this juncture, a herring and fragment of fowl are no such great matters; perhaps the Mouth will prove quite a natural mouth, after all. In brief space, however, the chairman's plate was announced as again empty; and, I heard it receive, discuss, and answer various proposals of replenishment made to it by its more immediate neighbours. I thought I would escape; but no,—"the fowl was really so good, that it thought it would trouble me for another breast, if I would be so kind," &c. I was, of course, obliged to look at it again, in order to receive its request in proper form; and, oh, me miserum; neglecting this time my former preparations of face, I had nearly committed myself by looking it full in the mouth, with my eyes wide open, and without having screwed my facial muscles into their former resolute astringency. However, instantly apprehending the amount of its demands, my glance at the Mouth fortunately required to be only momentary, and I found immediate relief from all danger in the ensuing business of carving. Yet even that glance was in itself a dreadful trial; it sufficed to inform me, that the Mouth was now more terrible than before \ that there was a fearful vivacity about it—a promptitude—an alacrity—an energy—which it did not formerly exhibit. Should this increase, thought I, it will soon be truly dreadful. I handed up a whole fowl to it, in a sort of desperation. It made no remonstrances, as in the case of the herring, at the abundance of my offering. So far from that, it seemed to forgive my disobedience with the utmost good will; received the fowl, and despatched it with silence and celerity, and then again looked abroad for farther prey. Indeed, it now began to crack jokes upon itself,—a sportive species of suicide. It spoke of the spoon; lamented that, after all, there should be no soups at table, whereon it might have exhibited itself; and finally vowed, that it would visit the deficiences of the supper upon the dessert, even unto the third and fourth dish of Blanc-mange. The proprietor of the Mouth then laid down the spoon upon the table, there to lie in readiness, till such time as he should find knives and forks of no farther service—as the Scottish soldiery, in former times used to lay their shields upon the ground while making use of their spears. I now gave up all hopes of the Mouth observing any propriety in its future transactions. But, having finished my own supper, I resolved to set myself down to observe all its sayings and doings, without giving myself any farther concern about the proverb, which I was formerly so solicitous that it should not fulfil. Its placidity was now gone—its air of self-possession lost. New powers seemed to be every moment developing themselves throughout its vast form—new and more terrible powers. It was beginning to have a wild look! It was evident that it was now fleshed—that its naturally savage disposition, formerly dormant for want of excitement, was now rising tumultuously within it—that it would soon perform such deeds as would scare us all! It had engaged itself, before I commenced my observations, upon a roast jigot of mutton, which happened to lie near it. This it soon nearly finished. It then cast a look of fearful omen at a piece of cold beef, which lay immediately beyond it, and which, being placed within reach by some kind neighbour it immediately commenced upon, with as much fierceness as it had just exemplified in the case of the mutton. The beef also was soon laid waste, and another look of extermination was forthwith cast at a broken pigeon-pie, which lay still farther off. Hereupon the eye had scarcely alighted, when the man nearest it, with laudable promptitude, handed it upwards. Scarcely was it laid on the altar of destruction, when it disappeared too; and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth look, were successively cast at other dishes, which the different members of the party* as promptly sent away, and which the Mouth as promptly despatched. By this time, all the rest of the party were lying upon their oars, observing, with leisurely astonishment, the progress of the surviving, and, as it appeared to them, eternal feeder. He went on, rejoicing in his strength, unheeding their idleness and wonder, his very soul apparently engrossed in the grand business of devouring. They seemed to enter into a sort of tacit compact, or agreement, to indulge and facilitate him in his progress, by making themselves, as it were, his servitors. Whatever dish he looked at, therefore, over the wide expanse of the table, immediately disappeared from its place. One after another, they trooped off towards the head of the table, like the successive brigades which Wellington despatched at Waterloo, against a particular field of French artillery; and, still, dish after dish, like the said brigades, came successively away, broken, shattered, diminished. Fish, flesh, and fowl, disappeared at the glance of that awful eye, as the Roman fleet withered and vanished before the grand burning glass of Archimedes. The end of all things seemed at hand! The Mouth was arrived at a perfect transport of voracity! It seemed to be no more capable of restraining itself than some great engine, full of tremendous machinery, which cannot stop of itself. It had no self-will. It was an unaccountable being. It was a separate creature, independent of the soul. It was not a human thing at all. It was every thing that was superhuman—every thing that was immense—inconceivably enormous! All objects seemed reeling and toppling on towards it, like the foam-bells upon a mighty current, floating silently on towards the orifice of some prodigious sea-cave. It was like the whirlpool of Maelstrom, every thing that comes within the vortex of which, for miles round, is sure of being caught, inextricably involved, whirled round, and round, and round, and then down, down that monstrous gulf—that mouth of the mighty ocean, the lips of which are overwhelming waves, whose teeth are prodigious rocks, and whose belly is the great abyss!

Here I grew dizzy, fainted, and—I never saw the Mouth again.