The March of Mind


Mr. Job Spimkins, grocer and vestryman of Crutched-Friars, was a stout, easy, good-natured, middle-aged gentleman, who—to adopt a mercantile phrase—was "well to do in the world," and had long borne an exemplary character throughout his ward for sobriety, punctuality, civility, and all those homely but well-wearing qualities which we are apt to associate with trade. Punctuality, however, was the one leading feature of his mind, which he carried to so extravagant a height, that having formed a scale of moral duties, he had placed it in the very front rank, side by side with honesty—or the art of driving a good bargain—and just two above temperance, soberness and chastity. Even in his social hours, this peculiar trait of character decided his predilections; for, notwithstanding he was much given to keeping up feasts and holidays, and had a high respect for Michaelmas-Day, Christmas-Day, Twelfth-Day, New-Year's-Day, &c., yet he always expressed an indifferent opinion of Easter, because, like an Irishman's pay-day, it was seldom or never punctual. Next to this engrossing hobby was our citizen's abhorrence of poetry, an abhorrence which he extended with considerate impartiality to every branch of literature.

But Dr. Franklin's works formed an exception. He pronounced his commercial maxims to be the chefs-d'oeuvre of genius, and used to set them as large text-copies for his son, when he and the school-bill came home together for the holidays from Dr. Thickskull's academy at Camberwell. But poetry—our prosaic citizen could not for the life of him abide it. The only good thing, he used to say, he ever, yet saw in verse, was the Rule of Three; and the only rhymes that had the slightest reason to recommend them, were "Thirty days hath September."

To these opinions Mrs. Spimkins, like a dutiful wife, never failed to respond, "Amen." In person, this good lady was short and stoutly timbered, with a face on which lay the full sunshine of prosperity, in one broad, unvaried grin. Three children were her's: three "dear, delightful children," as their grandmother by the father's side never failed to declare, when punctually, every New-Year's-Day, she presented them each with a five-shilling-piece, wrapt up in gilt-edged note-paper. Thomas, the eldest, was a slim, sickly youth; easy, conceited, and eighteen: Martha, the second, was a maiden of more sensibility than beauty: while Sophy, the youngest and sprightliest, to a considerable portion of the maternal simper and the paternal circumference, added a fine expanse of foot, which spreading out semi-circularly, like a lady's fan, at the toes, gave a peculiar weight and safety to her tread.

The habits of this amiable family were to the full as unassuming as their manners. They dined at one o'clock, with the exception of Sundays, when the discussion of roast, or boiled, was, for fashion's sake, adjourned to five; took tea at six; supped at nine; and retired to rest at ten. The Sabbath, however, was a day not less of fashion than of luxury. The young folks—Thomas, especially, who was growing, and wanted nourishment—were then indulged with two glasses of port wine after dinner; and, at tea-time, were made happy in the privilege of a "blow out" with one or more friendly neighbours. Once every year they went half-price to the Christmas pantomimes, a memorable epoch, which never failed to deprive them of sleep, and disorganize their nervous system for at least a fortnight beforehand. Such were the habits of the Spimkins' family, a family rich, respectable, and orderly, until the March of Mind, which our modern philosophers are striving so hard to expedite, reduced them from wealth to poverty; and, from having been the pride, compelled them to become the pity of Crutched-Friars.

Every one must remember the strange, bewildering enthusiasm excited by Sir Walter Scott's first appearance as a novelist. All the world was Scott-struck. His songs were set to music; fair hands painted fire-screens from his incidents; playwrights dramatized his heroes; and even the great Mr. Alderman Dobbs himself was so enraptured with his descriptions of Highland scenery, that he actually took an inside place in the Inverness mail, in order, as he shrewdly remarked, "to judge for himself with his own eyes"—a feat which he would infallibly have accomplished, but for two reasons; first, that the coach passed the most picturesque part of the Highlands in the night-time; secondly that the worthy alderman himself fell fast asleep during the best part of his journey. He returned home, however, as might have been expected, in ecstacies.

Among the number of those who caught this poetic influenza in its most alarming form, were the two Misses Spinks, daughters of Mr. Common-Council Spinks, once a mighty man on' Change, but who had lately retired from business to enjoy life, alternately at his town house in Crutched-Friars, and his charming summer villa at Newington Butts, near the Montpellier Tea Gardens. As these young ladies lived next door to Mr. Spimkins, and cultivated the gentilities of society—a little neutralized, perhaps, by the circumstance of their indulging in certain pleonastic peculiarities of aspiration, by virtue of which the substantive "air" would be accommodated with an h, and the adverb "very" be transformed into a wherry—it may reasonably be inferred that they were much looked up to by their neighbours. The Misses Spimkins, in particular, took pattern by them in all things. They were the standards by which, in secret, they regulated their demeanor—the mirror in which they longed to see themselves at full-length reflected.

Things were in this state, when one morning Miss Spinks, a young lady of a grave and intellectual cast of mind, with a face broad at the forehead and peaked at the chin, like a kite, called at the Spimkinses for the purpose of inquiring the character of a servant maid. The Spimkinses were delighted by such condescension. Miss Spinks was such a charming young woman! such a dear creature!—so well-bred, so well-dressed, and, above all, so well-informed! Such, for at least a month afterwards, was the hourly topic of conversation at the grocer's table: it came up with the breakfast tray, it helped to digest the dinner, it served as a night-cap after supper, until at length old Spimkins, in consideration of his neighbour's importance, was prevailed on to depart so far from his homely notions of household economy, as to allow his wife and children to return Miss Spinks' visit. In due time, both parties, as a matter of course, became intimate; but as literature was all the rage at the common councilman's, the Misses Spimkins were for a time at fault, until a seasonable supply of novels, procured secretly from a fashionable publisher in the Minories, enabled them to converse on a more equal footing.

It was just about this period, that the Third Series of the Tales of My Landlord appeared. The Spinkses, who had heard from Alderman Dobbs that the descriptions were "uncommon like natur," of course read it; so of necessity did the Spimkinses; and, as Miss Spinks kept an album, it came to pass that she one day commissioned Thomas Spimkins to copy into it a few of the most notable passages. On what slight circumstances do the leading events of life depend! The youth, delighted with his task, ventured, after concluding it, to interpolate some stanzas of his own; Miss Spinks inquired who was the author; when Tom, blushing, like Mrs. Malaprop, "confessed the soft impeachment," was instantly pronounced a genius, and as such introduced by the Spinkses to all their high acquaintances.

Genius! What a fatal talisman exists in that portentous word! How many industrious families has it led astray! How much common-sense has it shipwrecked! How many prospects, once bright and imposing, has it utterly, incurably blighted!

Astonished at her son's promise, dazzled by the hopes of his preferment, all Mrs. Spimkins's usual good sense forsook her. The wisdom of the world was lost in the feelings of the mother. She gave play at once to the most ambitious expectations, and resolved henceforth not to let an hour escape without striving to inoculate her husband. With this view, she called every possible resource to her aid. She appealed to his affection as a father, to his pride as a man; she pointed out the injustice, not to say the inhumanity, of thwarting the genius of Thomas; she talked of his wealth, his deserts, his dignities; and, finally, by some miracle, for which I have never yet been able to account, persuaded the old gentleman to relax so liberally in his anti-poetic notions, as to despatch Thomas to Oxford, where he would infallibly have gained the prize poem, had it not, by some unaccountable mistake, been transferred to another.

It is from this period that the historian of the Spimkinses must date their decline and fall. Thomas returned home in due time from the university, a finished genius, but as poor as such geniuses are apt to be; while his father, who now began to repent having sent him there, proposed buying him a share in a grocer's shop at Whitechapel. But the gifted youth disdained such base employment. He had a soul above figs! What! Thomas Spimkins, Esq., of Brazen Nose, author of a poem which was within an inch of gaining the Chancellor's prize, stand behind the counter in a white apron, answering the demands of some uneducated customer for "a quarter of a pound of moist sugar, and change for sixpence!" Impossible! the idea was revolting to humanity!

Nevertheless, something must be done: one cannot live upon gentility, even though certificated at Oxford. Old Spimkins was precisely of this way of thinking; so, as a next resource, proposed articling his son to an attorney. But here again a difficulty presented itself. The business of a solicitor requires, it is well known, the impudence of a Yorkshire postboy, whereas Thomas was diffidence itself. Law, then, was out of the question; the church presented equal impediments; the navy, though respectable, was inappropriate; the army ruinously expensive. In this exigence, nothing remained but literature; to which, after many an urgent, impassioned, but fruitless remonstrance from his father, the young man finally resolved to addict himself. Meanwhile, his kind patrons, the Spinkses, thinking, naturally enough, that genius should vegetate among congenial scenery, took him on a visit to their villa at Newington Butts, where, in a romantic summer-house, built up of red bricks and oyster-shells, he gave vent to some of the sweetest stanzas imaginable. One of these, inspired by that poetic ceremony, the Lord Mayor's Show, fell accidentally into the hands of his lordship himself, who pronounced the author to be "a clever fellow, and one as knew what's what." This opinion, delivered in public by so great a judge, soon made the round of Crutched-Friars; so that, whenever Thomas chanced to make his appearance in public, the very shop-boys would whisper admiringly after him, "I say, Jack, there goes a poet!"

Behold, then, our sensitive minstrel, the pride of his neighbourhood, the "young Astyanax" of his family! As such, it became him to affect eccentricity. Accordingly, he grew "melancholy and gentleman-like," eschewed his cravat, and even advised his father to addict himself to Scott and Byron. But the old gentleman winced exceedingly at this proposal. Recollections of a poetic apprentice he once had, who had for some months carried on a very irregular flirtation with the till, came thronging fast upon his mind, and spurred him at once to a refusal. But what can resist the eternal solicitations of the shrewder sex? By day his daughter, by night his wife, kept teazing him into gradual compliance with their wishes. First he was prevailed on to dine at five, instead of two o'clock; secondly, to listen to his daughter's execution of "Oh! 'tis love, 'tis love!" sung with a twist of the mouth peculiarly provocative of that passion; and lastly (the severest cut of all), to give conversaziones to his son's literary acquaintances.

At these parties, a strange and talented group never failed to present themselves. All were men of genius, but exhibited, in their respective persons, proofs of the amazing rancour that subsists between genius and gentility. Among them was a lively Irishman, named O'Blarney, a reporter for the daily press, with sandy hair, a nose that turned up like a fish-hook, and a mouth which, from its extensive dimensions, afforded the most copious facilities for grinning. This promising young Papist, whose estates unfortunately lay in the most Protestant part of Ireland, was the very gem of Mr. Spimkins' parties; and as he mixed much in fashionable society, and could beat even a negro in dancing, his presence never failed to create a lively sensation at Crutched-Friars. Another of the old gentleman's guests was a rising versifier of twenty-two, whose appearance would have been sentiment itself, had not a pair of dingy whiskers, which grew back towards his ears, as if enamoured of the latter's unusual length, given him a slight touch of the grotesque. As it was, his fine, open, full-blown face, resembled a cherub on a country tomb-stone. It would be injustice to acknowledged ability were I here to omit the mention of another poet, whose genius taking an uxorious turn, exploded in admiring apostrophes to his wife. This bard displayed infinite sweetness of versification—as the extracts from the different reviews, inserted, accidentally, at the end of his volume—assured him. There were no intemperate sallies, no startling originality, no audacious imagery in his rhymes; all was sweetly and agreeably uniform, like the features on a barber's block. Such, with the addition of three historians from St. Mary Axe, two political economists from Long Acre, a pastoral writer from Wapping, and an essayist from Houndsditch, were the literati whose dazzling abilities illumined the fortunate neighbourhood of Crutched-Friars. Old Spimkins, meanwhile, to whom the whole scene was a novelty that well nigh took away his breath, kept moving backwards and forwards among his guests, oscillating in spirits, between a sigh and a smile; at one moment looking grave and dignified, like the Scotch Highlander at a tobacconist's; at another, simpering sweetly and benignly, and perpetrating, whenever he ventured on a remark, the strangest possible blunders. The three French consuls he invariably mistook for the three per cent, consols; quoted Moore's Almanack in illustration of Moore's Melodies; inquired whether those two great poets, Hogg and Bacon, were not of the same family; and, when asked his opinion of Crabbe, gave a decided preference to lobster.

This sort of work had continued for the best part of a year, during which time the good-natured old grocer had been subjected to every species of expence and annoyance; when one morning, towards the close of October, news arrived that a literary gentleman, for whom his son had persuaded him to become bail to a pretty considerable amount, had presented him in return, with what is termed leg-bail—a species of gratitude whereby the locomotive powers are exercised at the expense of principle. The same post brought a letter from Miss Spinks at Newington, with the intelligence that Sophy—the sprightly Sophy Spimkins—who had been on a visit there for some days, had just set out with O'Blarney, on a hasty visit of inspection to the latter's estates at Monaghan. This letter enclosed another from the fair fugitive herself, in which she implored her father's forgiveness for the "rash step" she had taken; but assured him that immediately on her arrival at the old family castle, she should become Mrs. O'Blarney, and return home the very instant that her husband had secured his election for the county. The epistle concluded with affectionate remembrances to the family circle, and a hope that, when things were a little in order, her eldest sister would be prevailed upon to accompany her back to Monaghan.

This intelligence, notwithstanding his son's very sanguine anticipations on the subject, annoyed poor Mr. Spimkins exceedingly; while, as if to fill up the measure of his tribulation, his former acquaintance at Crutched-Friars, finding that, for months past, he had shewn evident symptoms of a wish to cut them, began in self-defence, to set up reports injurious to his reputation. Rumours so circulated soon obtained belief. First one customer dropped off—then a second—then a third—then a fourth, fifth, and sixth—until at length the whole neighbourhood set it down, confidently down in their minds, that the Spimkinses were a losing family. Even the parish-clerk himself, a person of considerable local authority, was heard to observe that they were getting too clever for business—an opinion which, pronounced gravely and oracularly by a gentleman in a double chin, produced an instantaneous effect.

But where all this time were the Spinkses? Where were they whose patronage should have shielded, and whose kindness should have cherished, the unfortunate but still interesting Spimkinses? Alas! they had set out, only a few weeks before, for the Holy Land, with the avowed intention of taking furnished lodgings for at least six months at Jerusalem.

As if this, of itself, were not sufficiently vexatious, Miss Spimkins took it into her head to espouse a gentleman for the very last thing a lady usually thinks of looking for in a husband—his intellect. The origin of her amour is curious. She had read in the Gentleman's Magazine, the "Confessions of a Wanderer," who had been shipwrecked on the Thames, at night-fall, off Chelsea Reach; which Confessions were penned in so poetic a spirit, and described so feelingly the horrors of the catastrophe, the hoarse dash of the waves—the howling of the winds—and the subsequent encounter of the vessel against the fourth arch of Battersea bridge, that the susceptible Miss Spimkins was on thorns till she became acquainted with the author. This, by her brother's intervention, was soon brought about; an invitation to dinner confirmed the intimacy; the lady, like Desdemona, loved the Wanderer "for the perils he had passed;" and he, like Othello, "loved her that she did pity them." It has been well said, one marriage makes many: scarcely had his sister embraced the nuptial state, when Thomas handed to the same altar a widow lady, whom he had accidentally met at Margate, and had mistaken for a person of quality, but who had since turned out to be the leading tragic actress of Sadler's Wells, at a rising salary of eighteen shillings per week, exclusive of benefits. It is but justice to add, that if this young lady brought her husband no fortune, she brought him, what to a sensitive mind is infinitely preferable, two fine boys, one of whom was breeched, the other yet in petticoats.

Such accumulated incidents—calamities he ungratefully called them—occurring to old Spimkins at a period when the mind, having lost the first elasticity of youth, is not yet mellowed down into the philosophy of age, but stands, restless and unsettled, between the two, in a sort of crepuscular condition, heaped "sackcloth and ashes on his head." He neglected his ledger, he neglected his house, he neglected himself, and, worst of all, he neglected his customers. In fact, for months together, he did nothing but sigh and swear. His family, even in this exigency, could render him not the slightest assistance. His daughter, who still lived with him, had, by a diligent cultivation of the intellect, long since forgotten the household duties of a wife; her husband, as the old man used often to remark, "was of no more use than a cargo of damaged coffee;" and even Thomas—the inspired Thomas himself—had dwindled down into a mere mortal, and now dwelt in aerial seclusion up two pair of stairs at Pentonville. Thus widowed in his age—for his wife, I should observe, had, three months since, transferred herself from his to Abraham's bosom—the disconsolate grocer abruptly sold his business, pensioned off his daughter and her "Wanderer," and retired alone, on a small annuity, to a back street in Islington—a memorable illustration of' the March of Mind and its very peculiar concomitants.

Here it was that I first became acquainted with him, and gleaned the particulars of the history I have just ventured to sketch. Our intimacy continued upwards of a year, during which period I will do my old friend the justice to say, that I heard the anecdote of the poetic apprentice who had robbed him, at least a dozen times. Now and then, when I ventured to express my astonishment that a tradesman of his good sense, who held such proper notions on the score of poetry and punctuality, should have so far forgotten himself as to have encouraged the one, and abandoned the other, to his own manifest ruin, the venerable sage would answer, "True Sir, but it was all my wife's doing. She kept perpetually telling me that the Spinkses—who, one would have thought must have been good judges, for they were capital customers, and always paid their way—had pronounced my son to be a genius, and that it was a shame to thwart his abilities; so I was over-persuaded, you see, to send him to college, when, had he but stuck to business, who knows but he might have become a common-councilman; or, perhaps, even in time a sheriff! But there's no doing any thing with poets. I remember an apprentice of mine, once—— But I see you're affected!"—and here the old man would pause, shake the ashes from his pipe, and then revert to some less ungracious topic. It was on one of these occasions, when, having concluded a longer story than usual, he had stopped to take his customary allowance of breath, that on waking from a nap which his affecting anecdotes rarely failed to bring on, I found him stretched in an apoplectic fit upon the floor. With some difficulty he was brought to his senses; but, a relapse occurring in a few days, it became but too evident that, like the late John Wesley, he had had a call—that, in short, his closing hour was come. I was with him in his last extremity, and have every reason to be satisfied with the Christian character of his exit. He swore most incredibly at all poets; left Thomas his blessing and six half-crowns; his daughter a MS. Essay, by the political economist of Houndsditch; and then, with a convulsive jerk of his left leg, which lamed the bed-post for life, set out on his travels to eternity, with the story of the apprentice on his lips.

Of his three children, Thomas is the sole survivor. The "Wanderer's" wife was taken off, about a fortnight since, by dyspepsia, the consequence of inordinate indulgence in tripe and toast-and-water; while her sprightly sister, Sophy, threw herself headlong into a mill-pond at Holyhead (having previously tied down her petticoats at the ankles), on being informed by O'Blarney, in one of those confidential moments which brandy-and-water seldom fails to elicit, that he was already the devoted husband of three wives and a proportionate abundance of pledges, and had quitted London, not so much with a view to visit any Irish estates—which, as a matter of course, existed only in his fancy—as to obviate the personal inconveniences likely to arise from the circumstance of his having, in a moment of forgetfulness, appropriated to his own use the purse and pocket-book of one of his most intimate and valued acquaintances. The poor girl's body was fished up, a few days afterwards, by a Welsh clergyman, who was trolling in spectacles for pike: and a coroner's inquest having been summoned, the evidence of O'Blarney was taken, from which it clearly appeared that the deceased was at times insane, and, only two hours before her death, had made three attempts to swallow a salt-cellar. The young Irishman deposed to these and other facts with so much feeling, earnestness, and simplicity, that the coroner complimented him highly on his humanity; and an account of the inquest having been furnished by himself for the North Wales Chronicle, it soon afterwards made the round of the London newspapers, under the title of "Distressing Suicide."

Of poor Thomas, my account, I grieve to say, must be equally disheartening. An epic poem, on which he had been some months engaged, having not only failed, but even contributed to introduce its publisher to ready-furnished lodgings in the Fleet, he is now driven to the necessity of jobbing for minor periodicals, thereby adding one more to the already swollen catalogue of those who, mistaking the ignis fatuus of vanity for the sober radiance of intellect, start off prematurely on the voyage of life, without pilot to steer, compass to direct, or ballast to steady their course.

When I called on the young man, a few mornings since, I was much struck with his more than usually picturesque condition. Being always fond of air, he had hired a back attic, overlooking two charming gardens filled with clothes'-lines, and commanding a distant view of some brick-fields, a pig, and an Irish hodman from Carrickfergus. His wife was seated at the fire, watching a leg of mutton as it pirouetted before the grate, at the end of a bit of whipcord: Fernando, her eldest boy, was riding with manifest ecstacy on the back of an old chair: and her two other darling babes, Alphonso and Eleonora, were fast asleep, on a turn-up bedstead, in an adjoining room. Close by Thomas, who was busy writing reviews at a deal table with three legs, was an elderly cotton shirt, hanging to dry on a small wooden horse, quite a pony in its dimensions; and at the further end of the room, near the door, stood a pot of half-and-half, a pen'orth of pickled cabbage in a tea-cup, a twopenny French roll, a black horn dinner knife, and a fork with two prongs, both of which were broken. On observing these evident symptoms of domestic conviviality, I abruptly hastened my departure; but, on my return home by way of Crutched-Friars, could not refrain from stopping an instant in order to survey my old friend's establishment. It was in the most deplorable condition possible. The voice of its till was mute; the very fixtures themselves were removed; and advertisements, three deep, specifying in large red characters the virtues of Daffy's Elixir, were posted up, on door, wall, and window-shutter. Altogether, the scene was of the most affecting character, and forcibly impressed on my mind the calamities attendant on what Shakspeare calls "ill-judged ambition."