Sir Mathew Ale by Anonymous

It was a question, even with my friend the Baronet himself, whether, as some of the genealogists asserted, his respectable ancestors were related to the illustrious judge, who, with the exception of an aspirate, was his namesake: but if, as the old gentleman said, he had none of the eminent lawyer's blood flowing in his veins, a fact of much greater importance was indisputable;—he possessed, without the shadow of a doubt, that great man's mug,—the capacious vessel from which he was wont to quaff huge and inspiring draughts of the king of all manly beverages, "nut-brown ale." The pitcher,—to which appellation its size entitled it,—"filled with the foaming blood of Barleycorn" from ten to fifteen years of age, invariably graced my friend's old oaken table, during our frequent festive meetings. There was a strong likeness, in the outline of Sir Mathew's mug, when full of the frothing liquor in which he delighted, to his "good round belly," his ruddy face, and his flowing wig. It was highly valued by the old gentleman, while he lived; and is looked upon with a kind of reverential love, by those to whom he endeared himself by his good qualities, as the only likeness of him extant, now that he is dead.

Sir Mathew was an enthusiastic admirer of the customs of merry old England, and especially attached to those of "the West-Countrie." Bom in Devon, and living, as he said, with one foot in Gloucester and the other in Somerset, he had acquired a greater knowledge of the qualities, habits, and feelings of the people who dwelt in two or three of the "down-a-long" shires, than most men of his day. He was well versed in their superstitions, their quaint customs, and their oddities;—an adept in their traditionary lore, and acquainted with most of the heroes who had figured in their little modern romances of real life. A large portion of his time had been absorbed in making collections for a System of Rustic Mythology, a Calendar of West Country Customs, and in perfecting his favourite work,—the Apotheosis of John Barleycorn. The ensuing pages are devoted merely to a few circumstances which fell under his own observation; with the characters in the narratives, he was, personally, more or less acquainted: the auto-biography of the obese attorney, Habakkuk Bullwrinkle, is faithfully transcribed from the original manuscript, in Sir Mathew's possession.

Sir Mathew frequently declared, that nearly all the superstitions of the people, relating to charms and tokens, were, as he knew by experience, founded in truth. He had, at one time, been a staunch believer in the power of the "dead man's candle" to prevent those, who are sleeping in the house where it is lighted, from waking until it is burned out, or extinguished: but latterly Sir Mathew thought proper to intimate that his belief in the efficacy of the charm had been, in some degree, staggered. A malicious wag, in the neighbourhood, propagated a tale, which, if true, accounts naturally enough for the change in Sir Mathew's opinion upon this point. Whenever an eminent burglar happened to be imprisoned in either of the neighbouring gaols, it was the Baronet's custom, for a number of years past, as the story went, to consult the criminal, as a high authority, on the virtue of the mystic light in house-breaking. The result of his inquiries induced him to repose so much faith in the charm, that, in order to set the question beyond a doubt, he determined on making a midnight entry into the house of a dear friend; who, he knew, neither kept fire-arms, nor would, for a moment, suspect him, even if discovered and taken in the fact, of being actuated by burglarious motives. With the assistance of a lecturer on anatomy, who lived in a neighbouring town, and a clever journeyman-tallow-chandler, Sir Mathew made "a dead man's Candle," secundum artem; armed with which, he penetrated into his friend's pantry, regaled himself very heartily on some cold beef, and a bottle of stout ale, and finding that his proceedings had not caused the least alarm, he daringly made a great deal of unnecessary noise. His friend and the servants were at length roused: in his hurry to get off undetected, Sir Mathew's candle was extinguished; and during the darkness, his dear friend, and Jacob, his dear friend's butler, thrashed him so unmercifully, that, although his fears endowed him with sufficient agility to effect a retreat, he could scarcely crawl home; and was confined to his bed, by a very mysterious indisposition, for more than a week.

Sir Mathew stoutly denied the truth of this impeachment: he admitted that he was a practical man,—an experimentalist in such matters; but he indignantly pleaded "not guilty" to being so enthusiastic a simpleton as his jocose calumniator had represented him. The wag, in reply, said "that it was very natural, right or wrong, for Sir Mathew to deny the correctness of the story. Although the old gentleman is certainly quite simple enough to do the deed," added he, "I must needs own, I never suspected him of being such a blockhead as to confess it."

After this, Sir Mathew treated the tale as an ingenious and venial invention, and always enjoyed it highly whenever it was subsequently related in his hearing. He would have laughed heartily at it, perhaps, if he could; but he had long been compelled to drill his features, periodically, into a state of almost inflexible gravity. "People who know but little of me," he would say, "call me 'the man without a smile;' I pass, with many, for a very surly fellow; unfortunately, I am often misrepresented, and my real character is mistaken, through, what others would deem, a trifling affliction: the bane of my life is, that, very frequently, for a month together, I can't laugh, and don't dare even to indulge in my habitual smirk, because I have an apparently incurable and terrifically susceptible little crack in my lip."

Sir Mathew was a most zealous supporter of the ancient customs of the country. He patronised the sports of a neighbouring village fair, at a considerable expense, until its frequenters almost abused him for not giving two pigs with greasy tails to be caught, instead of one. He entertained the cobblers of the surrounding villages, annually, with a barrel of strong ale, in order to keep up the good old custom of Crispin's sons draining a horn of malt liquor, in which a lighted candle was placed,—without singeing their faces, if they could,—on the feast of their patron saint: nor did he discontinue this practice, even after some of them had despoiled him of a favourite pair of boots; until a party of the gentle craft, on one occasion, emboldened by beer, stormed his inmost cellar, tapped a barrel which he did not intend to have broached for half a score of years, and, as he asserted, thickened the beer in three others, by their tremendous uproar! Sir Matthew's housekeeper, whose two sons were cordwainers, ventured to hint that the beer in those barrels had never been fine; and that, even after the fatal feast day, although certainly a little thick, it was far from ropy. Sir Mathew vowed, on the contrary, that it was ropy enough to hang the whole scoundrelly squad; and that he only wished they would give him an opportunity of making the experiment.

Sir Mathew was a decided enemy to duelling; and most vehemently abused the practice of two people popping at each other with pistols. "If gentlemen must fight," he would exclaim, "in the name of all that's old English and manly, why not make use of the national quarter-staff,—as I did, when Peppercorn Vowler called me out, and gave me my choice of weapons?"

According to tradition, Sir Mathew was almost a stranger to his opponent when the bout between them took place; and much to his astonishment, Peppercorn Vowler gave him an elaborate cudgelling. It was whispered, that the Baronet felt so indignant at the result of the quarter-staff conflict, that he sent his adversary an invitation, which was politely declined, to renew the fight with pistols. Peppercorn Vowler, it appears, felt even a greater aversion to fire-arms than Sir Mathew, and had given the latter his choice of weapons, because he was sure, from the inquiries he had made, that Sir Mathew would most certainly choose the quarter-staff; in the exercise of which Peppercorn Vowler was quite a proficient.

The Baronet adopted the old rustic mode of curing my dog of his propensity to mutton: he turned him into a barn, with a couple of very powerful and evil-disposed rams. "I'll warrant," said he, as he closed the door, "that the animal will never look a sheep in the face again." He was certainly right in his prediction; for half an hour afterwards, the dog died under the extraordinary discipline of the battering rams to which Sir Mathew had zealously subjected him.