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3. Johnson's Chambers.

ISLANDED between the roar of rumbling Fleet-street and the splash and splutter of the busy Thames, looking tranquilly down on silent, well-like courts, green leaves and grass and flowers, the tall, dim, antique houses of the Temple—more especially if it be vacation time—afford a sweet relief to the chance visitor who has strayed into the monastic calm they wall; deafened and sickened by the hiss of steam and smell of grease, or weary of the everlasting roll of cart and omnibus and cab. No cad's shrill hailing cry pierces that Sleepy Hollow atmosphere. The muddy river gazed on from a summer-house, suddenly assumes a rural aspect—merely look at the wherries shooting by with oar-blades gleaming like gold in the bright sunlight, and not at the crowded halfpenny boats and lumbering lighters, and you can fancy yourself at Henley.

And the Temple's peace is not a dull, dead peace. Memories are brooding in its hush. In solemn or fantastic march a mighty army issues from Hades, and files with noiseless step before the musing eye. The bygone tenants of the place rise from their scattered tombs, and muster again in the familiar grounds; warriors and wits, statesmen, jurists, gamblers, rakes—the last two classes trooping with spectral merriment from the neighbouring Alsatia, where Duke Hildebrod once more reigns. Rattling Reginald heads the motley train. Will Honeycomb—day-dreams despise chronology—accosts Master Lowestoffe as a congenial contemporary, and yonder in a flowing wig, Sir Roger paces the broad walk by the river, smiling with paternal gallantry on the smirking nursemaids airing their small charges, and talking benevolent nonsense to his silent friend. Substantial amongst the shadowy eidola of the Templars who once owned flesh and blood, stand forth those who in the Temple had never a habitation—the begotten of Genius, Templars of the essay and the novel.

Most life-like of the band are those that call our noblest novelist father. Thackeray, indeed, may be said to have “annexed” the Temple. When I saw his name—on a door-post in Crown-office Row, if I remember rightly, as plain as fresh black paint could make it amongst a crowd of clouded letters denoting learned nobodies, it seemed to have the prominence


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by right—as typical of Literature's superiority to Law in conferring fame even on Law's peculiar domain. The chambers that satirical Pen and George—most amiable of cynics—held in joint-tenancy, and the company they kept—chief amongst it, the glorious old Colonel, the gallant and the good (the finest character, I think, in English fiction)—will be remembered when the bricks of the Temple have shared the fate of those of Babylon. In power, as in stature, William Makepeace certainly stands head and shoulders above all contemporary novelists; and ripens as he writes.

That his fame should have been of so slow a growth is a mystery to me. What other novelist possesses so keen an eye, and so delicate and yet so bold a hand for the portraiture of veritable human nature? What other novelist—English or foreign—has ever possessed them? He has more than Fielding's power, coupled with a purity which that “fast” idol of his most sadly lacks. Notwithstanding all the spiteful talk about Thackeray's cynical misanthropy, who has worshipped genuine goodness more warmly, or painted it so well? Most novelists' “good people” are snow images: the heart clings to Thackeray's. They are no moral monsters—ice-palaces wherein all the cardinal virtues have taken lodgings, but breathing men and women; of the same clay, often of the same weakness, as ourselves—not too good for our imitation. And then there is in his writings a peculiar, an almost unnamable charm. Christian Horacism I will call it, for want of a better phrase. A sense of the littleness, the transitoriness of life often makes him laugh at its pomps, and preach the grateful enjoyment of its pleasures, in a way that seems at first sight very like that of the genial Epicurean of the Sabine Farm. But though the thought of the inevitable tomb prompts Thackeray, like Horace, to pluck the flowers before they fade, to press the grapes before they fall—mellowing his mirth meanwhile, tinging its brightness with the melancholy of autumnal sunlight—it is not the Pluto Illacrymabilis of the Roman before whom the Englishman bows, in gloomy, grudging reverence. He looks forward to a nobler, purer, life than this; and though he scoffs at cant, trusts humbly in the christian's God.

But this is a digression.

Almost as clearly defined as those mere children of the brain—of whom I spoke before my Thackeray-worship ran away with me—the literary loiterer in the Temple—thanks to Talfourd, Forster, and Boswell—beholds three once living Templars: dear, stammering Elia, punning with Manning over his pipe, or meditating his essay on the Benchers; equally dear, blundering Oliver, complacently glancing, as he descends his staircase,


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at the “half dress suit of ratteen, lined with satin,” and “pair of bloom-coloured breeches,” for which poor Mr. William Filby never got paid, unless he sued the bard for the amount in Rhadamanthus's Small Debts' Court;note and grand old Samuel Johnson.

“That Church of St. Clement Danes, where Johnson still worshipped in the era of Voltaire, is to me a venerable place,” says Carlyle. On the pillar beside which the pious scholar sat, the churchwardens, a few years ago, fixed a brass tablet, with the following inscription, from the pen of Dr. Croly:—

“In this pew, and beside this pillar, for many years attended divine service the celebrated Dr. Samuel Johnson, the philosopher, the poet, the great lexicographer, the profound moralist, and chief writer of his time. Born, 1709; died, 1784. In the remembrance and honour of noble faculties, nobly employed, some inhabitants of the parish of St. Clement Danes have placed this slight memorial, A.D. 1851.”

The intention of the memorialists was good, but the indication of the spot should, I think, have been left to tradition. The brass seems to me to diminish the charm of the locality by adding something to it which wasn't there when Johnson worshipped in it. Still less do I like the way in which the Benchers of the Inner Temple have recently honoured Johnson's memory—carefully treasuring his staircase, but carting it away from his chambers, which they have pulled down; robbing it thus of at least half its interest. A staircase leading to nothing, even though once trodden by Johnson, appears rather a ludicrous object. It ought to have been kept in its original position until it crumbled. Deprived of the identity of place, the relic will soon degenerate into lumber, and be broken up as old timber. My authority is the Home News for October, 16th. “A sale of considerable interest took place recently by direction of the Benchers of the Inner Temple, when the building materials of chambers, formerly occupied by Dr. Iohnson, on the first floor of No. 1, Inner Temple-lane, were offered to public competition. The auctioneer announced at the commencement of the proceedings that the celebrated ‘Dr. Johnson's staircase’ was withdrawn from the sale; the Benchers having determined to retain possession of the staircase from the entrance to the first floor, the wainscoting, bannisters, &c., and the carved wood over the door, with pilasters, &c., forming the external door-way; and would keep them as long as the Temple existed, although they were obliged to be


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removed from their present position. The boarded and timber floor, on which the learned doctor and his literary friends had so often walked, with the windows, doors, moulded panel partition, &c., sold for £10 5s.” Ten pounds five shillings for the shell of such a shrine! But what matters price of spoil? It was sacrilege to sack that sanctum sanctorum, that inner temple of the Inner Temple. I cannot bear the thought of prim modern chambers displacing the snug room where Johnson sat enthroned, a slovenly Jupiter, sealing a reputation by his nod, or blasting it by his thunderous frown; and the hidden library above stairs, whither he slipt when he wanted to escape from visitors, and yet was too chary of black Frank's morals to bid him tell them that his master was not at home. A flimsy nineteenth-century staircase, too, in the stead of that, down which, in a sudden access of politenes, the unwieldy gallant rushed roaring like a rhinoceros—unbuttoned, ungartered, unshod, unbrushed, unwashed, unshorn—to escort Madame de Boufflers to her coach! May a phantom Hodge haunt the hearthrug, and a ghostly Mr. Levett sit beside the tea-board, of the tenants of the new No. 1.

Let us bring the old house once more vividly before our eyes, by picturing to ourselves the most amusing scene recorded in connection with it.

The many-caped Charlie has just raised his sleepy cry of “Pa-a-ast three-e-ee o'clock,” as he totters down Fleet-street, swinging his lantern, and leaning feebly on his staff, when a tavern door opens, and in the yellow stream of light that flashes out upon the rough, damp pavement and the miry road, two dashing bloods stagger forth, with hats cocked awry, limp wisps of cravats dangling like frayed haybands from their necks, dishevelled shirts, torn, wine-stained ruffles, stockings down at heel, and swords between their legs. The old man prudently steps into a dark archway, and hides his light behind his voluminous coat-skirt. As the vinous bucks reel past, one—rollicking Beauclerk—hiccups “Let's go and knock up old Johnson;” and gentlemanly Bennet Langton, abnormally frolicksome in his cups, consents. The Temple watchman, like his brother of the street, discreetly retreats into obscurity when he discovers what a pair of roystering blades he has admitted. They stumble up the stone steps before the door of No. 1, clatter up the creaking staircase dimly lighted by an oil-lamp with a sputtering, fungused wick, and begin to kick up “the devil's own row” with their sword-hilts on the “sported oak” of their venerable friend. He is tranquilly snoring the sleep of the just; but presently they hear a heavy footfall and an indignant grunting and puffing approaching the portal. The inner door is unlocked, the outer door is next thrown open; and before them stands the enraged Lexicographer—in


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his shirt. A little black wig is perched, like a bird of ill-omen, on the back of his head, his colossal legs are bare, and with his brawny arm he brandishes a poker—about to do battle, as he thinks, with burglars. “What! Is it you, you dogs?” he cries, “I'll have a frisk with you. (Fancy Johnson having a “frisk”—an elephant on the tight-rope). His toilette is soon completed, and the sage and his disciples sally forth: Socrates with Plato and Alcibiades out “upon the batter.” As they pass through Russell-street, Alcibiades wants to rattle Tom Davies's shutters, but Socrates remembers the fascinating little friend in whose presence he is compelled to mutter sotto voce supplications that he may not be led into temptation, and won't have her rest disturbed. The waggons are arriving as they enter Covent Garden, and Johnson is rather officious with his offers of services to the market people; wishing to assist them in unloading the turnips and piling the cabbages. The vendors not relishing what they consider “chaff,” bid him mind his own business, and tell him that an old file like him ought to be ashamed to lead lads into mischief. Whereupon the “profound moralist” retreats to a tavern, and orders a bowl of Bishop, over which he gets jolly, bellying out, “in joyous contempt of the sleep from which he had been roused:”—

Short, O short, then be thy reign,
And give us to the world again.

Thence to the Thames, where the revellers take boat, and row to Billingsgate; not landing at the old Swan, like sober folks, but shooting the dangerous bridge—a plain proof of episcopal excitement. Safe once more on terra firma, Langton drinks copiously of small beer—the soda-water of the period—and suddenly remembers that he is engaged to breakfast with some young ladies. To them he departs, under a fire of sarcasm from Johnson on his bad taste “in leaving his social friends, to go and sit with a wretched set of un-idea'd girls.” Beauclerk and Johnson meanwhile resolve to make a day of it; and I greatly fear (although his biographer does not mention the circumstance) that the “profound moralist” went to bed drunk that night. Well may Garrick shake his head when he hears of this adventure, and think that the prediction that he made when he first heard of Johnson's alliance with Beauclerk draws near to its fulfilment—that he will soon have to bail his old friend out of the round-house. But Johnson contemptuously pooh-poohs his little fellowtownsman's strictures: “He durstn't do such a thing. His wife wouldn't let him.”

I must confess that there is no part of Boswell that I enjoy more than the spicy page that I have just expanded. The whole scene is so


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thoroughly natural. It reads like the record of a last night's spree; and yet the last of the “fast” trio has been in his grave these fifty years. Perhaps, moreover, the fact that even Johnson could be occasionally bibulous and boisterous rather comforts a penitent ashamed of the “days that are no more,” the unprofitable season when he sowed his wild oats.

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