“Well,” said Sir Walter Scott, speaking with a pronounced accent, “ye ken the auld proverb, sirs, ‘Ower mony cooks,’ or as the Border minstrel sang–
‘Black Johnstone wi’ his troopers ten Might mak’ the heart turn cauld, But Johnstone when he’s a’ alane Is waur ten thoosand fauld.’
The Johnstones were one of the Redesdale families, second cousins of the Armstrongs, and connected by marriage to—-”
“Perhaps, Sir Walter,” interrupted Thackeray, “you would take the responsibility off our hands by yourself dictating the commencement of a story to this young literary aspirant.”
“Na, na!” cried Sir Walter; “I’ll do my share, but there’s Chairlie over there as full o’ wut as a Radical’s full o’ treason. He’s the laddie to give a cheery opening to it.”
Dickens was shaking his head, and apparently about to refuse the honour, when a voice from among the moderns–I could not see who it was for the crowd–said:
“Suppose we begin at the end of the table and work round, any one contributing a little as the fancy seizes him?”
“Agreed! agreed!” cried the whole company; and every eye was turned on Defoe, who seemed very uneasy, and filled his pipe from a great tobacco-box in front of him.
“Nay, gossips,” he said, “there are others more worthy—-” But he was interrupted by loud cries of “No! no!” from the whole table; and Smollett shouted out, “Stand to it, Dan–stand to it! You and I and the Dean here will make three short tacks just to fetch her out of harbour, and then she may drift where she pleases.” Thus encouraged, Defoe cleared his throat, and began in this way, talking between the puffs of his pipe:–
“My father was a well-to-do yeoman of Cheshire, named Cyprian Overbeck, but, marrying about the year 1617, he assumed the name of his wife’s family, which was Wells; and thus I, their eldest son, was named Cyprian Overbeck Wells. The farm was a very fertile one, and contained some of the best grazing land in those parts, so that my father was enabled to lay by money to the extent of a thousand crowns, which he laid out in an adventure to the Indies with such surprising success that in less than three years it had increased fourfold. Thus encouraged, he bought a part share of the trader, and, fitting her out once more with such commodities as were most in demand (viz., old muskets, hangers and axes, besides glasses, needles, and the like), he placed me on board as supercargo to look after his interests, and despatched us upon our voyage.
“We had a fair wind as far as Cape de Verde, and there, getting into the north-west trade-winds, made good progress down the African coast. Beyond sighting a Barbary rover once, whereat our mariners were in sad distress, counting themselves already as little better than slaves, we had good luck until we had come within a hundred leagues of the Cape of Good Hope, when the wind veered round to the southward and blew exceeding hard, while the sea rose to such a height that the end of the mainyard dipped into the water, and I heard the master say that though he had been at sea for five-and-thirty years he had never seen the like of it, and that he had little expectation of riding through it. On this I fell to wringing my hands and bewailing myself, until the mast going by the board with a crash, I thought that the ship had struck, and swooned with terror, falling into the scuppers and lying like one dead, which was the saving of me, as will appear in the sequel. For the mariners, giving up all hope of saving the ship, and being in momentary expectation that she would founder, pushed off in the long-boat, whereby I fear that they met the fate which they hoped to avoid, since I have never from that day heard anything of them. For my own part, on recovering from the swoon into which I had fallen, I found that, by the mercy of Providence, the sea had gone down, and that I was alone in the vessel. At which last discovery I was so terror-struck that I could but stand wringing my hands and bewailing my sad fate, until at last taking heart, I fell to comparing my lot with that of my unhappy camerados, on which I became more cheerful, and descending to the cabin, made a meal off such dainties as were in the captain’s locker.”
Having got so far, Defoe remarked that he thought he had given them a fair start, and handed over the story to Dean Swift, who, after premising that he feared he would find himself as much at sea as Master Cyprian Overbeck Wells, continued in this way:–
“For two days I drifted about in great distress, fearing that there should be a return of the gale, and keeping an eager look-out for my late companions. Upon the third day, towards evening, I observed to my extreme surprise that the ship was under the influence of a very powerful current, which ran to the north-east with such violence that she was carried, now bows on, now stern on, and occasionally drifting sideways like a crab, at a rate which I cannot compute at less than twelve or fifteen knots an hour. For several weeks I was borne away in this manner, until one morning, to my inexpressible joy, I sighted an island upon the starboard quarter. The current would, however, have carried me past it had I not made shift, though single-handed, to set the flying-jib so as to turn her bows, and then clapping on the sprit- sail, studding-sail, and fore-sail, I clewed up the halliards upon the port side, and put the wheel down hard a-starboard, the wind being at the time north-east-half-east.”
At the description of this nautical manoeuvre I observed that Smollett grinned, and a gentleman who was sitting higher up the table in the uniform of the Royal Navy, and who I guessed to be Captain Marryat, became very uneasy and fidgeted in his seat.
“By this means I got clear of the current and was able to steer within a quarter of a mile of the beach, which indeed I might have approached still nearer by making another tack, but being an excellent swimmer, I deemed it best to leave the vessel, which was almost waterlogged, and to make the best of my way to the shore.
“I had had my doubts hitherto as to whether this new-found country was inhabited or no, but as I approached nearer to it, being on the summit of a great wave, I perceived a number of figures on the beach, engaged apparently in watching me and my vessel. My joy, however, was considerably lessened when on reaching the land I found that the figures consisted of a vast concourse of animals of various sorts who were standing about in groups, and who hurried down to the water’s edge to meet me. I had scarce put my foot upon the sand before I was surrounded by an eager crowd of deer, dogs, wild boars, buffaloes, and other creatures, none of whom showed the least fear either of me or of each other, but, on the contrary, were animated by a common feeling of curiosity, as well as, it would appear, by some degree of disgust.”
“A second edition,” whispered Lawrence Sterne to his neighbour; “Gulliver served up cold.”
“Did you speak, sir?” asked the Dean very sternly, having evidently overheard the remark.
“My words were not addressed to you, sir,” answered Sterne, looking rather frightened.
“They were none the less insolent,” roared the Dean. “Your reverence would fain make a Sentimental Journey of the narrative, I doubt not, and find pathos in a dead donkey–though faith, no man can blame thee for mourning over thy own kith and kin.”
“Better that than to wallow in all the filth of Yahoo-land,” returned Sterne warmly, and a quarrel would certainly have ensued but for the interposition of the remainder of the company. As it was, the Dean refused indignantly to have any further hand in the story, and Sterne also stood out of it, remarking with a sneer that he was loth to fit a good blade on to a poor handle. Under these circumstances some further unpleasantness might have occurred had not Smollett rapidly taken up the narrative, continuing it in the third person instead of the first:–
“Our hero, being considerably alarmed at this strange reception, lost little time in plunging into the sea again and regaining his vessel, being convinced that the worst which might befall him from the elements would be as nothing compared to the dangers of this mysterious island. It was as well that he took this course, for before nightfall his ship was overhauled and he himself picked up by a British man-of-war, the Lightning, then returning from the West Indies, where it had formed part of the fleet under the command of Admiral Benbow. Young Wells, being a likely lad enough, well-spoken and high-spirited, was at once entered on the books as officer’s servant, in which capacity he both gained great popularity on account of the freedom of his manners, and found an opportunity for indulging in those practical pleasantries for which he had all his life been famous.
“Among the quartermasters of the Lightning there was one named Jedediah Anchorstock, whose appearance was so remarkable that it quickly attracted the attention of our hero. He was a man of about fifty, dark with exposure to the weather, and so tall that as he came along the ‘tween decks he had to bend himself nearly double. The most striking peculiarity of this individual was, however, that in his boyhood some evil-minded person had tattooed eyes all over his countenance with such marvellous skill that it was difficult at a short distance to pick out his real ones among so many counterfeits. On this strange personage Master Cyprian determined to exercise his talents for mischief, the more so as he learned that he was extremely superstitious, and also that he had left behind him in Portsmouth a strong-minded spouse of whom he stood in mortal terror. With this object he secured one of the sheep which were kept on board for the officers’ table, and pouring a can of rumbo down its throat, reduced it to a state of utter intoxication. He then conveyed it to Anchorstock’s berth, and with the assistance of some other imps, as mischievous as himself, dressed it up in a high nightcap and gown, and covered it over with the bedclothes.
“When the quartermaster came down from his watch our hero met him at the door of his berth with an agitated face. ‘Mr. Anchorstock,’ said he, ‘can it be that your wife is on board?’ ‘Wife!’ roared the astonished sailor. ‘Ye white-faced swab, what d’ye mean?’ ‘If she’s not here in the ship it must be her ghost,’ said Cyprian, shaking his head gloomily. ‘In the ship! How in thunder could she get into the ship? Why, master, I believe as how you’re weak in the upper works, d’ye see? to as much as think o’ such a thing. My Poll is moored head and starn, behind the point at Portsmouth, more’n two thousand mile away.’ ‘Upon my word,’ said our hero, very earnestly, ‘I saw a female look out of your cabin not five minutes ago.’ ‘Ay, ay, Mr. Anchorstock,’ joined in several of the conspirators. ‘We all saw her–a spanking-looking craft with a dead-light mounted on one side.’ ‘Sure enough,’ said Anchorstock, staggered by this accumulation of evidence, ‘my Polly’s starboard eye was doused for ever by long Sue Williams of the Hard. But if so be as she be there I must see her, be she ghost or quick;’ with which the honest sailor, in much perturbation and trembling in every limb, began to shuffle forward into the cabin, holding the light well in front of him. It chanced, however, that the unhappy sheep, which was quietly engaged in sleeping off the effects of its unusual potations, was awakened by the noise of this approach, and finding herself in such an unusual position, sprang out of the bed and rushed furiously for the door, bleating wildly, and rolling about like a brig in a tornado, partly from intoxication and partly from the night-dress which impeded her movements. As Anchorstock saw this extraordinary apparition bearing down upon him, he uttered a yell and fell flat upon his face, convinced that he had to do with a supernatural visitor, the more so as the confederates heightened the effect by a chorus of most ghastly groans and cries.