Cyprian Overbeck Wells – A Literary Mosaic

“‘Taxes shall be swept away!’ cried Cade excitedly–‘the impost and the anpost–the tithe and the hundred-tax. The poor man’s salt-box and flour-bin shall be as free as the nobleman’s cellar. Ha! what sayest thou?’

“‘It is but just,’ said our hero.

“‘Ay, but they give us such justice as the falcon gives the leveret!’ roared the orator. ‘Down with them, I say–down with every man of them! Noble and judge, priest and king, down with them all!’

“‘Nay,’ said Sir Overbeck Wells, drawing himself up to his full height, and laying his hand upon the hilt of his sword, ‘there I cannot follow thee, but must rather defy thee as traitor and faineant, seeing that thou art no true man, but one who would usurp the rights of our master the king, whom may the Virgin protect!’

“At these bold words, and the defiance which they conveyed, the rebels seemed for a moment utterly bewildered; but, encouraged by the hoarse shout of their leader, they brandished their weapons and prepared to fall upon the knight, who placed himself in a posture for defence and awaited their attack.

“There now!” cried Sir Walter, rubbing his hands and chuckling, “I’ve put the chiel in a pretty warm corner, and we’ll see which of you moderns can take him oot o’t. Ne’er a word more will ye get frae me to help him one way or the other.”

“You try your hand, James,” cried several voices, and the author in question had got so far as to make an allusion to a solitary horseman who was approaching, when he was interrupted by a tall gentleman a little farther down with a slight stutter and a very nervous manner.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but I fancy that I may be able to do something here. Some of my humble productions have been said to excel Sir Walter at his best, and I was undoubtedly stronger all round. I could picture modern society as well as ancient; and as to my plays, why Shakespeare never came near ‘The <226Lady of Lyons’ for popularity. There is this little thing—-” (Here he rummaged among a great pile of papers in front of him). “Ah! that’s a report of mine, when I was in India! Here it is. No, this is one of my speeches in the House, and this is my criticism on Tennyson. Didn’t I warm him up? I can’t find what I wanted, but of course you have read them all–‘Rienzi,’ and ‘Harold,’ and ‘The Last of the Barons.’ Every schoolboy knows them by heart, as poor Macaulay would have said. Allow me to give you a sample:–

“In spite of the gallant knight’s valiant resistance the combat was too unequal to be sustained. His sword was broken by a slash from a brown bill, and he was borne to the ground. He expected immediate death, but such did not seem to be the intention of the ruffians who had captured him. He was placed upon the back of his own charger and borne, bound hand and foot, over the trackless moor, in the fastnesses of which the rebels secreted themselves.

“In the depths of these wilds there stood a stone building which had once been a farm-house, but having been for some reason abandoned had fallen into ruin, and had now become the headquarters of Cade and his men. A large cowhouse near the farm had been utilised as sleeping quarters, and some rough attempts had been made to shield the principal room of the main building from the weather by stopping up the gaping apertures in the walls. In this apartment was spread out a rough meal for the returning rebels, and our hero was thrown, still bound, into an empty outhouse, there to await his fate.”

Sir Walter had been listening with the greatest impatience to Bulwer Lytton’s narrative, but when it had reached this point he broke in impatiently.

“We want a touch of your own style, man,” he said. “The animal- magnetico-electro-hysterical-biological-mysterious sort of story is all your own, but at present you are just a poor copy of myself, and nothing more.”

There was a murmur of assent from the company, and Defoe remarked, “Truly, Master Lytton, there is a plaguey resemblance in the style, which may indeed be but a chance, and yet methinks it is sufficiently marked to warrant such words as our friend hath used.”

“Perhaps you will think that this is an imitation also,” said Lytton bitterly, and leaning back in his chair with a morose countenance, he continued the narrative in this way:–

“Our unfortunate hero had hardly stretched himself upon the straw with which his dungeon was littered, when a secret door opened in the wall and a venerable old man swept majestically into the apartment. The prisoner gazed upon him with astonishment not unmixed with awe, for on his broad brow was printed the seal of much knowledge–such knowledge as it is not granted to the son of man to know. He was clad in a long white robe, crossed and chequered with mystic devices in the Arabic character, while a high scarlet tiara marked with the square and circle enhanced his venerable appearance. ‘My son,’ he said, turning his piercing and yet dreamy gaze upon Sir Overbeck, ‘all things lead to nothing, and nothing is the foundation of all things. Cosmos is impenetrable. Why then should we exist?’

“Astounded at this weighty query, and at the philosophic demeanour of his visitor, our hero made shift to bid him welcome and to demand his name and quality. As the old man answered him his voice rose and fell in musical cadences, like the sighing of the east wind, while an ethereal and aromatic vapour pervaded the apartment.

“‘I am the eternal non-ego,’ he answered. “I am the concentrated negative–the everlasting essence of nothing. You see in me that which existed before the beginning of matter many years before the commencement of time. I am the algebraic _x_ which represents the infinite divisibility of a finite particle.’

“Sir Overbeck felt a shudder as though an ice-cold hand had been placed upon his brow. ‘What is your message?’ he whispered, falling prostrate before his mysterious visitor.

“‘To tell you that the eternities beget chaos, and that the immensities are at the mercy of the divine ananke. Infinitude crouches before a personality. The mercurial essence is the prime mover in spirituality, and the thinker is powerless before the pulsating inanity. The cosmical procession is terminated only by the unknowable and unpronounceable’—-

“May I ask, Mr. Smollett, what you find to laugh at?”

“Gad zooks, master,” cried Smollett, who had been sniggering for some time back. “It seems to me that there is little danger of any one venturing to dispute that style with you.”

“It’s all your own,” murmured Sir Walter.

“And very pretty, too,” quoth Lawrence Sterne, with a malignant grin. “Pray sir, what language do you call it?”

Lytton was so enraged at these remarks, and at the favour with which they appeared to be received, that he endeavoured to stutter out some reply, and then, losing control of himself completely, picked up all his loose papers and strode out of the room, dropping pamphlets and speeches at every step. This incident amused the company so much that they laughed for several minutes without cessation. Gradually the sound of their laughter sounded more and more harshly in my ears, the lights on the table grew dim and the company more misty, until they and their symposium vanished away altogether. I was sitting before the embers of what had been a roaring fire, but was now little more than a heap of grey ashes, and the merry laughter of the august company had changed to the recriminations of my wife, who was shaking me violently by the shoulder and exhorting me to choose some more seasonable spot for my slumbers. So ended the wondrous adventures of Master Cyprian Overbeck Wells, but I still live in the hopes that in some future dream the great masters may themselves finish that which they have begun.

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