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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)

George de Barnwell

From “Novels by Eminent Hands”

(Burlesquing Lytton in conjunction with “George Barnwell,” a popular tragedy by Lillo.)


ON the Morning of Life the Truthful wooed the Beautiful, and their offspring was Love. Like his Divine parents, He is eternal. He has his Mother’s ravishing smile, his Father’s steadfast eyes. He rises every day, fresh and glorious as the untired Sun-God. He is Eros, the ever young. Dark, dark were this world of ours had either Divinity left it—dark without the day-beams of the Latonian Charioteer, darker yet without the dædal Smile of the God of the Other Bow! Dost know him, reader?

Old is he, Eros, the ever young. He and Time were children together. Chronos shall die too; but Love is imperishable. Brightest of the Divinities, where hast thou not been sung? Other worships pass away; the idols for whom pyramids were raised lie in the desert crumbling and almost nameless; the Olympians are fled, their fanes no longer rise among the quivering olive-groves of Ilissus, or crown the emerald islets of the amethyst Ægean! These are gone, but thou remainest. There is still a garland for thy temple, a heifer for thy stone. A heifer? Ah, many a darker sacrifice! Other blood is shed at thy altars, Remorseless One, and the Poet Priest who ministers at thy Shrine draws his auguries from the bleeding hearts of men!

While Love hath no end, can the Bard ever cease singing? In Kingly and Heroic ages, ’twas of Kings and Heroes that the Poet spake. But in these, our times, the Artisan hath his voice as well as the Monarch. The people To-day is King, and we chronicle his woes, as They of old did the sacrifice of the princely Iphigenia, or the fate of the crowned Agamemnon.

Is Odysseus less august in his rags than in his purple? Fate, Passion, Mystery, the Victim, the Avenger, the Hate that harms, the Furies that tear, the Love that bleeds, are not these with us Still? are not these still the weapons of the Artist, the colours of his palette, the chords of his lyre? Listen! I tell thee a tale—not of Kings—but of Men—not of Thrones, but of Love and Grief and Crime. Listen, and but once more. ’Tis for the last time (probably) these fingers shall sweep the strings.


’Twas noon-day in Chepe. High Tide in the mighty River City—its banks well-nigh overflowing with the myriad-waved Stream of Man! The toppling wains, bearing the produce of a thousand marts; the gilded equipage of the Millionary; the humbler, but yet larger vehicle from the green metropolitan suburbs (the Hanging Gardens of our Babylon), in which every traveller might, for a modest remuneration, take a republican seat; the mercenary caroche, with its private freight; the brisk curricle of the letter-carrier, robed in royal scarlet: these and a thousand others were labouring and pressing onward, and locked and bound and hustling together in the narrow channel of Chepe. The imprecations of the charioteers were terrible. From the noble’s broidered hammer-cloth, or the driving-seat of the common coach, each driver assailed the other with floods of ribald satire. The pavid matron with the one vehicle (speeding to the Bank for her semestrial pittance) shrieked and trembled; the angry Dives hastening to his office (to add another thousand to his heap), thrust his head over the blazoned panels, and displayed an eloquence of objurgation which his very Menials could not equal; the dauntless street urchins, as they gaily threaded the Labyrinth of Life, enjoyed the perplexities and quarrels of the scene, and exacerbated the already furious combatants by their poignant infantile satire. And the Philosopher, as he regarded the hot strife and struggle of these Candidates in the race for Gold, thought with a sigh of the Truthful and the Beautiful, and walked on melancholy and serene.

’Twas noon in Chepe. The warerooms were thronged. The flaunting windows of the mercers attracted many a purchaser; the glittering panes behind which Birmingham had glazed its simulated silver induced rustics to pause; although only noon, the savoury odours of the Cook Shops tempted the overhungry citizen to the bun of Bath, or to the flagrant pottage that mocks the turtle’s flavour—the turtle! O dapibus supremi grata testudo Jovis! I am an Alderman when I think of thee! Well—it was noon in Chepe.

But were all battling for gain there? Among the many brilliant shops whose casements shone upon Chepe, there stood one a century back (about which period our tale opens) devoted to the sale of Colonial produce. A rudely carved image of a Negro, with a fantastic plume and apron of variegated feathers, decorated the lintel. The East and West had sent their contributions to replenish the window.

The poor slave had toiled, died perhaps, to produce yon pyramid of swarthy sugar marked “ONLY 61/2d.” That catty box, on which was the epigraph “STRONG FAMILY CONGO, ONLY 3s. 9d.,” was from the country of Confutzee. That heap of dark produce which bore the legend “TRY OUR REAL NUT,” ’twas Cocoa—and that nut the Cocoa-nut, whose milk has refreshed the traveller and perplexed the natural philosopher. The shop in question was, in a word, a Grocer’s.

In the midst of the shop and its gorgeous contents sat one who, to judge from his appearance (though ’twas a difficult task, as, in sooth, his back was turned), had just reached that happy period of life when the Boy is expanding into the Man. Oh, Youth, Youth! Happy and Beautiful! Oh, fresh and roseate dawn of life, when the dew yet lies on the flowers, ere they have been scorched and withered by Passion’s fiery Sun! Immersed in thought or study, and indifferent to the din around him, sat the boy. A careless guardian was he of the treasures confided to him. The crowd passed in Chepe; he never marked it. The sun shone on Chepe; he only asked that it should illumine the page he read. The knave might filch his treasures; he was heedless of the knave. The customer might enter; but his book was all in all to him.

And indeed a customer was there; a little hand was tapping on the counter with a pretty impatience; a pair of arch eyes were gazing at the boy, admiring, perhaps, his manly proportions through the homely and tightened garments he wore.

“Ahem! sir! I say, young man!” the customer exclaimed.

“Ton d’apameibomenos prosephe,” read on the student, his voice choked with emotion. “What language!” he said. “How rich, how noble, how sonorous! Prosephe podas——”

The customer burst out in a fit of laughter so shrill and cheery, that the young Student could not but turn round, and blushing, for the first time remarked her. “A pretty grocer’s boy you are,” she cried, “with your applepiebomenos and your French and lingo! Am I to be kept waiting for hever!”

“Pardon, fair Maiden,” said he, with high-bred courtesy; “’twas not French I read, ’twas the Godlike language of the blind old bard. In what can I be serviceable to ye, lady?” And to spring from his desk, to smooth his apron, to stand before her the obedient Shop Boy, the Poet no more, was the work of a moment.

“I might have prigged this box of figs,” the damsel said good-naturedly, “and you’d never turned round.”

“They came from the country of Hector,” the boy said. “Would you have currants, lady? These once bloomed in the island gardens of the blue Ægean. They are uncommon fine ones, and the figure is low; they’re fourpence-halfpenny a pound. Would ye mayhap make trial of our teas? We do not advertise, as some folks do, but sell as low as any other house.”

“You’re precious young to have all these good things!” the girl exclaimed, not unwilling, seemingly, to prolong the conversation. “If I was you, and stood behind the counter, I should be eating figs the whole day long.”

“Time was,” answered the lad, “and not long since, when I thought so, too. I thought I never should be tired of figs. But my old uncle bade me take my fill, and now, in sooth, I am aweary of them.”

“I think you gentlemen are always so,” the coquette said.

“Nay, say not so, fair stranger!” the youth replied, his face kindling as he spoke, and his eagle eyes flashing fire. “Figs pall; but, oh! the Beautiful never does. Figs rot; but, oh! the truthful is Eternal. I was born, lady, to grapple with the Lofty and the Ideal. My soul yearns for the Visionary. I stand behind the counter, it is true; but I ponder here upon the deeds of heroes, and muse over the thoughts of sages. What is grocery for one who has ambition? What sweetness has Muscovado to him who hath tasted of Poesy? The Ideal, lady, I often think, is the true Real, and the Actual but a visionary hallucination. But pardon me; with what may I serve thee?”

“I came only for sixpenn’orth of tea-dust,” the girl said, with a faltering voice; “but, oh, I should like to hear you speak on for ever!”

Only for sixpenn’orth of tea-dust? Girl, thou camest for other things! Thou lovedst his voice? Siren! what was the witchery of thine own? He deftly made up the packet, and placed it in the little hand. She paid for her small purchase, and with a farewell glance of her lustrous eyes, she left him. She passed slowly through the portals, and in a moment more was lost in the crowd. It was noon in Chepe. And George de Barnwell was alone.


We have selected the following episodical chapter in preference to anything relating to the mere story of George de Barnwell, with which most readers are familiar.

Up to this passage (extracted from the beginning of Volume II) the tale is briefly thus:

The rogue of a Millwood has come back every day to the grocer’s shop in Chepe, wanting some sugar or some nutmeg, or some figs, half a dozen times in the week.

She and George de Barnwell have vowed to each other an eternal attachment.

This flame acts violently upon George. His bosom swells with ambition. His genius breaks out prodigiously. He talks about the Good, the Beautiful, the Ideal, etc., in and out of all season, and is virtuous and eloquent almost beyond belief—in fact, like Devereux, or P. Clifford, or E. Aram, Esquires.

Inspired by Millwood and love, George robs the till, and mingles in the world which he is destined to ornament. He outdoes all the dandies, all the wits, all the scholars, and all the voluptuaries of the age—an indefinite period of time between Queen Anne and George II—dines with Curll at St. John’s Gate, pinks Colonel Charteris in a duel behind Montague House, is initiated into the intrigues of the Chevalier St. George, whom he entertains at his sumptuous pavilion at Hampstead, and likewise in disguise at the shop in Cheapside.

His uncle, the owner of the shop, a surly curmudgeon with very little taste for the True and Beautiful, has retired from business to the pastoral village in Cambridgeshire from which the noble Barnwell came. George’s cousin Annabel is, of course, consumed with a secret passion for him.

Some trifling inaccuracies may be remarked in the ensuing brilliant little chapter; but it must be remembered that the author wished to present an age at a glance; and the dialogue is quite as fine and correct as that in the “Last of the Barons,” or in “Eugene Aram,” or other works of our author, in which Sentiment and History, or the True and Beautiful, are united.


Those who frequent the dismal and enormous Mansions of Silence which society has raised to Ennui in that Omphalos of town, Pall Mall, and which, because they knock you down with their dulness, are called Clubs, no doubt; those who yawn from a bay-window in St. James’s Street, at a half-score of other dandies gaping from another bay-window over the way; those who consult a dreary evening paper for news, or satisfy themselves with the jokes of the miserable Punch by way of wit—the men about town of the present day, in a word, can have but little idea of London some six or eight score years back. Thou pudding-sided old dandy of St. James’s Street, with thy lacquered boots, thy dyed whiskers, and thy suffocating waistband, what art thou to thy brilliant predecessor in the same quarter? The Brougham from which thou descendest at the portal of the “Carlton” or the “Traveller’s” is like everybody else’s; thy black coat has no more plaits, nor buttons, nor fancy in it than thy neighbour’s; thy hat was made on the very block on which Lord Addlepate’s was cast, who has just entered the Club before thee. You and he yawn together out of the same omnibus-box every night; you fancy yourselves men of pleasure; you fancy yourselves men of fashion; you fancy yourselves men of taste; in fancy, in taste, in opinion, in philosophy, the newspaper legislates for you; it is there you get your jokes and your thoughts, and your facts and your wisdom—poor Pall Mall dullards! Stupid slaves of the press, on the ground which you at present occupy there were men of wit and pleasure and fashion some five and twenty lustres ago!

We are at Button’s—the well-known sign of the “Turk’s Head.” The crowd of periwigged heads at the windows, the swearing chairmen round the steps (the blazoned and coronalled panels of whose vehicles denote the lofty rank of their owners), the throng of embroidered beaux entering or departing, and rendering the air fragrant with the odours of pulvillio and pomander, proclaim the celebrated resort of London’s Wit and Fashion. It is the corner of Regent Street. Carlton House has not yet been taken down.

A stately gentleman in crimson velvet and gold is sipping chocolate at one of the tables, in earnest converse with a friend whose suit is likewise embroidered, but stained by time, or wine mayhap, or wear. A little deformed gentleman in iron-gray is reading The Morning Chronicle newspaper by the fire, while a divine, with a broad brogue and a shovel hat and cassock, is talking freely with a gentleman, whose star and ribbon, as well as the unmistakable beauty of his Phidian countenance, proclaim him to be a member of Britain’s aristocracy.

Two ragged youths, the one tall, gaunt, clumsy, and scrofulous, the other with a wild, careless, beautiful look, evidently indicating Race, are gazing in at the window, not merely at the crowd in the celebrated Club, but at Timothy the waiter, who is removing a plate of that exquisite dish, the muffin (then newly invented), at the desire of some of the revellers within.

“I would, Sam,” said the wild youth to his companion, “that I had some of my mother Macclesfield’s gold, to enable us to eat of those cates and mingle with yon springalds and beaux.”

“To vaunt a knowledge of the stoical philosophy,” said the youth addressed as Sam, “might elicit a smile of incredulity upon the cheek of the parasite of pleasure; but there are moments in life when History fortifies endurance, and past study renders present deprivation more bearable. If our pecuniary resources be exiguous, let our resolution, Dick, supply the deficiencies of Fortune. The muffin we desire to-day would little benefit us to-morrow. Poor and hungry as we are, are we less happy, Dick, than yon listless voluptuary who banquets on the food which you covet?”

And the two lads turned away up Waterloo Place, and past the “Parthenon” Club-house, and disappeared to take a meal of cow-heel at a neighbouring rook’s shop. Their names were Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage.

Meanwhile the conversation at Button’s was fast and brilliant. “By Wood’s thirteens, and the divvle go wid ’em,” cried the Church dignitary in the cassock, “is it in blue and goold ye are this morning, Sir Richard, when you ought to be in seebles?”

“Who’s dead, dean?” said the nobleman, the dean’s companion.

“Faix mee Lard Bolingbroke, as sure as mee name’s Jonathan Swift—and I’m not so sure of that, neither, for who knows his father’s name?—there’s been a mighty cruel murther committed entirely. A child of Dick Steele’s has been barbarously slain, dthrawn, and quarthered, and it’s Joe Addison yondther has done it. Ye should have killed one of your own, Joe, ye thief of the world.”

“I!” said the amazed and Right Honourable Joseph Addison. “I kill Dick’s child! I was godfather to the last.”

“And promised a cup and never sent it,” Dick ejaculated. Joseph looked grave.

“The child I mean is Sir Roger de Coverley, Knight and Baronet. What made ye kill him, ye savage Mohock? The whole town is in tears about the good knight; all the ladies at church this afternoon were in mourning; all the booksellers are wild; and Lintot says not a third of the copies of The Spectator are sold since the death of the brave old gentleman.” And the Dean of St. Patrick’s pulled out The Spectator newspaper, containing the well-known passage regarding Sir Roger’s death. “I bought it but now in ‘Wellington Street,’” he said; “the newsboys were howling all down the Strand.”

“What a miracle is Genius—Genius, the Divine and Beautiful,” said a gentleman leaning against the same fireplace with the deformed cavalier in iron-gray, and addressing that individual, who was in fact Mr. Alexander Pope. “What a marvellous gift is this, and royal privilege of Art! To make the Ideal more credible than the Actual; to enchain our hearts, to command our hopes, our regrets, our tears, for a mere brain-born Emanation; to invest with life the Incorporeal, and to glamour the cloudy into substance—these are the lofty privileges of the Poet, if I have read poesy aright. And I am as familiar with the sounds that rang from Homer’s lyre, as with the strains which celebrate the loss of Belinda’s lovely locks.” Mr. Pope blushed and bowed, highly delighted. “These, I say, are the privileges of the Poet—the Poietes—the Maker; he moves the world, and asks no lever; if he cannot charm death into life, as Orpheus feigned to do, he can create Beauty out of Nought, and defy Death by rendering Thought Eternal. Ho! Jemmy, another flask of Nantz!”

And the boy—for he who addressed the most brilliant company of wits in Europe was little more—emptied the contents of the brandy-flask into a silver flagon, and quaffed it gaily to the health of the company assembled. ’Twas the third he had taken during the sitting. Presently, and with a graceful salute to the Society, he quitted the coffee-house, and was seen cantering on a magnificent Arab past the National Gallery.

“Who is yon spark in blue and silver? He beats Joe Addison himself, in drinking, and pious Joe is the greatest toper in the three kingdoms,” Dick Steele said good-naturedly.

“His paper in The Spectator beats thy best, Dick, thou sluggard,” the Right Honourable Mr. Addison exclaimed. “He is the author of that famous No. 996, for which you have all been giving me the credit.”

“The rascal foiled me at capping verses,” Dean Swift said, “and won a tenpenny piece of me, plague take him!”

“He has suggested an emendation in my ‘Homer,’ which proves him a delicate scholar!” Mr. Pope exclaimed.

“He knows more of the French king than any man I ever met with; and we must have an eye upon him,” said Lord Bolingbroke, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and, beckoning a suspicious-looking person who was drinking at a side-table, whispered to him something.

Meantime, who was he? Where was he, this youth who had struck all the wits of London with admiration? His galloping charger had returned to the City; his splendid court-suit was doffed for the citizen’s gaberdine and grocer’s humble apron.

George de Barnwell was in Chepe—in Chepe, at the feet of Martha Millwood.


“Quid me mollibus implicas lacertis, my Ellinor? Nay,” George added, a faint smile illumining his wan but noble features, “why speak to thee in the accents of the Roman poet, which thou comprehendest not? Bright One, there be other things in Life, in Nature, this Inscrutable Labyrinth, this Heart on which thou leanest, which are equally unintelligible to thee! Yes, my pretty one, what is the Unintelligible but the Ideal? What is the Ideal but the Beautiful? What the Beautiful but the Eternal? And the Spirit of Man that would commune with these is like Him who wanders by the thin poluphloiboio thalasses, and shrinks awe-struck before that Azure Mystery.”

Emily’s eyes filled with fresh-gushing dew. “Speak on, speak ever thus, my George!” she exclaimed. Barnwell’s chains rattled as the confiding girl clung to him. Even Snoggin, the Turnkey appointed to sit with the prisoner, was affected by his noble and appropriate language, and also burst into tears.

“You weep, my Snoggin,” the Boy said; “and why? Hath Life been so charming to me that I should wish to retain it? Hath Pleasure no after-Weariness; Ambition no Deception; Wealth no Care; and Glory no Mockery? Psha! I am sick of Success, palled of Pleasure, weary of Wine and Wit, and—nay, start not, my Adelaide—and Woman. I fling away all these things as the Toys of Boyhood. Life is the Soul’s Nursery. I am a man, and pine for the Illimitable! Mark you me! Has the Morrow any terrors for me, think ye? Did Socrates falter at his poison? Did Seneca blench in his bath? Did Brutus shirk the sword when his great stake was lost? Did even weak Cleopatra shrink from the Serpent’s fatal nip? And why should I? My great Hazard hath been played, and I pay my forfeit. Lie sheathed in my heart, thou flashing Blade! Welcome to my Bosom, thou faithful Serpent! I hug thee, peace-bearing Image of the Eternal! Ha, the hemlock cup! Fill high, boy, for my soul is thirsty for the Infinite! Get ready the bath, friends; prepare me for the feast To-morrow; bathe my limbs in odours, and put ointment in my hair.”

“Has for a bath,” Snoggin interposed, “they’re not to be ’ad in this ward of the prison; but I dussay Hemmy will get you a little hoil for your ’air.”

The Prisoned One laughed loud and merrily. “My guardian understands me not, pretty one; and thou, what sayest thou? From those dear lips, methinks—plura sunt oscula quam sententiæ—I kiss away thy tears, dove! They will flow apace when I am gone, then they will dry, and presently these fair eyes will shine on another, as they have beamed on poor George Barnwell. Yet wilt thou not all forget him, sweet one. He was an honest fellow, and had a kindly heart, for all the world said.”

“That, that he had,” cried the jailer and the girl, in voices gurgling with emotion. And you who read! You unconvicted Convict, you murderer—though haply you have slain no one—you Felon in posse if not in esse, deal gently with one who has used the Opportunity that has failed thee—and believe that the Truthful and the Beautiful bloom sometimes in the dock and the convict’s tawny Gaberdine!


In the matter for which he suffered, George could never be brought to acknowledge that he was at all in the wrong. “It may be an error of judgment,” he said to the Venerable Chaplain of the jail, “but it is no crime. Were it Crime, I should feel Remorse. Where there is no remorse, Crime cannot exist. I am not sorry: therefore I am innocent. Is the proposition a fair one?”

The excellent Doctor admitted that it was not to be contested.

“And wherefore, sir, should I have sorrow,” the Boy resumed, “for ridding the world of a sordid worm; of a man whose very soul was dross, and who never had a feeling for the Truthful and the Beautiful? When I stood before my uncle in the moonlight, in the gardens of the ancestral halls of the De Barnwells, I felt that it was the Nemesis come to overthrow him. ‘Dog,’ I said to the trembling slave, ‘tell me where thy Gold is. Thou hast no use for it. I can spend it in relieving the Poverty on which thou tramplest; aiding Science, which thou knowest not; in uplifting Art, to which thou art blind. Give Gold, and thou art free.’ But he spake not, and I slew him.”

“I would not have this doctrine vulgarly promulgated,” said the admirable chaplain, “for its general practice might chance to do harm. Thou, my son, the Refined, the Gentle, the Loving and Beloved, the Poet and Sage, urged by what I cannot but think a grievous error, hast appeared as Avenger. Think what would be the world’s condition, were men without any Yearning after the Ideal to attempt to reorganise Society, to redistribute Property, to avenge Wrong.”

“A rabble of pygmies scaling Heaven,” said the noble though misguided young Prisoner. “Prometheus was a Giant, and he fell.”

“Yes, indeed, my brave youth!” the benevolent Dr. Fuzwig exclaimed, clasping the Prisoner’s marble and manacled hand. “And the Tragedy of To-morrow will teach the World that Homicide is not to be permitted even to the most amiable Genius, and that the lover of the Ideal and the Beautiful, as thou art, my son, must respect the Real likewise.”

“Look! here is supper!” cried Barnwell gaily. “This is the Real, Doctor; let us respect it and fall to.” He partook of the meal as joyously as if it had been one of his early festals; but the worthy chaplain could scarcely eat it for tears.