While I conducted the The Morning Post, the evenings passed pleasantly at the office. Dr. Wolcot was a constant visitor, and generally wrote some whimsical articles for the paper. Mr. Merry, generally known by his poetical designation of Della Crusca, was a frequent visitor, and he and I used to scribble verses in conjunction. Mr. Billington also, the first husband of the celebrated syren, a man of great humour, often enlivened the society by humorous remarks, and anecdotes of the musical and fashionable circles. Yet the business of the paper was not neglected, for I have often remained at the office till three o'clock, to revise, correct, and guard against the accidental insertion of any improper article, moral or political.
I endeavoured all I could to procure a regular salary for Dr. Wolcot, having a high opinion of his inventive powers and humour, but the surly proprietor was taught to be afraid of the freedom of his muse. I even offered the doctor half of my weekly salary, but neither his pride nor his delicacy would permit him to assent, and he still supplied his gratuitous effusions, chiefly of the poetical kind. We were plentifully supplied with punch, the doctor's favourite beverage, and as far as our limited party admitted, the meeting might be considered as Comus's Court. This literary and convivial revelry continued nearly to the end of the two years during which I held the editorship of The Morning Post. Here I feel myself under the painful necessity of mentioning my quondam friend Merry in a manner unfavourable to his character, and distressing to my feelings, as notwithstanding his treatment of me, I really regarded him almost as a brother, and still feel towards him an affectionate regret.
He had requested me to endeavour to induce the late Mr. Harris, then chief proprietor of Covent Garden Theatre, to renew his wife's engagement. Mr. Harris said that he should be very glad to reengage her at his theatre, but that he was persuaded he should be subject to attacks from her husband in the newspapers, unless she was allowed to perform every character she liked, and to be provided with the most expensive dresses. He desired me to get him out of the dilemma, which he deemed the application to be, and to say that his company was too abundantly supplied with performers in general to admit of any more. I endeavoured to satisfy Merry with this answer, but in vain; he expressed much discontent with the rejection of the lady, and I have reason to believe that Mr. Harris was in consequence the subject of his newspaper hostility.
When this negotiation failed, Mr. Merry requested that I would write to Mr. Stephen Kemble, who was related to me by marriage, and then the manager of the theatre at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and try to procure an engagement for Mrs. Merry. I did so, but, pending this new negotiation, there appeared in an obscure evening newspaper called The Telegraph, and long since defunct, a violent attack upon me, not mentioning my name, but alluding to me in my profession of oculist. The cause of this attack was an account of the representation of Venice Preserved, which vehemently censured the democratical. principles that were inculcated by Pierre and his fellow reformers. This account appeared in a daily paper, also now defunct, entitled The True Briton, of which I was then a proprietor.
Merry perhaps suspected that the account was written by me, but he was, if so, mistaken, for though I was one of the proprietors of the paper, the conductor at that time was the late John Gifford, Esq. afterwards one of the police magistrates. Conscious of my integrity, and not ashamed of my attachment to the political principles and judicious administration of the glorious William Pitt, I did not think it necessary to take any notice of the anonymous libel, but many of my friends thought otherwise, and observed, that if I remained wholly silent, I should be thought to acquiesce in the truth of the charges. I therefore applied by letter to the editor of the paper, an Irishman named M'Donnell, whom I had known before, requiring the name of the author, expressing my suspicion that the libel upon me had been written by a known defamatory author of that time. M'Donnell affected to consider it as an insult that I supposed he could be acquainted with such a character as I described, and therefore replied that the matter ought now to be settled between him and me. Considering this hostile intimation as an attempt to evade my farther endeavours to discover the writer, I laughed at his implied proposition, and assured him that I should resort to the law, not to the field for a decision. Finding me resolute, he relaxed from his martial menaces, was very civil, and assured me that before the end of a month I should know the author.
Previous to this application, as M'Donnell had entered the Temple as a barrister, I examined the entry to procure his Christian name, that I might be prepared for a prosecution, and in my letter, I addressed him to the full extent of his Christian and sirname, to alarm him as to the possible consequences. To my utter astonishment, at the end of about a week, I received a letter from Merry, acknowledging himself to be the author of the libel upon the man who at that very time was endeavouring to serve him by procuring an engagement for his wife. I received this acknowledgment rather "in sorrow than in anger," and admiring Merry for his genius, his humour, and his learning, thought of taking no other notice of his letter, than to show it to our mutual friends for my own justification. I may as well, however, insert the libel, in order to show the full extent of treachery, malice, and ingratitude, which characterized the whole transaction.
"A QUERE. — Who is the man that can violate every principle of private confidence? Who is the man that can sacrifice every principle of public virtue to the most sordid self-interest? Who is the man that, without remorse, can disturb the tranquillity of domestic happiness? Who is the man that, without mercy or common decency, can wound the peace of every honest individual? Who is the man that is false to his friends, inimical to the liberties of his country, the slanderer of all merit, the panegyrist of all infamy? Who is the most venal, the most shameless, the most savage of mankind? The enemy of hope, the advocate of despair? IT IS THE REPTILE OCULIST. 'Hic niger est, hunc tu Romane caveto.'"
I revive this elaborate and atrocious libel, because I am conscious that it is in every point wholly inapplicable to me, and because it is a striking illustration of the malignity to which human nature may be reduced. While Merry was a man of fortune, which was before I knew him, I have heard from good judges that he was liberal, open-hearted, and benevolent; but lie had exhausted his fortune, and it was said that he was chiefly supported by an English lady of quality in Florence, till the lady had formed a connexion with a person of the highest rank in his dominions abroad.
Merry was in France during the most frantic period of the French revolution, and had imbibed all the levelling principles of the most furious democrat; having lost his fortune, and in despair, he would most willingly have promoted the destruction of the British Government, if he could have entertained any hopes of profiting in the general scramble for power.
To resume my story. In consequence of the apprehension of legal punishment for this unprovoked and malignant libel, the following article was inserted in The Telegraph: — "An article appeared in this paper of the fourth instant, under the title of a Quere, describing, in the grossest terms, the gentleman against whom it was directed. Those who know the hurry with which a newspaper is made up, will allow for the accidental insertion of offensive matter; and as such was the case in that instance, we have no hesitation in expressing our regret that the article in question was admitted, as we are fully convinced the gentleman alluded to is not a proper object for such an attack." This article appeared in The Telegraph of the 23rd of November, 1795. On the 30th of the same month, to my utter astonishment, I received the following letter from Mr. Merry, the last man on earth whom I should have suspected of having written the libel in question.
TO JOHN TAYLOR, ESQ.
MY DEAR FRIEND,
Mr. M — (M'Donnell) has informed me that you impute to me a paragraph which appeared some time ago in The Telegraph. I will he candid with you and explain the matter. We had been drinking a great deal of wine, and in fact I was drunk. When The True Briton was produced, in which were some very cruel and malignant attacks on Mr. Barnes, Mr. Bannister, and another, the intent of which appeared to strike at the life of the first mentioned gentleman, and at the professional interest of the latter, it was absolutely affirmed that you were the author. In consequence the obnoxious paragraph was produced, and I own that, heated as I was with wine, my indignation got the better of every other consideration, and I was aiding, and abetting in the composition of the same. I really, however, never felt more hurt or confounded than when I saw it on the following day — and being now perfectly convinced that you were not the author of the paragraph which had so exasperated us, I do most willingly and sincerely beg your pardon for the part I took in the transaction, and hope you will forgive me, and endeavour to forget it. You cannot suppose that I could wish to hurt you in any way, as I have never received any unkindness from you; on the contrary, have always found you ready to do me any good office in your power. I again repeat, that I am truly concerned at what has happened, and that I never will be induced to act in any manner by you but as your friend and well-wisher. Believe me, I feel the truest regard for you, and am sincerely and affectionately yours,
November 30, 1795.
In the first place it is proper to observe, that a letter from the editor of The Telegraph assured me that he received the libel in question not from a party, as Mr. Merry's letter imports, but from an individual. In the next, that I knew nothing of the Mr. Barnes, mentioned in the letter, but remember that a person of that name had been suspected of having fired an air-gun at our revered monarch George the Third, about that period. As to Mr. Bannister, (junior,) I had the pleasure to be acquainted with him early in life, and was so zealous in supporting him, that his father never met me without saying, "I am at all times glad to see you as you have been always Jack's friend." Finally, I repeat, that I was not the author of the paragraph that Mr. Merry states to have been the cause of his furious attack upon me.
What adds to the wonder of this extraordinary transaction, a short time before, at Mr. Merry's desire, I wrote the prologue to his tragedy entitled "Lorenzo," to preserve the memory of our friendship, and, to use his own words, "that we might go down to posterity together." I had determined to take no notice of Mr. Merry's letter, but meeting my old and valued friend Sir William Beechey, at the house of the late Mr. George Dance, architect and R.A. Sir William strenuously advised me to publish it in defence of my character. I did so, with an account of the whole transaction, which I circulated among my friends. After this publication I received another letter from Mr. Merry, soliciting a renewal of our intercourse, and that we might "shake hands in amity." Of this letter of course I took no notice, but had soon after the mortification of seeing him on the opposite side of the way in Marlborough Street, looking at me as he passed with the aspect of dejection and dismay.
Poor Merry, I was proud of his friendship! When I review what I have written respecting him, I cannot but apprehend that I may be thought to harbour too much resentment against an old friend, for whom I have acknowledged that I felt a sincere regard as well as admiration; but his anonymous attack upon me was so bitter, so minute, and so comprehensive, that I cannot but fear also it may have had some effect upon my character with those who do not know me, and though conscious of integrity, and "a conscience void of offence," yet I am by no means indifferent to reputation. On such occasions, therefore, self-defence I consider as a duty which I owe to the world at large, particularly as during my long life I have been generally known.
To show the regard which I felt for Merry, I will introduce a few stanzas from a poem which I addressed to him, in order to attract public attention to his tragedy of "Lorenzo," which was soon after represented at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. After noticing in my poem many of his productions, and praising them highly, I concluded with the following stanzas:
Say, dost thou, fondly charm'd along
By Fancy's wild and witching song,
With moon-light shadows seek repose,
The world forgetting and its woes?
Does sorrow linger o'er thy lyre,
And sadly chill the conscious wire?
Does love the pensive hour invade,
And absence veil the darling maid?
Has malice, perfidy, or pride,
Struck deep in friendship's bleeding side?
Long since thy piercing eye could scan
"The low ingratitude of man."
Lo! Fame her fairest wreath assigns,
While Love delighted chaunts thy lines,
Oh! then resume thy melting song,
And charm the willing world along.