Henry Mackenzie

John Gibson Lockhart, "Letter X. Mr. M—" Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 1:95-105.


I told you that Mr. S— sent me a letter of introduction to Mr. M—, the Man of Feeling, and I need not tell you, that such an introduction to such a man, was as agreeable a circumstance as any that could have fallen in my way. I made all haste to deliver my credentials, but was told, when I called at his house, that the old gentleman had gone out a-riding. I really had no expectation of hearing his absence accounted for in that way, for I had always been accustomed to think of him as of one who had entirely outlived his contemporaries, and who must, therefore, be long past the years of active exertion. My surprise, however, was an agreeable one, and I prepared myself to find the veteran, when I should have the fortune to see him, a yet more interesting person than I had taught myself to look for.

Yesterday morning I received a note from him, in which he apologized for not having immediately returned my call. He was extremely busy, he said, all the morning, but hoped I would come and dine with him in an unceremonious manner, the first day I found myself disengaged. I had half promised to dine at a tavern with one or two young gentlemen, friends of W—; but my curiosity was such, that I forthwith excused myself in that quarter, and accepted Mr. M—'s invitation for the same day on which it reached me. I assure you, that I should not have grudged my journey to Scotland, although I had laid up nothing to bring back with me, excepting the recollection of this one day.

As I walked in the direction of his house, with the certainty that a few minutes would bring me into his company, I was conscious of an almost superstitious feeling — a mysterious kind of expectation — something like what I can conceive to have been felt by the Armenian, when the deep green curtain hung before him, the uplifting of which, he was assured, would open to him a view into departed years, and place before his eyes the actual bodily presence of his long buried ancestor. I had read his works when yet in the years of my infancy. The beautiful visions of his pathetic imagination had stamped a soft and delicious, but deep and indelible impression on my mind, long before I had heard the very name of criticism; perhaps before any of the literature of the present age existed — certainly long, very long, before I ever dreamt of its existence. The very names of the heroes and heroines of his delightful stories, sounded in my ears like the echoes of some old romantic melody, too simple, and too beautiful, to have been framed in these degenerate over-scientific days. Harley — La Roche — Montalban — Julia de Roubigne — what graceful mellow music is in the well-remembered cadences — the [Greek characters]. And I was in truth to see "in the flesh" the hoary magician, whose wand had called those etherial creations into everlasting being. A year before, I should have entertained almost as much hope of sitting at the same table with Goldsmith, or Sterne, or Addison, or any of those mild spirits so far removed from our nature [Greek characters]. For the first time in my life, I could not help being ashamed of my youth, and feeling, as if it were presumption in rue to approach, in the garb of modern days, the last living relics of that venerable school.

The appearance of the fine old man had no tendency to dissipate the feelings I have just attempted to describe. I found him in his library, surrounded with a very large collection of books — few of them apparently new ones — seated in a high-backed easy chair — the wood-work carved very richly in the ancient French taste, and covered with black hair-cloth. On his head he wore a low cap of black velvet, like those which we see in almost all the pictures of Pope. But there needed none of these accessories to carry back the imagination. It is impossible that I image of that face. The only one I ever saw which bore any resemblance to its character, was that of Warren Hastings — you well remember the effect it produced, when he appeared among all that magnificent assemblage, to take his degree at the installation of Lord Grenville. In the countenance of M—, there is the same clear transparency of skin, the same freshness of complexion, in the midst of all the extenuation of old age. The wrinkles, too, are set close to each other, line upon line; not deep and bold, and rugged, like those of most old men, but equal and undivided over the whole surface, as if no touch but that of Time had been there, and as if even He had traced the vestiges of his dominion with a sure indeed, but with a delicate and reverential finger. The lineaments have all the appearance of having been beautifully shaped, but the want of his teeth has thrown them out of their natural relation to each other. The eyes alone have bid defiance to the approach of the adversary. Beneath bleached and hoary brows, and surrounded with innumerable wrinkles, they are still as tenderly, as brightly blue, as full of all the various eloquence and fire of passion, as they could have been in the most vivacious of his days, when they were lighted up with that purest and loftiest of all earthly flames, the first secret triumph of conscious and conceiving genius.

By and by, Mr. M— withdrew into his closet, and having there thrown off his slippers, and exchanged his cap for a brown wig, he conducted me to the drawing-room. His family were already assembled to receive us — his wife, just as I should have wished to picture her, a graceful old lady, with much of the remains of beauty, clothed in an open gown of black silk, with deep flounces, and having a high cap, with the lace meeting below the chin — his eldest son, a man rather above my own standing, who is said to inherit much of the genius of his father, (although he has chosen to devote it to very different purposes — being very eminent among the advocates of the present time) — and some younger children. The only visitor, besides myself, was an old friend, and, indeed, contemporary of a Mr. R—, who was, in his time, at the head of the profession of the law in Scotland; but who has now lived for many years in retirement. I have never seen a finer specimen, both in appearance and manners, of the true gentleman of the last age. In his youth, he must have been a perfect model of manly beauty; and, indeed, no painter could select a more exquisite subject for his art even now. His hair combed back from his forehead and highly powdered, his long queue, his lace-ruffles, his suit of snuff-coloured cloth, cut in the old liberal way, with long flaps to his waistcoat, his high-heeled shoes and rich steel buckles — every thing was perfectly in unison with the fashion of his age. The stately and measured decorum of his politeness was such, as could not well be displayed by any man dressed in our free-and-easy style; but in him it did not produce the least effect of stiffness or coldness. It was a delightful thing to see these two old men, who had rendered themselves eminent in two so different walks of exertion, meeting together in the quiet evening of their days, to enjoy in the company of each other every luxury which intellectual communication can afford, heightened by the yet richer luxury of talking over the feelings of times, to which they almost alone are not strangers.

They are both perfectly men of the world, so that there was not the least tinge of professional pedantry in their conversation. As for Mr. M—, indeed, literature was never anything more than an amusement to him, however great the figure he has made in it, and the species of literature in which he excelled was, in its very essence, connected with any ideas rather than those of secluded and artist-like abstraction. There was nothing to be seen which could have enabled a stranger to tell which was the great lawyer, and which the great novellist. I confess, indeed, I was a little astonished to find, from Mr. M—'s mode of conversation, how very little his habits had ever been those of a mere literary man. He talked for at least half an hour, and, I promise you, very knowingly, about flies for angling; and told me, with great good humour, that he still mounts his poney in autumn, and takes the field against the grouse with a long fowling-piece slung from his back, and a pointer-bitch, to the full as venerable among her species as her affectionate master is among his. The lively vivacity with which he talked over various little minute circumstances of his last campaign in the moors, and the almost boyish keenness with which he seemed to be looking forward to the time of trouting — all this might have been looked upon as rather frivolous, and out of place, in another of his years; but, for my part, I could not help being filled both with delight and admiration, by so uncommon a display of elasticity in the springs of his temperament.

He gave us an excellent bottle of Muscat-de-Rives-altes during dinner, and I must say I am inclined very much to approve of that old-fashioned delicacy. We had no lack of Chateau-la-Rose afterwards, and neither of the old gentlemen seemed to have the slightest objection to its inspiration. A truly charming air of sober hilarity was diffused over their features, and they began to give little sketches of the old times, in which perhaps their hilarity might not always be so sober, in a way that carried me back delightfully to the very heart of "High-jinks." According to the picture they gave, the style of social intercourse in this city, in their younger days, seems, indeed, to have been wonderfully easy and captivating. At that time, you must know, not one stone of the New Town, in which they, and all the fashionable inhabitants of Edinburgh now reside, had been erected. The whole of the genteel population lived crowded together in those tall citadels of the Old Town, from one of which my friend W— still refuses to be dislodged. Their houses were small, but abundantly neat and comfortable, and the labour which it cost to ascend to one of them was sure to be repaid at all hours by a hearty welcome from its possessor. The style of visiting, altogether, was as different as possible from the ceremonious sort of fashion now in vogue. They did not deal in six weeks' invitations and formal dinners; but they formed, at a few hours' notice, little snug supper-parties, which, without costing any comparative expence, afforded opportunities a thousand-fold for all manner of friendly communication between the sexes. As for the gentlemen, they never thought of committing any excess, except in taverns, and at night; and Mr. R— mentioned, that, almost within his own recollection, it had been made matter of very serious aggravation in the offence of a gentleman of rank, tried before the Court of Justiciary, that he had allowed his company to get drunk in his house before it was dark, even in the month of July. At that time, the only liquor was claret, and this they sent for just as they wanted it — huge pewter jugs, or, as they called them, stoups of claret, being just as commonly to be seen travelling the streets of Edinburgh in all directions then, as the mugs of Mieux and Barclay are in those of London now. Of course, I made allowance for the privilege of age; but I have no doubt there was abundance of good wit, and, what is better, good-humour among them, no less than of good claret. If I were to take the evening I spent in listening to its history, as a fair specimen of the "Auld Time," (and after all, why should I not?) I should almost be inclined to reverse the words of the Laureate, and to say,

—of all places, and all times of earth,
Did fate grant choice of time and place to men,
Wise choice might be their SCOTLAND, and their THEN.

I assure you, however, that I returned to my hotel in no disposition to quarrel either with time or place, or "any other creature" — a bottle of excellent wine under my belt, and my mind richly dieted with one of the true Noctes Caenaeque.

Ever your's,

P. M.

P.S. I had forgotten to mention, that both M— and his friend are staunch Tories; but I don't deny, that this might have some effect in increasing my love for them.