When it is considered what literary celebrity Lockhart has gained so early in life, and how warm and disinterested a friend he has been to me, it argues but little for my sagacity that I scarcely recollect anything of our first encounters. He was a mischievous Oxford puppy, for whom I was terrified, dancing after the young ladies, and drawing caricatures of every one who came in contact with him. But then I found him constantly in company with all the better rank of people with whom I associated, and consequently it was impossible for me not to meet with him. I dreaded his eye terribly; and it was not without reason, for he was very fond of playing tricks on me, but always in such a way that it was impossible to lose temper with him. I never parted company with him that my judgment was not entirely jumbled with regard to characters, books, and literary articles of every description. Even his household economy seemed clouded in mystery; and if I got any explanation, it was sure not to be the right thing. It may be guessed how astonished I was one day, on perceiving six black servants waiting at his table upon six white gentlemen! Such a train of blackamoors being beyond my comprehension, I asked for an explanation, but got none, save that he found them very useful and obliging poor fellows, and that they did not look for much wages, beyond a mouthful of meat.
A young lady hearing me afterwards making a fuss about such a phenomenon, and saying that the blackamoors would break my young friend, she assured me that Mr. Lockhart had only one black servant, but that when the master gave a dinner to his friends, the servant, knowing there would be enough, and to spare, for all, invited his friends also. Lockhart always kept a good table, and a capital stock of liquor, especially Jamaica rum, and by degrees I grew not so frightened to visit him.
After Wilson and he, and Sym and I had resolved on supporting Blackwood, it occasioned us to be oftener together; but Lockhart contrived to keep my mind in the utmost perplexity for years on all things, that related to that magazine. Being often curious to know when the tremendous articles appeared, who were the authors, and being sure I could draw nothing out of either Wilson or Sym, I always repaired to Lockhart to ask him, awaiting his reply with fixed eyes and a beating heart. Then, with his cigar in his mouth, his one leg flung carelessly over the other, and without the symptoms of a smile on his face, or one twinkle of mischief in his dark gray eye, he would father the articles on his brother, Captain Lockhart, or Peter Robertson, or Sheriff Cay, or James Wilson, or that queer fat body, Dr. Scott; and sometimes on James and John Ballantyne, and Sam Anderson, and poor Baxter. I remember once, at a festival of the Dilletanti Society, that Lockhart was sitting next me, and charming my ear with some story of authorship — I have forgot what it was, but think it was about somebody reviewing his own book; on which I said the incident was such a capital one, that I would give anything to ascertain if it were true.
"What?" said Bridges; "did anybody ever hear the like of that? I hope you are not suspecting your young friend of telling you a falsehood?"
"Haud your tongue, Davie, for ye ken naething about it," said I. "Could ye believe it, man, that callant never tauld me the truth a' his days but aince, an' that was merely by chance, an' without the least intention on his part?" These blunt accusations diverted Lockhart greatly, and only encouraged him to further tricks.
I soon found out that the coterie of my literary associates had made it up to act on O'Dogherty's principle, never to deny a thing that they had not written, and never to acknowledge one that they had. On which I determined that, in future, I would sign my name or designation to everything I published, that I might be answerable to the world only for my own offences. But as soon as the rascals perceived this, they signed my name as fast as I did. They then contrived the incomparable "Noctes Ambrosianae," for the sole purpose of putting all the sentiments into the Shepherd's mouth which they durst not avowedly say themselves, and those too often applying to my best friends.
The thing that most endeared Lockhart to me at that early period was some humorous poetry which he published anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine, and which I still regard as the best of the same description in the kingdom.
Of all the practical jokes that ever Lockhart played off on the public in his thoughtless days, the most successful and ludicrous was that about Dr. Scott. He was a strange-looking, bald-headed, bluff little man, that practised as a dentist both in Glasgow and and Edinburgh, keeping a good house and hospitable table in both, and considered skilful; but for utter ignorance of everything literary, he was not to be matched among a dozen street porters with ropes round their necks. This droll old tippling sinner was a joker in his way, and to Lockhart and his friends a subject of constant mystifications and quizzes, which he partly saw through; but his uncommon vanity made him like the notice, and when at last the wags began to publish songs and ballads in his name, O then he could not resist going into the delusion! and though he had a horrid bad voice, and hardly any ear, he would roar and sing the songs in every company as his own.
Ignorant and uneducated as he was, Lockhart sucked his brains so cleverly, and crammed "The Odontist's" songs with so many of the creature's own peculiar phrases, and the names and histories of his obscure associates, that, though I believe the man could scarce spell a note of three lines, even his intimate acquaintances were obliged to swallow the hoax, and by degrees "The Odontist" passed for a first-rate convivial bard, that had continued to eat and drink and draw teeth for fifty years, and more, without ever letting the smallest corner of the napkin appear to be lifted, under which his wonderful talents had lain concealed. I suspect Captain Tom Hamilton, the original O'Dogherty, had also some hand in that ploy; at least he seemed to enjoy it as if he had, for though he pretended to be a high and starched Whig, he was always engaged with these madcap Tories, and the foremost in many of their wicked contrivances.
Well, at last this joke took so well, and went so far, that shortly after the appearance of "The Lament for Captain Paton," one of Lockhart's best things, by the bye, but which was published in the doctor's name, he happened to take a trip to Liverpool in a steamboat, and had no sooner arrived there than he was recognized and hailed as Ebony's glorious Odontist! The literary gentry got up a public dinner for him in honour of his great and versatile genius, and the body very coolly accepted the compliment, replying to the toasts and speeches and all the rest of it. And what is more, none of them ever found him out; which to me, who knew him so well, was quite wonderful. What would I have given to have been at that meeting! I am sure Dean Swift himself never played off a more successful hit than this of "The Odontist."
He is long since dead; but he left a name behind him which has continued to this day, when I have let the secret out. Had he lived till now, I am persuaded his works would have swelled out to volumes, and would have been published in his name, with his portrait at the beginning. I never heard whether he left Lockhart any legacy or not; but he certainly ought to have done so, and both to him and Captain Hamilton. Even the acute Johnie Ballantyne was entrapped, and requested me several times to "bring him acquainted with that Dr. Scott, who was one of the most original and extraordinary fellows he had ever met with in print, and he wished much to have the honour of being his publisher. In answer to this request I could only laugh in the bibliopole's face, having been for that once in the true secret. I could tell several stories fully as good as this; but as John is now a reformed character, to all appearances, I shall spare him for the present. Wilson's and his merry doings of those days would make a singular book, and perhaps I may attempt to detail them before I die.