Mr. Nichols, in his entertaining "Literary Anecdotes," has justly remarked, that Johnson was not always that surly companion he was supposed to be, and gives, as an instance, rather an impertinent joke I fear of mine about Alexander and his two queens, and Johnson's good-humoured reply, "that in his family it had never been ascertained which was Roxana and which was Statira." I then had got experience, and pretty well knew when I might safely venture into the lion's mouth.
Percy was not averse from teasing Johnson; he was much more liberal in his opinions, and professed to combat with his narrow prejudices; and, knowing how irritable Johnson was, from infirmity and misfortune, I think, at times, to say the truth, it bordered on cruelty. "Am I not in sport?" was serious there, when Gibbon's most sarcastical reply to Davis appeared.
Johnson, it is well known, professed to recruit his acquaintance with younger persons; and, in his latter days, I, with a few others, was more frequently honoured by his notice. At times he was very gloomy, and would exclaim, "stay with me, Sir, for it is a comfort to me" — a comfort that any feeling mind would wish to administer to a man so kind, though at times so boisterous, when he seized your hand, and repeated, "Ay, sir, but to die, and go we know not where, &c." Here his morbid melancholy prevailed, and Garrick never spoke so impressively to the heart. Yet to see him in the evening (though he took nothing stronger than lemonade), a stranger would have concluded that our morning account was a fabrication. No hour was too late to keep him from the tyranny of his own gloomy thoughts.
Dr. Percy was celebrated for variety of anecdote, but Mr. Boswell was altogether one of the pleasantest companions I ever knew. When Dr. Percy presided at the King's Chaplain's table, perhaps no literary dinner was superior; the society was mixt, but I never recollect any alteration, though Hume has been present; Johnson had declared he never would meet him any where. He met Wilkes at Mr. Dilly's, and I rather think he was aware of it, though Boswell speaks differently, and was determined to be upon his guard, as the wits were all a tip-toe.
A gentleman venturing to say to Johnson, "Sir, I wonder sometimes that you condescend so far as to attend a city club." "Sir, the great chair of a full and pleasant club, is perhaps the throne of human felicity;" and he might have added, "I collected in early life many anecdotes and characters from such clubs, with which I embellished my 'Ramblers' and 'Idlers.'"
I was not fortunate in obtaining the return of some papers I had procured for Johnson in regard to Gray and others, and particularly a French Translation of the Merchant of Venice. Something had been said before him about a note of Mason's, relative to the mistake of a translator, and the explanation of the word bowling-green, when I entertained him with a more laughable instance of a mistake in regard to the passage of the return of "my ship Andrew,' ("mon Andrew,") in the Merchant of Venice. "This," says the translator, "is in England a very merry fellow, who plays tricks at a celebrated annual fair, held there, and frequently, by his buffooneries, brings home to his employers very extensive gains."
Of Dr. Johnson's kindnesses to me during the last years of his most valuable life, I could enumerate many instances. One slight circumstance, if any were wanting, would give an excellent proof of the goodness of his heart, and that to a person whom he found to be in distress. In such a case he was the very last man that would have given even the least momentary uneasiness to any one, had he been aware of it. Johnson, I think, went into his neighbour Alleyne's house, where he found a large party of females drinking tea; the greater part, not aware perhaps who he was, went on in their discourse without any regard to his being present; at last he began rather to growl, and talked of idle sounds without either sense or meaning. The account I had from Mrs. Braddish, who was present: she was an humble pensioner on the Stratford family, dined at my house frequently on a Sunday, for during the week she worked or washed for her living in Bolt-court. She was a gentleman's widow, well educated, and was most highly vexed at being included in such an offending party. I told her I would apologize for her to Johnson, which I did; he made little reply, but I found afterwards she had frequently been at his house, and he much noticed her. He told Mr. Alleyne that he found her to be a very sensible and discreet woman. This Mr. Alleyne was a very honest man, was Johnson's landlord, and much respected by him; but Tom Davies often diverted his friends at Alleyne's expense. By living so much with the great luminary, he had imbibed some of his pompous diction, which unfortunately being filled up with some phrases, that he himself frequently made use of, such as foh! foh! lack-a-day! fiddle-de-dee! Tom Davies furnished a rich melange, out of all of it, and entertaining us frequently with it, he forgot himself, and introduced it before Johnson. "And pray Davies," some of us asked, "how did he receive it?" "Why, I found he understood it, and only rubbed his mouth, and walked to the window." Mr. Alleyne was a respectable stationer. These slight anecdotes gave a key to Johnson's real character: he always meant to be on the side of justice, virtue, and humanity.
The last time I saw Dr. Johnson was just before I went to France. He said, with a deep sigh, "I wish I was going with you." He had just been disappointed of a tour to Italy. Of all men I ever knew Dr. Johnson was the most instructive.