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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XX


IN the summer of this year my wife's maternal uncle, Richard Clements, overjoyed at the recovery, by a simple process, of his hearing, proposed that he and I should take a trip to Ireland. No sooner mooted than might have been found Uncle Clements and I in the yard of the Swan-With-Two-Necks inn, Lad lane, London, surmounting the Tally Ho, the four-in-hand coach for Holyhead, the grandest of all modes of transit. Over the finest roads and through the richest scenery in the world we reach the Black Bull Bull-ring, Birmingham, to experience the old-fashioned landlord's trick of delaying the meal until the coach is just ready to start, leaving the hungry traveler no time to do justice to his viands. In taking a passing peep at Peeping Tom, on our way through the fine old town of Coventry, we soon arrive at the ancient city of Shrewsbury, made famous by the questionable veracity of Falstaff. Through the neat little town of Oswestry we began to realize that masterpiece of civil engineering of Mr. Telfer; his road from this point to Bangor, through the romantic scenery of North Wales; his bridge across the Menai straits, and his road through Anglesea to Holyhead, being a work at once of beauty and utility combined. Crossing the channel we experienced rough weather, and entering the then unfinished harbor of Kingston, and finding that, in consequence of a promised grand regatta on the morrow, the hotels were all occupied, we sheltered (not slept) in sorry accommodation. On our way thither we were fortunate enough to have a taste of genuine Hibernianism worthy of remark. My uncle objecting to pay what he deemed an overcharge for carrying our portmanteaus, the quick reply was, "Shure, haven't I been waiting for yez for the last two hours in this cowld night?" Figure to yourself a hackman charging his fare in proportion to the time his vehicle has been idle on the stand. It was a kind of eating-house wherein we had to sojourn for the night, and having resolved to witness the regatta we ordered breakfast, whereupon the landlord, with a soiled cloth over his left arm, answered the knock on the table.

"What d'ye plaze to want, gintlemen, for breakfast?"

"What have you for the morning meal?" He then glibly dealt out a long list of good things, the burden being chickens and ham, which he repeated and transformed several times in the course of his verbal bill of fare. We then ordered chickens and ham, with tea, for which, with all the patience that keen appetites could muster, for three-quarters of an hour we waited in vain. A boy who was left in charge coolly informed us that his master had gone to his stall at the harbor and taken the chickens and ham with him. "Ah," said my pawky uncle, "this comes from too prompt payment. Had we held on to the price of his beds for awhile our fast might have been broken' in comparative comfort." The weather for an hour was bright and clear, long enough to feast our vision on one of the most beautiful sights I ever beheld. The Bay of Dublin at all times is one of nature's beauty spots, but on this occasion the scene was made enchanting by the numberless yachts of the three united kingdoms floating on its tranquil bosom, all busy in preparation for the trial of speed on which they were about to start. A gentle breeze from the north rippled the surface of the bay, bringing with it the harbinger of disappointment. A small but growing cloud kissed the summit of the hill of Howth, giving to the weather-wise unheeded warning of a soaking day. Nor was suspense of long duration. With the changing speed of a kaleidoscope the brilliant morning was embraced in gloom. The glorious bay, with its busy burden, was no longer to be seen, neither could the outline of the distant hill be drawn, and then the rain—I have heard of it raining in Glasgow, and tasted of rain in the Devil's Wash-Basin, a local title given to the city of Manchester, and both cities are proverbial for the extent of their rainfall—but the fall of rain that day in Kingston would be hard to surpass. The fine morning had emptied Dublin of its heterogeneous masses, who poured into the site of the new harbor at Kingston by the thousand, and a crowd more mixed never characterized the annual Derby day at Epsom. One peculiarity I noticed which goes to distinguish the western gathering from that of the east, namely, the use of the umbrella. In England the umbrella is supposed to be the property of the individual. In Ireland it is public property. Hoisting one of those useful commodities has the effect of attracting all those within sight of the holder who might be less fortunate, giving rise to the most ludicrous scenes, in one of which my jolly uncle was made to figure as a center. He had placed his back against a huge block of granite to shelter him from the pelting storm, and to increase his protection inflated his new bit of silk for the first time, which was no sooner done than a round dozen of all sorts of people laid claim to share the privilege with that of the owner. At first the kind old soul evinced no dislike to this singular proceeding, so new to him. A Dublin belle of apparent respectability, elegantly attired in satin, but woefully drenched with the rain, had placed her back against his rotund person, affording the old gentleman pleasure in the exercise of his gallantry in sheltering so fine a lady from the merciless storm.

"But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, the bloom is shed;
Or like the snow-flake on the river,
A moment white, then gone forever."

Less welcome were the dozen ragged, rollicking followers of the lady's example, who set up a rude, noisy bantering, many of their jokes made to appeal to the risibles of the ungainly crowd at Mr. Clements' expense, making his confined situation anything but pleasant. Retreat in the rear was cut off by reason of the granite; the obstacles in front were nearly as immovable. The old gentleman was very sensitive to odor, and the packing of so many saturated human beings so assailed his olfactories that his plight became unbearable, and with one effort of his burly body he freed himself of his untoward incumbrance. On our way to the viandless eating-house for our satchels I confess to the morbid satisfaction of seeing our host of the empty platter perhaps too severely punished for the trick he played on us as strangers. He had improvised a square platform with a pole at each corner. At the tops of each upright was fastened an unwashed sheet to keep the sun from his stock in trade. The sheet now, the sunshine having turned to rain, formed a leaky reservoir of the superincumbent downfall, and the unsold viands, even the veritable chickens and ham, uninvitingly lay exposed to the copious drippings of the extended sheet above, which from its inverted rotundity threatened to burst every minute. Bidding adieu to the prolonged scene of discomfort we sought and found its opposite (after a short ride of seven or eight miles over the only railroad which Ireland could at that date boast of) in the Victoria Hotel, Westland Row, Dublin, the landlord, Mr. Gilbert, a native of Droitwich, England, who for genuine hospitality could not be excelled. In addition to the home comforts of his well-managed house, he put himself to considerable expense and trouble on our behalf in doing the lions of the city and environs,—the park, the college, the custom house, the four courts, the castle the pigeon house, the cathedral, even through the romantic glen called the Dargle (where Grattan was wont to practice his parliamentary speeches), to the falls of Powerscourt, in the Wicklow mountains, and other places of interest. Among other curiosities in Dublin I may mention that of a new way to pay old debts.

Mr. Mc------held a good situation in London for some years, during which time he and his family resided near to us in Peckham. We got to be on intimate terms, when, losing his berth, he retired to his native Dublin, leaving me his note for £30 borrowed money. Thinking to dovetail a little business with pleasure, I put forth an effort to collect this trifle, as Mr. Mc------was pleased to call it. I had no trouble in finding my man: would that I could say so of my claim. We were introduced to good society, one gentleman a prominent lawyer, his wife's brother. We were cordially invited to spend a week at his villa in the beautiful village of Darndale, nestling in the lee of the hill of Howth. A passing visit had to suffice, and we were for two days handsomely entertained in town, which doubtless cost double the amount of the debt, but the de'il a word was uttered in regard to the liquidation of the debt, nor has a figure been altered in my ledger from that frothy period to the present day. In speaking of the characteristics of the people of the sister isle it would be presumptuous on my part to venture an opinion on a subject which has baffled the skill of matter-of-fact England for seven hundred years. Can it be that matter-of-fact measures are unsuited for the governance of a poetical people? A nation susceptible of wrath by the color of your handkerchief is not likely to be satisfied with mere bread and butter, and a sermon preached in the chapel of Dublin Castle, however orthodox and sublime, will fail to compensate the mischief effected by the employment of party colors in Stephens Green. But this savors of the spirit of opinion, for which I ask the reader's pardon. And now, sister isle, adieu. Turn not away from us. The undercurrent of the British heart flows toward you, albeit the surface may tend to obscure the fact. There is strength in unison, weakness in division. Mills of deity grind slowly. Every grievance shall be removed. Patient endurance will win. Let the Celt and the Saxon be reconciled, that they may yet sit down in harmony together, is the earnest wish of the neutral subscriber.

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