Victorian Memories

Lucy Bethia Walford (1845-1915) clearly moved in the same dinner circles as Wilkie but there seems to be no other connection between them. In her Memories of Victorian London she recounts two meetings with Wilkie. The first was probably in the early eighteen sixties – certainly before Lucy Colquhoun married Alfred Walford in June 1869. Wilkie recounts two stories of his schooldays – about being bullied into telling stories and about a spider-eating friend. The second was towards the end of March 1874, just after Wilkie returned from America. This time he talked of his trip, the American people, interviews by journalists, and the climate. The descriptions of his manner and the long accounts of what he said are the closest we get to spending time in his company.

…we had at table Mr. Wilkie Collins, who afterwards came out upon the balcony, and talked, and talked.

A warm summer night on a London balcony, the scent of flowers on every side, and the celebrated novelist in a retrospective and expansive mood—that is what I see before me when my outward eyes rest upon the "Woman in White" or "The Moonstone" upon the upper bookshelf to which they have been relegated by the enlightened novel-readers of to-day.

It may be that they are right, that we were childish to be thrilled by the latter, or terrified by the former—altogether enthralled for the time being by both,—but yet, shall I dare to say it?—it seems to me that present-day readers and writers alike miss something, some subtle, intangible bond of union between the two, which drew them together in former years.

Young readers at least were not so critical, not so analytical,—and when great, strong notes were struck, though it might be harshly and crudely, they vibrated through the inmost fibres of our being, and we kissed the hand that smote us. They do not smite, and we do not kiss, now.

Mr. Wilkie Collins was not a giant to outward view. Indeed he was rather a small man, with short, dark hair, and a brownish beard and moustache; while the large spectacles he habitually wore did not disfigure him, as one could see the pleasant expression of the eyes beneath.

I was sitting on a footstool near an empty basket-chair when the gentlemen came up from their wine—a portly dowager who had been occupying the latter, obviously to her discomfort, having just found a better anchorage for herself elsewhere—and I wondered who was to be her successor ?

There was no one at the party who was of the least account in my eyes,—as girls call "Account,"—and accordingly I was well pleased that Mr. Wilkie Collins should subside into the basket-chair, and look very much as if he did not mean to be in a hurry to rise from it.

No doubt he thought that he had found a pleasant spot, and that, it would be no great effort to talk to a slip of a girl for whom anything would do. Accordingly, he let himself go, in a nice, natural fashion that would perhaps have been out of place had his companion been a grande dame. His talk flowed gently back into time-worn channels; and when he found his very simple experiences of childhood and youth were sufficient, he woke them up one after another.

His school-days, he said, were for some time embittered by his having as a bedroom mate a great, hulking fellow, his senior by some years, who was a bully and a bad sleeper. Since he could not sleep, no one else should—in especial, the little wretch who would have slumbered soundly under his very nose, if he had been allowed. The little wretch had a knack of telling stories, which he must be made to exercise for the benefit of his betters.

"Accordingly, sleepy as I was and often dead tired, I had to sit up and invent," said Mr. Collins, "and horrid it was, I can tell you. My tyrant made for himself a cat-o’nine-tails; and as often as my voice died away, he leaned across his bed and gave me a cut or two with it which started me afresh.

"I cried, of course, what little chap wouldn’t?—but all the same, I had no difficulty in making the story go, if only I were kept awake—and my tormentor saw to that.

"And do you know, I owe him a debt of gratitude," continued Mr. Collins, looking down on me thoughtfully, "though he little meant to do me a good turn, and was only bent on his own selfish amusement.

"But it is a fact that it was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power, of which but for him I might never have been aware. Certainly no one in my own home credited me with it; and when I left school I still continued story-telling for my own pleasure. After a while, well, you know the rest," and he smiled and stroked his moustache.

Presently, as we were still unmolested, he dived again into his memory, and brought forth the following: "There was another boy at the same school who achieved notoriety in a singular way. He made a business of swallowing spiders!

"What’s more, he made the business pay. Word was passed that Dick Somebody-or-other was going to swallow a spider, and that places for seeing the performance were to be had at one penny each. If the spider were an abnormally large one, prices went up to twopence, or even threepence. When the spectators had assembled, (and had paid their money,) and when every eye was fixed on the performer, he drew from his pocket a pill-box which he solemnly opened—taking his time over it, so that nothing of the show should be lost—and extracting a captive spider, placed it on his lips, and let it crawl slowly down his throat!"

What would have happened if the spider had declined to fulfil its part of the engagement, Mr. Collins protested he could not imagine—but it never did decline. Of that he was positive; and I gathered that he was one of the paying guests on every occasion when he could afford it. "It really was worth a penny," he said, laughing.

I inquired if anything were known of the after-life of this extraordinary boy?

"Oh, very much so," replied Mr. Collins, briskly, "he is still alive, well, and prosperous—in fact, one of the leading lawyers of the day. Perhaps his success in the spider business showed him how to turn ingenuity and enterprise to account, but I have occasionally asked myself, ‘If I were to go to this big man some fine day, with a pillbox and a spider, and say, "Swallow me this for six-and-eightpence,"’ what would be the effect? Would the old Dick respond, or would a new Dick have arisen, who knows not Joseph? And do you know, I dare not risk it!"

Thought I, " Surely Mr. Wilkie Collins might run any risk!"—but young people in the sixties were taught that such speeches were pert, and refrained.

When Mary stepped out on the balcony, later, she said in her own pleasant way, "I think I deserve to join you now, for I have kept off all other interruptions, and it was hard work doing it. Don’t go yet, Mr. Collins, pray don’t go yet."

"I am not going," said he, cheerfully, and talked on far into the night. [pp60-63]

We turned into the Park, after leaving the Holman Hunts’ pleasant house, and found it very full as it was a lovely evening.

"Do let us take one more turn," pleaded I, as the crowds began to thin, " it is only now that we can really see who is here, and—"

"—And there is Mr. Wilkie Collins," cried Mary, springing forward in her seat, "and I haven’t seen him for ages and ages." She pulled the check-string violently, and in less time than it takes to write it, had bidden the footman pursue Mr. Collins and bring him to her.

He seemed delighted to be brought, and when Mary asked him if by a miracle he were disengaged for the next evening, and would dine with her, he laughed outright. "I haven’t a single, solitary engagement," said he; "I have only just come back from America, and have looked up nobody yet."

"Oh, then, could you, and would you, come to-night? To-morrow we have a party, a large, ordinary party, but to-night I will try and collect a few choice spirits—"

"My dear Mary, it is almost dinner-time now!" protested I.

" Oh, let me come without ‘Collecting’ anyone," implored Mr. Collins. " If you knew what a treat it would be to have just old friends about me—do say to-night, and only ourselves!"

"That means you and me and our husbands," said Mary, nudging me with her elbow. She would have torn round like a whirlwind, and blown before her all the desirables she could think of on the spur of the moment, but when it was settled that these should be left in peace, and that Mr. Collins would be satisfied with our sober quartet, I think it was a let-off even to her.

Then Mr. Collins turned to me. "So the little lady is married?" said he.

I smiled happily, I was so proud of my husband, so well pleased to present him to friends old and new. "I suppose he sits and talks with you on the balcony now?" said Mr. Collins.

"And tells me about his school-days."

"Ah, you have not forgotten that? But the spider-hero is dead since then, and I never had a chance of reminding him of his exploit. Directly I saw his death in the papers, I thought of you, and your horror over it."

He had not forgotten this when we were sitting cosily round a small round table an hour or so later.

"It really had never struck me as anything horrible before. I only thought it clever and funny—but I tried it as a shocker on the Americans, and it was a failure. Lots of boys did it."

Then he proceeded to tell us about the Americans. "To begin with, I had a slap in the face. Knowing I should be gone at directly I landed, I had carefully put my best suit of clothes on the top of my portmanteau to be ready for the inevitable interviewers; and what do you think? The rats on board had somehow or other forced their way in, and the clothes were in a fine mess, quite unwearable. It was disgusting; but as there was no help for it, I went straight to a tailor, who produced some reach-me-downs, and in these I had to present myself to my first newspaper fiend.

"The next day I looked eagerly to see what scathing remark they had elicited, but imagine my relief to read, ‘Mr. Collins is a small man, but well made and very well dressed.’

"Very well dressed! The only solution of the problem that presented itself was that the atrocious garments had a Yankee cut, and thereafter I wore them boldly."

"You had a lot of interviewing to go through of course?" said Mary’s husband. "Even we did not escape when we went over a few years ago."

"They pursued me everywhere. One day I went to make a call at a quiet house, not at all a house where publicity is courted, and had hardly sat down when the door opened and in came a lady, little black bag in one hand and her card in the other. Could she have a few minutes’ conversation; she was the representative of some paper or other, I forget which. It was too bad; I turned to my hostess to apologise for the impertinence, thinking she would resent it as I did, and she was actually laughing And she implored me not to disappoint the poor, hungry lady. ‘Remember, it is her daily bread,’ she murmured in my ear.

"After that I made a determined effort to get my interviewers to come in batches," continued Mr. Collins, "and one day went back to the hotel to find twelve feminine editors of journals large and small, seated in a circle, waiting my return

"They seemed to have formed a sort of alliance, for no sooner had I made my bow than the oldest and ugliest of them stood forth and solemnly observing, ‘Let me embrace you for the company,’ offered me a chaste salute.

"However much I might have appreciated the same from a youthful beauty, I did not exactly court a repetition of it thus bestowed, and next day there were very moderate praises of my personal charms in consequence. I suppose I did look grim; for I felt it. Really, they were not attractive,—" he wound up reflectively.

Otherwise he owned to having much enjoyed his stay in the New World, and though he found himself torn in bits by the hospitality and loquacity which overwhelmed him at every turn, it was, he said, something to look back upon.

"We also felt that, I think," said Mary. "America takes one’s breath away, but in the retrospect none of us but looks tenderly back upon it. I shall go there again some day." (And she did, and I went with her—but that was years afterwards.)

"One thing was splendid," continued Mr. Collins, starting afresh, "the climate suited me down to the ground. I had heard so much about the dryness of the atmosphere and its effect upon English people that I did not know what to expect. But I never was better in my life; I did not have an ache or a pain all the time. As for gout, it left me entirely for the time being, and you know how much I usually suffer from it. Oh, I shall certainly crack up America as the place for sufferers from rheumatic gout and whatever else I can say in its favour I will, for a kinder, warmer-hearted set of people surely does not exist, only their ways are queer,—" he smiled a little and enlarged.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Did you see the portraits of the signers of ‘ The Declaration of Independence’?" asked Mary. "I had a copy of the paper they were in sent me lately, and showed it to a Mr. Stewart, who told me that his father-in-law, Professor Graham of Harvard, had written a history of the time."

"Stewart ? I met him. I know I met him—but I cannot for the life of me remember where, or what he was like," said Mr. Collins.

"Did he tell you his curious experience at Constantinople, where he was an attaché in 1837, forty years ago?" "I—I believe he did," faltered Mr. Collins; "I have a vague flickering sensation—of his having done so, but upon my word so much went in at one ear and out of the other during my frantic rush out there, that I should be very glad if you would recall it to me."

"Listen, then," said Mary. " Mr. Stewart obtained a year’s leave of absence from Constantinople, and having a curious taste in such matters, thought it would be a nice way of spending a holiday to take part in the little war going on between the Russians and Circassians. He helped the Circassians of course, and had command of a large body of men. As he could not speak all the languages he needed, he also had an interpreter. One day he did not like the look of the interpreter. He took a ‘Scunner’ at him. Do you know what a ‘Scunner’ is?" Mr. Collins did not, but the rest of us did, and speedily enlightened him. "‘Scunner.’ Oh, delightful word!" murmured he.

"Well, he acted upon it," continued Mary, "and packed the man off, despite his earnest entreaties to be allowed to stay. ‘I really had no fault to find with him, and could give no reason for dismissing him, but I had a "Scunner," and that’s enough for us Scotch folk,’ said Mr. Stewart. "You will see when you hear the rest what a valuable safeguard a ‘Scunner’ is. Nineteen years afterwards I met a Russian General at Pau, and as we were friendly and took walks together, we talked about that war, and he wondered how I knew so much about it? I replied that I had been in the thick of it for a year.

After staring a moment, he said abruptly, " So? Then, you are the Englishman whose letters we opened, and I had to translate them?"

"Very likely," said Mr. Stewart, laughing. "And that explains how they never reached their destination!" Presently he appended, "Did you know anything of our interpreter? I had a very good interpreter, but took a fancy that he was not ‘Straight’ with me, and dismissed him."

"You thought him dishonest?"

"Not dishonest, but untrustworthy. And yet I could never catch him in any evil practices; it was merely an instinct that I had."

The general smiled. "It was a pretty correct instinct. That man was in our pay. He was our consul at the time you engaged him, and was ordered to leave his post, enter your service, and act as our spy."

"But when I had exclaimed, and would fain have heard more," continued Mr. Stewart, "I found my general not communicative. He seemed to think he had been indiscreet enough, and dried up. However, I had learned what I chiefly wished to know, and registered it in my mind never at any time to disregard the warning of a ‘Scunner’!"

As Mr. Collins went away I heard him again murmur under his breath, "‘Scunner.’ A delightful word!" But before the party broke up, Mary gave us a little account of her travels in Russia the previous year, of which I remember some items….

"At dinner that day," continued Mary, "a girl who had been somewhere else to church—or chapel—observed to me: ‘We were a curious lot at our place. Mother is Low Church, father is High, I am Broad, and the Macdonalds axe Presbyterians and that was the whole congregation!’

"And a very good congregation too," said Mr. Wilkie Collins, as he rose to go. [pp206-214]

From Memories of Victorian London by Lucy Bethia Walford, London, 1912

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