REMINISCENCES OF COL. TOM PICTON
Written for the New York “Spirit of the Times,” by “SLOSHER.”
In the upper of our city there was situated, a few years back, an extensive establishment—the show-rooms of an undertaker—decorated in a style of splendor, rivalling the gorgeous palaces of merchandise to be encountered in our fashionable thoroughfares. Behind plate-glass windows were exhibited long rows of coffins, of every manner of dimension, color, and material, while the paraphernalia for the most elaborate of funerals was temptingly exposed to attract the attention of casual passengers. The proprietor of the concern was, however, a gloomy specimen of humanity—a dismal contrast to the splendor of the wares appertaining to his melancholy business; in fact, to all appearance, he seemed a resuscitated tenant from one of his second-hand coffins.
As the Colonel was one day passing this resplendent repository of sepulchral articles, it occurred to him that such ingenious advertising enterprise should not pass unnoticed, and as he chanced to be habited in a full suit of black, he dropped into the store and inquired for the proprietor. The undertaker was soon forthcoming, and received his visitor with a compound mixture of blandness and humility.
“I perceive, sir,” quoth Picton, with a lacrymose tone of voice, “that you have coffins for sale.”
“Yes, sir,” returned the tradesman, glancing sceptically at his visitor, standing before him surrounded by contrivances of that nature, adequate for the interment of the existing generation.
“And hearses?” suggested the Colonel.
“Certainly, sir,” enthusiastically responded the master of burial ceremonies.
“Shrouds, silver plates, and all the rest of the thingumbobs?” continued Picton, drawing out his handkerchief and wiping his eyes with serio-comic deliberation; “everything for a man of distinction to be buried not only decently, but I may almost say with an air of ostentatious dignity?”
The undertaker, scenting with business sagacity the prospect of a fat job, spared no pains to impress upon his customer the superior advantages of his establishment, as well as the inimitable quality of his goods, volunteering most disinterested advice as to the conduct of the anticipated ceremony. The Colonel in the meanwhile critically examined the entire stock in trade, while the undertaker, followed by an assistant, jotted down, in a ponderous memorandum-book, each successive article approved by the purchaser at their suggestion. Upwards of an hour was expended in the canvassing and arrangement of the mournful ceremonial, and the heart of the undertaker almost leaped into his throat as the articles enumerated threatened an expenditure exceeding that of the most profligate disbursements sanctioned by our city fathers in desperation of municipal grief.
“He must be a man of great importance in the community,” said the undertaker, mentally footing up the sum total for the goods ordered, “to have such a funeral?”
“I rather flatter myself he is,” returned Picton, coolly.
“May I ask where is the body?” suggestively inquired the undertaker.
“Here!” slowly announced the Colonel, turning his glance upon the shopfallen tradesman, writhing in positive agony at the dissipation of the vast funeral pile, “you can take my measure now; write my name on the back, put it in a place where it will keep, and I will instruct my executors to patronize your peculiarly enterprising establishment.”
The Colonel bowed politely and took his leave, assuring the proprietor that he was so well pleased with his own bargain that he would take the liberty of recommending him to his friends. At thought of repetition of blighted hopes the undertaker grew marvelously nervous, and in a moment of unaccountable generosity offered to bury the Colonel gratuitously, provided he would preserve secresy as to the joke perpetrated upon him.
Some years ago, immediately prior to the destruction of the old Park Theatre, several friends of a popular actor, whom we shall designate as John, proposed giving him a complimentary benefit. As a matter of course, a committee of leading notabilities was speedily concocted, and John walked around town full six inches taller in his own estimation. Happening to be in Windust’s enjoying a morning “smile,” he was addressed by the Colonel to ask whether his personal services would be of use to the beneficiare.
“By the way, John,” continued Picton, in a contemplative humor, “suppose I should play for you, do you think my name would draw?”
“Excellent!” shouted John, whose imagination pictured a house crowded to suffocation by magnetic attraction from a literary star; “immense! but you won’t do it.”
“Yes I will, if I promise,” resumed Picton, “so you can put me down to make my first and last appearance on any stage.”
“You won’t try tragedy?” suggested the actor.
“Do I look like an asassin?” indignantly retorted the Colonel. “No, sir, in comedy, legitimate comedy.”
John went off delighted, yet dubious as to the certainty of the volunteer’s appearance, but the latter reassured him of his firm intention of being on hand.
Days rolled by, and intimations were made in several papers as to the approaching debut of a distinguished amateur, etc. At length but a brief interval was to elapse before the entertainment was to come off, and John constantly reminded his friend of his promise, and of the necessity of selecting some role for announcement.
“John,” said Picton, with a confidential air, “I have been hunting all over the English drama to discover a part suited to my calibre as an actor, and I’ve hit it.”
“Who is it by?” eagerly inquired the professional.
“Sheridan,” replied the Colonel, “and I am already perfect—I know every word in the part.”
“What is it—the Rivals?” interrupted John.
“No, sir ; not the Rivals, but the Critic,” returned Picton.
“Puff?” re-inquired the actor ; “your Puff will be capital—just the thing—a sure hit.”
“No, not Puff,” responded Tom ; “a much more telling character, which I am sure I can do justice to.”
“Not Puff and in the Critic,” soliloquized the actor ; “what in the name of thunder can it be?”
“Lord Burleigh,” slowly answered the Colonel, “and you can announce me as soon as you think proper, for I am up in the part.”
All ideas of the overcrowded house, and of the debut of the distinguished amateur, vanished into thin air, for John discovered himself to have been egregiously “sold,” as the part of Lord Burleigh is probably the only character of the British stage requiring its representative not to utter a solitary word.
During his sojourn in the French metropolis the Colonel one day entered the celebrated Cafe de la Regence, the headquarters of the Parisian chess-players, where they daily congregate in great numbers. He walked around among the chess-players, apparently criticising the games of the various tables, and finally sought out the proprietor of the rooms.
“I observe,” said the Colonel with due gravity, “that you have several gentlemen here who play a tolerable game of chess ; would you permit an American to attempt a passage with some of them?”
“Oh, certainly,” responded the Frenchman, shrugging his shoulders, “I would be delighted to have you make a party with Monsieur ——— ,” and here he named a celebrated player.
“Pooh!” muttered Picton, with more than Gallic nonchalance, “not quite strong enough. Any other?”
The cafetier run over a succession of names, all of them famous in chess tournaments, without producing any effect, until he mentioned that of the French champion, when the Colonel, after a moment’s reflection, informed the proprietor that on that night week he would be happy to play a game with that gentleman.
As he was well aware, this proposition of the Colonel excited the liveliest sensations among frequenters to the cafe, all anxious to discover the name and quality of the mysterious gentleman from America, who could not condescend to play any one shorter than the champion of French chess lovers. The proposed match formed the staple of every evening’s conversation until the coming of the stipulated encounter, to witness which international contest were assembled a dense crowd of disciples of Philidor.
Pictor entered the room, the observed of the congregation, and after saluting his antagonist with the proper amount of bowing and scraping, assumed his seat at the reserved table, and magnanimously allowed the champion the first move, cautioning him confidentially not to open with the great American Tippopottomy gambit, which would lead to his checkmate in six moves. The mere allusion to this terribly named gambit, heretofore unheard of, whetted the anxiety of the Philidorians, who crowded around the Colonel to the great detriment of corns, coats, and coffee drinking.
Picton made the preliminary moves with an appalling deliberation, and a slowness, threatening prolongation of the game to the last hour of the day of judgment, when, after an apparently stupendous mental calculation, he instituted a fierce and brisk attack upon his adversary’s pieces, followed up by an indiscriminate slaughter of queens, knights, and bishops, which, if not brilliant according to the laws of chess, were assuredly bewildering to the comprehension of the spectators, who shrugged their shoulders and bobbed their heads until the various Colonel’s foray was terminated by his own checkmate.
His adversary paused and drew a long breath, while the group of amateurs unhesitatingly pronounced Picton to be the exponent of a new degree of lunacy—an incurable chess maniac. At last the champion, observing the discontented looks and distressed condition of the crowd, anticipating the apparition of an extra supernatural phenomenon, ventured a remark:
“Monsieur does not appear a very scientific player.”
“I know it,” coolly returned the colonel. “I never played in public before, and so I thought I had better commence at the top of the heap and gradually slide down.”
It is comparatively needless to add, that during his residence in Paris very few players exhibited over anxiety to engage the mysterious American Philidorean.
While engaged in editorial occupations in Nassau-street, Tom annoyed several of his literary neighbors, but was particularly exercised in his own person by a very pious and somewhat obtrusive clergyman, who held a prominent position in the management of an evangelical institution in the vicinity of that typographically-enlightened and still religiously-benighted section of the metropolis. The Rev. Dr. W. was a model of propriety, as to morals and neckcloth, and acted as a species of volunteer Cato, in that “pent up Utica,” giving unsolicitedly gems of advice, which the ungrateful brethren of the quill in no wise received in a spirit of friendliness.
One day a verdant countryman, perambulating the literary district in the pursuit of information as to the means of acquiring that species of literature denominated obscene, chanced to tumble in the way of a wag, who, knowing Picton’s propensity for practical jokes, confidentially recommended the denizen of the green fields to the Colonel as a man of unlimited information, for curiosities in the world of letters.
The countryman insinuated himself into the editorial sanctum, and bluntly informed the Colonel of his desire to obtain a noted illicit romance.
Picton was at first angered at the discourteous intrusion, but smelling “a rat,” as emanating from a brother joker, resolved upon turning the verdancy of his customer to his own account in avenging himself indirectly upon the reverend annoyance, Dr. W.
“I say,” quoth the Colonel, confidentially, “that book’s against the law, very expensive and hard to be got.”
“I know it,” returned the provincial, “but I’m bound to have it.”
“All right, then,” continued Picton, “you may even have to fight.”
“I don’t mind that,” doggedly responded the countryman.
“Being against the law, and only sold to strangers,” resumed the Colonel, assuming a tone of cautionary sincerity, “the only man in town who sells them has to resort to all kinds of dodges to keep the police from laying hands on him. Now, as he’s a sly old file, if you choose to run the risk, I’ll tell you how you can fetch.”
“It’s a bargain!” enthusiastically ejaculated Mr. Verdant.
“In the first place,” solemnly observed Picton, “the old fox calls himself a parson, and keeps his office in a big building called the ‘Christian ——,’ pretending to sell religious books.”
The countryman’s eyes brightened, and he grinned from ear to ear at the brilliancy of this disguise.
“Well,” continued the Colonel, “all you have to do is go up into the building, ask for the Rev. Dr. W., slip a V into his hand privately, and name what book you want.”
“I’ll do it right off,” interrupted the countryman.
“Hold on,” quoth the Colonel, suggestively, “you don’t think the old fellow is such an old fool as to let you have one right off—not at all. At first he will pretend to be moral and give you a lecture, but just let him know that cock won’t fight ; then he may seem to get angry and order you out, but just say you won’t leave until you get the book, and make a show of punching his head. Upon this he will make believe to be in a rage and send for the police—that’s another trick of his. Possibly a fellow dressed up like a policeman may come in and insist upon taking you off—he’s a confederate of the old buck. Don’t mind him and threaten to knock the whole concern into the street. Then, as a last dodge of all, this bumcombe policeman, will take you to the place where they manufacture those books, and you can take your pick out of the lot. Now you understand how to do it?”
“Don’t I,” gleefully replied the countryman, with a wink of uncommon sagacity ; “but, Mister, it’s a pile of work to get a book.”
“Yes,” returned the Colonel, “but you must learn the ropes of our town, and you’ll have something to talk about when you get home.”
“Won’t I!” ejaculated the countryman, departing on his mission.
About the time when our friend from out of town penetrated into the office of the Rev. Dr. W., in the very heart of the evangelical establishment, the preacher was preparing an elaborate report on the decrease of immorality in town and country, all of which was probably owing to his successful management of the “Christian ——.” He was interrupted in his work by the fall of the stranger’s hand upon his shoulder, and was astonished to find a five dollar bill shoved into one of his hands, while his nerves were shocked by hearing a demand in an audible whisper for a copy of the chef d’œuvre of obscene literature.
The Rev. Dr. W. was electrified, and could scarce believe his senses, but before him stood the athletic figure of the countryman, who saluted him with a gleeful smirk.
“Man!” shouted the astonished preacher, “do you know who I am? I am the Rev. Dr. W., and you dare address me in this most offensive language. Begone, instantly!”
“Well, old fella,” quoth the gentleman from the country, “that is good, very nice, but you can’t come it over me.”
Despite his exasperation, the reverend gentleman could not lose an opportunity for a moral oration, which he delivered with great earnestness and volubility, to the infinite delight of the countryman, who approved of its termination by a commendatory ejaculation.
“Tip-top, old fellar! but that cock won’t fight, so shell out!”
Finding his moral admonitions of no avail, but to extract a threat of punching his head, Dr. W. dispatched a boy for a policeman, and upon arrival of the Metropolitan in full costume, ordered the incarceration of the presumptuous and obdurate Mr. Verdant.
“Take me off,” shouted the countryman, finding matters harmonise with the Colonel’s predictions ; “just do it, or I’ll knock every thing out of this shanty into the street.”
Fearing that the stranger was an escaped lunatic, the cautious policeman seized upon him and led the unresisting prisoner to the nearest station house, without deigning to reply to a reiterated query as to the number of “them ere books” they kept down at the factory.
Once before the police captain, who was perplexed at the facts in the case, Mr. Verdant discovered that he had been imposed upon, and condescended to narrate all the circumstances of his errand, when the magistrate at once determined that the stranger was the victim of a practical joke, and inquired as to the personal appearance of the gentleman who had instituted this search after dangerous literature.
“Tom Picton, by all that’s holy!” shouted the captain, with difficulty restraining an outburst of laughter, when, after reading the verdant individual a severe lecture, he discharged him with a caution against being again found looking after “one of them ere books.”
The countryman evidently took the hint, for he has never again been seen in those regions.
Source: New York Spirit of the Times 29.42 (26 November 1859): 495. University of Virginia Alderman Library.
Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.
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