Letter No. 5
December 22nd, 1852
My dear Nanny,
“Got any ink, Jackson, my boy?” said I to that individual on entering just now into his little room where I found him scrawling by the light of a candle a lot of wonderful characters on a slate. “Mine,” I added, “is all dried up.”
“Oh, ink! Gallons of it,” replied he, producing after much search a seedy bottle with an infinitesimal portion of the liquid.
“Thankee,” says I, looking doubtfully into the small vessel.
“There ain’t much there, but ‘twill serve. How does the phonography get on?”
“Stunning,” says he, “I’ll be able to write it like six-in-a-bed in a month.”
Expressing unqualified admiration of the anticipated intellectual feat, I return, and you behold me here making a wavering effort to write something. Ha ha! I’ve been giggling for the last minute. Jackson has struggled in here with his slate and a little book full of wild-looking marks, with a view to demonstrating to me the extent of his progress in the art, and seeing me writing, he exclaims: “Letters? By Jove, how do you pitch into it? I always think about a month after putting down the heading.”
The impetuous youngster is right. I always do pitch into it without heaving in also the due quantity of reflection typified by “thinking about a month.”
Consequence is the production of the usual unsatisfactory manuscript which monthly reaches E. Emma Place. However, you must now be getting accustomed to inane things, and have doubtless long ceased to hope to glean a spark of anything amusing or instructive from ’em. Writing a letter with the slightest pretensions to being considered interesting during the hot evenings in these steamy latitudes is, as any one who has been in ‘em will inform you, almost a hopeless attempt.
I saw what I thought rather a good remark the other day in a letter (appended to the end of Frazer’s magazine for August, written by Mr. Helps, the author of that excellent work “Companions of My Solitude” and of “Friends in Council”). Talking about people corresponding with each other, he says that frequently “one begins with a certain amount of regard and affection for a person, of which one writes off small portions gradually, as one writes each enforced letter to him or her till at last though the beginnings and endings grow more intimate and affectionate, the original affection has wasted away.”
Isn’t it a horrible Rochefoucauldian statement? Not destitute, however, I suspect, of a great deal of foundation in many cases. Come – how much of the regard (if any) which you have for a fraternal cove have you written off by this time? Does some small portion of it remain, or do you regard me as a dismal and “inevitable bore?” Cool, isn’t it, to ask such an absurd question of a cove who takes the trouble to write such stunning, jolly, and very welcome letters every month? A thing she would not undoubtedly go through (I take it) were it not dictated and lessened by some amount of sisterly what’s-its-name. I can safely assert that Helps’ remark doesn’t apply in the least to me, as I find letter writing (especially a vous – to you) rather entertaining than otherwise, when the “object” of the letter ain’t hyper-critical, and when one has a careless knack of sticking down anything that suggests itself. The only thing that disgusts me is that I am obliged to confess after pouring our “sights” of words which “know no retiring ebb” but “keep due on,” that I haven’t put together two sentences worth anybody’s perusal. But look here, the fact is I’m too tired to do much in the way of writing, and am slightly put out by the fact of having to scribble away at a small table in this small room with a friendly cove within two feet of me who is painfully endeavouring to “get up” a letter for his amigos (friends) at home, and I have likewise the shadow of sundry letters which I have to write to individuals in Singapore hanging over me. Nevertheless, “I have some naked thoughts that rove about and loudly knock to have their passage out” and struck with the quaintness of the two lines from Milton, I place them at the head of this little epistle, although to say sooth I haven’t got the shadow of a thought in my head, and consequently feel no ideas knocking to obtain egress. Nevertheless, some dreamy, indistinct, half-thoughts I have, which lie buried in obscure cavities of my foolish head, from whence perhaps, they may presently issue forth full-fledged and strike up such an aimless droning, buzzing and boring that you will be glad in self-defense, to pitch this tinted papyrus to the four winds of heaven.
Meanwhile, while waiting in passive resignation to see whether it be decreed that this possible incubation of thoughts have any issue, I shall give you a few lines about my recent trip.
After a pleasant voyage of five hours, and great expense of aboriginal muscular power I reached these delightful solitudes at about half past five. The indigenous people of these parts being, I believe, totally unprovided with cannon, have failed to receive me with the noisy detonations which are usually de riguer for announcing the arrival of an individual of my rank and importance in a new neighbourhood. Some distant music which I have heard at intervals proceeding from an adjacent village is, no doubt, an expression of popular joy, and it is not improbable that various wildly unintelligible shouts which are uttered with considerable frequency by passing natives on foot and buffaloes, are also a mode of testifying the strength and uncontrolllableness of their enthusiasm, adopted, in the absence of other resources, by these rude and unlettered minds. At least, I can conjecture no other motive for the somewhat eccentric sounds. I am momentarily expecting a deputation of individuals of this district but as yet discover no signs of it. Perhaps the rain prevents ‘em or perhaps two individuals whom I perceive to be executing a frantic dance with a Chinese umbrella in the distance may be the heralds of the coming village magnates. Or perhaps with the fine tact and delicacy
“which are sooner found in lowly sheds
with smokey rafters than in tapestry halls
and courts of princes where they first were named
and yet are most pretended.”
they refrain from intruding on my solitude.
Of local news there is little to communicate; it may interest you to know that the household pig has attained enormous size, and has lost that brisk and juvenile air which distinguished him formerly. His personal appearance may now succinctly described as “heavy,” and like the pig mentioned by Sir F. Head, “he seems to be a great deal too fat to think of anything.” I thought he evidently recognized me with a look out of the angles of his eyes, accompanied by a friendly grunt, but he soon relapsed into his usual state of stolid and supine indifference. The big dog still exists and lives and moves, and has his being here – principally about the head of the stairs. He is, if possible, grimmer and growlier and more unsociably disposed than ever, and will, I fear, never be brought to assume a more friendly footing towards white men in general – possibly on account of the “unfriendly footings he has experienced from several of ‘em” – and he seems aware that Martin’s act does not extend its beneficial (sic) influence as far as this place. Anyhow the fact is to be deplored, as he may possess hidden qualities, which, under circumstances more favorable to their development, might render him a pleasant and agreeable companion.
I might enlarge upon the present state of the two Chinese ducks which afforded so bright an example of domestic and conjugal felicity, but am afraid the topic would not possess any thrilling interest.
Claudio, since the death of his wife, has removed his family to the village, and the “crying child nuisance” no longer exists. “The goat grievance” still appears to be in full force, but I am taking steps to obtain its Reform and Abolishment. The bath appears to be in capital order, although I believe it is not quite finished yet, some bamboo arrangements being wanting. I took an aquatic in it on the evening of my arrival, but the rain has since prevented a repetition of the deed.
It has been raining a good deal since my arrival in this vicinity, and the canopy above seems determined to dissolve itself altogether in water, but the country looks very pleasant “no obstante.”[i] Most of the mango trees are putting on new robes of green. The majority of the bamboos about here have acquired a yellowish-brownish hue which, however, is not an unpleasing feature in the landscape. The “paddy” grounds present the appearance of the cornfields at home, and in time the ripening grains spreads a light yellow tint over their wavy surfaces. Little clouds move slowly along the sides of the adjacent hills, spread out an arm or two, and loiter slowly drawn. I feel inclined to grasp a big stick and rush all about the country, but eheu! vetat regula – the rule forbiddeth, and I plunge instead into the pages of sundry metaphysical treatises, gazing at intervals longingly at the landscape
“Like one, whole days defrauded of his meals
On whom Gaunt Hunger lays her skinny hand,
And whets to keenest appetite his carvings.”
I am afeared I tire your patience with this long history. My excuse is that having nothing better to do I amuse myself by writing this nonsense. On any future occasion I will be “curst and brief.”
December 23rd. Well this is a state of things, here during the unearthly hours of the night, and no letter finished yet and vessel off tomorrow, and oceans of work before a fellow.
This evening what with a late dinner and general conversation with friends Mackay and Jackson (who have just taken themselves off – the one to his dormitory, and the other to his bed in this very room). I have had no moment whatever to add anything to this. However, here goes for an answer in a few brief moments to your very welcome letter of September 17th which I received last month. As I now run my eye over it I’ll just make a few remarks on its contents. At first about the uncertainty which you speak of as pervading your mind at that time with regard to my future movements. That uncertainty will have been in a great measure removed by the tenor of my subsequent dispatches, by which you will have perceived that “My voice is still for New Zealand,” if untoward circumstances don’t bring themselves forward.
Then you spoke of the lonely condition in which the absence of the accustomed inmates of the house had left you. I rapidly and deeply sympathize and pass swiftly on.
Well, then you make manifestations of your adaptabilities for a life ‘neath the greenwood tree. Those I shall take into due and careful consideration. You remark that I had not told you how I was sending my portrait. I intended sending it by Mr. Ker, who was supposed to be “going next month” ever so long ago, and ever so often. Now, however, he really is going, and the wonderful portrait lies before me now, in a little box, which I have not yet nailed down. In the box goes a little handkerchief or neckerchief which please hand over to Harriet with my love. It was sent to me by an old lady, to whom at the urgent entreaty of herself and imploring relatives, I lent a hundred dollars some time ago. The time for payment comes on next month, and I have little doubt that the money will be refunded with tremendous gratitude. There is also a little silver gilt reliquary from the Convent of Santa Clara[ii] which pray to give Sophy with the expression of my most distinguished fraternal esteem and consideration.
As for the portrait, were I required to furnish an epithet descriptive of it, I should say “glum” would be the word. It was taken at a time when I wasn’t very well, and during the operation the strong light bothered me, and the face has consequently the expression of a cove who, to use the old simile again, had lost a shilling and found a coin of inferior value – I was looking rather upwards at some object or other, and the position of the face gives the upper lip a length not appertaining to the original gent. I was also sitting on a very absurd chair, and the attitude of the figure is therefore stiff to a degree. The plate was spoiled by a big blotch over one arm and shoulder, which the daguerreotist only partially succeeded in removing, and there is consequently an unnatural look about me. I don’t like daguerreotypes. They don’t give the true expression of a fellow’s face, merely a dull facsimile of the flesh which forms it instead. Ker will either send the little box to you, or find out Lizzie at Southampton. Your remarks of a literary tendency had my careful attention and consideration. The extract from Y. Yendys is good – on your own lines I cannot present remark with the care they demand. The miscellaneous news which follows is interesting. I hope the new Ulysses will reach its destination without being run on any more rocks. I may hear something further regarding Bob by the mail expected in a few days from China. I am getting on here as well as I can, which isn’t the very best possible state of things. Ker was in here this evening, asking me all about when I was going to leave and that kind of thing. I allude to the one now going home, he is the partner in the houses at home, not the India ones. He has been here about two years and a half, is a cove with money left him by his parents who are dead. He has one sister and no brothers, is about 31 or 32 years of age, and an estimable cove.
December 24th. Office. Christmas Eve. Mr. Ker and all out letters are just off, I must reluctantly close without saying much that I had to say. Regards to Peter and Mary and Lizzie and everybody. I remain, dear Nanny,
Your very affectionate brother,