Sterne's ghost at the Hôtel d'Angleterre (1862)

Thackeray, William Makepeace
Original illustration from The Cornhill Magazine, Volume VI, 1862.


"They gave me a bedroom there; a very neat room on the first floor, looking into the pretty garden. The hotel must look pretty much as it did a hundred years ago when HE visited it. I wonder whether he paid his bill?"


I arrived by the night-mail packet from Dover. The passage had been rough, and the usual consequences had ensued. I was disinclined to travel farther that night on my road to Paris, and knew the Calais hotel of old as one of the cleanest, one of the dearest, one of the most comfortable hotels on the continent of Europe. There is no town more French than Calais. That charming old “Hotel Dessein,” with its court, its gardens, its lordly kitchen, its princely waiter—a gentleman of the old school, who has welcomed the finest company in Europe—have long been known to me. I have read complaints in The Times, more than once, I think, that the Dessein bills are dear. A bottle of soda-water certainly costs—well, never mind how much. I remember as a boy, at the “Ship” at Dover (imperante Carolo Decimo), when, my place to London being paid, I had but 12s. left after a certain little Paris excursion (about which my benighted parents never knew anything), ordering for dinner a whiting, a beefsteak, and a glass of negus, and the bill was, dinner 7s., glass of negus 2s., waiter 6d., and only half a crown left, as I was a sinner, for the guard and coachman on the way to London! And I WAS a sinner. I had gone without leave. What a long, dreary, guilty forty hours' journey it was from Paris to Calais, I remember! How did I come to think of this escapade, which occurred in the Easter vacation of the year 1830? I always think of it when I am crossing to Calais. Guilt, sir, guilt remains stamped on the memory, and I feel easier in my mind now that it is liberated of this old peccadillo. I met my college tutor only yesterday. We were travelling, and stopped at the same hotel. He had the very next room to mine. After he had gone into his apartment, having shaken me quite kindly by the hand, I felt inclined to knock at his door and say, “Doctor Bentley, I beg your pardon, but do you remember, when I was going down at the Easter vacation in 1830, you asked me where I was going to spend my vacation? And I said, With my friend Slingsby, in Huntingdonshire. Well, sir, I grieve to have to confess that I told you a fib. I had got 20L. and was going for a lark to Paris, where my friend Edwards was staying.” There, it is out. The Doctor will read it, for I did not wake him up after all to make my confession, but protest he shall have a copy of this Roundabout sent to him when he returns to his lodge.

They gave me a bedroom there; a very neat room on the first floor, looking into the pretty garden. The hotel must look pretty much as it did a hundred years ago when HE visited it. I wonder whether he paid his bill? Yes: his journey was just begun. He had borrowed or got the money somehow. Such a man would spend it liberally enough when he had it, give generously—nay, drop a tear over the fate of the poor fellow whom he relieved. I don't believe a word he says, but I never accused him of stinginess about money. That is a fault of much more virtuous people than he. Mr. Laurence is ready enough with his purse when there are anybody's guineas in it. Still when I went to bed in the room, in HIS room; when I think how I admire, dislike, and have abused him, a certain dim feeling of apprehension filled my mind at the midnight hour. What if I should see his lean figure in the black-satin breeches, his sinister smile, his long thin finger pointing to me in the moonlight (for I am in bed, and have popped my candle out), and he should say, “You mistrust me, you hate me, do you? And you, don't you know how Jack, Tom, and Harry, your brother authors, hate YOU?” I grin and laugh in the moonlight, in the midnight, in the silence. “O you ghost in black-satin breeches and a wig! I like to be hated by some men,” I say. “I know men whose lives are a scheme, whose laughter is a conspiracy, whose smile means something else, whose hatred is a cloak, and I had rather these men should hate me than not.”

“My good sir,” says he, with a ghastly grin on his lean face, “you have your wish.”

“Apres?” I say. “Please let me go to sleep. I shan't sleep any the worse because—”

“Because there are insects in the bed, and they sting you?” (This is only by way of illustration, my good sir; the animals don't bite me now. All the house at present seems to me excellently clean.) “'Tis absurd to affect this indifference. If you are thin-skinned, and the reptiles bite, they keep you from sleep.”

“There are some men who cry out at a flea-bite as loud as if they were torn by a vulture,” I growl.

“Men of the genus irritabile, my worthy good gentleman!—and you are one.”

“Yes, sir, I am of the profession, as you say; and I dare say make a great shouting and crying at a small hurt.”

“You are ashamed of that quality by which you earn your subsistence, and such reputation as you have? Your sensibility is your livelihood, my worthy friend. You feel a pang of pleasure or pain? It is noted in your memory, and some day or other makes its appearance in your manuscript. Why, in your last Roundabout rubbish you mention reading your first novel on the day when King George IV. was crowned. I remember him in his cradle at St. James's, a lovely little babe; a gilt Chinese railing was before him, and I dropped the tear of sensibility as I gazed on the sleeping cherub.”

“A tear—a fiddlestick, MR. STERNE,” I growled out, for of course I knew my friend in the wig and satin breeches to be no other than the notorious, nay, celebrated Mr. Laurence Sterne.

“Does not the sight of a beautiful infant charm and melt you, mon ami? If not, I pity you. Yes, he was beautiful. I was in London the year he was born. I used to breakfast at the 'Mount Coffee-house.' I did not become the fashion until two years later, when my 'Tristram' made his appearance, who has held his own for a hundred years. By the way, mon bon monsieur, how many authors of your present time will last till the next century? Do you think Brown will?”

I laughed with scorn as I lay in my bed (and so did the ghost give a ghastly snigger).

“Brown!” I roared. “One of the most over-rated men that ever put pen to paper!”

“What do you think of Jones?”

I grew indignant with this old cynic. “As a reasonable ghost, come out of the other world, you don't mean,” I said, “to ask me a serious opinion of Mr. Jones? His books may be very good reading for maid-servants and school-boys, but you don't ask ME to read them? As a scholar yourself you must know that—”

“Well, then, Robinson?”

“Robinson, I am told, has merit. I dare say; I never have been able to read his books, and can't, therefore, form any opinion about Mr. Robinson. At least you will allow that I am not speaking in a prejudiced manner about HIM.”

“Ah! I see you men of letters have your cabals and jealousies, as we had in my time. There was an Irish fellow by the name of Gouldsmith, who used to abuse me; but he went into no genteel company—and faith! it mattered little, his praise or abuse. I never was more surprised than when I heard that Mr. Irving, an American gentleman of parts and elegance, had wrote the fellow's life. To make a hero of that man, my dear sir, 'twas ridiculous! You followed in the fashion, I hear, and chose to lay a wreath before this queer little idol. Preposterous! A pretty writer, who has turned some neat couplets. Bah! I have no patience with Master Posterity, that has chosen to take up this fellow, and make a hero of him! And there was another gentleman of my time, Mr. Thiefcatcher Fielding, forsooth! a fellow with the strength, and the tastes, and the manners of a porter! What madness has possessed you all to bow before that Calvert Butt of a man?—a creature without elegance or sensibility! The dog had spirits, certainly. I remember my Lord Bathurst praising them: but as for reading his books—ma foi, I would as lief go and dive for tripe in a cellar. The man's vulgarity stifles me. He wafts me whiffs of gin. Tobacco and onions are in his great coarse laugh, which choke me, pardi; and I don't think much better of the other fellow—the Scots' gallipot purveyor—Peregrine Clinker, Humphrey Random—how did the fellow call his rubbish? Neither of these men had the bel air, the bon ton, the je ne scais quoy. Pah! If I meet them in my walks by our Stygian river, I give them a wide berth, as that hybrid apothecary fellow would say. An ounce of civet, good apothecary; horrible, horrible! The mere thought of the coarseness of those men gives me the chair de poule. Mr. Fielding, especially, has no more sensibility than a butcher in Fleet Market. He takes his heroes out of ale-house kitchens, or worse places still. And this is the person whom Posterity has chosen to honor along with me—ME! Faith, Monsieur Posterity, you have put me in pretty company, and I see you are no wiser than we were in our time. Mr. Fielding, forsooth! Mr. Tripe and Onions! Mr. Cowheel and Gin! Thank you for nothing. Monsieur Posterity!”

“And so,” thought I, “even among these Stygians this envy and quarrelsomeness (if you will permit me the word) survive? What a pitiful meanness! To be sure, I can understand this feeling to a certain extent; a sense of justice will prompt it. In my own case, I often feel myself forced to protest against the absurd praises lavished on contemporaries. Yesterday, for instance, Lady Jones was good enough to praise one of my works. Tres bien. But in the very next minute she began, with quite as great enthusiasm, to praise Miss Hobson's last romance. My good creature, what is that woman's praise worth who absolutely admires the writings of Miss Hobson? I offer a friend a bottle of '44 claret, fit for a pontifical supper. 'This is capital wine,' says he; 'and now we have finished the bottle, will you give me a bottle of that ordinaire we drank the other day?' Very well, my good man. You are a good judge—of ordinaire, I dare say. Nothing so provokes my anger, and rouses my sense of justice, as to hear other men undeservedly praised. In a word, if you wish to remain friends with me, don't praise anybody. You tell me that the Venus de' Medici is beautiful, or Jacob Omnium is tall. Que diable! Can't I judge for myself? Haven't I eyes and a foot-rule? I don't think the Venus IS so handsome, since you press me. She is pretty, but she has no expression. And as for Mr. Omnium, I can see much taller men in a fair for twopence.”

“And so,” I said, turning round to Mr. Sterne, “you are actually jealous of Mr. Fielding? O you men of letters, you men of letters! Is not the world (your world, I mean) big enough for all of you?”

I often travel in my sleep. I often of a night find myself walking in my night-gown about the gray streets. It is awkward at first, but somehow nobody makes any remark. I glide along over the ground with my naked feet. The mud does not wet them. The passers-by do not tread on them. I am wafted over the ground, down the stairs, through the doors. This sort of travelling, dear friends, I am sure you have all of you indulged.

Well, on the night in question (and, if you wish to know the precise date, it was the 31st of September last), after having some little conversation with Mr. Sterne in our bedroom, I must have got up, though I protest I don't know how, and come down stairs with him into the coffee-room of the “Hotel Dessein,” where the moon was shining, and a cold supper was laid out. I forget what we had—“vol-au-vent d'oeufs de Phenix—agneau aux pistaches a la Barmecide,”—what matters what we had?

“As regards supper this is certain, the less you have of it the better.”

That is what one of the guests remarked,—a shabby old man, in a wig, and such a dirty, ragged, disreputable dressing-gown that I should have been quite surprised at him, only one never IS surprised in dr—— under certain circumstances.

“I can't eat 'em now,” said the greasy man (with his false old teeth, I wonder he could eat anything). “I remember Alvanley eating three suppers once at Carlton House—one night de petite comite.”

“Petit comite, sir,” said Mr. Sterne.

“Dammy, sir, let me tell my own story my own way. I say, one night at Carlton house, playing at blind hookey with York, Wales, Tom Raikes, Prince Boothby, and Dutch Sam the boxer, Alvanley ate three suppers, and won three and twenty hundred pounds in ponies. Never saw a fellow with such an appetite, except Wales in his GOOD time. But he destroyed the finest digestion a man ever had with maraschino, by Jove—always at it.”

“Try mine,” said Mr. Sterne.

“What a doosid queer box,” says Mr. Brummell.

“I had it from a Capuchin friar in this town. The box is but a horn one; but to the nose of sensibility Araby's perfume is not more delicate.”

“I call it doosid stale old rappee,” says Mr. Brummell—(as for me I declare I could not smell anything at all in either of the boxes.) “Old boy in smock-frock, take a pinch?”

The old boy in the smock-frock, as Mr. Brummell called him, was a very old man, with long white beard, wearing, not a smock-frock, but a shirt; and he had actually nothing else save a rope round his neck, which hung behind his chair in the queerest way.

“Fair sir,” he said, turning to Mr. Brummell, “when the Prince of Wales and his father laid siege to our town—”

“What nonsense are you talking, old cock?” says Mr. Brummell; “Wales was never here. His late Majesty George IV. passed through on his way to Hanover. My good man, you don't seem to know what's up at all. What is he talkin' about the siege of Calais? I lived here fifteen years! Ought to know. What's his old name?”

“I am Master Eustace of Saint Peter's,” said the old gentleman in the shirt. “When my Lord King Edward laid siege to this city—”

“Laid siege to Jericho!” cries Mr. Brummell. “The old man is cracked—cracked, sir!”

“—Laid siege to this city,” continued the old man, “I and five more promised Messire Gautier de Mauny that we would give ourselves up as ransom for the place. And we came before our Lord King Edward, attired as you see, and the fair queen begged our lives out of her gramercy.”

“Queen, nonsense! you mean the Princess of Wales—pretty woman, petit nez retrousse, grew monstrous stout!” suggested Mr. Brummell, whose reading was evidently not extensive. “Sir Sidney Smith was a fine fellow, great talker, hook nose, so has Lord Cochrane, so has Lord Wellington. She was very sweet on Sir Sidney.”

“Your acquaintance with the history of Calais does not seem to be considerable,” said Mr. Sterne to Mr. Brummell, with a shrug.

“Don't it, bishop?—for I conclude you are a bishop by your wig. I know Calais as well as any man. I lived here for years before I took that confounded consulate at Caen. Lived in this hotel, then at Leleux's. People used to stop here. Good fellows used to ask for poor George Brummell; Hertford did, so did the Duchess of Devonshire. Not know Calais indeed! That is a good joke. Had many a good dinner here: sorry I ever left it.”

“My Lord King Edward,” chirped the queer old gentleman in the shirt, “colonized the place with his English, after we had yielded it up to him. I have heard tell they kept it for nigh three hundred years, till my Lord de Guise took it from a fair Queen, Mary of blessed memory, a holy woman. Eh, but Sire Gautier of Mauny was a good knight, a valiant captain, gentle and courteous withal! Do you remember his ransoming the ——?”

“What is the old fellow twaddlin' about?” cries Brummell. “He is talking about some knight?—I never spoke to a knight, and very seldom to a baronet. Firkins, my butterman, was a knight—a knight and alderman. Wales knighted him once on going into the City.”

“I am not surprised that the gentleman should not understand Messire Eustace of St. Peter's,” said the ghostly individual addressed as Mr. Sterne. “Your reading doubtless has not been very extensive?”

“Dammy, sir, speak for yourself!” cries Mr. Brummell, testily. “I never professed to be a reading man, but I was as good as my neighbors. Wales wasn't a reading man; York wasn't a reading man; Clarence wasn't a reading man; Sussex was, but he wasn't a man in society. I remember reading your 'Sentimental Journey,' old boy: read it to the Duchess at Beauvoir, I recollect, and she cried over it. Doosid clever amusing book, and does you great credit. Birron wrote doosid clever books, too; so did Monk Lewis. George Spencer was an elegant poet, and my dear Duchess of Devonshire, if she had not been a grande dame, would have beat 'em all, by George. Wales couldn't write: he could sing, but he couldn't spell.”

“Ah, you know the great world? so did I in my time, Mr. Brummell. I have had the visiting tickets of half the nobility at my lodgings in Bond Street. But they left me there no more cared for than last year's calendar,” sighed Mr. Sterne. “I wonder who is the mode in London now? One of our late arrivals, my Lord Macaulay, has prodigious merit and learning, and, faith, his histories are more amusing than any novels, my own included.”

“Don't know, I'm sure not in my line. Pick this bone of chicken,” says Mr. Brummell, trifling with a skeleton bird before him.

“I remember in this city of Calais worse fare than you bird,” said old Mr. Eustace of Saint Peter's. “Marry, sirs, when my Lord King Edward laid siege to us, lucky was he who could get a slice of horse for his breakfast, and a rat was sold at the price of a hare.”

“Hare is coarse food, never tasted rat,” remarked the Beau. “Table-d'hote poor fare enough for a man like me, who has been accustomed to the best of cookery. But rat—stifle me! I couldn't swallow that: never could bear hardship at all.”

“We had to bear enough when my Lord of England pressed us. 'Twas pitiful to see the faces of our women as the siege went on, and hear the little ones asking for dinner.”

“Always a bore, children. At dessert, they are bad enough, but at dinner they're the deuce and all,” remarked Mr. Brummell.

Messire Eustace of St. Peter's did not seem to pay much attention to the Beau's remarks, but continued his own train of thought as old men will do.

“I hear,” said he, “that there has actually been no war between us of France and you men of England for wellnigh fifty year. Ours has ever been a nation of warriors. And besides her regular found men-at-arms, 'tis said the English of the present time have more than a hundred thousand of archers with weapons that will carry for half a mile. And a multitude have come amongst us of late from a great Western country, never so much as heard of in my time—valiant men and great drawers of the long bow, and they say they have ships in armor that no shot can penetrate. Is it so? Wonderful; wonderful! The best armor, gossips, is a stout heart.”

“And if ever manly heart beat under shirt-frill, thine is that heart, Sir Eustace!” cried Mr. Sterne, enthusiastically.

“We, of France, were never accused of lack of courage, sir, in so far as I know,” said Messire Eustace. “We have shown as much in a thousand wars with you English by sea and land; and sometimes we conquered, and sometimes, as is the fortune of war, we were discomfited. And notably in a great sea-fight which befell off Ushant on the first of June — Our Admiral, messire Villaret de Joyeuse, on board his galleon named the 'Vengeur,' being sore pressed by an English bombard, rather than yield the crew of his ship to mercy, determined to go down with all on board of her: and to the cry of Vive la Repub—or, I would say, of Notre Dame a la Rescousse, he and his crew all sank to an immortal grave—”

“Sir,” said I, looking with amazement at the old gentleman, “surely, surely, there is some mistake in your statement. Permit me to observe that the action of the first of June took place five hundred years after your time, and—”

“Perhaps I am confusing my dates,” said the old gentleman, with a faint blush. “You say I am mixing up the transactions of my time on earth with the story of my successors? It may be so. We take no count of a few centuries more or less in our dwelling by the darkling Stygian river. Of late, there came amongst us a good knight, Messire de Cambronne, who fought against you English in the country of Flanders, being captain of the guard of my Lord the King of France, in a famous battle where you English would have been utterly routed but for the succor of the Prussian heathen. This Messire de Cambronne, when bidden to yield by you of England, answered this, 'The guard dies but never surrenders;' and fought a long time afterwards, as became a good knight. In our wars with you of England it may have pleased the Fates to give you the greater success, but on our side, also, there has been no lack of brave deeds performed by brave men.”

“King Edward may have been the victor, sir, as being the strongest, but you are the hero of the siege of Calais!” cried Mr. Sterne. “Your story is sacred, and your name has been blessed for five hundred years. Wherever men speak of patriotism and sacrifice, Eustace of Saint Pierre shall be beloved and remembered. I prostrate myself before the bare feet which stood before King Edward. What collar of chivalry is to be compared to that glorious order which you wear? Think, sir, how out of the myriad millions of our race, you, and some few more, stand forth as exemplars of duty and honor. Fortunati nimium!”

“Sir,” said the old gentleman, “I did but my duty at a painful moment; and 'tis matter of wonder to me that men talk still, and glorify such a trifling matter. By our Lady's grace, in the fair kingdom of France, there are scores of thousands of men, gentle and simple, who would do as I did. Does not every sentinel at his post, does not every archer in the front of battle, brave it, and die where his captain bids him? Who am I that I should be chosen out of all France to be an example of fortitude? I braved no tortures, though these I trust I would have endured with a good heart. I was subject to threats only. Who was the Roman knight of whom the Latin clerk Horatius tells?”

“A Latin clerk? Faith, I forget my Latin,” says Mr. Brummell. “Ask the parson, here.”

“Messire Regulus, I remember, was his name. Taken prisoner by the Saracens, he gave his knightly word, and was permitted to go seek a ransom among his own people. Being unable to raise the sum that was a fitting ransom for such a knight, he returned to Afric, and cheerfully submitted to the tortures which the Paynims inflicted. And 'tis said he took leave of his friends as gayly as though he were going to a vilage kermes, or riding to his garden house in the suburb of the city.”

“Great, good, glorious man!” cried Mr. Sterne, very much moved. “Let me embrace that gallant hand, and bedew it with my tears! As long as honor lasts thy name shall be remembered. See this dew-drop twinkling on my check! 'Tis the sparkling tribute that Sensibility pays to Valor. Though in my life and practice I may turn from Virtue, believe me, I never have ceased to honor her! Ah, Virtue! Ah, Sensibility! Oh—”

Here Mr. Sterne was interrupted by a monk of the Order of St. Francis, who stepped into the room, and begged us all to take a pinch of his famous old rappee. I suppose the snuff was very pungent, for, with a great start, I woke up; and now perceived that I must have been dreaming altogether. “Dessein's” of now-a-days is not the “Dessein's” which Mr. Sterne, and Mr. Brummell, and I recollect in the good old times. The town of Calais has bought the old hotel, and “Dessein” has gone over to “Quillacq's.” And I was there yesterday. And I remember old diligences, and old postilions in pigtails and jack-boots, who were once as alive as I am, and whose cracking whips I have heard in the midnight many and many a time. Now, where are they? Behold they have been ferried over Styx, and have passed away into limbo.

I wonder what time does my boat go? Ah! Here comes the waiter bringing me my little bill.


Taken from William Makepeace Thackeray, Roundabout Papers, No. 26. Dessein's. (This extract first published in the Cornhill Magazine, Volume VI, 1862). Full text at Project Gutenberg.