Here to return to
I TRUST it will not be thought inappropriate to the allusion already made to our reading circles, if I here insert a jeu d’esprit, the production of one of the members, indicating a certain forwardness in the sphere of literary investigation, and affording a plausible solution of a literary problem, which had been so long shrouded in mystery, namely, the true narrative of “Old Grouse in the Gun-room.”
This is the name of the story to which Goldsmith alludes in his comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer.” Mr. Hardcastle, the host of the occasion, in preparation for the dinner he is about to give his guests, charges his rustic servants that if he should say a good thing at the table, they are not to burst out laughing, as if they were a part of the company to be entertained. Diggory, thereupon replies to his master, — “Then, ecod, your worship must not tell the story of ‘Ould Grouse in the Gun-room.’ I can’t help laughing at that — he! he! he! — for the soul of me. We have laughed at that these twenty years — ha! ha! ha!” Mr. Hardcastle admits, that this pet narrative of his may properly be considered an exceptional case. On the other hand, it has uniformly foiled the researches of critics and commentators to ascertain what this story really was which “Squire Hard-castle,” in the exuberance of his own enjoyment of it, gave them the liberty to laugh at, if they liked. It has been generally supposed, indeed, that the story itself was, in fact, non-existent, and that the ingenious author of the play merely invented the title in order to show off the uncouth peculiarities which it was his object to display.
Now, it so happens, that the means are not wanting for the solution of this mystery, and in illustration of the life of a writer and a man so interesting as Goldsmith, I am glad to be able to clear up the critical embarrassment. Years ago, the writer of this article fell by chance into the company of Miss Goldsmith, grandniece of Mrs. Johnson, who was housekeeper of old Mr. Featherston, of County Kerry, Ireland. She knew the story in question very well, and it is gratifying to be able to verify the authenticity of the allusion of a great poet and writer in general, of whom Dr. Johnson has said, in those familiar words in his epitaph, that he touched nothing which he did not adorn, and whose character has been very much misunderstood, chiefly by reason of the misrepresentations of Boswell. This parasite of Johnson, who has given us one of the most entertaining books of biography ever written, was jealous not only of Goldsmith’s literary reputation, so far as it might rival that of his special idol, but also of the real hold which Goldsmith, because of his simplicity as well as his genius, had upon the affections of the great moralist. While he was himself admitted to the high literary society which he frequented, on terms of sufferance chiefly, Boswell took every pains to disparage poor Goldsmith. The poet, whose writings possess a charm so seldom paralleled, it must be allowed, gave no little occasion for depreciation, by his want of firmness of character; and Boswell maliciously set forth all his singularities and weaknesses in the most ludicrous point of view. Whoever will take pains, however, to read his delightful “Life “by John Forster, will find the general impressions on the subject very materially corrected, and will see, that, if the hard-driven bard had many faults, he had also many virtues, which, as Lord Bacon remarks, is “the posy of the best characters.”
But to the veritable story of “Old Grouse in the Gun-room.” It seems, according to the narrative of Mrs. Johnson, that the family of Mr. Featherston were seated at the tea-table, at the close of a chilly day, a bright fire blazing on the hearth, and the servants, as usual, being in attendance. On a sudden, a tremendous crash was heard in a distant part of the ancient mansion, followed by a succession of wails of the most lugubrious and unearthly character, which reverberated through the echoing passage-ways of the house. Whatever the cause of the sounds might be, there was no doubt they were of the most horrifying description. The family, consisting of the ‘Squire, a maiden sister, and one or two younger persons, jumped from their seats in the utmost consternation, while Patrick and the rest of the domestics rushed from the room in a state of terror more easily to be conceived than described, and huddled together in the kitchen, as far as possible from the occasion of their fright.
Imagine a lonely country-house, a quiet and well-ordered family seated at their evening meal, after dark, of a somewhat gloomy day, the apartment imperfectly lighted by the glowing fire, and according to such conveniences for the purpose as old times ordinarily afforded; the conversation, perhaps, turning on such unexciting topics as the weather, past, present, and to come, or the thoughts reverting, it may be, to such mundane topics as the expected game of whist or backgammon, — and the scene suddenly broken in upon by the most startling and terrific sounds, which seemed to result from no intelligible cause, and for which it seemed impossible to account by reference to any merely human agency. The young folks, after their first scream of terror, sat dumb, pale, and utterly helpless.
“It’s the Banshee!” screamed Aunt Nelly, sinking back, in a faint, into her chair.
“It’s the devil, I believe,” cried the ’Squire, who, notwithstanding age and infirmity, retained a good deal of that original pluck, which had formerly distinguished him as an officer in his Majesty’s military service. “Yes, it is the devil, I verily believe; and there is no way but to send for the priest, to get him out of a house that never was troubled in this way before. Where are those sneaking curs?” as Patrick and the rest in a body peeped into the room through the door they had forgotten to shut in their flight, and too much frightened to stay quietly anywhere. “Patrick,” called out the ’Squire, “go at once for Father O’Flaherty.”
At this moment, another preternatural yell, long-toned and of the most mournful cadence, burst upon their ears, and the dismayed servants fairly tumbled over each other and sprawled and scrambled through the passage, in their haste to get away. The ‘Squire followed and ordered Patrick forthwith to mount Sorrel and hasten for the priest, at the village, a mile or more away.
“O Lord! your worship,” cried that valiant man-of-all-work, — though aided in the day-time by two or three assistants from the village, — “O Lord! your worship! only ask me anything but that “— as, of course, on such occasions people are ready to do all but the very thing which the exigency demands, — “O Lord! your worship’s honor! I couldn’t for the world go round that corner of the house, to get to the stable; but if Nancy here — now Nancy, darlint, I know you will, honey — if she’ll only go with me, I’ll run for his reverence as fast as my poor legs, that’s all of a tremble, will carry me” — shrewdly reflecting, as did Nancy also, that the farther they left the house behind, they left the danger, too. This affair being hastily arranged, as the two ready messengers proceeded towards the door, a quick step was heard upon the gravel, followed by an emphatic knock, and the embodied household fell back with renewed trepidation; when fortunately who should it be but Father O’Flaherty himself, who found the ‘Squire, his family, and servants all huddled together in the hall.
“Good-evening to you, ’Squire,” said he; “and faix, what is the matter that you all look so pale? The holy saints forbid that any ill luck has come to this house!”
Again, rang echoing through the open doors and empty rooms the same portentous sound, rendered none the less terrific that its tones were partly subdued by distance. “Holy Father!” exclaimed the priest, crossing himself — “what is that? Has Satan dared to cross this blessed threshold?”
Upon this, half a dozen tongues began to relate the circumstances of terrors only too manifest; but Mr. Featherston silenced them, and proposed to Father O’Flaherty to accompany him to the investigation of the mystery. Accordingly they solemnly proceeded towards the scene of alarm, the ’Squire having provided himself with a long-disused sword which hung over his mantel-piece, and the priest, more spiritually, brandishing his cross, and muttering “Vade retro, Satanas!” and such other exorcisms as occurred to him on the way. The whole body of the inmates of the mansion followed, closely though tremulously, upon the footsteps of the advanced guard, and, indeed, afraid to be left behind. As they reached the neighborhood of the door, whence the sounds appeared to come, there was a truly awful noise of scampering round the room and pattering, as it were, within.
“The saints defend us!” cried the priest, falling back, as this new demonstration was responded to by the screams of the females, who sank to the floor, in the extremity of their terror, when another horrible yell sounded close at hand.
“It’s he, I verily believe,” said the priest; “the holy saints be about us! It’s he, I wager. Lord, forgive us! for I heard the sound of his hoofs. But where’s the dog?”
“The dog!” cried the ’Squire. “Why didn’t I think of that before! Open the door, I say, Pat, you cowardly vagabond!”
At this instant, there was a tremendous bounce against the door, which forced the latch, and out tumbled Old Grouse, capering among the party, who still screamed and scattered out of his way, not yet convinced that the Evil One was not loosed and bodily among them.
The relieved household at length returned to their interrupted avocations, and Pat declared to the folks in the kitchen, that all the while he knew it was the dog, only he kept up the fright for the sake of the joke. It seemed that the ’Squire had been out with his gun that day, and had shut the big dog which accompanied him into the gun-room, upon his return. The dog, no doubt fatigued with his excursion, had stretched himself out in a corner of the room, where various articles tending to his comfort lay disposed. He had remained, until tired of his confinement he had risen, and fumbling about had thrown down an ancient heavy shield, which produced the first cause of alarm, no less to himself than to the household. The moon shining through the window had attracted his attention, and he began to bay, as dogs sometimes will. The sudden fright, and the distance of the gun-room from the family apartment, served to modify the intonation, and in his confusion of mind Mr. Featherston failed to recognize his voice. “Indeed,” said he, “I never knew the whelp to bay before.”
As time wore on, and the story had often been told by him, it lost none of its original features, except, perhaps, the remembrance of his own agitation. But the fright of the family and his domestics, the assent of the priest to their superstitious fears, and the mortal terror which overwhelmed them, when out bounded the shaggy black monster of a dog and in an instant was pawing them all round, in his ecstasy of escape, and whatever else was ludicrous in the adventure, was oftentimes related by the ’Squire, with all the aid it could derive from a somewhat lively imagination and considerable power of native eloquence.
And now, if I have only invented this story of “Old Grouse in the Gun-room,” for the entertainment of my readers, I have at least attached a tale, which may be thought to have some plausibility, to a famous title, which has run through the world, for so many years, without any tale at all.