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MY UNCLE AND HIS BEQUEST.
Kindest and best of uncles, why did you die? But, oh! most heartless, inconsiderate, unfeeling, and cruel, why make your unoffend. ing nephew, miserable me, your residuary legatee? What had I ever done to displease you, what omitted to propitiate, that you should walk out of the world bequeathing nothing but your plate, furniture and wearingapparel, your watch and your gold-rimmed spectacles to your faithful, devotedly-attached, and long-tried housekeeper, Mrs. Martha Snatchit; and to me all else that should remain, whether in bills or bonds, in shares in mining or other speculations; in ready money in your banker's hands, or elsewhere; in annuities, short or long; or in the three per cents., five per cents., or, in short, any manner of per cents. whatsoever? I do not complain that out of this I was held liable to pay all just debts owing by you, my dear uncle: I am neither ungrateful nor rapacious: besides, on the other hand, I was to receive all debts that might be due to you—a fair set off; but oh!
But that the cruelty of my uncle's kindness may be thoroughly understood, it will be better that I should begin at the beginning.
Now, by the threat of beginning at the beginning, I mean not that this narrative should commence at or about the period of the Deluge, though (led by many good examples) the narrator himself being a, if not the, principal figure in it, it fairly might--a little bit of genealogy, moreover, being to be done: relinquishing also the privilege frequently assumed by historians, biographers, and autobiographers, it shall even overleap those centuries upon centuries in which history is obscured by the mists of fiction, and modestly come at once to the common and compulsory starting point—that point below which no chronicler possessing a grain of respect, either for himself or his subject, would condescend the year 1066, when England was conquered by William of Normandy.
To begin, then.-Amongst the bravest and most renowned of the followers of the Conqueror was Gualtier, Comte de la Higue. Nine times in the battle of Hastings was William borne down and overpowered by numbers, and nine times did the gallant Gualtier, dealing death and destruction around him, bear him off unhurt, himself being grievously wounded by eleven sword-thrusts, and carrying in his brave bosom twoand-twenty arrows—a fact not noticed by any English historian. For this service did his grateful master bestow upon him certain lands in Sussex, a portion of which to this day is known as De la Higue's, or (more commonly, perhaps), Higs's Farm. Shortly after the conquest, the noble Comte de la Higue espoused the illustrious princess JoanneUrsuline-Esmeralda, great-great-great-great-grandaughter of Phili. bert II., King of France, from which splendid alliance there de. scended
my grandfather, Ephraim Higs, born in the parish of Squashery, co. Sussex, 22 November, 1742.
Now here have we taken nearly seven centuries at a tlying leap! an example of abstinence scarcely to be paralleled in the annals of book
making. But let imitators beware: great geniuses may indulge in such vagaries; but, should the example be incautiously followed, many a very big book might dwindle down into a very little one, greatly to the detriment of authors, publishers, and, more especially, readers.
My grandfather-To confess the truth, I could, in addition to this “ wonderful flying leap," as Ducrow would call it, hop over my grandfather, and my story be nothing the worse for the omission ; but one must begin somewhere, so we will e'en begin with him.
My grandfather, Ephraim Higs, was a farmer upon a moderate scale, in Sussex. Early in life he married the curate of Squashery's daughter, who, in course of time, presented him with two-and-twenty children. This happened prior to the sublime invention of that great benefactor to society, Dr. Jenner, for peopling the antipodes with convicts and colonists; or, had things gone on at the same rate, all living and marrying, as doubtless they would have done, the Higses would, by this time, have been more than the parish of Squashery could conveniently hold. As it was, the smallpox provided for seventeen of them-how else they could have been so well provided for it would have puzzled my grandfather himself to tell— leaving five, two boys and three girls, to be brought up and“ done for.” At proper ages, the girls were, each, with a small portion, married, one to the apothecary of the place, one to a maltster, the other to a respectable tradesman at Horsham. Of the two boys, the elder was my father, Jonathan; the second, my uncle Tobias—the cruel uncle in question. At the age of eighteen, the latter, with two hundred pounds in his pocket-all he ever was to expect from Mr. Ephraim Higs—was consigned to the care of a corn-factor in London, under whose guidance he was peremptorily ordered to make his fortune; whilst Jonathan was retained at the farm, which he, as the elder son, was to inherit. And in his seventy-second year, my grandfather having, as it has been shown, and as was most likely the case, done every thing in this world which he had been sent into it to do, went to join my grandmother in the other.
Now, there is the “ Life of my Grandfather"-as compact a piece of biography as any that has been given to the admiring world within the present century. Yet, concerning this small Sussex farmer I might, had I been so minded, have filled two, three, or even four, portly volumes, by the simple expedient of inventing the requisite number of interesting facts, and collecting, or concocting, a sufficient quantity of uninteresting letters. As it is, I have told the world all it can care to know about him ; for the which kind consideration I am sure the world, if it will but'speak out, will contess itself very much obliged to me.
Shortly after his accession to the De la Higue property, Mr. Jonathan Higs married Miss Aurelia Ferret, the eldest daughter of the attorney of the little town of Squashery. This lady having been educated at a genteel boarding school, and taught, amongst other accomplishments, to speak French, which she did in such a manner as even to astonish the matives, and to play upon the pianoforte with such skill, that it was scarcely possible for any but the most ignorant of matters musical, to doubt whether she intended the tune she was playing, for “God save the King," or the “ College Hornpipe;"-with such advantages, it is not to be wondered at that Miss Aurelia Ferret should set up for a fine lady. Now, however opinions may differ as to the prudence of a
country curate with seventy pounds a year, who should take a fine lady for his wife; or of a country apothecary with even half as much again, who should do the like; or, indeed, of any body, in any station whatsoever, who should marry a would-be fine lady; certain it is (for the result proved it) that my father did not act with the wisdom of à Solomon when he led out Miss Ferret as his partner in the dance of life.
It is a commonly-received opinion, that in proportion as Providence sends mouths it sends wherewithal to provide for them; but this opinion, it must be remembered, is more especially maintained and promoted by obstetric professors and monthly nurses, who have all a direct interest in promulgating it: the more mouths that are brought into the world the better for them; and I would not advise any young pair of lovers to marry upon the strength of that alluring notion, unless they had the means both present and prospective of meeting it at least halfway. The experiment was tried in my father's family and proved to be a signal failure. At the end of twelve years my mother had blessed him with fourteen children, who not only brought fourteen mouths into the world, but, unlike the considerate and far greater portion of the progeny of her predecessor, seemed resolutely bent upon keeping them there, and employing them, too, with untiring industry. My grandmother is said to have been a good housewife; she brought up her family in a manner becoming their station; and they were all-in one way or anothercomfortably provided for. With my mother the case in both instances was different: she had a soul superior to vulgar household cares; the children were allowed to run as wild as colts; every thing went to rack and ruin; and, speedily, nothing more of the De la Higue property remained to us the descendants of the illustrious Comte Gualtier, than if the conqueror had allowed his eminent services to pass altogether unrewarded.
Having treated briefly of the life of my grandfather, it would scarcely be respectful to his memory were I to be more particular concerning his immediate successor.
Suffice it, then, to say
father and mother died within a short period of each other, and that the children were disposed of, some in one way, some another, but in no manner material to this story, whilst I But I being the hero of my own tale, I cannot becomingly make my appearance at the end of a paragraph-I must start with a new one.
Of my father's fourteen children I was the youngest. The reason of this is, as I take it to be, that, with a diffidence which has accompanied me through life, I was unwilling to thrust myself precipitately into the world, to the displeasure, perhaps, of my brothers and sisters, but preferred to give them precedence, modestly waiting to come in at the tail of the procession. The consequence of this forbearance was, that at my father's death I was only ten years of age. Younger brothers, even if they be seventy years old, are little cared about by any body: so that I consider myself fortunate that there happened to be one person who cared about so very juvenile a younger brother as I was. was my uncle Tobias.
At the time of my birth my uncle was on a visit at the farm. He was even then contemplating retirement from business, for he had gained much money by large speculations in the purchase and locking up of corn; or, in other words, by making the useful experiment upon
his poorer fellow-subjects—the lower animals are always selected, when an uncomfortable experiment is to be tried for the benefit of man -of how long they could possibly exist upon some unwholesome substitute for bread. He was, besides, a bachelor; it was his intention never to marry, having resolved to live entirely his own master; and, oh! phrase most musical to the ears of expectants! he had “ neither chick nor child.” When, therefore, he proposed to stand godfather to the little stranger, my parents seized the offer with avidity. My mother, indeed, made some objection to the name which I was to receive, Tobias being, in her opinion, not a pretty name.
She was anxious that I should be called after my illustrious, but somewhat apocryphal, ancestor, Gualtier, or Walter, at the least ; but my uncle contending that, as the name had all his life long been good enough for him, it was therefore quite good enough for “ that little bit of a thing in the napkin” (meaning me); and insisting that I should be called Tobias or sent to look out for some other godfather, Tobias I was called. And from that moment was I considered by the rest of the family as a made man. My uncle, however, never honoured us with another visit: he had no great affection for my father, my mother he hated, and, having undertaken a certain responsibility for me, he held himself absolved from the necessity of caring in the smallest degree for any of my
thirteen brothers and sisters. When, upon my father's death, having, as I have said, attained my tenth
year, I was sent for by my uncle to London. He had for some time past altogether quitted business, and I found him living in a small but comfortable house in Little Ormond-street, Bedford-row. He was sitting in a large easy-chair by the fireside; and, opposite to him, in another large easy-chair, sat a lady, who, in my youthful judgment, was a very fine lady indeed; for she had just the same beautiful colour on her cheeks that my poor mother used to have only when she went out to parties, or received company at home, and wore as fine a silk dress, though the day was Friday, as the best people I had seen in the country seldom appeared in but on Sundays. She was evidently much younger than my uncle, and had I been allowed time for wondering, I dare say I should have wondered who she could be. But this “effect of novelty upon ignorance” was prevented. No sooner was I led into the room by the maid. servant who had been sent to meet me at the coach-office, than my uncle, throwing himself back in his chair, and eyeing me with an air of doubt, exclaimed
“Why, bless me! it can't be. There must be some mistake. Are you Toby Higs from Squashery?" I assured him I was.
Why, dear me, Mrs. Snatchit, the child has grown out of all knowledge!"
This was hardly to be wondered at, for my good uncle had never seen me since he stigmatized me as “ that little bit of a thing in the napkin.”
“ Well-come, my dear, and shake hands with me. There's a good boy. Now go to that lady and kiss her, and I dare say she'll find something nice in the cupboard for you."
“Oh, don't send him to me,” cried the lady, “I hate to be slobbered by a pack of children. If he's hungry send him into the kitchen to get something to eat. Bother the child ! as if one hadn't plague and
trouble enough here, without having a child to look after. couldn't he have gone straight to school, instead of coming here, since you must find a school for him ? Pretty expense, paying schooling for other folk's brats ! It couldn't have been worse if you had married : at any rate you would have been a-spending your money upon your own flesh and blood. As it is,”
“Ay; as it is—” said my uncle with a sigh.
“Well-now-what are you after with your' as it is ?' ” cried Mrs. Snatchit, interrupting him. “I know what you mean—if you're tired of me say so, but I won't be spoke to in that way—I won't be contradicted— I won't be opposed—you want things your own way because you think I'm obligated to you, but I'll let you know I have a spirit; I can starve in the streets if needs be-or there's the Thames, wide enough and deep enough, for matter of that-you understand me; so don't drive me to any thing rash by your behaviour.”
This was a hint that (as soon afterwards I learned) always had its intended effect upon my uncle.
“Well, well, my dear creature,” said my uncle, meekly, “I_” “ Dear creature, indeed !” exclaimed the lady; “ you fool! what will the boỳ think? I dare say he's old enough to know how many beans counts for two. I'm your uncle's housekeeper, child." (This she addressed to me). “ And well for him I am, or he'd soon be eat out of house and home by one and another. Now mind how you behaves yourself for the two or three days you are here, or you don't often see the inside of this here place, that I can tell you.”
All this time I was crying. My uncle called me to him, patted my head, and slily insinuated a half-crown into my jacket-pocket; at the same time putting his hand upon my mouth to prevent my thanking him, as I was about to do, which would have excited the notice of Mrs. Snatchit.
Frightened by that lady's manner, I threw my arms round my uncle's neck, placed my head in his bosom, and wept bitterly. My uncle wept too. It seemed to me at that time a very odd thing that so old a man as my uncle should cry, I not having the remotest idea what he could have to cry about, and women and children only, as I thought, being subject to that affection. It has since occurred to me, it might have been that he was unused to any such demonstration of confidence and affection as that which he received from me—a fact sufficient to account for his making such “a stupid old fool of himself," as Mrs. Snatchit expressed it.
“You remind me of my poor mother, Toby,” said my uncle; "you are very like her. Be a good boy, and I will make a man of you.'
“Come," said Mrs. Snatchit, leading, or, rather, dragging me away from him—“ come, there's enough of this nonsense. I suppose you are hungry, so come with me and get something to eat. If I trust him to the cook she will be overfeeding him, and then there will be physic to pay for.” This last remark was addressed, half-mutteringly, to my uncle.
“ At least the good soul is careful of my money,” said the old gentleman to himself, as we quitted the room.
Till now I had never known what unkindness was: my father almost