W-MCP5-6.256 TO ISAAC BALDWIN MCQUESTEN from his school friend William Bickford
[Three Postmarks, St. Omer, London & Hamilton]1
[At top of letter is a hand-drawn illustration of a woman in a bedroom casting a letter away from herself, throwing up her arms in excitement, and rushing toward the door. There is someone in the bed. The opening poem explains the illustration.]
Proudfoot & Munro, Barristers, &c.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
British North America
Oct 21 1870
To: Isaac Baldwin McQuesten
From: 27 Petite Place, St. Omer, [France]
Isaac smitten yet alive!
Whilst this morn neath friendly sheetings,
Heedless of the yells and greetings,
"Vous popule" in meetings
Gathered in the rue once more--
I lay snoozing, sort o' napping
Suddenly without e'en rapping,
Came a maid, who with a slapping
Quoth "Encore, Gillaume, encore!"
I just turned again to snore.2
"Monsieur Gillaume" cried she gazing
On a thing that kept on raising,
In a way that was amazing,
Spite of heavy sheet and quilt--
"Encore une--(She meant a letter,
For now feeling somewhat better,
I was wide awake and met her
Gaze with half acknowledged guilt.)
Here I felt about to wilt
But anon with face quite brassy,
Accents, too, uncouth and sassy,
I demanded, growing gasy,
Why her hand had oped the door?
Pondering still on what she'd noted,
With a scream she turned and bolted,
Dropping, like a feather moulted,
Right before me on the floor,
What she'd called but now "Encore."
As the cat the short-tailed rabbit,
Quick I leaped from bed to grab it,
For I now could safely nab it,
Since the maid had fled away!
And, oh Lord! what joy ecstatic,
Filled this lonely haunted attic,
When, in characters emphatic,
Ikey's last before me lay!
Loveliest sight for many a day!
Soon by noiseless spinal motion
Back bent like some wave of ocean,
And a sidelong locomotion,
Like the crab when toddling home;
I had raised it & 'gan making,
For any couch, all over shaking,
Lest the paying maid were taking
One more peep at pauvre Gillaume.
Hapless youth thus doom to roam!
And then propped by blue-striped bed-tick,
Soon I read all that you said, Flick,
Though it made my very head sick,
And heart too to find you blue;
But anon by divers twitches,
Shirt, vest, boots, and checkered breeches
I jerked on, to rout the witches,
That so devil me and you.
(Something I'm not loth to do.)
So now, Hamiltonian Sinner,
Who, though foiled, still yet to win her
Not inclined,--thou brave beginner
In Love's much-provoking class;
List whilst to thy softened senses,
This old stoic balm dispenses,
Balm more soothing than the menses
Of some fair dink-raising lass
List then to the braying ass.
N.B. Intermission of five minutes to allow the startled penses to recover from the shock consequent upon this meterical avalanche.
By this time I suppose you are sufficiently recovered; and as it is only good fortune to find myself in the same predicament, I will try once more to finish what was begun unintentionally on the receipt of your letter just one month ago to-day ([Nov. or Dec.?] 21st). What fools we are sometimes to be sure! I might have known that chopping prose into senses of so may feet each--as one would divide the intestine when essaying the more practical task of making sausages, could only end in final discomfiture, and possibly in a fit of the blues. However, my good old friend, I'm on my legs again; and now if you will overlook the delay in answering your letter caused by a temporary indisposition, I will try once more to finish this epistle, and throw in two or three sketches by way of enlivening your legal thraldom and any ennui.
Before I go further though, I want you to promise me to say nothing about my sick-tion [sic]. It might by some mishap or other reach home; and then there would be the devil to pay sure enough. So far so good. And now what next shall I say? Suppose I turn over your letter and comment upon whatever I find demanding an answer? After all I believe that will be the best plan; so here goes.
First of all then let me assure you that I am really glad to find that there is someone in this world of contradictions and imaginings who really understands me. And let me assure you, besides, that far from construing your remarks concerning me into impertinenses [sic]--or far from considering you too free and easy in matters of such nature, I look upon them rather as so many proofs of your friendship, and my sagacity in selecting you for a boon companion--as so many favorable omens of a life-long attachment. You cannot speak too plainly to me old Ike!--and if I know you as I fancy I do, your ears, though they may be sometimes displeased with the sounds that greet them, will never be wholly closed to me. You say truly when you deny the possibility of our being offended by the plain language of the other; for words coming from souls so thoroughly in unison--so keenly appreciative of the promptings and motives timing the pulses of the other's heart, could only produce one feeling--that of renewed confidence and gratitude.
And now that I have fairly introduced the subject, let me assure you that the troubles intimated by the confessedly unbrotherly conduct you discerned are likely to diminish each coming yet by reason of a certain league and comment entered into a month or so ago. It is very simple--contains but two clauses--namely--"You go your way; I'll go mine"--and will serve to obviate everything of a disagreeable nature so long as each is mindful of his obligation to keep it.
I will not conceal from you, my old friend, that absence of affection, which, through ties of blood, if from an other cause, ought to bind Henry and me. To say that we feel towards each other as Nature evidently intended us to, would be to tell a downright falsehood; and again, to deny that one's misfortunes and unhappiness awakened in the bosom of the other no more communication than if his heart were stone, would be to confess to something even further removed from the truth. The trouble is (I divide the responsibility, you see) neither understands the other--one being so puffed up with the consequence of youth that he imagines himself a sort of demi-god; the other so imbued with pride that he chooses rather a life-long estrangement to a temporary acquiesence [sic]. By and by, perhaps, we shall both see the evil of our ways and be as ready to acknowledge it as we now are to shut our eyes to it. So far, and only so far, will this unhappy feeling prevail; for however circumstances may colour our feelings, we cannot be other than good friends when necessity calls for manifestations other than those of common courtesy. In the life of every one there is a tangled thread somewhere. In ours there are several; but, as I told you a moment ago, some day or other they will probably be straigtened and made all the stronger by reason of their previous snarls and weaknesses. At present we keep to our own separate paths, and so avoid stumbling over the obstacles that divide us.
There is one thing however in your remarks upon this subject that I would deny so far as some people are concerned. In speaking of the discussion of family affairs, you say--"And yet if he cannot speak of them to anyone he feels very uncomfortable." Now Youth, did it ever occur to you that there are some people in this world who so far overcome these longings that they afterwards wonder how they could ever have existed? I don't mean to intimate that I am of the number; but then I think I may hope to be enrolled among them some of these days. I believe such a creature of habit am I, that I could shut my lips against anything--no matter how it struggled for utterance.
But enough of this; though before dropping it, I must assure you once more that I fully appreciate the motion which prompted you to bestow a few thoughts upon my relations with others, and sincerely thank you therefore I said something a moment ago eulogistic of your penetration; but now I find myself almost ready to contradict it, when I read that insinuation against my well known and universally-admitted "moral qualities"! The idea that I--a plant reared under the benign influence of the holy sun, that sheds his light in lecture-room No. 3 (a droite)--should so far have listened to the machinations of the Philistines as to have taken unto myself temporary sit, and followed after the ways of men in the Godless city of Paris! Oh man, man, wherefore art thou!
But in all seriousness, Ike, how could you have imagined that I tampered with the unclean thing? I'm afraid I shall have to cite you before the great Head-center of the Noble Army of Martyrs, and in the presence his vice-regent, the immaculate Pill, prefer a charge of libel. However, I'll give you plenty of time to repent and be baptised [sic] anew; and lest you should plead ignorance of the terrible majesty of Him to whose presence you will be summoned, I enclose a photograph which the august personage himself will confess to be a faithful likeness.
So we are "sentimal" [sentimental] are we? Well, Ikey, old boy, I believe we are. But confound it, how is a fellow to put it out of his diaphragm when by so doing he thoroughly destroys his identity? I know you are sentimental; you know that I am sentimental; but I'll bet a York-shilling neither you nor I know how to eradicate the excressence. You may talk of "training our thoughts to run in more practical channels" from now until we are both grey-headed; but you will find it hard, if not impossible, to alter the mental sluices cut out by Nature's hand. Were it even possible, we should soon regret the metamorphosis, for we should necessarily chisel away some of those good qualities now of so much worth in each other's eyes. Yes Ike, we are both sentimental; but that is a devilish sight better than the distinguishing characteristics of some folks we know.
I have just taken another glance at your letter; but no matter how I scratch my head, I cannot for my life imagine or recall the incident, which served as the test for your sermon on revenge. Either I must have said something, or done something, to call in practice the precepts inculcated by good Wayland; but hang me if know what it was! In your next epistle let your light so shine that I may see the stumbling block over which you fear I shall tumble, and in the meantime, I'll make a few remarks myself on the same subject. I more than half suspect you have a certain creature seemingly a man (I will spare our sex the insults of an assertion of the same) in your mind when beginning that aforesaid sermon; and deduced from certain antipathies you know I entertain for the animal in question, that I am devising or intend to devise, a plan, whereby I may pander to the affection with which, with the rest of the "Malevolent" category, I am as well endowed as most mortals.
Now, Isaac, so far as the first supposition is concerned--i.e. "that I am devising a scheme for his discomfiture"--you are wholly wrong, for it would argue in me a great want of commonsense to plan traps which could be sprung by circumstances alone. But with regard to the second clause--viz. my intentions, I will confess they exist and would probably be essayed should circumstances point out a practical method. In defense of such a policy, I rely upon this maxim (mine at any rate) alone;--namely that as it is our duty to do all in our power for those known to be friends, so is it also our duty, both as regards our manifestation of our appreciation for our friends and our own individual interests; to destroy those who have the mind but not the courage to destroy us.
Now I admit that there is much sophistry in such reasoning, and I should be glad to see it altogether dropped when arguing in favor of, and against, certain rules of human conduct; but when we find the majority of the world, nations as well as individuals, regulating their intercourses by such principles, what is a poor devil, who is not naturally ill-minded, to do? Is he to submit to insult and perhaps corporal humiliation; when by a few sharp words, and, maybe a sudden "coup," he could calm the passions implanted in his bosom by God himself, and enjoy as a solace to his conscience, the thought that he did merely what the most of his fellows would have done?
And again my old friend, if this feeling of revenge be the sensible thing that some moralists represent it, can you tell me how it happens that the Allwise Creator--He who doeth all things well--all for the best--and in whose image (I should be sorry to believe this) we ourselves rejoice--should so far overlook the consequences of this passion as to continue the creation of man according to the same forms and under the same conditions, as heretofore? If revenge be inconsistent with the laws of creation; if it be heartless, unreasonable, and productive of no good; if we should be all the better without it, and, so, nobler specimens of the handiwork of the Great Spirit, can you address a single reason why it should not be erased from the chart of the human soul? I'm afraid, after all, your convictions will be the same as mine--that so long as nature physically and humanly, is the same--"One truth is clear--whatever is, is right." Instead of deprecating our natures and thus indirectly impeaching the wisdom of the only competent Judge, I think it far wiser to accept it as perfection itself, and employ our reason in furthering its workings rather than in seeking flaws in its composition. Here endeth the second lesson.
Now I am going to commence a string of comments on another species of "affection"--one usually classed under the "Benevolent" heading--but I object with my friend Leibnitz [sic] to such a general classification. At present I don't know what I shall say; but rest assured my old Chum, whatever they be they shall spring from the present motives and be joined together by links of the purest friendship. With this for any preface let me straightway unwind the coil. Your disappointment, though certainly unforeseen, does not in the least surprise me. From my own experience, as well as from the confidential confessions of others, I have long since given up inquiring into the whys and wherefores of young ladies' actions; for with the exception of a few more prominent traits [half a line is scratched out] which they hold in common with our own sex, it is impossible as well as unjust to judge their caprices by the causes laid down as the incentives to our own eccentricities.
Now don't conclude that I am indulging in a little sarcasm at the expense of their reason. You would misconstrue my language, and ignore what some might translate as a compliment to the sex. I mean merely this, that as woman is endowed with emotions, which unlike ours serve to furnish the promises we seek for in other ways, it would be most unwise either to commend or condemn her conclusions, until we thoroughly understand the nature and workings of those emotions. In your case you may have fortunately discovered both; but pardon me if I cast a doubt upon your sagacity and, at the same time, conceitedly land my own, when I say that I don't think you have. As a matter of course (when was it ever otherwise?) the sudden change from an "even-tenored" way to one as giddy as the windings of a waltz, could not but have produced their effects; but one judice, my friend, it is not to this short-lived freedom from the restraints of a parsonage that you must trace the final cause of your estrangement. Depend upon it, there is something behind all that--something I should rather look for in the whisperings of cowardly calumniators, than a few weeks of pleasure and the reflections thereon of a pure young heart.
Everyone has his enemies; (damn the man that has not!) and though you may not be able to name one or think of a reason why you should have, you can take my word that you are not exempt from such a predicament. Some are positive; others negative; and again others have a little of both these inimical fluids to glue together their dispositions. If you will permit me to offer an opinion, it is for some insinuation or selfish motive of the individual--he or she, it matters not--of the second class, that you would be more likely to find the wherefore you desire.
Suppose then, for amusement, if for nothing else, you find all the persons with whom she was brought in contact--or rather, those to whom she would be most ready to listen--and see if you cannot find a clue. It will be most difficult, I know; but rather than remain satisfied with a simple assertion like that, I would turn Sarnia upside down first.
In spite of what I said a moment ago, I find I have unconsciously supposed the young lady subject to the same influences that sometimes actuate us. This is a direct contradiction, if what I said be true; but in order to preserve any consistency, just suppose that you have grounds for believing that she sometimes acts from those motives which prompt us, and then go on with your enquiry after that individual I suspect. I admire your resolve to wait upon her a year hence.3 It does credit to your sincerity, and honor to your honor. But in the meanwhile, my friend, I should not bother myself with the present, nor should I indulge in anxious queries with regard to the nature of the final reply. All I should do in fact would be to hail with pleasure her "Yes" and coolly philosophise [sic] over her "No"--contenting myself with the comforting reflection that there are many fishes of the same species.
Once on a time I was as much attached to a young lady as you ever were. I now laugh at myself, and wonder how the mischief I could have looked upon her as the only one in the world! It took me a long time to come to this conclusion; but come to it I did, and between you and me, I shall never regret it. Had I, blinded by passion and heedless of the counsels of those, whose more stringent measures finally saved me, accomplished what my whole heart was set upon, I should now curse the day I was born, and perhaps shorten the life I hereafter hope to devote to some wise purpose. You see I am speaking in all confidence and candor, and all that remains to be added is--don't consider me as alluding in the slightest degree to your present position or her characteristics. If you can draw a moral from my experience, so much the better; if you can school yourself to forget what now troubles you, it may be also so much the better. That you can do the latter I have no doubt; that you will do it I am not so ready to admit; and when I recall her pretty face, brightened as it was by all that is pure and innocent, I don't know that I can find it in my heart to blame you, old fellow!
Stick to you promise, call upon her when another year shall have rolled around, and if she be the woman that from what I have heard and seen I suppose her to be, I shall fully expect a new suit of clothes, wherein properly arrayed, I may witness with savage satisfaction the sacrifice of "Isaac the Happy!" Lord! How old Bill and I will yell when we see the little lamb led to the sacred altar! I must have Her and his banjo at hand; for I'm sure we should feel so like Feejee [Fiji?] Islanders that we should give up the ghost unless we had the happy alternative of a breakdown!
Confound your loosely-buttoned stomach!--here I was almost on the point of laughing at my own pen-pictures, and believing myself one of the happiest of mortals, when on turning another page I find you, moralising [sic] over our happy, but forever-fled college days! This is "cheering up" the little "Franco-[Szech?]" [sic] with a vengeance! However, I'll swallow any grief and indignation for the time being and agree with you that the trio on that Sunday in August last in the Senate Chamber, would have completed the circle. Dear me! I would have given many a dollar to have been there; and as the wreaths of smoke, like our thoughts, turned around us and bound us together once more, to have recalled the voiced and faces we three used to hear and see around that old pile, and live over again the jolly hours that blessed the life of each! 'Tis sad when we think they are gone forever and more so when we remember that each coming year hushes some one of the merry voices that used to raise the echoes in the old quadrangle! It was from such thoughts as these that I was prompted to propose that annual reunion some two years ago.
In a letter to Henry the other day, it seems that Macdonald4 has not forgotten it, but that on the contrary he longs for its accomplishment as much as I. Now, Ike, could you not help him a little, and by letters and a few stirring addresses bring together all those good fellows in the list that I sent him? Even if two-thirds of them (about the number I expect) could be induced to meet every year, or every two years, what pleasure they would derive from a retrospect of the good old times when they were all martyrs together; what a lasting satisfaction to know that their comrades had not passed away without some tribute to his memory from those he used to love! It needs but a little adroitness backed by unflinching perseverance to accomplish it. There are several among us who possess both the qualities, and knowing this 'twould be a pity to forego a design which would be productive of so much happiness and good. Once formed, I flatter myself I could propose a series of projects that would ensure its existence so long as there was a man with the semblance of a heart in him. Then give Mack a helping hand, allot me my share, and we will see whether our Alma Mater has less affectionate children than Harvard or Yale.
I was not in Toronto a month, as you supposed; but almost a month. I fully expected to see you when Mowat had delivered my message, but circumstances thwarted me. Even on my way up I thought to reach Hamilton at a reasonable hour so that I might enjoy abusing you a day or two at least. I did not get in though till 2 in the morning, and so had no means of letting you know that I was at the station. Once again before leaving Canada I proposed running down to Hamilton. Everything however, turned out contrary to expectations. Being obliged to hurry off to New York when my companion began swearing he would wait no longer.
Before I close I must say something about the war. It seems to be generally behind that I France is "gone up" to use a vulgar phrase. Now don't you be deceived my friend; for I assure you (and I think I know what is what when I see it under my very nose) that she is just beginning to find out her real strengths. The bombast and cannibal expectations that greeted its commencement have all been discarded, and in their stead you find those stern silent men who appreciate the difficulties and dangers that beset [Nation country?] and are resolved to forgo singing & such like fruitless demonstrations until they have a proper time for them. Yesterday I saw dispatched from an escaped Englishman which proved that Paris can hold out until about the middle of February. Unless the Prussians take it (they almost admit its impossibility, the pious scoundrels!) before that time, destroying in the meantime the armies under Bourbaki and D'Aurelle,3 they are simply gone up themselves! From all I can judge--and I take a most impartial view, allowing the absurdity of my being able to know all that is at work,--there is only one thing threatening the final triumph of France--that is the want of a competent or trusted leader. Both these characteristics are absolutely essential. Unless an one appears France is indeed lost! D'Aurelle, by his victory at Orleans, bids fair to become such a commander, [?] he may fail like many another. As yet I have not been much bothered by the events taking place [abroad?] but have to been left to pursue any French [?] and enjoy what amusement I can find in wandering through these crooked streets. If I have to "git" [?] I shall make for London, and thence straight to Canada. [?] remember me to all my old friends, & [?] [?] wish to hear from you soon, believe me, affectionately,
[written across the page:]
[?] [?] photograph until I find some safe [?] of having it brought to me--Don't give it away to somebody else, you Sinner!
P.S. I quite forgot to answer your last question.--If the war closes before long, I shall probably be in Europe another year. If not, I shall remain (this is if I can) until I can parley a little bit better, and then set out for home via Canada. After a stay there, I intend wending my way back to the "Bluff City" (Memphis) and setting about the study of the Law in earnest. How would you like to nail your shingle alongside of mine? With regard to my stay, however, bear in mind that it depends altogether on circumstances. I might have to "git up and dust" at two weeks' notice. I shall keep you posted, though, so that you may know just when to expect me.
N.B. Those little marks enclosing the sentence under the word "Le Brun" are called brackets.
[This is what I'm dubbed by the heathen here]
1 St. Omer is near Calais in France. The context of the letter also suggests that the writer is in France.
2 The rhyme-scheme of Bickford's poem is intended to closely emulate that of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," which was written around 1845. Compare the first stanzas of each:
Whilst this morn neath friendly sheetings,
Heedless of the yells and greetings,
"Vous popule" in meetings
Gathered in the rue once more--
I lay snoozing, sort o' napping
Suddenly without e'en rapping,
Came a maid, who with a slapping
Quoth "Encore, Gillaume, encore!"
I just turned again to snore.
Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping,
suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
Only this and nothing more."
William Bickford (nicknamed "Old Pill") was apparently also a lawyer like Isaac. He was quite intelligent and well-read which is often reflected in his literary references and the poetic style of his letters even though their content may be vulgar. Bickford often teases Isaac playfully, but sometimes speaks of delicate personal matters, such as Isaac's troubled courtship with Mary-Jane Baker (who later married Isaac and was known thereafter as Mary Baker McQuesten, see below footnote). In addition, he would sometimes write exceptionally long epistles which one would not likely write to mere acquaintances (this letter in particular is 21 pages long). These characteristics of Bickford's correspondences strongly indicate that the two men had a very close friendship and it is clear that Isaac received much support and encouragement from Bickford in times of stress. For more of William Bickford's letters, see W2248, W2255, W2260, W-MCP5-6.251, W-MCP5-6.252, W-MCP5-6.253, W-MCP5-6.254, W-MCP5-6.255.
3 This is likely referring to the engagement that was broken between Mary Baker and Isaac due to his excessive drinking. She asked him to swear to give up his alcoholism, and determined to wait a year before resuming the engagement. Mary H. Farmer states that "Isaac became an alcoholic early in life" and that "alcoholism may have been the cause" that led to his death in 1888 (CMQPW 8; W2520). The engagement was broken more than once: See W-MCP5-6.257, October 1871, in which the engagement is on again. In W2339 March 1873, Mary renews a broken engagement just three months before their marriage.
4 H.J. MacDonald, a mutual friend to William and Isaac who was living in Kingston Ontario at this time. See W-MCP5-6.247, W-MCP5-6.248.
5 Bourbaki and D'Aurelle de Paladines [sp?] were generals in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. (http://www.bartleby.com/65/fr/FrancoPr.html) General d'Aurelle de Paladines. ... became minister of warin the Dupuy cabinet (1870). (38.1911encyclopedia.org/F/FR/FREYBURG.htm - 16k -).