Ourselves Volume 4 Book II Chapter 3




          Temperance in Eating.—Who can forget how ‘the fortunes of Nigel’ turned upon that mess which Laurie Linklater prepared after the King’s own heart? The telling is humorous; but not all the King’s scholarship enables us to get over the supping of the cock-a-leekie! Thus Scott prepares us;—“But nobody among these brave English cooks can kittle up his Majesty’s most sacred palate with our own gusty Scotch dishes. So I e’en betook myself to my craft and concocted a mess of friar’s chicken for the soup, and a savoury hachis, that made the whole cabal coup the crans; and, instead of disgrace, I came by preferment.” It was through these same gusty Scotch dishes that James was approached, and Laurie Linklater figures as a deus ex machina. Richie Moniplies “having reached the palace in safety demanded to see Master Linklater, the under-clerk of his Majesty’s kitchen. The reply was that he was not to be spoken withal, being then employed in cooking a mess of cock-a-leekie for the King’s own mouth. ‘Tell him,’ said Moniplies, ‘that it is a dear
countryman of his, who seeks to converse with him on matter of high import. . . . I maun speak with the King.’ ‘The King? Ye are red wud,’ said Linklater. . . . ‘I will have neither hand nor foot in the matter,’ said the cautious clerk of the kitchen; ‘but there is his Majesty’s mess of cock-a-leekie just going to be served to him in his closet—I cannot prevent you from putting the letter between the gilt-bowl and the platter; his sacred Majesty will see it when he lifts the bowl, for he aye drinks out the broth.”
And The Fortunes of Nigel closes with the King’s last word—“And, my lords and lieges, let us all to our dinner, for the cock-a-leekie is cooling.”[1]
          Where’s the harm? In this: King James’s moral worth and intelligence are swamped, his dignity of character and title to respect forfeited, through ignominious failures in self-restraint in this and other matters. Did not the patriarch Isaac, too, lend himself to the deception which divided his family by his love for that savoury meat upon which so much turns? It is well and a sign of health that we should like and enjoy our ‘meat,’ but to love and long for any particular dish is of the nature of intemperance. So thought Plutarch when he tells us this tale[2] of his bringing up:—
          “Our master (says he) having one day observed that we had indulged ourselves too luxuriously at dinner, at his afternoon lecture ordered his freedman to give his own son the discipline of the whip in our presence; signifying at the same time that he suffered this punishment because he could not eat his victuals without sauce. The philosopher all the
while had his eye upon us, and we knew well for whom this example of punishment was intended.”

          In Drinking.—That Le Balafré[3] should behave like a sot is what we expect of his lower nature; but it is painful that the generous and noble Lord Crawford should lose dignity and self-possession over the wine-cup. The occasion is the banquet given by the Mess to welcome the election of Quentin Durward. “At present, however, Lord Crawford declined occupying the seat prepared for him, and bidding them ‘hold themselves merry,’ stood looking on at the revel with a countenance which seemed greatly to enjoy it. ‘Let him alone,’ whispered Cunningham to Lindesay, as the latter offered wine to their noble Captain, ‘let him alone—hurry no man’s cattle—let him take it of his own accord.’ In fact, the old Lord, who at first smiled, shook his head, and placed the untasted wine-cup before him, began presently, as if it were in absence of mind, to sip a little of the contents, and in doing so, fortunately recollected that it would be ill luck did he not drink a draught to the health of the gallant lad who had joined them this day. . . . The good old Lord could not but in courtesy do reason to this pledge also, and gliding into the ready chair, as it were, without reflecting what he was doing he caused Quentin to come up beside him, and assailed him with many more questions concerning the state of Scotland, and the great families there, than he was able to answer; while even and anon, in the course of his queries, the good Lord kissed the wine-cup by way of parenthesis, remarking that sociality became Scottish gentlemen, but that young men, like Quentin, ought to practise
it cautiously, lest it might degenerate into excess; upon which occasion he uttered many excellent things, until his own tongue, although employed in the praises of temperance, began to articulate something thicker than usual.”
          Times have changed since Quentin Durward played his part; and if men still drink, they are commonly not men of Lord Crawford’s dignity of character. People begin to see that plain living and high thinking go together; self-restraint is practised both in eating and drinking, and the day is coming when excess in either will be regarded with general contempt.

          In taking our Ease.—Miss Edgeworth’s Lazy Lawrence has passed into a proverb; and many a more attractive hero is tarred with the same brush. Here is Harry Warrington, for example:—
          “Harry’s lace and linen were as fine as his aunt could desire. He purchased fine shaving-plate of the toyshop women, and a couple of magnificent brocade bedgowns, in which his worship lolled at ease and sipped his chocolate of a morning. He had swords and walking-canes and French watches with painted backs and diamond settings, and snuff-boxes enamelled by artists of the same cunning nation. He had a levee of grooms, jockeys, tradesmen, daily waiting in his ante-room, and admitted one by one to him, and Parson Sampson, over his chocolate, by Gumbo, the groom of the chambers. We have no account of the men whom Mr Gumbo had now under him. Certain it is that no single negro could have taken care of all the fine things which Mr Warrington now possessed, let alone the horses and the post-chaise which his honour had bought. Also Harry instructed himself in the arts which became
a gentleman in those days. A French fencing-master, and a dancing-master of the same nation, resided at Tunbridge during that season when Harry made his appearance; these men of science the young Virginian sedulously frequented, and acquired considerable skill and grace in the peaceful and warlike accomplishments which they taught. Ere many weeks were over he could handle the foils against his master or any frequenter of the fencing-school. . . . As for riding, though Mr Warrington took a few lessons on the great horse from a riding-master who came to Tunbridge, he declared that their own Virginian manner was well enough for him.”[4]
          Here we have the pursuits of busy idleness; for idleness is generally busy: Hogarth painted what Thackeray describes, this same luxury and abandon of idleness. Such another idler was Charles II.; while he was a great walker, he shirked every hint of the work proper to his condition. But history and fiction, and, alas, everyday life, afford many examples of men and women who never bestir themselves to catch the flying opportunity.

          In Day-Dreaming.—There are other kinds of intemperance besides the grosser sorts of over-eating, over-drinking, over-sleeping. Nathaniel Hawthorne[5] describes another type of idleness in Hepzibah Pyncheon, the solitary old maid who inhabited the House of the Seven Gables, and spent her days in the erection of curious castles in the air.
          “All the while Hepzibah was perfecting the scheme of her little shop, she had cherished an unacknowledged idea that some harlequin trick
of fortune would intervene in her favour. For example, and uncle—who had sailed for India fifty years before, and had never been heard of since—might yet return, and adopt her to be the comfort of his very extreme and decrepit age, and adorn her with pearls, diamonds, oriental shawls, and turbans, and make her the ultimate heiress of his unreckonable riches. Or the member of parliament, now at the head of the English branch of the family,—with which the elder stock, on this side of the Atlantic, had held little or no intercourse for the last two centuries,—this eminent gentleman might invite Hepzibah to quit the ruinous House of the Seven Gables, and come over to dwell with her kindred at Pyncheon Hall. . . . But, for reasons the most imperative, she could not yield to his request.”
          But, indeed, there is little to be said for the slothful:—
                                        How comes it that of all
                                        The lusts that could enthral
                    Yon Bible worthies to so hapless fall,
                                        Sloth shows not first,
                                        Hell-frame accurst,
                    Where every pestilent root of ill is nursed?
                                        Who slips must erst have stood,
                                        Have made his foothold good,
                    Have risen and held him up, ere fall he could:
                                        But who lies prone,
                                        Such toils unknown,
                    May comfort him, lapse for him is there none;
                    The sum of ill-doing is—leaving undone.

          ‘Know thy Work and do it.—Let us hear Carlyle,[6] the apostle of work, upon idleness and work:—“And who are thou that braggest of thy
life of Idleness; complacently showest thy bright gilt equipages; sumptuous cushions; appliances for folding of the hands to mere sleep? . . . One monster there is in the world: the idle man. . . . The latest gospel in this world is, Know thy work and do it: . . . know what thou canst work at; and work at it, like a Hercules! That will be thy better plan.
          “It has been written, ‘An endless significance lies in work’; a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seed-fields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby. The man is now a man.”

          Principle underlying Temperance.— Conscience is not, in fact, so much concerned with the manner of our intemperance as with the underlying principle which St Paul sets forth when he condemns those who “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator.” This is the principle according to which we shall be justified or condemned; and, in its light, we have reason to be suspicious of any system of diet or exercise which bespeaks excessive concern for the body, whether that concern be shown by a diet of nuts and apples, or peacocks’ brains, or of cock-a-leekie. England is in serious danger of giving herself over to the worship of a deity whom we all honour as Hygeia. But never did men bow down before so elusive a goddess, for the more she is pursued, the more she flees; while she is ready with smiles and favours for him who never casts a thought her way. In truth and sober earnest, the pursuit of physical (and mental) well-being is taking its place amongst us as a religious cult; and the
danger of such a cult is, lest we concentrate our minds, not upon Christ, but upon our own consciousness. We ‘have faith’ to produce in ourselves certain comfortable attitudes of mind and body; this serenity satisfies us, and we forget the danger of exalting the concerns of the creature above the worship of the Creator. The essence of Christianity is passionate love and loyalty towards a divine Person; and faith, the adoring regard of the soul, must needs make us like Him who is ‘meek and lowly of heart.’ A faith which raises us to a ‘higher plane’ should be suspect of the Christian conscience, as seeking to serve ourselves of the power of Christ, less to His glory than our own satisfaction.
          Well said Carlyle that, whether you or I be in a state of well-being or not ‘is not the central fact of the Universe.’
          If undue attention to the physical nature be a kind of intemperance, still more so is the neglect of that nature through which every function we are enabled for is performed; and such neglect has its sources in the indifference of sloth and the excesses of greed. ‘Take no thought for the life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink.’ ‘Eat that which is set before you.’ These are the rules laid down by our Master, whereby we may ‘keep our bodies in temperance, soberness, and chastity.’ ‘Take no thought,’ for all offences against the body begin in the thoughts.

          We Live in our Times.—I appear to have wandered wide of the mark, seeing that my subject is the dealings of Conscience with the House of Body in the matter of Temperance; but, indeed, it is necessary to keep a wide outlook upon the movements of the day, as well as upon those of our own appetites. We live
with our times; and we must bear in mind that there is no freak of the moment,—whether it be that fruit-eating colony in the Pacific, or the living upon one meal a day, or the not permitting ourselves to drink anything at all, not even water,—for which Reason is not capable of being enlisted as special pleader. Only the instructed conscience is proof against persuasion. Let us hail Punch as our faithful mentor; whether we would be quadrumanous persons or nut-eaters, Punch laughs us into common sense!

[1] The Fortunes of Nigel, by Sir Walter Scott.

[2] Preface to Plutarch’s Lives.

[3] Quentin Durward, by Sir Walter Scott.

[4] The Virginians, by W.M. Thackeray.

[5] The House of the Seven Gables.

[6] Past and Present.