Page images
PDF
EPUB

AN AMATEUR HEADSMAN.

315

Bethel, who was famous for a hatchet-face, was among the fair spectators: "What a shame it is," quoth the wit, "to turn her face to the prisoners before they are condemned!" Terrible, indeed, was that instrument to those men, who had in the heat of battle so gallantly met sword and blunderbuss. The slow, sure approach of the day of the scaffold was a thousand times worse than the roar of cannon. Lord Cromarty was pardoned, solely, it was said, from pity for his poor wife, who was at the time of the trial far advanced in pregnancy. It was affirmed that the child born had a distinct mark of an axe on his neck. Credat Judæus! Walpole used to say that Selwyn never thought but à la tête tranchée, and that when he went to have a tooth drawn, he told the dentist he would drop his handkerchief by way of signal. Certain it is that he did love an execution, whatever he or his friends may have done to remove the impression of this extraordinary taste. Some better men than Selwyn have had the same, and Macaulay accuses Penn of a similar affection. The best-known anecdote of Selwyn's peculiarity relates to the execution of Damiens, who was torn with red-hot pincers, and finally quartered by four horses, for the attempt to assassinate Louis XV. On the day fixed, George mingled with the crowd plainly dressed, and managed to press forward close to the place of torture. The executioner observing him, eagerly cried out, "Faites place pour Monsieur; c'est un Anglais et un amateur; or, as another version goes, he was asked if he was not himself a bour"Non, Monsieur," he is said to have answered, "je n'ai pas cet honneur; je ne suis qu'un amateur." The story is more than apocryphal, for Selwyn is not the only person of whom it has been told; and he was even accused, according to Wraxall, of going to executions in female costume. George Selwyn must have passed as a "remarkably fine woman," in that case.

reau.

It is only justice to him to say that the many stories of his attending executions were supposed to be inventions of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, another wit, and of Chesterfield, another, and a rival. In confirmation, it is adduced that when the former had been relating some new account, and an old friend of Selwyn's expressed his surprise that he had never heard the tale before, the hero of it replied quietly, "No wonder at all, for Sir Charles has just invented it, and knows that I will not by contradiction spoil the pleasure of the company he is so highly entertaining."

[ocr errors]

Wit has been called "the eloquence of indifference;" no one seems ever to have been so indifferent about every thing but his little daughter, as George Selwyn. He always, however,

316

THE ELOQUENCE OF INDIFFERENCE.

took up the joke, and when asked why he had not been to see one Charles Fox, a low criminal, hanged at Tyburn, answered, quietly, "I make a point of never going to rehearsals."

Selwyn's love for this kind of thing, to believe his most intimate friend, Horace Walpole, was quite a fact. His friend relates that he even bargained for the High Sheriff's wand, after it was broken, at the condemnation of the gallant Lords, but said, "that he behaved so like an attorney the first day, and so like a pettifogger the second, that he would not take it to light his fire with."

The State Trials, of course, interested George more than any other in his eventless life: he dined after the sentence with the celebrated Lady Townshend, who was so devoted to Lord Kilmarnock

"Pitied by gentle minds, Kilmarnock died"-JOHNSON.

that she is said to have even staid under his windows, when he was in prison; but he treated her anxiety with such lightness that the lady burst into tears, and "flung up stairs." "George," writes Walpole to Montagu, "coolly took Mrs. Dorcas, her woman, and bade her sit down to finish the bottle. 'And pray,' said Dorcas, 'do you think my lady will be prevailed upon to let me go and see the execution? I have a friend that has promised to take care of me, and I can lie in the Tower the night before.' Could she have talked more pleasantly to Selwyn ?"

His contemporaries certainly believed in his love of Newgatism; for when Walpole had caught a housebreaker in a neighbor's area, he immediately dispatched a messenger to White's for the philo-criminalist, who was sure to be playing at the Club any time before daylight. It happened that the drawer at the "Chocolate-house" had been himself lately robbed, and therefore stole to George with fear and trembling, and muttered mysteriously to him, "Mr. Walpole's compliments, and he has got a housebreaker for you.' Of course, Selwyn obeyed the summons readily, and the event concluded, as such events do nine times out of ten, with a quiet capture, and much ado about nothing.

[ocr errors]

The Selwyns were a powerful family in Gloucestershire, owning a great deal of property in the neighborhood of Gloucester itself. The old colonel had represented that city in Parliament for many years. On the 5th of November, 1751, he died. His eldest son had gone a few months before him. This son had been also at Eton, and was an early friend of Horace Walpole and General Conway. His death left George sole heir to the property, and very much he seemed to have needed the heritage.

THE FAMILY OF THE SELWYNS.

317

The property of the Selwyns lay in the picturesque district of the Northern Cotswolds. Any body who has passed a day in the dull city of Gloucester, which seems to break into any thing like life only at an election, lying dormant in the intervals, has been glad to rush out to enjoy air and a fine view on Robin Hood's Hill, a favorite walk with the worthy citizens, though what the jovial archer of merry Sherwood had to do with it, or whether he was ever in Gloucestershire at all, I profess I know not. Walpole describes the hill with humorous exaggeration. "It is lofty enough for an alp, yet is a mountain of turf to the very top, has wood scattered all over it, springs that long to be cascades in many places of it, and from the summit it beats even Sir George Littleton's views, by having the city of Gloucester at its foot, and the Severn widening to the horizon." On the very summit of the next hill, Chosen-down, is a solitary church, and the legend saith that the good people who built it did so originally at the foot of the steep mount, but that the Virgin Mary carried up the stones by night, till the builder, in despair, was compelled to erect it on the top. Others attribute the mysterious act to a very different personage, and with apparently more reason, for the position of the church must keep many an old sinner from hearing service.

At Matson, then, on Robin Hood's Hill, the Selwyns lived: Walpole says that the "house is small, but neat. King Charles lay here at the siege, and the Duke of York, with typical fury, hacked and hewed the window-shutters of his chamber as a memorandum of his being there. And here is the very flowerpot and counterfeit association for which Bishop Sprat was taken up, and the Duke of Marlborough sent to the Tower. The reservoirs on the hill supply the city. The late Mr. Selwyn governed the borough by them-and I believe by some wine too." Probably, or at least by some beer, if the modern electors be not much altered from their forefathers.

Besides this important estate, the Selwyns had another at Ludgershall, and their influence there was so complete, that they might fairly be said to give one seat to any one they chose. With such double barrels George Selwyn was, of course, a great gun in the House, but his interest lay far more in piquet and pleasantry than in politics and patriotism, and he was never fired off with any but the blank cartridges of his two votes. His parliamentary career, begun in 1747, lasted more than forty years, yet was entirely without distinction. He, however, amused both parties with his wit, and by snoring in unison with Lord North. This must have been trying to Mr. Speaker Cornwall, who was longing, no doubt, to snore also,

318

66

THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE."

and dared not. He was probably the only Speaker who presided over so august an assembly as our English Parliament with a pewter pot of porter at his elbow, sending for more and more to Bellamy's, till his heavy eyes closed of themselves. A modern M. P., carried back by some fancies to "the Senate" of those days, might reasonably doubt whether his guide had not taken him by mistake to some Coal-hole or Cider-cellar, presided over by some former Baron Nicholson, and whether the furious eloquence of Messrs. Fox, Pitt, and Burke were not got up for the amusement of an audience admitted at sixpence a head.

Selwyn's political jokes were the delight of Bellamy's. He said that Fox and Pitt reminded him of Hogarth's Idle and Industrious Apprentices. When asked by some one, as he sauntered out of the House-"Is the House up?" he replied, "No, but Burke is." The length of Burke's elaborate spoken essays was proverbial, and obtained for him the name of the "Dinner-bell." Fox was talking one day at Brookes's of the advantageous peace he had made with France, and that he had even induced that country to give up the gum trade to England. "That, Charles," quoth Selwyn, sharply, "I am not at all surprised at; for having drawn your teeth, they would be d-d fools to quarrel with you about gums." Fox was often the object of his good-natured satire. As every one knows, his boast was to be called "The Man of the People," though perhaps he cared as little for the great unwashed as for the wealth and happiness of the waiters at his clubs. Every one knows, too, what a dissolute life he led for many years. In 1782, we are told by Walpole, he was "languishing at the feet" of the notorious and abandoned Mrs. Robinson. "Well," says Selwyn, calmly, "whom should 'The Man of the People' live with, but the woman of the people." Selwyn's sleepiness was well known. He slept in the House; he slept, after losing £800," and with as many more before him," upon the gamingtable, with the dice-box "stamped close to his ears;" he slept, or half slept, even in conversation, which he seems to have caught by fits and starts. Thus it was that words he heard suggested different senses, partly from being only dimly associated with the subject on the tapis. So, when they were talking around of the war, and whether it should be a sea-war or a Continental war, Selwyn woke up just enough to say, “I am for a sea-war and a Continent admiral."

When Fox had ruined himself, and a subscription for him was talked of, some one asked how they thought "he would take it." "Take it," cried Selwyn, suddenly lighting up, "why, quarterly to be sure."

[blocks in formation]

His parliamentary career was then quite uneventful; but at the dissolution in 1780, he found that his security at Gloucester was threatened. He was not Whig enough for that constituency, and had throughout supported the war with America. He offered himself, of course, but was rejected with scorn, and forced to fly for a seat to Ludgershall. Walpole writes to Lady Ossory: "They" (the Gloucester people) "hanged him in effigy, and dressed up a figure of Mie-Mie" (his adopted daughter), "and pinned on its breast these words, alluding to the gallows: "This is what I told you you would come to!" From Gloucester he went to Ludgershall, where he was received by ringing of bells and bonfires. "Being driven out of my capital," said he, "and coming into that country of turnips, where I was adored, I seemed to be arrived in my Hanoverian dominions"-no bad hit at George II. For Ludgershall he sat for many years, with Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, whose "Memoirs" are better known than trusted, as colleague. That writer says of him, that he was "thoroughly well versed in our history, and master of many curious as well as secret anecdotes, relative to the houses of Stuart and Brunswick."

Another bon-mot, not in connection with politics, is reported by Walpole as "incomparable." Lord George Gordon asked him if the Ludgershall electors would take him (Lord George) for Ludgershall, adding, "if you would recommend me, they would choose me, if I came from the coast of Africa." "That is according to what part of the coast you came from; they would certainly, if you came from the Guinea coast." "Now, Madam," writes his friend, " is not this true inspiration as well as true wit? Had any one asked him in which of the four quarters of the world Guinea is situated, could he have told ?" Walpole did not perhaps know Master George thoroughly— he was neither so ignorant nor so indifferent as he seemed. His manner got him the character of being both; but he was a still fool that ran deep.

Though Selwyn did little with his two votes, he made them pay; and in addition to the post in the Mint, got out of the party he supported those of Registrar to the Court of Chancery in the Island of Barbadoes, a sinecure done by deputy, Surveyor of the Crown Lands, and Paymaster to the Board of Works. The wits of White's added the title of "Receiver General of Waif and Stray Jokes." It is said that his hostility to Sheridan arose from the latter having lost him the office in the Works in 1782, when Burke's Bill for reducing the Civil List came into operation; but this is not at all probable, as his dislike was shown long before that period. Apropos of the Board of Works, Walpole gives another anecdote. On one

« PreviousContinue »