An Arctic Islander in London
To the Editor of the European Magazine.
My Correspondent on board the Isabella, whose Journal afforded some extracts for your last Magazine, sent only a short letter by his Majesty’s ship the Majestic, which arrived last month with despatches from the Arctic navigators. It informed me, that on leaving the colony mentioned in his former communication, he had persuaded one of the natives to accompany him on board, and congratulated himself very cordially on his safe return to his ship, when he found the ice which had been mistaken for a part of the continent, was only one of those bergs, or islands, which change their places continually, and have been met travelling in the Atlantic, where one of them nearly sunk an American sloop loaded with a sea-serpent’s head, which an unphilosophical exciseman mistook for a pipe of Madeira. When the boats came in quest of official letters for H. M. S. the Majestic, the Arctic Islander, believing his colony ab origine from England, expressed an invincible desire to visit the native country of his ancestors; and after some consideration among the literary gentlemen attached to the Expedition, each of whom claimed a share in the profits resulting from him, he was put on board one of the boats under the custody of Dr. Cacofog, who availed himself of this pretext to return home. Being undeniably the prize and property of my friend, and entitled, as a descendant of Englishmen, to an exemption from sale, he was wrapped in a large boat-cloak, and entered at the Custom-house, when he landed here, as a sick seaman from the Isabella. Lest the managers of the Museum, or the great theatres, should hear of such an acquisition, I went myself in my own post-chariot to convey him to my house, where, according to my friend’s letter, he permitted him to reside. Fortunately, his appearance did not excite my servants’ curiosity, as his attire was English. His person is far under the usual height, rather round, and too much elevated about the shoulders:—but this defect was easily concealed by attaching only half-a-dozen capes to the loose pelerine of his coat;—he is extremely short-sighted, as is usual with the natives of the frigid zone, and has the breadth of nose and chin which Buffon and Cuvier consider peculiar to them; therefore our fashionable lorgnette and cravat were really requisite to diminish these disadvantages. The bluish tint of his hair is not remarkable during the present fashion. The lethargic apathy of men born in cold countries is so well known, that I was not surprised at his doze during the greater part of our journey; but when we crossed Westminster-bridge, and came within view of those long lines and transverse vistas of light which the lamps of our streets afford, I could not avoid an attempt to rouse his attention. He replied in very intelligible English, and with all the dryness of an English traveller, that he saw nothing equal to his home; adding that their galleries and collonades dug under mountains of ice were far more brilliantly illuminated. Then, looking gravely at Dr. Blinkensop, who occupied the third place in my carriage, he enquired why he was not walking about? Being asked what his question implied, he informed us, that in his island all the learned men were employed to traverse the streets at night with lanterns on their heads, or to stand at equal distances for the useful purpose of enlightening their countrymen and saving oil. Dr. Blinkensop concealed his mortification by discussing the Catoptrical mode of gathering, folding, breaking, and bundling, sun and moon beams, to answer the purposes of a kitchen-fire; suggesting that this kind of solar cookery would be very convenient to the Arctic navigators, if their fuel should be exhausted.
Upon our arrival at my chambers, our Islander, who calls himself Neonous, was more particularly introduced to me as his future host and cicerone; and expressed his courteous disposition by three low bows, and some obliging words, which, as his colony seems to have been founded by Englishmen of the last century, were probably derived from their customs. But he soon appeared most agreeably easy and familiar; and during supper, at which he ate with a voracity which astonished my butler, though he once waited at the Lord Mayor’s feast, he addressed me with all the nonchalance of a Bencher who had eaten twenty terms with me, and begged me to tell him whether hanging was an agreeable sensation—Now, though I understand the sensation created by a fall of stocks, by “crossing Oxford-street,” and by being caught in the act of speaking to an ill-dressed friend, I could not profess any acquaintance with the sensation of hanging, though it is one peculiarly studied in the present age. “But, Sir,” I said, “as the words of our language have undergone great and various misapplications, even in this country, the awkward word which signifies a very vulgar situation, may be used in " to signify some polite amusement; as quizzing, hoaxing, and other elegant synonimes, have been borrowed from the dialect of thieves to enrich a gentleman’s.”—“Sir,” replied Neonous, “I understand you are a barrister; and in my nation we hang an attorney three minutes, a conveyancer five, and a barrister a quarter of an hour, that they may fully estimate the sensation which a court of justice is apt to cause.”—“O, my good friend!” interposed Dr. Blinkensop, sparing me the difficulty of commenting on a point so nice, “such a regulation would be an infallible suspension of all talent at the bar. It is quite time enough when men deserve it.”—The islander replied, with scholastic dignity, “Ah! there is the error of your English legislature. Prevention, doctor, prevention is the purpose of our laws. We hang them first, that they may not come to it at last: besides, when people have a propensity to oblique courses, it is wise to make them perpendicularly upright as soon as possible.”
My guest arrived late on Saturday night, therefore I had no better amusement to afford him the next morning, than to take him to a fashionable church. When we came out, he looked round inquisitively, and whispered in my ear, “This is your great Sunday, I suppose; but where is your little every-day church?”—Having understood from my friend on board the Isabella, that the Arctic Islanders of his colony possessed a Greek bible which they seemed to worship, I could not comprehend his question, till he added, “We have at Neonousland, as you have here, a great government church, where they talk of patience, self-denial, sobriety, and a great many other fine things, but we have little ones also, where they teach what we really do, and therefore ought to learn every day in the best manner. You know we make promises and vows to be rigidly just, faithful to our wives, and kind to our neighbours—That is all very well on great Sunday; but on little Sunday we Arctic Islanders learn the only practical part of our religion; that is—kindness to our neighbours; which consists, as you probably know, in doing exactly as they do, and in general whatever is convenient.”
I assured my visitor, that the customs of his island were entirely different from ours: that nobody presumed to give the soft names of “polite failings—youthful vivacities and trifling mistakes,” to those actions which our avowed religion called crimes—that marriage in our nation was a venerable and unspotted institution, designed to give certain distinctions and privileges to virtuous mothers and their offspring, which could not be transferred by the help of a little gold to the basest courtezans.—“Our women,” said I, “have a motive to be faithful and pure, because they know their purity will be remembered as the most honourable part of their descendants’ inheritance, and they see by daily example, that children cannot be enabled by the sudden caprice or untimely penitence of their fathers to rejoice in the iniquity of their mothers, or to blame it only when it is not successful. Vice is so rare, that nearly twenty thousand papers circulate daily, whose chief attractions are the uncommon anecdotes of guilt which their publishers are obliged to invent, because they can hardly ever find sufficient true ones.”
A newspaper in my barouche served to exemplify this truth, and to amuse Neonous during our drive through the Park, which did not interest him greatly, though he saw several persons whom he mistook for his countrymen, being deceived, perhaps, by their lethargic air and furred costume. Dr. Blinkensop enquired if the people of his island occupied themselves much in politics, and was answered, “Certainly!—but what we call politics is a great toy, forty times larger than your Kaleidoscope, and turned by every body which way they like best.” Dr. B. carefully recorded this answer in his note-book, for the information of the literary societies throughout Europe, and as an unanswerable proof that Dr. Brewster did not invent the first kaleidoscope, whatever may be the testimony of his contemporaries. I questioned Neonous on the poetry of the Arctic Isles, having received a splendid offer from a fashionable publisher of twenty-pence per line for the first translation of a polar poem—but he did not appear to comprehend me. When Dr. Blinkensop endeavoured to define poetry as a combination of beautiful ideas raised above common life, he only answered, “Then I know what poetry is, but we call it morality in our country.”
Having said this, he fell asleep; and my learned friend, raising his forefinger with a sign of caution and sagacity, drew from his folio memorandum-book a faded paper, which, as he whispered, had been found in the cabin allotted to Neonous on board the Majestic, and was probably a relic of the Greek literature conveyed to Neonousland by its first inhabitants. It was in the ancient Alexandrine character, as cut by Wynkyn de Worde in imitation of that valuable manuscript presented by Cyrillus Lucaris, patriarch of Alexandria, to King Charles I. in 1628. I have transcribe the first lines with all the accuracy in my power, and must confess that two of the characters strongly resemble an &c. though they are said to be the true Alexandrine alpha and sigma.
“Nobody,” said Dr. Blinkensop, putting on his spectacles, “can doubt the antiquity and Homeric origin of these lines—Observe the fine epic opening of the chief personage’s harangue, without preamble or peroration——
‘I see a hand you cannot see!’
which also shews us the plagiarism committed by Tickell in the most admired verse of his exquisite ballad.”—“Under due submission to your superior knowledge,” said I, “I should be apt to think this a copy of the Romaic fragment communicated by M. Chateaubriand to Lord C.’s secretary, and said to be remarkably predictive of an event which happened lately on the banks of the Thames.”—“TheThames!” echoed my antiquary—“When did its banks ever produce such sublime projectors as the next lines describe—
Some traitors are trying to begin a
Tunnel from here to Saint Helena—
A project worthy the geniuses of ancient Greece. I have no doubt that future generations, when the revolutions of Nature have dried up the Atlantic, will discover traces of this work, which might be incredible if we had not seen the aqueducts of Rome and Attica. But here is a line full of dubitation, and by the hiatus in the MS. it appears to have been added by some Arctic poet. It is highly natural that such a poet should derive his images from local objects; therefore I propose to translate it thus—
Vast as the kraken of Mezuät.—
“I admit the probability of your tunnel,” said I, “and have no doubt that it extended to the North-pole. Perhaps that would have been the easiest way of conveying our Arctic discoverers, and no violation of the maritime law, which extends only to the surface of things. However, you must allow me to say, I perceive no kraken in this line, nor did I ever see a name like Mezuat in any chart of those latitudes. I read it thus—
“Vast as the crack of Meux’s vat.”
—“That is not probable,” rejoined Blinkensop—“and yet it is possible that statesmen may have met last century, as they do now, to hold their consultations over a wine-vat, for I do not conceive that it could have been filled with beer. And as Smithfield was once a vineyard, it is credible that our celebrated distiller of malt may have had an ancestor who brewed wine. Pray proceed, Sir—what concludes the strophe?”
“And from the chasm came out—a—rat.”—
“A rat!” exclaimed the Professor: “What titillates your risible muscles, my good friend? Why not a rat? Did not a mountain once bring forth a mouse? Have not rats been worshipped in the hither peninsula of India and the Isthmus between Asia and Africa? And in modern times, as the illustrious pupil of the erudite Sheridan has recorded, did not a rat,
“for want of stairs,
Come down a rope to say his prayers?”
Where is the miracle, then, if one should come up to seek a place? for independent of his respectable black coat and reverend beard, he has all due requisites for one. Did not three rats empty a jar of oil by alternately dipping in their whiskers and regaling each other—whence, no doubt, Pope, alias Swift, derived that fine distich,
“This jelly’s good—that malmsey’s healing—
Pray dip your whiskers and . . . . . . . .”
The professor was interrupted by three Bow-street officers, who perceived red spots on his coat, and notwithstanding his asseverations that they proceeded from nitrous acid which he had used in extracting gas, he was conveyed away under suspicion of having aided a recent assassination. This fracâs caused tumult enough to awaken Neonous; and his surprise was so loudly expressed, that his arrival from the Arctic regions began to be whispered, and the utmost skill of our charioteer could not preserve our residence from detection. In the evening of this Sunday. I was alarmed by a visit from the principal of a polite establishment, requesting an introduction to my Arctic lslander, and offering him an engagement to instruct her pupils in the language and dances of his nation, at five guineas each lesson. She urged so strenuously the importance he would derive from making his entré at her house, and in her society (for school is an obsolete word), that I was compelled to assure her he visited England as a gentleman whose liberty and independence were guaranteed by my honour and his own wealth. The last words were convincing; and having intimated her readiness to educate any of his female relatives, she departed to spread the intelligence among her numerous friends. Neonous heard of her proposal without any change in the usual grave decorum of his face. “We have no such useless institutions in our country,” said he, “to teach our children grimaces and gambols; for our squirrel-apes are neither so mischievous nor so expensive: and as for morals, we always forbid them to do right, knowing they will do it through the spirit of contradiction.”
The preceptress was diligent in whispering her news, and several cards of invitation arrived to fashionable evening parties. I was engaged to Lady Townly’s “at Home” on Monday, and intended him to accompany me in strict incognito, relying on the phlegm and apathy of his disposition to ensure a proper degree of insouciance, or easy negligence, in his behaviour. And to prepare him for the dazzling effect of our beauties seated in all the glory of white satin, blond, and pink roses, I would have conducted him to the Exhibition, had not its season been past; but a fashionable portrait-painter’s gallery was open, and it seemed the best representation of that circle of living paintings called a party. Contrary to my expectance, he threw himself into such an attitude as I have seen in my grand-aunt’s picture of Celadon, and exclaimed, with great vehemence, “Kuryeleeson kuryeleesonmow!”—Being requested to explain the meaning of these words, he answered very frankly, that he used them without knowing it, but believed they were the names of saints once worshipped by the ancestors of his colony. I informed him, that his ignorance what they meant rendered them proper enough for a polite expletive; but as they really implied an appeal for mercy, they were not so spirited as the delightful readiness for perdition expressed by an Englishman’s interjections. Neonous thanked me for the hint, and promised in future to employ as his conversation-oath a very powerful and sonorous word preserved by his country’s traditions, as one of those relics which I suppose to be of Greek literature.
A magnificent compound which every college-student will be able to analyse and digest. On our way to Lady Townly’s conversazione, I entreated him to suppress any sensations of surprise and admiration which her assembly might create—“not, my dear Neonous, because any symptoms of natural feeling would lessen your effect, for they would have the charm of novelty, and the justification of your recent arrival among us; but as it has been whispered that you possess the art of making diamonds by adding a proper proportion of carbonic gas to charcoal, such symptoms might expose you to manœuvres.”—This last word required a very long explanation, which he heard with surprising coolness.—“Then,” said he, after a grave pause, “you permit two kinds of marriages, as we do. We keep the great one for rare occasions, and celebrate it as you have heard by the ordeal of fire and water; but the common kind is managed by manœuvres.”—“Is it possible that they exist even in your frozen region?”—“Where can they exist so properly? We see them every day among the Esquimaux savages. Each lover throws a hundred burnt sticks at his beloved, and she who can catch the most is the richest bride; which is what you call manœuvring, I suppose, in London.”—It was not necessary to explain that our system wanted the addition of sticks, which might be very appropriate among its contrivers; and after a few more cautions, we entered the rout—rather too early perhaps, as it was scarcely midnight. Consequently the whole brilliance of the scene was not collected, and Neonous walked among the groupes of gazing belles with such placid indifference and easy languor, that one or two strangers mistook him for Sir Pertinax Townly himself, whose desire to see an Arctic Islander induced him to appear once in his wife’s company. When music began, I took the opportunity, as usual, of talking to my friends, and had answered a thousand questions before I perceived the subject of them walking with an air of great attention behind some lovely young women. Shocked at his danger, and at the ridicule such a proof of savage simplicity provoked, I went to observe his movements, and found he was employed, not in wonder and admiration, but in placing behind each of the enormous combs which supported the rear of their head-dresses one of the gilt cards given by the polite preceptress whose visit I have mentioned, containing a long list of the sciences she taught.—“You told me these had been her pupils,” said Neonous very drily, in reply to my remonstrance—“why should they not carry with them advertisements of the graces they have acquired, and the price paid for them especially as they seem to have no other way of shewing that they know any thing of value.”—Though such an expedient might be very useful to young women of fashion, whose accomplishments are invisible and unguessed, I was compelled to acquaint Neonous that his device might render a duel unavoidable.—“Whatever pastime is usual here will be agreeable to me!” replied my Arctic Islander, with a yawn which was fortunately mistaken for a bass-accompaniment to the glee Lady Townly had begun: “Only tell me whether English duels are eaten in one, two, or three doses?” I could only answer this question by asking another, and was informed that affairs of honour are decided in the polar regions by swallowing snow-balls, or by keeping the parties in ice two or three days.—When I expressed my surprise that they had none of the manly and elegant exercises called sparring, prize-fighting, &c. he replied, “We make our physicians and surgeons fight sometimes, Sir, to prove their skill. The fittest persons to give and take wounds or bruises are those who know how to cure them. But I have carried many accounts of duels to the Moon’s morning-post office.”
These words fixed the attention of Lady Townly, who understands every science, as Dr. Donne once said of an ancient Englishwoman, “from predestination to skein silk.” She listened with rapturous astonishment to her Arctic visitor’s assurance that the lightness of their atmosphere rendered an ascent to the moon practicable, and that a lunarian mail was actually established in Neonousland. He added, that a cylinder filled with oxygen would derive impetus enough from an air-gun of proportionable calibre, to transport us very far on the journey; and a pair of artificial wings, on the plan of those attached to Blanchard’s balloon, might effect the rest. The scientific belle was in ecstasies. She had lounged so often on the Steyne, and wearied herself so completely with gazing on pale faces in a pump-room, that a trip to the Moon promised a thousand novelties in addition to the splendid notoriety of such an achievement. If it should be successful, what intelligence she would bring to the philosophic world, what importations of gossamer gauze and spider-nets from the milliners of a lighter element, and what instructions to the Whip Club and Almanac des Gourmands respecting the newest flourish of a comet’s drive, and the flavour of carp in the Moon’s lakes! To construct a balloon of sufficient diameter, I proposed to buy the canvas used in making the Temple of Concord a few years ago, or to form a collection of all the old silk parasols in the kingdom. Neonous remarked, that no cargo would be required, except a few phials of that celebrated German elixir which is said to answer all the purposes of meat and drink, as no inns can be found in the air; cork hats, coats of Indian rubber, and head-dresses of spun-glass, or a little Tricosian fluid, as artificial apendages might be apt to change colour by the way. This hint alarmed the lady, and induced her to ask what kind of hair distinguished the Moon’s people.—“Madam,” replied Neonous, very gravely, “in some of the lunar provinces, they have no heads. The Moon is a kind of workshop, from whence Nature sends men like bundles of canes, to be headed with brass, gold, or tortoiseshell, in this world.”—Lady Townly cast a melancholy glance at her husband, which seemed to imply that she considered herself a twig of myrtle tied to a crabstick; while Sir Pertinax drily enquired if any trees ornamented the Moon, and how they grew.—“With their roots upwards, no doubt!” interposed his wife, “if they live upon air; and if, as Fontenelle says, the atmosphere affords no rain, they are probably nursed by a steam-engine. Then, with another expressive glance, she hoped the Moon contained an infirmary for fools, and was told that a larger planet seemed to be kept for their accommodation. In the eagerness of her enterprising spirit, she insisted upon shewing our Arctic philosopher a machine constructed by her father, my learned friend Dr. Blinkensop. This machine, which for certain reasons he had placed on the roof of the house, resembled a canoe in shape; and Lady Townly having conducted Neonous to view it, suggested that it might be attached to their balloon, to serve as the car or parachute. They seated themselves in it, to consider and ascertain its fitness perfectly; but at that unfortunate moment, Dr. Blinkensop being mentally agitated by the philosophic questions connected with the Arctic expedition, dreamed that the Isabella was split on an ice-rock. Starting up in his sleep, he ran to the roof, cut the ropes which held his new-invented lifeboat, and the two projectors descended in it to the ground, as a Dutch philosopher one did in a boat which he had prepared for a second deluge. Sir Pertinax was rather surprised to find his wife had rolled from the roof to the area as safely in her canoe as a celebrated antiquarian is said to have fallen down-stairs in a vase of true Pompeiian clay. But our Arctic Islander’s skull seems incurably fractured, though the Professor endeavoured to arrange the fragments according to the art of French chirurgery, and to cement them with Vancouver’s iron-glue. My only consolation is to preserve this history of the week he spent in London, and to translate the brief record of his colony’s origin, which I received from him, and shall transmit to you as the last memorial of his existence.