From A Pennyworth of Repartee, [by Rev. David Macrae, Glasgow: Morison Brothers, c. 1897], pp. 3-48.
A PENNYWORTH OF REPARTEE.*
THE word “repartee,” coming from the French repartir, and meaning to divide or share, was applied to the answering thrust in fencing. Hence it came to mean a smart, ready, witty reply — not allowing one’s assailant to have it all his own way.
A bumptious man, with a shock of flaming red hair, was bantering a bald-headed Yankee in the smoking-room of a Cunard liner about his smooth pate. “Where were you,” he said, “when the Almighty was giving out hair?” “I was there all right,” said the Yankee, calmly, “but before the Almighty got my length He had nothing left but red hair; so I declined with thanks.”
Some forms of retort and repartee have neither wit nor good-nature to commend them; as when a man says, “You’re an ass!” and gets the reply, “You’re another!” This is mere vulgarity — a retort in mud. A true retort should have some wit in it, should be inspired by good-nature, and should show good sense.4
When Erskine, speaking before a committee of the House of Lords, was pronouncing the word “curātor,” Scotch fashion, as “curător,” an English nobleman interrupted him, and said, “Perhaps you are not aware, Mr. Erskine, that we in England follow the analogy of the classics and call that word curātor.”
“Is that so, my lord!” replied Erskine. “Now, we in Scotland thought that in pronouncing it ‘curător’ we were following the analogy of the English language; but after the judgment of so distinguished a ‘senātor, and so brilliant an ‘orātor,’ as your lordship, we shall know better afterwards.” This was the “retort courteous.” No reply could have been more happier, more genial, and yet more complete.
I remember when Ben Burleigh was standing as Radical candidate for Govan, what enjoyment he gave, and what laurels he won, through his prompt and witty answers when being “heckled.”
At a meeting of the workers in the shipyard of Sir William Pearce, the Conservative candidate, one of the men, a Radical, wanted to know why Mr Burleigh, if he was an honest Radical, wrote for the Daily Telegraph.
“Just for the same reason,” replied Burleigh, “as you, who are another honest Radical, work in the yard of a Conservative shipbuilder.” The heckler collapsed amidst roars of laughter.5
Another question sent to the Chairman to be submitted to the candidate was — “Is Mr Burleigh in favour of the abolition of Capital Punishment?” To which Mr Burleigh replied — “I should like very much to abolish Capital Punishment, but I should like to see the murderers abolished first!”
It is told of Spurgeon, that when a somewhat impertinent revivalist insisted upon seeing him, and said, when told that he was busy, “Tell Mr Spurgeon that it is a servant of the Lord who wants to see him;” Spurgeon replied, “Tell the servant of the Lord that I am engaged with his Master.” Here, as in the case of Erskine, was a perfect retort, carried home to the intruder in language suggested by himself.
Ben Jonson, the dramatist, having been asked to call upon a certain nobleman, reached the gate, and was vainly attempting to open it, when the nobleman himself, happening to be in the court, asked him what he wanted, not knowing who he was.
“I want to see Lord Craven,” said Jonson.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Ben Jonson.”
“Ben Jonson!” exclaimed his lordship, incredulously, as he surveyed the very unpoetical-looking figure at the gate, “why, you don’t looks as if you could say ‘Bo’ to a goose.”
“Bo!” roared Jonson, looking straight at his lordship.6
“Yes, yes; you’re the man,” laughed his lordship, and ordered the gate to be opened.
In all these cases there was a witty paying back of incivility, unreasonableness, or weak logic, on the person from whom it came.
When a gentleman waggishly introduced his friend to a lady, with the remark, “He’s not such a fool as he looks,” the friend replied, “That makes the difference between me and him!”
Bannister’s doctor, who had ordered him to keep clear of stimulants, found him one day with his bottle of brandy beside him. “Ah, Bannister, Bannister,” he said, “how often have I told you that brandy is your worst enemy?”
“But, you know,” said Bannister, “Scripture teaches us to love our enemies.” “Yes,” replied the doctor, “but not to swallow them!”
Here was repartee following repartee — the answering thrust itself answered.
A sly poke is sometimes given through an equivocal expression. A judge challenged a statement made by counsel. Counsel paused, looked up his notes, and said: “My Lord, you are right and I am wrong, as you generally are.”
Two notoriously ugly men, who lived in the same village, were each given to twitting the other about his looks.
Said one to the other, “I say, John, if I had you 7 at the end of a string, I could make a living by exhibiting you as the ‘missing link.’ ”
“You would require,” said the other, “to employ some one to tell people to which end of the string the ‘missing link’ was attached.”
Dr Samuel Johnson was famous in his time for his power of retort, and for his incisive replies. On one occasion he was arguing with an obstinate and somewhat obtuse opponent, who, after Dr Johnson had finished an argument, said, “I don’t understand you, sir.” To which the Doctor replied, “Sir, I can give you argument, but I cannot give you understanding.”
On another occasion an importunate lady wished him to give his opinion of a new work she had just written; adding that if it would not do, he need not hesitate to tell her, as she had plenty more irons in the fire. “Madam,” said the gruff old critic, after turning over a few leaves, “I advise you to put this where your other irons are.”
Sometimes, however, the doctor met his match. When in Scotland, and seeing a family supping porridge made from oats, he said, “In England we use oats for feeding horses.” “That may be the reason,” said his hostess, “why England produces the best horses, and Scotland the best men.”
Again, on his return from Scotland to London, a Scottish lady, at whose house he was, had some 8 hotch-potch made for his dinner. After he had tasted it, he was asked if it were good. The Doctor replied, in a somewhat surly tone, “Very good for hogs.” “Then pray,” said the lady naïvely, “let me help you to a little more.”
A woman who had married a husband who often treated her with rudeness and cruelty, was told by the minister when she complained to him about that, that husband and wife should learn to “bear” and “for-bear.” “Yes,” she said, “but what is to be done when both ‘bears’ come from one side of the house?”
Of retort and repartee there are numberless forms. In one of these forms we find simply smartness. The moral element is wanting, but the intellect is tickled with the cleverness and amusing fitness of the reply, whether it be an ill-natured sting or a good-natured joke.
“Sir,” cried an over-bearing man, “don’t try to make a fool of me.” “There is no need,” said the other, “Nature has saved me the trouble.”
Similar was the reply made to the man who said angrily to an opponent, ‘Take care, sir, or I’ll give you a piece of my mind.” “Pray don’t,” said the other blandly, “I have enough of my own, and you have none to spare.” This was retort of the stinging kind.9
Some of the Western papers in America are fond of getting up a laugh at one another’s expense. When one paper, recording the fall of a man into the river, added, “It is a wonder he escaped with his life,” the rival paper remarked, “Wouldn’t it have been more wonderful if he had escaped without it?”
The editor of another paper, waxing melancholy over the state of his health, remarked in his New Year’s Day article that he feared before another year came in he would be lying in his grave. The opposition paper retorted that he had been lying long enough already, and though the ruling passion was often strong in death, it was to be hoped that by the time he got into his grave he would stop.
The Irish have always been noted for their quickness of wit and power of repartee.
Felix M‘Carthy of the Kerry militia, was generally late on parade. “Late again, Felix!” cried the sergeant. “How is this? You are always last.” “Och, sergeant, be aisy,” replied Felix, “sure and some one must always be last.”
An Irish glazier was putting a pane of glass into a window, when a groom who was standing by began to banter him about his style of doing it, and telling him to take care not to put in too much putty. “Arrah, now, be off wid you,” said Pat, “or I’ll put a pain in your head without any putty at all.”10
An Irishman who had committed a breach of the peace when drunk, was sent to prison for a week, with the remark from Alderman Porter, “you can spend the time in cursing whisky.” To which Pat replied, “Bedad I will; and in cursing Porter too.”
The famous Curran well represented his nation in his power of repartee.
When a brother lawyer said to him once, “The others are laughing at this new wig of mine. Do you see anything ridiculous about it?” “Nothing,” replied Curran, nothing at all — except the head under it!” This was reply of the merry and good-natured sort.
One day in court Curran had said something that irritated the Judge. “Mr Curran,” said his lordship sharply, “if you say more I shall commit you.” “If your lordship does,” retorted Curran, “we shall both have the consolation of reflecting that I am not the worst thing your lordship has committed.”
Curran himself, however, sometimes met his match where he least expected it. He was examining an ugly-looking and cross-grained witness. “It’s no use,” he said at last; “no use trying to get the truth out of you. I see the villain in your face.” “Then my face must be a looking-glass,” said the witness.
No man of his time equalled Douglass Jerrold in this kind of wit. Take two or three illustrations.11
On one occasion, a dull and prosy member of Parliament said to him, “Have you read my last speech?” to which Jerrold replied, “I hope so.”
A Mr H——, rather an empty-headed coxcomb, hearing people speak at the table about age and appearance, said to Jerrold, who sat opposite, “Jerrold, don’t you think I look younger than I am?” to which Jerrold replied briskly, “It’s not your looks, my boy, it’s your conversation.”
A dissipated litterateur applying to Jerrold for money, said, “You know, Jerrold, we are both in the same boat.” “Ay,” said Jerrold, “but thank God with different sculls.”
Lord Nugent, a friend of Jerrold’s, did not hesitate when he got the chance to repeat jokes of Jerrold’s as if they were his own. At a theatrical party held at Sir Edward Bulwer’s, someone speaking of Lord Nugent said, “He’s a fine, free, honest fellow is Nugent.” “Yes,” said Jerrold, “you might trust him with untold jokes!”
Sometimes when the moral sense is not challenged, or if challenged would not approve, one is amused at the ingenious way in which an argument is met, or a difficulty evaded.
Professor Hodgson used to tell about a Scotch minister who went into a barber’s shop to get shaved. The barber, unfortunately, was addicted to the use of whisky, and his hand that day shook 12 so much that a gash was made in the minister’s cheek. “Eh, John, John!” cried the minister, “it’s a terrible thing that whisky.” To which the barber replied, “Ay, sir, it makes the skin unco tender.”
One evening and American gentleman found his groom the worse of liquor and threatened him with dismissal if he was ever found drunk again. Next day he found him again the worse of liquor. “Sambo,” he said, “you heard what I told you yesterday: and here you are drunk again.”
“No, no, massa,” pleaded Sambo. “Not again; same drunk, massa, same drunk. Nebber been sober since yesterday.”
My grandfather, who was minister at Sauchieburn, had frequent occasion to remonstrate with one of the parishioners whom he often saw the worse of liquor.
The man retorted on one occasion, ‘Ye’re aye at me aboot my drinking, but ye dinna think aboot my drouth.”
It used to be the custom in some of the Scottish parish churches for the minister to bow to the laird’s pew when he rose to begin his discourse. On one occasion the laird was absent, but the pew contained a bevy of ladies. The minister, feeling a delicacy in the circumstances, omitted the usual salaam. When they next met, the laird’s daughter, widely famed for her beauty, and afterwards 13 Countess of Mar, rallied the minister for not bowing to her from the pulpit.
The minister’s reply was admirable. “Your ladyship forgets,” he said, “that the worship of angels is not allowed by the Scottish Church.”
After dinner on a Sunday evening, when the company was still sitting round the table talking, attention was drawn to one of the children, who had arranged two or three chairs in the corner like the carriage of a railway train, and was endeavouring to act both the part of the driver and the engine. “Willie,” said his father, “have you forgotten what day this is? Don’t play trains on Sunday.” “But,” said Willie, looking appealingly at his father, “this is a Sunday train, papa — the train that takes people to church.
A wife afflicted with a dissipated husband, was upbraiding him for not coming home till past three in the morning. “Nonsense, my dear,” he said, “I was home at one. “I know better,” said his wife, “it was two before I went to bed, and you were not home for an hour.” “I assure you, my dear, you are mistaken. The clock was striking when I was on the stair, and I heard it strike One — repeatedly!”
There is fun here, though it dodges the moral sense.
It is told of a sea captain, who married without much inquiry a handsome woman whom he had 14 met at a ball, that a cynical friend declared at the wedding that his old shipmate had seen “the end of his troubles” now that he was married. The woman turned out to be addicted to drink, and the captain found that he had a miserable outlook before him. He met his friend and challenged him for telling a lie at the wedding.
“You said I had now seen the end of my troubles.”
“Yes,” said the other, “but I didn’t say which end!”
A good deal of repartee takes the form of bantering, with more or less of playfulness in it.
In a company where there was some discussion about the Future State, one old gentleman said he didn’t know what place would be found for him, as he had neither a voice to sing, nor teeth to gnash.
“Want of teeth wouldn’t stand long in your way,” said a dentist, “we could soon supply you with teeth.” “Ah,” said the old gentleman, “that shows where the dentists are going.”
Goldsmith used to claim a doctor’s degree, which he said he had got at Padua. “But,” he added, when speaking of it to an acquaintance, “I don’t practise in the usual way. I only prescribe for my friends.”15
“That’s a great mistake,” said the other, “you should prescribe for your enemies only. You would soon have only friends left.”
At a party of friends one of the company recited a rather prosaic poem for the delectation of the others.
“Where did you find these lines?” asked one of them.
“Didn’t find them at all,” said the first, with a touch of pride; “I made them out of my own head.”
“Ah, well,” said his friend, “that is enough wood left in the same place to made a good many more of them.”
An amateur took a picture of an acquaintance who was noted for his niggardliness, and showed it to a photographer, who said, “That’s a good picture — a very good picture for an amateur. But how did you manage to get such a pleasant expression into that skin-flint’s face?”
“I told him,” said the amateur, “that I wasn’t going to charge him anything.”
One of the capital stories told in the “Memories” of Father Healy, the witty “Vicar of Bray,” relates to a very pompous friend, who was showing Father Healy and other guests through his house, on which he had been spending a good deal in decoration. At last they entered the library. “Here,” said the pompous host, waving his hands 16 towards the shelves, “here, when surrounded by these best friends, I feel happy.”
“And I see,” said Father Healy, solemnly,” that, like a true friend, you never cut them.”†
On another occasion, at a British Association dinner, he was sitting next Professor Huxley, who told him a long story of a certain Catholic priest who had examined and cross-examined him about the alleged existence of mind in monkeys. Huxley asked Father Healy what position the Catholic Church would take on such a question, and what object the priest could have had in questioning him so closely as to whether he had found in monkeys any glimmering of real human intelligence.
“Depend upon it,” said Father Healy slyly, “he was hoping to find a cheap curate among them.”
The famous Professor Blackie put up this notice on the college board, on one occasion, when the college was about to open for the session: — “Professor Blackie will meet with his classes on Tuesday.” One of the students, by way of a joke, and with an eye to the Professor’s romantic admiration of female beauty, rubbed out the initial “c” in the word “classes,” making the notice read, “Professor Blackie will meet with his lasses on Tuesday.” The Professor, seeing a crowd of students looking at the notice and laughing, 17 went up to it, and on seeing what had been done, immediately rubbed out the “l.” This made the word read “asses,” and turned the laugh the other way.
Mr Reach (pronounced “Re-ach”), at that time the well-known London correspondent of the Inverness Courier, was dining at the same table with Thackeray. When Thackeray, who had only known him in print, was referring to him as Mr Reach (pronouncing the name like the ordinary “reach”), the correspondent corrected him, “ ‘Re-ach,’ Mr Thackeray, please; ‘Re-ach.’ ” “Thank you,” said Thackeray; and added, handing over a plate of peaches: “And now, allow me, Mr ‘Re-ach,’ to help you to a ‘pe-ach.’ ”
In many parts of Scotland, it is the custom to call the laird — or chief, if it be in the Highlands — by the name of his estate. When Sir John Astley was staying in the Highlands one autumn with his friend Cameron of Lochiel, his host took him aside as they were starting in the morning for a “shoot,” to tell him that, before the gillies, the familiar “Cameron” was to be laid aside, and “Lochiel” substituted.
Sir John said he would attend to it. Later on, when Lochiel suddenly called on him to fire at a covey of partridges, he took no notice. “Astley, Astley!” cried Lochiel, “can’t you hear? What are you thinking of?” “Oh, were you speaking 18 to me?” said Sir John at last. “When I am in the Highlands I lay ‘Astley’ aside: I like to be called ‘39 Thurlo Gardens.’ ”
Amongst repartees may be classed many happy and amusing replies.
When a Somerset couple called upon the rector with the news that they had added twins to the population and wanted them baptized, the rector asked what they purposed calling them.
“We wish,” said the mother, “to have them called Cherubim and Seraphim.”‡
“What on earth made you choose such names?” asked the rector.
The woman hesitated about replying, whereupon the father said, “I think, sir, it’s because they continually do cry!”
Said Harry, looking out upon the sparkling waves, “Let’s take a boat, Charlie.”
“A boat!” exclaimed Charlie. “Not if I know it — just after a dinner that’s cost me two shillings!”
In other cases we have a good-natured reply with something of what in Scotland we call “pawkiness” about it.
A wealthy old Free Churchman was visited on his death-bed by his minister, with whom he had cracked many and many a joke. Speaking of his wealth, which he was so soon to leave, the old gentleman said, with the old waggish twinkle in his eye, “Do you think I would be sure of heaven 19 if I left it all to the Free Church?” “I couldn’t promise that,” replied his friend, “but it is an experiment worth trying!”
Sometimes the happiness and good-nature of a reply doubles the charm of fitness; as in the case of the gentleman, whose button had caught the fringe of a lady’s shawl, and who found a difficulty in getting it disentangled. “You see how strongly I am attached to you,” he said; to which the lady replied with a smile, “The attachment seems mutual.”
There is great service in such replies. They turn into merriment what might have provoked anger or offence, and left disagreeable impressions.
When the Rev. George More was on the road to Tranent one could night, and had the huge collar of his coat turned up over his head, he met a gentleman, whose horse, on seeing Mr More, shied wildly.
“He seems frightened,” said Mr More.
“Frightened! No wonder he’s frightened,” cried the gentleman. “That cloak of yours would frighten the devil.”
“Glad to hear that,” said Mr More. “It is my business to frighten the devil. I’m a minister.”
Henry Ward Beecher did not hesitate to use wit and humour in the pulpit when they were to help in carrying home the truth. Hence sometimes a titter would run round the vast congregation. 20 Even an irresistible explosion of laughter was not unknown. One day, Beecher met his friend, Park Benjamin, the poet and humorist, and asked him why he never came to Brooklyn to hear him preach. To which Benjamin, with a solemn countenance, replied, ‘I have conscientious scruples about going to places of amusement on Sunday.”
“Does the razor take hold?” inquired a barber who was shaving a gentleman from the country. “Yes,” replied the customer, “it takes hold first-rate, but it don’t let go very easily.”
When Campbell of Monzie was a candidate for Edinburgh, he asked a man to give him his vote. The man answered, angrily: “Vote for you! I’d sooner vote for the deil!” “Yes,” said Campbell, “but if your friend doesn’t stand, may I depend upon your support?” His wit and good-nature triumphed. The man smiled, said he would think about it, and actually gave him his vote.
Charles Burleigh, the Abolitionist, in the midst of an anti-slavery speech, was struck full in the face by a rotten egg. “There’s a proof,” he said, as he calmly wiped his face with his handkerchief — “a proof of what I have always maintained — that pro-slavery arguments are very unsound.” The crowd laughed heartily, and Burleigh was allowed to speak without further molestation. So true is it that a witty as well as a soft answer will sometimes turn away wrath.22
There is special pleasure in a sally of wit, when it silences a bore, turns the laugh upon impertinence, or secures relief from some annoyance.
A young lady was singing “Oh to be nothing! — nothing.”
“Aren’t you near enough to it as it is?” said a bantering youth beside her.
To whom she promptly replied, “Yes, too near: why don’t you move a little farther away?”
Said a hairdresser with an eye to business, “Your ’air is getting very thin on the top, sir: hall coming out. Have you not tried anything for it, sir?”
“Yes,” said the victim, “I tried the ‘Infallible Cure for Baldness’ sold in this shop.”
When some one was boring a company where Jerrold was, with his views of this and that song, and exclaimed, with reference to one, “Ah, that is a song; when I hear that song it — it quite carries me away!” “Carries you away?” exclaimed Jerrold. “Could any one in the company oblige us by singing that song?”
It is told of Sheridan that while speaking in the House of Commons on one occasion he was greatly annoyed by a member opposite who was continually interrupting him with ironical cries of “Hear, hear.”
Sheridan watched his opportunity, and, referring to a contractor who had attempted to swindle the 22 Government, he exclaimed — “Where shall we find a more contemptible knave?”
“Hear, hear!” shouted the gentleman opposite.
“Oh, there!” said Sheridan, and looked at him, without another word. The effect (as the saying is) can be more easily imagined than described.
A prominent but most unscrupulous American politician was boasting loudly of his achievements, and of the high position he had attained.
“And what crowns it all, sir, I’m a self-made man — yes, sir, self-made.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said his opponent, “it relieves the Almighty of a very grave responsibility.”
A man who was accustomed to bore the company with tedious narratives, said —
“Did I ever tell you that story about my uncle and the snake?”
“You did, old man, you did,” exclaimed the friend opposite. “And I’d rather believe it at once than hear it again.”
Sometimes repartee takes the form of “capping” a boastful remark or some extravagant story told by any one in company.
“I do my work so painlessly,” said a dentist, “that I have sometimes seen a patient fall asleep during the operation.”
“My patients,” replied another, “all want to 23 have their photos taken to catch the expression of delight on their faces.”
An American who was fond of telling “tall” stories, followed the account given by some one of a swimming feat by saying, “I know a far more wonderful case than that. I saw a man who swam all the way from New York to Boston.” “What!” cried one of the company, “you actually saw him?” “Yes, I saw him get out of the water at Boston Harbour.” “I’m delighted to hear you say so,” said the other. “I couldn’t get people to believe it; but now I have a witness. I was the man that did it!”
Three men were talking, and telling some of their experiences. Speaking of likenesses, one said he had several times been taken for Lord Salisbury. The other capped this by saying that he had been taken once for the German Emperor. The third declared that he had once a still more remarkable experience. A friend who had been away for years in Australia met him unexpectedly, and after staring at him for a moment, exclaimed, “Holy Moses! is that you?”
The highest pleasure of all in connection with repartee is got when the moral nature shares the enjoyment with the intellectual; when there is no upbraiding from conscience; when the moral aspect is not laughed down; when the “still small voice” 24 is not drowned by the laughter of pure intellectual sport; when the rebuff is merited; when virtue repulses vice, or truth foils error. It is then that wit yields its purest gratification.
The power of keen and ready reply! — how many valuable services are rendered by it in all walks of life! How often, for instance, retort and repartee are successful where expostulation and argument would have been in vain!
Two young fellows, seeing a bishop coming along the street, thought to poke a little irreverent fun at him.
“Please, sir,” one of them, stopping suddenly as they were passing, “can you tell us the — the way to heaven?” “Yes,” said the bishop, cheerfully, “first turn to the Right, and hold straight on.”
A story is also told of three young fellows in Dumfries accosting the Rev. Walter Dunlop, more familiarly known as Wattie Dunlop, with the inquiry, “Hae you heard the news, Mr Dunlop?”
“The Deil’s deid!”
“Is that so?” said Mr Dunlop, looking compassionately at them. “Then I must gang and pray for three fatherless laddies!”
The same pleasure is given by happy repartee in all cases where rudeness is successfully reprimanded or profanity rebuked.25
Two ladies, travelling in the same compartment with some gentlemen, who were talking excitedly amongst themselves, were shocked by the oaths with which one of them — strangely enough a Highlander — interlarded his conversation.
At last one of the two, knowing him to be Highland from his accent, took the opportunity of a momentary pause to ask, “Do you speak Gaelic, sir?”
“Ay, that I do,” said he, turning towards her, evidently thinking that he had met a country-woman. “It’s my native language, ma’am.”
“Then, might we ask you as a favour, when you swear next, to swear in Gaelic, as we don’t understand it.” The others laughed; the young fellow took the hint kindly, and there were no more oaths on that journey.
When Curran, on one occasion, was pleading a cause before Lord Clare, and observed that his lordship seemed to be more occupied with the Newfoundland beside him than with Curran’s arguments, Curran stopped.
“Go on, Mr Curran,” said the judge.
“A thousand pardons, my lord,” said Curran, with a glance at the Newfoundland, “I thought you were engaged in consultation.”
It is said that when William, the “Sailor Prince,” — son of George III. — was still a midshipman, he visited America, and went one day into a tailor’s 26 shop where sat a very charming girl, the young wife of the Yankee tailor. The young fellow, smitten by her beauty, threw his arm round her neck and kissed her, adding by way of apology, “Now you can tell your friends that the King’s son has kissed the Yankee tailor’s wife.” Unluckily for the amorous prince, the tailor came at this moment upon the scene, and promptly kicked William out of the shop, saying as he did so, “Now you can tell your friends that the King’s son was kicked out of the shop by a Yankee tailor.” The prince made the best of the situation by remarking good humouredly that the kiss was worth the kicking.
A nobleman was dining in Paris with a British diplomatist, and next to him at the table sat a noted belle from the United States. The conversation drifted into a discussion of things American, and the nobleman made some rather disparaging remarks.
“Do you know,” he continued, “at some of the places I dined at in America, I saw people eat with their knives and spill their soup on the table-cloth.” The American girl turned round, and said with apparent unconcern, “What very poor letters of introduction your lordship must have had.” His lordship had no more to say about his American experiences.
A story is told of an eminent New York lawyer 27 receiving a severe reprimand from a witness whom he was trying to brow-beat. It was an important issue, and, in order to gain his case, it was necessary, if possible, to diminish the value of this witness’s evidence. The following was the dialogue that ensued: —
“How old are you?”
“Your memory, of course, is not so brilliant as it was twenty years ago?”
“I do not know but it is.”
“State some circumstances which occurred, say ten or twelve years ago, and we shall see.”
The witness appealed to the judge if he was to be interrogated in this manner.
The judge said it would be as well if he could state some circumstance of past years as requested.
Well, sir,” said the witness, turning to the lawyer, “if you insist upon my doing it, I will. About twelve years ago you studied in Judge B——’s office, did you not?”
The lawyer said, “Yes.”
“Well, sir, I remember your father coming into my office and saying to me, Mr D., my son is to be examined to-morrow, and I wish you would lend him twenty dollars to buy a suit of clothes. I remember also, sir, that from that day to this the money has never been repaid. Will that do, sir?” It did.28
When John Clerk, afterwards Lord Eldin, was arguing a Scotch appeal case about certain waterworks before the House of Lords, he spoke so much about what he called “the watter,” that the Chancellor interrupted him in a bantering tone with the question, —
“Do you spell water in Scotland with two t’s?”
“No, my Lord,” said Clerk; “but we spell manners wi’ twa n’s!”
Pretensions are often exposed most effectively by a stroke of wit; as when the hypocrite at Athens inscribed over his door, “Let nothing evil enter here:” and Diogenes wrote underneath, “By what door, then, does the owner get in?”
A conceited youth in Newcastle was drawn away from his own church by the opportunities which another sect afforded for speaking at meetings, and airing his very meagre stock of Bible knowledge. Meeting his old minister in company, on one occasion, along with one of the elders (a bootmaker, at whose shop this youth had got a pair of boots which he had never paid for), he was boasting of the superiority of the church to which he now belonged.
“I have come to see the truth,” he said. “I have got rid of the mistaken ideas that you still hold to. For one thing (he added), I don’t believe 29 paid ministers.” “Nor in paid shoemakers either,” said the elder. The youth said no more.
Mr Fields, the Boston publisher, had a wonderful memory, and his literary knowledge was such that when any friend wished to know where a particular passage was to be found of which he was in quest, Mr Fields was generally applied to.
A would-be wit, thinking to have a little fun at the dinner-table at Mr Field’s expense, told the company, prior to Mr Fields’ arrival, that he had himself that morning written some poetry, and intended to submit it to Mr Fields as Southey’s, and inquire in which of Southey’s poems these striking lines occurred. Mr Fields arrived, and the fitting opportunity came.
“Friend Fields,” said the would-be wag, “I have been a good deal exercised of late trying to find out in Southey’s poems his well-known lines running thus,” — here he read the lines he had composed. “Can you tell us about what time he wrote them?”
“I do not remember to have met them before,” replied Mr Fields. “But there are only two periods in Southey’s life when such lines could possibly have been written by him.”
“When were those?” asked the wag, with a glance at some of the others to prepare them for Fields being caught in the trap.
“Somewhere,” replied Fields, “about that early 30 period of his existence when he was having the measles and cutting his first tooth; or near the close of his life when his brain had softened, and he had fallen into idiocy.”
The company roared, but it was at the expense of the wag, who never tried his hand on Fields again.
In law courts, it is sometimes refreshing to see a bullying counsel finding his match, and perhaps more than his match, in his innocent-looking victim.
A woman was testifying on behalf of her son, and swore that he had worked on a farm ever since he was born. The lawyer who cross-examined her, said, “Do I understand you to say that your son has worked on the farm ever since he was born?” “Yes, and he has,” said the woman. “Well, now,” said the lawyer, with a glance at the jury to prepare them for seeing the witness caught, “will you inform the court what your son did on the farm the first year.” “He milked,” said the woman. The lawyer collapsed.
A man was brought up by a farmer for stealing his ducks. The farmer said he should know them anywhere, and went on to describe their peculiarities. “Why,” said the counsel on the other side, “they can’t be so very rare, I have some like them in my own yard.” “That may be,” said the farmer, “I’ve had some of them stolen before this time.”31
Sometimes with the power of repartee, a thick-skinned, shell-backed nature gets pricked from under.
A haughty courtier meeting in the streets
A scholar, him thus insolently greets:
“Base men to take the wall I ne’er permit;”
The scholar said, “I do,” and gave him it.
A notorious politician at Washington, who had sold his professed principles again and again for money, said to an acquaintance, with a coarse laugh, “They’ve been comparing me to Judas Iscariot now. But I don’t care.”
“No,” said the other, “but what would Judas think of it?”
Repartee is often happily used in meeting absurd arguments, sometimes flooring the man with his own weapons.
When Sir James Simpson first introduced chloroform, a friend with very orthodox and narrow views, objected to it as interference with the divine law of pain. Sir James cleverly silenced him on his own ground by asking him if he had forgotten his Bible, where God, when he was going to perform the important surgical operation of extracting a rib of Adam’s to make a woman of, put Adam into a deep sleep first.
A weak argument has often been happily exposed by a witty reply.32
When violent opposition was being offered to the election of a Jew as Sheriff of New York, an excited opponent said to a public man, “Why, you’ll have Jews trying and hanging Christians.”
“Pretty Christians, to need hanging,” was the quiet reply.
Sometimes, again, an apt report rebukes thoughtlessness, and awakens wholesome reflection.
When the son of Quintus Fabius Maximus suggested to his father, in face of the enemy, that a certain position might as well be occupied, and said lightly that it would only cost a few men, his father looked at him and said, “Will you make one of the few?”
How admirably fitted the reply was to teach the son to remember what each life meant to the soldier himself and to those who loved him!
Repartee and retort may also be used effectively in rebuking meanness and giving it a well-deserved castigation.
It is told of a well-known divine, that when he had been remonstrating with the deacons of some church which, with plenty of wealth in it, was keeping its pastor at a starvation pittance, one of the deacons, a wealthy man, notorious for his stinginess, challenged the divine about it, and said he thought ministers preached for souls, not for money.33
“So they do,” replied the other, “but they can’t pay the butcher’s bill with souls; they can’t clothe their boys and girls with souls; they can’t eat and drink souls; and, if they could (he added), it would take a good number of souls like some here to make one decent meal!”
A Scotch farmer was in the habit of going to his blacksmith with odd jobs in his pocket, and, deeming these were not of consequence enough to require payment, contented himself with saying as he left, “Weel, thank ye the noo.”
One day the farmer called as usual with some trifling thing to repair, and talking while the blacksmith was attending to it, he happened to speak about a prize cock which the blacksmith had, but which the farmer that day missed. “I dinna see your prize cock, John; whar’s it gane?” “Weel,” said John, stopping his work and speaking with great solemnity, “the fac’ is, I began to feed him on ‘Thank ye the noo,’ and he jist wasted awa’ and dee’d.” The hint had the desired effect.
We have seen some of the good purposes served by repartee wisely and skilfully used. But wit can cut both ways: and the power of repartee is misused when it is employed as the bully employs his brute strength to beat down and trample upon those who are weaker than himself. Wit should never be used vindictively, never used to indulge 34 ill-nature, wound a kindly feeling, or inflict needless humiliation and pain. But when, by its wise and skilful use, Right snatches the weapon from the hand of Wrong and lays the aggressor low; when the fool is taught his folly; when bigotry is shown its own ugliness; when truth is vindicated; hypocrisy exposed; presumption punished; rudeness rebuked or sin put to shame; — then the weapon of smart reply serves its highest purpose — is a terror only to evil-doers, and become a defence and a keen enjoyment to them that do well.
In the preceding pages we have had specimens of repartee in speech. But there is a whole class of cases which would more naturally come under some such title as “Tit for Tat,” or “Diamond cut Diamond,” which yet involve the principle of repartee, and might not inaptly be described as “repartee in action.” Of these, before closing this paper, we shall take some cases.
And here let me remark, as applicable to more than one of them, that if it is ever legitimate to find enjoyment in trickery, or in anything that inflicts annoyance or humiliation, it is when one trick is employed to checkmate another, or when a man is tumbled into the pit which he digged for somebody else.
A curious case occurred some years since in 35 New York. A member of the Stock Exchange purchased at a broker’s shop a beautiful ring, set with imitation diamonds, for 80 dollars. When showing it about, an Exchange acquaintance, who thought the diamonds were real, took a fancy to the ring, and asked him what he would take for it? He replied, 800 dollars; and at that price the other bought it. The seller, proud of his smartness in hoodwinking a rival, and getting 800 dollars for an 80 dollar ring, was not slow in letting his friends on ’Change know of this success. The consequence was that next day the purchaser of the ring was quizzed right and left about his want of ’cuteness. He said nothing, but on leaving ’Change went to a jeweller’s and made an arrangement with him to lend him four real diamonds, exactly of the same shape and size as the paste brilliants, and set them in the ring.
Returning to the Exchange, he met the stockbroker who had sold him the ring, and who asked him, amidst the laughter of the bystanders, how he liked it?
“Never liked one better,” he replied, “and never got one so cheap. I suppose you thought these were sham diamonds; but they are real, and worth double the money you got from me.”
The other said he was mistaken, and offered to bet 500 dollars that they were mere paste brilliants.
The bet was taken, and the party went off to 36 the nearest jeweller, who on examination said the diamonds were real diamonds, and worth at least 1500 dollars.
Having thus won the bet, the gentleman who was engaged in this diamond-cut-diamond game, took the first opportunity to go back to the jeweller’s and get the paste diamonds restored. Next day he offered to let the man from whom he bought the ring have it back for the 800 dollars originally paid to him for it. The other, remembering the jeweller’s verdict, snapped at the offer, took the ring and paid back the 800 dollars, thinking he had made a capital bargain, and more than covered the loss on his bet.
But no sooner was the transaction completed than the man to whom he had paid the money, and whom he had prided himself on hoodwinking at first, told the whole story, to the amusement and delight of the bystanders, but to the great chagrin of the man who had been beaten with his own weapons, and foiled in an encounter which he had himself provoked.
Another case of the biter being bit occurred with a miserly old nobleman who once applied to Hogarth to paint on his staircase a picture of the destruction of Pharaoh’s hosts in the Red Sea. Hogarth agreed, but when the terms were being arranged, he was irritated and annoyed by the attempts of his niggardly patron to beat down his 37 price. The patron insisted, indeed, on getting the work done for less than half the sum that Hogarth had suggested. Hogarth said at last that he would do it at the nobleman’s own price.
Two days after, the nobleman was informed that the picture was ready. Astonished at Hogarth’s expedition, he went to inspect it, and found the whole wall painted red.
“Zounds!” said he, “What have we here? I ordered a picture of the Red Sea!”
“The Red Sea you have,” said Hogarth.
“But the Israelites — where are they?”
“All gone over.”
“Gone over! And where are the Egyptians?”
“The Egyptians have disappeared,” answered Hogarth; “they are all gone to the bottom.”
The miser had been caught in his own snare, and thought it best to pay Hogarth the stipulated price, and hush the matter up as best he could.
At Partick, in the days when Walker’s omnibuses and the “Limited Liability’s” ran in competition, a gentleman who patronised the Limited Liability’s got into one of Walker’s by mistake. He had scarcely taken his seat when he discovered his error, and immediately got off and went into the other ’bus, which was coming up behind. The guard of Walker’s followed him into the other ’bus and demanded his fare. The gentleman said he had only gone with him a few yards before 38 discovering his mistake. The guard was inexorable, and the gentleman reluctantly paid him. Chuckling over his triumph, the guard was about to jump off and regain his own ’bus when the Limited Liability’s guard intercepted him and demanded his fare. The guard was taken aback, but he had no alternative. It was only the measure applied to himself that he had just been applying to another. Amidst general laughter, he had to hand over the twopence, and the Limited Liability official passed it on to the gentleman from whom it had been taken. The biter had been bitten.
A young snob walking up and down the platform of a railway station with a companion who had come to see him off, observed two handsome girls go into a first-class carriage.
“Look here,” he said to his companion, “I’ll go into that same compartment; and I’ll tell you what I want you to do. When the train is about to start you come up and touch your hat, and say to me, ‘My Lord, the dogs and guns are in the van.’ ”
His companion smiled assent, but said he doubted if he could do it with the proper air of a nobleman’s servant.
“Is this anything like it,” he added, as he straightened himself, touched his hat, and said, with a highly-genteel accent, “My Lord, the dogs and guns are in the van.”39
“That’s it,” said the other; “that’s perfect.”
He went and took his seat with a lordly air in the same carriage with the young ladies whose interest he was going to excite.
The moment arrived, and the train began to move. His companion came up to the carriage window. “Hey, Jock,” he shouted, “tell your maister to be sure to send me thae new breeks o’ mine by Saturday!”
The train was off, and the young snob, burning with indignation, and who was to have posed before the young ladies as a nobleman, had to reconcile himself as best he could to being regarded as a tailor’s apprentice. Whatever his feelings were, they would be very different from those of his waggish companion, who was left chuckling to himself on the platform.
A story is told of two students who were invited by Dr Munroe to have a look at the mad people in Bedlam. The students agreed to hire a cab at Waterloo Bridge, and not to tell the driver “where to” until they were seated inside; when the one who hired the cab was to whisper mysteriously into the cabman’s ear, “Bedlam,” and give a meaning glance towards his companion. This was done.
The cabman nodded, gave a queer look at the supposed mad student, and drove on. He had not driven many years when the “mad” one, thrusting 40 his head and half his body out at the window, cried in a loud voice —
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain.”
“All right, sir, all right!” said the cabman, looking a little scared, and applying the whip to his horse.
“Captain!” shouted the student, “turn her head east and by north!”
“Sure! East and by north?” roared the student, excitedly.
“Quite sure, sir, quite sure,” replied the cabman, now alarmed, and again urging on his horse.
“Captain!” shrieked the student, “strike him not! Tho’ the world for this commend thee, tho’ it smile upon the blow; even its praise must offend thee, founded on another’s woe!”
At the shout of “woe” the jaded horse stopped.
The cabman became more alarmed than ever, and said, with a furious look at the elder student, “You should be ashamed of yourself bringing a madman like that loose in a cab.”
“Don’t be afraid,” was the reply; “drive on, I’ll remember you when we reach Bedlam.”
“So will I, captain; so will I,” cried the other, thrusting out his hand as if to clutch him. “Yes, 41 captain, while memory holds a seat o’er this distracted brain will I remember thee.”
Amidst scenes of this sort the terrified cabman got out at last with his freight to Bedlam.
On reaching the gates he dismounted, but kept well away from the cab door, as if less concerned about his fare than about seeing the madman safely inside the iron gate.
The students, however, were no sooner out of the cab than they both began to laugh, and told the man that the madness was only “a lark.”
When the man was satisfied of this and came forward for his fare and got handsomely paid, he touched his hat and said, “I’m glad it’s all right, young gentlemen; wery glad. But I began to think it was a judgment on me for what I did last night — forgetting to disinfect my cab.”
It was now the students’ turn to look serious.
“Why, yes,” said the man, “I drove the body of a man as died of the small-pox from the hospital. Half a sovereign was too big a temptation. I meant to disinfect the cab afterwards; but, havin’ the half sovereign, you see, I took a drop too much, and forgot all about it. I thought this business to-day was a judgment on me.”
The students listened with increasing alarm, not unmingled with indignation; and were beginning to threaten angrily that they would report the man to the authorities, when he smiled and said, as he 42 mounted his box, “Don’t trouble, young gentlemen; it’s a joke, like your own. I thought when you kept me in a funk all the way out, I might give you a little bit of a funk afore parting. A taste of your own tap, like;” and with a wave of his whip he drove off.
I remember once, when speaking to John B. Gough, about the law in the Slave States that made it penal for a planter to educate his slaves, Gough telling a story of a Southern planter who had got into financial difficulty. Those were the days of the Fugitive Salve Law, when planters could hunt their fugitive slaves over the North, and take them back. This planter, considering how he might extricate himself from his embarrassments, got trace of one of his fugitive slaves — a favourite girl, almost white, who had been brought up in his house, and got a good deal of education here along with his daughters. She had made her escape to the North, and settled in Philadelphia, where she had married a white man, a storekeeper, by whom she had several children.
The planter went to Philadelphia, taking all necessary evidence with him, sent for the storekeeper, and told him he had come to recover a slave of his, whom the storekeeper had married.
The man was thunderstruck. Perhaps his wife had revealed to him her past history, and he knew the dreadful law; but would suppose that the 43 planter had long since lost all trace of his runaway girl.
The unhappy man demanded evidence, but there was no difficulty about that; the planter laid before him incontrovertible proof that the girl was his runaway slave, and therefore, in the eye of the law, his property.
“You are, of course, aware also,” said the planter, “that as the children follow the condition of the mother, your children are also legally my property.”
The unfortunate storekeeper staggered as if he had been shot. He knew, the moment the planter said it, that this was the law; but he had not at first realised its application.
The shock was so terrible that he seemed to lose the power both of thought and utterance.
The planter said, “I do not wish to be hard upon you. I am willing to sell to you both your wife and her children; but it will cost you 3000 dollars. I am sorry to come upon you in this way; but I have to look after my own interests, and I must either have that money, or take your wife and children with me.”
The man entreated a night to think about it, and see if anything could be done.
The planter agreed.
The unhappy man went to a legal friend and told him the case. The lawyer said; “There is no resource. You must pay that 3000 dollars to-morrow.”44
“It is impossible,” said the man. “I haven’t 3000 dollars in the world.”
The lawyer considered. Philadelphia lawyers have a reputation for smartness; and this one, after cross-questioning the storekeeper and going home with him and seeing his wife, ultimately said he would undertake the case and do his best. “But,” he added, “that 3000 dollars will have to be paid.”
Next day he went to the planter’s hotel, taking 3000 dollars with him. He saw the planter, and said he had come to pay him the money, and get the deed of sale.
The planter was delighted — the money suited him best. The papers were duly made out, signed, and handed over to the lawyer, who handed over the 3000 dollars in return.
“A very handsome girl she has been,” said the lawyer, referring to the storekeeper’s wife, who had been the principal subject of the negotiation.
“That’s so,” said the planter, as he put the roll of dollar bills into his pocket. “The fact is that girl was brought up in my house, and educated like one of my own daughters.”
“That’s just the point I was going to refer to,” said the lawyer. “I am going to bring an action against you for that.” The planter stared.
“Yes,” continued the lawyer, “it is a penal 45 offence in your State, as you know, to educate a slave, and I think this is a case where the law ought certainly to be put in force.” The planter moved uneasily in his chair. He saw that the lawyer had him.
“And yet,” said the lawyer, “I would not like to be hard upon you. If you like to hand back those 3000 dollars I shall let you off.”
The planter bit his lip; he knew that an action against him would involve worse consequences than the loss of the 3000 dollars; and at last, with the best grace he could, handed back the money.
He returned to the South a wiser and a sadder man; while the lawyer carried the news to the storekeeper and his wife, and also handed over to the grateful family the deed of sale, which secured them against any further risk.
There is not only a sense of fitness and just retribution, and a certain enjoyment felt, in seeing sharp practice itself practised upon and foiled with his own weapons; there is really, in such practice a tendency to bring this retribution upon itself. As love begets love, and fair play awakens a desire to give fair play in return; so, on the other hand, unscrupulousness and trickery and deception provoke reprisals, and forge weapons for their own discomfort.
Colton tells a story of three German robbers, 46 who having succeeded by various crimes and atrocities in accumulating a rich store of plunder, agreed to divide it equally and retire from their perilous vocation. When the day which they had appointed for this purpose arrived, one of the three was despatched to a neighbouring town to purchase provisions for their last carousal. The other two secretly agreed that when he returned they would murder him, so that each might come in for half of the plunder instead of a third.
As soon as the other returned they carried out their purpose. But the murdered man had been scheming for even more than they, and had poisoned the provisions that he might appropriate to himself the whole of the spoil.
This precious triumvirate were accordingly found dead together — a signal illustration of the fact that there is nothing so suicidal as the selfishness of vice.
Barnum, in his “Autobiography,” gives the case of a dishonest combmaker who was also caught in his own net. This man lived in Norwalk, and had the character of looking more to interest than to principle.
One day he called in a youth of the name of John Haight, as little troubled with scruples as himself, and said —
“John, the country combmakers are having a 47 good many horns coming here on board the sloops, and they are stored in the warehouse of Munson, Hoyt, & Co., on the dock. If you can manage to hook some of them occasionally, I’ll buy them of you at a shilling a piece.”
This was less than half their value, but as John was in want of money, and could not without suspicion have disposed of stolen horns elsewhere, he agreed to try.
The next night he brought the combmaker four fine-looking ox horns, and received his price. The following night he brought as any more. The combmaker said he was doing well, but cautioned him to be very wary, and not get caught. John thanked him for the caution, and promised to be very careful.
Month after month the nefarious business was carried on, till one night John arrived with a dozen horns at once, for which he said he must have a dollar extra, as they were much larger than any he had hooked before.
“Why, John,” said the combmaker, looking a little suspicious, “these are the largest kind of Spanish horns. Where did you get them?” “At the usual place,” said John; “the storehouse on the wharf.”
The combmaker knew this to be very unlikely, and had a disagreeable suspicion of foul play.
He gave John, however, two dollars on account; 48 and next day, after going to the store house on the wharf, and finding, as he expected, that no such horns had arrived there, he went, with a sinking heart, to examine his own store behind his shop. There the mystery was explained, and a good deal more.
He found that these horns and all the others had been stolen from his own piles, and that he had paid John Haight nearly a hundred dollars for stealing horns from his own store and bringing them round to him in the shop to be bought over again.
Such cases produce the same impression on the mind as merciless but merited retort or repartee, and are also illustrations in unique form of a truth that will be found in the end to be universal, namely, that the man who thinks to make gain by cheating others, is really cheating and impoverishing himself.
* There happens to be only four, possibly five, typographical errors in this text, which have been corrected (see the source code). Also, there are what appears to be typographical mistakes to us today, but are not. The absence of a period after “Mr” instead of “Mr.”, and “Dr” instead of “Dr.”, was normal and accepted usage in those days. This is very common in Italian texts still, according to Bill Thayer, who surely knows. It also occurs in older French texts. The other accepted pseudo-blunder found here is the typographical tradition of the use of an apostrophe, e. g., “M‘Dougall”, instead of a superscript, or small “c” for Scottish names beginning with “Mc.”
† In those days, books were sold with the printer’s sheet, composed of the pages (two, four, or eight, etc., per sheet) folded together, and then bound into book form. The owner of the new book then used a sharp blade to cut the pages and separate them. There were special instruments, like letter-openers, which were made for this purpose. Some were very fancy. [check this vs untrimmed]
‡ “To Thee, Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,” is a line from an English translation of the hymn Te Deum, in the Anglican The Book of Common Prayer. It was first used in The Book of Common Prayer, 1549, and became the official version sung today. The translator is unknown, according to Rev. James Mearn, in The Dictionary of Hymnology, edited by John Julian, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1892; (see entry Te deum, on p. 1132). Nobody else online mentions who might have translated it at all.