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The Real Story of John Carteret Pilkington

John Carteret Pilkington meets Captain Puckridge, inventor of the Musical Glasses

[Ed: Our hero, John Carteret Pilkington, was a singer in Ireland who found himself on hard times. In this part of his story he has just completed a week long sea journey in which he had paid for a bunk and board, but due to the dishonest captain, instead had to sleep in a lifeboat and beg food from other passengers. “<XX> ” marks the beginning of page XX in the original.]

I immediately looked out for a house where there was a large fire, and after having exhaled the friendly heat, I refreshed myself with a change of linen and apparel, which <57> I never more stood in need of. I then called for some warm punch, and before I had drank two glasses, a tall middle-aged gentleman entered, with a big wig and a sword on. He began a conversation with me, by asking if I came from abroad; I told him I had come from Cork by sea, and related the particulars of my passage. When I told him who I was, he seemed to know me and my family exceedingly well, with which I was not a little pleased. In the course of some general chat, I mentioned my singing at the concert in Cork; upon this he eagerly said, why, can you sing? I told him I believed I could: he begged I would just hum a tune to give him an idea of my voice and manner; when I did, he cry'd, bravo! Bravo! By G—d, I'll make your fortune: I thought this an odd adventure, and besought him to explain himself, which he did in this manner.

You must know, sir, that I am a gentleman who has run thro' a plentiful estate in schemes, for the publick good; and tho' some of them, thro' the inattention of the great, have miscarried, yet I have at length hit upon one which will return me ten fold the four thousand a year I have parted with; and that your own judgment will determine, when I explain it to you. In the more gay and happy hours of my life, I studied musick as an amusement <58>, and am, perhaps, the best master of harmony in the known world; of this I will give you an immediate demonstration: saying so, he pulled from his sleeve sixteen large pins, and from his pocket a small hammer; with this he drove the pins into a deal table, all ranged one above the other, and some almost in as far as the heads: he then took from his side pocket two pieces of brass wire, and demanded what tune I would have: I told him the Black Joke: then lay your ear to the table, says he, hear and admire: I did so, and to my infinite amazement, he played it with all its variations, so as to sound somewhat like a dulcimer.

Encouraged by the applauses I gave to this uncommon instrument, he took a parcel of drinking glasses, and tuned them, by putting different quantities of water in each: upon these he layed a number of the newest tunes in the most elegant taste, giving me delight and satisfaction. He then proceeded to inform me, that these were but sketches and outlines of his grand art and discovery; for, said he, I have at home glasses as large as bells of my own invention, that have a sound as loud as an organ, but more delicate and pleasing to the ear: now, Sir, as we are both gentlemen, and both possessed of excellence in the science of musick, if we unite together, we must <59> make a fortune; for after we have exhibited in Dublin this winter, for which purpose I have already taken the Taylors hall, we may go to Bristol, Bath, Scotland, and to crown all, to London; and in order, at once, to show you how much I prize merit, and how I am ready to encourage it, I will engage to give you a hundred pounds the first year, besides your board and lodging, and afterwards increase it, if you choose to continue with me.

Such a proposal to a person in my situation could not fail of a ready acceptance: I blessed the happy moment I left my uncle, and began to think providence had ordered it for my advantage. I considered myself already a man of an hundred a year, without the pains of studying physics; and that for only amusing myself by singing, which I thought no manner of trouble. I told the gentleman my opinion, who allowed I was extremely judicious, and added, that if I pleased I might go to his lodgings tonight, and that we would to-morrow have articles drawn, and set about the study of such songs as were best adapted to his Angelic Organ, as he styled it. He then told me in an easy familiar way,that he had brought out no change with him; but that if I had any, and would lend it to him, he would pay the reckoning, and treat me with a coach, I gave him every penny I possessed, and set out with <60> him to his apartments, which I made no doubt were equal to the appearance he made.

As we went along, he told me that the last house he lodged in he paid three guineas a week; but that his musick, and the concourse of the virtuosi who came to see him, prevented other lodgers from staying in the house; and therefore as he would rather discommode himself than others, he had taken rooms in his taylors; that it was in an obscure place, but then it was cheap, retired, and commodious for his business.

Soon after we were set down at a mean-looking house in Bride-street, and the Captain, for so he had been formerly called, was suffered to go upstairs in the dark. He left me at the outside of the room till he struck a light, which revealed to my eyes the most litter'd dirty hole I had ever yet seen: the furniture consisted of an old taudry bed, one rush bottom chair, a frame with a number of large glasses ranged on it, and the case of a violincello. I believe the Captain observed the dismay in my looks, and in order to comfort me, said, that he had made the people take all superfluous things out of the room, and that he never suffered a servant to clean it, lest their damn'd mops and brushes would break his glasses.

<61>He then set down and played Handel's water musick, and several other pieces, on the glasses, that indeed made some amends for the wretched appearance of every thing about him. After this he called his landlord to provide a bed for me; this, after numberless obstacles, was done in a miserable garret, where nothing but the long want of rest could have lulled me to reposed.

When I came down in the morning, I found the Captain labouring hard with a broken pair of bellows, to blow about a handful of embers, on which a tin coffee-pot, without a handle, was placed for a tea-kettle; after great industry it boiled, and he took from the case of the violoncello before mentioned a broken delft basin, with some coarse brown sugar, and paper with some nasty bohea tea, a course loaf, and a crock of stinking butter; all these appearances of the most abject poverty, after the scenes of plenty and delight I had just left, considerably abated the transports my hundred a year had given me; and though I had no conception of the character of a projector, yet I could not help thinking the man mad, to talk of a hundred pounds, who did not seem worth three-pence. I very modestly told him, I should be obliged to him for a shilling of the change I lent him, to get a better breakfast, as I could not possibly dispense with such homely fare? <62> Why there it is, child, said he, that is the very rock I split on: good God! To what end do we eat? To sustain nature. Suppose this breakfast consisted of every thing nice in its kind, what difference does it make in my constitution tomorrow, nay, an hour hence? Or when I go abroad in the habit of a gentleman, who is to know whether I breakfasted on Hyson tea, or water gruel? Indulging the appetite is a mere brutal custom, beneath the dignity of a prudent man, or a philosopher; and a young man like you, who has all his faculties in the highest perfection, should be quite indifferent about these matters. I will let you have a shilling with all my heart, but I would advise you to do as I do, and you'll find the comforts of it at the year's end.

His argument was enforced with such reason and gravity, that I so far adopted his sentiments as to take share, for the present, of what God sent; and the more so, as tho' he seemed so ready to let me have the shilling, yet I never observed he made the least motion to put his hand in his pocket. After this splendid repast we fell to practicing different songs, and the Captain perceived with great rapture, that my voice accompanied the glasses very well.

It may not be improper, before proceed further, to give my readers the real story, character, and disposition of this person, as far as I have been able to collect from my own knowledge of him, or the accounts of different gentlemen of his acquaintance, particularly Mr. Newburgh, of Ballyhaife, in the country of Cavan, who has celebrated this second Quixote in several humorous poems, particularly one called the Pockjead, wherein he explains all his numerous, unsuccessful and impracticable projects; the one of which may give a sample of the rest. This was no less than a scheme for immortality upon earth, and his manner of obtaining it was this: that when any gentleman or lady came to be about three-score, the blood than grew cold and stagnate; this occasioned disorders, which terminated in death. The Captain, in order to remove these obstacles, proposed, that persons at that age should have a vein opened in each arm, and at the same time a vein opened in the arm of a strong healthy cook maid, or a kitchen wench; and let an influx tube be placed in the orifice made in her arm, and the arm of the old person; that then as the old decayed blood flowed out at one of the patient's arms, he would receive the young healthy vigorous fluid into the other, which must totally abolish the effects of age, and cause an utter renovation of the animal spirits.

<64>Whether the operation had ever been tried, or whether it might or might not be successful, those better acquainted with the human system than myself are left to judge and determine.

Mr. Puckridge, at the age of twenty five, found himself in the possession of an unencumbered estate of 4000 [pounds] a year, which was so far from answering his genius for spending, that in the end of a small time he had sold every foot of it; and what is more surprising, he was never known to give one genteel entertainment, to do one benevolent act, or any thing that could obtain compassion at his fall, or friends to commiserate his distress. He had plenty without the approbation of a single mortal, and want without the least pity. How he did lavish so handsome a patrimony, has been an equal mystery and wonder to his most intimate friends and acquaintances; as they do him the justice to declare, they were never witnesses of the least extravagance in his equipage, house-keeping, or his other expenses; nor can he to this day be brought to give an account of the steps he took so suddenly, to divest himself of all the comforts of life; for my own part, there appeared so much meanness and low breeding in all his words and actions, that if I had not had it from better authority than his own relation I could never have believed he received the education of a gentleman, or kept company with any above the degree of a journeyman mechanick. -- For during my unhappy pilgrimage in his abode of famine, he made no ceremony of going to a cook's shop, opposite his lodgings, for four pennys worth of meat, and disputing learnedly with the cook woman for another bit of fat; from this, and some other instances of the like nature, I have drawn one maxim; That where a gentleman can descend to be a blackguard, he is always of the worst kind; in short, all sense of shame leaves him with his title and fortune, and things that a reduced servant would blush to do, he transacts with all imaginable ease and serenity.

Colonel Newburgh, whom I have before named, and with whom I had the pleasure to commence an acquaintance, thro' my connection with the Captain told me, that he was endeavoring to give Baron Dawson, a gentleman of true wit and humour, an idea of Pockridge's instrument, by telling he runs two sticks along the glasses, and by that means played distinct tunes; but, says the Colonel, except you were to see and hear it, you can have but little concept of its excellence; oh! But I have, said the Baron, 'tis like a blackguard boy, trailing a stick along iron rails. [This would seem to suggest that Puckridge was still striking the glasses with sticks, and not yet playing their rims with wet fingers.]

<66>If the readers, from the foregoing pages, are the least acquainted with me, they will judge how tedious and disagreeable a life this must have been. The first step I took to the advancement of a better, was writing as pathetic a letter to my uncle as possible, entreating his forgiveness and permission to return; to which I never received an answer, or indeed to many others, written to the same purpose; in the mean time, the Captain and myself laboured hard at our musick. The songs I was to sing at my first appearance were fixed upon, and every thing got in readiness for the important event; when I hoped my patience and long suffering would meet some reward, for by this time two months had sneaked away: at length the hour arrived. The Taylors hall was finely illuminated, the newspapers filled with encomiums on the angelick organ, every publick corner was covered with large bills, and tickets dispersed amongst the nobility. About three hours before the concert was to begin, the Captain went to arrange and tune his glasses, when unfortunately stepping out for some water, a large unmannerly sow entered, and, oh! Guess the rest! -- threw down the whole machine, and covered the ground with glittering fragments; destroying not only the hopes of the publick, but ours of a present and future subsistence. When the Captain returned, and found his lofty castle in the air <67> reduced to an heap of rubbish, he looked just like Mark Anthony, when he beholds the body of Julius Caesar on the earth, and says:

Oh! Might Caesar, dost thou lie so low?

He, however, supported the catastrophe with a dignity and heroism peculiar to great minds; and without staying for the company, desired the door-keepers would inform the world of the melancholy event, returning himself once more to his gloomy abode. As soon as we came home, I made, I think, the only prudent speech that ever flowed from my lips; namely, that I found in his present condition I could not be an assistant to him, and that I, therefore, thought it a pity to put him to an additional expense in house-keeping; that I was in hopes my uncle would receive me, if I returned to Cork; and, therefore, besought him, if possible, to let me have at least a part of the money I formerly lent him, to pay my passage there in a sloop. He said the first part of my speech spoke me of a youth of good parts, which made him lament his not being able to comply with the latter, because child, said he, I am not master of a single penny. I recollected that I had some superfluous apparel, which I the next morning disposed of to a broker for half value, and took my voyage in the same <68> vessel, to the place from whence I came.