Letter from Michael Mitre

Mr Flaxman


To Mr Attic Editor


As I understand you are a gentleman of very great experience and capable of giving anybody advice, I have taken the liberty to trouble you with my case which I do assure you is a very melancholy one indeed.

I am a cabinet maker and upholsterer and carry on a thriving business in High Holborn notwithstanding taxes and the hardness of the times. My neighbours and connections all respect me, and I think I should be a very happy man if it was not for one impediment, but this is such a one that it has ruined my peace — Oh Dear Mr Editor if you can advise me pray do, and be assured that you never did a great act of charity in your life!

Mr Botheram lived in Red Lion Square and altho’ they were very genteel people there was a great intimacy between us. Need I tell you I became desperately enmoured with the charming Barbara. She was so handsome! So easy! So affable to everybody! So sprightly and accomplished! She had read so much that it was whispered that she puzzled Mr Cycloid about squaring the circle till the poor man was shut up in St Lukes — And it’s a well known fact that her answer to Mr Atom concerning the chaos drove him away from London — You must be sensible, Sir, such united perfections were irresistible! But my passion received other encouragement from the lovely Barbara. She has often declared that as science alone conferred dignity on human nature, an ingenious mechanic was infinitely preferable to an idle gentleman. How often has this dear creature’s love of science induced her to spoil my best work and cut her fingers with my tools?

But don’t suppose I enjoyed all this bewitching preference without alloy — No, I have been very near paying dearly enough for it. One night when all her family were abroad she lighted a fire in the washhouse copper at the bottom of the garden to perfect a grand experiment she had long projected on the nitrous hydrogene qualities of active flame, and she engaged me to sit on the roof of the building to ascertain the density of smoke which issued from the chimney by a pholigtometer of her own invention. A neighbouring gentleman happened to look out of a back window and perceived me tho’ the night was rather dark and after watching some time he called. I did not dare to answer for fear of betraying the Dear Barbara. He then declared as he was sure I was a thief if I did not answer directly he would shoot me. Seeing the gun in his hand, I dropped the phlogistometer, popped behind the chimney, and thus avoided the bullets which otherwise would have levelled me an unwilling victim in the cause of science! I dropped a considerable height and got safe home without molestation, not a little bruised and sufficiently frightened as you may suppose.

My frame was so shook by this fall that I could not go out for some time, and when I did, I could not venture to face the Dear Barbara, after having destroyed the phlogistometer. However one day I met my fair with an aspect so mild as to banish all my fears, she expressed great concern for the failure of the experiment and my bruises, but that she could console me by communicating a secret which would set my heart perfectly at rest if I called at her house in the evening. This gentleness Mr Editor made me her slave ten times more than ever — My heart leaped for joy. I thought it would have leaped out of my bosom — Oh! the thrillings and dartings of love and the bruises that I felt thro all my body and limbs — Oh! my Dear, Charming, Lovely Barbara, said I, how is it possible not to love you? All conquering Barbara, every man you look on must of necessity be my rival! How shall I contain myself till night. I was willing to be time enough and called at Mr Botherham’s before the family had done dinner. Luckily some law business was to be settled immediately after in which our presence was not wanted and my Angel was permitted to walk round the square with me ’till tea time. We could scarcely get out of the door before I pressed her for the secret. You know, said she, that late discoveries in science have proved the quantity of gold there is in every substance, particularly the muddy bottoms of rivers in great cities, now I have calculated the immense value contained in every ten yards between London Bridge and Rotherhithe, and to obtain some of this dormant treasure I shall apply the diving machine we constructed together, which with the gonglomeration of diamonds I have very nearly perfected will enable us to pursue science in all its branches with every possible convenience and splendor. We both know how to work the machine, either I will sit in the boat and watch the machine and you shall dive for the gold, or you shall watch and I will dive. Equally astonished and confounded at the proposition, I stood like a statue in a middle state between laughing and crying, till the lady awakened me from this torpid frenzy by saying hastily, “What ails the man?”

“Oh! Dear Miss Botherham,” said I, “what is it you would do? Have you forgot Harry Helpless my schoolfellow who was drowned by sticking his head in the mud when diving? Do you not see you would place me in a situation to be smothered in the mud myself or, what is worse, to be hanged for an accomplice in the murder of my Dearest Barbara? By Dear Miss Botherham, why should you set your heart on inordinate wealth? Between my industry and property out of business I have enough to supply every comfort and enjoyment for the same style of living that you have always been accustomed to.”

“Don’t talk of supplying me,” she said contemptuously, “supply your own comforts and enjoyments as a grovelling unenlightened mind directs. I beg pardon, Sir, I mistook in believing you were animated by a sublime love of science. I forgot your trepidation when the gun was fired and you broke the phlogistometer. I beg pardon, good evening to ye,” and darted out of the square into her own door, which happened to be open in a trice.

I walked slowly home, looking on the ground, chagrined and mortified beyond expression.

Several months passed before all my endeavours could procure a placid look from Miss Botherham, but at length I so far prevailed that she consented with something like her usual good nature to hear my apologies in the square garden on the following Sunday at one o’clock. In the morning I went to church as usual. The sermon was rather long and as my dear Mother walks rather slowly home, it was 20 minutes after the appointment when I presented myself to the cruel Barbara. After I had bid her good morning in the most respectful manner she answered, “I expected you would have been a little more punctual this morning. Pray what agreeable object may have detained you so late if the inquiry is not impertinent?”

“Not at all,” said I. “I have been to church.”

“Pray,” said she, “may I take the liberty of inquiring your particular object in going to church?”

I answered, “Like other people I go to learn my duty to my neighbour.”

“So, sir,” said she (smiling contemptuously), “you have not learned that yet. I have no particular objection to church-going, excepting that it increases superstitious notions in weak minds — but as to moral obligation, it is only a political compact for the preservation of peace in great cities or society — but they cease entirely when people live alone or nearly so in desert places — then everyone does the best he can for himself, an admirable instance of which is given by the immortal Brissot. If two men travel together in a desert country where food cannot be obtained, he that is able has an undoubted right to kill and eat the other.”

Miss Botherham had, to be sure, surprised and alarmed me before, but I was now petrified into a profound stupidity. Sometimes I compared her soft charms of countenance and savage sentiments in a wild amazement and all I could say was, that I had no disposition to engage in a dispute with her on any subject, knowing her understanding to be so superior to my own, and that I was exceedingly concerned for any offence I had given. In this manner we reached her house, when she told me I was very becomingly cautious and dejected, and that it should be long enough before she troubled me with her company again. I was almost frantic at her behaviour, and I could not rest ’till I knew who this Cannibal Brissot was, when I found in the dictionary which I take in that he was one of those abominable offenders executed in the French Revolution.

I have been too tedious. I will detain you no longer. Is there the most distant prospect of happiness remaining? Shall I follow her to Dove Dale Priory where I understand she is gone and endeavour to reclaim her wanderings by kind and prudent conduct, or shall I continue in my present solitary misery?

I remain
with great respect
Your very humble servant

Michael Mitre