Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Mrs. Battles Opinions on Whist
By Charles Lamb (17751834)
From Essays of Elia
A CLEAR fire, a clean hearth, and the rigour of the game. This was the celebrated wish of old Sarah Battle (now with God) who, next to her devotions, loved a good game of whist. She was none of your lukewarm gamesters, your half-and-half players, who have no objection to take a hand, if you want one to make up a rubber; who affirm that they have no pleasure in winning; that they like to win one game and lose another; that they can while away an hour very agreeably at a card-table, but are indifferent whether they play or no; and will desire an adversary, who has slipped a wrong card, to take it up and play another. These insufferable triflers are the curse of a table. One of these flies will spoil a whole pot. Of such it may be said that they do not play at cards, but only play at playing at them.
Sarah Battle was none of that breed. She detested them, as I do, from her heart and soul, and would not, save upon a striking emergency, willingly seat herself at the same table with them. She loved a thorough-paced partner, a determined enemy. She took, and gave, no concessions. She hated favours. She never made a revoke, nor ever passed it over in her adversary without exacting the utmost forfeiture. She fought a good fight: cut and thrust. She held not her good sword (her cards) like a dancer. She sate bolt upright; and neither showed you her cards, nor desired to see yours. All people have their blind sidetheir superstitions, and I have heard her declare, under the rose, that hearts was her favourite suit.
I never in my lifeand I knew Sarah Battle many of the best years of itsaw her take out her snuff-box when it was her turn to play; or snuff a candle in the middle of a game; or ring for a servant till it was fairly over. She never introduced or connived at miscellaneous conversation during its process. As she emphatically observed, cards were cards: and if I ever saw unmingled distaste in her fine last-century countenance, it was at the airs of a young gentleman of a literary turn, who had been with difficulty persuaded to take a hand; and who, in his excess of candour declared that he thought there was no harm in unbending the mind now and then, after serious studies, in recreations of that kind! She could not bear to have her noble occupation, to which she wound up her faculties, considered in that light. It was her business, her duty, the thing she came into the world to do,and she did it. She unbent her mind afterwardsover a book.
Pope was her favourite author; his Rape of the Lock her favourite work. She once did me the favour to play over with me (with the cards) his celebrated game of ombre in that poem, and to explain to me how far it agreed with, and in what points it would be found to differ from Tradrille. Her illustrations were apposite and poignant; and I had the pleasure of sending the substance of them to Mr. Bowles; but I suppose they came too late to be inserted among his ingenious notes upon that author.
Quadrille, she has often told me, was her first love; but whist had engaged her maturer esteem. The former, she said, was showy and specious, and likely to allure young persons. The uncertainty and quick shifting of partnersa thing which the constancy of whist abhors; the dazzling supremacy and regal investiture of Spadilleabsurd, as she justly observed, in the pure aristocracy of whist, where his crown and garter gave him no proper power above his brother-nobility of the Aces; the giddy vanity, so taking to the inexperienced, of playing alone; above all, the overpowering attractions of a sans prendre vole,to the triumph of which there is certainly nothing parallel or approaching in the contingencies of whist;all these, she would say, make quadrille a game of captivation to the young and enthusiastic. But whist was the solider game: that was her word. It was a long meal; not like quadrille, a feast of snatches. One or two rubbers might co-extend in duration with an evening. They gave time to form rooted friendships, to cultivate steady enmities. She despised the chance-started, capricious, and ever-fluctuating alliances of the other. The skirmishes of quadrille, she would say reminded her of the petty ephemeral embroilments of the little Italian states, depicted by Machiavelperpetually changing postures and connexions; bitter foes to-day, sugared darlings to-morrow; kissing and scratching in a breath;but the wars of whist were comparable to the long, steady, deep-rooted, rational antipathies of the great French and English nations.
A grave simplicity was what she chiefly admired in her favourite game. There was nothing silly in it, like the nob in cribbagenothing superfluous. No flushesthat most irrational of all pleas that a reasonable being can set up:that anyone should claim four by virtue of holding cards of the same mark and colour, without reference to the playing of the game, or the individual worth or pretensions of the cards themselves! She held this to be a solecism; as pitiful an ambition at cards as alliteration is in authorship. She despised superficiality, and looked deeper than the colours of things. Suits were soldiers, she would say, and must have a uniformity of array to distinguish them; but what should we say to a foolish squire, who should claim a merit from dressing up his tenantry in red jackets, that never were to be marshallednever to take the field? She even wished that whist were more simple than it is; and in my mind would have stripped it of some appendages, which, in the state of human frailty, may be venially, and even commendably, allowed of. She saw no reason for the deciding of the trump by the turn of the card. Why not one suit always trumps?Why two colours, when the mark of the suit would have sufficiently distinguished them without it?
But the eye, my dear madam, is agreeably refreshed with the variety. Man is not a creature of pure reasonhe must have his senses delightfully appealed to. We see it in Roman Catholic countries, where the music and the paintings draw in many to worship, whom your Quaker spirit of unsensualising would have kept out. You yourself have a pretty collection of paintings; but confess to me, whether, walking in your gallery at Sandham, among those clear Vandykes, or among the Paul Potters in the ante-room, you ever felt your bosom glow with an elegant delight, at all comparable to that you have it in your power to experience most evenings over a well-arranged assortment of the court-cards?the pretty antic habits, like heralds in a processionthe gay triumph-assuring scarletsthe contrasting deadly-killing sablesthe hoary majesty of spadesPam in all his glory!
All these might be dispensed with; and with their naked names upon the drab pasteboard, the game might go on very well, pictureless; but the beauty of cards would be extinguished for ever. Stripped of all that is imaginative in them, they must degenerate into mere gambling. Imagine a dull deal board, or drum head, to spread them on, instead of that nice verdant carpet (next to natures), fitted arena for those courtly combatants to play their gallant jousts and turneys in! Exchange those delicately-turned ivory markers (work of Chinese artist unconscious of their symbols, or as profanely slighting their true application as the arrantest Ephesian journeyman that turned out those little shrines for the goddess)exchange them for little bits of leather (our ancestors money) or chalk and a slate!
The old lady, with a smile, confessed the soundness of my logic; and to her approbation of my arguments on her favourite topic that evening I have always fancied myself indebted for the legacy of a curious cribbage-board, made of the finest Sienna marble, which her maternal uncle (old Walter Plumer, whom I have elsewhere celebrated) brought with him from Florence: this, and a trifle of five hundred pounds, came to me at her death.
The former bequest (which I do not least value) I have kept with religious care; though she herself, to confess a truth, was never greatly taken with cribbage. It was an essentially vulgar game, I have heard her say,disputing with her uncle, who was very partial to it. She could never heartily bring her mouth to pronounce Go, or Thats a go. She called it an ungrammatical game. The pegging teased her. I once knew her to forfeit a rubber (a five dollar stake) because she would not take advantage of the turn-up knave, which would have given it her, but which she must have claimed by the disgraceful tenure of declaring two for his heels. There is something extremely genteel in this sort of self-denial. Sarah Battle was a gentlewoman born.
Piquet she held the best game at the cards for two persons, though she would ridicule the pedantry of the termssuch as piquerepiquethe capotthey savoured, she thought, of affectation. But games for two, or even three, she never greatly cared for. She loved the quadrate, or square. She would argue thus:Cards are warfare: the ends are gain, with glory. But cards are war in disguise of a sport; when single adversaries encounter, the ends proposed are too palpable. By themselves it is too close a fight; with spectators, it is not much bettered. No looker-on can be interested, except for a bet, and then it is a mere affair of money; he cares not for your luck sympathetically, or for your play. Three are still worse; a mere naked war of every man against every man, as in cribbage, without league or alliance; or a rotation of petty and contradictory interests, a succession of heartless leagues, and not much more hearty infractions of them, as in tradrille. But in square games (she meant whist) all that is possible to be attained in card-playing is accomplished. There are the incentives of profit with honour, common to every speciesthough the latter can be but very imperfectly enjoyed in those other games, where the spectator is only feebly a participator. But the parties in whist are spectators and principals too. They are a theatre to themselves, and a looker-on is not wanted. He is rather worse than nothing, and an impertinence. Whist abhors neutrality, or interests beyond its sphere. You glory in some surprising stroke of skill or fortune, not because a coldor even an interestedbystander witnesses it, but because your partner sympathises in the contingency. You win for two. You triumph for two. Two are exalted. Two again are mortified; which divides their disgrace, as the conjunction doubles (by taking off the invidiousness) your glories. Two losing to two are better reconciled, than one to one in that close butchery. The hostile feeling is weakened by multiplying the channels. War becomes a civil game. By such reasonings as these the old lady was accustomed to defend her favourite pastime.
No inducement could ever prevail upon her to play at any game, where chance entered into the composition, for nothing. Chance she would argueand here again, admire the subtlety of her conclusion;chance is nothing, but where something else depends upon it. It is obvious that cannot be glory. What rational cause of exultation could it give to a man to turn up size ace a hundred times together by himself? or before spectators, where no stake was depending? Make a lottery of a hundred thousand tickets with but one fortunate numberand what possible principle of our nature, except stupid wonderment, could it gratify to gain that number as many times successively without a prize? Therefore she disliked the mixture of chance in backgammon, where it was not played for money. She called it foolish, and those people idiots, who were taken with a lucky hit under such circumstances. Games of pure skill were as little to her fancy. Played for a stake, they were a mere system of over-reaching. Played for glory, they were a mere setting of one mans wit,his memory, or combination-faculty ratheragainst anothers; like a mock engagement at a review, bloodless and profitless. She could not conceive a game wanting the spritely infusion of chance, the handsome excuses of good fortune. Two people playing at chess in a corner of a room, whilst whist was stirring in the centre, would inspire her with insufferable horror and ennui. Those well-cut similitudes of castles and knights, the imagery of the board (she would argue) and I think in this case justly, were entirely misplaced and senseless. Those hard-head contests can in no instance ally with the fancy. They reject form and colour. A pencil and dry slate, she used to say, were the proper arena for such combatants.
To those puny objectors against cards, as nurturing the bad passions, she would retort, that man is a gaming animal. He must be always trying to get the better in something or other:that this passion can scarcely be more safely expended than upon a game at cards: that cards are a temporary illusion; in truth, a mere drama; for we do but play at being mightily concerned where a few idle shillings are at stake, yet during the illusion we are as mightily concerned as those whose stake is crowns and kingdoms. They are a sort of dream-fighting; much ado, great battling and little bloodshed, mighty means for disproportioned ends; quite as diverting and a great deal more innoxious than many of those more serious games of life which men play without esteeming them to be such.
With great deference to the old ladys judgment in these matters, I think I have experienced some moments in my life when playing at cards for nothing has even been agreeable. When I am in sickness, or not in the best spirits, I sometimes call for the cards, and play a game at piquet for love with my cousin BridgetBridget Elia.
At such times, those terms which my old friend objected to, come in as something admissibleI love to get a tierce or a quatorze, though they mean nothing. I am subdued to an inferior interest. Those shadows of winning amuse me.
That last game I had with my sweet cousin (I capotted her)(dare I tell thee, how foolish I am?)I wished it might have lasted for ever, though we gained nothing, and lost nothing, though it was a mere shade of play: I would be content to go on in that idle folly for ever. The pipkin should be ever boiling, that was to prepare the gentle lenitive to my foot, which Bridget was doomed to apply after the game was over; and, as I do not much relish appliances, there it should ever bubble. Bridget and I should be ever playing.