Thursday, March 20, 2008

203 Apes

Notes and Queries, 26 April 1862.

REPRODUCTION OF OLD WITTICISMS

It seems as if a good story could never die. The witty sayings of the earliest ages continually re-appear. They are altered in their outward clothing , adapted (as the phrase is) to new times and manners, but still the little germ, in which the vitality resides, shoots up through the darkness of many intervening ages, and re-appears as fresh as ever. A modern instance of this reproduction, although in a very minor degree, occurs in that amusing book, The Autobiography of Mrs. Piozzi, edited by Mr. Hayward (2 vols. 8vo, 1861). In a note upon Wraxall, in allusion to Lord Harry Powlett, afterwards Duke of Bolton, the alleged original of one of Smollett's characters, the lively author of The Three Warnings remarks: --

"I don't know whether this Lord Harry Powlett, or an uncle of his wearing the same name, was the person of whom my mother used to relate a ludicrous anecdote. Some lady with whom she had been well acquainted, and to whom his Lordship was observed to pay uncommon attentions, requested him to procure her a pair of small monkeys from East India -- I forget the kind. Lord Harry, happy to oblige her, wrote immediately; depending on the best services of a distant friend, whom he had essentially served. Writing a bad hand, however, and spelling what he wrote for with more haste than correctness, he charged the gentleman to send him over two monkeys; but the word being written too, and all the characters of one height, 100, what was Lord Harry Powlett's dismay, when, a letter came to hand with the news, that he would receive fifty monkeys by such a ship, and fifty more by the next conveyance, making up the hundred according to his Lordship's commands." -- ii.118.

Mrs. Salusbury, the lady who is reported to have told this story, died somewhere about 1775; and Lord Harry Powlett became Duke of Bolton in 1765. The story may, therefore, be approximatively assigned to about the middle of the eighteenth century.

I will now give you a version of this same story, which bears the date on the 19th January, 1635-6. On that day Sir Edmund Verney, Knight Marshal to Charles I., wrote to his son Ralph Verney, from London, as follows: --

"To requite your news of your fish, I will tell you as good a tale from hence, and as true. A merchant of London, that writ to a factor of his beyond sea, desired him by the next ship to send him '2 or 3 apes.' He forgot the 'r,' and then it was '203 apes.' His factor has sent him fourscore, and says he shall have the rest by the next ship, conceiving the merchant had sent for two hundred and three apes. If yourself or friends will buy any to breed on, you could never have had such choice as now. In earnest, this is very true." -- Verney Papers, p. 167.

Thus it is that our ancestors say our good things before us. Can any of your readers point out any other example of this story? I think I have seen it elsewhere, but I cannot recall the place to mind.

John Bruce

[Bruce modernized the spelling in Verney's letter. -- bc]