An Impression of the Regency by Arthur Conan Doyle
First published in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Aug 1900
First book appearance in The Unknown Conan Doyle, 1929
IT was in those stormy days of the early century when England, in an age of
heroes and buffoons, had turned in her intervals of prize-fighting and horse-
racing, Almack balls and Carlton House scandals, to grasp the sceptre of the
seas, and to push Napoleon's veterans out of the Peninsula. The practical
jokers of St. James Street and the gamblers of Watier's were of the same blood
and class as the exquisites of Wellington or the Foleys and Balls whose
foppishness aroused the anger of Nelson until their gallantry extorted his
admiration. A singular effeminacy and a desperate recklessness alternated in
the same individual, and the languid lounger of the evening was easily stirred
into the fierce duellist of the morning. Amid this strange society of brutality
and sentiment there moved the portly figure of George, the Prince and Regent,
monstrous on account of his insignificance and interesting for the inhuman
absence of any points of interest. Weak and despicable, a liar and a coward, he
still in some inexplicable way catches the attention of posterity as he did of
his own contemporaries, and draws the eye away from better men.
George the King was in his second and more fatal period of madness while
George the Prince waited for his heritage and filled his father's place. Twice
a year the Regent should go to Windsor where the lunatic was kept, and satisfy
himself as to his condition. It was a formality, but in the strange lumbering
British constitution formalities are the ultimate rulers of all things, with
Kings, Lords and Commons groaning under their tyranny. And so, sorely against
his will, the weak foolish man abandoned his Brighton palace and drove
northwards to fulfill his odious duty at the Castle.
But he did not go alone. He was no lover of solitude at any time, and least
of all when his work might be done or lightened by others. Sir Charles
Tregellis shared his coach—Tregellis the arbiter of fashions, the gentle
duellist, the languid rake, the weary gambler, the masterful lounger whose
drooping eyelids and supercilious eyes could dominate the most high-blooded
buck in Watier's or in Brooks'. Lord Yarmouth was with them, the foxy-haired
red-whiskered sportsman, and all day they drove through the weald of Sussex and
over the uplands of Surrey until in the evening, ankle deep in playing cards,
they saw the Thames wind through green meadows, and the huge dark bulk of the
Windsor towers loom black against the gold and carmine of a September sunset.
Another coach and yet another were on the London road, for it had been given
out that the Regent had need of company and his friends were rallying to his
Why should the Prince see his father? It was enough to have paid his formal
visit and to have received the reports of Doctor John Willis and his son. To
the Regent an unpleasant duty meant a duty to be evaded. He had seen his father
once, and he had never forgotten it. It came to him still, that memory, when he
lay restless at night, and not all his little glasses of maraschino could
banish it from his mind. The royal state had always seemed so fenced in from
unpleasantness of every kind! The whole world conspired to keep trouble away.
But Nature would not join in the conspiracy. Nature was rough, brutal,
unreasonable. This Prince had never heard one harsh or reproving word in all
his life, save only from this stern old man, his father, and from the dreadful
unutterable German woman whom he had married. Once or twice when the Commons
had been asked to pay his debts there had been unpleasant speeches, but then he
did not hear them and they only reached his ears in the mildest and least
irritating form. Sycophants and courtiers filtered everything from the outer
world. And now into this sheltered life, weakened and softened by indulgence,
there came the brutal realities of disease. The King himself, the one man whose
position was more august than his own, was struck into puling childish
imbecility. George's craven heart quailed at the sight of the foolish garrulous
old man for ever pouring forth a ceaseless gabble of meaningless words. It
brought home to him that there was a higher law against which all his
prerogatives were vain. He shrank now from such an experience, and his
quarters, with those of his friends, were placed at that wing of the Castle
which was furthest from the chambers of the King.
There were twelve of them at supper that night, and they sat late over the
wine. The Prince drank deeply to clear away the weight which lay upon his
spirits. This house of royal suffering cast its gloom upon him. And the others
drank as much or more than he out of sympathy with their royal comrade, and
because it was their good pleasure and the custom of the time. Sheridan, of the
inflamed face and the ready tongue; Hertford, the husband of the reigning
favorite; Yarmouth, his son; Theodore Hook, the jester; Tregellis, whose pale
cheek flushed into comeliness upon a fourth bottle; Mountford, with the lewd
eyes and the perfect cravat; Mackinnon, of the Guards; Banbury, who shot Sir
Charles Williams behind Chalk Farm—these were the men who, out of all the
virtue and wisdom of England, had in his fiftieth year gathered as intimates
round the English Prince.
He lay back in his chair, as the decanters circulated, his eyes glazed and
his face flushed. His waistcoat was partly undone and his ruffled shirt came
bursting through the gaps. Laziness and liquors had made him very fat, but he
carried himself in his official duties with a dignified solemnity. Now in his
hour of relaxation the dignity was gone and he lolled, a coarse, swollen man,
at the head of his table. At supper he had been amusing. He had two genuine
gifts, the one for telling a story and the other for singing a song, and, had
he been a commoner, he had still been a good companion. But his brain had
softened and he was at a disadvantage with the seasoned men around him. A
little wine would make him excited, a little more, maudlin, and then it was but
a short step to irresponsibility. Already he had lost all sense of decency and
restraint. He raged between his glasses at his brothers, at his wife, at the
Princess Charlotte, his daughter, at the Whigs, the cursed Whigs, who would not
come to heel, at the Commons who would not vote him the money for which his
duns were clamoring—at everything and every-body as far as they had ever
stood in the way of his ever-varying whims. The baser of the company urged him
onwards by their ready sympathy) * others looked downwards at their glasses, or
raised their critical eyebrows * they glanced across at each other. And then,
in yet another stage of his exaltation, he lied with palpably absurd
vainglorious lies which sprang from that same family taint which had laid his
father low. Always behind the pampered, foolish Sybarite there loomed the
shadow of madness.
"Yes, yes, he has done well enough," said he, for the talk had turned upon
the recent victories of Wellington in the Peninsula. "He has done well enough,
but he is lucky in those who serve him. Now, at Salamanca—"
They all glanced furtively at each other, for the delusion was well known to
"At Salamanca," he continued pompously, "where would he have been if the
heavies had not charged? And why did the heavies charge?"
"Because your Highness gave the order," said some sycophant.
"Ah ha, the thing has become public, then?" said he exultantly. "York tried
to hush it up and so did Wellington, d——d jealous of me, both of
them—but truth will come out.
"'Le Marchant,' said I, 'if the heavies don't charge, the game is up.'
"'We cannot charge unshaken infantry,' said he.
"'Then by God, sir, I can and I will,' said I. I rammed my spurs into my
charger—a big black he was, with white stockings—and we went right
into them. You can vouch for the story, Tregellis."
"I can vouch for the story," said Sir Charles, with an emphasis upon the
last word, which caused a titter.
"Sir Charles expresses himself cautiously," said Mountford, eager to pose as
champion of the Prince. "He will, no doubt, vouch for the fact as well."
"I had not the honor to be there," said Sir Charles wearily. "It is strange,
Lord Mountford, that you should ask for a voucher for anything which the Prince
has cited as a fact."
Mountford's point had been turned against his own breast so adroitly that
the befuddled Prince had not perceived it. He frowned darkly at his champion,
and shook his head.
"Have you any doubts of the truth of what I have said, Lord Mountford? Eh,
"Not in the least, sir."
"Then I must ask you, sir, to be more guarded in your language," he pouted
like an angry child, and Mountford flushed from his curling hair to his
speckless, many-wreathed cravat.
"Do you return early to town, Sir Charles?" he asked quickly, when the hum
of conversation had been resumed.
"I shall still be here at seven," said Sir Charles, smiling gently.
"I shall walk in the Eton meadows," said Mountford bowing.
It was the last walk he ever made without a stick. But the company cared
nothing for a quarrel so discreetly conducted. The Prince was telling a story.
He missed the point, but they guffawed with outrageous merriment. Hook capped
it with another which was all point but met with a languid murmur of approval.
The talk turned upon racing, why Sam Chifney had been warned off the turf and
why the Regent had abandoned Newmarket. There were drunken tears in his dull
eyes as he told how scandalously he had been treated. And then it passed on to
prize-fighting. Yarmouth was a patron of the ring, and told of Gregson, the
North Country giant whom he had seen in Ward's ordinary in St. Martin's Lane.
His father bet a hundred guineas against him in the coming fight, and the
family wager was booked amidst shoutings and laughter. Then the talk came back
to the never failing topic of women, and it was seen how a coarse and material
age could debase the minds of men, and soil the daintiest of subjects. A shadow
of disgust passed over the pale face of Tregellis as he listened to the
hiccoughed reminiscences of the maudlin Regent.
"By-the-way, sir," said he, adroitly changing the subject, "has your
Highness heard of the vogue which Captain Mackinnon has obtained? No function
is à la mode without his exploit. Even Lady Lieven swears that the next
ball at Ahnack's will not be complete unless he goes round the room upon the
route chairs and the instruments of the musicians."
The jaded appetite of the Regent needed eternal novelties to stimulate it.
Hook had risen from the depths to the surface on account of his
originality—an originality which was already losing its freshness.
Everyone who had any talent or peculiarity, however grotesque, was brought to
Brighton. Mackinnon had never before been in the presence, and his fresh young
soldier face was suffused with blushes at the words of Tregellis. The Regent
looked at him with his glazed eyes.
"Let me see, I heard of you, sir, but I am d——d if I can call to
mind what you can do. Didn't you kill a cat with your teeth at the Cockpit? No,
that was Ingleston. Or are you the man who imitates a coach horn? No, by
George, I've got it! you're the furniture man."
"Go round any room in London on the furniture—never been
beaten—haw! haw! Well, it's close enough here, and any child could do
"Yes, sir," said Mackinnon. "It would be easy here."
"They tried to beat him at Lady Cunningham's," cried Banbury. "They had but
four chairs and a settee, but he climbed up the window and scrambled round the
picture rod. He takes some pounding, I tell you."
The Regent glanced round at the furniture, and staggering to his feet, he
pulled off his plum-colored silken coat.
"Coats off, gentlemen!" said he, and in an instant, young and old, they were
all in their white cambric shirt sleeves.
"We'll all do it," said he. "Every man Jack of us. By gad, Captain
Mackinnon, we'll play you at your own game. 'Pon my life, a little exercise
will harm none of us. Now, sir, give us a lead! You next, Banbury! You,
Yarmouth! You, Hertford! Then myself! And so, as we sit! And the man who is
pounded shall drink a claret glass of maraschino for a punishment."
It was an idiotic spectacle, and yet one which was characteristic of an age
when, in the highest circles, any form of ludicrous eccentricity was a more
sure pass to popularity and success than wisdom or brilliancy. If wise and
brilliant men—a Fox, or a Sheridan—did succeed in such
circles, it was by reason of their vices rather than of their virtues. A
Wordsworth or a Coleridge would have been powerless before a rival who crowed
like a cock or had a boundless invention for practical jokes. So it was that
Mackinnon, with his absurd accomplishment, had taken London society by storm
and shot over the heads of his superior officers into the select circle which
shared the amusements and the vices of the repulsive George.
Mackinnon, a little flurried at this strange game of follow-my-leader for
which he was to he responsible, had risen from his chair. He was a tall, thin,
supple lad, with a wiry, active figure, which bore out his reputation for
gymnastic skill. But there was nothing here to test his powers. As the Prince
had remarked, any one could, with a little address, have made the circuit of
the room without touching the floor, for the furniture was massive and
abundant. From a chair he stepped onto the long brown oaken sideboard, strewn
with fruit and plate. Walking along it, he found himself some few feet from an
armchair, onto which he sprang. The others followed with shouts and
cheers—some as active and light as himself, some stout from good living
and unsteady from wine, but all entering eagerly into the royal joke. The
courtly Banbury sprang with languid grace from the sideboard to the armchair,
and, landing on the arm, rolled with it upon the ground, George, balanced among
the dishes and wine-coolers upon the sideboard, laughed until he had to hold on
to a picture to keep from falling. When he, in his turn, sprang onto the chair
his two feet went through the bottom, amid shrieks of delight from his
companions. "Hark forrard! Hark forrard!" cried Hook; and Mountford "yoicked"
like a huntsman. Onto the broken chair they bounded, one after another, until
it was a bundle of splinters and upholstery. From there, with all the yapping
and clamor of a hunt, they scrambled over a cabinet, and so along a chain of
chairs that ended at the broad marble mantelpiece. Here was indeed a perilous
passage; nothing but a high pier glass upon one side, and a five-foot drop into
an ornamental fender upon the other. Mackinnon tripped over, and then Banbury,
Yarmouth, Hertford and the Prince, the last pawing nervously at the glass with
fat, moist hands which left their blurred marks across it. He had shuffled his
unwieldy bulk almost into safety, when suddenly the shoutings and the cheerings
died away, and a strange silence fell upon the rioters. Another sound, which
had grown louder upon their ears, hushed their foolish outcry.
It was a long, monotonous, bellowing call; a strangely animal uproar; one
deep note repeated again and again, but rising in volume to a retching whoop.
For some minutes Tregellis and others had been conscious of the sinister
clamor; but now it grew louder with every instant, as if some wandering heifer
were lowing down the corridor and rapidly approaching the door of their dining
room. It was so overpoweringly loud that it boomed through all their riot and
reduced them to a startled silence. For it was an extraordinary noise, animal
in sound, but human in origin—a grim, mindless hooting which struck cold
into their hearts. They looked from one to the other, the grotesque line of
coatless men, balanced upon the tables and the chairs. Who could it be who
howled thus down the royal corridor? The question flashed from eye to eye, and
it was the bloodless lips of George which found the answer. He had descended to
a chair and stood there with frightened, staring eyes fixed upon the door.
Outside there rang one last terrific whoop, as the door was flung open, and the
mad King stood mewing and gabbling in the opening.
He was in a gray dressing gown, with red slippers protruding beneath. His
white hair was ruffled, a white beard fell over his chest, and his huge,
protruding eyes rolled round him with the anxious eagerness of a purblind man.
For a moment he stood thus, his hand upon the door, a piteous, venerable
figure. Then the white beard dropped, the mouth opened wide, and again that
discordant, horrible, long-drawn cry boomed through the room. At the same
instant the frightened roisterers saw moving figures in the corridor over his
shoulder, the startled faces of hurrying doctors, and heard the patter and
rustle of their feet. Eager hands clutched at the old King, he was plucked
backwards, and the door slammed behind his struggling, screaming form. There
was a heavy thud within the dining room. Tregellis sprang for the brandy
"Loosen his shirt," said he; "hold up his head." And a little group of
flushed, half-drunken men propped up the gross and senseless form of the heir-