Chapter XII. – Absence of Mind, pp.53-57.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

MANY of these blunders in act spring from absent-mindedness. 

Samuel Rogers used to tell a comical incident about Topham Beauclerk, Johnson’s friend. One day he had some friends coming to dinner, and, just before their arrival, he went up stairs to change his dress. Forgetting what he was about, he pulled off all his clothes and went to bed. A servant, who came to tell him that his guests were waiting for him, found him fast asleep. 

It is difficult to imagine any one making a similar mistake in connection with his marriage; yet this occurred in the case of John Kemble the tragedian. After the marriage ceremony and the dinner were over he had to go to the theatre to play, and got so completely absorbed in his usual work that he wholly forgot about his marriage, and went straight away from the theatre to his old bachelor rooms. 

His friends in the meantime, who had been waiting at his new home till he should return, that they might have a parting glass and wish him all happiness, were astonished when ten came but no Kemble; eleven and twelve, but still no Kemble. 

Three of them went off to the theatre; but no – Kemble had been gone from that since nine. 

   “Where did he go?” 

   “To the Temple; that was the order he gave the hackman.” 

Away they went to his rooms at the Temple, but had to knock five or six times without an answer, till at last a window was opened, and Kemble, looking out with his night-cap on, cried – 

   “Who is there?” 

   “Why, Kemble, what in the world are you doing here? We’ve been expecting you at D——— Street these three hours, and the bride is distracted.” 

   “The bride? the bride? to be sure. Bless me, yes; I had forgotten it.” 

He had been in bed for two hours. 

Stothard the painter, on his marriage, showed similar obliviousness, as also did Porson. 

The story is told of a clergyman who, walking in the country one day, fell into thought. He was so accustomed to ride that, when he found himself at a toll, he stopped and shouted to the man – 

   “Here! what’s to pay?” 

   “Pay for what?” 

asked the man. 

   “For my horse.” 

   “What horse? There’s no horse, sir!” 

   “Bless me!”  

exclaimed the clergyman, looking down between his legs, 

   “I thought I was on horseback!” 

Doctor Josiah Campbell, who was located for many years on the Western Reserve in Ohio, was a skilful physician, but a very eccentric and absent-minded man. One day he was caught in a thunder-plump, which ceased just as he got home from a long ride. He had to start again immediately after dinner; but he led his horse into the stable, and, removing the dripping saddle, took it out and fixed it upon a log of wood to dry, at the same time putting the bridle over the end of the log, and hitching the reigns to the horn of the saddle. After dinner he went out; and, thinking of nothing but his next patient, walked straight up to the log, unhitched the reins, mounted into the saddle, and only discovered his mistake when he found that the log, in spite of the repeated application of the whip, would not stir. 

Sydney Smith was not in general absent-minded, but he says that once, when calling on a friend in London, and being asked by the servant, 

   “Who shall I say has called?” 

he could not for the life of him recollect his own name, and stared in blank astonishment at the man for some time before it came back to him. 

He said that Lord Darnley was one of the most absent men he ever met in society. One day his Lordship asked him up to dinner to meet himself!  

   “Dine with me to-day, and I will get Sydney Smith to meet you.” 

The wit acknowledged the temptation, but said he had engaged to meet himself elsewhere. 

The first Lord Lyttleton was also very absent. It is declared of him that when he fell into the river by the upsetting of a boat at Hagley, 

   “he sank twice before he recollected that he could swim.” 

The following incident is recorded of Sir Isaac Newton, who, from his habits of abstraction, often did things unconsciously, and was aware of this himself. Dr Stukeley, the antiquarian, going on one occasion to visit him, was shown into the private parlour, where he waited for more than an hour without any one coming. Beginning to feel very hungry, and not knowing how long it would be before Sir Isaac made his appearance, the antiquarian sat down and made his dinner off a fowl which the cook had prepared for her master. 

At last Newton came down. He was much surprised on seeing the fowl half eaten, and, after a moment’s reflection, exclaimed, 

   “I declare, Stukeley, I’ve dined to-day without knowing it!” 

One of the most absent men I have ever met was the late Dr Duncan, Professor of Hebrew in the Free College, Edinburgh, of whom many queer stories are told, which need not, however, be repeated here. 

A New York paper gives the following anecdote in illustration of the absent-mindedness of the great Jonathan Edwards:- At one time he rode after the cows, and a little boy very respectfully bowed and opened the gate for him. 

   “Whose boy are you, my little man?” – 

   “Noah Clark’s boy, sir.” 

On his return with the cows, the same boy appeared and opened the gate for him. Edwards thanked the little fellow, and asked, 

   “Whose boy are you?” – 

   “Noah Clark’s, sir; the same man’s boy I was a quarter of an hour ago, sir.”

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