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Mr. Pepys Sits In The Pit
by [?]

When it happens that a man has risen to be a member of Parliament, the Secretary of the British Navy and the President of the Royal Society, when he has become the adviser of the King and is moreover the one really bright spot in that King’s reign, it is amazing that considerably more than one hundred years after his death, when the navy that he nurtured dominates the seven seas, that he himself on a sudden should be known, not for his larger accomplishments, but as a kind of tavern crony and pot-companion. When he should be standing with fame secure in a solemn though dusty niche in the Temple of Time, it is amazing that he should be remembered chiefly for certain quarrels with his wife and as a frequenter of plays and summer gardens.

Yet this is the fate of Samuel Pepys. Before the return of the Stuarts he held a poor clerkship in the Navy Office and cut his quill obscurely at the common desk. At the Restoration, partly by the boost of influence, but chiefly by his substantial merit, he mounted to several successively higher posts. The Prince of Wales became his friend and patron and when he became Lord High Admiral he took Pepys with him in his advancement. Thus in 1684, Pepys became Secretary of the Navy. When later the Prince of Wales became King James II, Pepys, although his office remained the same, came to quite a pinnacle of administrative power. He was shrewd and capable in the conduct of his position and brought method to the Navy Office. He was a prime factor in the first development of the British Navy. Later victories that were to sweep the seas may be traced in part to him. Nelson rides upon his shoulders. These achievements should have made his fame secure. But on a sudden he gained for posterity a less dignified although a more interesting and enduring renown.

In life, Samuel Pepys walked gravely in majestical robe with full-bottomed wig and with ceremonial lace flapping at his wrists. Every step, if his portrait is to be believed, was a bit of pageantry. Such was his fame, that if his sword but clacked a warning on the pavement, it must have brought the apprentices to the windows. Tradesmen laid down their wares to get a look at him. Fat men puffed and strained to gain the advantage of a sill. Fashionable ladies peeped from brocaded curtains and ogled for his regard. Or if he went by chair, the carriers held their noses up as though offended by the common air. When he spoke before the Commons, the galleries were hushed. He gave his days to the signing of stiff parchments–Admiralty Orders or what not. He checked the King himself at the council table. In short, he was not only a great personage, but also he was quite well aware of the fact and held himself accordingly.

But now many years have passed, and Time, that has so long been at bowls with reputations, has acquired a moderate skill in knocking them down. Let us see how it fares with Pepys! Some men who have been roguish in their lives have been remembered by their higher accomplishments. A string of sonnets or a novel or two, if it catches the fancy, has wiped out a tap-room record. The winning of a battle has obliterated a meanly spent youth. It is true that for a while an old housewife who once lived on the hero’s street will shake a dubious finger on his early pranks. Stolen apples or cigarettes behind the barn cram her recollection. But even a village reputation fades. In time the sonnets and glorious battle have the upper place. But things went the other way with Pepys. Rather, his fate is like that of Zeus, who–if legend is to be trusted–was in his life a person of some importance whose nod stirred society on Olympus, but who is now remembered largely for his flirtations and his braggart conduct. A not unlike evil has fallen on the magnificent Mr. Pepys.