Charles Dickens.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain online

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CHAPTER I - The Gift Bestowed

Everybody said so.

Far be it from me to assert that what everybody says must be true.
Everybody is, often, as likely to be wrong as right. In the
general experience, everybody has been wrong so often, and it has
taken, in most instances, such a weary while to find out how wrong,
that the authority is proved to be fallible. Everybody may
sometimes be right; "but THAT'S no rule," as the ghost of Giles
Scroggins says in the ballad.

The dread word, GHOST, recalls me.

Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my
present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He

Who could have seen his hollow cheek; his sunken brilliant eye; his
black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well-knit and
well-proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled sea-
weed, about his face, - as if he had been, through his whole life, a
lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of
humanity, - but might have said he looked like a haunted man?

Who could have observed his manner, taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy,
shadowed by habitual reserve, retiring always and jocund never,
with a distraught air of reverting to a bygone place and time, or
of listening to some old echoes in his mind, but might have said it
was the manner of a haunted man?

Who could have heard his voice, slow-speaking, deep, and grave,
with a natural fulness and melody in it which he seemed to set
himself against and stop, but might have said it was the voice of a
haunted man?

Who that had seen him in his inner chamber, part library and part
laboratory, - for he was, as the world knew, far and wide, a learned
man in chemistry, and a teacher on whose lips and hands a crowd of
aspiring ears and eyes hung daily, - who that had seen him there,
upon a winter night, alone, surrounded by his drugs and instruments
and books; the shadow of his shaded lamp a monstrous beetle on the
wall, motionless among a crowd of spectral shapes raised there by
the flickering of the fire upon the quaint objects around him; some
of these phantoms (the reflection of glass vessels that held
liquids), trembling at heart like things that knew his power to
uncombine them, and to give back their component parts to fire and
vapour; - who that had seen him then, his work done, and he
pondering in his chair before the rusted grate and red flame,
moving his thin mouth as if in speech, but silent as the dead,
would not have said that the man seemed haunted and the chamber

Who might not, by a very easy flight of fancy, have believed that
everything about him took this haunted tone, and that he lived on
haunted ground?

His dwelling was so solitary and vault-like, - an old, retired part
of an ancient endowment for students, once a brave edifice, planted
in an open place, but now the obsolete whim of forgotten
architects; smoke-age-and-weather-darkened, squeezed on every side
by the overgrowing of the great city, and choked, like an old well,
with stones and bricks; its small quadrangles, lying down in very
pits formed by the streets and buildings, which, in course of time,
had been constructed above its heavy chimney stalks; its old trees,
insulted by the neighbouring smoke, which deigned to droop so low
when it was very feeble and the weather very moody; its grass-
plots, struggling with the mildewed earth to be grass, or to win
any show of compromise; its silent pavements, unaccustomed to the
tread of feet, and even to the observation of eyes, except when a
stray face looked down from the upper world, wondering what nook it
was; its sun-dial in a little bricked-up corner, where no sun had
straggled for a hundred years, but where, in compensation for the
sun's neglect, the snow would lie for weeks when it lay nowhere
else, and the black east wind would spin like a huge humming-top,
when in all other places it was silent and still.

His dwelling, at its heart and core - within doors - at his fireside-
-was so lowering and old, so crazy, yet so strong, with its worn-
eaten beams of wood in the ceiling, and its sturdy floor shelving
downward to the great oak chimney-piece; so environed and hemmed in
by the pressure of the town yet so remote in fashion, age, and
custom; so quiet, yet so thundering with echoes when a distant
voice was raised or a door was shut, - echoes, not confined to the
many low passages and empty rooms, but rumbling and grumbling till
they were stifled in the heavy air of the forgotten Crypt where the
Norman arches were half-buried in the earth.

You should have seen him in his dwelling about twilight, in the
dead winter time.

When the wind was blowing, shrill and shrewd, with the going down
of the blurred sun. When it was just so dark, as that the forms of
things were indistinct and big - but not wholly lost. When sitters
by the fire began to see wild faces and figures, mountains and
abysses, ambuscades and armies, in the coals. When people in the
streets bent down their heads and ran before the weather. When
those who were obliged to meet it, were stopped at angry corners,
stung by wandering snow-flakes alighting on the lashes of their
eyes, - which fell too sparingly, and were blown away too quickly,
to leave a trace upon the frozen ground. When windows of private
houses closed up tight and warm. When lighted gas began to burst
forth in the busy and the quiet streets, fast blackening otherwise.
When stray pedestrians, shivering along the latter, looked down at
the glowing fires in kitchens, and sharpened their sharp appetites
by sniffing up the fragrance of whole miles of dinners.

When travellers by land were bitter cold, and looked wearily on
gloomy landscapes, rustling and shuddering in the blast. When
mariners at sea, outlying upon icy yards, were tossed and swung
above the howling ocean dreadfully. When lighthouses, on rocks and
headlands, showed solitary and watchful; and benighted sea-birds
breasted on against their ponderous lanterns, and fell dead. When
little readers of story-books, by the firelight, trembled to think
of Cassim Baba cut into quarters, hanging in the Robbers' Cave, or
had some small misgivings that the fierce little old woman, with
the crutch, who used to start out of the box in the merchant
Abudah's bedroom, might, one of these nights, be found upon the
stairs, in the long, cold, dusky journey up to bed.

When, in rustic places, the last glimmering of daylight died away
from the ends of avenues; and the trees, arching overhead, were
sullen and black. When, in parks and woods, the high wet fern and
sodden moss, and beds of fallen leaves, and trunks of trees, were
lost to view, in masses of impenetrable shade. When mists arose
from dyke, and fen, and river. When lights in old halls and in
cottage windows, were a cheerful sight. When the mill stopped, the
wheelwright and the blacksmith shut their workshops, the turnpike-
gate closed, the plough and harrow were left lonely in the fields,
the labourer and team went home, and the striking of the church
clock had a deeper sound than at noon, and the churchyard wicket
would be swung no more that night.

When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day,
that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts.
When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from
behind half-opened doors. When they had full possession of
unoccupied apartments. When they danced upon the floors, and
walls, and ceilings of inhabited chambers, while the fire was low,
and withdrew like ebbing waters when it sprang into a blaze. When
they fantastically mocked the shapes of household objects, making
the nurse an ogress, the rocking-horse a monster, the wondering
child, half-scared and half-amused, a stranger to itself, - the very
tongs upon the hearth, a straddling giant with his arms a-kimbo,
evidently smelling the blood of Englishmen, and wanting to grind
people's bones to make his bread.

When these shadows brought into the minds of older people, other
thoughts, and showed them different images. When they stole from
their retreats, in the likenesses of forms and faces from the past,
from the grave, from the deep, deep gulf, where the things that
might have been, and never were, are always wandering.

When he sat, as already mentioned, gazing at the fire. When, as it
rose and fell, the shadows went and came. When he took no heed of
them, with his bodily eyes; but, let them come or let them go,
looked fixedly at the fire. You should have seen him, then.

When the sounds that had arisen with the shadows, and come out of
their lurking-places at the twilight summons, seemed to make a
deeper stillness all about him. When the wind was rumbling in the
chimney, and sometimes crooning, sometimes howling, in the house.
When the old trees outside were so shaken and beaten, that one
querulous old rook, unable to sleep, protested now and then, in a
feeble, dozy, high-up "Caw!" When, at intervals, the window
trembled, the rusty vane upon the turret-top complained, the clock
beneath it recorded that another quarter of an hour was gone, or
the fire collapsed and fell in with a rattle.

- When a knock came at his door, in short, as he was sitting so,
and roused him.

"Who's that?" said he. "Come in!"

Surely there had been no figure leaning on the back of his chair;
no face looking over it. It is certain that no gliding footstep
touched the floor, as he lifted up his head, with a start, and
spoke. And yet there was no mirror in the room on whose surface
his own form could have cast its shadow for a moment; and,
Something had passed darkly and gone!

"I'm humbly fearful, sir," said a fresh-coloured busy man, holding
the door open with his foot for the admission of himself and a
wooden tray he carried, and letting it go again by very gentle and
careful degrees, when he and the tray had got in, lest it should
close noisily, "that it's a good bit past the time to-night. But
Mrs. William has been taken off her legs so often" -

"By the wind? Ay! I have heard it rising."

" - By the wind, sir - that it's a mercy she got home at all. Oh
dear, yes. Yes. It was by the wind, Mr. Redlaw. By the wind."

He had, by this time, put down the tray for dinner, and was
employed in lighting the lamp, and spreading a cloth on the table.
From this employment he desisted in a hurry, to stir and feed the
fire, and then resumed it; the lamp he had lighted, and the blaze
that rose under his hand, so quickly changing the appearance of the
room, that it seemed as if the mere coming in of his fresh red face
and active manner had made the pleasant alteration.

"Mrs. William is of course subject at any time, sir, to be taken
off her balance by the elements. She is not formed superior to

"No," returned Mr. Redlaw good-naturedly, though abruptly.

"No, sir. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Earth; as
for example, last Sunday week, when sloppy and greasy, and she
going out to tea with her newest sister-in-law, and having a pride
in herself, and wishing to appear perfectly spotless though
pedestrian. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Air; as
being once over-persuaded by a friend to try a swing at Peckham
Fair, which acted on her constitution instantly like a steam-boat.
Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Fire; as on a false
alarm of engines at her mother's, when she went two miles in her
nightcap. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Water; as
at Battersea, when rowed into the piers by her young nephew,
Charley Swidger junior, aged twelve, which had no idea of boats
whatever. But these are elements. Mrs. William must be taken out
of elements for the strength of HER character to come into play."

As he stopped for a reply, the reply was "Yes," in the same tone as

"Yes, sir. Oh dear, yes!" said Mr. Swidger, still proceeding with
his preparations, and checking them off as he made them. "That's
where it is, sir. That's what I always say myself, sir. Such a
many of us Swidgers! - Pepper. Why there's my father, sir,
superannuated keeper and custodian of this Institution, eighty-
seven year old. He's a Swidger! - Spoon."

"True, William," was the patient and abstracted answer, when he
stopped again.

"Yes, sir," said Mr. Swidger. "That's what I always say, sir. You
may call him the trunk of the tree! - Bread. Then you come to his
successor, my unworthy self - Salt - and Mrs. William, Swidgers
both. - Knife and fork. Then you come to all my brothers and their
families, Swidgers, man and woman, boy and girl. Why, what with
cousins, uncles, aunts, and relationships of this, that, and
t'other degree, and whatnot degree, and marriages, and lyings-in,
the Swidgers - Tumbler - might take hold of hands, and make a ring
round England!"

Receiving no reply at all here, from the thoughtful man whom he
addressed, Mr. William approached, him nearer, and made a feint of
accidentally knocking the table with a decanter, to rouse him. The
moment he succeeded, he went on, as if in great alacrity of

"Yes, sir! That's just what I say myself, sir. Mrs. William and
me have often said so. 'There's Swidgers enough,' we say, 'without
OUR voluntary contributions,' - Butter. In fact, sir, my father is
a family in himself - Castors - to take care of; and it happens all
for the best that we have no child of our own, though it's made
Mrs. William rather quiet-like, too. Quite ready for the fowl and
mashed potatoes, sir? Mrs. William said she'd dish in ten minutes
when I left the Lodge."

"I am quite ready," said the other, waking as from a dream, and
walking slowly to and fro.

"Mrs. William has been at it again, sir!" said the keeper, as he
stood warming a plate at the fire, and pleasantly shading his face
with it. Mr. Redlaw stopped in his walking, and an expression of
interest appeared in him.

"What I always say myself, sir. She WILL do it! There's a
motherly feeling in Mrs. William's breast that must and will have

"What has she done?"

"Why, sir, not satisfied with being a sort of mother to all the
young gentlemen that come up from a variety of parts, to attend
your courses of lectures at this ancient foundation - its surprising
how stone-chaney catches the heat this frosty weather, to be sure!"
Here he turned the plate, and cooled his fingers.

"Well?" said Mr. Redlaw.

"That's just what I say myself, sir," returned Mr. William,
speaking over his shoulder, as if in ready and delighted assent.
"That's exactly where it is, sir! There ain't one of our students
but appears to regard Mrs. William in that light. Every day, right
through the course, they puts their heads into the Lodge, one after
another, and have all got something to tell her, or something to
ask her. 'Swidge' is the appellation by which they speak of Mrs.
William in general, among themselves, I'm told; but that's what I
say, sir. Better be called ever so far out of your name, if it's
done in real liking, than have it made ever so much of, and not
cared about! What's a name for? To know a person by. If Mrs.
William is known by something better than her name - I allude to
Mrs. William's qualities and disposition - never mind her name,
though it IS Swidger, by rights. Let 'em call her Swidge, Widge,
Bridge - Lord! London Bridge, Blackfriars, Chelsea, Putney,
Waterloo, or Hammersmith Suspension - if they like."

The close of this triumphant oration brought him and the plate to
the table, upon which he half laid and half dropped it, with a
lively sense of its being thoroughly heated, just as the subject of
his praises entered the room, bearing another tray and a lantern,
and followed by a venerable old man with long grey hair.

Mrs. William, like Mr. William, was a simple, innocent-looking
person, in whose smooth cheeks the cheerful red of her husband's
official waistcoat was very pleasantly repeated. But whereas Mr.
William's light hair stood on end all over his head, and seemed to
draw his eyes up with it in an excess of bustling readiness for
anything, the dark brown hair of Mrs. William was carefully
smoothed down, and waved away under a trim tidy cap, in the most
exact and quiet manner imaginable. Whereas Mr. William's very
trousers hitched themselves up at the ankles, as if it were not in
their iron-grey nature to rest without looking about them, Mrs.
William's neatly-flowered skirts - red and white, like her own
pretty face - were as composed and orderly, as if the very wind that
blew so hard out of doors could not disturb one of their folds.
Whereas his coat had something of a fly-away and half-off
appearance about the collar and breast, her little bodice was so
placid and neat, that there should have been protection for her, in
it, had she needed any, with the roughest people. Who could have
had the heart to make so calm a bosom swell with grief, or throb
with fear, or flutter with a thought of shame! To whom would its
repose and peace have not appealed against disturbance, like the
innocent slumber of a child!

"Punctual, of course, Milly," said her husband, relieving her of
the tray, "or it wouldn't be you. Here's Mrs. William, sir! - He
looks lonelier than ever to-night," whispering to his wife, as he
was taking the tray, "and ghostlier altogether."

Without any show of hurry or noise, or any show of herself even,
she was so calm and quiet, Milly set the dishes she had brought
upon the table, - Mr. William, after much clattering and running
about, having only gained possession of a butter-boat of gravy,
which he stood ready to serve.

"What is that the old man has in his arms?" asked Mr. Redlaw, as he
sat down to his solitary meal.

"Holly, sir," replied the quiet voice of Milly.

"That's what I say myself, sir," interposed Mr. William, striking
in with the butter-boat. "Berries is so seasonable to the time of
year! - Brown gravy!"

"Another Christmas come, another year gone!" murmured the Chemist,
with a gloomy sigh. "More figures in the lengthening sum of
recollection that we work and work at to our torment, till Death
idly jumbles all together, and rubs all out. So, Philip!" breaking
off, and raising his voice as he addressed the old man, standing
apart, with his glistening burden in his arms, from which the quiet
Mrs. William took small branches, which she noiselessly trimmed
with her scissors, and decorated the room with, while her aged
father-in-law looked on much interested in the ceremony.

"My duty to you, sir," returned the old man. "Should have spoke
before, sir, but know your ways, Mr. Redlaw - proud to say - and wait
till spoke to! Merry Christmas, sir, and Happy New Year, and many
of 'em. Have had a pretty many of 'em myself - ha, ha! - and may
take the liberty of wishing 'em. I'm eighty-seven!"

"Have you had so many that were merry and happy?" asked the other.

"Ay, sir, ever so many," returned the old man.

"Is his memory impaired with age? It is to be expected now," said
Mr. Redlaw, turning to the son, and speaking lower.

"Not a morsel of it, sir," replied Mr. William. "That's exactly
what I say myself, sir. There never was such a memory as my
father's. He's the most wonderful man in the world. He don't know
what forgetting means. It's the very observation I'm always making
to Mrs. William, sir, if you'll believe me!"

Mr. Swidger, in his polite desire to seem to acquiesce at all
events, delivered this as if there were no iota of contradiction in
it, and it were all said in unbounded and unqualified assent.

The Chemist pushed his plate away, and, rising from the table,
walked across the room to where the old man stood looking at a
little sprig of holly in his hand.

"It recalls the time when many of those years were old and new,
then?" he said, observing him attentively, and touching him on the
shoulder. "Does it?"

"Oh many, many!" said Philip, half awaking from his reverie. "I'm

"Merry and happy, was it?" asked the Chemist in a low voice.
"Merry and happy, old man?"

"Maybe as high as that, no higher," said the old man, holding out
his hand a little way above the level of his knee, and looking
retrospectively at his questioner, "when I first remember 'em!
Cold, sunshiny day it was, out a-walking, when some one - it was my
mother as sure as you stand there, though I don't know what her
blessed face was like, for she took ill and died that Christmas-
time - told me they were food for birds. The pretty little fellow
thought - that's me, you understand - that birds' eyes were so
bright, perhaps, because the berries that they lived on in the
winter were so bright. I recollect that. And I'm eighty-seven!"

"Merry and happy!" mused the other, bending his dark eyes upon the
stooping figure, with a smile of compassion. "Merry and happy - and
remember well?"

"Ay, ay, ay!" resumed the old man, catching the last words. "I
remember 'em well in my school time, year after year, and all the
merry-making that used to come along with them. I was a strong
chap then, Mr. Redlaw; and, if you'll believe me, hadn't my match
at football within ten mile. Where's my son William? Hadn't my
match at football, William, within ten mile!"

"That's what I always say, father!" returned the son promptly, and
with great respect. "You ARE a Swidger, if ever there was one of
the family!"

"Dear!" said the old man, shaking his head as he again looked at
the holly. "His mother - my son William's my youngest son - and I,
have sat among 'em all, boys and girls, little children and babies,
many a year, when the berries like these were not shining half so
bright all round us, as their bright faces. Many of 'em are gone;
she's gone; and my son George (our eldest, who was her pride more
than all the rest!) is fallen very low: but I can see them, when I
look here, alive and healthy, as they used to be in those days; and
I can see him, thank God, in his innocence. It's a blessed thing
to me, at eighty-seven."

The keen look that had been fixed upon him with so much
earnestness, had gradually sought the ground.

"When my circumstances got to be not so good as formerly, through
not being honestly dealt by, and I first come here to be
custodian," said the old man, " - which was upwards of fifty years
ago - where's my son William? More than half a century ago,

"That's what I say, father," replied the son, as promptly and
dutifully as before, "that's exactly where it is. Two times
ought's an ought, and twice five ten, and there's a hundred of

"It was quite a pleasure to know that one of our founders - or more
correctly speaking," said the old man, with a great glory in his
subject and his knowledge of it, "one of the learned gentlemen that
helped endow us in Queen Elizabeth's time, for we were founded
afore her day - left in his will, among the other bequests he made
us, so much to buy holly, for garnishing the walls and windows,
come Christmas. There was something homely and friendly in it.
Being but strange here, then, and coming at Christmas time, we took
a liking for his very picter that hangs in what used to be,
anciently, afore our ten poor gentlemen commuted for an annual
stipend in money, our great Dinner Hall. - A sedate gentleman in a
peaked beard, with a ruff round his neck, and a scroll below him,
in old English letters, 'Lord! keep my memory green!' You know all
about him, Mr. Redlaw?"

"I know the portrait hangs there, Philip."

"Yes, sure, it's the second on the right, above the panelling. I
was going to say - he has helped to keep MY memory green, I thank
him; for going round the building every year, as I'm a doing now,
and freshening up the bare rooms with these branches and berries,
freshens up my bare old brain. One year brings back another, and
that year another, and those others numbers! At last, it seems to
me as if the birth-time of our Lord was the birth-time of all I
have ever had affection for, or mourned for, or delighted in, - and
they're a pretty many, for I'm eighty-seven!"

"Merry and happy," murmured Redlaw to himself.

The room began to darken strangely.

"So you see, sir," pursued old Philip, whose hale wintry cheek had
warmed into a ruddier glow, and whose blue eyes had brightened
while he spoke, "I have plenty to keep, when I keep this present
season. Now, where's my quiet Mouse? Chattering's the sin of my
time of life, and there's half the building to do yet, if the cold
don't freeze us first, or the wind don't blow us away, or the

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Online LibraryCharles DickensThe Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain → online text (page 1 of 8)