Charles Dickens.

The mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories online

. (page 24 of 103)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 24 of 103)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


a passenger, asked j\Ir. Rogers what they could
do to escape. ' Follow me,' he replied, and
they all went into the stern-gallery, and from
thence to the upper-quarter-gallery on the poop.
While there, a very heavy sea fell on board, and
the round-house gave w-ay ; Mr. Rogers heard
the ladies shriek at intervals, as if the water
reached them ; the noise of the sea at other
times drowning their voices.

" Mr. Brimer had followed him to the poop,
where they remained together about five minutes,



when, on the breaking of this heavy sea, they
jointly seized a hen-coop. The same wave
which proved fatal to some of those below, car-
ried him and his companion to the rock, on
which they were violently dashed and miserably
bruised.

" Here on the rock were twenty-seven men ;
but it now being low water, and as they were
convinced that on the flowing of the tide all
must be washed off, many attempted to get to
the back or the sides of the cavern, beyond the
reach of the returning sea. Scarcely more
than six, besides Mr. Rogers and Mr. Brimer,
succeeded.

" Mr, Rogers, on gaining this station, was so
nearly exhausted, that had his exertions been
protracted only a few minutes longer, he must
have sunk under them. He was now prevented
from joining I\Ir. Meriton by at least twenty
men between them, none of whom could move
without the imminent peril of his life.

" They found that a very considerable number
of the crew, seamen and soldiers, and some petty
officers, were in the same situation as themselves,
though many who had reached the rocks below
perished in attempting to ascend. They could
yet discern some part of the ship, and in their
dreary station solaced themselves with the hopes
of its remaining entire until daybreak ; for, in
the midst of their own distress, the sufterings of
the females on board affected them with the
most poignant anguish ; and every sea that broke
inspired them with terror for their safety.

" But, alas, their apprehensions were too soon
realised ! Within a very few minutes of the
time that Mr. Rogers gained the rock, an uni-
versal shriek, which long vibrated in their ears,
in which the voice of female distress was lament-
ably distinguished, announced the dreadful ca-
tastrophe. In a few moments all was hushed,
except the roaring of the winds and the dashing
of the waves ; the wreck was buried in the deep,
and not an atom of it was ever afterwards seen."

The most beautiful and affecting incident I
know, associated with a shipwreck, succeeds
this dismal story for a winter night. The
Grosvenor, East Indiaman homeward bound,
goes ashore on the coast of Caftraria. It is re-
solved that the officers, passengers, and crew^,
' in number one hundred and thirty-five souls,
shall endeavour to penetrate on foot, across
trackless deserts, infested by wild beasts and
cruel savages, to the Dutch settlements at the
Cape of Good Hope, ^^'ith this forlorn object
before them, they finally separate into two
parties — never more to meet on earth.



A SACRED CHARGE.



127



There is a solitary child among the passen-
gers—a little boy of se\^ii years old who has no
relation there ; and when the first party is mov-
ing away he cries after some member of it who
has been kind to him. The crying of a child
might be supposed to be a little thing to men in
such great extremity ; but it touches them, and
he is immediately taken into that detachment.

From which time forth, this child is sublimely
made a sacred charge. He is pushed, on a little
raft, across broad rivers, by the swimming
sailors ; they carry him by turns through the
deep sand and long grass (he patiently walking
at all other times) ; they share with him such
putrid fish as they find to eat ; they lie down
and wait for him when the rough carpenter,
who becomes his especial friend, lags behind.
Beset by lions and tigers, by savages, by thirst,
by hunger, by death in a crowd of ghastly
shapes, they never — O Father of all mankind,
thy name be blessed for it ! — forget this child.
The captain stops exhausted, and his faithful
coxswain goes back, and is seen to sit down by
his side, and neither of the two shall be any
more beheld until the great last day ; but, as
the rest go on for their lives, they take the child
with them. The carpenter dies of poisonous
berries eaten in starvation ; and the steward,
succeeding to the command of the party, suc-
ceeds to the sacred guardianship of the child.

God knows all he does for the poor baby ;
how he cheerfully carries him in his arms when
he himself is weak and ill ; how he feeds him
when he himself is griped with want ; how he
folds his ragged jacket round him, lays his little
worn face with a woman's tenderness upon his
sunburnt breast, soothes him in his sufferings,
sings to him as he limps along, unmindful of
his o\xx\ parched and bleeding feet. Divided
for a few days from the rest, they dig a grave in
the sand, and bury their good friend the cooper
— these two companions alone in the wilderness
— and then the time comes when they both are
ill, and beg their wretched partners in despair,
reduced and few in number now, to wait by
them one day. They wait by them one day,
they wait by them two days. On the morning
of the third, they move very softly about, in
making their preparations for the resumption of
their journey; for, the child is sleeping by the
fire, and it is agreed with one consent that he
shall not be disturbed until the last moment.
The moment comes, the fire is dying — and the
child is dead.

His faithful friend, the steward, lingers but a
little while behind him. His grief is great, he
staggers on for a few days, lies down in the



desert, and dies. But he shall be reunited in
his immortal spirit — who can doubt it ? — with
the chikl, where he and the poor carpenter shall
be raised up with the words, " Inasmuch as ye
have done it unto the least of these, ye have
done it unto Me." ^

As I recall the dispersal and disappearance
of nearly all the participators in this once
famous shij)wreck (a mere handful being re-
covered at last), and the legends that were long
afterwards revived from time to time among the
English officers at the Cape, of a white woman
with an infant, said to have been seen weeping
outside a savage hut far in the interior, who was
whisperingly associated with the remembrance
of the missing ladies saved from the wrecked
vessel, and who was often sought, but never
found, thoughts of another kind of travel come
into my mind.

Thoughts of a voyager unexpectedly sum-
moned from home, who travelled a vast dis-
tance, and could never return. Thoughts of
this unhappy wayfarer in the depths of his
sorrow, in the bitterness of his anguish, in the
helplessness of his self-reproach, in the despera-
tion of his desire to set right what he had left
wrong, and do what he had left undone.

For, there were many many things he had
neglected. Little matters while he was at home
and surrounded by them, but things of mighty
moment when he was at an immeasurable dis-
tance. There were many many blessings that
he had inadequately felt, there were many tri-
vial injuries that he had not forgiven, there was
love that he had but poorly returned, there was
friendship that he had too lightly prized ; there
were a million kind words that he might have
spoken, a million kind looks that he might have
given, uncountable slight easy deeds in which
he might have been most truly great and good.

for a day (he would exclaim), for but one day
to make amends ! But the sun never shone
upon that happy day, and out of his remote
captivity he never came.

Why does this traveller's fate obscure, on
New Year's Eve, the other histories of travellers
with which ray mind was filled but now, and
cast a solemn shadow over me ? Must I one
day make his journey? Even so. Who shall
say that I may not then be tortured by such
late regrets : that I may not then look from my
exile on my empty place and undone work ?

1 stand upon a seashore, where the waves are
years. They break and fall, and I may little
heed them : but, with every wave the sea is
rising, and I know that it will float me on this
traveller's voyage at last.



128



THE BEGGING-LETTER WRITER.




THE BEGGING-LETTER WRITER.

HE amount of money he annually
diverts from wholesome and useful
purposes in the United Kingdom
would be a set-off against the Win-
dow Tax. He is one of the most
shameless frauds and impositions of this
time. In his idleness, his mendacity, and
i^^ the immeasurable harm he does to the
deserving, — dirtying the stream of true benevo-
lence, and muddling the brains of foolish justices,
with inability to distinguish between the base
coin of distress and the true currency we have
always among us, — he is more worthy of Norfolk
Island than three-fourths of the worst characters
who are sent there. Under any rational system,
he would have been sent there long ago.

I, the writer of this paper, have been, for
some time, a chosen receiver of Begging Letters.
For fourteen years my house has been made as
regular a Receiving House for such communica-
tions as any one of the great branch Post Offices
is for general correspondence. I ought to know
something of the Begging-Letter Writer. He
has besieged my door at all hours of the day
and night ; he has fought my servant ; he has
lain in ambush for me, going out and coming
in ; he has followed me out of town into the
country ; he has appeared at provincial hotels,
where I have been staying for onl}- a few hours \
he has written to me from immense distances,
when I have been out of England. He has fallen
sick ; he has died, and been buried ; he has
come to life again, and again departed from this
transitory scene ; he has been his own son, his
own mother, his own baby, his idiot brother, his
uncle, his aunt, his aged grandfather. He
has wanted a great-coat to go to India in ; a
pound, to set him up in life for ever ; a pair of
boots, to take him to the coast of China ; a hat,
to get him into a permanent situation under
Government. He has frequently been exactly
seven-and-sixpence short of independence. He
has had such openings at Liverpool — posts of
great trust and confidence in merchants' houses,
which nothing but seven-and-sixpence was want-
ing to him to secure — that I wonder he is not
Mayor of that flourishing town at the present
moment.

The natural phenomena of which he has been
the victim are of a most astounding nature. He
has had two children who have never grown
up ; who have never had anything to cover them
at night ; who have been continually driving
him mad, by asking in vain for food 3 who have



never come out of fevers and measles (which, I
suppose, has accounted for his fuming his letters
with tobacco smoke, as a disinfectant) ; who
have never changed in the least degree through
fourteen long revolving years. As to his wife,
what that suffering woman has undergone, no-
body knows. She has always been in an in-
teresting situation through the same long period,
and has never been confined yet. His devotion
to her has been unceasing. He has never cared
for himself ; he could have perished — he would
rather, in short — but w^as it not his Christian
duty as a man, a husband, and a father, to write
begging letters Avhen he looked at her ? (He
has usually remarked that he would call in the
evening for an answer to this question.)

He has been the sport of the strangest mis-
fortunes. What his brother has done to him
would have broken anybody else's heart. His
brother went into business with him, and ran
away with the money ; his brother got him to be
secur-ity for an immense sum, and left him to
pay it ; his brother would have given him em-
ployment to the tune of hundreds a year, if he
would have consented to write letters on a Sun-
day ; his brother enunciated principles incom-
patible with his religious views, and he could
not (in consequence) permit his brother to pro-
vide for him. His landlord has never shown a
spark of human feeling. When he put in that
execution, I don't know, but he has never taken
it out. The broker's man has grown grey in pos-
session. They will have to bury him some da}'.

He has been attached to every conceivable
pursuit. He has been in the army, in the navy,
in the church, in the law ; connected with the
press, the fine arts, public institutions, every
description and grade of business. He has been
brought up as a gentleman : he has been at
every college in Oxford and Cambridge ; he can
quote Latin in his letters (but generally mis-
spells some minor English word) ; he can tell
you what Shakespeare says about begging, better
than you know it. It is to be observed, that in
the midst of his afflictions he always reads the
newspapers ; and rounds off his appeals with
some allusion, that may be supposed to be in
my way, to the popular subject of the hour.

His life presents a series of inconsistencies.
Sometimes he has never written such a letter
before. He blushes with shame. That is the
first time ; that shall be the last. Don't answer
it, and let it be understood that, then, he will
kill himself quietly. Sometimes (and more fre-
quently) he has written a few such letters. Then
he encloses the answers, with an intimation that
they are of inestimable value to him, and a re-



HE ENCHANTS A AIAGISTRATE.



129



quest that they may be carefully returned. He
is fond of enclosing something — verses, letters,
pawnbrokers' duplicates, anything to necessitate
an answer. He is very severe upon " the pam-
]:)ered minion ot fortune," who refused him the
lialf- sovereign referred to in the enclosure num-
ber two — but he knows me better.

He writes in a variety of styles ; sometimes
in low spirits ; sometimes quite jocosely. When
he is in low spirits, he writes downhill, and re-
peats words — these little indications being ex-
pressive of the perturbation of his mind. When
he is more vivacious, he is frank with me ; he is
quite the agreeable rattle. I know what human
nature is, — who better ? Well ! He had a little
money once, and he ran through it — as many
men have done before him. He finds his old
friends turn away from him now — many men
have done that before him, too ! Shall he tell
me why he writes to me ? Because he has no
kind of claim upon me. He puts it on that
ground, plainly ; and begs to ask for the loan
(as I know human nature) of two sovereigns, to
be repaid next Tuesday six weeks, before twelve
at noon.

Sometimes, when he is sure that I have found
him out^ and that there is no chance of money,
he writes to inform me that I have got rid of
him at last. He has enlisted into the Com-
pany's service, and is off directly — but he wants
a cheese. He is informed by the sergeant that
it is essential to his prospects in the regiment
that he should take out a single -Gloucester
cheese, weighing from twelve to fifteen pounds.
Eight or nine shillings would buy it. He does
not ask for money, after what has passed ; but
if he calls at nine to-morrow morning, may he
hope to find a cheese ? And is there anything
he can do to show his gratitude in Bengal?

Once he wrote me rather a special letter pro-
posing relief in kind. He had got into a little
trouble by leaving parcels of mud done up in
brown paper at people's houses, on pretence of
being a Railway Porter, in which character he
received carriage money. This sportive fancy
he expiated in the House of Correction. Not
long after his release, and on a Sunday morning,
he called with a letter (having first dusted him-
self all over), in which he gave me to understand
that, being resolved to earn an honest livelihood,
he had been travelling about the country with a
cart of crockery. That he had been doing pretty
well until the day before, when his horse had
dropped down dead near Chatham, in Kent.
That this had reduced him to the unpleasant
necessity of getting into the shafts himself, and
drawing the cart of crockery to London — a
Edwin Drood, Etc, 9.



somewhat e.xhausting pull of thirty miles. That
he did not venture to ask again for money ; but
that if I would have the goodness to leave him
out a donkey, he would call for the animal before
breakfast !

At another time my friend (I am describing
actual experiences) introduced himself as a
literary gentleman in the last extremity of dis-
tress. He had had a play accepted at a certain
Theatre — which was really open ; its repre-
sentation was delayed by the indisposition of a
leading actor — who was really ill ; and he and
his were in a state of absolute starvation. If he
made his necessities known to the Manager of
the Theatre, he put it to me to say what kind
of treatment he might expect ? Well ! we got
over that difficulty to our mutual satisfaction.
A little while afterwards he was in some other
strait — I think Mrs. Southcote, his wife, was in
extremity — and we adjusted that point too. A
little while afterwards he had taken a new house,
and was going headlong to ruin for want of a
water-butt. I had my misgivings about the
water-butt, and did not reply to that epistle.
But, a little while afterwards, I had reason to
feel penitent for my neglect. He wrote me a
few broken-hearted lines, informing me that the
dear partner of his sorrows died in his arms last
night at nine o'clock !

I dispatched a trusty messenger to comfort
the bereaved mourner and his poor children :
but the messenger went so soon, that the play
was not ready to be played out ; my friend was
not at home, and his wife was in a most delight-
ful state of health. He was taken up by the
Mendicity Society (informally it afterwards ap-
peared), and I presented myself at a London
Police Office with my testimony against him.
The Magistrate was wonderfully struck by his
educational acquirements, deeply impressed by
the excellence of his letters, exceedingly sorry to
see a man of his attainments there, complimented
him highly on his powers of composition, and
was quite charmed to have the agreeable duty
of discharging him. A collection was made for
the " poor fellow," as he was called in the re-
ports, and I left the court with the comfortable
sense of being universally regarded as a sort of
monster. Next day, comes to me a friend of
mine, the governor of a large prison. " Why
did you ever go to the Police Office agamst that
man," says he, " without coming to me first ? I
know all about him and his frauds. He lodged
in the house of one of my warders, at the very
time when he first wrote to you ; and then he
was eating spring lamb at eighteenpence a pound,
and early asparagus at I don't know^ how much



I30



THE BEGGING-LETTER WRITER.



a bundle ! " On that very same day, and in
diat very same hour, my injured gentleman wrote
a solemn address to me, demantling to know
what compensation I proposed to make him for
his having passed the night in a " loathsome
dungeon." And next morning, an Irish gentle-
man, a member of the same fraternity, who had
read the case, and was very well persuaded I
should be chary of going to that Police Office
again, positively refused to leave my door for
less than a sovereign, and, resolved to besiege
me into compliance, literally " sat down " before
it for ten mortal hours. The garrison being
well provisioned, I remained within the walls ;
and he raised the siege at midnight, with a pro-
digious alarum on the bell.

The Begging-Letter Writer often has an ex-
tensive circle of acquaintance. Whole pages of
the Court Guide are ready to be references for
him. Noblemen and gentlemen write to say
there never was such a man for probity and
virtue. They have known him time out of mind,
and there is nothing they wouldn't do for him.
Somehow, they don't give him that one pound
ten he stands in need of ; but perhaps it is not
enough — they want to do more, and his modesty
will not allow it. It is to be remarked of his
trade that it is a very fascinating one. He never
leaves it ; and those who are near to him be-
come smitten with a love of it too, and sooner
or later set up for themselves. He employs a
messenger — man, woman, or child. That mes-
senger is certain ultimately to become an inde-
pendent Begging-Letter Writer. His sons and
daughters succeed to his calHng, and write
begging letters when he is no more. He throws
oft the infection of begging-letter writing, like
the contagion of disease.- What Sydney Smith
so happily called " the dangerous luxury of dis-
honesty " is more tempting, and more catching, it
would seem, in this instance than in any other.

He always belongs to a Corresponding Society
of Begging-Letter ^Vriters. Any one who will
may ascertain this fact. Give money to-day, in
recognition of a begging letter, — no matter how
unlike a common begging letter, — and for the
next fortnight you will have a rush of such
communications. Steadily refuse to give ; and
the begging letters become Angels' visits, until
the Society is from some cause or other in a dull
way of business, and may as well try you as any-
body else. It is of little use inquiring into the
Begging-Letter Writer's circumstances. He may
be sometimes accidentally found out, as in the
case already mentioned (though that was not the
first inquiry made) ; but apparent misery is
always a part of his trade, and real misery very



often is, in the intervals of spring lamb and early
asparagus. It is naturally an incident of his
dissipated and dishonest life.

That the calling is a successful one, and that
large sums of money are gained by it, must be
evident to anybody who reads the Police Re-
ports of such cases. But, prosecutions are of
rare occurrence, relatively to the extent to which
the trade is carried on. The cause of this is
to be found (as no one knows better than the
Begging-Letter Writer, for it is a part of his
speculation) in the aversion people feel to ex-
hibit themselves as having been imposed upon,
or as having weakly gratified their consciences
with a lazy, flimsy substitute for the noblest of
all virtues. There is a man at large, at the
moment when this paper is preparing for the
press (on the 29th of April, 1850), and never
once taken up yet, who, within these twelve
months, has been probably the most audacious
and the most successful swindler that even this
trade has ever known. There has been some-
thing singularly base in this fellow's proceed-
ings : it has been his business to write to all
sorts and conditions of people, in the names of
persons of high reputation and unblemished
honour, professing to be in distress — the general
admiration and respect for whom has insured a
ready and generous reply.

Now, in the hope that the results of the real
experience of a real person may do something
more to induce reflection on this subject than
any abstract treatise — and with a personal know-
ledge of the extent to which the Begging-Letter
Trade has been carried on for some time, and
has been for some time constantly increasing —
the writer of this paper entreats the attention of
his readers to a few concluding words. His
experience is a type of the experience of many ;
some on a smaller, some on an infinitely larger
scale. All may judge of the soundness or un-
soundness of his conclusions from it.

Long doubtful of the efficacy of such assist-
ance in any case whatever, and able to recall
but one, within his own individual knowledge,
in which he had the least after-reason to suppose
that any good was done by it, he was led, last
autumn, into some serious considerations. The
begging letters ffying about by every post made
it perfectly manifest, That a set of lazy vaga-
bonds were interposed between the general
desire to do something to relieve the sickness
and misery under which the poor were suffering,
and the suffering poor themselves. That many
who sought to do some little to repair the socir. 1
wrongs inflicted in the way of preventible sick
ness and death upon the poor, were strength-



HE IS A MERE ROBBER.



I3t



ening those wrongs, however innocently, by-
wasting money on pestilent knaves cumbering
society. That imagination, — soberly following
one of these knaves into his life of punishment
in gaol, and comparing it with the life of one of
these poor in a cholera-stricken alley, or one of
the children of one of these poor, soothed in its
dying hour by the late lamented I\Ir. Drouet, —
contemplated a grim farce, impossible to be
presented very much longer before God or man.
That the crowning miracle of all the miracles



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 24 of 103)