Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 43 of 103)
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ghostly letters on all the dead walls of this dead
town, I read thy honoured name, and find that
thy Last Supper, worked in Berlin Wool, invites
inspection as a powerful excitement !

Where are the people who are bidden with so
much cry to this feast of little wool? Where
are they ? \M"io are they ? They are not the
bandy-legged baby studying the fashions in the
tailor's window. They are not the two earthy
ploughmen lounging outside the saddler's shop,
in the stiff square where the Town-hall stands,
like a brick-and-mortar private on parade. They
are not the landlady of the Dodo in the empty
bar, whose eye had trouble in it, and no wel-
come, when I asked for dinner. They are not
the turnkeys of the Town Gaol, looking out of
the gateway in their uniforms, as if they had
locked up all the balance (as my American
friends would say) of the inhabitants, and could
now rest a little. They are not the two dusty
millers in the white mill down by the river,
where the great water-wheel goes heavily round
anil round, like the monotonous days and nights
in this forgotten place. Then who are they, for
there is no one else ? No ; this deponent maketh
oath and saith that there is no one else, save and
except the waiter at the Dodo, now laying the
cloth. I have paced the streets, and stared at
the houses, and am come back to the blank
bow-window of the Dodo ; and the town clocks
strike seven, and the reluctant echoes seem to
cry, "Don't wake us;" and the bandy-legged
baby has gone home to bed.

If the Dodo were only a gregarious bird — if it
had only some confused idea of making a com-
fortable nest — I could hope to get through the
hours between this and bedtime, without being
consumed by devouring melancholy. But, the
Dodo's habits are all wrong. It provides me
with a trackless desert of sitting-room, with a
chair for every day in the year, a table for every
month, and a waste of sideboard where a lonely
china vase pines in a corner for its mate long
departed, and will never make a match with the
candlestick in the opposite corner if it live till
Doomsday. The Dodo has nothing in the larder.
Even now, I behold the boots returning with
my sole in a piece of paper ; and with that por-
tion of my dinner, the boots, perceiving me at
the blank bow-window, slaps his leg as he comes
across the road, pretending it is something else.



The Dodo excludes the outer air. When I
mount up to my bedroom, a smell of closeness
and flue gets lazily up my nose like sleepy snuff.
The loose little bits of carpet writhe under my
tread, and take wormy shapes. I don't know
the ridiculous man in the looking-glass, beyond
having met him once or twice in a dish-cover —
and I can never shave /lim to-morrow morning '
The Dodo is narrow-minded as to towels ; ex-
pects me to wash on a freemason's apron with-
out the trimming ; when I ask for soap, gives
me a stony-hearted something white, with no
more lather in it than the Elgin marbles. The
Dodo has seen better days, and possesses inter-
minable stables at the back — silent, grass-grown,
broken-windowed, horseless.

This mournful bird can fry a sole, however,
which is much. Can cook a steak, too, which
is more. I wonder where it gets its sherry ! If
I were to send my pint of wine to some famous
chemist to be analysed, what would it turn out
to be made of? It tastes of pepper, sugar, bitter
almonds, vinegar, warm knives, any flat drink,
and a little brandy. Would it unman a Spanish
exile by reminding him of his native land at all ?
I think not. If there really be any townspeople
out of the churchyards, and if a caravan of them
ever do dine, with a bottle of wine per man, in
this desert of the Dodo, it must make good for
the doctor next day !

Where was the waiter born? How did he
come here ? Has he any hope of getting away
from here? Does he ever receive a letter, or
take a ride upon the railway, or see anything but
the Dodo? Perhaps he has seen the Berlin
Wool. He appears to have a silent sorrow on
him, and it may be that. He clears the table ;
draws the dingy curtains of the great bow-
window, which so unwillingly consent to meet,
that they must be pinned together; leaves me
by the fire with my pint decanter, and a little
thin funnel-shaped wine-glass, and a plate of
pale biscuits — in themselves engendering des-
peration.

No book, no newspaper ! I left the Arabian
Nights in the railway carriage, and have nothing
to read but Bradshaw, and " that way madness
lies." Remembering what prisoners and ship-
wTCcked mariners have done to exercise their
minds in solitude, I repeat the multiplication
table, the pence table, and the shilling table :
which are all the tables I happen to know.
What if I write something ? The Dodo keeps
no pens but steel pens ; and those I always stick
through the paper, and can turn to no other
account.

What am I to do ? Even if I could have the



222



A PLATED ARTICLE.



bandy-legged baby knocked up and brought
here, I could oft'er him nothing but sherry, and
that would be the death of him. He would
never hold up his head again if he touched it.
I can't go to bed, because I have conceived a
mortal hatred for my bedroom ; and I can't go
away, because there is no train for my place of
destination until morning. To burn the biscuits
will be but a fleeting joy; still it is a temporary
relief, and here they go on the fire ! Shall I
break the plate ? First let me look at the back,
and see who made it. Copeland.

Copeland ! Stop a moment. Was it yester-
day I visited Copeland's works, and saw them
making plates ? In the confusion of travelling
about, it miglit be yesterday or it might be yes-
terday month ; but I think it was yesterday. I
appeal to the plate. The plate says, decidedly,
yesterday. I find the plate, as I look at it,
growing into a companion.

" Don't you remember (says the plate) how
you steamed away, yesterday morning, in the
bright sun and the east wind, along the valley
of the sparkling Trent? Don't 3'ou recollect
how many kilns you flew past, looking like the
bowls of gigantic tobacco-pipes, cut short off
from the stem and turned upside down? And
the fires — and the smoke — and the roads made
with bits of crockery, as if all the plates and
dishes in the civilised world had been Mac-
adamised, expressly for the laming of all the
horses ? Of course I do !

And don't you remember (says the plate)
how you alighted at Stoke — a picturesque heap
of houses, kilns, smoke, wharfs, canals, and river,
lying (as was most appropriate) in a basin — and
how, after climbing up the sides of the basin to
look at the prospect, you trundled down again
at a walking-match pace, and straight proceeded
to my father's, Copeland's, where the Avhole of
my family, high and low, rich and poor, are
turned out upon the world from our nursery
and seminary, covering some fourteen acres of
ground? And don't you remember what we
spring from : — heaps of lumps of clay, partially
prepared and cleaned in Devonshire and Dor-
setshire, whence said clay principally comes —
and hills of flint, without which we should want
our ringing sound, and should never be musical?
And as to the flint, don't you recollect that it is
first burnt in kilns, and is then laid under the
four iron feet of a demon slave, subject to vio-
lent stamping fits, who, when they come on,
stamps away insanely with his four iron legs,
and would crush all the flint in the Isle of
Thanet to powder, without leaving off? And as
to the clay, don't you recollect how it is put



into mills or teasers, and is sliced, and dug, and
cut at, by endless knives, clogged and sticky,
but persistent — and is pressed out of that machine
through a square trough, whose form it takes —
and is cut off in square lumps and thrown into
a vat, and there mixed with water, and beaten
to a pulp by paddle-wheels — and is then run
into a rough house, all rugged beams and lad-
ders s])lashed with white, — superintended by
Grindoff the Miller in his working clothes, all
splashed with white, — where it passes through
no end of machinery-moved sieves all splashed
A\dth white, arranged in an ascending scale of
fineness (some so fine, that three hundred silk
threads cross each other in a single square inch
of their surface), and all in a violent state of
ague with their teeth for ever chattering, and
their bodies for ever shivering ? And as to the
flint again, isn't it mashed and mollified, and
troubled and soothed, exactly as rags are in a
paper-mill, until it is reduced to a pap so fine
that it contains no atom of "grit" perceptible
to the nicest taste? And as to the flint and
the clay together, are they not, after all this,
mixed in the proportion of five of clay to one of
flint, and isn't the compound — known as " slip"
— run into oblong troughs, where its superfluous
moisture may evaporate ; and finally, isn't it
slapped and banged and beaten and patted and
kneaded and wedged and knocked about like
butter, until it becomes a beautiful grey dough,
ready for the potter's use ?

In regard to the potter, popularly so called
(says the plate), you don't mean to say you
have forgotten that a workman called a Thrower
is the man under whose hand this grey dough
takes the shapes of the simpler household vessels
as quickly as the eye can follow? You don't
mean to say you cannot call him up before you,
sitting, with his attendant woman, at his potter's
wheel — a disc about the size of a dinner plate,
revolving on two drums slowly or quickly as he
wills — who made you a complete breakfast set
for a bachelor, as a good-humoured little off-
hand joke ? You remember how he took up as
much dough as he wanted, and, throwing it on
his wheel, in a moment fashioned it into a tea-
cup — caught up more clay, and made a saucer
— a larger dab, and whirled it into a teapot —
winked at a smaller dab, and converted it into
the lid of the teapot, accurately fitting by the
measurement of his eye alone — coaxed a middle-
sized dab for two seconds, broke it, turned it
over at the rim, and made a milkpot — laughed,
and tinned out a slop-basin — coughed, and pro-
vided for the sugar? Neither, 1 think, are jou
oblivious of the newer mode of making various



THE PLATE DISCOURSES.



223



articles, but especially basins, according to which

improvement a mould revolves instead of a disc ?
For you must remember (says the plate) how you
saw the mould of a little basin spinning round
and round, and how the workman smoothed and
pressed a handful of dough upon it, and how
with an instrument called a profile (a piece of
wood representing the profile of a basin's foot)
he cleverly scraped and carved the ring which
makes the base of any such basin, and then took
the basin off the lathe like a doughey skull-cap
to be dried, and afterwards (in what is called a
green state) to be put into a second lathe, there
to be finished and burnished with a steel bur-
nisher? And as to moulding in general (says
the plate), it can't be necessary for me to remind
you that all ornamental articles, and indeed all
articles not quite circular, are made in moulds.
For you must remember how you saAv the vege-
table dishes, for example, being made in moulds ;
and how the handles of teacups, and the spouts
of teapots, and the feet of tureens, and so forth,
are all made in little separate moulds, and are
each stuck on to the body corporate, of which
it is destined to form a part, with a stuff called
" slag," as quickly as you can recollect it. Fur-
ther, you learnt — you know you did — in the
same visit, how the beautiful sculptures in the
delicate new material called Parian, are all con-
structed in moulds ; how, into that material,
animal bones are ground up, because the phos-
phate of lime contained in bones makes it trans-
lucent ; how everything is moulded, before going
into the fire, one-fourth larger than it is intended
to come out of the fire, because it shrinks in that
proportion in the intense heat ; how, when a
figure shrinks unequally, it is spoiled — emerging
from the furnace a misshapen birth ; a big head
and a little body, or a little head and a big body,
or a Quasimodo with long arms and short legs,
or a ]Miss Biffin with neither legs nor arms worth
mentioning.

And as to the Kilns, in Avhich the firing takes
place, and in which some of the more precious
articles are burnt repeatedly, in various stages
of their process towards completion, — as to the
Kilns (says the plate, warming with the recol-
lection), if you don't remember them with a
horrible interest, what did you ever go to Cope-
land's for? When you stood inside of one of
those inverted bowls of a Pre-Adamite tobacco-
pipe, looking up at the blue sky through the
open top far off, as you might have looked up
from a well, sunk under the centre of the pave-
ment of the Pantheon at Rome, had you the
least idea where you were ? And when you
found yourself surrounded, in that dome-shaped



cavern, by innumerable columns of an unearthly
order of architecture, supporting nothing, and
squeezed close together as if a Pre-Adamite
Samson had taken a vast Hall in his arms, and
crushed it into the smallest possible space, had
you the least idea what they were ? No (says
the plate), of course not ! And when you found
that each of those pillars was a pile of ingeniously
made vessels of coarse clay — called Saggers —
looking, when separate, like raised pies lor the
table of the mighty Giant Blunderbore, and now
all full of various articles of pottery ranged in
them in baking order, the bottom of each vessel
serving for the cover of the one below, and the
whole Kiln rapidly filling with these, tier upon
tier, until the last workman should have barely
room to crawl out, before the closing of the
jagged aperture in the Avail and the kindling of
the gradual fire ; did you not stand amazed to
think that all the year round these dread cham-
bers are heating, white hot — and cooling — and
filling — and emptying — and being bricked up —
and broken open — humanly speaking, for ever
and ever ? To be sure you did ! And standing
in one of those Kilns nearly full, and seeing a
free crow shoot across the aperture atop, and
learning how the fire would wax hotter and
hotter by slow degrees, and would cool simi-
larly through a space of from forty to sixty
hours, did no remembrance of the days when
human clay was burnt oppress you ? Yes, I
think so ! I suspect that some fancy of a fiery
haze and a shortening breath, and a growing
heat, and a gasping prayer; and a figure in
black interposing between you and the sky (as
figures in black are very apt to do), and looking
down, before it grew too hot to look and live,
upon the Heretic in his edifying agony — I say,
I suspect (says the plate) that some such fancy
was pretty strong upon you Avhen you went out
into the air, and blessed God for the bright
spring day and the degenerate times !

After that, I needn't remind you what a relief
it was to see the simplest process of ornament-
ing this " biscuit " (as it is called when baked)
with brown circles and blue trees — converting
it into the common crockery-ware that is ex-
ported to Africa, and used in cottages at home.
For (says the plate) I am well persuaded that
you bear in mind how those particular jugs and
mugs were once more set upon a lathe and put
in motion ; and how a man blew the brown
colour (having a strong natural affinity with the
material in that condition) on them from a
blow-pipe as they twirled ; and how his daughter,
with a common brush, dropped blotches of blue
upon them in the right places ; and how, tilting



224



OUR HONOURABLE FRIEND.



the blotches upside down, she made them run
into rude images of trees, and there an end.

And didn't you see (says the plate) planted
upon my own brother that astounding blue
willow, with knobbed and gnarled trunk, and
foliage of blue ostrich feathers, which gives our
family the title of " willow pattern ? " And
didn't you observe, transferred upon him at the
same time, that blue bridge which spans nothing,
growing out from the roots of the Avillow ; and
the three blue Chinese going over it into a blue
temple, which has a fine crop of blue bushes
sprouting out of the roof; and a blue boat
sailing above them, the mast of which is bur-
glariously sticking itself into the foundations of
a blue villa, suspended sky-high, surmounted by
a lump of blue rock, sky-higher, and a couple of
billing blue birds, sky-highest — together wit \
the rest of that amusing blue landscape, which
has, in deference to our revered ancestors of the
Cerulean Empire, and in defiance of every known
law of perspective, adorned millions of our family
ever since the days of platters? Didn't you
inspect the copper-plate on which my pattern
was deeply engraved ? Didn't you perceive an
impression of it taken in cobalt colour at a
cylindrical press, upon a leaf of thin paper,
streaming from a plunge-bath of soap and
water? Wasn't the paper impression daintily
spread, by a light-fingered damsel (you hiow
you admired her !), over the surface of the plate,
and the back of the paper rubbed prodigiously
hard — with a long tight roll of flannel, tied up
like a round of hung beef — without so much as
ruffling the paper, wet as it was ? Then (says
the plate), was not the paper washed away with
a sponge, and didn't there appear, set ofl" upon
the plate, ihis identical piece of Pre-Raphaelite
blue distemper v/hich you now behold ? Not to
be denied ! I had seen all this — and more. I
had been shown, at Copeland's, patterns of
beautiful design, in faultless perspective, which
are causing the ugly old willow to wither out of
public favour ; and which, being quite as cheap,
insinuate good wholesome natural art into the
humblest households. When Mr. and Mrs.
Sprat have satisfied their material tastes by that
equal division of fat and lean which has made
their menage immortal ; and have, after the ele-
gant tradition, " licked the j^latter clean," they
can — thanks to modern artists in clay — feast
their intellectual tastes upon excellent delinea-
tions of natural objects.

This reflection prompts me to transfer my
attention from the blue plate to the forlorn but
cheerfully painted vase on the sideboard. And
surely (says the plate) you have not forgotten



how the outlines of such groups of flowers as
you see there are printed, just as I was printed,
and are afterwards shaded and filled in with
metallic colours by women and girls ? As to
the aristocracy of our order, made of the finer
clay — porcelain peers and peeresses ; — the slabs,
and i)anels, and table tops, and tazze ; the end-
less nobility and gentry of dessert, breakfast,
and tea services ; the gemmed perfume bottles,
and scarlet and gold salvers ; you saw that they
were painted by artists, with metallic colours
laid on with camel-hair pencils, and afterwards
burnt in.

And talking of burning in (says the plate),
didn't you find that every subject, from the willow
pattern to the landscape after Turner — having
been framed upon clay or porcelain biscuit — has
to be glazed? Of course you saw the glaze —
composed of various vitreous materials — laid
over every article ; and of course you witnessed
the close imprisonment of each piece in saggers
upon the separate system, rigidly enforced by
means of fine-pointed earthenware stilts placed
between the articles to prevent the slightest
communication or contact. We had in my
time — and I suppose it is the same now — four-
teen hours' firing to fix the glaze, and to make
it " run " all over us equally, so as to put a
good shiny and unscratchable surface upon us.
Doubtless, you observed that one sort of glaze
— called printing-body — is burnt into the better
sort of ware before it is printed. Upon this you
saw some of the finest steel engravings trans-
ferred, to be fixed by an after glazing — didn't
you ? Why, of course you did !

Of course I did. I had seen and enjoyed
everything that the plate recalled to me, and
had beheld with admiration how the rotatory
motion which keeps this ball of ours in its place
in the great scheme, with all its busy mites upon
it, was necessary throughout the process, and
could only be dispensed with in the fire. So,
listening to the plate's reminders, and musing
upon them, I got through the evening after all,
and went to bed. I made but one sleep of it —
for which I have no doubt I am also indebted
to the plate — and left the lonely Dodo in the
morning, quite at peace with it, before the
bandy-legged baby was up.



OUR HONOURABLE FRIEND.

WE are delighted to find that he has got
in ■ Our honourable friend is triumph-
antly returned to serve in the next Parlia-



THE MEMBER FOR VERBOSITY.



225



ment. He is the honourable member for
Verbosity — the best represented place in Eng-
land.

Our honourable friend has issued an" ad-
dress of congratulation to the Electors, which
is worthy of that noble constituency, and is a
very pretty piece of composition. In electing
him, he says, they have covered themselves with
glory, and England has been true to herself
(In his preliminary address he had remarked, in
a poetical quotation of great rarity, that nought
could make us rue, if England to herself did
prove but true.)

Our honourable friend delivers a prediction,
in the same document, that the feeble minions
of a faction will never hold up their heads any
more ; and that the finger of scorn will point at
them in their dejected state, through countless
ages of time. Further, that the hireling tools
that would destroy the sacred bulwarks of our
nationality are unworthy of the name of Eng-
lishmen ; and that so long as the sea shall roll
around our ocean-girded isle, so long his motto
shall be, No Surrender. Certain dogged persons
of low principles and no intellect have disputed
whether anybody knows who the minions are,
or what the faction is, or which are the hireling
tools and which the sacred bulwarks, or what it
is that is never to be surrendered, and if not,
why not? But, our honourable friend the
member for Verbosity knows all about it.

Our honourable friend has sat in several
Parliaments, and given bushels of votes. He
is a man of that profundity in the matter of
vote-giving, that you never know what he
means. When he seems to be voting pure
white, he may be in reality voting jet black.
When he says Yes, it is just as likely as not —
or rather more so — that he means No. This is
the statesmanship of our honourable friend. It is
in this that he differs from mere unparliamentary
men. You may not know what he meant then,
or what he means now ; but, our honourable
friend knows, and did from the first know, both
what he meant then, and what he means now ;
and when he said he didn't mean it then, he did
in fact say that he means it now. And if you
mean to say that you did not then, and do not
now, know what he did mean then, or does
mean now, our honourable friend will be glad
to receive an explicit declaration from you
whether you are prepared to destroy the sacred
bulwarks of our nationality.

Our honourable friend, the member for Ver-
bosity, has this great attribute, that he always
means something, and always means the same
thing. When he came down to that House and
Edwin Drood, Etc, 15.



mournfully boasted in his place, as an individual
member of the assembled Commons of this
"great and happy country, that he could lay his
hand upon his heart, and solemnly declare that
no consideration on earth should induce him, at
any time or under any circumstances, to go as
far north as Berwick-upon-Tweed ; and when he
nevertheless, next year, did go to Berwick-upon-
Tweed, and even beyond it, to Edinburgh ; he
had one single meaning, one and indivisible.
And God forbid (our honourable friend says) that
he should waste another argument upon thema-n
who professes that he cannot understand it ! "I
do NOT, gentlemen," said our honourable friend,
with indignant emphasis and amid great cheer-
ing, on one such public occasion ; '' I do not,
gentlemen, I am free to confess, envy the feel-
ings of that man whose mind is so constituted
as that he can hold such language to me, and
yet ky his head upon his pillow, claiming to be
a native of that land.

Whose march is o'er the mountain-wave,
Whose home is on the deep I "

(Vehement cheering, and man expelled.)

When our honourable friend issued his pre-
liminary address to the constituent body of



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 43 of 103)