Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 49 of 103)
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dressed, replied, in a kind of whisper, but very
audibly, " Do not come near me. I am dead.
I am here to redeem my promise. I come from
another world, but may not disclose its secrets !"
Then, the whole form becoming paler, melted,
as it were, into the moonlight, and faded away.

Or, there vv-as the daughter of the first occupier
of the picturesque Elizabethan house, so fiimous
in our neighbourhood. You have heard about
her } No ! Why, She went out one summer
evening at twilight, when she was a beautiful
girl, just seventeen years of age, to gather flowers
in the garden ; and presently came running, ter-
rified, into the hall to her father, saying, " Oh,
dear father, I have met myself ! " He took her
in his arms, and told her it was fancy, but she
said, " Oh no ! I met myself in the broad walk,
and I was pale and gathering withered flowers,



.and I turned my head, and held them up ! "

And, that night, she died ; and a picture of her
story was begun, though never finished, and they
say it is somewhere in the house to this day,
with its face to the wall.

Or, the uncle of my brother's wife was riding
home on horseback, one mellow evening at sun-
set, when, in a green lane close to his own
house, he saw a man standing before him, in the
very centre of the narrow way. "Why does
that man in the cloak stand there ? " he thought.
" Does he want me to ride over him ? " But
the figure never moved. He felt a strange sen-
sation at seeing it so still, but slackened his trot
and rode forward. When he was so close to it
as almost to toucli it with his stirrup, his horse
shied, and the figure glided up the bank in a
curious, unearthly manner — backward, and with-
out seeming to use its feet — and was gone. The
uncle of my brother's wife exclaiming, " Good
Heaven ! It's my cousin Harry, from Bombay !"
put spurs to his horse, which was suddenly in a
profuse sweat, and, wondering at such strange
behaviour, dashed round to the front of his
house. There, he saw the same figure, just
passing in at the long French window of the
drawing-room opening on the ground. He
threw his bridle to a servant, and hastened in
after it. His sister was sitting there alone.
''Alice, Where's my cousin Harry?" "Your
cousin Harry, John ? " " Yes. From Bombay.
I met him in the lane just now, and saw him
enter here this instant." Not a creature had
been seen by any one ; and in that hour and
minute, as it afterwards appeared, this cousin
died in India.

Or, it was a certain sensible old maiden lady,
who died at ninety-nine, and retained her facul-
ties to the last, who really did see the Orphan
Boy ; a story which has often been incorrectly
told, but of which the real truth is this — because
it is, in fact, a story belonging to our family —
and she was a connection of our family. When
she was about forty years of age, and still an un-
commonly fine woman (her lover died young,
which was the reason w^hy she never married,
though she had many offers), she went to stay
at a place in Kent, which her brother, an Indian
merchant, had newly bought. There was a
story that this place had once been held in
trust by the guardian of a young boy; who
was himself the next heir, and who killed
the young boy by harsh and cruel treatment.
She knew nothing of that. Ic has been said
that there was a Cage in her bedroom, in
which the guardian used to put the boy. There
was no such thing. There was only a closet.

She went to bed, made no alarm whatever in

the night, and in the morning said composedly
to her maitl, when she came in, " Who is the
pretty forlorn-looking child who has been peep-
ing out of that closet all night?" The maid
replied by giving a loud scream, and instantly
decamping. She was surprised ; but, she was a
woman of remarkable strength of mind, and she
dressed herself and went down-stairs, and clo-
seted herself with her brother. " Now, Walter,"
she said, " I have been disturbed all night by a
pretty, forlorn-looking boy, who has been con-
stantly peeping out of that closet in my room,
which I can't open. This is some trick." " I
am afraid not, Charlotte," said he, " for it is the
legend of the house. It is the Orphan Boy.
What did he do?" "He opened the door
softly," said she, " and peeped out. Sometimes,
he came a step or two into the room. Then, I
called to him, to encourage him, and he shrunk,
and shuddered, and crept in again, and shut the
door," "The closet has no communication,
Charlotte," said her brother, "with any other
part of the house, and it's nailed up." This
was undeniably true, and it took two carpenters
a whole forenoon to get it open for examination.
Then, she was satisfied that she had seen the
Orphan Boy. But the wild and terrible part of
the story is, that he was also seen by three of
her brother's sons in succession, who all died
young. On the occasion of each child being
taken ill, he came home in a heat, twelve hours
before, and said. Oh, mamma, he had been play-
ing under a particular oak-tree, in a certain
meadow, with a strange boy — a prett)-, forlorn-
icoking boy, who was very timid, and made
signs ! From fatal experience, the parents came
to know that this was the Orphan Boy, and that
the course of that child whom he chose for his
little playmate was surely run.

Legion is the name of the German castles
where we sit up alone to wait for the Spectre-—
where we are shown into a room, made compara-
tively cheerful for our reception — where we glance
round at the shadow^s thrown on the blank walls
by the crackling fire — where we feel very lonely
when the village innkeeper and his pretty
daughter have retired, after laying down a fresh
store of wood upon the hearth, and setting forth
on the small table such supper cheer as a cold
roast capon, bread, grapes, and a flask of old
Rhine wine — where the reverberating doors
close on their retreat, one after another, like so
many peals of sullen thunder — and where, about
the small hours of the night, we come into the
knowledge of divers supernatural mysteries.
Legion is the name of the haunted German



students in whose society we draw yet nearer to
the fire, while the school-boy in the corner opens
his eyes wide and round, and flies off the foot-
stool he has chosen for his seat when the door
accidentally blows open. Vast is the crop of
such fruit shining on our Christmas Tree ; in
blossom, almost at the very top ; ripening all
down the boughs !

Among the later toys and fancies hanging
there — as idle often, and less pure — be the
images once associated with the sweet old Waits,
the softened music in the night, ever unalterable !
Encircled by the social thoughts of Christmas-
time, still let the benignant figure of my child-
hood stand unchanged ! In every cheerful
image and suggestion that the season brings,
may the bright star that rested above the poor
roof be the star of all the Christian world ! A
moment's pause, O vanishing tree, of which the
lower boughs are dark to me as yet, and let me

look once more ! I know there are blank
spaces on thy branches, where eyes that I have
loved have shone and smiled ; from which they
are departed. But, far above, I see the raiser
of the dead girl and the Widow's Son ; and
God is good ! If Age be hiding for me in the
unseen portion of thy downward growth, oh
may I, with a grey head, turn a child's heart to
that figure yet, and a child's trustfulness and
confidence !

Now, the tree is decorated with bright merri-
ment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness.
And they are welcome. Innocent and welcome
be they ever held beneath the branches of the
Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow !
But, as it sinks into the ground, I hear a whis-
per going through the leaves, " This, in com-
memoration of the law of love and kindness,
mercy and compassion. This, in remembrance
of Me ! "





T^HE reader must not expect to know where
-■- I live. At present, it is true, my abode
may be a question of little or no import to any-
body, but if I should carry my readers with

me, as I hope to do, and there should spring
up between them and me feelings of homely
affection and regard attaching something of
interest to matters ever so slightly connected
with my fortunes or my speculations, even my
place of residence might one day have a kind
of charm for them. Bearing this possible contin-
gency in mind, I wish them to understand, in the
outset, that they must never expect to know it.



I am not a churlish old man. Friendless I
can never be, for all mankind are my kindred,
and I am on ill terms with no one member of
my great fomily. But for many years I have led
a lonely, solitary life ; — what wound I sought to
heal, what sorrow to forget, originally, matters
not now ; it is sufficient that retirement has be-
come a habit with me, and that I am unwilling
to break the spell which for so long a time has
shed its quiet influence upon my home and

I live in a venerable suburb of London, in an
old house, which in bygone days was a famous
resort for merry roysterers and peerless ladies,
long since departed. It is a silent, shady place,
with a paved courtyard so full of echoes, that
sometimes I am tempted to believe that faint
responses to the noises of old times linger there
yet, and that these ghosts of sound haunt my
footsteps as I pace it up and down. I am the
more confirmed in this belief, because, of late
years, the echoes that attend my walks have
been less loud and marked than they were wont
to be ; and it is pleasanter to imagine in them
the rustling of silk brocade, and the light step of
some lovely girl, than to recognise in their
altered note the failing tread of an old man.

Those who like to read of brilliant rooms and
gorgeous furniture would derive but little plea-
sure from a minute description of my simple
dwelling. It is dear to me for the same reason
that they would hold it in slight regard. Its
wonn-eaten doors, and low ceilings crossed by
clumsy beams; its walls of wainscot, dark stairs,
and gaping closets ; its small chambers, com-
municating with each other by winding passages
or narrow steps ; its many nooks, scarce larger
than its comer-cupboards ; its very dust and
dulness, are all dear to me. The moth and
spider are my constant tenants, for in my house
the one basks in his long sleep, and the other
plies his busy loom secure and undisturbed. I
have a pleasure in thinking on a summer's day
how many butterflies have sprung for the first
time into light and sunshine from some dark
corner of these old walls.

When I first came to live here, which was
many years ago, the neighbours were curious to
know who I was, and whence I came, and why
I lived so much alone. As time went on, and
they still remained unsatisfied on these points, I
became the centre of a popular ferment, extend-
ing for half a mile round, and in one direction
for a full mile. Various rumours were circulated
to my prejudice. I was a spy, an infidel, a con-
jurer, a kidnapper of children, a refugee, a priest,
a monster. Mothers caught up their infants and

ran into their houses as I passed ; men eyed me
spitefully, and muttered threats and curses. I
was the object of suspicion and distrust — ay, of
downright hatred too.

But when in course of time they found I did
no harm, but, on the contrary, inclined towards
them despite their unjust usage, they began to
relent. I found my footsteps no longer dogged,
as they had often been before, and observed that
the women and children no longer retreated, but
would stand and gaze at me as I passed their
doors. I took this for a good omen, and waited
patiently for better times. By degrees I began
to make friends among these humble folks ; and
though they were yet shy of speaking, would
give them " good day," and so pass on. In a
little time, those whom I had thus accosted
would make a point of coming to their doors
and windows at the usual hour, and nod or
curtsey to me ; children, too, came timidly within
my reach, and ran away quite scared when I
patted their heads and bade them be good at
school. These little people soon grew more
familiar. From exchanging mere words of course
with my older neighbours, I gradually became
their friend and adviser, the depositary of their
cares and sorrows, and sometimes, it may be, the
reliever, in my small way, of their distresses.
And now I never walk abroad but pleasant
recognitions and smiling faces wait on Master

It was a Avhim of mine, perhaps as a whet to
the curiosity of my neighbours, and a kind of
retaliation upon them for their suspicions, — it
was, I say, a whim of mine, when I first took up
my abode in this place, to acknowledge no other
name than Humphrey. With my detractors, I
was ugly Humphrey. When I began to convert
them into friends, I was Mr. Humphrey, and
Old Mr. Humphrey. At length I settled down
into plain Master Humphrey, which was under-
stood to be the title most pleasant to my ear ;
and so completely a matter of course has it be-
come, that sometimes when I am taking my
morning walk in my little courtyard, I overhear
my barber — who has a profound respect for me,
and would not, I am sure, abridge my honours
for the world — holding forth on the other side
of the wall, touching the state of " Master
Humphrey's" health, and communicating to
some friend the substance of the conversation
that he and Master Humphrey have had to-
gether in the course of the shaving which he has
just concluded.

That I may not make acquaintance with my
readers under false pretences, or give them cause
to complain hereafter that I have withheld any



matter which it was essential for them to have
learnt at first, I wish them to know — and I
smile sorrowfully to think that the time has
been when the confession would have given me
pain — that I am a misshapen, deformed old man.

I have never been made a misanthrope by
this cause. I have never been stung by any
insult, nor wounded by any jest upon my crooked
figure. As a child I was melancholy and timid,
but that was because the gentle consideration
paid to my misfortune sunk deep into my spirit
and made me sad, even in those early days. I
was but a very young creature when my poor
mother died, and yet I remember that often
when I hung around her neck, and oftener still
when I played about the room before her, slie
would catch me to her bosom, and bursting into
tears, soothe me with every term of fondness
and affection. God knows I was a happy child
at those times, — happy to nestle in her breast,
— happy to weep when she did, — happy in not
knowing Avhy.

These occasions are so strongly impressed'
upon my memory, that they seem to have occu-
pied whole years. I had numbered very, very
few when they ceased for ever, but before then
their meaning had been revealed to me.

I do not know whether all children are im-
bued with a quick perception of childish grace
and beauty, and a strong love for it, but I was.
I had no thought that I remember, either that I
possessed it myself or that I lacked it, but I
admired it with an intensity that I cannot de-
scribe. A little knot of playmates — they must
have been beautiful, for I see them now — were
clustered one day round my mother's knee in
eager admiration of some picture representing a
group of infant angels, which she held in her
hand. Whose the picture was, whether it was
familiar to me or otherwise, or how all the
children came to be there, I forget ; I have some
dim thought it was my birthday, but the begin-
ning of my recollection is that we were all to-
gether in a garden, and it was summer weather,
' — I am sure of that, for one of the little girls
had roses in her sash. There were many lovely
angels in the picture, and I remember the fancy
coming upon me to point out which of them
represented each child there, and that when I
had gone through my companions, I stopped
and hesitated, wondering which was most like
me. I remember the children looking at each
other, and my turning red and hot, and their
crowding round to kiss me, saying that they
loved me all the same ; and then, and when the
old sorrow came into my dear mother's mild and
lender look, the truth broke upon me for the

first time, and I knew, while watching my awk-
ward and ungainly sports, how keenly she had
felt for her poor crii)i)lcd boy.

I used frequently to dream of it afterwards,
and now my heart aches for that child as if I
had never been he, when I think how often he
awoke from some foiry change to his own old
form, and sobbed himself to sleep again.

Well, well, — all these sorrows are past. My
glancing at them may not be without its use, for
it may help in some measure to explain why I
have all my life been attached to the inanimate
objects that people my chamber, and how I have
come to look upon them rather in the liglit of
old and constant friends, than as mere chairs
and tables which a little money could replace
at will.

Chief and first among all these is my Clock, —
my old, cheerful, companionable Clock. How
can I ever convey to others an idea of the com-
fort and consolation that this old clock has been
for years to me ?

It is associated with my earliest recollections.
It stood upon the staircase at home (I call it
home still mechanically), nigh sixty years ago.
I like it for that ; but it is not on that account,
nor because it is a quaint old thing in a huge
oaken case curiously and richly carved, that I
prize it as I do. I incline to it as if it were
alive, and could understand and give me back
the love I bear it.

And what other thing that has not life could
cheer me as it does ? what other thing that has
not life (I will not say how few things that have)
could have proved the same patient, true, un-
tiring friend ? How often have I sat in the long
winter evenings feeling such society in its cricket-
voice, that raising my eyes from my book and
looking gratefully towards it, the face reddened
by the glow of the shining fire has seemed to
relax from its staid expression and to regard me
kindly ! how often in the summer twilight, when
my thoughts have wandered back to a melan-
choly past, have its regular whisperings recalled
them to the calm and peaceful present ! how
often in the dead tranquillity of night has its bell
broken the oppressive silence, and seemed to
give me assurance that the old clock was still a
faithful watcher at my chamber door ! My easy-
chair, my desk, my ancient furniture, my very
books, I can scarcely bring myself to love even
these last like my old clock !

It stands in a snug corner, midway between
the fireside and a low arched door leading to my
bedroom. Its fame is diffused so extensively
throughout the neighbourhood, that I have often
the satisfaction of hearing the publican or the



baker, and sometimes even the parish clerk,
petitioning my housekeeper (of whom I shall
have much to say by-and-by) to inform him the
exact time by Master Humphrey's Clock. My
barber, to whom I have referred, would sooner
believe it than the sun. Nor are these its only
distinctions. It has acquired, I am happy to
say, another, inseparably connecting it not only
with my enjoyments and reflections, but with
those of other men ; as I shall now relate.

I lived alone here for a long time without any
friend or acquaintance. In the course of my
wanderings by night and day, at all hours and
seasons, in city streets and quiet country parts,
I came to be familiar with certain faces, and to
take it to heart as quite a heavy disappointment
if they failed to present themselves each at its
accustomed spot. But these were the only
friends I knew, and beyond them I had none.

It happened, however, when I had gone on
thus for a long time, that I formed an acquaint-
ance with a deaf gentleman, which ripened into
intimacy and close companionship. To this
hour I am ignorant of his name. It is his hu-
mour to conceal it, or he has a reason and pur-
pose for so doing. In either case, I feel that he
has a right to require a return of the trust he has
reposed ; and as he has never sought to discover
my secret, I have never sought to penetrate his.
There may have been something in this tacit
confidence in each other flattering and pleasant
to us both, and it may have imparted in the
beginning an additional zest, perhaps, to our
friendship. Be this as it may, we have grown to
be like brothers, and still I only know him as
the deaf gentleman.

I have said that retirement has become a
habit with me. When I add that the deaf gen-
tleman and I have two friends, I communicate
nothing which is inconsistent with that declara-
tion. I spend many hours of every day in soli-
tude and study, have no friends or change of
friends but these, only see them at stated pe-
riods, and am supposed to be of a retired spirit
by the very nature and object of our association.

We are men of secluded habits, with some-
thing of a cloud upon our early fortunes, whose
enthusiasm, nevertheless, has not cooled with
age, whose spirit of romance is not yet quenched,
who are content to ramble through the world in
a pleasant dream, rather than ever waken again
to its harsh realities. \Ve are alchemists who
would extract the essence of perpetual youth
from dust and ashes, tempt coy Truth in many
light and airy forms from the bottom of her well,
and discover one crumb of comfort or one gram
of good in the commonest and least-regarded

matter that passes through our crucible. Spirits
of past times, creatures of imagination, and
people of to-day, are alike the objects of our
seeking, and, unHke the objects of search with
most piiilosophers, we can insure their coming
at our command.

The deaf gentleman and I first began to be-
guile our days with these fancies, and our nights
in communicating them to each other. We are
now four. But in my room there are six old
chairs, and we have decided tliat the two empty
seats sliall always be placed at our table when
we meet, to remind us that we may yet increase
our company by that number, if we should find
two men to our mind. When one among us
dies, his chair will always be set in its usual
place, but never occupied again ; and I have
caused my will to be so drawn out, that when
we are all dead, the house shall be shut up, and
the vacant chairs still left in their accustomed
places. It is pleasant to think that even then
our shades may, perhaps, assemble together as
of yore we did, and join in ghostly converse.

One night in every week, as the clock strikes
ten, w^e meet. At the second stroke of two, I
am alone.

And now shall I tell how that my old servant,
besides giving us note of time, and ticking
cheerful encouragement of our proceedings,
lends its name to our society, which for its
punctuality and my love, is christened " Master
Humphrey's Clock?" Now shall I tell how
that in the bottom of the old dark closet, where
the steady pendulum throbs and beats with
healthy action, though the pulse of him who
made it stood still long ago, and never moved
again, there are piles of dusty papers constantly
placed there by our hands, that we may link our
enjoyments with my old friend, and draw means
to beguile time from the heart of time itself?
Shall I, or can I, tell with what a secret pride I
open this repository when we meet at night, and
still find new store of pleasure in my dear old
Clock ?

Friend and companion of my solitude ! mine
is not a selfish love ; I would not keep your
merits to myself, but disperse something of
pleasant association with your image through
the whole wide w^orld ; I would have men
couple with your name cheerful and healthy
thoughts ; I would have them believe that you
keep true and honest time ; and how would it
gladden me to know that they recognised some
hearty English work in Master Humphrey's
Clock !




It is my intention constantly to address my
readers from the chimney-corner, and I woidd
fain hope that such accounts as I shall give
them of our histories and proceedings, our
(]uiet speculations or more busy adventures,
will never be unwelcome. Lest, however, I
should grow prolix in the outset by lingering
too long upon our little association, confounding

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 49 of 103)