Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 52 of 103)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 52 of 103)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


THE ^DEAF GENTLEMAN,



267



and I believe the bad opinion ia which my
neighbours once held me had its rise in my not
being torn to pieces, or at least distracted with
terror, on the night I took possession : in either
of which cases I should doubtless have arrived
by a short cut at the very summit ot" popularity.

But traditions and rumours all taken into
account, who so abets me in every fancy, and
chime-s with my every thought, as my dear deaf
friend ? and how often have I cause to bless the
day that brought us two together ! Of all days
in the year I rejoice to think that it should
have been Christmas Day, with which from
childhood we associate something friendly,
hearty, and sincere.

I had walked out to cheer myself with the
happiness of others, and, in the little tokens of
festivity and rejoicing, of which the streets and
houses present so many upon that day, had lost
some hours. Now I stopped to look at a merry
party hurrying through the snow on foot to their
place of meeting, and now turned back to see a
whole coachful of children safely deposited at
the welcome house. At one time, I admired
how carefully the working man carried the baby
in its gaudy hat and feathers, and how his wife,
trudging patiently on behind, forgot even her
care of her gay clothes, in exchanging greetings
with the child as it crowed and laughed over the
father's shoulder; at another, I pleased myself
with some passing scene of gallantry or court-
ship, and w^as glad to believe that for a season
half the world of poverty was gay.

As the day closed in, I still rambled through
the streets, feeling a companionship in the
bright fires that cast their v/arm reflection on
the windows as I passed, and losing all sense? of
my own loneliness in imagining the sociality
and kind- fellowship that everywhere prevailed.
At length I happened to stop before a Tavern,
and encountering a Bill of Fare in the window,
it all at once brought it into my head to wonder
what kind of people dined alone in Taverns
upon Christmas Day.

Solitary men are accustomed, I suppose, un-
consciously to look upon solitude as their own
peculiar property. I had sat alone in my room
on many, many anniversaries of this great holi-
day, and had never regarded it but as one of
universal assemblage and rejoicing. I had ex-
cepted, and with an aching heart, a crowd of
prisoners and beggars, but these were not the
men for whom the Tavern doors were open.
Had they any customers, or was it a mere
form ? — a form, no doubt.

Trying to feel quite sure of this, I walked
away; but before I had gone many paces, I



stopped and looked back. There was a pro-
voking air of business in the lamp above the
door, which I could not overcome. I began to
be afraid there might be many customers —
young men, perhaps, struggling with the world,
utter strangers in this great place, whose friends
lived at a long distance off, and whose means
were too slender to enable them to make the
journey. The supposition gave rise to so many
distressing little pictures, that, in preference to
carrying them home with me, I determined to
encounter the realities. So I turned, and
walked in.

I was at once glad and sorry to find that
there was only one person in the dining-room ;
glad to know that there were not more, and
sorry that he should be there by himself. He
did not look so old as I, but like me he was
advanced in life, and his hair was nearly white.
Though I made more noise in entering and
seating myself than was quite necessary, with
the view of attracting his attention and saluting
him in the good old form of that time of year,
he did not raise his head, but sat with it resting
on his hand, musing over his half-finished meal,

I called for something which would give me
an excuse for remaining in the room (I had
dined early, as my housekeeper was engaged at
night to partake of some friend's good cheer),
and sat where I could observe without intrud-
ing on him. After a time he looked up. He
was aware that somebody had entered, but
could see very little of me, as I sat in the shade
and he in the light. He was sad and thought-
ful, and I forbore to trouble him by speaking.

Let me believe that it was something better
than curiosity which riveted my attention and
impelled me strongly towards this gentleman.
I never saw so patient and kind a face. He
should have been surrounded by friends, and
yet here he sat dejected and alone when all
men had their friends about them. As often as
he roused himself from his reverie he would fall
into it again, and it was plain that, whatever
were the subject of his thoughts, they were of a
melancholy kind, and would not be controlled.

He was not used to solitude. I was sure of
that ; for I know by myself that if he had been,
his manner would have been different, and he
would have taken some slight interest in the
arrival of another. I could not fail to mark
that he had no appetite ; that he tried to eat in
vain ; that time after time the plate was pushed
away, and he relapsed into his tbrmer posture.

His mind was wandering among old Christ-
mas Days, I thought. Many of them sprung up
together, not with a long gap between each, but



268



MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK.



in unbroken succession like days of the week.
It was a great change to find himself for the
first time (I ciuite settled that it was the first)
in an empty silent room with no soul to care
for. I could not help following him in imagina-
tion through crowds of pleasant faces, and then
coming back to that dull place, with its bough
of mistletoe sickening in the gas, and sprigs of
holly parched up already by a Simoom of roast
and boiled. The very waiter had gone home ;
and his representative, a poor, lean, hungry
man, was keeping Christmas in his jacket.

I grew still more interested in my friend.
His dinner done, a decanter of wine was placed
before him. It remained untouched for a long
time, but at length with a quivering hand he
filled a glass and raised it to his lips. Some
tender wish to which he had been accustomed
to give utterance on that day, or some beloved
name that he had been used to pledge, trem-
bled upon them at the moment. He put it
down very hastily — took it up once more —
again put it down — pressed his hand upon his
face — yes — and tears stole down his cheeks, I
am certain.

Without pausing to consider whether I did
right or wrong, I stepped across the room, and
sitting down beside him, laid my hand gently on
his arm.

"My friend," I said, " forgive me if I beseech
you to take comfort and consolation from the
lips of an old man. I will not preach to you
what I have not practised, indeed. Whatever
be your grief, be of a good heart — be of a good
heart, pray ! "

" I see that you speak earnestly," he replied,
" and kindly I am very sure, but "

I nodded my head to show that I understood
what he would say ; for I had already gathered,
from a certain fixed expression in his face, and
from the attention with which he watched me
w^iile 1 spoke, that his sense of hearing was
destroyed. " There should be a freemasonry
between us," said I, pointing from himself to
me to explain my meaning ; " if not in our grey
hairs, at least in our misfortunes. You see that
1 am but a poor cripple."

I never felt so happy under my affliction
since the trying moment of my first becoming
conscious of it, as when he took my hand in his
with a smile that has lighted my path in life
from that day, and we sat down side by side.

This was the beginning of my friendship with
the deaf gentleman ; and when was ever the
slight and easy service of a kind word in season
repaid by such attachment and devotion as he
has shown to me ?



He produced a little set of tablets and a
pencil to facilitate our conversation, on that our
first acquaintance ; and I well remember how
awkward and constrained I was in writing down
my share of the dialogue, and how easily he
guessed my meaning before I had written half
of what I had to say. He told me in a faltering
voice that he had not been accustomed to be
alone on that day — that it had always been a
little festival with him ; and seeing that I glanced
at his dress in the expectation that he wore
mourning, he added hastily that it was not
that ; if it had been, he thought he could have
borne it better. From that time to the pre-
sent we have never touched upon this theme.
Upon every return of the same day we have
been together ; and although we make it our
annual custom to drink to each other hand in
hand after dinner, and to recall with affec-
tionate garrulity every circumstance of our first
meeting, we always avoid this one as if by
mutual consent.

Meantime we have gone on strengthening in
our friendship and regard, and forming an at-
tachment which, I trust and believe, will only be
interrupted by death, to be renewed in another
existence. 1 scarcely know how we communi-
cate as we do ; but he has long since ceased to
be deaf to me. He is frequently the companion
of my walks, and even in crowded streets replies
to my slightest look or gesture as though he
could read my thoughts. From the vast number
of objects which pass in rapid succession before
our eyes, we frequently select the same for some
particular notice or remark ; and when one ot
these little coincidences occurs, I cannot de-
scribe the pleasure which animates my friend, or
the beaming countenance he will preserve for
half an hour afterwards at least.

He is a great thinker from living so much
w'ithin himself, and, having a lively imagination,
has a facility of conceiving and enlarging upon
odd ideas, which renders him invaluable to our
little body, and greatly astonishes our two friends.
His powers in this respect are much assisted by
a large pipe, which he assures us once belonged
to a German Student. Be this as it may, it has
undoubtedly a very ancient and mysterious ap-
pearance, and is of such capacity that it takes
three hours and a half to smoke it out. I have
reason to believe that my barber, who is the
chief authority of a knot of gossips who congre-
gate every evening at a small tobacconist's hard
by, has related anecdotes of this pipe and the
grim figures that are carved upon its bowl, at
which all the smokers in the neighbourhood
have stood aghast; and I know that my



JACK RED BURN.



269



housekeeper, while she holds it in high vene-
ration, has a superstitious feeling connected
with it which would render her exceedingly
unwilling to be left alone in its company after
tlark.

Whatever sorrow my deaf friend has known,
and whatever grief may linger in some secret
corner of his heart, he is now a cheerful, placid,
happy creature. Misfortune can never have
fallen upon such a man but for some good pur-
pose ; and when I see its traces in his gentle
nature and his earnest feeling, I am the less
disposed to murmur at such trials as I may have
undergone myself. With regard to the i)ipe, I
have a theory of my own ; I cannot help think-
ing that it is in some manner connected with
the event that brought us together ; for I re-
member that it was a long time before he even
talked about it ; that when he did, he grew re-
served and melancholy ; and that it was a long
time yet before he brought it forth. I have no
curiosity, however, upon this subject ; for I
know that it promotes his tranquillity and com-
fort, and I need no other inducement to regard
it with my utmost favour.

Such is the deaf gentleman. I can call up
his figure now, clad in sober grey, and seated in
the chimney-corner. As he puffs out the smoke
from his favourite pipe, he casts a look on me
brimful of cordiality and friendship, and says all
manner of kind and genial things in a cheerful
smile ; then he raises his eyes to my clock,
which is just about to strike, and, glancing from
it to me and back again, seems to divide his
heart between us. For myself, it is not too
much to say that I would gladly part with one
of my poor limbs, could he but hear the old
clock's voice.

Of our two friends, the first has been all his
life one of that easy, wayward, truant class whom
the world is accustomed to designate as nobody's
enemies but their own. Bred to a profession for
which he never qualified himself, and reared in
the expectation of a fortune he has never in-
herited, he has undergone every vicissitude of
which such an existence is capable. He and
his younger brother, both orphans from their
childhood, were educated by a wealthy relative,
who taught them to expect an equal division of
his property ; but too indolent to court, and too
honest to flatter, the elder gradually lost ground
in the affections of a capricious old man, and
the younger, who did not fail to improve his
opportunity, now triumphs in the possession of
enormous wealth. His triumph is to hoard it
in solitary wretchedness, and probably to feel
with the expenditure of every shilling a greater



pang than the loss of his whole inheritance ever
cost his brother.

Jack Redburn — he was Jack Redburn at the
first little school he went to, where every other
child was mastered and surnamed, and he has
been Jack Redburn all his life, or he woukl per-
haps have been a richer man by this time — has
been an inmate of my house these eight years
past. He is my librarian, secretary, steward,
and first minister ; director of all my affairs, and
inspector-general of my household. He is some-
thing of a musician, something of an author,
something of an actor, something of a painter,
very much of a carpenter, and an extraordinary
gardener, having had all his life a wonderful
aptitude for learning everything that was of no
use to him. He is remarkably fond of children,
and is the best and kindest nurse in sickness
that ever drew the breath of life. He has mixed
with every grade of society, and known the
utmost distress ; but there never was a less self-
ish, a more tender-hearted, a more enthusiastic,
or a more guileless man ; and I dare say, if few
have done less good, fewer still have done less
harm in the world than he. By what chance
Nature forms such whimsical jumbles I don't
know ; but I do know that she sends them
among us very often, and that the king of the
whole race is Jack Redburn.

I should be puzzled to say how old he is.
His health is none of the best, and he wears a
quantity of iron-grey hair, which shades his face
and gives it rather a worn appearance ; but we
consider him quite a young fellow notwithstand-
ing ; and if a youthful spirit, surviving the
roughest contact with the world, confers upon
its possessor any title to be considered young,
then he is a mere child. The only interruptions
to his careless cheerfulness are on a wet Sunday,
when he is apt to be unusually religious and
solemn, and sometimes of an evening, when he
has been blowing a very slow tune on the flute.
On these last-named occasions he is apt to in-
cline towards the mysterious or the terrible. As
a specimen of his powers in this mood, I refer
my readers to the extract from the clock-case
which follows this paper : he brought it to me
not long ago at midnight, and informed me that
the main incident had been suggested by a dream
of the night before.

His apartments are two cheerful rooms look-
ing towards the garden, and one of his great
delights is to arrange and rearrange the furniture
in these chambers, and put it in every possible
variety of position. During the whole time he
has been here, I do not think he has slept for
two nights running with the head of his bed in.



270



MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK.



the same place ; and every time he moves it is
to be the last. My housekeeper was at first
well-nigh distracted by these frequent changes ;
but she has become quite reconciled to them by
degrees, and has so lallen in witli his humour,
that they often consult together with great gra-
vity upon the next final alteration. Whatever
his arrangements are, howe\-er, they are always
a pattern of neatness ; and every one of the
manifold articles connected with his manifold
occupations is to be found in its own particular
place. Until within the last two or three years
he was subject to an occasional fit (which usually
came upon him in very fine weather), under the
influence of which he would dress himself with
peculiar care, and, going out under pretence of
taking a walk, disappear for several days to-
gether. At length, after the interval between
each outbreak of this disorder had gradually
grown longer and longer, it wholly disappeared ;
and now he seldom stirs abroad, except to stroll
out a little way on a summer's evening. Whether
he yet mistrusts his own constancy in this re-
spect, and is therefore afraid to wear a coat, I
know not ; but we seldom see him in any other
upper garment than an old spectral-looking dress-
ing-gown, with very disproportionate ])ockets,
full of a miscellaneous collection of odd matters,
which he picks up wherever he can lay his hands
upon them.

Everything that is a favourite with our friend
is a favourite with us ; and thus it happens that
the fourth among us is Mr. Ov\^en Miles, a most
worthy gentleman, who had treated Jack with
great kindness before my deaf friend and I en-
countered him by an accident, to which I may
refer on some future occasion, Mr. Miles was
once a very rich merchant; but receiving a
severe shock in the death of his wife, he retired
from business, and devoted himself to a quiet,
unostentatious life. He is an excellent man,
of thorou;j;hly sterling character : not of quick
apprehension, and not without some amusing
prejudices, which I shall leave to their own
development. He holds us all in profound
veneration ; but Jack Redburn he esteems as a
kind of pleasant wonder, that he may venture to
approach familiarly. He believes, not only that
no man ever lived who could do so many things
as Jack, but that no man ever lived who could
do anything so well ; and he never calls my
attention to any of his ingenious proceedings,
but he whispers in my ear, nudging me at the
same time with his elbow : " If he had only
made it his trade, sir — if he had only made it
his trade ! "

They are inseparable companions ; one would



almost suppose that although Mr. Miles never
by any chance does anything in the way of
assistance, Jack could do nothing without him.
Whether he is reading, writing, painting, car-
pentering, gardening, flute-playing, or what not,
there is Mr. Miles beside him, buttoned up to
the chin in his blue coat, and looking on with a
face of incredulous delight, as though he could
not credit the testimony of his own senses, and
had a misgiving that no man could be so clever
but in a dream.

These are my friends ; I have now introduced
myself and them.



THE CLOCK-CASE.

A CONFESSION FOUND IN A PRISON IN THE TIME
OF CHARLES THE SECOND.

I held a lieutenant's commission in his Ma-
jesty's army, and served abroad in the cam-
paigns of 167 7 and 1678. The treaty of Nimeguen
being concluded, I returned home, and retiring
from the service, withdrew to a small estate lying
a few miles east of London, which I had recently
acquired in right of my wife.

This is the last night I have to live, and I
will set down the naked truth without disguise.
I was never a brave man, and had always been
from my childhood of a secret, sullen, distrustful
nature. I speak of myself as if I had passed
from the world ; for while I write this, my grave
is digging, and my name is written in the black-
book of death.

Soon after my return to England, my only
brother was seized with mortal illness. This
circumstance gave me slight or no pain ; for
since we had been men, we had associated but
very little together. He was open-hearted and
generous, handsomer than I, more accomplished,
and generally beloved. Those who sought my
acquaintance abroad or at home, because they
were friends of his, seldom attached themselves
to me long, and would usually say, in our first
conversation, that they were surprised to find
two brothers so unlike in their manners and
appearance. It was my habit to lead them on
to this avowal; for I knew what comparisons
they must draw between us ; and having a rank-
ling envy in my heart, I sought to justify it to
myself.

We had man-ied two sisters. This additional
tie between us, as it may appear to some, only
estranged us the more. His wife knew me well.
I never struggled with any secret jealousy or
gall when she was present but that woman knew



A MURDERER'S CONFESSION.



271



it as well as I did. I never raised my eyes at
such times but I found hers fixed upon me ; I
never bent them on the ground or looked
another way but I felt that she overlooked me
always. It was an inexpressible relief to me
when we quarrelled, and a greater relief still
when I heard abroad that she was dead. It
seems to me now as if some strange and terrible
foreshadowing of what has happened since must
have hung over us then. I was afraid of her;
she haunted me ; her fixed and steady look
comes back upon me now, like tlie memory of
a dark dream, and makes my blood run cold.

She died shortly after giving birth to a child
— a boy. When my brother knew that all hope
of his own recovery was past, he called my wife
to his bedside, and confided this orphan, a child
of four years old, to her protection. He be-
queathed to him all the property he had, and
willed that, in case of his child's death, it should
pass to my wife, as the only acknowledgment he
could make her for her care and love. He ex-
changed a few brotherly words with me, deploring
our long separation ; and being exhausted, fell
into a slumber, from which he never awoke.

We had no children ; and as there had been
a strong aftection between the sisters, and my
wife had almost supplied the place of a mother
to this boy, she loved him as if he had been her
own. The child was ardently attached to her;
but he was his mother's image in face and spirit^
and always mistrusted me.

I can scarcely fix the date when the feeling
first came upon me ; but I soon began to be
uneasy when this child was by. I never roused
myself from some moody train of thought but
I marked him looking at me ; not with mere
childish wonder, but with something of the pur-
pose and meaning that I had so often noted
in his mother. It was no effort of my fancy,
founded on close resemblance of feature and
expression. I never could look the boy down.
He feared me, but seemed by some instinct to
despise me while he did so ; and even when -he
drew back beneath my gaze — as he would when
we were alone, to get nearer to the door — he
would keep his bright eyes upon me still.

Perhaps I hide the truth from myself, but I
do not think that, when this began, I meditated
to do him any wrong. I may have thought how
serviceable his inheritance would be to us, and
may have wished him dead ; but I believe I had
no thought of compassing his death. Neither
did the idea come upon me at once, but by very
slow degrees, presenting itself at first in dim
shapes at a very great distance, as men may
think of an earthquake or the last day; then



drawing nearer and nearer, and losing something
of its horror and improbability ; then coming to
be part and parcel — nay, nearly the whole sum
and substance — of my daily thoughts, and re-
solving itself into a question of means and
safety; not of doing or abstaining from the deed.
While this was going on within me, I never
could bear that the child should see me looking
at him, and yet I was under a fascination which
made it a kind of business with me to contem-
plate his slight and fragile figure, and think how
easily it might be done. Sometimes I would
steal up-stairs and watch him as he slept ; but
usually I hovered in the garden near the window
of the room in which he learnt his little tasks ;
and there, as he sat upon a low seat beside my
wife, I would peer at him for hours together
from behind a tree ; starting, like the guilty
wretch I was, at every rustling of a leaf, and
still gliding back to look and start again.

Hard by our cottage, but quite out of sight,
and (if there were any wind astir) of hearing
too, was a deep sheet of water. I spent days in
shaping with my pocket-knife a rough model of
a boat, which I finished at last, and dropped in
the child's way. Then I withdrew to a secret
place, which he must pass if he stole away alone
to swim this bauble, and lurked there for his
coming. He came neither that day nor the
next, though I waited from noon till nightfall.
I was sure that I had him in my net, for I had



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 52 of 103)