Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 54 of 103)
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night of meeting, that I might have the pleasure
of presenting him immediately on his election,

Mr. Pickwick, having with many blushes
placed in my hands a small roll of paper, which
he termed his " qualification," put a great many
questions to me touching my frie;ids, and par-
ticulady Jack Redburn, whom he repeatedly
termed " a fine fellow," and in whose favour I
could see he was strongly predisposed. When I
had satisfied him on these points, I took him
up into my room, that he might make acquaint-
ance with the old chamber which is our place of

"And this," said Mr. Pickwick, stopping
short, " is the clock ! Dear me ! And this is
really the old clock ! "
I thought he would never have come away from

it. After advancing towards it softly, and laying
his hand upon it with as much respect and as
many smiling looks as if it were alive, he set
himself to consider it in every possible direc-
tion, now mounting on a chair to look at the
top, now going down upon his knees to examine
the bottom, now surveying the sides with his
spectacles almost touching the case, and now
trying to peep between it and the wall to get a
slight view of the back. Then he would retire
a pace or two and look up at the dial to see it
go, and then draw near again and stand with
his head on one side to hear it tick : never failing
to glance towards me at intervals of a few seconds
each, and nod his head with such complacent
gratification as I am quite unable to describe.
His admiration was not confined to the clock
either, but extended itself to every article in the
room ; and really, when he had gone through
them every one, and at last sat himself down in
all the six chairs, one after anothei', to try how
they felt, I never saw such a picture of good-
humour and happiness as he presented, from the
top of his shining head down to the very last
button of his gaiters.

I should have been well pleased, and should
have had the utmost enjoyment of his company,
if he had remained with me all day, but my
favourite, striking the hour, reminded him that
he must take his leave. I could not forbear
telling him once more how glad he had made
me, and we shook hands all the way down-stairs.

We had no sooner arrived in the hall than ir.y
housekeeper, gliding out of her little room (she
had changed her gown and cap, I observed),
greeted Mr. Pickwick with her best smile and
curtsy ; and the barber, feigning to be accident-
ally passing on his way out, made him a vast
number of bows. When the housekeeper curt-
sied, Mr. Pickwick bowed with the utmost
politeness, and when he bowed, the housekeeper
curtsied again ; between the housekeeper and
the barber, I should say that Mr. Pickwick faced
about and bowed with undiminished aflability
fifty times at least.

I saw him to the door ; an omnibus was at
the moment passing the corner of the lane,
which Mr. Pickwick hailed and ran after with
extraordinary nimbleness. When he had got
about half-way, he turned his head, and seeing
that I was still looking after him, and that I
waved my hand, stopped, evidently irresolute
whether to come back and shake hands again,
or to go on. The man behind the omnibus
shouted, and Mr. Pickwick ran a little way to-
wards him : then he looked round at me, and
ran a little way back again. Then there was



another shout, and he turned round once more
and ran the other way. After several of these
vibrations, the man settled the question by
taking Mr. Pickwick by the arm and putting
him into the carriage ; but his last action was to
let down the window and wave his hat to me as
it drove off.

I lost no time in opening the parcel he
had left with me. The following were its con-
tents : —


A good many years have passed away since
old John Podgers lived in the town of Windsor,
where he was bom, and where, in course of
time, he came to be comfortably and snugly
buried. You may be sure that in the time
of King James the First, Windsor was a very
quaint queer old town, and you may take it
upon my authority that John Podgers was a
very quaint queer old fellow ; con-sequently he
and Windsor fitted each other to a nicety, and
seldom parted company even for half a day.

John Podgers was broad, sturdy, Dutch-built,
short, and a very hard eater, as men of his
figure often are. Being a hard sleeper likewise,
he divided his time pretty equally between these
two recreations, always falling asleep when he
had done eating, and always taking another turn
at the trencher when he had done sleeping, by
which means he grew more corpulent and more
drowsy every day of his life. Indeed, it used to
be currently reported that when he sauntered
up and down the sunny side of the street before
dinner (as he never failed to do in fair weather),
he enjoyed his soundest nap ; but many people
held this to be a fiction, as he had several times
been seen to look after fat oxen on market-days,
and had even been heard, by persons of good
credit and rej^utation, to chuckle at the sight,
and say to himself with great glee, ■' Live beef,
live beef ! " It was upon this evidence that the
wisest people in Windsor (beginning with the local
authorities of course) held that John Podgers was
a man of strong, sound sense, not what is called
smart, perhaps, and it might be of a rather
lazy and apoplectic turn, but still a man of solid
parts, and one wlio meant much more than he
cared to show. This impression was confirmed
by a very dignified way he had of shaking his
head and imparting, at the same time, a pendu-
lous motion to his double chin ; in short, he
passed for one of those people wlio, being
plunged into the Thames, would make no vain
eftbrts to set it afire, but would straightway flop
down to the bottom with a deal of gravity, and

be highly respected in consequence by all good

Being well to do in the world, and a peaceful
widower, — having a great appetite, which, as he
coukl aftord to gratify it, was a luxury and no
inconvenience, and a power of going to sleep,
which, as he had no occasion to keep awake,
was a most enviable faculty, — you will readily
suppose that John Podgers was a happy man.
But appearances are often deceptive when they
least seem so, and the truth is that, notwith-
standing his extreme sleekness, he was rendered
uneasy in his mind, and exceedingly uncomfort-
able by a constant apprehension that beset him
night and day.

You know very well that in those times there
flourished divers evil old women who, under the
name of Witches, spread great disorder through
the land, and inflicted various dismal tortures
upon Christian men ; sticking pins and needles
into them when they least expected it, and
causing them to walk in the air with their feet
upwards, to the great terror of their wives and
families, who were naturally very much dis-
concerted when the master of the house un-
expectedly came home, knocking at the door
with his heels and combing his hair on the
scraper. These were their commonest ])ranks,
but they every day played a hundred others, of
which none were less objectionable, and many
were much more so, being improper besides;
the result was that vengeance was denounced
against all old women, with whom even the king
himself had no sympathy (as he certainly ought to
have had), for with his own most Gracious hand
he penned a most Gracious consignment of them
to everlasting wrath, and devised most Gracious
means for their confusion and slaughter, in
virtue whereof scarcely a day passed but one
witch at the least was most graciously hanged,
drowned, or roasted in some part of his domi-
nions. Still the press teemed with strange and
terrible news from the North or the South, or
the East or the West, relative to witches and
their unhappy victims in some corner of the
country, and the Public's hair stood on end to
that degree that it lifted its hat off its head, and
made its face pale with terror.

You may believe that the little town of Wind-
sor did not escape the general contagion. The
inhabitants boiled a witch on the king's birth-
day, and sent a botde of the broth to court,
with a dutiful address expressive of their loyalty.
The king being rather frightened by the present,
piously bestowed it upon the Archbishop of Can-
terbury, and returned an answer to the address,
wherein he gave them golden rules for discover-



ing witches, and laid great stress upon certain
])rotecting charms, and especially horse-shoos.
Immediately the townspeople went to work
nailing up horse-shoes over every door, and so
many anxious parents apprenticed their chiUlren
to farriers to keep them out of harm's way, that
it became cpiite a genteel trade, and Hourished

In the midst of all this bustle John Podgers
ate and slept as usual, but shook his head a great
deal oftener than was his custom, and was ob-
served to look at the oxen less, and at the old
women more. He had a little shelf put up in
his sitting-room, whereon was displayed, in a
row which grew longer every week, all the witch-
craft literature of the time ; he grew learned in
charms and exorcisms, hinted at certain ques-
tionable females on broomsticks whom he had
seen from his chamber window riding in the air
at night, and was in constant terror of being
bewitched. At length, from perpetually dwell-
ing upon this one idea, which, being alone in
his head, had all its own way, the fear of witches
became the single passion of his life. He, who
up to that time had never known what it was to
dream, began to have visions of witches when-
ever he fell asleep ; waking, they were inces- ■
santly present to his imagination likewise \ and,
sleeping or waking, he had not a moment's
peace. He began to set witch-traps in the high-
way, and was often seen lying in wait round the
corner for hours together, to watch their effect.
These engines were of simple construction,
usually consisting of two straws disposed in the
form of a cross, or a piece of a Bible cover with
a pinch of salt upon it ; but they were infallible,
and if an old woman chanced to stumble over
them (as not unfrequently happened, the chosen
spot being a broken and stony place), John
started from a doze, pounced out upon her, and
hung round her neck till assistance arrived,
when she was immediately carried away and
drowned. By dint of constantly inveigling old
ladies and disposing of them in this summary
manner, he acquired the reputation of a great
public character ; and as he received no harm
in these pursuits beyond a scratched face or so,
he came, in the course of time, to be considered

There was but one person who entertained
the least doubt of John Podgers's gifts, and that
l)erson was his own nephew, a wild, roving
young fellow of twenty who had been brought
up in his uncle's house, and lived there still, —
that is to say, when he was at home, which was
not as often as it might have been. As he was
an apt scholar, it was he who read aloud every

fresh piece of strange and terrible intelligence
that John Podgers bought ; and this he always
ditl of an evening in the little porch in front of
the house, round which the neighbours would
flock in crowds to hear the direful news, — for
people like to be frightened, and when they can
be Irightcned for nothing and at another man's
expense, they like it all the better.

One fine midsummer evening, a group of per-
sons were gathered in this place, listening in-
tently to Will Marks (that was the nephew's
name), as with his cap very much on one side,
his arm coiled slily round the waist of a pretty
girl who sat beside him, and his face screwed
into a comical expression intended to represent
extreme gravity, he read— with Heaven knows
how many embellishments of his own — a dismal
account of a gentleman down in Northampton-
shire under the influence of witchcraft, and taken
forcible possession of by the Devil, who was
playing his very self with him. John Podgers,
in a high sugar-loaf hat and short cloak, filled
the opposite seat, and surveyed the auditory
with a look of mingled pride and horror very
edifying to see ; while the hearers, with their
heads thrust forward and their mouths open,
listened and trembled, and hoped there was a
great deal more to come. Sometimes Will
stopped for an instant to look round upon his
eager audience, and then, with a more comical
expression of face than before, and a settling
of himself comfortably, which included a squeeze
ofthe young lady before mentioned, he launched
into some new wonder surpassing all the others.

The setting sun shed his last golden rays
upon this little party, who, absorbed in their
present occupation, took no heed of the ap-
proach of night, or the glory in which the day
went dov/n, when the sound of a horse, ap-
proaching at a good round trot, invading the
silence of the hour, caused the reader to make
a sudden stop, and the listeners to raise their
heads in wonder. Nor was their wonder dimi-
nished when a horseman dashed up to the porch,
and abruptly checking his steed, inquired where
one John Podgers dwelt.

" Here ! " cried a dozen voices, while a dozen
hands pointed out sturdy John, still basking in
the terrors of the pamphlet.

The rider, giving his bridle to one of those
who surrounded him, dismounted, and ap-
proached John, hat in hand, but with great

" Whence come ye ? " said John.

" From Kingston, master."

" And wherefore?"

" On most pressing business."



" Of what nature ? "

" Witchcraft."

Witchcraft ! Everybody looked aghast at the
breathless messenger, and the breathless mes-
senger looked equally aghast at everybody —
except Will Marks, who, finding himself unob-
served, not only squeezed the young lady again,
but kissed her twice. Surely he must have been
bewitched himself, or he never could have done
it — and the young lady too, or she never would
have let him.

" Witchcraft!" cried Will, drowning the sound
of his last kiss, which was rather a loud one.

The messenger turned towards him, and with
a frown repeated the word more solemnly than
before ; then told his errand, which was, in
brief, that the people of Kingston had been
greatly terrified for some nights past by hideous
revels, held by witches beneatli the gibbet within
a mile of the town, and related and deposed to
by chance wayfarers who had passed within ear-
shot of the spot ; that the sound of their voices
in their wild orgies had been plainly heard by
many persons ; that three old women laboured
under strong suspicion, and that precedents had
been consulted and solemn council had, and it
was found that to identify the hags some single
person must watch upon the spot alone ; that
no single person had the courage to perform the
task ; and that he had been dispatched express
to solicit John Podgers to undertake it that
very night, as being a man of great renown, who
bore a charmed life, and was proof against un-
holy spells.

John received this communication with much
composure, and said in a few words that it
would have afforded him inexpressible pleasure
to do the Kingston people so slight a service,
if it were not for his unfortunate propensity to
fall asleep, which no man regretted more than
himself upon the present occasion, but which
quite settled the question. Nevertheless, he
said, there 7iias a gentleman present (and here
he looked very hard at a tall farrier), who, hav-
ing been engaged all his life in the manufacture
of horse-shoes, must be (juite invulnerable to
the power of witches, and who, he had no doubt,
from his known reputation for bravery and good-
nature, would readily accept the commission.
The farrier politely thanked him for his good
opinion, which it would always be his study to
deserve, but added that, with regard to the pre-
sent little matter, he couldn't think of it on any
account, as his departing on such an errand
would certainly occasion the instant death of his
wife, to whom, as they all knew, he was tenderly
attached. Now, so far from this circumstance

being notorious, everybody had suspected the
reverse, as the farrier was in the habit of beat-
ing his lady rather more than tender husbands
usually do ; all the married men present, how-
ever, applauded his resolution with great vehe-
mence, and one and all declared that they
would stop at home and die if needful (which
happily it was not) in defence of their lawful

This burst of enthusiasm over, they began to
look, as by one consent, toward Will Marks,
who, with his cap more on one side than ever,
sat watching the proceedings with extraordinary
unconcern. He had never been heard openly
to express his disbelief in witches, but had often
cut such jokes at their expense as left it to be
inferred ; publicly stating on several occasions
that he considered a broomstick an incon-
venient charger, and one especially unsuited
to the dignity of the female character, and in-
dulging in other free remarks of the same tend-
ency, to the great amusement of his wild com-

As they looked at Will ihey began to whisper
and murmur among themselves, and at length
one man cried, "Why don't you ask Will

As this was what everybody had been think-
ing of, they all took up the word, and cried m
concert, " Ah ! why don't you ask Will ?"

'■'■He don't care," said the farrier.

"Not he," added another voice in the crowd.

"He don't believe in it, you know," sneered
a little man with a yellow face and a taunting
nose and chin, which he thrust out from under
the arm of a long man before him.

" Besides," said a red-faced gentleman with a
gruff voice, " he's a single man."

"That's the point ! " said the farrier; and all
the married men murmured, ah ! that was it,
and they only wished they were single them-
selves ; they would show him what spirit was,
very soon.

The messenger looked towards Will ^larks

" It will be a wet night, friend, and my grey
nag is tired after yesterday's work "

Here there was a general litter.

" But," resumed Will, looking about him with
a smile, " if nobody else puts in a better claim
to go, for the credit of the town, I am your
man, and I woi'ld be, if I had to go afoot. In
five minutes I shall be in the saddle, unless I
am depriving any worthy gentleman here of the
honour of the adventure, which I wouldn't do
for the world."

But here arose a double difficulty, for not only

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did John Podgers combat the resolution with all
the words he had, which were not many, but the
young lady combated it too with all the tears
she had, which were very many indeed. Will,
however, being inflexible, parried his uncle's
objections with a joke, and coaxed the young
lady into a smile in three short whispers. As it
was plain that he set his mind upon it and
would go, John Podgers offered him a few first-
rate charms out of his own pocket, which he
dutifully declined to accept ; and the young
lady gave him a kiss, which he also returned.

'• You see what a rare thing it is to be mar-
ried," said Will, " and how careful and consider-
ate all these husbands are. There's not a man
among them but his heart is leaping to forestall
me in this adventure, and yet a strong sense of
duty keeps him back. The husbands in this
one little town are a pattern to the world, and
so must the wives be too. for that matter, or
they could never boast half the influence thev
have ! "

Waiting for no reply to this sarcasm, he
snapped his fingers and withdrew into the house,
and thence into the stable, while some busied
themselves in refreshing the messenger, and
others in baiting his steed. In less than the
specified time he returned by another way, with
a good cloak hanging over his arm, a good sword
girded by his side, and leading his good horse
caparisoned for the journey.

•' Now," said W^ill, leaping into the saddle at
a bound, " up and away. Upon your mettle,
friend, and push on. Good night."

He kissed his hand to the girl, nodded to his
drowsy uncle, waved his cap to the rest — and
off they flew pell-mell, as if all the witches in
England were in their horses' legs. They were
out of sight in a minute.

The men who were left behind shook their
heads doubtfully, stroked their chins, and shook
their heads again. The farrier said that cer-
tainly Will ^^arks was a good horseman, nobody
should ever say he denied that ; but he was rash,
very rash, and there was no telling what the end
of it might be. What did he go for, that was
what he wanted to know ? He wished the
young fellow no harm, but why did he go ?
Ever}'body echoed these words, and shook their
heads again, having done which they wished
John Podgers good night, and straggled home
to bed.

The Kingston people were in their first sleep
when Will Marks and his conductor rode through
the town, and up to the door of a house where
sundry grave functionaries were assembled,
I'.nxiously expecting the arrival of the renowned

Podgers. They were a little disappointed to
find a gay young man in his place ; but they
put the best face upon the matter, and gave him
full instructions how he was to conceal himself
behind the gibbet, and watch and listen to the
witches, and how at a certain time he was to
burst forth and cut and slash among them
vigorously, so that the suspected parties might
be found bleeding in their beds next day, and
thoroughly confounded. They gave him a great
quantity of wholesome advice besides, and —
which was more to the purpose with Will — a
good supper. All these things being done, and
midnight nearly come, they sallied forth to show
him the spot where he was to keep his dreary

The night was by this time dark and threaten-
ing. There was a rumbling of distant thunder,
and a low sighing of wind among the trees, which
was very dismal. The potentates of the town
kept so uncommonly close to Will that they
trod upon his toes, or stumbled against his
ankles, or nearly tripped up his heels at
every step he took, and besides these annoy-
ances, their teeth chattered so with fear, that he
seemed to be accompanied by a dirge of casta-

At last they made a halt at the opening of a
lonely, desolate space, and pointing to a black
object at some distance, asked Will if he saw-
that }'onder.

" Yes," he replied. " What then ? "

Informing him abruptly that it was the gibbet
where he was to watch, they wished him good
night in an exiremely friendly manner, and ran
back as fast as their feet would carry them.

Will walked boldly to the gibbet, and glanc-
ing upwards when he came under it, saw — cer-
tainly with satisfaction — that it was empty, and
that nothing dangled fi-om the top but some iron
chains, which swung mournfully to and fro as
they were moved by the breeze. After a care-
ful survey of every quarter, he determined to
take his station with his face towards the town,
both because that would place him with his back
to the wind, and because if any trick or surprise
were attempted, it would probably come from
that direction in the first instance. Having taken
these precautions, he wrapped his cloak about
him so that it left the handle of his sword free,
and ready to his hand, and leaning against the
gallows-tree with his cap not quite so much on
one side as it had been before, took up his posi-
tion for the night.




We left Will Marks leaning under the gibbet
with his face towards the town, scanning the
distance with a keen eye, which sought to pierce
the darkness and catch the earliest glimpse of
any person or persons that might approach towards
him. l>ut all was quiet, and save the howling of
the wind as it swept across the heath in gusts, and
the creaking of the chains that dangled above
his head, there was no sound to break the sullen
stillness of the night. After half an hour or so
this monotony became more disconcerting to
Will than the most furious uproar would have
been, and he heartily wished for some one anta-
gonist with whom he might have a fair stand-up
figlit, if it were only to warm himself.

Truth to tell, it was a bitter wind, and seemed
to blow to the very heart of a man whose blood,
heated but now with rapid riding, was the more
sensitive to the chilling blast. Will was a dar-
ing fellow, and cared not a jot for hard knocks

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 54 of 103)