Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 79 of 103)
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What, Alderman ! No word of Putting Do\\ti ?
Remember, Justice, your high moral boast and
pride. Come, Alderman ! Balance those scales.
Throw me into this, the empty one, no dinner,
and Nature's founts in some poor woman, dried
by starving misery and rendered obdurate to
claims for which her offspring has authority in
holy mother Eve. Weigh me the two, you
Daniel, going to judgment, when your day shall
come ! Weigh them, in the eyes of suffering
thousands, audience (not unmindful) of the grim
farce you play. Or, supposing that you strayed
from your five wits — it's not so far to go, but
that it might be — and laid hands upon that
throat of yours, warning your fellows (if you
have a fellow) how they croak their com-
fortable wickedness to raving heads and stricken
hearts. What then ?

The words rose up in Trotty's breast, as if
they had been spoken by some other voice
within him. Alderman Cute pledged himself to
Mr. Fish that he would assist him in breaking
the melancholy catastrophe to Sir Joseph when
the day was over. Then, before they parted,
wringing Mr. Fish's hand in bitterness of soul,
he said, " The most respectable of men ! " And
added that he hardly knew (not even he) why
such afflictions were allowed on earth.

" It's almost enough to make one think, if one
didn't know better," said Alderman Cute, " that
at times some motion of a capsizing nature was
going on in things, which aft'ected the general
economy of the social fabric. Deedles Brothers ! "

The skittle-playing came off with immense
success. Sir Joseph knocked the pins about
quite skilfully ; Master Bowley took an innings
at a shorter distance also ; and everybody said
that now, when a Baronet and the Son of a
Baronet played at skittles, the country was
coming round again as fast as it could come.

At its proper time the Banquet Avas served up.
Trotty involuntarily repaired to the hall with the
rest, for he felt himself conducted thither by



THE LABOURER RETURNS THANKS.



63



some stronger impulse than his own free-will.
The sight was gay in the extreme; the ladies
were very handsome; the visitors deliglited,
cheerlul, and good-tempered. When tlie lower
doors were opened, and the people flocked in,
in their rustic dresses, the beauty of the spec-
tacle was at its height; but Trotty only mur-
mured more and more. "Where is Richard?
He should help and comfort her ! I can't see
Richard !"

There had been some speeches made ; and
Ladv Bowley's health had been proposed; and
Sir Joseph Bowley had returned thanks, and had
made his great speech, showing by various pieces
of evidence that he was the born Friend and
Father, and so forth ; and had given as a Toast
his Friends and Children, and the Dignity of
Labour ; when a slight disturbance at the bottom
of the hall attracted Toby's notice. After some
confusion, noise, and opposition, one man broke
through the rest, and stood forward by himself.

Not Richard. No. But one whom he had
thought of, and had looked for, many times. In
a scantier supply of light, he might have doubted
the identity of that worn man, so old, and grey,
and bent ; but, with a blaze of lamps upon his
gnarled and knotted head, he knew Will Fern as
soon as he stepped forth.

" What is this ?'' exclaimed Sir Joseph, rising.
" Who gave this man admittance ? This is a
criminal from prison ! Mr, Fish, sir, will you
have the goodness "

"A minute ! " said Will Fern. " A minute !
My lady, you was born on this day along with a
New Year. Get me a minute's leave to speak."

She made some intercession for him. Sir
Joseph took his seat again with native dignity.

The ragged visitor — for he was miserably
dressed — looked round upon the company, and
made his homage to them witli a humble bow.

"Gentlefolks !" he said. "You've drunk the
Labourer. Look at me ! "

" Just come from gaol," said Mr. Fish.

" Just come from gaol," said Will. " And
neither for the first time, nor the second, nor the
third, nor yet the fourth."

]\Ir. Filer was heard to remark testily that four
times was over the average ; and he ought to be
ashamed of himself.

"Gentlefolks!" repeated Will Fern. "Look
at me ! You see I'm at the worst. Beyond all
hurt or harm ; beyond your help ; for the time
when your kind words or kind actions could
have done me good " — he struck his hand upon
^lis breast, and shook his head — " is gone with
the scent of last year's beans or clover on the
air. Let irie say a word for these," pointing to



the labouring people in the hall ; " and, when
you're met together, hear the real Truth spoke
out for once."

" There's not a man here," said the host,
" who would have him for a spokesman."

" Like enough. Sir Joseph. I believe it. Not
the less true, perhaps, is what I say. Perhaps
that's a proof on it. Gentlefolks, I've lived
many a year in this place. You may see the
cottage from the sunk fence over yonder. I
have seen the ladies draw it in their books a
hundred times. It looks well in a picter, I've
heerd say ; but there an't weather in picters, and
maybe 'tis fitter for that than for a place to live
in. Well ! I lived there. How hard — how
bitter hard, I lived there, I won't say. Any day
in the year, and every day, \ ou can judge for
your own selves."

He spoke as he had spoken on the night
when Trotty found him in the street. His
voice was deeper and niore husky, and had a
trembling in it now and then; but he never
raised it passionately, and seldom lifted it above
the firm stern level of the homely facts he stated.

" 'Tis harder than you think for, gentlefolks,
to grow up decent, commonly decent, in such a
place. That I growed up a man, and not a
brute, says something for me — as I was then.
As I am now, there's nothing can be said for me
or done for me. I'm past it."

" I am glad this man has entered," observed
Sir Joseph, looking round serenely. " Don't dis-
turb him. It appears to be Ordained. He is
an example : a living example. I hope and
trust, and confidently expect, that it will not be
lost upon my Friends here."

" I dragged on," said Fern after a moment's
silence, " somehow. Neither me nor any other
man knows how ; but so heavy, that I couldn't
put a cheerful face upon it, or make believe
that I was anything but what I was. Now,
gentlemen — you gentlemen that sits at Sessions
— when you see a man with discontent writ on
his face, you says to one another, ' He's suspi-
cious. I has my doubts,' says you, ' about Will
Fern. Watch that fellow ! ' I don't say, gen-
tlemen, it ain't quite nat'ral, but I say 'tis so ;
and, from that hour, whatever Will Fern does,
or lets alone — all one — it goes against him."

Alderman Cute stuck his thumbs in his waist-
coat pockets, and leaning back in his chair, and
smiling, winked .at a neighbouring chandelier.
As much as to say, " Of course ! I told you so.
The common cry ! Lord bless you, we are up
to all this sort of thing — myself and human
nature."

" Now, gentlemen," said Will Fern, holding



64



THE CHIMES.



out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his
haggard face. " See how your laws are made
to trap and hunt us when we're brought to this.
I tries to Hve elsewhere. And I'm a vagabond.
To gaol with him ! I comes back here. I goes a
nutting in your woods, and breaks — who don't ?
— a limber branch or two. To gaol with him !
One of your keepers sees me in the broad day,
near my own patch of garden, with a gun. To
gaol with him ! I has a nat'ral angry word with
that man when I'm free again. To gaol with
him ! I cuts a stick. To gaol with him ! I
eats a rotten apple or a turnip. To gaol with
him. It's twenty mile away ; and coming back
I begs a trifle on the road. To gaol with him !
At last the constable, the keeper — anybody —
finds me anywhere, a doing anything. To gaol
with him, for he's a vagrant, and a gaol-bird
known ; and gaol's the only home he's got."

The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who
should say, " A very good home too ! "

" Do I say this to serve my cause ? " cried
Fern. " Who can give me back my liberty, who
can give me back my good name, who can give
me back my innocent niece ? Not all the Lords
and Ladies in wide England. But, gentlemen,
gentlemen, dealing with other men like me, be-
gin at the right end. Give us, in mercy, better
homes when we're a lying in our cradles ; give
us better food when we're a working for our
lives ; give us kinder laws to bring us back when
we're a-going wrong ; and don't set Gaol, Gaol,
Gaol afore us, everywhere we turn. There an't
a condescension you can show the Labourer
then that he won't take as ready and as grateful
as a man can be ; for, he has a patient, peaceful,
willing heart. But you must put his rightful
spirit in him first ; for, whether he's a wreck and
ruin such as me, or is like one of them that
stand here now, his spirit is divided from you at
this time. Bring it back, gentlefolks, bring it
back ! Bring it back, afore the day comes when
even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and
the words seem to him to read, as they have
sometimes read in my own eyes — in Gaol :
' Whither thou goest, I can Not go ; where thou
lodgest, I do Not lodge ; thy people are Not my
people ; Nor thy God my God ! "

A sudden stir and agitation took place in the
hall. Trotty thought, at first, that several had
risen to eject the man ; and hence this change
in its appearance. But, another moment showed
him that the room and all the company had
vanished from his sight, and that his daughter
was again before him, seated at her work. But
in a poorer, meaner garret than before ; and with
no Lilian by her side.



The frame at which she had worked was put
away upon a shelf and covered up. The chair
in which she had sat was turned against the wall.
A history was written in these little things, and
in Meg's grief-worn face. Oh ! who could fail
to read it ?

Meg strained her eyes upon her work until it
was too dark to see the threads ; and, when the
night closed in, she lighted her feeble candle
and worked on. Still her old father was in-
visible about her ; looking down upon her ;
loving her — how dearly loving her ! — and talking
to her in a tender voice about the old times, and
the Bells. Though he knew, poor Trotty, though
he knew she could not hear him.

A great part of the evening had worn away,
when a knock came at her door. She opened
it. A man was on the threshold. A slouching,
moody, drunken sloven, wasted by intemperance
and vice, and with his matted hair and unshorn
beard in wild disorder ; but, with some traces
on him, too, of having been a man of good pro-
portion and good features in his youth.

He stopped until he had her leave to enter ;
and she, retiring a pace or two from the open
door, silently and sorrowfully looked upon him.
Trotty had his wish. He saw Richard.

" May I come in, Margaret ? "

" Yes ! Come in. Come in ! "

It was well that Trotty knew him oefore he
spoke ; for, with any doubt remaining on his
mind, the harsh discordant voice would have
persuaded him that it was not Richard, but
some other man.

There were but two chairs in the room. She
gave hers, and stood at some short distance from
him, waiting to hear what he had to say.

He sat, however, staring vacantly at the floor;
with a lustreless and stupid smile. A spectacle
of such deep degradation, of such abject hope-
lessness, of such a miserable downfall, that she
put her hands before her face and turned away,
lest he should see how much it moved her.

Roused by the rustling of her dress, or some
such trifling sound, he lifted his head, and began
to speak as if there had been no pause since he
entered.

" Still at work, Margaret ? You work late."

" I generally do."

" And early ? "

" And early."

" So she said. She said you never tired ; or
never owned that you tired. Not all the time
you lived together. Not even when you fainted,
between work and fasting. But I told you that
the last time I came."

" You did," she answered. " And I implored



RICHARD A T LAST.



^5



you to tell me nothing more ; and you made

me a solemn ijromise, Richard, that you never
Avould."

" A solemn promise," he repeated with a
drivelling laugh and vacant stare. " A solemn
promise ! To be sure. A solemn promise ! "



^wakening, as it were, after a time, in the same

manner as before, he said with sudden '\nima-
tion :

" How can I help it, Margaret? U'hat am I
to do ? She has been to me again ! "

"Again!" cried Meg, clasping her hands.




'WHITHER THOU GOEST, I CAN NOT GO; WHERE THOU LOUGEST, I DO NOT LODGE; THY PEOPLE ARE NOT

MY PEOPLE ; NOR THY GOD MY GOD ! "



■" Oh ! does she think of me so often? Has she
been again ? "

" Twenty times again," said Richard. " Mar-
garet, she haunts me. She comes behind me in
the street, and thrusts it in my hand. I hear
her foot upon the ashes when I'm at my work
Christmas Books, s.



(ha, ha ! that an't often), and before I can
turn my head, her voice is in my ear, saying,
' Richard, don't look round. For Heaven's love
give her this !' She brings it where I live; she
sends it in letters ; she taps at the window and
lays it on the sill. What can I do? Look at it ! "



66



THE CHIMES.



He held out in his hand a little purse, and
chinked the money it enclosed.

" Hide it," said Meg. •' Hide it ! When she
comes again, tell her, Richard, that I love her
in my soul. That I never lie down to sleep but
I bless her and pray for her. That, in my soli-
tary work, I never cease to have her in my
thoughts. That she is with me, night and day.
That, if I died to-morrow, I would remember
her with my last breath. But, that I cannot
look upon it ! "

He slowly recalled his hand, and, crushing
the purse together, said with a kind of drowsy
thoughtfulness :

" I told her so. I told her so, as plain as
words could speak. I've taken this gift back,
and left it at her door, a dozen times since then.
But when she came at last, and stood before me,
face to face, what could I do ? "

" You saw her ! " exclaimed Meg. " You saw
her ! Oh, Lilian, my sweet girl ! Oh, Lilian,
Lilian ! "

" I saw her," he went on to say, not answer-
ing, but engaged in the same slow pursuit of his
own thoughts. " There she stood : trembling !
' How does she look, Richard ? Does she ever
speak of me ? Is she thinner ? My old place
at the table : what's in my old place ? And the
frame she taught me our old work on — has she
burnt it, Richard?' There she was. I hear
her say it."

]\Ieg checked her sobs, and, with the tears
streaming from her eyes, bent over him to listen.
Not to lose a breath.

With his arms resting on his knees ; and
stooj)ing forward in his chair, as if what he said
were written on the ground in some half-legible
character, which it was his occupation to de-
cipher and connect ; he went on.

" ' Richard, I have fallen very low ; and you
may guess how much I have suffered in having
this sent back, when I can bear to bring it in
my hand to you. But you loved her once, even
in my memory, dearly. Others stepped in be-
tween you ; fears, and jealousies, and doubts,
and vanities estranged you from her ; but you
did love her, even in my memory.' I suppose I
did," he said, interrupting himself for a moment.
" I did ! That's neither here nor there. ' Oh,
Richard, if you ever did ; if you have any
memory for what is gone and lost, take it to
her once more ! Once more ! Tell her how I
begged and prayed. Tell her how I laid my
head upon your shoulder, where her own head
might have lain, and was so humble to you,
Richard. Tell her that you looked into my face,
and saw the beauty which she used to praise all



gone : all gone : and, in its place, a poor, wan,
hollow cheek, that she would weep to see. Tell
her everything, and take it back, and she will
not refuse again. She will not have the
heart!'"

So he sat musing, and repeating the last
words, until he woke again, and rose.

" You won't take it, Margaret ? "

She shook her head, and motioned an entreaty
to him to leave her.

" Good night, Margaret."

" Good night."

He turned to look upon her ; struck by her
sorrow, and perhaps by the pity for himself
which trembled in her voice. It was a quick
and rapid action ; and for the moment some
flash of his old bearing kindled in his form. In
the next he went as he had come. Nor did this
glimmer of a quenched fire seem to light him to
a quicker sense of his debasement.

In any mood, in any grief, in any torture of
the mind or body, Meg's work must be done.
She sat down to her task, and plied it. Night,
midnight. Still she worked.

She had a meagre fire, the night being very
cold ; and rose at intervals to mend it. The
Chimes rang half-past twelve while she w^as thus
engaged; and when they ceased she heard a
gentle knocking at the door. Before she could
so much as wonder who was there at that un-
usual hour, it opened.

Oh, Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should
be, look at this ! Oh, Youth and Beauty, blessed
and blessing all within your reach, and working
out the ends of your Beneficent Creator, look at
this!

She saw the entering figure ; screamed its
name ; cried " Lilian ! "

It was swift, and fell upon its knees before
her : clinging to her dress.

" Up, dear ! Up ! Lilian ! My own dearest ! "

" Never more, Meg ; never more ! Here I
Here ! Close to you, holding to you, feeling
your dear breath upon my face ! "

" Sweet Lilian ! Darling Lilian ! Child of
my heart — no mother's love can be more tender
— lay your head upon my breast ! "

" Never more, Meg ! Never more ! When
I first looked into your face, you knelt before
me. On my knees before you, let me die. Let
it be here ! "

" You have come back. My Treasure ! We
will live together, work together, hope together,
die together ! "

'•' Ah ! Kiss my lips, Meg ; fold your arms
about me ; press me to your bosom ; look kindly
on me 3 but don't raise me. Let it be here. Let



LILIAN DIES.



67



me see the last of your dear face upon my
knees ! "

Oh, Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should
be, look at this ! Oh, Youth and Beauty, work-
ing out the ends of your Beneficent Creator, look
at this ! ,

" Forgive me, IMeg ! So dear, so dear ! For-
give me ! I know you do, I see you do, but say
so, Meg ! "

She said so, with her lips on Lilian's cheek.
And with her arms twined round — she knew it
now — a broken heart.

" His blessing on you, dearest love. Kiss me
once more ! He suffered her to sit beside His
feet, and dry them with her hair. Oh, Meg,
what INIercy and Compassion ! "

As she died, the Spirit of the child returning,
innocent and radiant, touched the old man with
its hand, and beckoned him away.




FOURTH QUARTER.

OME new remembrance of the ghostly
figures in the Bells; some faint im-
pression of the ringing of the Chimes;
some giddy consciousness of having
seen the swarm of phantoms repro-
5^ duced and reproduced until the recoUec-
1^^ tion of them lost itself in the confusion of
^^ their numbers ; some hurried knowledge,
how conveyed to him he knew not, that more
years had passed ; and Trotty, with the Spirit of
the child attending him, stood looking on at
mortal company.

Fat company, rosy-cheeked company, com-
fortable company. They were but two, but they
were red enough for ten. They sat before a bright
fire, with a small low table between them ; and, un-
less the fragrance of hot tea and muffins lingered
longer in that room than in most others, the
table had seen service very lately. But all the
cups and saucers being clean, and in their proper
places in the corner cupboard ; and the brass
toasting-fork hanging in its usual nook, and
spreading its four idle fingers out as if it wanted
to be measured for a glove ; there remained no
other visible tokens of the meal just finished
than such as purred and washed their whiskers
in the person of the basking cat, and glistened
in the gracious, not to say the greasy, faces of
her patrons.

This cosy couple (married, evidently) had
made a fair division of the fire between them,
and sat looking at the glowing sparks that
dropped into the grate ; now nodding off into



a doze ; now waking up again when some hot
fragment, larger than the rest, came rattling
down, as if the fire were coming with it.

It was in no danger of sudden extinction,
however ; for it gleamed not only in the little
room, and on the panes of window glass in the
door, and on the curtain half drawn across them,
but in the little shop beyond. A little shop,
quite crammed and choked with the abundance
of its stock ; a perfectly voracious little shop,
with a maw as accommodating and full as any
shark's. Cheese, butter, fire -wood, soap, pickles,
matches, bacon, table beer, pegtops, sweetmeats,
boys' kites, bird seed, cold ham, birch-brooms,
hearth-stones, salt, vinegar, blacking, red her-
rings, stationery, lard, mushroom ketchup, stay-
laces, loaves of bread, shuttlecocks, eggs, and
slate-pencil ; everything was fish that came to
the net of this greedy little shop, and all articles
were in its net. How many other kinds of petty
merchandise were there, it would be difficult to
say; but balls of packthread, ropes of onions,
pounds of candles, cabbage nets, and brushes
hung in bunches from the ceiling, like extra-
ordinary fruit ; while various odd canisters, emit-
ting aromatic smells, established the veracity of
the inscription over the outer door, which in-
formed the public that the keeper of this little
shop was a licensed dealer in tea, coffee, tobacco,
pepper, and snuff.

Glancing at such of these items as were visible
in the shining of the blaze, and the less cheerful
radiance of two smoky lamps which burnt but
dimly in the shop itself, as though its plethora
sat heavy on their lungs ; and glancing, then, at
one of the two faces by the parlour fire ; Trotty
had small difficulty in recognising in the stout
old lady Mrs. Chickenstalker : always inclined to
corpulency, even in the days when he had known
her as established in the general line, and having
a small balance against him in her books.

The features of her companion were less easy
to him. The great broad chin, with creases in
it large enough to hide a finger in; the astonished
eyes, that seemed to expostulate with themselves
for sinking deeper and deeper into the yielding
fat of the soft face ; the nose afflicted with that
disordered action of its functions which is gene-
rally termed The Snuffles ; the short thick throat
and labouring chest, with other beauties of the
like description ; though calculated to impress
the memory, Trotty could at first allot to nobody
he had ever known : and yet he had some recol-
lection of them too. At length, in Mrs. Chicken-
stalker's partner in the general line, and in the
crooked and eccentric line of life, he recognised
the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley; an



68



THE CHIMES.



apoplectic innocent, who had connected himself
in Tiotty's mind with Mrs. Chickenstalker years
ago, by giving him admission to the mansion
where he had confessed his obligations to that
lady, and drawn on his unlucky head such
grave reproach.



Trotty had little interest in a change like this,
after the changes he had seen ; but association
is very strong sometimes : and he looked invo-
luntarily behind the parlour door, where the
accounts of credit customers were usually kept in
chalk. There was no record of his name. Soms




♦•HCYER MORE, MEG; NEVER MURE!



here! llEREl CLOSE TO VOU, HULDiiMG lU VOU, 1' EELING YOUR DEAR
BREATH UPON MY FACE ! "



names were there, but they were strange to him,
and infinitely fewer than of old ; from which he
argued that the porter was an advocate of ready-
money transactions, and, on coming into the
business, had looked prett" -jharp after the
Chickenstalker defaulters.



So desolate was Trotty, and so mournful for
the youth and promise of his blighted child, that
it was a sorrow to him even to have no place in
Mrs. Chickenstalker's ledger.

" What sort of a night is it, Anne ? " inquired
the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley, stretch-



MR. TUGBY'S BACK- ATTIC GOING.



69



ing out his legs before the fire, and rubbing as
much of them as his short arms could reach ;
with an air that added, " Here I am if it's bad,
and I don't want to go out if it's good."

"Blowing and sleeting hard," returned his
wife; " and threatening snow. Dark. And very
cold."

" I'm glad to think we had muffins," said che
former porter, in the tone of one who had set his
conscience at rest. " It's a sort of night that's



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 79 of 103)