Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 82 of 103)
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his eyes was generally shut. Halloa ! "

•■' Goodness, John, how you startle one ! "

" It an't right for him Lo turn 'em up in that
way," said the astonished Carrier, " is it? See
how he's winking with both of 'em at once ! and
look at his mouth ! ^Vhy, he's gasping like a
gold and silver fish ! "

" You don't deserve to be a father, you clon't,"
said Dot, with all the dignity of an experienced
matron. " But how should you know what
little complaints children are troubled with,
John ? You wouldn't so much as know their
names, you stupid fellow." And when she had
turned the baby over on her left arm, and had
slapped its back as a restorative, she pinched
her husband's ear, laughing.

"No," said John, pulling off his outer coat.
" It's very true. Dot. I don't know much about
it. I only know that I've been fighting pretty
stiffly with the wind to-night. It's been blowing
north-east, straight into the cart, the v.hole way
home."

" Poor old man, so it has ! " cried Mrs. Peery-
bingle, instantly becoming very active. "Here,
take the precious darling, Tilly, while I make
myself of some use. Bless it, I could smother
it with kissing it, I could ! Hie then, good
dog 1 Hie, Boxer, bo}' 1 Only let me make
the tea first, John ; and then I'll help you with
the parcels, like a busy bee. ' How doth the
little' — and all the rest of it, you know, Johr.
Did you ever learn ' How doth the little,' when
you went to school, John ? "

" Not to quite know it," John returned. " I
was very near it once. But I should only have
spoilt it, I dare say."

"Ha, ha!" laughed Dot. She had the
blithest little laugh you ever heard. " What a
dear old darling of a dunce you are, John, to be
sure ! "

Notat'all disputing this pi.oition, John went
out to see that the boy widi the lantern, which
had been dancing to and fro before the door
and window, like a Will of the Wisp, took due
care of the horse ; who was fatter than you
would quite believe, if I gave you his measure,
and so old that his birthday was lost in the



MISS TILLY SLOIVBOY.



8i



mists of antiquity. Boxer, feeling that his
attentions were due to the family in general,
ami must be impartially distributed, dashed in
and out with bewildering inconstancy ; now
describing a circle of short barks round the
horse, where he was being rubbed down at the
stable door ; now feigning to make savage
rushes at his mistress, and facetiously bringing
himself to sudilen stops; now eliciting a shriek
from Till)' Slowboy, in the low nursing-chair
near the fire, by the unexpected application of
his moist nose to her countenance ; now exhibit-
ing an obtrusive interest in the baby ; now
going round and round upon the hearth, and
lying down as if he had established himself for
the night ; now getting up again, and taking
that nothing of a fag-end of a tail of his out into
the weather, as if he had just remembered an
appointment, and was off at a round trot, to
keep it.

" There ! There's the teapot, ready on the
hob ! " said Dot ; as briskly busy as a child at
play at keeping house. " And there's the cold
knuckle of ham ] and there's the butter ; and
there's the crusty loaf, and all ! Here's a
clothes-basket for the small parcels, John, if
you've got any there. Where are you, John ?
Don't let the dear child fall under the grate,
Tilly, whatever you do ! "

It may be noted of Miss Slowboy, in spite of
her rejecting the caution with some vivacity,
that she had a rare and surprising talent for
getting this baby into difficulties : and had
several times imperilled its short life in a quiet
way peculiarly her own. She was of a spare
and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch
that her garments appeared to be in constant
danger of sliding of!" those sharp pegs, her
shoulders, on which they were loosely hung.
Her costume was remarkable for the partial
development, on all possible occasions, of some
flannel vestment of a singular structure ; also
for affording glimpses, in the region of the back,
of a corset, or pair of stays, in colour a dead
green. Being always in a state of gaping admi-
ration at everything, and absorbed, besides, in
the perpetual contemplation of her mistress's
perfections and the baby's, Miss Slowboy, in
her little errors of judgment, may be said to
have done equal honour to her head and to her
heart ; and though these did less honour to the
baby's head, which they were the occasional
■means of bringing into contact with deal doors,
dressers, stair-rails, bedposts, and other foreign
substances, still they were the honest results of
Tilly Slowboy's constant astonishment at finding
herself so kindly treated, and installed in such
Christmas Books, 6.



a comfortable home. For, the maternal and
paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame,
and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a
foundling; which word, though only differing
from fondling by one vowel's length, is very
difi"erent in meaning, and expresses quite another
thing.

To have seen little ]\Irs. Peerybingle come
back with her husband, tugging at the clothes-
basket, and making the most strenuous exer-
tions to do nothing at all (for he carried it),
would have amused you almost as much as it
amused him. It may have entertained the
Cricket, too, for anything I know ; but, cer-
tainly, it now began to chirp again vehemently.

" Heyday ! " said John in his slow way.
" It's merrier than ever to-night, I think."

" And it's sure to bring us good fortune,
John ! It always has done so. To have a
Cricket on the Hearth is the luckiest thing in
all the world ! "

John looked at her as if he had very nearly
got the thought into his head that she was his
Cricket in chief, and he quite agreed with her.
But, it was probably one of his narrow escapes,
for he said nothing.

'• The first time I heard its cheerful little note,
John, was on that night when you brought me
home — when you brought me to my new home
here ; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago.
You recollect, John?"

Oh ye= ! John remembered. I should think
so !

" Its chirp was such a welcome to me ! It
seemed so full of promise and encouragement.
It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle
with me, and would not expect (I had a fear
of that, John, then) to find an old head on the
shoulders of your foolish little wife."

John thoughtfully patted one of the shoulders,
and then the head, as though he would have
said No, no ; he had had no such expectation ;
he had been quite content to take them as the}'-
were. And really he had reason. They were
very comely.

" It spoke the truth, John, when it seemed to
say so : for you have ever been, I am sure, the
best, the most considerate, the most affectionate
of husbands to me. This has been a happy
home, John ; and I love the Cricket for its sake ! "

"Why, so do I, then," said the Carrier.
" So do I, Dot."

" I love it for the many times I have heard it,
and the many thoughts its harmless music has
given me. Sometimes, in the twilight, when I
have felt a little solitary and down-hearted,
John — before baby was here, to keep me



82



THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH.



company and make the house gay — when I
have thought how lonely you would be if I
should die; how lonely I should be, if I could
know that you had lost me, dear ; its Chirp,
Chirp, Chirp upon the hearth has seemed to tell
me of another little voice, so sweet, so very dear
to mc, before whose coming sound my trouble
vanished like a dream. And when I used to
fear — I did fear once, John ; I was very young,
you know — that ours might prove to be an
ill-assorted marriage, I being such a child, and
you more like my guardian than my husband ;
and that you might not, however hard you
tried, be able to learn to love me, as you
hoped and prayed you might ; its Chirp, Chirp,
Chirp has cheered me up again, and filled me
with new trust and confidence. I was think-
ing of these things to-night, dear, when I sat
expecting you ; and I love the Cricket for their
sake ! "

" And so do I," repeated John. " But, Dot !
/hope and pray that I might learn to love you?
How you talk ! I had learnt that long before I
brought you here, to be the Cricket's little mis-
tress. Dot ! "

She laid her hand, an instant, on his arm, and
looked up at him with an agitated face, as if she
would have told him something. Next moment,
she was down upon her knees before the basket ;
speaking in a sprightly voice, and busy with the
parcels.

" There are not many of them to-night, John,
but I saw some goods behind the cart just now;
and though they give more trouble, perhaps,
still they pay as well ; so we have no reason to
grumble, have we ? Besides, you have been
delivering, I dare say, as you came along?"

" Oh yes ! "' John said. " A good many."

" Why, what's this round box ? Heart alive,
John, it's a wedding-cake !"

" Leave a woman alone to find out that," said
John admiringly. " Now, a man would never
have thought of it ! Whereas, it's my belief that
if you was to pack a wedding-cake up in a tea-
chest, or a turn-up bedstead, or a pickled-salmon
keg, or any unlikely thing, a woman would be
sure to find it out directly. Yes ; I called for
it at the pastrycook's."

"And it weighs I don't know what- — whole
hundredweights ! " cried Dot, making a great
demonstration of trying to lift it. "Whose is it,
John ? Where is it going?"

" Read the writing on the other side," said
John.

" Why, John ! My Goodness, John ! "

"Ah! who'd have thought it?" John re-
turned.



" You never mean to say," pursued Dot, sitting
on the floor and shaking her head at him, " that
it's Gruff and Tackleton the toymaker !"

John nodded.

Mrs. Peerybingle' nodded also, fifty times at
least. Not in assent — in dumb and pitying
amazement; screwing up her lips, the while,
with all their little force (they were never made
for screwing up ; I am clear of that), and looking
the good Carrier through and through, in her
abstraction. Miss Slowboy, in the meantime,
who had a mechanical power of reproducing
scraps of current conversation for the delectation
of the baby, with all the sense struck out of
them, and all the nouns changed into the plural
number, inquired aloud of that young creature,
Was it Gruffs and Tackletons the toymakers
then, and Would it call at Pastrycooks for
wedding-cakes, and Did its mothers know the
boxes when its fathers brought them home ; and
so on.

" And that is really to come about ! " said
Dot. " Why, she and I were girls at school to-
gether, John."

He might have been thinking of her, or nearly
thinking of her, perhaps, as she was in that same
school-time. He looked upon her with a thought-
ful pleasure, but he made no answer.

" And he's as old ! As unlike her ! — Why,
how many years older than you is Gruff and
Tackleton, John?"

" How many more cups of tea shall I drink
to-night, at one sitting, than Gruff and Tackle-
ton ever took in four, I wonder?" replied John
good-humouredly, as he drew a chair to the
round table, and began at the cold ham. " As
to eating, I eat but little; but that little I enjoy.
Dot."

Even this, his usual sentiment at meal-times,
one of his innocent delusions (for his appetite
was always obstinate, and flatly contradicted
him), awoke no smile in the face of his little
wife, who stood among the parcels, pushing the
cake-box slowly from her with her foot, and
never once looked, though her eyes were cast
down too, upon the dainty shoe she generally
was so mindful of. Absorbed in thought, she
stood there, heedless alike of the tea and John
(although he called to her and rapped the
table with his knife to startle her), until he
rose and touched her on the arm ; when she
looked at him for a moment, and hurried to
her place behind the tea-board, laughing at
her negligence. But not as she had laughed
before. The manner and the music were quite
changed.

The Cricket, too, had stopped. Somehow^



THE DEAF STRANGER.



83



the room was not so cheerful as it had been.
Nothing hkc it.

" So, these are all the parcels, are they,
John ? " she said, breaking a long silence, which
the honest carrier had devoted to the practical
illustration of one part of his favourite sentiment
— certainly enjoying what he ate, if it couldn't
be admitted that he ate but little. " So these
are all the parcels, are they, John ?"

" Tliat's all," said John. " Why— no— I "—
laying down his knife and fork, and taking a
long breath — " I declare — I've clean forgotten
the old gentleman !"

" The old gentleman ?"

" In the cart," said John. '•' He Avas asleep
among the straw, the last time I saw him. I've
very nearly remembered him, twice, since I came
in ; but, he went out of my head again. Hal-
loa ! Yahip there ! Rouse up ! That's my
hearty ! "

John said these latter words outside the door,
whither he had hurried with the candle in his
hand.

Miss Slowboy, conscious of some mysterious
reference to The Old Gentleman, and connect-
ing, in her mystified imagination, certain asso-
ciations of a religious nature with the phrase,
w'as so disturbed, that hastily rising from the low
chair by the fire to seek protection near the skirt
of her mistress, and coming into contact, as she
crossed the doorway, with an ancient Stranger,
she instinctively made a charge or butt at him
with the only oft'ensive instrument within her
reach. This instrument happening to be the
baby, great commotion and alarm ensued, which
the sagacity of Boxer rather tended to increase ;
for, that good dog, more thoughtful than his
master, had, it seemed, been watching the old
gentleman in his sleep, lest he should walk off
with a few young poplar-trees that w-ere tied up
behind the cart ; and he still attended on him
very closely, worrying his gaiters, in fact, and
making dead sets at the buttons.

" You're such an undeniably good sleeper,
sir," said John, when tranquillity was restored ;
in the meantime the old gentleman had stood,
bareheaded and motionless, in the centre of the
room ; " that I have half a mind to ask you
where the other six are — only that would be a
joke, and I know I should spoil it. Very near,
though," murmured the Carrier with a chuckle ;
"very near 1"

The Stranger, who had long white hair, good
features, singularly bold and well defined for an
old man, and dark, bright, penetrating eyes,
looked round with a smile, and saluted the
Carrier's wife by gravely inclining his head.



His garb was very quaint and odd — a long,
long way behind the time. Its hue was brown,
all over. In his hand he held a great brown
club or walking-stick ; and, striking this upon
the floor, it fell asunder, and became a chair.
O'.i which he sat down quite composedly.

"There!" said the Carrier, turning to his
wife. " That's the way I found him, sitting by
the roadside ! Upright as a milestone. And
almost as deaf."

" Sitting in the open air, John ? "
"In the open air," replied the Carrier, "just
at dusk. ' Carriage Paid,' he said ; and gave
me eighteen-pence. Then he got in. And
there he is."

" He's going, John, I think !"
Not at all. He was only going to si)eak.
" If you please, I was to be left till called for,"
said the Stranger mildly. " Don't mind me."

With that he took a pair of spectacles from
one of his large pockets, and a book from an-
other, and leisurely began to read. Making no
more of Boxer than if he had been a house
lamb !

The Carrier and his wife exchanged a look of
perplexity. The Stranger raised his head ; and,
glancing from the latter to the former, said :
" Your daughter, my good friend ?"
" Wife," returned John.
" Niece?" said the Stranger.
" Wiie ! " roared John.

" Indeed ? " observed the Stranger. " Surely ?
Very young ! "

He quietly turned over, and resumed his read-
ing. But, before he could have read two lines,
he again interrupted himself to say :
" Baby yours ? "

John gave him a gigantic nod : equivalent to
an answer in the affirmative, delivered through a
speaking trumpet.
" Girl ? "

" Bo-o-oy ! " roared John.
" Also very young, eh ? "
Mrs. Peerybingle instantly struck in. " Two
months and three da-ays. Vaccinated just six
weeks ago-o ! Took very fine-ly ! Considered,
by the doctor, a remarkably beautiful chi-ild !
Equal to the general run of children at five
months o-ld ! Takes notice in a way quite won-
der-ful ! May seem impossible to you, but feels
his legs al-ready ! "

Here, the breathless little mother, who had
been shrieking these short sentences into the
old man's ear, until her pretty face was crim-
soned, held up the Baby before him as a stub-
born and triumphant fact ; while Tilly Slowboy,
with a melodious cry of " Ketcher, Ketcher "-—



84



THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH.



which sounded like some unknown words,
adapted to a popular Sneeze — performed some
cow-like gambols around that all unconscious
Innocent.

" Hark ! He's called for, sure enough," said
John. " There's somebody at the door. Open
it, Tilly."

Lefore she could reach it, however, it was
opened from without ; being a primitive sort of
door, with a latch that any one coukl lift if he
chose — and a good many people did choose, for
all kinds of neighbours liked to have a cheerful
word or two with the Carrier, hough he was no
great talker himself. Being opened, it gave
admission to a little, meagre, Lhoughtful, dingy-
faced man, who seemed to have made himself a
great-coat from the sackcloth covering of some
old box \ for, when he turned to shut the door
and keep the weather out, he disclosed upon the
back of that garment the inscription G & T in
large black capitals. Also the word GLASS in
bold characters.

" Good evening, John ! " said the little man.
*' Good evening, mum ! Good evening, Tilly !
Good evening, Unbeknown ! How's Baby,
mum ? Boxer's pretty well I hope ? "

" All thriving, Caleb," replied Dot, " I am
sure you need only look at the dear child, for
one, to know that."

"And I'm sure I need only look at you for
another," said Caleb.

He didn't look at her, though ; he had a wan-
dering and thoughtful eye, which seemed to be
always projecting itself into some other time and
place, no matter what he said; a description
which will equally apply to his voice.

" Or at John for another," said Caleb. *' Or
at Tilly, as far as that goes. Or certainly at
Boxer."

" Busy just now, Caleb?" asked the Carrier.

" Why, pretty well, John," he returned, with
the distraught air of a man who was casting
about for the Philosopher's stone, at least.
" Pretty much so. There's rather a run on
Noah's Arks at present. I could have wished
to improve on the Family, but I don't see
how it's to be done at the price. It would be
a satisfaction to one's mind to make it clearer
which was Shems and Hams, and which was
Wives. Flies an't on that scale, neither, as com-
pared with elephants, you know ! Ah, well !
Have you got anything in the parcel line for me,
John ? "

The Carrier put his hand into a pocket of the
coat he had taken off; and brought out, care-
fully preserved in moss and paper, a tiny flower-
pot.



" There it is ! " he said, adjusting it with great
care. " Not so much as a leaf damaged. Full
of buds ! "

Caleb's dull eye brightened as he took it, and
thanked him.

" Dear, Caleb," said the Carrier. "Very dear
at this season."

" Never mind that. It would be cheap to me,
whatever it cost," returned the little man. " Any-
thing else, John ? "

" A small box," replied the Carrier. " Here
you are ! "

" ' For Caleb Plummer,' " said tlie little man,
spelling out the direction. "' With Cash.' With
Cash, John ? I don't think it's for me."

" With Care," returned the Carrier, looking
over his shoulder. " Where do you make out
cash ? "

" Oh ! To be sure ! " said Caleb. " It's all
right. With care ! Yes, yes ; that's mine. It
might have been with cash, indeed, if my dear
Boy in the Golden South Americas had lived,
John. You loved him like a son ; didn't you ?
You needn't say you did. / know, of course.
' Caleb Plummer. With care.' Yes, yes, it's all
right. It's a box of dolls' eyes for my daughter's
work. I wish it was her own sight in a box,
John."

"I wish it was, or could be!" cried the
Carrier.

" Thankee," said the little man. " You speak
very hearty. To think that she should never
see the Dolls — and them a staring at her, so
bold, all day long ! That's where it cuts. What's
the damage, John ? "

" I'll damage you," said John, " if you inquire.
Dot ! Very near ? "

" Well ! it's like you to say so," observed the
little man. " It's your kind way. Let me see.
I think that's all."

" I think not," said the Carrier. " Try again."

" Something for our Governor, eh ? " said
Caleb after pondering a little while. " To be
sure. That's what I came for ; but my head's
so running on them Arks and things ! He hasn't
been here, has he ? "

" Not he," returned the Carrier. " He's too
busy, courting."

" He's coming round, though," said Caleb ;
"for he told me to keep on the near side of the
road going home, and it was ten to one he'd take
me up. I had better go, by-the-bye. — You
couldn't have the goodness to let me pinch
Boxer's tail, mum, for half a moment, could
you ? "

" Why, Caleb, what a question ! "

" Oh, never mind, mum ! " said the little man.



TACKLETON'S TOYS.



85



" He mightn't like it, perhaps. There's a small
order just come in for barking dogs ; and I
should wish to go as close to Natur' as I could
for sixpence. That's all. Never mind, mum."

It happened opportunely that Boxer, without
receiving the proposed stimulus, began to bark
with great zeal. But, as this implied the approach
of some new visitor, Caleb, postponing his study
from the life to a more convenient season,
shouldered the round box, and took a hurried
leave. He might have spared himself the trouble,
for he met the visitor upon the threshold.

" Oh ! You are here, are you ? Wait a bit.
I'll take you home. John Peerybingle, my ser-
vice to you. More of my service to your pretty
wife. Handsomer every day ! Better too, if
possible ! And younger," mused the speaker in
a low voice, " that's the devil of it ! "

" I should be astonished at your paying com-
pliments, ]\Ir. Tackleton," said Dot, not with
the best grace in the world, '" but for your con-
dition."

" You know all about it, then ? "

" I have got myself to believe it somehow,"
said Dot.

" After a hard struggle, I suppose ? "

" Very."

Tackleton the Toy merchant, pretty generally
known as Gruff and Tackleton — for that was
the firm, though Gruff had been bought out long
ago ; only leaving his name, and, as some said,
his nature, according to its Dictionary meaning,
in the business — Tackleton the Toy merchant
was a man whose vocation had been quite mis-
understood by his Parents and Guardians. If
they had made him a Money Lender, or a sharp
Attorney, or a Sherift"'s Officer, or a Broker, he
might have sown his discontented oats in his
youth, and, after having had the full run of him-
self in ill-natured transactions, might have turned
out amiable, at last, for the sake of a little fresh-
ness and novelty. But, cramped and chafing in
the peaceable pursuit of toy making, he was a
domestic Ogre, who had been living on children
all his life, and was their implacable enemy. He
despised all toys ; wouldn't have bought one for
the world ; delighted, in his malice, to insinuate
grim expressions into the faces of brown-paper
farmers who drove pigs to market, bellmen who
advertised lost lawyers' consciences, movable old
ladies who darned stockings or carved pies ; and
other like samples of his stock-in-trade. In
appalling masks ; hideous, hairy, red-eyed Jacks
in Boxes ; Vampire Kites ; demoniacal Tumblers
who wouldn't lie down, and were perpetually
flying forward, to stare infants out of counte-
nance ; his soul perfectly revelled. They were



his only relief, and safety-valve. He was great
in such inventions. Anything suggestive of a
Pony nightmare was delicious to him. He had
even lost money (and he took to that toy very
kindly) by getting up Goblin slides for magic
lanterns, whereon the Powers of Darkness were
depicted as a sort of supernatural shell-fish, with
human faces. In intensifying the portraiture
of Giants, he had sunk fjuite a little capital ;
and, though no painter himself, he could indi-
cate, for the instruction of his artists, with a
piece of chalk, a certain furtive leer for the
countenances of those monsters, which was safe
to destroy the peace of mind of any young gen-
tleman between the ages of six and eleven, for



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 82 of 103)