Charles Dickens.

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

. (page 96 of 103)
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have believed that everything about him took
this haunted tone, and that he lived on haunted
ground ?

His dwelling was so solitary and vault-like, —
an old, retired part of an ancient endowment for
students, once a brave edifice planted in an open
place, but now the obsolete whim of forgotten
architects; smoke -age -and -weather darkened,
squeezed on every side by the overgrowing of
the great city, and choked, like an old well,

with stones and bricks ; its small quadrangles,
lying down in very pits formed by the streets
and buildings, which, in course of time, had
been constructed above its heavy chimney-stacks;
its old trees, insulted by the neighbouring smoke,
which deigned to droop so low when it was very
feeble, and the weather very moody ; its grass-
plots, struggling with the mildewed earth to be
grass, or to win any show of compromise ; its
silent pavement, unaccustomed to the tread of
feet, and even to the observation of eyes, except
when a stray face looked down from the upper
world, wondering what nook it was ; its sun-dial
in a little bricked-up corner, where no sun had
straggled for a hundred years, but where, in com-
pensation for the sun's neglect, the snow would
lie for weeks when it lay nowhere else, and the
black east wind would spin like a huge humming-
top, when in all other places it was silent and

His dwelling at its heart and core — within
doors — at his fireside — was so lowering and old,
so crazy, yet so strong, with its worm-eaten
beams of wood in the ceiling, and its sturdy floor
shelving downward to the great oak chimney-
piece ; so environed and hemmed in by the
pressure of the town, yet so remote in fashion,
age, and custom; so quiet, yet so thundering
with echoes when a distant voice was raised, or
a door was shut, — echoes not confined to the
many low passages and empty rooms, but rum-
bling and grumbling till they were stifled in the
heavy air of the forgotten Crypt where the Nor-
man arches were half buried in the earth.

You should have seen him in his dwelling
about twilight, in the dead AAdnter-time.

When the wind was blowing shrill and shrewd,
with the going down of the blurred sun. When
it was just so dark as that the forms of things
were indistinct and big — but not wholly lost.
When sitters by the fire began to see wild
faces and figures, mountains and abysses, ambus-
cades and armies, in the coals. When people
in the streets bent down their heads, and ran
before the weather. When those who were
obliged to meet it were stopped at angry corners,
stung by wandering snow-flakes alighting on the
lashes of their eyes, — which fell too sparingly,
and were blown away too quickly, to leave a
trace upon the frozen ground. When windows
of private houses closed up tight and warm.
When lighted gas began 'to burst forth in the
busy and the quiet streets, fast blackening other-
wise. When stray pedestrians, shivering along
the latter, looked down at the glowing fires in
kitchens, and sharpened their sharp appetites by
sniffing up the fragrance of whole miles of dinners.



When travellers by land were bitter cold, and
looked wearily on gloomy landscapes, rustling
and shuddering in the blast. When mariners
at sea, outlying upon icy yards, were tossed
and swung above the howling ocean dreadfully.
When lighthouses, on rocks and headlands,
showed solitary and watchful ; and benighted
sea birds breasted on against their ponderous
lanterns, and fell dead. When little readers of
story books, by the firelight, trembled to think
of Cassim Baba cut into quarters, hanging in
the Robbers' Cave, or had some small mis-
givings that the fierce little old woman, with the
crutch, who used to start out of the box in the
merchant Abudah's bedroom, might, one of these
nights, be found upon the stairs, in the long, cold,
dusky journey up to bed.

When, in rustic places, the last glimmering of
daylight died away from the ends of avenues ;
and the trees, arching overhead, were sullen and
black. When, in parks and woods, the high wet
fern and sodden moss and beds of fallen leaves,
and trunks of trees, were lost to view, in masses
of impenetrable shade. When mists arose from
dyke, and fen, and river. When lights in old
halls and in cottage windows were a cheerful
sight. When the mill stopped, the wheelwright
and the blacksmith shut their workshops, the
turnpike -gate closed, the plough and harrow
were left lonely in the fields, the labourer and
team went home, and the striking of the church
clock had a deeper sound than at noon, and the
churchyard wicket would be swung no more that

When twilight everywhere released the sha-
dows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in
and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts.
When they stood lowering in corners of rooms,
and frowned out from behind half-opened doors.
When they had full possession of unoccupied
apartments. When they danced upon the floors,
and walls, and ceilings of inhabited chambers
while the fire was low, and withdrew like ebbing
waters when it sprung into a blaze. When they
fantastically mocked the shapes of household
objects, making the nurse an ogress, the rocking-
horse a monster, the wondering child, half scared
and half amused, a stranger to itself, — the very
tongs upon the hearth a straddling giant with
his arms a-kimbo, evidently smelling the blood
of Englishmen, and wanting to grind people's
bones to make his brfead.

When these shadows brought into the minds
of older people other thoughts, and showed them
different images. When they stole from the'r
retreats, in the likenesses of forms and faces
from the past, from the grave, from the deep,

deep gulf, where the things that might have been,
and never were, are always wandering.

When he sat, as already mentioned, gazing at
the fire. When, as it rose and fell, the shadows
went and came. When he took no heed of
them with his bodily eyes ; but, let them come
or let them go, looked fixedly at the fire. You
should have seen him then.

When the sounds that had arisen with the
shadows, and come out of their lurking-places
at the twilight summons, seemed to make a
deeper stillness all about him. When the wind
was rumbling in the chimney, and sometimes
crooning, sometimes howling, in the house.
When the old trees outward were so shaken and
beaten, that one querulous old rook, unable to
sleep, protested now and then in a feeble, dozy,
high-up " Caw ! " When, at intervals, the win-
dow trembled, the rusty vane upon the turret-top
complained, the clock beneath it recorded that
another quarter of an hour was gone, or the fire
collapsed and fell in with a rattle.

—When a knock came at his door, in short,
as he was sitting so, and roused him.

" Who's that ? " said he. " Come in ! "

Surely there had been no figure leaning on
the back of his chair ; no face looking over it.
It is certain that no gliding footstep touched
the floor as he lifted up his head with a start,
and spoke. And yet there was no mirror in the
room on whose surface his own form could
have cast its shadow for a moment : and Some-
thing had passed darkly and gone !

" I'm humbly fearful, sir," said a fresh-coloured
busy man, holding the door open with his foot
for the admission of himself and a wooden tray
he carried, and letting it go again by very gentle
and careful degrees, when he and the tray had
got in, lest it should close noisily, " that it's
a good bit past the time to-night. But Mrs.
William had been taken off her legs so often "

" By the wind ? Ay ! I have heard it rising."

" — By the wind, sir — that it's a mercy she
got home at all. Oh dear, yes ! Yes. It was
by the wind, Mr. Redlaw. By the wind."

He had, by this time, put down the tray for
dinner, and was employed in lighting the lamp,
and spreading a cloth on the table. From this
employment he desisted in a hurry, to stir and
feed the fire, and then resumed it ; the lamp he
had lighted, and the blaze that rose under his
hand, so quickly changing the appearance of the
room, that it seemed as if the mere coming in of
his fresh red face and active manner had iijade
the pleasant alteration.

" Mrs. William is of course subject at any
time, sir, to be taken off her balance by the



elements. She is not formed superior to

" No," returned Mr. Redlaw good-naturedly,
though abrujjtly.

" No, sir. Mrs. William may be taken'off her
balance by Earth ; as, for example, last Sunday
week, when sloppy and greasy, and she going out
to tea with her newest sister-in-law, and having a
pride in herself, and wishing to appear perfectly
spotless, though pedestrian. Mrs. William may
be taken oft" her balance by Air ; as being once
over-persuaded by a friend to try a swing at
Peckham Fair, which acted on her constitution
instantly like a steamboat. Mrs. William may
be taken off her balance by Fire ; as on a false
alarm of engines at her mother's, when she went
two mile in her nightcap. Mrs. William may be
taken off" her balance by Water; as at Battersea,
when rowed into the piers by her young nephew,
Charley Swidger, junior, aged twelve, which had
no idea of boats whatever. But these are ele-
ments. Mrs. William must be taken out of
elements for the strength of her character to
come into play."

As he stopped for a reply, the reply was
" Yes," in the same tone as before.

" Yes, sir. Oh dear, yes ! " said Mr. Swidger,
still proceeding with his preparations, and check-
ing them off" as he made them. " That's
where it is, sir. That's what I always say my-
self, sir. Such a many of us Swidgers ! — Pepper.
Why, there's my father, sir, superannuated keeper
and custodian of this Institution, eigh-ty-seven
year old. He's a Swidger ! — Spoon."

" True, William," was the patient and ab-
stracted answer when he stopped again.

" Yes, sir," said Mr. Swidger. " That's what
I always say, sir. You may call him the trunk of
the tree ! — Bread. Then you come to his succes-
sor, my unworthy self — Salt — and Mrs. William,
Swidgers both. — Knife and fork. Then you
come to all my brothers and their families,
Swidgers, man and woman, boy and girl. Why,
what with cousins, uncles, aunts, and relation-
ships of this, that, and t'other degree, and what-
not degree, and marriages, and lyings-in, the
Swidgers — Tumbler — might take hold of hands,
and make a ring round England ! "

Receiving no reply at all here from the thought-
ful man whom he addressed, Mr. William ap-
proached him nearer, and made a feint of ac-
cidentally knocking the table with a decanter
to rouse him. The moment he succeeded, he
went on, as if in great alacrity of aquiescence.

"Yes, sir! That's just what I say myself,
sir. Mrs. William and me have often said so.
' There's Swidgers enough,' we say, ' without

our voluntary contributions. — Butter. In fact,
sir, my father is a family in himself — Casters —
to take care of; and it hai)pens all for the best
that we have no child of our own, though it's
made Mrs. William rather quiet-like, too. Quite
ready for the fowl and mashed potatoes, sir?
Mrs. William said she'd dish in ten minutes
when I left the Lodge."

- " I am quite ready," said the other, waking
as from a dream, and walking slowly to and

" Mrs. William has been at it again, sir ! " said
the keeper, as he stood warming a plate at the
fire, and pleasantly shading his face with it.
Mr. Redlaw stopped in his walking, and an ex-
pression of interest appeared in him.

" What I always say myself, sir. She juill do
it ! There's a motherly feeling in Mrs. William's
breast that must and will have went."

" What has she done ? "

" Why, sir, not satisfied with being a sort of
mother to all the young gentlemen that come up
from a wariety of parts, to attend your courses

of lectures at this ancient foundation It's

surprising how stone-chaney catches the heat,
this frosty weather, to be sure ! " Here he
turned the plates, and cooled his fingers.

" Well ? " said Mr. Redlaw.

"That's just what I say myself, sir," re-
turned Mr. William, speaking over his shoulder,
as if in ready and delighted assent. " That's
exactly where it is, sir ! There ain't one of our
students but appears to regard Mrs. William in
that light. Every day, right through the course,
they put their heads into the Lodge, one after
another, and have all got something to tell her,
or something to ask her. ' Swidge ' is the ap-
pellation by which they speak of Mrs. William
in general, among themselves, I'm told ; but
that's what I say, sir. Better be called ever so
far out of your name, if it's done in real liking,
than have it made ever so much of, and not
cared about ! What's a name for ? To know a
person by. If Mrs. William is known by some-
thing better than her name — I allude to Mrs.
William's qualities and disposition — never mind
her name, though it is Swidger, by rights. Let
'em call her Swidge, Widge, Bridge — Lord !
London Bridge, Blackfriars, Chelsea, Putney,
Waterloo, or Hammersmith Suspension — if they
like ! "

The close of this triumphant oration brought
him and the plate to the table, upon which
he half, laid and half dropped it, with a lively
sense of its being thoroughly heated, just as the
subject of his praises entered the room, bear-
ing another tray and a lantern, and followed



by a venerable old man with long grey

Mrs. William, like Mr. William, was a simple,
innocent-looking person, in whose smooth cheeks
the cheerful red of her husband's official waist-
coat was very pleasantly repeated. But whereas
Mr. William's light hair stood on end all over
his head, and seemed to draw his eyes up with
it in an excess of bustling readiness for anything,
the dark brown hair of Mrs. William was care-
fully smoothed down, and waved away under a
trim, tidy cap, in the most exact and quiet man-
ner imaginable. Whereas Mr. William's very
trousers hitched themselves up at the ankles, as
if it were not in their iron-grey nature to rest
without looking about them. Mrs. William's
neatly-flowered skirts — red and white, like her
own pretty face — were as composed and orderly
as if the very wind that blew so hard out of
doors could not disturb one of their folds.
Whereas his coat had something of a fly-away
and half-off appearance about the collar and
breast, her little bodice was so placid and neat,
that there should have been protection for her
in it, had she needed any, with the roughest
people. Who could have had the heart to
make so calm a bosom swell with grief, or throb
with fear, or flutter with a thought of shame ?
To whom would its repose and peace have not
appealed against disturbance, like the innocent
slumber of a child ? O

" Punctual, of course, Milly," said her hus-
band, reheving her of the tray, " or it wouldn't
be you. Here's Mrs. William, sir ! — He looks
lonelier than ever to-night," whispering to his
wife as he was taking the tray, " and ghostlier

Without any show of hurry or noise, or any
show of herself even, she was so calm and quiet,
Milly set the dishes she had brought upon the
table, — Mr. William, after much clattering and
running about, having only gained possession of
a butter-boat of gravy, which he stood ready to

'• What is that the old man has in his arms ?"
asked Mr. Redlaw as he sat down to his solitary

" Holly, sir," replied the quiet voice of Milly.

" That's what I say myself, sir," interposed
Mr. William, striking in with the butter-boat.
" Berries is so seasonable to the time of year ! —
Brown gravy ! "

" Another Christmas come, another year
gone ! " murmured the Chemist with a gloomy
sigh. " More figures in the lengthening sum of
recollection that we work and work at to our
torment, till Death idly jumbles all together,
Christmas Books, ii.

apd rubs all out. So, Philip ! " breaking off,
and raising his voice as he addressed the old
man standing apart, with his glistening burden
in his arms, from which the quiet Mrs. Wil-
liam took small branches, which she noiselessly
trimmed with her scissors, and decorated the
room with, while her aged father-in-law looked
on, much interested in the ceremony.

" My duty to you, sir," returned the old man.
" Should have spoke before, sir, but know your
ways, Mr. Redlaw — proud to say — and wait till
spoke to ! Merry Christmas, sir, and happy
New Year, and many of 'em. Have had a pretty
many of 'em myself — ha, ha ! — and may take
the liberty of wishing 'em. I'm eighty-seven ! "

" Have you had so many that were merry
and happy ? '' asked the other.

" Ay, sir, ever so many," returned the old

" Is his memory impaired with age ? It is
to be expected now," said Mr. Redlaw, turn-
ing to the son, and speaking lower.

" Not a morsel of it, sir," replied Mr. William.
" That's exactly what I say myself, sir. There
never was such a memory as my father's. He's
the most wonderful man in the world. He don't
know what forgetting means. It's the very ob-
servation I'm always making to Mrs. William,
sir, if you'll believe me !"

Mr. Swidger, in his polite desire to seem to
acquiesce at all events, delivered this as if there
were no iota of contradiction in it, and it were
all said in unbounded and unqualified assent.

The Chemist pushed his plate away, and, rising
from the table, walked across the room to where
the old man stood looking at a little sprig of
holly in his hand.

" It recalls the time when many of thos'^
years were old and new, then ? " he said, ob-
serving him attentively, and touching him on
the shoulder. " Does it ? "

" Oh, many, many !" said PhiHp, half awaking
from his reverie. " I'm eighty-seven ! "

"Merry and happy, was it?" asked the Che-
mist in a low voice, " Merry and happy, old

" Maybe as high as that, no higher," said the
old man, holding out his hand a little way above
the level of his knee, and looking retrospectively
at his questioner, " when I first remember 'em !
Cold, sunshiny day it was, out a walking, when
some one — it was my mother as sure as you
stand there, though I don't know what her blessed
face was like, for she took ill and died that
Christmas-time — told me they were food for
birds. The pretty little fellow thought — that's
me, you understand — that birds' eyes wpre so



bright, perhaps, because the berries that they
lived on in the winter were so bright. I recollect
■that. And I'm eighty-seven ! "

" Merry and happy !" mused the other, bend-
ing his dark eyes upon the stooping figure, with
a smile of compassion. " Merry and happy —
and remember well ?"

" Ay, ay, ay ! " resumed the old man, catching
the last words. " I remember 'em well in my
school-time, year after year, and all the merry-
making that used to come along with them. I
was a strong chap then, Mr. Redlaw; and, if
you'll believe me, hadn't my match at foot-ball
within ten mile. Where's my son William?
Hadn't my match at foot-ball, William, wifhin
ten mile ! "

" That's what I always say, father !" returned
the son promptly, and with great respect. " You
ARE a Swidger, if ever there was one of the
family ! " ^

" Dear ! " said the old man, shaking his head
as he again looked at the holly. " His mother
— my son William's my youngest son — and I,
have sat among 'em all, boys and girls, little
children and babies, many a year, when the
berries like these w^ere not shining half so bright
all round us, as their bright faces. Many of 'em
are gone ; she's gone ; and my son George (our
eldest, who was her pride more than all the rest)
is fallen very low : but I can see them, when I
look here, alive and healthy, as they used to be
in those days ; and I can see him, thank God,
in his innocence. It's a blessed thing to me, at

The keen look that had been fixed upon him
with so much earnestness had gradually sought
the ground.

"When my circumstances got to be not so
good as formerly, through not being honestly
dealt by, and I first come here to be custodian,"
said the old man, " — which was upwards of fifty
years ago — where's my son William ? More
than half a century ago, William ! "

" That's what I say, father," replied the son
as promptly and dutifully as before, " that's
exactly where it is. Two times ought's an
ought, and twice five ten, and there's a hundred
of 'em."

" — It was quite a pleasure to know that one of
our founders — or, more correctly speaking," said
the old man, with a great glory in his subject
and his knowledge of it, " one of the learned
gentlemen that helped endow us in Queen
Elizabeth's time, for we were founded afore her
day — left in his will, among the other bequests
he made us, so much to buy holly, for garnish-
ing the walls and windows come Christmas.

There was something homely and friendly in it-
Being but strange here then, and coming at
Christmas-time, we took a liking for his very
picter that hangs in what used to be, anciently,
afore our ten poor gentlemen commuted for
an annual stipend in money, our great Dinner
Hall. A sedate gentleman in a peaked beard,
with a ruff round his neck, and a scroll below
him, in old English letters, ' Lord, keep my
memory green !' You know all about him, Mr.

" I know the portrait hangs there, Philip."

" Yes, sure, it's the second on the right, above
the panelling. I Avas going to say — he has
helped to keep my memory green, I thank him ;
for going round the building every year, as I'm
a doing now, and freshening up the bare rooms
with these branches and berries, freshens up my
bare old brain. One year brings back another,
and that year another, and those others num-
bers ! At last, it seems to me as if the birth-
time of our Lord was the birth-time of all I have
ever had affection for, or mourned for, or de-
lighted in, — and they're a pretty many, for I'm
eighty-seven ! "

" Merry and happy," murmured Redlaw to

The room began to darken strangely.

" So you see, sir," pursued old Philip, whose
hale wintry cheek had warmed into a ruddier
glow, and whose blue eyes had brightened,
while he spoke, " I have plenty to keep, when
I keep this present season. Now, where's my
quiet Mouse ? Chattering's the sin of my time
of life, and there's half the building to do yet, if
the cold don't freeze us first, or the wind don't
blow us away, or the darkness doi^'t sw-allow us

The quiet Mouse had brought her calm face
to his side, and silently taken his arm, before he
finished speaking.

" Come away, my dear," said the old man.
" Mr. Redlaw won't settle to his dinner, other-
wise, till it's cold as the winter. I hope you'll
excuse me rambling on, sir, and I wish you
good night, and, once again, a merry "

" Stay ! " said Mr. Redlaw, resuming his place
at the table, more, it would have seemed from
his manner, to reassure the old keeper, than in
any remembrance of his own appetite. " Spare
me another moment, Philip. William, you
were going to tell me something to your ex-
cellent wife's honour. It will not be dis-
agreeable to her to hear you praise her. What
was it ?"

" Why, that's where it is, you see, sir," returned
Mr. William Swidger, looking towards his wife



in considerable embarrassment. " Mrs. William's
got her eye upon me."

" But you're not afraid of Mrs. William's eye ?"

"Why, no, sir," returned Mr. Swidger, "that's
what I say myself. It wasn't made to be afraid
of. It wouldn't have been made so mild, if that
was the intention. But I wouldn't like to —
Milly ! — him, you know. Down in the Build-

Mr. William, standing behmd the table, and
rummaging disconcertedly among the objects
upon it, directed persuasive glances at Mrs.
William, and secret jerks of his head and thumb
at Mr. Redlaw, as alluring her towards him.

"Him, you know, my love," said Mr. William.
" Down in the Buildings. Tell, my dear !
You're the works of Shakspeare in comparison
with myself. Down in the Buildings, you know,
my love. — Student."

" Student ! " repeated IMr. Redlaw, raising his
head. '

" That's what I say, sir ! " cried Mr. William
in the utmost animation of assent. " If it wasn't
the poor student down in the Buildings, why
should you wish to hear it from Mrs. William's
lips ? Mrs. William, my dear — Buildings."

" I didn't know," said Milly with a quiet
frankness, free from any haste or confusion,
*•' that William had said anything about it, or

Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 96 of 103)