Charles Dickens.

The works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) online

. (page 2 of 31)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 2 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


warden that year, and through his interest he was appointed
to his present situation.

He is an old man now. Of the many who once crowded
round him in all the hollow friendship of boon-companionship,
some have died, some have fallen like himself, some have
prospered all have forgotten him. Time and misfortune
have mercifully been permitted to impair his memory, and
use has habituated him to his present condition. Meek, un-
complaining, and zealous in the discharge of his duties, he has
been allowed to hold his situation long beyond the usual
period ; and he will no doubt continue to hold it, until



THE PAUPER SCHOOLMASTER. 7

infirmity renders him incapable, or death releases him. As
the grey-headed old man feebly paces up and down the
sunny side of the little court-yard between school hours, it
would be difficult, indeed, for the most intimate of his former
friends to recognise their once gay and happy associate, in
the person of the Pauper Schoolmaster.



CHAPTER II.

THE CURATE. THE OLD LADY. THE HALF-PAY CAPTAIX.

WE commenced our last chapter with the beadle of our
parish, because we are deeply sensible of the importance and
dignity of his office. We will begin the present, with the
clergyman. Our curate is a young gentleman of such pre-
possessing appearance, and fascinating manners, that within
one month after his first appearance in the parish, half the
young-lady inhabitants were melancholy with religion, and
the other half, desponding with love. Never were so many
young ladies seen in our parish church on Sunday before ; and
never had the little round angels 1 faces on Mr. Tomkins's
monument in the side aisle, beheld such devotion on earth
as they all exhibited. He was about five-and-twenty when
he first came to astonish the parishioners. He parted his
hair on the centre of his forehead in the form of a Norman
arch, wore a brilliant of the first water on the fourth finger of
his left hand (which he always applied to his left cheek when
he read prayers), and had a deep sepulchral voice of unusual
solemnity. Innumerable were the calls made by prudent
mammas on our new curate, and innumerable the invitations
with which he was assailed, and which, to do him justice, he
readily accepted. If his manner in the pulpit had created an
impression in his favour, the sensation was increased tenfold,
by his appearance in private circles. Pews in the immediate
vicinity of the pulpit or reading-desk rose in value ; sittings



THE CURATE. 9

in the centre aisle were at a premium : an inch of room in
the front row of the gallery could not be procured for love
or money ; and some people even went so far as to assert, that
the three Miss Browns, who had an obscure family pew just
behind the churchwardens', were detected, one Sunday, in
the free seats by the communion-table, actually laying in wait
for the curate as he passed to the vestry ! He began to
preach extempore sermons, and even grave papas caught the
infection. He got out of bed at half-past twelve o'clock one
winter's night, to half-baptise a washerwoman's child in a
slop-basin, and the gratitude of the parishioners knew no
bounds the very churchwardens grew generous, and insisted
on the parish defraying the expense of the watch-box on
wheels, which the new curate had ordered for himself, to
perform the funeral service in, in wet weather. He sent
three pints of gruel and a quarter of a pound of tea to a
poor woman who had been brought to bed of four small
children, all at once the parish were charmed. He got up
a subscription for her the woman's fortune was made. He
spoke for one hour and twenty-five minutes, at an anti-slavery
meeting at the Goat and Boots the enthusiasm was at its
height. A proposal was set on foot for presenting the curate
with a piece of plate, as a mark of esteem for his valuable
services rendered to the parish. The list of subscriptions
was filled up in no time ; the contest was, not who should
escape the contribution, but who should be the foremost to
subscribe. A splendid silver inkstand was made, and engraved
with an appropriate inscription ; the curate was invited to a
public breakfast, at the before-mentioned Goat and Boots;
the inkstand was presented in a neat speech by Mr. Gubbins,
the ex-churchwarden, and acknowledged by the curate in
terms which drew tears into the eyes of all present the very
waiters were melted.

One would have supposed that, by this time, the theme
of universal admiration was lifted to the very pinnacle of
popularity. No such thing. The curate began to cough;



10 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

four fits of coughing one morning between the Litany and
the Epistle, and five in the afternoon service. Here was a
discovery the curate was consumptive. How interestingly
melancholy! If the 'young ladies were energetic before,
their sympathy and solicitude now knew no bounds. Such
a man as the curate such a dear such a perfect love to
be consumptive ! It was too much. Anonymous presents
of black-currant jam, and lozenges, elastic waistcoats, bosom
friends, and warm stockings, poured in upon the curate until
he was as completely fitted out, with winter clothing, as if he
were on the verge of an expedition to the North Pole : verbal
bulletins of the state of his health were circulated through-
out the parish half-a-dozen times a day; and the curate was
in the very zenith of his popularity.

About this period, a change came over the spirit of the
parish. A very quiet, respectable, dozing old gentleman,
who had officiated in our chapel-of-ease for twelve years
previously, died one fine morning, without having given any
notice whatever of his intention. This circumstance gave
rise to counter-sensation the first ; and the arrival of his
successor occasioned counter-sensation the second. He was a
pale, thin, cadaverous man, with large black eyes, and long
straggling black hair: his dress was slovenly in the extreme,
his manner ungainly, his doctrines startling ; in short, he
was in every respect the antipodes of the curate. Crowds of
our female parishioners flocked to hear him ; at first, because
he was so odd-looking, then because his face was so expressive,
then because he preached so well ; and at last, because they
really thought that, after all, there was something about him
which it was quite impossible to describe. As to the curate,
he was all very well ; but certainly, after all, there was no
denying that that in short, the curate wasn't a novelty, and
the other clergyman was. The inconstancy of public opinion
is proverbial: the congregation migrated one by one. The
curate coughed till he was black in the face it was in vain.
He respired with difficulty it was equally ineffectual in



THE OLD LADY. 11

awakening sympathy. Seats are once again to be had in
any part of our parish church, and the chapel- of-ease is going
to be enlarged, as it is crowded to suffocation every Sunday !
The best known and most respected among our parishioner's,
is an old lady, who resided in our parish long before our
name was registered in the list of baptisms. Our parish is a
suburban one, and the old lady lives in a neat row of houses
in the most airy and pleasant part of it. The house is her
own; and it, and everything about it, except the old lady
herself, who looks a little older than she did ten years ago,
is in just the same state as when the old gentleman was
living. The little front parlour, which is the old lady's
ordinary sitting-room, is a perfect picture of quiet neatness ;
the carpet is covered with brown Holland, the glass and
picture-frames are carefully enveloped in yellow muslin ; the
table-covers are never taken off, except when the leaves are
turpentined and bees'-waxed, an operation which is regularly
commenced every other morning at half-past nine o'clock
and the little nicknacks are always arranged in precisely the
same manner. The greater part of these are presents from
little girls whose parents live in the same row ; but some of
them, such as the two old-fashioned watches (which never
keep the same time, one being always a quarter of an hour
too slow, and the other a quarter of an hour too fast), the
little picture of the Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold
as they appeared in the Royal Box at Drury Lane Theatre,
and others of the same class, have been in the old lady's
possession for many years. Here the old lady sits with her
spectacles on, busily engaged in needlework near the window
in summer time ; and if she sees you coming up the steps,
and you happen to be a favourite, she trots out to open the
street-door for you before you knock, and as you must be
fatigued after that hot walk, insists on your swallowing two
glasses of sherry before you exert yourself by talking. If
you call in the evening you will find her cheerful, but rather
more serious than usual, with an open Bible on the table,



12 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

before her, of which " Sarah," who is just as neat and
methodical as her mistress, regularly reads two or three
chapters in the parlour aloud.

The old lady sees scarcely any company, except the little
o-irls before noticed, each of whom has always a regular fixed
day for a periodical tea-drinking with her, to which the child
looks forward as the greatest treat of its existence. She seldom
visits at a greater distance than the next door but one on
either side ; and when she drinks tea here, Sarah runs out first
and knocks a double-knock, to prevent the possibility of her
" Missis's " catching cold by having to wait at the door. She
is very scrupulous in returning these little invitations, and
when she asks Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, to meet Mr. and
Mrs. Somebody-else, Sarah and she dust the urn, and the
best china tea-service, and the Pope Joan board ; and the
visitors are received in the drawing-room in great state.
She has but few relations, and they are scattered about in
different parts of the country, and she seldom sees them.
She has a son in India, whom she always describes to you as
a fine, handsome fellow so like the profile of his poor dear
father over the sideboard, but the old lady adds, with a
mournful shake of the head, that he has always been one of
her greatest trials ; and that indeed he once almost broke her
heart; but it pleased God to enable her to get the better of
it, and she would prefer your never mentioning the subject
to her again. She has a great number of pensioners : and on
Saturday, after she comes back from market, there is a regular
levee of old men and women in the passage, waiting for their
weekly gratuity. Her name always heads the list of any
benevolent subscriptions, and hers are always the most liberal
donations to the Winter Coal and Soup Distribution Society.
She subscribed twenty pounds towards the erection of an organ
in our parish church, and was so overcome the first Sunday
the children sang to it, that she was obliged to be carried
out by the pew-opener. Her entrance into church on Sunday
is always the signal for a little bustle in the side aisle,



THE CAPTAIN. 13

occasioned by a general rise among the poor people, who bow
and curtsy until the pew-opener has ushered the old lady
into her accustomed seat, dropped a respectful curtsy, and shut
the door: and the same ceremony is repeated on her leaving
church, when she walks home with the family next door but
one, and talks about the sermon all the way, invariably
opening the conversation by asking the youngest boy where
the text was.

Thus, with the annual variation of a trip to some quiet
place on the sea-coast, passes the old lady's life. It has
rolled on in the same unvarying and benevolent course for
many years now, and must at no distant period be brought
to its final close. She looks forward to its termination, with
calmness and without apprehension. She has everything to
hope and nothing to fear.

A very different personage, but one who has rendered him-
self very conspicuous in our parish, is one of the old lady's
next-door neighbours. He is an old naval officer on half-
pay, and his bluff and unceremonious behaviour disturbs
the old lady's domestic economy, not a little. In the first
place, he will smoke cigars in the front court, and when he
wants something to drink with them which is by no means
an uncommon circumstance he lifts up the old lady's knocker
with his walking-stick, and demands to have a glass of table
ale, handed over the rails. In addition to this cool proceeding,
he is a bit of a Jack of all trades, or to use his own words,
"a regular Robinson Crusoe;" and nothing delights him
better than to experimentalise on the old lady's property.
One morning he got up early, and planted three or four
roots of full-grown marigolds in every bed of her front
garden, to the inconceivable astonishment of the old lady,
who actually thought when she got up and looked out of
the window, that it was some strange eruption which had
come out in the night. Another time he took to pieces the
eight-day clock on the front landing, under pretence of
cleaning the works, which he put together again, by some



14 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

undiscovered process, in so wonderful a manner, that the
large hand has done nothing but trip up the little one ever
since. Then he took to breeding silk-worms, which he would
bring in two or three times a day, in little paper boxes, to
show the old lady, generally dropping a worm or two at
every visit. The consequence was, that one morning a very
stout silk-worm was discovered in the act of walking up-
stairs probably with the view of inquiring after his friends,
for, on further inspection, it appeared that some of his
companions had already found their way to every room in
the house. The old lady went to the seaside in despair, and
during her absence he completely effaced the name from her
brass door-plate, in his attempts to polish it with aqua-fortis.
But all this is nothing to his seditious conduct in public
life. He attends every vestry meeting that is held ; always
opposes the constituted authorities of the parish, denounces
the profligacy of the churchwardens, contests legal points
against the vestry-clerk, will make the tax-gatherer call for
his money till he won't call any longer, and then he sends
it : finds fault with the sermon every Sunday, says that the
organist ought to be ashamed of himself, offers to back
himself for any amount to sing the psalms better than all
the children put together, male and female ; and, in short,
conducts himself in the most turbulent and uproarious
manner. The worst of it is, that having a high regard for
the old lady, he wants to make her a convert to his views, and
therefore walks into her little parlour with his newspaper in
his hand, and talks violent politics by the hour. He is a
charitable, open-hearted old fellow at bottom, after all ; so,
although he puts the old lady a little out occasionally, they
agree very well in the main, and she laughs as much at each
feat of his handiwork when it is all over, as anybody else.



CHAPTER III.

THE FOUR SISTERS.

THE row of houses in which the old lady and her troublesome
neighbour reside, comprises, beyond all doubt, a greater
number of characters within its circumscribed limits, than
all the rest of the parish put together. As we cannot, con-
sistently with our present plan, however, extend the number
of our parochial sketches beyond six, it will be better perhaps,
to select the most peculiar, and to introduce them at once
without further preface.

The four Miss Willises, then, settled in our parish thirteen
years ago. It is a melancholy reflection that the old adage,
"time and tide wait for no man, 11 applies with equal force
to the fairer portion of the creation ; and willingly would
we conceal the fact, that even thirteen years ago the Miss
Willises were far from juvenile. Our duty as faithful
parochial chroniclers, however, is paramount to every other
consideration, and we are bound to state, that thirteen years
since, the authorities in matrimonial cases, considered the
youngest Miss Willis in a very precarious state, while the
eldest sister was positively given over, as being far beyond
all human hope. Well, the Miss Willises took a lease of
the house ; it was fresh painted and papered from top to
bottom : the paint inside was all wainscoted, the marble all
cleaned, the old grates taken down, and register-stoves, you
could see to dress by, put up; four trees were planted in



16 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

the back garden, several small baskets of gravel sprinkled
over the front one, vans of elegant furniture arrived, spring-
blinds were fitted to the windows, carpenters who had been
employed in the various preparations, alterations, and repairs,
made confidential statements to the different maid-servants in
the row, relative to the magnificent scale on which the Miss
Willises were commencing; the maid-servants told their
."Missises,"" the Missises told their friends, and vague
rumours were circulated throughout the parish, that No. 25,
in Gordon-place, had been taken by four maiden ladies of
immense property.

At last, the Miss Willises moved in ; and then the
" calling " began. The house was the perfection of neatness
so were the four Miss Willises. Everything was formal, stiff',
and cold so were the four Miss Willises. Not a single chair
of the whole set was ever seen out of its place not a single
Miss Willis of the whole four was ever seen out of hers.
There they always sat, in the same places, doing precisely the
same things at the same hour. The eldest Miss Willis used
to knit, the second to draw, the two others to play duets on
the piano. They seemed to have no separate existence, but
to have made up their minds just to winter through life
together. They were three long graces in drapery, with the
addition, like a school-dinner, of another long grace after-
wards the three fates with another sister the Siamese twins
multiplied by two. The eldest Miss AVillis grew bilious the
four Miss Willises grew bilious immediately. The eldest
Miss Willis grew ill-tempered and religious the four Miss
Willises were ill-tempered and religious directly. Whatever
the eldest did, the others did, and whatever anybody else
did, they all disapproved of; and thus they vegetated living
in Polar harmony among themselves, and, as they sometimes
went out, or saw company " in a quiet-way " at home,
occasionally iceing the neighbours. Three years passed over
in this way, when an unlocked for and extraordinary phe-
nomenon occurred. The Miss Willises showed symptoms of



A QUADRILATERAL MARRIAGE. 17

summer, the frost gradually broke up ; a complete thaw took
place. Was it possible ? one of the four Miss Willises was
going to be married !

Now, where on earth the husband came from, by what
feelings the poor man could have been actuated, or by what
process of reasoning the four Miss Willises succeeded in per-
suading themselves that it was possible for a man to marry
one of them, without marrying them all, are questions too
profound for us to resolve : certain it is, however, that the
visits of Mr. Robinson (a gentleman in a public office, with
a good salary and a little property of his own, besides) were
received that the four Miss Willises were courted in due
form by the said Mr. Robinson that the neighbours were
perfectly frantic in their anxiety to discover which of the
four Miss Willises was the fortunate fair, and that the diffi-
culty they experienced in solving the problem was not at
all lessened by the announcement of the eldest Miss Willis,
u We are going to marry Mr. Robinson."

It was very extraordinary. They were so completely identi-
fied, the one with the other, that the curiosity of the whole
row even of the old lady herself was roused almost
beyond endurance. The subject was discussed at every little
card-table and tea-drinking. The old gentleman of silk-worm
notoriety did not hesitate to express his decided opinion that
Mr. Robinson was of Eastern descent, and contemplated
marrying the whole family at once ; and the row, generally,
shook their heads with considerable gravity, and declared the
business to be very mysterious. They hoped it might all
end well ; it certainly had a very singular appearance, but
still it would be uncharitable to express any opinion without
good grounds to go upon, and certainly the Miss Willises
were quite old enough to judge for themselves, and to be
sure people ought to know their own business best, and so
forth.

At last, one fine morning, at a quarter before eight
o'clock, A.M., two glass-coaches drove up to the Miss Willises'



18 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

door, at which Mr. Robinson had arrived in a cab ten
minute's before, dressed in a light-blue coat and double-milled
kersey pantaloons, white neckerchief, pumps, and dress-gloves,
his manner denoting, as appeared from the evidence of the
housemaid at No. 23, who was sweeping the door-steps at
the time, a considerable degree of nervous excitement. It was
also hastily reported on the same testimony, that the cook
who opened the door, wore a large white bow of unusual
dimensions, in a much smarter head-dress than the regulation
cap to which the Miss Willises invariably restricted the some-
what excursive tastes of female servants in general.
. The intelligence spread rapidly from house to house. It
was quite clear that the eventful morning had at length
arrived ; the whole row stationed themselves behind their iirst
and second floor blinds, and waited the result in breathless
expectation.

At last the Miss Willises'* door opened; the door of the
first glass-coach did the same. Two gentlemen, and a pair
of ladies to correspond friends of the family, no doubt ; up
went the steps, bang went the door, off went the first glass-
coach, and up came the second.

The street door opened again ; the excitement of the whole
row increased Mr. Robinson and the eldest Miss Willis.
" I thought so,"" said the lady at No. 19 ; "I always said it
was Miss Willis ! " " Well, I never ! " ejaculated the young
lady at No. 18 to the young lady at No. 17. "Did you
ever, dear!" responded the young lady at No. 17 to the
young lady at No. 18. "It's too ridiculous!"" exclaimed a
spinster of an ?mcertain age, at No. 16, joining in the conver-
sation. But who shall portray the astonishment of Gordon-
place, when Mr. Robinson handed in all the Miss Willises,
one after the other, and then squeezed himself into an acute
angle of the glass-coach, which forthwith proceeded at a
brisk pace, after the other glass-coach, which other glass-coach
had itself proceeded, at a brisk pace, in the direction of the
parish church! Who shall depict the perplexity of the



THE REAL MRS. ROBINSON. 19

clergyman, when all the Miss Willises knelt down at the
communion-table, and repeated the responses incidental to
the marriage service in an audible voice or who shall
describe the confusion which prevailed, when even after the
difficulties thus occasioned had been adjusted all the Miss
Willises went into hysterics at the conclusion of the ceremony,
until the sacred edifice resounded with their united wailings !
As the four sisters and Mr. Robinson continued to occupy the
same house after this memorable occasion, and as the married
sister, whoever she was, never appeared in public without the
other three, we are not quite clear that the neighbours ever
would have discovered the real Mrs. Robinson, but for a cir-
cumstance of the most gratifying description, which will
happen occasionally in the best-regulated families. Three
quarter-days elapsed, and the row, on whom a new light
appeared to have been bursting for some time, began to speak
with a sort of implied confidence on the subject, and to
wonder how Mrs. Robinson the youngest Miss Willis that
was got on ; and servants might be seen running up the steps,
about nine or ten o'clock every morning, with " Missis's
compliments, and wishes to know how Mrs. Robinson finds
herself this morning ? " And the answer always was, " Mrs.
Robinson's compliments, and she's in very good spirits, and
doesn't find herself any worse." The piano was heard no
longer, the knitting-needles were laid aside, drawing was
neglected, and mantua-making and millinery, on the smallest
scale imaginable, appeared to have become the favourite
amusement of the whole family. The parlour wasn't quite as
tidy as it used to be, and if you called in the morning, you
would see lying on a table, with an old newspaper carelessly
thrown over them, two or three particularly small caps,
rather larger than if they had been made for a moderate-sized
doll, with a small piece of lace, in the shape of a horse-shoe,



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 2 of 31)