Charles Dickens.

The works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) online

. (page 5 of 31)
Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 5 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


authorities, devoted to the purpose. Invitation circulars
were forwarded to all the principal parishioners, including, of
course, the heads of the other two societies, for whose especial



A GRAND PUBLIC EXAMINATION. 45

behoof and edification the display was intended ; and a large
audience was confidently anticipated on the occasion. The
floor was carefully scrubbed the day before, under the imme-
diate superintendence of the three Miss Browns ; forms were
placed across the room for the accommodation of the visitors,
specimens in writing were carefully selected, and as carefully
patched and touched up, until they astonished the children
who had written them, rather more than the company who
read them ; sums in compound addition were rehearsed and
re-rehearsed until all the children had the totals by heart;
and the preparations altogether were on the most laborious
and most comprehensive scale. The morning arrived : the
children were yellow-soaped and flannelled, and towelled, till
their faces shone again ; every pupil's hair was carefully combed
into his or her eyes, as the case might be; the girls were
adorned with snow-white tippets, and caps bound round the
head by a single purple ribbon : the necks of the elder boys
were fixed into collars of startling dimensions.

The doors were thrown open, and the Misses Brown and
Co. were discovered in plain white muslin dresses, and caps
of the same the child's examination uniform. The room
filjed : the greetings of the company were loud and cordial.
The distributionists trembled, for their popularity was
at stake. The eldest boy fell forward, and delivered a pro-
pitiatory address from behind his collar. It was from the
pen of Mr. Henry Brown ; the applause was universal, and
the Johnson Parkers were aghast. The examination pro-
ceeded with success, and terminated in triumph. The child's
examination society gained a momentary victory, and the
Johnson Parkers retreated in despair.

A secret council of the distributionists was held that night,
with Mrs. Johnson Parker in the chair, to consider of the best
means of recovering the ground they had lost in the favour of
the parish. What could be done ? Another meeting ! Alas !
who was to attend it? The Missionary would not do twice;
and the slaves were emancipated. A bold step must be taken.



46 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

The parish must be astonished in some way or other ; but no
one was able to suggest what the step should be. At length,
a very old lady was heard to mumble, in indistinct tones,
" Exeter Hall." A sudden light broke in upon the meeting.
It was unanimously resolved, that a deputation of old ladies
should wait upon a celebrated orator, imploring his assistance,
and the favour of a speech ; and the deputation should also
wait on two or three other imbecile old women, not resident
in the parish, and entreat their attendance. The application
was successful, the meeting was held ; the orator (an Irishman)
came. He talked of green isles other shores vast Atlantic
bosom of the deep Christian charity blood and extermi-
nation mercy in hearts arms in hands altars and homes
household gods. He wiped his eyes, he blew his nose, and
he quoted Latin. The effect was tremendous the Latin was
a decided hit. Nobody knew exactly what it was about, but
everybody knew it must be affecting, because even the orator
was overcome. The popularity of the distribution society
among the ladies of our parish is unprecedented ; and the
child's examination is going fast to decay.



CHAPTER VII.

OUR NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOUR.

WE are very fond of speculating as we walk through a
street, on the character and pursuits of the people who
inhabit it; and nothing so materially assists us in these
speculations as the appearance of the house doors. The
various expressions of the human countenance afford a
beautiful and interesting study ; but there is something in
the physiognomy of street-door knockers, almost as charac-
teristic, and nearly as infallible. Whenever we visit a man
for the first time, we contemplate the features of his knocker
with the greatest curiosity, for we well know, that between the
man and his knocker, there will inevitably be a greater or
less degree of resemblance and sympathy.

For instance, there is one description of knocker that used
to be common enough, but which is fast passing away a
large round one, with the jolly face of a convivial lion
smiling blandly at you, as you twist the sides of your hair
into a curl or pull up your shirt-collar while you are waiting
for the door to be opened ; we never saw that knocker on the
door of a churlish man so far as our experience is concerned,
it invariably bespoke hospitality and another bottle.

No man ever saw this knocker on the door of a small
attorney or bill-broker ; they always patronise the other lion ;
a heavy ferocious-looking fellow, with a countenance expressive
of savage stupidity a sort of grand master among the
knockers, and a great favourite with the selfish and brutal.



48 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

Then there is a little pert Egyptian knocker, with a long
thin face, a pinched-up nose, and a very sharp chin ; he is
most in vogue with your government-office people, in light
drabs and starched cravats; little spare priggish men, who
are perfectly satisfied with their own opinions, and consider
themselves of paramount importance.

We were greatly troubled a few years ago, by the innova-
tion of a new kind of knocker, without any face at all,
composed of a wreath, depending from a hand or small
truncheon. A little trouble and attention, however, enabled
us to overcome this difficulty, and to reconcile the new
system to our favourite theory. You will invariably find
this knocker on the doors of cold and formal people, who
always ask you why you dont come, and never say do.

Everybody knows the brass knocker is common to suburban
villas, and extensive boarding-schools; and having noticed
this genus we have recapitulated all the most prominent and
strongly-defined species.

Some phrenologists affirm, that the agitation of a man's
brain by different passions, produces corresponding develop-
ments in the form of his skull. Do not let us be understood
as pushing our theory to the full length of asserting, that
any alteration in a man's disposition would produce a visible
effect on the feature of his knocker. Our position merely is,
that in such a case, the magnetism which must exist between
a man and his knocker, would induce the man to remove,
and seek some knocker more congenial to his altered feelings.
If you ever find a man changing his habitation without any
reasonable pretext, depend upon it, that, although he may
not be aware of the fact himself, it is because he and his
knocker are at variance. This is a new theory, but we
venture to launch it, nevertheless, as being quite as ingenious
and infallible as many thousands of the learned speculations
which are daily broached for public good and private fortune-
making.

Entertaining these feelings on the subject of knockers, it



THE DOOR WITHOUT A KNOCKER. 49

will be readily imagined with what consternation we viewed
the entire removal of the knocker from the door of the
next house to the one we lived in, some time ago, and the
substitution of a bell. This was a calamity we had never
anticipated. The bare idea of anybody being able to exist
without a knocker, appeared so wild and visionary, that it
had never for one instant entered our imagination.

We sauntered moodily from the spot, and bent our
steps towards Eaton -square, then just building. What was
our astonishment and indignation to find that bells were
fast becoming the rule, and knockers the exception ! Our
theory trembled beneath the shock. We hastened home;
and fancying we foresaw in the swift progress of events,
its entire abolition, resolved from that day forward to vent
our speculations on our next-door neighbours in person. The
house adjoining ours on the left hand was uninhabited, and
we had, therefore, plenty of leisure to observe our next-door
neighbours on the other side.

The house without the knocker was in the occupation of
a city clerk, and there was a neatly-written bill in the
parlour window intimating that lodgings for a single gentle-
man were to be let within.

It was a neat, dull little house, on the shady side of the
way, with new, narrow floorcloth in the passage, and new,
narrow stair-carpets up to the first floor. The paper was
new, and the paint was new, and the furniture was new;
and all three, paper, paint, and furniture, bespoke the limited
means of the tenant. There was a little red and black
carpet in the drawing-room, with a border of flooring all the
way round ; a few stained chairs and a pembroke table. A
pink shell was displayed on each of the little sideboards,
which, with the addition of a tea-tray and caddy, a few
more shells on the mantelpiece, and three peacock's feathers
tastefully arranged above them, completed the decorative
furniture of the apartment.

This was the room destined for the reception of the single



50 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

gentleman during the day, and a little back room on the
same floor was assigned as his sleeping apartment by night.

The bill had not been long in the window, when a stout,
good-humoured looking gentleman, of about five-and-thirty,
appeared as a candidate for the teancy. Terms were soon
arranged, for the bill was taken down immediately after his
first visit. In a day or two the single gentleman came in,
and shortly afterwards his real character came out.

First of all, he displayed a most extraordinary partiality
for sitting up till three or four o'clock in the morning,
drinking whiskey-and-water, and smoking cigars; then he
invited friends home, who used to come at ten o'clock, and
begin to get happy about the small hours, when they evinced
their perfect contentment by singing songs with half-a-dozen
verses of two lines each, and a chorus of ten, which chorus
used to be shouted forth by the whole strength of the
company, in the most enthusiastic and vociferous manner,
to the great annoyance of the neighbours, and the special
discomfort of another single gentleman overhead.

Now, this was bad enough, occurring as it did three times
a week on the average, but this was not all ; for when the
company did go away, instead of walking quietly down the
street, as anybody else's company would have done, they
amused themselves by making alarming and frightful noises,
and counterfeiting the shrieks of females in distress ; and one
night, a red-faced gentleman in a white hat knocked in the
most urgent manner at the door of the powdered-headed old
gentleman at No. 3, and when the powdered -headed old
gentleman, who thought one of his married daughters must
have been taken ill prematurely, had groped down-stairs, and
after a great deal of unbolting and key -turning, opened the
street door, the red-faced man in the white hat said he hoped
he'd excuse his giving him so much trouble, but he'd feel
obliged if he'd favour him with a glass of cold spring water,
and the loan of a shilling for a cab to take him home, on
which the old gentleman slammed the door and went up-



THE SINGLE GENTLEMAN NEXT DOOR. 51

stairs, and threw the contents of his water jug out of window
very straight, only it went over the wrong man ; and the
whole street was involved in confusion.

A joke's a joke ; and even practical jests are very capital
in their way, if you can only get the other party to see the
fun of them ; but the population of our street were so dull
of apprehension, as to be quite lost to a sense of the drollery
of this proceeding : and the consequence was, that our next-
door neighbour was obliged to tell the single gentleman, that
unless he gave up entertaining his friends at home, he really
must be compelled to part with him. The single gentleman
received the remonstrance with great good-humour, and
promised from that time forward, to spend his evenings at
a coffee-house a determination which afforded general and
unmixed satisfaction.

The next night passed off very well, everybody being
delighted with the change ; but on the next, the noises were
renewed with greater spirit than ever. The single gentle-
man's friends being unable to see him in his own house every
alternate night, had come to the determination of seeing him
home every night ; and what with the discordant greetings of
the friends at parting, and the noise created by the single
gentleman in his passage up-stairs, and his subsequent
struggles to get his boots off, the evil was not to be borne.
So, our next-door neighbour gave the single gentleman, who
was a very good lodger in other respects, notice to quit ; and
the single gentleman went away, and entertained his friends
in other lodgings.

The next applicant for the vacant first floor, was of a very
different character from the troublesome single gentleman
who had just quitted it. He was a tall, thin, young gentle-
man, with a profusion of brown hair, reddish whiskers, and
very slightly developed moustaches. He wore a braided
surtout, with frogs behind, light grey trousers, and wash-
leather gloves, and had altogether rather a military appear-
ance. So unlike the roystering single gentleman. Such



52 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

insinuating manners, and such a delightful address! So
seriously disposed, too ! When he first came to look at the
lodgings, he. inquired most particularly whether he was sure
to be able to get a seat in the parish church ; and when he
had agreed to take them, he requested to have a list of the
different local charities, as he intended to subscribe his mite
to the most deserving among them.

Our next-door neighbour was now perfectly happy. He
had got a lodger at last, of just his own way of thinking a
serious, well-disposed man, who abhorred gaiety, and loved
retirement. He took down the bill with a light heart, and
pictured in imagination a long series of quiet Sundays, on
which he and his lodger would exchange mutual civilities
and Sunday papers.

The serious man arrived, and his luggage was to arrive
from the country next morning. He borrowed a clean shirt,
and a prayer-book, from our next-door neighbour, and retired
to rest at an early hour, requesting that he might be called
punctually at ten o'clock next morning not before, as he
was much fatigued.

He was called, and did not answer : he was called again,
but there was no reply. Our next-door neighbour became
alarmed, and burst the door open. The serious man had left
the house mysteriously ; carrying with him the shirt, the
prayer-book, a teaspoon, and the bedclothes.

Whether this occurrence, coupled with the irregularities of
his former lodger, gave our next-door neighbour an aversion
to single gentlemen, we know not; we only know that the
next bill which made its appearance in the parlour window
intimated generally, that there were furnished apartments to
let on the first floor. The bill was soon removed. The new
lodgers at first attracted our curiosity, and afterwards excited
our interest.

They were a young lad of eighteen or nineteen, and his
mother, a lady of about fifty, or it might be less. The
mother wore a widow's weeds, and the boy was also clothed



FADING AWAY. 53

in deep mourning. They were poor very poor ; for their
only means of support arose from the pittance the boy earned,
by copying writings, and translating for booksellers.

They had removed from some country place and settled in
London ; partly because it afforded better chances of employ-
ment for the boy, and partly, perhaps, with the natural
desire to leave a place where they had been in better circum-
stances, and where their poverty was known. They were
proud under their reverses, and above revealing their wants
and privations to strangers. How bitter those privations
were, and how hard the boy worked to remove them, no one
ever knew but themselves. Night after night, two, three, four
hours after midnight, could we hear the occasional raking
up of the scanty fire, or the hollow and half-stifled cough,
which indicated his being still at work ; and day after day,
could we see more plainly that nature had set that unearthly
light in his plaintive face, which is the beacon of her worst
disease.

Actuated, we hope, by a higher feeling than mere curiosity,
we contrived to establish, first an acquaintance, and then a
close intimacy, with the poor strangers. Our worst fears were
realised ; the boy was sinking fast. Through a part of the
winter, and the whole of the following spring and summer,
his labours were unceasingly prolonged : and the mother
attempted to procure needlework, embroidery anything for
bread.

A few shillings now and then, were all she could earn.
The boy worked steadily on ; dying by minutes, but never
once giving utterance to complaint or murmur.

One beautiful autumn evening we went to pay our custo-
mary visit to the invalid. His little remaining strength had
been decreasing rapidly for two or three days preceding, and
he was lying on the sofa at the open window, gazing at the
setting sun. His mother had been reading the Bible to him,
for she closed the book as we entered, and advanced to
meet us.



54 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

" I was telling William," she said, " that we must manage
to take him into the country somewhere, so that he may get
quite well. He is not ill, you know, but he is not very
strong, and has exerted himself too much lately." Poor
thing ! The tears that streamed through her fingers, as she
turned aside, as if to adjust her close widow's cap, too plainly
showed how fruitless was the attempt to deceive herself.

We sat down by the head of the sofa, but said nothing,
for we saw the breath of life was passing gently but rapidly
from the young form before us. At every respiration, his
heart beat more slowly.

The boy placed one hand in ours, grasped his mother's
arm with the other, drew her hastily towards him, and
fervently kissed her cheek. There was a pause. He sunk
back upon his pillow, and looked long and earnestly in his
mother's face.

" William, William ! " murmured the mother, after a long
interval, " don't look at me so speak to me, dear ! "

The boy smiled languidly, but an instant afterwards his
features resolved into the same cold, solemn gaze.

"William, dear William! rouse yourself; don't look at me
so, love pray don't ! Oh, my God ! what shall I do ! " cried
the widow, clasping her hands in agony "my dear boy!
he is dying ! "

The boy raised himself by a violent effort, and folded his
hands together " Mother ! dear, dear mother, bury me in
the open fields anywhere but in these dreadful streets. I
should like to be where you can see my grave, but not in
these close crowded streets ; they have killed me ; kiss me
again, mother; put your arm round my neck "

He fell back, and a strange expression stole upon his
features ; not of pain or suffering, but an indescribable fixing
of every line and muscle.

The boy was dead.



SCENES.

CHAPTER I.

THE STREETS MORNING.

THE appearance presented by the streets of London an hour
before sunrise, on a summer's morning, is most striking even
to the few whose unfortunate pursuits of pleasure, or scarcely
less unfortunate pursuits of business, cause them to be well
acquainted with the scene. There is an air of cold, solitary
desolation about the noiseless streets which we are accustomed
to see thronged at other times by a busy, eager crowd, and
over the quiet, closely-shut buildings, which throughout the
day are swarming with life and bustle, that is very im-
pressive.

The last drunken man, who shall find his way home before
sunlight, has just staggered heavily along, roaring out the
burden of the drinking song of the previous night : the last
houseless vagrant whom penury and police have left in the
streets, has coiled up his chilly limbs in some paved corner,
to dream of food and warmth. The drunken, the dissipated,
and the wretched have disappeared; the more sober and
orderly part of the population have not yet awakened to the
labours of the day, and the stillness of death is over the
streets ; its very hue seems to be imparted to them, cold and
lifeless as they look in the grey, sombre light of daybreak.



56 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

The coach-stands in the larger thoroughfares are deserted:
the night-houses are closed; and the chosen promenades of
profligate misery are empty.

An occasional policeman may alone be seen at the street
corners, listlessly gazing on the deserted prospect before him ;
and now and then a rakish-looking cat runs stealthily across
the road and descends his own area with as much caution
and slyness bounding first on the water-butt, then on the
dust-hole, and then alighting on the flag-stones as if he
were conscious that his character depended on his gallantry
of the preceding night escaping public observation. A
partially opened bedroom-window here and there, bespeaks
the heat of the weather, and the uneasy slumbers of its
occupant ; and the dim scanty flicker of the rushlight, through
the window-blind, denotes the chamber of watching or
sickness. With these few exceptions, the streets present no
signs of life, nor the houses of habitation.

An hour wears away ; the spires of the churches and roofs
of the principal buildings are faintly tinged with the light
of the rising sun ; and the streets, by almost imperceptible
degrees, begin to resume their bustle and animation. Market-
carts roll slowly along: the sleepy waggoner impatiently
urging on his tired horses, or vainly endeavouring to awaken
the boy, who, luxuriously stretched on the top of the fruit-
baskets, forgets, in happy oblivion, his long-cherished curiosity
to behold the wonders of London.

Rough, sleepy -looking animals of strange appearance,
something between ostlers and hackney-coachmen, begin to
take down the shutters of early public-houses ; and little deal
tables, with the ordinary preparations for a street breakfast,
make their appearance at the customary stations. Numbers
of men and women (principally the latter), carrying upon
their heads heavy baskets of fruit, toil down the park side
of Piccadilly, on their way to Covent-garden, and, following
each other in rapid succession, form a long straggling line
from thence to the turn of the road at Knightsbridge.



AN HOUR AFTER DAYBREAK. 57

Here and there, a bricklayer's labourer, with the day's
dinner tied up in a handkerchief, walks briskly to his work,
and occasionally a little knot of three or four schoolboys on
a stolen bathing expedition rattle merrily over the pavement,
their boisterous mirth contrasting forcibly with the demeanour
of the little sweep, who, having knocked and rung till his
arm aches, and being interdicted by a merciful legislature
from endangering his lungs by calling out, sits patiently down
on the door-step, until the housemaid may happen to awake.

Covent-garden market, and the avenues leading to it, are
thronged with carts of all soils, sizes, and descriptions, from
the heavy lumbering waggon, with its four stout horses, to
the jingling costermonger's cart, with its consumptive donkey.
The pavement is already strewed with decayed cabbage-leaves,
broken hay-bands, and all the indescribable litter of a vegetable
market; men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing,
boys fighting, basket-women talking, piemen expatiating on
the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying. These
and a hundred other sounds form a compound discordant
enough to a Londoner's ears, and remarkably disagreeable to
those of country gentlemen who are sleeping at the Hummums
for the first time.

Another hour passes away, and the day begins in good
earnest. The servant of all work, who, under the plea of
sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded " Missis's "
ringing for half an hour previously, is warned by Master
(whom Missis has sent up in his drapery to the landing-place
for that purpose), that it's half-past six, whereupon she
awakes all of a sudden, with well-feigned astonishment, and
goes down-stairs very sulkily, wishing, while she strikes a
light, that the principle of spontaneous combustion would
extend itself to coals and kitchen range. When the fire is
lighted, she opens the street-door to take in the milk, when,
by the most singular coincidence in the world, she discovers
that the servant next door has just taken in her milk too,
and that Mr. Todd's young man over the way, is, by an



58 SKETCHES BY BOZ.

equally extraordinary chance, taking down his master's shutters.
The inevitable consequence is, that she just steps, milk-jug



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 26) → online text (page 5 of 31)