Four years previously Professor Wilson, on the occasion referred to, had remarked of him most truly,—"He has not been deterred by the aspect of vice and wickedness, and misery and guilt, from seeking a spirit of good in things evil, but has endeavoured by the might of genius to transmute what was base into what is precious as the beaten gold;" observing, indeed, yet further—"He has mingled in the common walks of life; he has made himself familiar with the lower orders of society." As if in supplementary and conclusive justification of those words, Dickens, within less than five years afterwards, had woven his graceful and pathetic fancies about the homely joys and sorrows of Bob Cratchit, of Toby Veck, and of Caleb Plummer, of a little Clerk, a little Ticket-porter, and a little Toy-maker. His pen at these times was like the wand of Cinderella's fairy godmother, changing the cucumber into a gilded chariot, and the lizards into glittering retainers.
At the commencement of this Reading but very little indeed was said about the Cricket, hardly anything at all about the kettle. Yet, as everybody knows, "the kettle began it" in the story-book. The same right of precedence was accorded to the kettle in the author's delivery of his fairy tale by word of mouth, but otherwise its comfortable purring song was in a manner hushed. One heard nothing about its first appearance on the hearth, when "it would lean forward with a drunken air, and dribble, a very idiot of a kettle," any more than of its final paean, when, after its iron body hummed and stirred upon the fire, the lid itself, the recently rebellious lid, performed a sort of jig, and clattered "like a deaf and dumb young cymbal that had never known the use of its twin brother." Here, again, in fact, as with so many other of these Readings from his own books by our Novelist, the countless good things scattered abundantly up and down the original descriptions—inimitable touches of humour that had each of them, on the appreciative palate, the effect of that verbal bon-bon, the bon-mot—were sacrificed inexorably, apparently without a qualm, and certainly by wholesale. What the Reader looked to throughout, was the human element in his imaginings when they were to be impersonated.
Let but one of these tid-bits be associated directly with the fanciful beings introduced in the gradual unfolding of the incidents, and it might remain there untouched, Thus, for example, when the Carrier's arrival at his home came to be mentioned, and the Reader related how John Peerybingle, being much taller, as well as much older than his wife, little Dot, "had to stoop a long way down to kiss her"—the words that followed thereupon were happily not omitted: "but she was worth the trouble,—six foot six with the lumbago might have done it." Several of John's choicest—all-but jokes were also retained. As, where Dot is objecting to be called by that pet diminutive, "'Why, what else are you?' returned John, looking down upon her with a smile, and giving her waist as light a squeeze as his huge hand and arm could give, 'A dot and'—here he glanced at the baby—'a dot and carry'—I won't say it, for fear I should spoil it; but I was very near a joke. I don't know as ever I was nearer." Tilly Slowboy and her charge, the baby, were, upon every mention of them in the Reading, provocative of abundant laughter. The earliest allusion to Miss Slowboy recording these characteristic circumstances in regard to her costume, that it "was remarkable for the partial development, on all possible and impossible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular structure, also for affording glimpses in the region of the back of a pair of stays, in colour a dead green." On the introduction of the Mysterious Stranger—apparently all but stone deaf—from the Carrier's cart, where he had been forgotten, the comic influence of the Reading became irresistible.
Stranger (on noticing Dot) interrogatively to John.—"Your Daughter?"
Carrier, with the voice of a boatswain.—"Wife."
Stranger, with his hand to his ear, being not quite certain that he has caught it.—"Niece?"
Carrier, with a roar.—"Wife."
Satisfied at last upon that point, the stranger asks of John, as a new matter of curiosity to him, "Baby, yours?" Whereupon the Reader, as John, "gave a gigantic nod, equivalent to an answer in the affirmative, delivered through a speaking-trumpet."
Stranger, still unsatisfied, inquiring,—"Girl?".—"Bo-o-oy!" was bellowed back by John Peerybingle. It was when Mrs. Peerybingle herself took up the parable, however, that the merriment excited among the audience became fairly irrepressible. Scarcely had the nearly stone-deaf stranger added, in regard to the "Bo-o-oy,"—"Also very young, eh?" (a comment previously applied by him to Dot) when the Reader, as Mrs. Peerybingle, instantly struck in, at the highest pitch of his voice, that is, of her voice (the comic effect of this being simply indescribable)—"Two months and three da-ays! Vaccinated 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-old! Takes notice in a way quite won-der-ful! May seem impossible to you, but feels his feet al-ready!" Directly afterwards, Caleb Plummer appeared upon the scene, little imagining that in the Mysterious-Stranger would be discovered, later on, under the disguise of that nearly stone-deaf old gentleman, his (Caleb's) own dear boy, Edward, supposed to have died in the golden South Americas. Little Caleb's inquiry of Mrs. Peerybingle,—"You couldn't have the goodness to let me pinch Boxer's tail, Mum, for half a moment, could you?" was one of the welcome whimsicalities of the Reading. "Why, Caleb! what a question!" naturally enough was Dot's instant exclamation. "Oh, never mind, Mum!" said the little toy-maker, apologetically, "He mightn't like it perhaps"—adding, by way of explanation—"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!" Caleb's employer, Tackleton, in his large green cape and bull-headed looking mahogany tops, was then described as entering pretty much in the manner of what one might suppose to be that of an ogrish toy-merchant. His character came out best perhaps—meaning, in another sense, that is, at its worst—when the fairy spirit of John's house, the Cricket, was heard chirping; and Tackleton asked, grumpily,—"Why don't you kill that cricket? I would! I always do! I hate their noise!" John exclaiming, in amazement,—"You kill your crickets, eh?" "Scrunch 'em, sir!" quoth Tackleton. One of the most wistfully curious thoughts uttered in the whole of the Reading was the allusion to the original founder of the toy-shop of Gruff and Tackleton, where it was remarked (such a quaint epitome of human life!) that under that same crazy roof, beneath which Caleb Plummer and Bertha, his blind daughter, found shelter as their humble home,—"the Gruff before last had, in a small way, made toys for a generation of old boys and girls, who had played with them, and found them out, and broken them, and gone to sleep." Another wonderfully comic minor character was introduced later on in the eminently ridiculous person of old Mrs. Fielding—in regard to in-door gloves, a foreshadowing of Mrs. Wilfer—in the matter of her imaginary losses through the indigo trade, a spectral precursor, or dim prototype, as one might say, of Mrs. Pipchin and the Peruvian mines. Throughout the chief part of the dreamy, dramatic little story, the various characters, it will be remembered, are involved in a mazy entanglement of cross purposes. Mystery sometimes, pathos often, terror for one brief interval, rose from the Reading of the "Home Fairy-Tale." There was a subdued tenderness which there was no resisting in the revelation to the blind girl, Bertha, of the illusions in which she had been lapped for years by her sorcerer of a lather, poor little Caleb, the toy-maker. There was at once a tearful and a laughing earnestness that took the Reader's audience captive, not by any means unwillingly, when little Dot was, at the last, represented as "clearing it all up at home" (indirectly, to the great honour of the Cricket's reputation, by the way) to her burly husband—good, stupid, worthy, "clumsy man in general,"—John Peerybingle, the Carrier. The one inconsistent person in the whole story, it must be admitted, was Tackleton, who turned out at the very end to be rather a good fellow than otherwise. Fittingly enough, in the Reading as in the book, when the "Fairy Tale of Home" was related to its close, when Dot and all the rest were spoken of as vanished, a broken child's-toy, we were told, yet lay upon the ground, and still upon the hearth was heard the song of the Cricket.
A variety of attractive Readings might readily have been culled from Nicholas Nickleby's Life and Adventures. His comical experiences as a strolling-player in the Company of the immortal Crummleses—his desperate encounter with Sir Mulberry Hawk on the footboard of the cabriolet—his exciting rescue of Madeline from an unholy alliance with Gride, the miser, on the very morning fixed for the revolting marriage—his grotesque association for a while with the Kenwigses and their uncle Lilliyick—his cordial relations with the Brothers Cheeryble and old Tim Linkinwater—any one of these incidents in the career of the most high spirited of all the young heroes of our Novelist, would have far more than simply justified its selection as the theme of one of these illustrative entertainments. Instead of choosing any one of those later episodes in the fictitious history of Nicholas Nickleby, however, the author of that enthralling romance of everyday life, picked out, by preference, the earliest of all his young hero's experiences—those in which, at nineteen years of age, he was brought into temporary entanglement with the domestic economy of Dotheboys Hall, and at the last into personal conflict with its one-eyed principal, the rascally Yorkshire school-master.
The Gadshill collection of thin octavos, comprising the whole series of Readings, includes within it two copies of "Mrs. Gamp" and two copies of "Nicholas Nickleby." Whereas, on comparing the duplicates of Mrs. Gamp, the two versions appear to be so slightly different that they are all but identical, a marked contrast is observable at a glance between the two Nicklebys. Each Reading is descriptive, it is true, of his sayings and doings at the Yorkshire school. But, even externally, one of the two copies is marked "Short Time,"—the love-passages with Miss Squeers bemg entirely struck out, and no mention whatever being made of John Browdie, the corn-factor. The wretched school, the sordid rascal who keeps it, Mrs. Squeers, poor, forlorn Smike, and a few of his scarecrow companions—these, in the short-time version, and these alone, constitute the young usher's surroundings. In here recalling to recollection the "Nicholas Nickleby" Reading at all, however, we select, as a matter of course, the completer version, the one for which the generality of hearers had an evident preference: the abbreviated version being always regarded as capital, so far as it went; but even at the best, with all the go and dash of its rapid delivery, insufficient.
Everything, even, we should imagine, to one un-acquainted with the novel, was ingeniously explained by the Reader in a sentence or two at starting. Nicholas Nickleby was described as arriving early one November morning, at the Saracen's Head, to join, in his new capacity (stripling though he was) as scholastic assistant, Mr. Squeers, "the cheap—the terribly cheap" Yorkshire schoolmaster. The words just given in inverted commas are those written in blue ink in the Novelist's handwriting on the margin of his longer Reading copy. As also are the following words, epitomising in a breath the position of the young hero when the story commences—"Inexperienced, sanguine, and thrown upon the world with no adviser, and his bread to win," the manuscript interpolation thus intimates: the letterpress then relating in its integrity that Nicholas had engaged himself as tutor at Mr. Wackford Squeers's academy, on the strength of the memorable advertisement in the London newspapers. The advertisement, that is, comprising within it the long series of accomplishments imparted to the students at Dotheboys Hall, including "single-stick" (if required), together with "fortification, and every other branch of classical literature." The Reader laying particular stress, among other items in the announcement, upon "No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled;" and upon the finishing touch (having especial reference to the subject in hand), "An able assistant wanted: annual salary, L5! A master of arts would be preferred!" Immediately after this, in the Reading, came the description of Mr. Squeers, several of the particulars in regard to whose villainous appearance always told wonderfully: as, where it was said "he had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favour of two;" or, again, where in reference to his attire—it having been mentioned that his coat-sleeves were a great deal too-long and his trousers a great deal too short—it was added that "he appeared ill at ease in his clothes, and as if he were in a perpetual state of astonishment at finding himself so respectable." Listening to the Reader, we were there, in the coffee-room of the Saracen's Head—the rascal Squeers in the full enjoyment of his repast of hot toast and cold round of beef, the while five little boys sat opposite hungrily and thirstily expectant of their share in a miserable meal of two-penn'orth of milk and thick bread and butter for three. "Just fill that mug up with lukewarm water, William, will you?" "To the wery top, sir? Why the milk will be drownded!" "Serve it right for being so dear!" Squeers adding with a chuckle, as he pounded away at his own coffee and viands,—"Conquer your passions, boys, and don't be eager after wittles." To see the Reader as Squeers, stirring the mug of lukewarm milk and water, and then smacking his lips with an affected relish after tasting a spoonful of it, before reverting to his own fare of buttered toast and beef, was to be there with Nicholas, a spectator on that wintry morning in the Snow Hill Tavern, watching the guttling pedagogue and the five little famished expectants. Only when Squeers, immediately before the signal for the coach starting, wiped his mouth, with a self-satisfied "Thank God for a good breakfast," was the mug rapidly passed from mouth to mouth at once ravenously and tantalizingly. The long and bitter journey on the north road, through the snow, was barely referred to in the Reading; due mention, however, being made, and always tellingly, of Mr. S queers's habit of getting down at nearly every stage—"to stretch his legs, he said,—and as he always came back with a very red nose, and composed himself to sleep directly, the stretching seemed to answer." Immediately on the wayfarers' arrival at Dotheboys, Mrs. Squeers, arrayed in a dimity night-jacket, herself a head taller than Mr. Squeers, was always introduced with great effect, as seizing her Squeery by the throat and giving him two loud kisses in rapid succession, like a postman's knock. The audience then scarcely had time to laugh over the interchange of questions and answers between the happy couple, as to the condition of the cows and pigs, and, last of all, the boys, ending with Madame's intimation that "young Pitcher's had a fever," followed up by Squeers's characteristic exclamation, "No! damn that chap, he's always at something of that sort"—when there came the first glimpse of poor Smike, in a skeleton suit, and large boots originally made for tops, too patched and ragged now for a beggar; around his throat "a tattered child's frill only half concealed by a coarse man's neckerchief." Anxiously observing Squeers, as he emptied his overcoat of letters and papers, the boy did this, we were told, with an air so dispirited and hopeless, that Nicholas could hardly bear to watch him. "Have you—did anybody—has nothing been heard—about me?" were then (in the faintest, frightened voice!) the first stammered utterances of the wretched drudge. Bullied into silence by the brutal schoolmaster, Smike limped away with a vacant smile, when we heard the female scoundrel in the dimity night-jacket saying,—"I'll tell you what, Squeers, I think that young chap's turning silly."
Inducted into the loathsome school-room on the following morning by Squeers himself, Nicholas, first of all, we were informed, witnessed the manner in which that arrant rogue presided over "the first class in English spelling and philosophy," practically illustrating his mode of tuition by setting the scholars to clean the w-i-n win, d-e-r-s ders, winders—to weed the garden—to rub down the horse, or get rubbed down themselves if they didn't do it well. Nicholas assisted in the afternoon, moreover, at the report given by Mr. Squeers on his return homewards after his half-yearly visit to the metropolis. Beginning, though this last-mentioned part of the Reading did, with Squeers's ferocious slash on the desk with his cane, and his announcement, in the midst of a death-like silence—
"Let any boy speak a word without leave, and I'll take the skin off that boy's back!" many of the particulars given immediately afterwards by the Reader were, in spite of the surrounding misery, irresistibly provocative of laughter. Ample justification for this, in truth, is very readily adduceable. Mr. Squeers having, through his one eye, made a mental abstract of Cobbey's letter, for example, Cobbey and the whole school were thus feelingly informed of its contents—"Oh! Cobbey's grandmother is dead, and his uncle John has took to drinking. Which is all the news his sister sends, except eighteen-pence—which will just pay for that broken square of glass! Mrs. Squeers, my dear, will you take the money?" Another while, Graymarsh's maternal aunt, who "thinks Mrs. Squeers must be a angel," and that Mr. Squeers is too good for this world, "would have sent the two pairs of stockings, as desired, but is short of money, so forwards a tract instead," and so on; "Ah-! a delightful letter—very affecting, indeed!" quoth Squeers. "It was affecting in one sense!" observed the Reader; "for Graymarsh's maternal aunt was strongly supposed by her more intimate friends to be his maternal parent!" Perhaps the epistle from Mobbs's mother-in-law was the best of all, however—the old lady who "took to her bed on hearing that he wouldn't eat fat;" and who "wishes to know by an early post where he expects to go to, if he quarrels with his vittles?" adding, "This was told her in the London newspapers—not by Mr. Squeers, for he is too kind and too good to set anybody against anybody!"
As an interlude, overflowing with fun, came Miss Squeers's tea-drinking—the result of her suddenly falling in love with the new usher, and that chiefly by reason of the straightness of his legs, "the general run of legs at Dotheboys Hall being crooked." How John Browdie (with his hair damp from washing) appeared upon the occasion in a clean shirt—"whereof thecollars might have belonged to some giant ancestor,"—and greeted the assembled company, including his intended, Tilda Price, "with a grin that even the collars could not conceal," the creator of the worthy Yorkshireman went on to describe, with a gusto akin to the relish with which every utterance of John Browdie's was caught up by the listeners. Whether he spoke in good humour or in ill humour, the burly cornfactor was equally delightful. One while saying, laughingly, to Nicholas, across the bread-and-butter plate which they had just been emptying between them, "Ye wean't get bread-and-butther ev'ry neight, I expect, mun. Ecod, they dean't put too much intif 'em. Ye'll be nowt but skeen and boans if you stop here long eneaf. Ho! ho! ho!"—all this to Nicholas's unspeakable indignation. Or, another while, after chafing in jealousy for a long time over the coquetries going on between Tilda Price and Nicholas—the Yorkshireman flattening his own nose with his clenched fist again and again, "as if to keep his hand in till he had an opportunity of exercising it on the nose of some other gentleman,"—until asked merrily by his betrothed to keep his glum silence no longer, but to say something: "Say summat?" roared John Browdie, with a mighty blow on the table; "Weal, then! what I say 's this—Dang my boans and boddy, if I stan' this ony longer! Do ye gang whoam wi' me; and do yon loight and toight young whipster look sharp out for a brokken head next time he cums under my hond. Cum whoam, tell'e, cum whoam!" After Smike's running away, and his being brought back again, had been rapidly recounted, what nearly every individual member of every audience in attendance at this Reading was eagerly on the watch for all along, at last, in the fullness of time, arrived,—the execrable Squeers receiving, instead of administering, a frightful beating, in the presence of the whole school; having carefully provided himself beforehand, as all were rejoiced to remember, with "a fearful instrument of flagellation, strong, supple, wax-ended, and new!"
So real are the characters described by Charles Dickens in his life-like fictions, and so exactly do the incidents he relates as having befallen them resemble actual occurrences, that we recall to recollection at this moment the delight with which the late accomplished Lady Napier once related an exact case in point, appealing, as she did so, to her husband, the author of the "Peninsular War," to corroborate the-accuracy of her retrospect! Telling how she perfectly well remembered, when the fourth green number of "Nicholas Nickleby" was just out, one of her home group, who had a moment before caught sight of the picture of the flogging in a shop-window, rushed in with the startling announcement—as though he were bringing with him the news of some great victory—"What do you think? Nicholas has thrashed Squeers!" As the Novelist read this chapter, or rather the condensation of this chapter, it was for all the world like assisting in person at that sacred and refreshing rite!
"Is every boy here?"
Yes, every boy was there, and so was every observant listener, in eager and—knowing what was coming—in delighted expectation. As Squeers was represented as "glaring along the lines," to assure himself that every boy really was there, what time "every eye drooped and every head cowered down," the Reader, instead of uttering one word of what the ruffianly schoolmaster ought then to have added: "Each boy keep to his place. Nickleby! you go to your desk, sir!"—instead of saying one syllable of this, contented himself with obeying his own manuscript marginal direction, in one word—Pointing! The effect of this simple gesture was startling—particularly when, after the momentary hush with which it was always accompanied, he observed quietly,—"There was a curious expression in the usher's face, but he took his seat without opening his lips in reply." Then, when the schoolmaster had dragged in the wretched Smike by the collar, "or rather by that fragment of his jacket which was nearest the place where his collar ought to have been," there was a horrible relish in his saying, over his shoulder for a moment, "Stand a little out of the way, Mrs. Squeers, my dear; I've hardly got room enough!" The instant one cruel blow had fallen—"Stop!" was cried in a voice that made the rafters ring—even the lofty rafters of St. James's Hall.
Squeers, with the glare and snarl of a wild beast.—"Who cried stop?"
Nicholas.—"I did! This must not go on!"
Squeers, again, with a frightful look.—"Must not go on?"
Nicholas.—"Must not! Shall not! I will prevent it!"
Then came Nicholas Nickleby's manly denunciation of the scoundrel, interrupted one while for an instant by Squeers screaming out, "Sit down, you—beggar!" and followed at its close by the last and crowning outrage, consequent on a violent outbreak of wrath on the part of Squeers, who spat at him and struck him a blow across the face with his instrument of torture: when Nicholas, springing upon him, wrested the weapon from his hand, and pinning him by the throat—don't we all exult in the remembrance of it?—"beat the ruffian till he roared for mercy."
After that climax has been attained, two other particulars are alone worthy of being recalled to recollection in regard to this Reading. First, the indescribable heartiness of John Browdie's cordial shake-of-the-hand with Nicholas Nickleby on their encountering each other by accident upon the high road. "Shake honds? Ah! that I weel!" coupled with his ecstatic shout (so ecstatic that his horse shyed at it), "Beatten schoolmeasther! Ho! ho! ho! Beatten schoolmeasther! Who ever heard o' the loike o' that, noo? Give us thee hond agean, yoongster! Beatten schoolmeasther! Dang it, I loove thee for 't!" Finally, and as the perfecting touch of tenderness between the two cousins, then unknown to each other as such, in the early morning light at Boroughbridge, we caught a glimpse of Nicholas and Smike passing, hand in hand, out of the old barn together.
MR. BOB SAWYER'S PARTY.
Quite as exhilarating in its way as the all-but dramatised report of the great breach of promise case tried before Mr. Justice Stareleigh, was that other condensation of a chapter from "Pickwick," descriptive of Mr. Bob Sawyer's Party. It was a Reading, in the delivery of which the Reader himself had evidently the keenest sense of enjoyment. As a humorous description, it was effervescent with fun, being written throughout in the happiest, earliest style of the youthful genius of Boz, when the green numbers were first shaking the sides of lettered and unlettered Englishmen alike with Homeric laughter. Besides this, when given by him as a Reading, it comprised within it one of his very drollest impersonations. If only as the means of introducing us to Jack Hopkins, it would have been most acceptable. But, inimitable though Jack was, he was, at the least, thoroughly well companioned.
As a relish of what was coming, there was that preliminary account of the locality in which the festivities were held, to wit, Lant Street, in the borough of Southwark, the prevailing repose of which, we were told, "sheds a gentle melancholy upon the soul"—fully justifying its selection as a haven of rest by any one who wished "to abstract himself from the world, to remove himself from the reach of temptation, to place himself beyond the possibility of any inducement to look out of window!" As specimens of animated nature, familiarly met with in the neighbourhood, "the pot-boy, the muffin youth, and the baked potato man," had about them a perennial freshness. Whenever we were reminded, again, in regard to the principal characteristics of the population that it was migratory, "usually disappearing on the verge of quarter-day, and generally by night," her Majesty's revenues being seldom collected in that happy valley, its rents being pronounced dubious, and its water communication described as "frequently cut off," we found in respect to the whole picture thus lightly-sketched in, that age did not wither nor custom stale its infinite comicality.
It was when the familiar personages of the story were, one after another, introduced upon the scene, however, that the broad Pickwickian humour of it all began in earnest to be realised. After we had listened with chuckling enjoyment to the ludicrously minute account given of the elaborate preparations made for the reception of the visitors, even in the approaches to Mr. Bob Sawyer's apartment, down to the mention of the kitchen candle with a long snuff, that "burnt cheerfully on the ledge of the staircase window," we had graphically rendered the memorable scene between poor, dejected Bob and his little spitfire of a landlady, Mrs. Raddle. So dejected and generally suppressed was Bob in the Reading, however, that we should hardly have recognised that very archetype of the whole genus of rollicking Medical Students, as originally described in the pages of Pickwick, where he is depicted as attired in "a coarse blue coat, which, without being either a great-coat or a surtout, partook of the nature and qualities of both," having about him that sort of slovenly smartness and swaggering gait peculiar to young gentlemen who smoke in the streets by day, and shout and scream in the same by night, calling waiters by their Christian names, and altogether bearing a resemblance upon the whole to something like a dissipated Robinson Crusoe. Habited, Bob still doubtless was, in the plaid trousers and the large, rough coat and double-breasted waistcoat, but as for the "swaggering gait" just mentioned not a vestige of it remained. Nor could that be wondered at, indeed, for an instant, beholding and hearing, as we did, the shrill ferocity with which Mrs. Raddle had it out with him about the rent immediately before the arrival of his guests.
It is one of the distinctive peculiarities of Charles Dickens as a humorous Novelist, that the cream or quintessence of a jest is very often given by him quite casually in a parenthesis. It was equally distinctive of his peculiarities as a Reader, that the especial charm of his drollery was often conveyed by the merest aside. Thus it was with him in reference to Mrs. Raddle's "confounded little bill," when—in between Ben Allen's inquiry, "How long has it been running?" and Bob Sawyer's reply, "Only about a quarter and a month or so"—the Reader parenthetically remarked, with a philosophic air, "A bill, by the way, is the most extraordinary locomotive engine that the genius of man ever produced: it would keep on running during the longest lifetime without ever once stopping of its own accord." Thus also was it, when he added meditatively to Bob's hesitating explanation to Mrs. Raddle, "the fact is that I have been disappointed in the City to-day"—"Extraordinary place that City: astonishing number of men always are getting disappointed there." Hereupon it was that that fiercest of little women, Mrs. Raddle, who had entered "in a tremble with passion and pale with rage," fairly let out at her lodger. Her incidental bout with Mr. Ben Allen, when he soothingly(!) interpolated, "My good soul," was, in the Reading, in two senses, a memorable diversion. Beginning with a sarcastic quivering in her voice, "I am not aweer, sir, that you have any right to address your conversation to me. I don't think I let these apartments to you, sir—" Mrs. Raddle's anger rose through an indignant crescendo, on Ben Allen's remonstrating, "But you are such an unreasonable woman"—to the sharp and biting interrogation, "I beg your parding, young man, but will you have the goodness to call me that again, sir?"
Ben Allen, meekly and somewhat uneasy on his own account,—"I didn't make use of the word in any invidious sense, ma'am."
Landlady, louder and more imperatively,—"I beg your parding, young man, but who do you call a woman? Did you make that remark to me, sir?"
"Why, bless my heart!"
"Did you apply that name to me, I ask of you, sir?"
On his answering, Well, of course he did!—then, as she retreated towards the open room-door, came the last outburst of her invectives, high-pitched in their voluble utterance, against him, against them both, against everybody, including Mr. Raddle in the kitchen—"a base, faint-hearted, timorous wretch, that's afraid to come upstairs and face the ruffinly creaturs—that's afraid to come—that's afraid!" Ending with her screaming descent of the stairs in the midst of a loud double-knock, upon the arrival just then of the Pickwickians, when, "in an uncontrollable burst of mental agony," Mrs. Raddle threw down all the umbrellas in the passage, disappearing into the back parlour with an awful crash. In answer to the cheerful inquiry from Mr. Pickwick,—"Does Mr. Sawyer live here?" came the lugubrious and monotonously intoned response, all on one note, of the aboriginal young person, the gal Betsey (one of the minor characters in the original chapter, and yet, as already remarked, a superlatively good impersonation in the Reading)—"Yes; first-floor. It's the door straight afore you when you get's to the top of the stairs"—with which the dirty slipshod in black cotton stockings disappeared with the candle down the kitchen stair-case, leaving the unfortunate arrivals to grope their way up as they best could. Welcomed rather dejectedly by Bob on the first-floor landing, where Mr. Pickwick put, not, as in the original work, his hat, but, in the Reading, "his foot" in the tray of glasses, they were very soon followed, one after another, by the remainder of the visitors. Notably by a sentimental young gentleman with a nice sense of honour, and, most notably of all (with a heavy footstep, very welcome indeed whenever heard) by Jack Hopkins. Jack was at once the Hamlet and the Yorick of the whole entertainment—all-essential to it—whose very look (with his chin rather stiff in the stock), whose very words (short, sharp, and decisive) had about them a drily and all-but indescribably humorous effect. As spoken by the Novelist himself, Jack Hopkins's every syllable told to perfection. His opening report immediately on his arrival, of "rather a good accident" just brought into the casualty ward—only, it was true, a man fallen out of a four-pair-of-stairs window; but a very fair case, very fair case indeed!—was of itself a dexterous forefinger between the small ribs to begin with. Would the patient recover? Well, no—with an air of supreme indifference—no, he should rather say he wouldn't. But there must be a splendid operation, though, on the morrow—magnificent sight if Slasher did it! Did he consider Mr. Slasher a good operator? "Best alive: took a boy's leg out of the socket last week—boy ate five apples and a gingerbread cake exactly two minutes after it was all over;—boy said he wouldn't lie there to be made game of; and he'd tell his mother if they didn't begin." To hear Dickens say this in the short, sharp utterances of Jack Hopkins, to see his manner in recounting it, stiff-necked, and with a glance under the drooping eyelids in the direction of Mr. Pickwick's listening face, was only the next best thing to hearing him and seeing him, still in the person of Jack Hopkins, relate the memorable anecdote about the child swallowing the necklace—pronounced in Jack Hopkins's abbreviated articulation of it, neck-luss—a word repeated by him a round dozen times at the least within a few seconds in the reading version of that same anecdote. How characteristically and comically the abbreviations were multiplied for the delivery of it, by the very voice and in the very person, as it were, of Jack Hopkins, who shall say! As, for example—"Sister, industrious girl, seldom treated herself to bit of finery, cried eyes out, at loss of—neck-luss; looked high and low for—neck-luss. Few days afterwards, family at dinner—baked, shoulder of mutton and potatoes, child wasn't hungry, playing about the room, when family suddenly heard devil of a noise like small hail-storm." How abbreviated passages like these look, as compared with the original—could only be rendered comprehensible upon the instant, by giving in this place a facsimile of one of the pages relating to Jack Hopkins's immortal story about the—neck-luss, exactly as it appears in the marked copy of the Reading of "Mr. Bob Sawyer's Party," a page covered all over, as will be observed, with minute touches in the Novelist's own handwriting.
Nothing at all in the later version of this Reading was said about the prim person in cloth boots, who unsuccessfully attempted all through the evening to make a joke. Of him the readers of "Pickwick" will very well remember it to have been related that he commenced a long story about a great public character, whose name he had forgotten, making a particularly happy reply to another illustrious individual whom he had never been able to identify, and, after enlarging with great minuteness upon divers collateral circumstances distantly connected with the anecdote, could not for the life of him recollect at that precise moment what the anecdote was—although he had been in the habit, for the last ten years, of telling the story with great applause! While disposed to regret the omission of this preposterously natural incident from the revised version of the Reading, and especially Bob Sawyer's concluding remark in regard to it, that he should very much like to hear the end of it, for, so far as it went, it was, without exception, the very best story he had ever heard—we were more than compensated by another revisive touch, by which Mr. Hopkins, instead of Mr. Gunter, in the pink shirt, was represented as one of the two interlocutors in the famous quarrel-scene: the other being Mr. Noddy, the scorbutic youth, with the nice sense of honour. Through this modification the ludicrous effect of the squabble was wonderfully enhanced, as where Mr. Noddy, having been threatened with being "pitched out o' window" by Mr. Jack Hopkins, said to the latter, "I should like to see you do it, sir," Jack Hopkins curtly retaliating—"You shall feel me do it, sir, in half a minute." The reconciliation of the two attained its climax of absurdity in the Reading, when Mr. Noddy, having gradually allowed his feelings to overpower him, professed that he had ever entertained a devoted personal attachment to Mr. Hopkins. Consequent upon this, Mr. Hopkins, we were told, replied, that, "on the whole, he rather preferred Mr. Noddy to his own mother"—the word standing, of course, as "brother" in the original. Summing it all up, the Reader would then add, with a rise and fall of the voice at almost every other word in the sentence, the mere sound of which was inexpressibly ludicrous—"Everybody said the whole dispute had been conducted in a manner" (here he would sometimes gag) "that did equal credit to the head and heart of both parties concerned."
Another gag, of which there is no sign in the marked copy, those who attended any later delivery of this Reading will well remember he was fond of introducing. This was immediately after Mrs. Raddle had put an end to the evening's enjoyment in the very middle of Jack Hopkins' song (with a chorus) of "The King, God bless him," carolled forth by Jack to a novel air compounded of the "Bay of Biscay" and "A Frog he would a-wooing go"—when poor, discomfited Bob (after turning pale at the voice of his dreaded landlady, shrilly calling out, "Mr. Saw-yer! Mr. Saw-yer!") turned reproachfully on the over-boisterous Jack Hopkins, with, "I thought you were making too much noise, Jack. You're such a fellow for chorusing! You're always at it. You came into the world chorusing; and I believe you'll go out of it chorusing." Through their appreciation of which—more even than through their remembrance of Mrs. Raddle's withdrawal of her nightcap, with a scream, from over the staircase banisters, on catching sight of Mr. Pickwick, saying, "Get along with you, you old wretch! Old enough to be his grandfather, you willin! You're worse than any of 'em!"—the hearers paid to the Reader of Bob Sawyer's Party their last tribute of laughter.
As poetical in its conception, and also, intermittently, in its treatment, as anything he ever wrote, this Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, was, in those purely goblin, or more intensely imaginative portions of it, one of the most effective of our Author's Readings. Hence its selection by him for his very first Reading on his own account in St. Martin's Hall, Long Acre. Listening, as we did, then and afterwards, to the tale, as it was told by his own sympathetic lips, much of the incongruity, otherwise no doubt apparent in the narrative, seemed at those times to disappear altogether. The incongruity, we mean, observable between the queer little ticket-porter and the elfin phantoms of the belfry; between Trotty Veck, in his "breezy, goose-skinned, blue-nosed, red-eyed, stony-toed, tooth-chattering" stand-point by the old church-door, and the Goblin Sight beheld by him when he had clambered up, up, up among the roof-beams of the great church-tower. As the story was related in its original form, it was rung out befittingly from the Chimes in four quarters. As a Reading it was subdivided simply into three parts.
Nothing whatever was preserved (by an error as it always seemed to us) of the admirable introduction. The story-teller piqued no one into attention by saying—to begin with—"There are not many people who would care to sleep in a church." Adding immediately, with delightful particularity, "I don't mean at sermon time in warm weather (when the thing has actually been done once or twice), but in the night, and alone." Not a word was uttered in the exordium of the Reading about the dismal trick the night-wind has in those ghostly hours of wandering round and round a building of that sort, and moaning as it goes; of its trying with a secret hand the windows and the doors, fumbling for some crevice by which to enter, and, having got in, "as one not finding what it seeks, whatever that may be," of its wailing and howling to issue forth again; of its stalking through the aisles and gliding round and round the pillars, and "tempting the deep organ;" of its soaring up to the roof, and after striving vainly to rend the rafters, flinging itself despairingly upon the stones below, and passing mutteringly into the vaults! Anon, coming up stealthily—the Christmas book goes on to say—"It has a ghostly sound, lingering within the Altar, where it seems to chant in its wild way of Wrong and Murder done, and false Gods worshipped, in defiance of the Tables of the Law, which look so fair and smooth, but are so flawed and broken. Ugh! Heaven preserve us, sitting snugly round the fire!—it has an awful voice that Wind at Midnight, singing in a church!" Of all this and of yet more to the like purpose, not one syllable was there in the Reading, which, on the contrary, began at once point-blank: "High up in the steeple of an old church, far above the town, and far below the clouds, dwelt the 'Chimes' I tell of." Directly after which the Reader, having casually mentioned the circumstance of their just then striking twelve at noon, gave utterance to Trotty Yeck's ejaculatory reflection: "Dinner-time, eh? Ah! There's nothing more regular in its coming round than dinner-time, and there's nothing less regular in its coming round than dinner." Followed by his innocently complacent exclamation: "I wonder whether it would be worth any gentleman's while, now, to buy that observation for the Papers, or the Parliament!" The Reader adding upon the instant, with an explanatory aside, that "Trotty was only joking," striving to console himself doubtless for the exceeding probability there was before him, at the moment, of his going, not for the first time, dinnerless.
In the thick of his meditations Trotty was startled—those who ever attended this Reading will remember how pleasantly—by the unlooked-for appearance of his pretty daughter Meg. "And not alone!" as she told him cheerily. "Why you don't mean to say," was the wondering reply of the old ticket-porter, looking curiously the while at a covered basket carried in Margaret's hand, "that you have brought———"
Hadn't she! It was burning hot—scalding! He must guess from the steaming flavour what it was! Thereupon came the by-play of the Humorist—after the fashion of Munden, who, according to Charles Lamb, "understood a leg of mutton in its quiddity." It was thus with the Reader when he syllabled, with watering lips, guess after guess at the half-opened basket. "It ain't—I suppose it ain't polonies? [sniffing]. No. It's—it's mellower than polonies. It's too decided for trotters. Liver? No. There's a mildness about it that don't answer to liver. Pettitoes? No. It ain't faint enough for pettitoes. It wants the stringiness of cock's heads. And I know it ain't sausages. I'll tell you what it is. No, it isn't, neither. Why, what am I thinking of! I shall forget my own name next. It's tripe!" Forthwith, to reward him for having thus hit it off at last so cleverly, Meg, as she expressed it, with a flourish, laid the cloth, meaning the pocket-handkerchief in which the basin of tripe had been tied up, and actually offered the sybarite who was going to enjoy the unexpected banquet, a choice of dining-places! "Where will you dine, father? On the post, or on the steps? How grand we are: two places to choose from!" The weather being dry, and the steps therefore chosen, those being rheumatic only in the damp, Trotty Veck was not merely represented by the Reader as feasting upon the tripe, but as listening meanwhile to Meg's account of how it had all been arranged that she and her lover Eichard should, upon the very next day, that is, upon New Year's Day, be married.
In the midst of this agreeable confabulation—Richard himself having in the interim become one of the party—the little old ticket-porter, the pretty daughter, and the sturdy young blacksmith, were suddenly scattered. The Reader went on to relate how this happened, with ludicrous accuracy, upon the abrupt opening of the door, around the steps of which they were gathered—a flunkey nearly putting his foot in the tripe, with this indignant apostrophe, "Out of the vays, here, will you? You must always go and be a settin' on our steps, must you? You can't go and give a turn to none of the neighbours never, can't you?" Adding, even, a moment afterwards, with an aggrieved air of almost affecting expostulation, "You're always a being begged and prayed upon your bended knees, you are, to let our door-steps be? Can't you let 'em be?" Nothing more was seen or heard of that footman, and yet in the utterance of those few words of his the individuality of the man somehow was thoroughly realised. Observing him, listening to him, as he stood there palpably before us, one seemed to understand better than ever Thackeray's declaration in regard to those same menials in plush breeches, that a certain delightful "quivering swagger" of the calves about them, had for him always, as he expressed it, "a frantic fascination!" Immediately afterwards, however, as the Reader turned a new leaf, in place of the momentary apparition of that particular flunkey, three very different persons appeared to step across the threshold on to the platform. Low-spirited, Mr. Filer, with his hands in his trousers-pockets. The red-faced gentleman who was always vaunting, under the title of the "good old times," some undiscoverable past which he perpetually lamented as his deceased Millennium. And finally—as large as life, and as real—Alderman Cute. As in the original Christmas book, so also in the Reading, the one flagrant improbability was the consumption by Alderman Cute of the last lukewarm tid-bit of tripe left by Trotty Veck down at the bottom of the basin—its consumption, indeed, by any alderman, however prying or gluttonous. Barring that, the whole of the first scene of the "Chimes" was alive with reality, and with a curious diversity of human character. In the one that followed, and in which Trotty conveyed a letter to Sir Joseph Rowley, the impersonation of the obese hall-porter, later on identified as Tugby, was in every way far beyond that of the pompous humanitarian member of parliament. A hall-porter this proved to be whose voice, when he had found it—"which it took him some time to do, for it was a long way off, and hidden under a load of meat"—was, in truth, as the Author's lips expressed it, and as his pen had long before described it in the book, "a fat whisper." Afterwards when re-introduced, Tugby hardly, as it appeared to us, came up to the original description. When the stout old lady, his supposititious wife, formerly, or rather really, all through, Mrs. Chickenstalker, says, in answer to his inquiries as to the weather, one especially bitter winter's evening, "Blowing and sleeting hard, and threatening snow. Dark, and very cold"—Tugby's almost apoplectic reply was delicious, no doubt, in its suffocative delivery. "I'm glad to think we had muffins for tea, my dear. It's a sort of night that's meant for muffins. Likewise crumpets; also Sally Lunns." But, for all that, we invariably missed the sequel—which, once missed, could hardly be foregone contentedly. We recalled to mind, for example, such descriptive particulars in the original story as that, in mentioning each successive kind of eatable, Tugby did so "as if he were musingly summing up his good actions," or that, after this, rubbing his fat legs and jerking them at the knees to get the fire upon the yet unroasted parts, he laughed as if somebody had tickled him! We bore distinctly enough in remembrance, and longed then to have heard from the lips of the Reader—in answer to the dream-wife's remark, "You're in spirits, Tugby, my dear!"—Tugby's fat, gasping response, "No,—No. Not particular. I'm a little elewated. The muffins came so pat!" Though, even if that addition had been vouchsafed, we should still, no doubt, have hungered for the descriptive particulars that followed, relating not only how the former hall-porter chuckled until he was black in the face—having so much ado, in fact, to become any other colour, that his fat legs made the strangest excursions into the air—but that Mrs. Tugby, that is, Chickenstalker, after thumping him violently on the back, and shaking him as if he were a bottle, was constrained to cry out, in great terror, "Good gracious, goodness, lord-a-mercy, bless and save the man! What's he a-doing?" To which all that Mr. Tugby can faintly reply, as he wipes his eyes, is, that he finds himself a little "elewated!"
Another omission in the Reading was, if possible, yet more surprising, namely, the whole of Will Fern's finest speech: an address full of rustic eloquence that one can't help feeling sure would have told wonderfully as Dickens could have delivered it. However, the story, foreshortened though it was, precisely as he related it, was told with a due regard to its artistic completeness. Margaret and Lilian, the old ticket-porter and the young blacksmith, were the principal interlocutors. Like the melodrama of Victorine, it all turned out, of course, to be no more than "the baseless fabric of a vision," the central incidents of the tale, at any rate, being composed of "such stuff as dreams are made of." How it all came to be evolved by the "Chimes" from the slumbering brain of the queer, little old ticket-porter was related more fully and more picturesquely, no doubt, in the printed narrative, but in the Reading, at the least, it was depicted with more dramatic force and passion. The merest glimmering, however, was afforded of the ghostly or elfin spectacle, as seen by the "mind's eye" of the dreamer, and which in the book itself was so important an integral portion of the tale, as there unfolded, constituting, as it did, for that matter, the very soul or spirit of what was meant by "The Chimes."
Speaking of the collective chimes of a great city, Victor Hugo has remarked in his prose masterpiece that, in an ordinary way, the noise issuing from a vast capital is the talking of the city, that at night it is the breathing of the city, but that when the bells are ringing it is the singing of the city. Descanting upon this congenial theme, the poet-novelist observes, in continuation, that while at first the vibrations of each bell rise straight, pure, and in a manner separate from that of the others, swelling by degrees, they blend, melt, and amalgamate in magnificent concert until they become at length one mass of sonorous vibrations, which, issuing incessantly from innumerable steeples, float, undulate, bound, whirl over the city, expanding at last far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of their oscillations. What has been said thus superbly, though it may be somewhat extravagantly, by Hugo, in regard to "that tutti of steeples, that column of sound, that cloud or sea of harmony," as he variously terms it, has been said less extravagantly, but quite as exquisitely, by Charles Dickens, in regard to the chimes of a single belfry. After this New Year's tale of his was first told, there rang out from the opposite shores of the Atlantic, that most wonderful tintinnabulation in all literature, "The Bells" of Edgar Poe—which is, among minor poems, in regard to the belfry, what Southey's "Lodore" is to the cataract, full, sonorous, and exhaustive. And there it is, in that marvellous little poem of "The Bells," that the American lyrist, as it has always seemed to us, has caught much of the eltrich force and beauty and poetic significance of "The Chimes" as they were originally rung forth in the prose-poetry of the English novelist:—
"And the people—ah, the people— They that dwell up in the steeple, All alone, And who tolling, tolling, tolling, In that muffled monotone, Feel a glory in so rolling On [or from] the human heart a stone— They are neither man nor woman— They are neither brute nor human— They are Ghouls: And their king it is who tolls; And he rolls, rolls, rolls, Rolls A paean from the hells."
Charles Dickens, in his beautiful imaginings in regard to the Spirits of the Bells—something of the grace and goblinry of which, Maclise's pencil shadowed forth in the lovely frontispiece to the little volume in the form in which it was first of all published—has exhausted the vocabulary of wonder in his elvish delineation of the Goblin Sight beheld in the old church-tower on New Year's Eve by the awe-stricken ticket-porter.
In the Reading one would naturally have liked to have caught some glimpse at least of the swarmmg out to view of the "dwarf-phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells;" to have seen them "leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells," unceasingly; to have realised them anew as a listener, just as the imaginary dreamer beheld them all about him in his vision—"round him on the ground, above him in the air, clambering from him by the ropes below, looking down upon him from the massive iron-girded beams, peeping in upon him through the chinks and loopholes in the walls, spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water-ripples give place to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them." In their coming and in their going, the sight, it will be remembered, was equally marvellous. Whether—as the Chimes rang out—we read of the dream-haunted, "He saw them [these swarming goblins] ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim, he saw them dance, he heard them sing, he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl"—diving, soaring, sailing, perching, violently active in their restlessness—stone, brick, slate, tile, transparent to the dreamer's gaze, and pervious to their movements—the bells all the while in an uproar, the great church tower vibrating from parapet to basement! Or, whether—when the Chimes ceased—there came that instantaneous transformation! "The whole swarm fainted; their forms collapsed, their speed deserted them; they sought to fly, but in the act of falling died and melted into air. One straggler," says the book, "leaped down pretty briskly from the surface of the Great Bell, and alighted on his feet, but he was dead and gone before he could turn round." After it has been added that some thus gambolling in the tower "remained there, spinning over and over a little longer," becoming fainter, fewer, feebler, and so vanishing—we read, "The last of all was one small hunchback, who had got into an echoing corner, where he twirled and twirled, and floated by himself a long time; showing such perseverance, that at last he dwindled to a leg, and even to a foot, before he finally retired; but he vanished in the end, and then the tower was silent." Nothing of this, however, was given in the Reading, the interest of which was almost entirely restricted to the fancied fluctuation of fortunes among the human characters. All of the pathetic and most of the comic portions of the tale were happily preserved. When, in the persons of the Tugbys, "fat company, rosy-cheeked company, comfortable company," came to be introduced, there was an instant sense of exhilaration among the audience.
A roar invariably greeted the remark, "They were but two, but they were red enough for ten." Similarly pronounced was the reception of the casual announcement of the "stone pitcher of terrific size," in which the good wife brought her contribution of "a little flip" to the final merry-making. "Mrs. Chicken-stalker's notion of a little flip did honour to her character," elicited a burst of laughter that was instantly renewed when the Reader added, that "the pitcher reeked like a volcano," and that "the man who carried it was faint." The Drum, by the way—braced tight enough, as any one might admit in the original narrative—seemed rather slackened, and was certainly less effective, in the Reading. One listened in vain for the well-remembered parenthesis indicative of its being the man himself, and not the instrument. "The Drum (who was a private friend of Trotty's) then stepped forward, and" offered—evidently with a hiccough or two—his greeting of good fellowship, "which," as we learn from the book, "was received with a general shout." The Humorist added thereupon, in his character as Storyteller, not in his capacity as Reader, "The Drum was rather drunk, by-the-bye; but never mind." A band of music, with marrow-bones and cleavers and a set of hand-bells—clearly all of them under the direction of the Drum—then struck up the dance at Meg's wedding. But, after due mention had been made of how Trotty danced with Mrs. Chickenstalker "in a step unknown before or since, founded on his own peculiar trot," the story closed in the book, and closed also in the Reading, with words that, in their gentle and harmonious flow, seemed to come from the neighbouring church-tower as final echoes from "The Chimes" themselves.
THE STORY OF LITTLE DOMBEY.
The hushed silence with which the concluding passages of this Reading were always listened to, spoke more eloquently than any applause could possibly have done, of the sincerity of the emotions it awakened. A cursory glance at the audience confirmed the impression produced by that earlier evidence of their rapt and breathless attention. It is the simplest truth to say that at those times many a face illustrated involuntarily the loveliest line in the noblest ode in the language, where Dryden has sung even of a warrior—
"And now and then a sigh he heaved, And tears began to flow."
The subdued voice of the Reader, moreover, accorded tenderly with one's remembrance of his own acknowledgment ten years after his completion of the book from which this story was extracted, that with a heavy heart he had walked the streets of Paris alone during the whole of one winter's night, while he and his little friend parted company for ever! Charles Young's son, the vicar of Ilminster, has, recently, in his own Diary appended to his memoir of his father, the tragedian, related a curious anecdote, illustrative, in a very striking way, of the grief—the profound and overwhelming grief—excited in a mind and heart like those of Lord Jeffrey, by the imaginary death of another of these dream-children of Charles Dickens. The editor of the Edinburgh Review, we there read, was surprised by Mrs. Henry Siddons, seated in his library, with his head on the table, crying. "Delicately retiring," we are then told, "in the hope that her entrance had been unnoticed," Mrs. Siddons observed that Jeffrey raised his head and was kindly beckoning her back. The Diary goes on: "Perceiving that his cheek was flushed and his eyes suffused with tears, she apologised for her intrusion, and begged permission to withdraw. When he found that she was seriously intending to leave him, he rose from his chair, took her by both hands, and led her to a seat." Then came the acknowledgment prefaced by Lord Jeffrey's remark that he was "a great goose to have given way so." Little Nell was dead! The newly published number of "Master Humphrey's Clock" (No. 44) was lying before him, in which he had just been reading of the general bereavement!
Referring to another of these little creatures' deaths, that of Tiny Tim, Thackeray wrote in the July number of Fraser, for 1844, that there was one passage regarding it about which a man would hardly venture to speak in print or in public "any more than he would of any other affections of his private heart."
It has been related, even of the burly demagogue, O'Connell, that on first reading of Nell's death in the Old Curiosity Shop, he exclaimed—his eyes running over with tears while he flung the leaves indignantly out of the window—"he should not have killed her—he should not have killed her: she was too good!"
Finally, another Scotch critic and judge, Lord Cockburn, writing to the Novelist on the very morrow of reading the memorable fifth number of "Dombey and Son," in which the death of Little Paul is so exquisitely depicted—offering his grateful acknowledgments to the Author for the poignant grief he had caused him—added, "I have felt my heart purified by those tears, and blessed and loved you for making me shed them."
Hardly can it be matter for wonder, therefore, remarking how the printed pages would draw such tokens of sympathy from men like Cockburn, and Jeffrey, and Thackeray, and O'Connell, that a mixed audience showed traces of emotion when the profoundly sympathetic voice of Dickens himself related this story of the Life and Death of Little Dombey. Yet the pathetic beauty of the tale, for all that, was only dimly hinted at throughout,—the real pathos of it, indeed, being only fully indicated almost immediately before its conclusion. Earlier in the Reading, in fact, the drollery of the comic characters introduced—of themselves irresistible—would have been simply paramount, but for the incidental mention of the mother's death, when clinging to that frail spar within her arms, her little daughter, "she drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world." Paul's little wistful face looked out every now and then, it is true, from among the fantastic forms and features grouped around him, with a growing sense upon the hearer of what was really meant by the child being so "old-fashioned." But the ludicrous effect of those surrounding characters was nothing less than all-mastering in its predominance.
There was Mrs. Pipchin, for example, that grim old lady with a mottled face like bad marble, who acquired an immense reputation as a manager of children, by the simple device of giving them everything they didn't like and nothing that they did! Whose constitution required mutton chops hot and hot, and buttered toast in similar relays! And with whom one of Little Dombey's earliest dialogues in the Reading awakened invariably such bursts of hearty laughter! Seated in his tall, spindle-legged arm-chair by the fire, staring steadily at the exemplary Pipchin, Little Paul, we were told, was asked [in the most snappish voice possible], by that austere female, What he was thinking about?
"You," [in the gentlest childlike voice] said Paul, without the least reserve.
"And what are you thinking about me?"
"I'm—thinking—how old—you must be."
"You mustn't say such things as that, young gentleman. That'll never do."
"Why not [slowly and wonderingly]?"
"Never you mind, sir [shorter and sharper than ever]. Remember the story of the little boy that was gored to death by a mad bull for asking questions."
"If the bull [in a high falsetto voice and with greater deliberation than ever] was mad, how did he know that the boy asked questions? Nobody can go and whisper secrets to a mad bull. I don't believe that story."
Little Dombey's fellow-sufferers at Mrs. Pipchin's were hardly less ludicrous in their way than that bitter old victim of the Peruvian mines in her perennial weeds of black bombazeen. Miss Pankey, for instance, the mild little blue-eyed morsel of a child who was instructed by the Ogress that "nobody who sniffed before visitors ever went to heaven!" And her associate in misery, one Master Bitherstone, from India, who objected so much to the Pipchinian system, that before Little Dombey had been in the house five minutes, he privately consulted that gentleman if he could afford him any idea of the way back to Bengal! What the Pipchinian system was precisely, the Reader indicated perhaps the most happily by his way of saying, that instead of its encouraging a child's mind to develop itself, like a flower, it strove to open it by force, like an oyster. Fading slowly away while he is yet under Mrs. Pipchin's management, poor little Paul, as the audience well knew, was removed on to Doctor Blimber's Academy for Young Gentlemen. There the humorous company gathered around Paul immediately increased. But, before his going amongst them, the Reader enabled us more vividly to realise, by an additional touch or two, the significance of the peculiarity of being "old fashioned," for which the fading child appeared in everybody's eyes so remarkable.
Wheeled down to the beach in a little invalid-carriage, he would cling fondly to his sister Florence. He would say to any chance child who might come to bear him company [in a soft, drawling, half-querulous voice, and with the gravest look], "Go away, if you please. Thank you, but I don't want you." He would wonder to himself and to Floy what the waves were always saying—always saying! At about the middle of the 47th page of the Reading copy of this book about Little Dombey, the copy from which Dickens Read, both in England and America, there is, in his handwriting, the word—"Pause." It occurs just in between Little Dombey's confiding to his sister, that if she were in India he should die of being so sorry and so lonely! and the incident of his suddenly waking up at another time from a long sleep in his little carriage on the shingles, to ask her, not only "What the rolling waves are saying so constantly, but What place is over there?—far away!—looking eagerly, as he inquires, towards some invisible region beyond the horizon!" That momentary pause will be very well remembered by everyone who attended this Reading.
One single omission we are still disposed to regret in the putting together of the materials for this particular Reading from the original narrative. In approaching Dr. Blimber's establishment for the first time, we would gladly have witnessed the sparring-match, as one may say, on the very threshold, between Mrs. Pipchin the Ogress in bombazeen and the weak-eyed young man-servant who opens the door! The latter of whom, having "the first faint streaks or early dawn of a grin on his countenance—(it was mere imbecility)" as the Author himself explains parenthetically—Mrs. Pipchin at once takes it into her head, is inspired by impudence, and snaps at accordingly. Of this we saw nothing, however, in the Reading. We heard nothing of Mrs. Pipchin's explosive, "How dare you laugh behind the gentleman's back?" or of the weak-eyed young man's answering in consternation, "I ain't a laughing at nobody, ma'am." Any more than of the Ogress saying a while later, "You're laughing again, sir!" or of the young man, grievously oppressed, repudiating the charge with, "I ain't. I never see such a thing as this!" The old lady as she passed on with, "Oh! he was a precious fellow," leaving him, who was in fact all meekness and incapacity, "affected even to tears by the incident." If we saw nothing, however, of that retainer of Dr. Blimber, we were introduced to another, meaning the blue-coated, bright-buttoned butler, "who gave quite a winey flavour to the table-beer—he poured it out so superbly!" We had Dr. Blimber himself, besides, with his learned legs, like a clerical pianoforte—a bald head, highly polished, and a chin so double, it was a wonder how he ever managed to shave into the creases. We had Miss Blimber, in spectacles, like a ghoul, "dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages." We had Mrs. Blimber, not learned herself, but pretending to be so, which did quite as well, languidly exclaiming at evening parties, that if she could have known Cicero, she thought she could have died contented. We had Mr. Feeder, clipped to the stubble, grinding out his classic stops like a barrel-organ of erudition. Above all, we had Toots, the head boy, or rather "the head and shoulder boy," he was so much taller than the rest! Of whom in that intellectual forcing-house (where he had "gone through" everything so completely, that one day he "suddenly left off blowing, and remained in the establishment a mere stalk") people had come at last to say, "that the Doctor had rather overdone it with young Toots, and that when he began to have whiskers he left off having brains." From the moment when Young Toots's voice was first heard, in tones so deep, and in a manner so sheepish, that "if a lamb had roared it couldn't have been more surprising," saying to Little Dombey with startling suddenness, "How are you?"—every time the Reader opened his lips, as speaking in that character, there was a burst of merriment. His boastful account always called forth laughter—that his tailor was Burgess and Co., "fash'nable, but very dear." As also did his constantly reiterated inquiries of Paul—always as an entirely new idea—"I say—it's not of the slightest consequence, you know, but I should wish to mention it—how are you, you know?" Hardly less provocative of mirth was Briggs's confiding one evening to Little Dombey, that his head ached ready to split, and "that he should wish himself dead if it wasn't for his mother and a blackbird he had at home."
Wonderful fun used to be made by the Beader of the various incidents at the entertainment given upon the eve of the vacations by Doctor and Mrs. Blimber to the Young Gentlemen and their Friends, when "the hour was half-past seven o'clock, and the object was quadrilles." The Doctor pacing up and down in the drawing-room, full dressed, before anybody had arrived, "with a dignified and unconcerned demeanour, as if he thought it barely possible that one or two people might drop in by-and-by!" His exclaiming, when Mr. Toots and Mr. Feeder were announced by the butler, and as if he were extremely surprised to see them, "Aye, aye, aye! God bless my soul!" Mr. Toots, one blaze of jewellery and buttons, so undecided, "on a calm revision of all the circumstances," whether it were better to have his waistcoat fastened or unfastened both at top and bottom, as the arrivals thickened, so influencing him by the force of example, that at the last he was "continually fingering that article of dress as if he were performing on some instrument!" Thoroughly enjoyable though the whole scene was in its throng of ludicrous particulars, it merely led the way up appreciably and none the less tenderly, for all the innocent laughter, to the last and supremely pathetic incidents of the story as related thenceforth (save only for one startling instant) sotto voce, by the Reader.
The exceptional moment here alluded to, when his voice was suddenly raised, to be hushed again the instant afterwards, came at the very opening of the final scene by Little Dombey's death-bed, where the sunbeams, towards evening, struck through the rustling blinds and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water. Overwhelmed, as little Paul was occasionally, with "his only trouble," a sense of the swift and rapid river, "he felt forced," the Reader went on to say, "to try and stop it—to stem it with his childish hands, or choke its way with sand—and when he saw it coming on, resistless, he cried out!" Dropping his voice from that abrupt outcry instantly afterwards, to the gentlest tones, as he added, "But a word from Florence, who was always at his side, restored him to himself"—the Reader continued in those subdued and tender accents to the end.
The child's pity for his father's sorrowing, was surpassed only, as all who witnessed this Reading will readily recollect, by the yet more affecting scene with his old nurse. Waking upon a sudden, on the last of the many evenings, when the golden water danced in shining ripples on the wall, waking mind and body, sitting upright in his bed—
"And who is this? Is this my old nurse?" asked the child, regarding with a radiant smile a figure coming in.
"Yes, yes. No other stranger would have shed those tears at sight of him, and called him her dear boy, her pretty boy, her own poor blighted child. No other woman would have stooped down by his bed and taken up his wasted hand and put it to her lips and breast, as one who had some right to fondle it. No other woman would have so forgotten everybody there but him and Floy, and been so full of tenderness and pity."
The child's words coming then so lovingly: "Floy! this is a kind good face! I am glad to see it again. Don't go away, old nurse! Stay here! Good bye!" prepared one exquisitely for the rest. "Not goodbye?" "Ah, yes! good-bye!"
Then the end! The child having been laid down again with his arms clasped round his sister's neck, telling her that the stream was lulling him to rest, that now the boat was out at sea and that there was shore before him, and—Who stood upon the bank! Putting his hands together "as he had been used to do at his prayers "—not removing his arms to do it, but folding them so behind his sister's neck—"Mamma is like you, Floy!" he cried; "I know her by the face! But tell them that the picture on the stairs at school is not Divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!"
Then came two noble passages, nobly delivered.
First—when there were no eyes unmoistened among the listeners—
"The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion—Death!"
And lastly—with a tearful voice—
"Oh, thank God, all who see it, for that older fashion yet of Immortality! And look upon us, Angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!"
Remembering which exquisite words as he himself delivered them, having the very tones of his voice still ringing tenderly in our recollection, the truth of that beautiful remark of Dean Stanley's comes back anew as though it were now only for the first time realised, where, in his funeral sermon of the 19th June, 1870, he said that it was the inculcation of the lesson derived from precisely such a scene as this which will always make the grave of Charles Dickens seem "as though it were the very grave of those little innocents whom he created for our companionship, for our instruction, for our delight and solace." The little workhouse-boy, the little orphan girl, the little cripple, who "not only blessed his father's needy home, but softened the rude stranger's hardened conscience," were severally referred to by the preacher when he gave this charming thought its affecting application. But, foremost among these bewitching children of the Novelist's imagination, might surely be placed the child-hero of a story closing hardly so much with his death as with his apotheosis.
MR CHOPS, THE DWARF.
It remains still a matter of surprise how so much was made out of this slight sketch by the simple force of its humorous delivery. "Mr. Chops, the Dwarf," as, indeed, was only befitting, was the smallest of all the Readings. The simple little air that so caught the dreamer's fancy, when played upon the harp by Scrooge's niece by marriage, is described after all, as may be remembered by the readers of the Carol, to to have been intrinsically "a mere nothing; you might learn to whistle it in two minutes." Say that in twenty minutes, or, at the outside, in half-an-hour, any ordinarily glib talker might have rattled through these comic recollections of Mr. Magsman, yet, when rattled through by Dickens, the laughter awakened seems now in the retrospect to have been altogether out of proportion. In itself the subject was anything but attractive, relating, as it did, merely to the escapade of a monstrosity. The surroundings are ignoble, the language is illiterate, the narrative from first to last is characterised by its grotesque extravagance. Yet the whole is presented to view in so utterly ludicrous an aspect, that one needs must laugh just as surely as one listened. Turning over the leaves now, and recalling to mind the hilarity they used to excite even among the least impressionable audience whenever they were fluttered (there are not a dozen of them altogether) on the familiar reading-desk, one marvels over the success of such an exceedingly small oddity as over the remembrance, let us say, of the brilliant performance of a fantasia on the jew's-harp by Rubenstein.
Nevertheless, slight though it is, the limning all through has touches of the most comic suggestiveness. Magsman's account of the show-house during his occupancy is sufficiently absurd to begin with—"the picter of the giant who was himself the heighth of the house," being run up with a line and pulley to a pole on the roof till "his 'ed was coeval with the parapet;" the picter of the child of the British Planter seized by two Boa Constrictors, "not that we never had no child, nor no Constrictors either;" similarly, the picter of the Wild Ass of the Prairies, "not that we never had no wild asses, nor wouldn't have had 'em at a gift." And to crown all, the picter of the Dwarf—who was "a uncommon small man, he really was. Certainly not so small as he was made out to be; but where is your Dwarf as is?" A picter "like him, too considering, with George the Fourth, in such a state of astonishment at him as his Majesty couldn't with his utmost politeness and stoutness express." Wrote up the Dwarf was, we are told by Mr. Magsman, as Major Tpschoffski—"nobody couldn't pronounce the name," he adds, "and it never was intended anybody should." Corrupted into Chopski by the public, he gets called in the line Chops, partly for that reason, "partly because his real name, if he ever had any real name (which was dubious), was Stakes." Wearing a diamond ring "(or quite as good to look at)" on his forefinger, having the run of his teeth, "and he was a Woodpecker to eat—but all dwarfs are," receiving a good salary, and gathering besides as his perquisites the ha'pence collected by him in a Chaney sarser at the end of every entertainment, the Dwarf never has any money somehow. Nevertheless, having what his admiring proprietor considers "a fine mind, a poetic mind," Mr. Chops indulges himself in the pleasing delusion that one of these days he is to Come Into his Property, his ideas respecting which are never realised by him so powerfully as when he sits upon a barrel-organ and has the handle turned! "Arter the wibration has run through him a little time," says Mr. Magsman, "he screeches out, 'Toby, I feel my property a-coming—gr-r-rind away! I feel the Mint a-jingling in me. I'm a-swelling out into the Bank of England!' Such," reflectively observes his proprietor, "is the influence of music on a poetic mind!" Adding, however, immediately afterwards, "Not that he was partial to any other music but a barrel-organ; on the contrairy, hated it." Indulging in day-dreams about Coming Into his Property and Going Into Society, for which he feels himself formed, and to aspire towards which is his avowed ambition, the mystery, as to where the Dwarf's salary and ha'pence all go, is one day cleared up by his winning a prize in the Lottery, a half-ticket for the twenty-five thousand pounder.
Mr. Chops Comes Into his Property—twelve thousand odd hundred. Further than that, he Goes Into Society "in a chay and four greys with silk jackets." It was at this turning-point in the career of his large-headed but diminutive hero that the grotesque humour of the Reader would play upon the risible nerves of his hearers, as, according to Mr. Disraeli's phrase, Sir Robert Peel used to play upon the House of Commons, "like an old fiddle." Determined to Go Into Society in style, with his twelve thousand odd hundred, Mr. Chops, we are told, "sent for a young man he knowed, as had a very genteel appearance, and was a Bonnet at a gaming-booth. Most respectable brought up," adds Mr. Magsman—"father having been imminent in the livery-stable line, but unfortunate in a commercial crisis through painting a old grey ginger-bay, and sellin' him with a pedigree." In intimate companionship with this Bonnet, "who said his name was Normandy, which it warn't," Mr. Magsman, on invitation by note a little while afterwards, visits Mr. Chops at his lodgings in Pall Mall, London, where he is found carousing not only with the Bonnet but with a third party, of whom we were then told with unconscionable gravity, "When last met, he had on a white Roman shirt, and a bishop's mitre covered with leopard-skin, and played the clarionet all wrong in a band at a Wild Beast Show." How the reverential Magsman, finding the three of them blazing away, blazes away in his turn while remaining in their company, who, that once heard it, has forgotten? "I made the round of the bottles," he says—evidently proud of his achievement—"first separate (to say I had done it), and then mixed 'em altogether (to say I had done it), and then tried two of 'em as half-and-half, and then t'other two; altogether," he adds, "passin' a pleasin' evenin' with a tendency to feel muddled." How all Mr. Chop's blazing away is to terminate everybody but himself perceives clearly enough from the commencement.
Normandy having bolted with the plate, and "him as formerly wore the bishop's mitre" with the jewels, the Dwarf gets out of society by being, as he significantly expresses it, "sold out," and in this plight returns penitently one evening to the show-house of his still-admiring proprietor. Mr. Magsman happens at the moment to be having a dull tete-a-tete with a young man without arms, who gets his living by writing with his toes, "which," says the low-spirited narrator, "I had taken on for a month—though he never drawed—except on paper." Hearing a kicking at the street-door, "'Halloa!' I says to the young man, 'what's up?' He rubs his eyebrows with his toes, and he says, 'I can't imagine, Mr. Magsman'—which that young man [with an air of disgust] never could imagine nothin', and was monotonous company." Mr. Chops—"I never dropped the 'Mr.' with him," says his again proprietor; "the world might do it, but not me"—eventually dies. Having sat upon the barrel-organ over night, and had the handle turned through all the changes, for the first and only time after his fall, Mr. Chops is found on the following morning, as the disconsolate Magsman expresses it, "gone into much better society than either mine or Pall Mall's." Out of such unpromising materials as these could the alembic of a genius all-embracing in its sympathies extract such an abundance of innocent mirth—an illiterate showman talking to us all the while about such people as the Bonnet of a gaming-booth, or a set of monstrosities he himself has, for a few coppers, on exhibition. Yet, as Mr. Magsman himself remarks rather proudly when commenting on his own establishment, "as for respectability,—if threepence ain't respectable, what is?"
THE POOR TRAVELLER.
Apart altogether from the Readings of Charles Dickens, has the reader of this book any remembrance of the original story of "The Poor Traveller"? If he has, he will recognise upon the instant the truth of the words in which we would here speak of it, as of one of those, it may be, slight but exquisite sketches, which are sometimes, in a happy moment, thrown off by the hand of a great master. Comparatively trivial in itself—carelessly dashed off, apparently hap-hazard—having no pretension about it in the least, it is anything, in short, but a finished masterpiece. Yet, for all that, it is marked, here and there, by touches so felicitous and inimitable in their way, that we hardly find the like in the artist's more highly elaborated and ambitious productions. Not that one would speak of it, however, as of a drawing upon toned paper in neutral tint, or as of a picture pencilled in sepia or with crayons; one would rather liken it to a radiant water-colour, chequered with mingled storm and sunshine, sparkling with lifelike effects, and glowing with brilliancy. And yet the little work is one, when you come to look into it, that is but the product of a seemingly artless abandon, in which without an effort the most charming results have been arrived at, obviously upon the instant, and quite unerringly.
Trudging down to Chatham, footsore and without a farthing in his pocket, it is in this humble guise first of all that he comes before us, this Poor Traveller. Christian name, Eichard, better known as Dick, his own surname dropped upon the road, he assumes that of Doubledick—being thenceforth spoken of all through the tale, even to the very end of it, by his new name, as Eichard Doubledick. A scapegrace, a ne'er-do-well, an incorrigible, hopeless of himself, despaired of by others, he has "gone wrong and run wild." His heart, still in the right place, has been sealed up. "Betrothed to a good and beautiful girl whom he had loved better than she—or perhaps even he—believed," he had given her cause, in an evil hour, to tell him solemnly that she would never marry any other man; that she would live single for his sake, but that her lips, "that Mary Marshall's lips," would never address another word to him on earth, bidding him in the end—Go! and Heaven forgive him! Hence, in point of fact, this journey of his on foot down to Chatham, for the purpose of enlisting, if possible, in a cavalry regiment, his object being to get shot, though he himself thinks in his devil-may-care indifference, that "he might as well ride to death as be at the trouble of walking." Premising simply that his hero's age is at this time twenty-two, and his height five foot ten, and that, there being no cavalry at the moment in Chatham, he enlists into a regiment of the line, where he is glad to get drunk and forget all about it, the Author readily made the path clear for the opening up of his narrative.