Whenever Charles Dickens introduced this tale among his Readings, how beautifully he related it! After recounting how Private Doubledick was clearly going to the dogs, associating himself with the dregs of every regiment, seldom being sober and constantly under punishment, until it became plain at last to the whole barracks that very soon indeed he would come to be flogged, when the Reader came at this point to the words—"Now the captain of Doubledick's company was a young gentleman not above five years his senior, whose eyes had an expression in them which affected Private Doubledick in a very remarkable way"—the effect was singularly striking. Out of the Reader's own eyes would look the eyes of that Captain, as the Author himself describes them: "They were bright, handsome, dark eyes, what are called laughing eyes generally, and, when serious, rather steady than severe." But, he immediately went on to say, they were the only eyes then left in his narrowed world that could not be met without a sense of shame by Private Doubledick. Insomuch that if he observed Captain Taunton coming towards him, even when he himself was most callous and unabashed, "he would rather turn back and go any distance out of the way, than encounter those two handsome, dark, bright eyes." Here it was that came, what many will still vividly remember, as one of the most exquisitely portrayed incidents in the whole of this Reading—the interview between Captain Taunton and Private Doubledick!
The latter, having passed forty-eight hours in the Black Hole, has been just summoned, to his great dismay, to the Captain's quarters. Having about him all the squalor of his incarceration, he shrinks from making his appearance before one whose silent gaze even was a reproach. However, not being so mad yet as to disobey orders, he goes up to the officers' quarters immediately upon his release from the Black Hole, twisting and breaking in his hands as he goes along a bit of the straw that had formed its decorative furniture.
"Private Doubledick pulled off his cap, took a stride forward and stood in the light of the dark bright eyes."
From that moment until the end of the interview, the two men alternately were standing there distinctly before the audience upon the platform.
"Doubledick! do you know where you are going to?"
"To the devil, sir!"
"Yes, and very fast."
Thereupon one did not hear the words simply, one saw it done precisely as it is described in the original narrative: "Private Richard Doubledick turned the straw of the Black Hole in his mouth and made a miserable salute of acquiescence." Captain Taunton then remonstrates with him thus earnestly: "Doubledick, since I entered his Majesty's service, a boy of seventeen, I have been pained to see many men of promise going that road; but I have never been so pained to see a man determined to make the shameful journey, as I have been, ever since you joined the regiment, to see you." At this point in the printed story, as it was originally penned, one reads that "Private Richard Doubledick began to find a film stealing over the floor at which he looked; also to find the legs of the Captain's breakfast-table turning crooked as if he saw them through water." Although those words are erased in the reading copy, and were not uttered, pretty nearly the effect of them was visible when, after a momentary pause, the disheartened utterance was faltered out—
"I am only a common soldier, sir. It signifies very little what such a poor brute comes to."
In answer to the next remonstrance from his officer, Doubledick's words are blurted out yet more despairingly—
"I hope to get shot soon, sir, and then the regiment, and the world together, will be rid of me!"
What are the descriptive words immediately following this in the printed narrative? They also were visibly expressed upon the platform. "Looking up he met the eyes that had so strong an influence over him. He put his hand before his own eyes, and the breast of his disgrace-jacket swelled as if it would fly asunder." His observant adviser thereupon quietly but very earnestly remarks, that he "would rather see this in him (Doubledick) than he would see five thousand guineas counted out upon the table between them for a gift to his (the Captain's) good mother," adding suddenly, "Have you a mother?" Doubledick is thankful to say she is dead. Reminded by the Captain that if his praises were sounded from mouth to mouth through the whole regiment, through the whole army, through the whole country, he would wish she had lived to say with pride and joy, "He is my son!" Doubledick cries out, "Spare me, sir! She would never have heard any good of me. She would never have had any pride or joy in owning herself my mother. Love and compassion she might have had, and would always have had, I know; but not—spare me, sir! I am a broken wretch quite at your mercy." By this time, according to the words of the writing, according only to the eloquent action of the Reading, "He had turned his face to the wall and stretched out his imploring hand." How eloquently that "imploring hand" spoke in the agonised, dumb supplication of its movement, coupled as it was with the shaken frame and the averted countenance, those who witnessed this Reading will readily recall to their recollection. As also the emotion expressed in the next broken utterances exchanged by the interlocutors:—
"God bless you, sir!"
Captain Taunton, interrupted for the moment, adding—
"You are at the crisis of your fate, my friend. Hold your course unchanged a little longer, and you know what must happen, I know better than ever you can imagine, that after that has happened you are a lost man. No man who could shed such tears could bear such marks."
Doubledick, replying in a low shivering voice, "I fully believe it, sir," the young Captain adds—
"But a man in any station can do his duty, and in doing it can earn his own respect, even if his case should be so very unfortunate and so very rare, that he can earn no other man's. A common soldier, poor brute though you called him just now, has this advantage in the stormy times we live in, that he always does his duty before a host of sympathising witnesses. Do you doubt that he may so do it as to be extolled through a whole regiment, through a whole army, through a whole country? Turn while you may yet retrieve the past and try."
With a nearly bursting heart Richard cries out, "I will! I ask but one witness, sir!" The reply is instant and significant, "I understand you. I will be a watchful and a faithful one." It is a compact between them, a compact sealed and ratified. "I have heard from Private Doubledick's own lips," said the narrator, and in tones how manly and yet how tender in their vibration, "that he dropped down upon his knee, kissed that officer's hand, arose, and went out of the light of the dark bright eyes, an altered man." From the date to them both of this memorable interview he followed the two hither and thither among the battle-fields of the great war between England in coalition with the other nations of Europe and Napoleon.
Wherever Captain Taunton led, there, "close to him, ever at his side, firm as a rock, true as the sun, brave as Mars," would for certain be found that famous soldier Sergeant Doubledick. As Sergeant-Major the latter is shown, later on, upon one desperate occasion cutting his way single-handed through a mass of men, recovering the colours of his regiment, and rescuing his wounded Captain from the very jaws of death "in a jungle of horses' hoofs and sabres"—for which deed of gallantry and all but desperation, he is forthwith raised from the ranks, appearing no longer as a non-commissioned officer, but as Ensign Doubledick. At last, one fatal day in the trenches, during the siege of Badajos, Major Taunton and Ensign Doubledick find themselves hurrying forward against a party of French infantry. At this juncture, at the very moment when Doubledick sees the officer at the head of the enemy's soldiery—"a courageous, handsome, gallant officer of five-and-thirty"—waving his sword, and with an eager and excited cry rallying his men, they fire, and Major Taunton has dropped. The encounter closing within ten minutes afterwards on the arrival of assistance to the two Englishmen, "the best friend man ever had" is laid upon a coat spread out upon the wet clay by the heart-riven subaltern, whom years before his generous counsel had rescued from ignominious destruction. Three little spots of blood are visible on the shirt of Major Taunton as he lies there with the breast of his uniform opened.
"Dear Doubledick,—I am dying."
"For the love of Heaven, no! Taunton! My preserver, my guardian angel, my witness! Dearest, truest, kindest of human beings! Taunton! For God's sake!"
To listen to that agonised entreaty as it started from the trembling and one could almost have fancied whitened lips of the Reader, was to be with him there upon the instant on the far-off battle-field. Taunton dies "with his hand upon the breast in which he had revived a soul." Doubledick, prostrated and inconsolable in his bereavement, has but two cares seemingly for the rest of his existence—one to preserve a packet of hair to be given to the mother of the friend lost to him; the other, to encounter that French officer who had rallied the men under whose fire that friend had fallen. "A new legend," quoth the narrator, "now began to incubate among our troops; and it was, that when he and the French officer came face to face once more, there would be weeping in France." Failing to meet him, however, through all the closing scenes of the great war, Doubledick, by this time promoted to his lieutenancy, follows the old regimental colours, ragged, scarred, and riddled with shot, through the fierce conflicts of Quatre Bras and Ligny, falling at last desperately wounded—all but dead—upon the field of Waterloo.
How, having been tenderly nursed during the total eclipse of an appallingly lengthened period of unconsciousness, he wakes up at last in Brussels to find that during a little more than momentary and at first an utterly forgotten interval of his stupor, he has been married to the gentle-handed nurse who has been all the while in attendance upon him, and who is no other, of coarse, than his faithful first love, Mary Marshall! How, returning homewards, an invalided hero, Captain Doubledick becomes, in a manner, soon afterwards, the adopted son of Major Taunton's mother! How the latter, having gone, some time later, on a visit to a French family near Aix, is followed by her other son, her other self, he has almost come to be, "now a hardy, handsome man in the full vigour of life," on his receiving from the head of the house a gracious and courtly invitation for "the honour of the company of cet homme si justement celebre, Monsieur le Capitaine Richard Double-dick!" These were among the incidents in due sequence immediately afterwards recounted!
Arriving at the old chateau upon a fete-day, when the household are scattered abroad in the gardens and shrubberies at their rejoicings, Captain Double-dick passes through the open porch into the lofty stone hall. There, being a total stranger, he is almost scared by the intrusive clanking of his boots. Suddenly he starts back, feeling his face turn white! For, in the gallery looking down at him, is the French officer whose picture he has carried in his mind so long and so far. The latter, disappearing in another instant for the staircase, enters directly afterwards with a bright sudden look upon his countenance, "Such a look as it had worn in that fatal moment," so well and so terribly remembered! All this was portrayed with startling vividness by the Author of the little sketch in his capacity as the sympathetic realizer of the dreams of his own imagination.
Exquisite was the last glimpse of the delineation, when the Captain—after many internal revulsions of feeling, while he gazes through the window of the bed-chamber allotted to him in the old chateau, "whence he could see the smiling prospect and the peaceful vineyards "—thinks musingly to himself, "Spirit of my departed friend, is it through thee these better thoughts are rising in my mind! Is it thou who hast shown me, all the way I have been drawn to meet this man, the blessings of the altered time! Is it thou who hast sent thy stricken mother to me, to stay my angry hand! Is it from thee the whisper comes, that this man only did his duty as thou didst—and as I did through thy guidance, which saved me, here on earth—and that he did no more!" Then it was, we were told, there came to him the second and crowning resolution of his life: "That neither to the French officer, nor to the mother of his departed friend, nor to any soul while either of the two was living, would he breathe what only he knew." Then it was that the author perfected his Reading by the simple utterance of its closing words—"And when he touched that French officer's glass with his own that day at dinner, he secretly forgave him—forgave him in the name of the Divine Forgiver." With a moral no less noble and affecting, no less grand and elevating than this, the lovely idyll closed. The final glimpse of the scene at the old Aix chateau was like the view of a sequestered orchard through the ivied porchway of a village church. The concluding words of the prelection were like the sound of the organ voluntary at twilight, when the worshippers are dispersing.
A whimsical and delightful recollection comes back to the writer of these pages at the moment of inscribing as the title of this Reading the name of the preposterous old lady who is the real heroine of "Martin Chuzzlewit." It is the remembrance of Charles Dickens's hilarious enjoyment of a casual jest thrown out, upon his having incidentally mentioned—as conspicuous among the shortcomings of the first acting version of that story upon the boards of the Lyceum—the certainly surprising fact that Mrs. Gamp's part, as originally set down for Keeley, had not a single "which" in it. "Why, it ought actually to have begun with one!" was the natural exclamation of the person he was addressing, who added instantly, with affected indignation, "Not one? Why, next they'll be playing Macbeth without the Witches!" The joyous laugh with which this ludicrous conceit was greeted by the Humorist, still rings freshly and musically in our remembrance. And the recollection of it is doubtless all the more vivid because of the mirthful retrospect having relation to one of the most recent of Dickens's blithe home dinners in his last town residence immediately before his hurried return to Gad's Hill in the summer of 1870. Although we were happily with him afterwards, immediately before the time came when we could commune with him no more, the occasion referred to is one in which we recall him to mind as he was when we saw him last at his very gayest, radiant with that sense of enjoyment which it was his especial delight to diffuse around him throughout his life so abundantly.
Among all his humorous creations, Mrs. Gamp is perhaps the most intensely original and the most thoroughly individualised. She is not only a creation of character, she is in herself a creator of character. To the Novelist we are indebted for Mrs. Gamp, but to Mrs. Gamp herself we are indebted for Mrs. Harris. That most mythical of all imaginary beings is certainly quite unique; she is strictly, as one may say, sui generis in the whole world of fiction. A figment born from a figment; one fancy evolved from another; the shadow of a shadow. If only in remembrance of that one daring adumbration from Mrs. Gamp'sinner consciousness, that purely supposititious entity "which her name, I'll not deceive you, is Harris," one would say that Mr. Mould, the undertaker, has full reason for exclaiming, in regard to Mrs. Gamp, "I'll tell you what, that's a woman whose intellect is immensely superior to her station in life. That's a woman who observes and reflects in a wonderful manner." Mr. Mould becomes so strongly impressed at last with a sense of her exceptional merits, that in a deliciously ludicrous outburst of professional generosity he caps the climax of his eulogium by observing, "She's the sort of woman, now, that one would almost feel disposed to bury for nothing—and do it neatly, too!" Thoroughly akin, by the way, to which exceedingly questionable expression of goodwill on the part of Mr. Mould, is Mrs. Gamp's equally confiding outburst of philanthropy from her point of view, where she remarks—of course to her familiar, as Socrates when communing with his Daemon—"'Mrs. Harris,' I says to her, 'don't name the charge, for if I could afford to lay my fellow-creeturs out for nothink, I would gladly do it, sich is the love I bears 'em.'"
A benevolent unbosoming, or self-revelation, that last, on the part of Mrs. Gamp, so astoundingly outspoken of its kind, that it forces upon one, in regard to her whole character, the almost inevitable reflection that her grotesque and inexhaustible humour, like Falstaff's irrepressible and exhilarating wit, redeems what would be otherwise in itself utterly irredeemable. For, as commentators have remarked, in regard to Shakspere's Fat Knight, that Sir John is an unwieldy mass of every conceivable bad quality, being, among other things, a liar, a coward, a drunkard, a braggart, a cheat, and a debauchee, one might bring, if not an equally formidable, certainly an equally lengthened, indictment against the whole character of Mrs. Gamp, justifying the validity of each disreputable charge upon the testimony of her own evidence.
In its way, the impersonation of Mrs. Gamp by her creator was nearly as surprising as his original delineation of her in his capacity as Novelist. Happily, to bring out the finer touches of the humorous in her portraiture, there were repeated asides in the Reading, added to which other contrasting characters were here and there momentarily introduced. Mr. Pecksniff—hardly recognisable, by the way, as Mr. Pecksniff—took part, but a very subordinate part, in the conversation, as did Mr. Mould also, and as, towards the close of it, likewise did Mrs. Prig of Bartlemy's. But, monopolist though Mrs. Gamp showed herself to be in her manner of holding forth, her talk never degenerated into a monologue.
Mr. Pecksniff setting forth in a hackney cabriolet to-arrange, on behalf of Jonas Chuzzlewit, for the funeral of the latter's father, in regard to which he is enjoined to spare no expense, arrives, in due course, in Kings-gate-street, High Holborn, in quest of the female functionary—"a nurse and watcher, and performer of nameless offices about the dead, whom the undertaker had recommended." His destination is reached when he stands face to face with the lady's lodging over the bird-fancier's, "next door but one to the celebrated mutton-pie shop, and directly opposite to the original cats'-meat warehouse." Here Mr. Pecksniff's performance upon the knocker naturally arouses the whole neighbourhood, it, the knocker, being so ingeniously constructed as to wake the street with ease, without making the smallest impression upon the premises to which it was addressed. Everybody is at once under the impression that, as a matter of course, he is "upon an errand touching not the close of life, but the other end"—the married ladies, especially, crying out with uncommon interest, "Knock at the winder, sir, knock at the winder! Lord bless you, don't lose no more time than you can help,—knock at the winder!" Mrs. Gamp herself, when roused, is under the same embarrassing misapprehension. Immediately, however, Mr. Pecksniff has explained the object of his mission, Mrs. Gamp, who has a face for all occasions, thereupon putting on her mourning countenance, the surrounding matrons, while rating her visitor roundly, signify that they would be glad to know what he means by terrifying delicate females with "his corpses!" The unoffending gentleman eventually, after hustling Mrs. Gamp into the cabriolet, drives off "overwhelmed with popular execration."
Here it is that Mrs. Gamp's distinctive characteristics begin to assert themselves conspicuously. Her labouring under the most erroneous impressions as to the conveyance in which she is travelling, evidently confounding it with mail-coaches, insomuch that, in regard to her luggage, she clamours to the driver to "put it in the boot," her absorbing anxiety about the pattens, "with which she plays innumerable games of quoits upon Mr. Pecksniff's legs," her evolutions in that confined space with her most prominently visible chattel, "a species of gig umbrella," prepare the way for her still more characteristic confidences. Then in earnest—she had spoken twice before that from her window over the bird-fancier's—but then in earnest, on their approaching the house of mourning, her voice, in the Reading, became recognisable. A voice snuffy, husky, unctuous, the voice of a fat old woman, one so fat that she is described in the book as having had a difficulty in looking over herself—a voice, as we read elsewhere in the novel, having borne upon the breeze about it a peculiar fragrance, "as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine-vaults."
"'And so the gentleman's dead, sir! Ah! the more's the pity!'—(She didn't even know his name.)—'But it's as certain as being born, except that we can't make our calc'lations as exact. Ah, dear!'"
Simply to hear those words uttered by the Reader—especially the interjected words above italicised—was to have a relish of anticipation at once for all that followed. Mrs. Gamp's pathetic allusion, immediately afterwards, to her recollection of the time "when Gamp was summonsed to his long home," and when she "see him a-laying in the hospital with a penny-piece on each eye, and his wooden leg under his left arm," not only confirmed the delighted impression of the hearers as to their having her there before them in her identity, but was the signal for the roars of laughter that, rising and falling in volume all through the Reading, terminated only some time after its completion.
Immediately after came the first introduction by her of the name of Mrs. Harris. "At this point," observed the narrator, "she was fain to stop for breath. And," he went on directly to remark, with a combination of candour and seriousness that were in themselves irresistibly ludicrous, "advantage may be taken of the circumstance to state that a fearful mystery surrounded this lady of the name of Harris, whom no one in the circle of Mrs. Gamp's acquaintance had ever seen; neither did any human being know her place of residence—the prevalent opinion being that she was a phantom of Mrs. Gamp's brain, created for the purpose of holding complimentary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects." Eminently seasonable, as a preliminary flourish in this way, is the tribute paid by her to Mrs. Gamp's abstemiousness, on the understanding that is, that the latter's one golden rule of life, is complied with—"'Leave the bottle on the chimbley-piece, and don't ast me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then, Mrs. Harris, I says, I will do what I am engaged to, according to the best of my ability.' 'Mrs. Gamp' she says, in answer, 'if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen-pence a day for working people, and three-and-six for gentlefolks,—night-watching being a extra charge,—you are that inwallable person. Never did I think, till I know'd you, as any woman could sick-nurse and monthly likeways, on the little that you takes to drink.' 'Mrs. Harris, ma'am,' I says to her, 'none on us knows what we can do till we tries; and wunst I thought so too. But now,' I says, 'my half a pint of porter fully satisfies; perwisin', Mrs. Harris, that it's brought reg'lar, and draw'd mild.'" Not but occasionally even that modest "sip of liquor" she finds so far "settling heavy on the chest" as to necessitate, every now and then, a casual dram by way of extra quencher.
It was so arranged in the Reading that, immediately upon the completion of Mrs. Gamp's affecting narrative of the confidential opinions of her sobriety entertained by Mrs. Harris, Mr. Mould, the undertaker, opportunely presented to the audience his well-remembered countenance—"a face in which a queer attempt at melancholy was at odds with a smirk of satisfaction." The impersonation, here, was conveyed in something better than the unsatisfactory hint by which that attempted in regard to Mr. Pecksniff was alone to be expressed. Speaking of Old Chuzzlewit's funeral, as ordered by his bereaved son, Mr. Jonas, with "no limitation, positively no limitation in point of expense," the undertaker observes to Mr. Pecksniff, "This is one of the most impressive cases, sir, that I have seen in the whole course of my professional experience. Anything so filial as this—anything so honourable to human nature, anything so expensive, anything so calculated to reconcile all of us to the world we live in—never yet came under my observation. It only proves, sir, what was so forcibly expressed by the lamented poet,—buried at Stratford,—that there is good in everything." Even the very manner of his departure was delicious: "Mr. Mould was going away with a brisk smile, when he remembered the occasion," we read in the narrative and saw on the platform. "Quickly becoming depressed again, he sighed; looked into the crown of his hat, as if for comfort; put it on without finding any; and slowly departed."
The spirit and substance of the whole Reading, however, were, as a matter of course, Mrs. Gamp and her grotesque remembrances, drawn, these latter from the inexhaustible fund of her own personal and mostly domestic experiences. "Although the blessing of a daughter," she observed, in one of her confiding retrospects, "was deniged me, which, if we had had one, Gamp would certainly have drunk its little shoes right off its feet, as with one precious boy he did, and arterwards sent the child a errand to sell his wooden leg for any liquor it would fetch as matches in the rough; which was truly done beyond his years, for ev'ry individgie penny that child lost at tossing for kidney pies, and come home arterwards quite bold, to break the news, and offering to drown'd himself if such would be a satisfaction to his parents." At another moment, when descanting upon all her children collectively in one of her faithfully reported addresses to her familiar: "'My own family,' I says, 'has fallen out of three-pair backs, and had damp doorsteps settled on their lungs, and one was turned up smilin' in a bedstead unbeknown. And as to husbands, there's a wooden leg gone likeways home to its account, which in its constancy of walking into public-'ouses, and never coming out again till fetched by force, was quite as weak as flesh, if not weaker."
Somehow, when those who were assisting at this Reading, as the phrase is, had related to them the manner in which Mrs. Gamp entered on her official duties in the sick chamber, they appeared to be assisting also at her toilette: as, for example, when "she put on a yellow nightcap of prodigious size, in shape resembling a cabbage, having previously divested herself of a row of bald old curls, which could scarcely be called false they were so innocent of anything approaching to deception." One missed sadly at this point in the later version of this Reading what was included in her first conversation on the doormat as to her requirements for supper enumerated after this fashion, "in tones expressive of faintness," to the housemaid: "I think, young woman, as I could peck a little bit of pickled salmon, with a little sprig of fennel and a sprinkling o' white pepper. I takes new bread, my dear, with jest a little pat o' fredge butter and a mossel o' cheese. With respect to ale, if they draws the Brighton Tipper at any 'ouse nigh here, I takes that ale at night, my love; not as I cares for it myself, but on accounts of its being considered wakeful by the doctors; and whatever you do, young woman, don't bring me more than a shilling's worth of gin-and-water, warm, when I rings the bell a second time; for that is always my allowange, and I never takes a drop beyond. In case there should be sich a thing as a cowcumber in the 'ouse, I'm rather partial to 'em, though I am but a poor woman." Winding all up,—with one of those amazing confusions of a Scriptural recollection which prompts her at another time in the novel to exclaim, in regard to the Ankworks package, "'I wish it was in Jonadge's belly, I do,' appearing to confound the prophet with the whale in that mysterious aspiration,"—by observing at this point, "Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain't so easy for 'em to see out of a needle's eye. That is my comfort, and I hope I knows it." One whole chapter of "Martin Chuzzlewit," with the exception of the merest fragment of it—the chapter pre-eminently in relation to Mrs. Gamp—we always regretted as having been either overlooked or purposely set aside in the compilation both of the earlier and the later version of this Reading, the chapter, that is, in which Mrs. Gamp and Mrs. Prig converse together in the former's sleeping apartment.
The mere description of the interior of that chamber, related by the Author's lips, would have been so irresistibly ridiculous—the tent bedstead ornamented with pippins carved in timber, that tumbled down on the slightest provocation like a wooden shower-bath—the chest of drawers, from which the handles had long been pulled off, so that its contents could only be got at either by tilting the whole structure until all the drawers fell out together, or by opening each of them singly with knives like oysters—the miscellaneous salad bought for twopence by Betsey Prig on condition that the vendor could get it all into her pocket (including among other items a green vegetable of an expansive nature, of such magnificent proportions that before it could be got either in or out it had to be shut up like an umbrella), which was happily accomplished in High Holborn, to the breathless interest of a hackney-coach stand.
One inestimable portion, however, of this memorable occasion of festivity between those frequend pardners, Betsey Prig and Sairey Gamp, was, by a most ingenious dovetailing together of two disjointed parts, incorporated with the adroitly compacted materials of a Reading that was as brief as the laughter provoked by it was boisterous and inextinguishable. As to the manner of the dovetailing, it will be readily recalled to recollection. Immediately upon Mrs. Gamp's awaking at the close of her night watch, we were told that Mrs. Prig relieved punctually, but that she relieved in an ill temper. "The best among us have their failings, and it must be conceded of Mrs. Prig," observed the Reader with a hardly endurable gravity of explanation, "that if there were a blemish in the goodness of her disposition, it was a habit she had of not bestowing all its sharp and acid properties upon her patients (as a thoroughly amiable woman would have done), but of keeping a considerable remainder for the service of her friends." Looking offensively at Mrs. Gamp, and winking her eye, as Mrs. Prig does immediately upon her entrance, it is felt by the former to be necessary that Betsey should at once be made sensible of her exact station in society; wherefore Mrs. Gamp prefaced a remonstrance with—
"Mrs. Harris, Betsey———"
"Bother Mrs. Harris!"
Then it was that the Reader added:—
"Mrs. Gamp looked at Betsey with amazement, incredulity, and indignation. Mrs. Prig, winking her eye tighter, folded her arms and uttered these tremendous words:—
"'I don't believe there's no sich a person!'
"With these expressions, she snapped her fingers, once, twice, thrice, each time nearer to Mrs. Gamp, and then turned away as one who felt that there was now a gulf between them that nothing could ever bridge across."
The most comic of all the Readings closed thus abruptly with a roar.
BOOTS AT THE HOLLY TREE INN.
Even the immortal Boots at the White Hart, Borough, who was first revealed to us in a coarse striped waistcoat with black calico sleeves and blue glass buttons, drab breeches and gaiters, and who answered to the name of Sam, would not, we are certain, have disdained to have been put in friendly relations with Cobbs, as one in every way worthy of his companionship. The Boots at the Holly Tree Inn, though more lightly sketched, was quite as much of an original creation in his way as that other Christmas friend of ours, the warm-hearted and loquacious Cheap Jack, Doctor Marigold. And each of those worthies, it should be added, had really about him an equal claim to be regarded, as an original creation, as written, or as impersonated by the Author. As a character orally portrayed, Cobbs was fully on a par with Doctor Marigold. Directly the Reader opened his lips, whether as the Boots or as the Cheap Jack, the Novelist seemed to disappear, and there instead, talking glibly to us from first to last just as the case might happen to be, was either the patterer on the cart footboard or honest Cobbs touching his hair with a bootjack. His very first words not only lead up to his confidences, but in the same breath struck the key-note of his character. "Where had he been? Lord, everywhere! What had he been? Bless you, everything a'most. Seen a good deal? Why, of course he had. Would be easier for him to tell what he hadn't seen than what he had. Ah! A deal, it would. What was the curiosest thing he'd seen? Well! He didn't know—couldn't name it momently—unless it was a Unicorn, and he see him over at a Fair. But"—and here came the golden retrospect, a fairy tale of love told by a tavern Boots, and told all through, moreover, as none but a Boots could tell it—"Supposing a young gentleman not eight year'old, was to run away with a fine young woman of seven, might I think that a queer start? Certainly! Then, that was a start as he himself had had his blessed eyes on—and he'd cleaned the shoes they run away in—and they was so little he couldn't get his hand into 'em." Whereupon, following up the thread of his discourse, Boots would take his crowd of hearers, quite willingly on their part, into the heart of the charming labyrinth.
The descriptive powers of Cobbs, it will be admitted, were for one thing very remarkable. Master Harry Walmers' father, for instance, he hits off to a nicety in a phrase or two. "He was a gentleman of spirit, and good looking, and held his head up when he walked, and had what you may call Fire about him:" adding, that he wrote poetry, rode, ran, cricketed, danced and acted, and "done it all equally beautiful." Another and a very significant touch, by the way, was imparted to that same portraiture later on, just, in point of fact before the close of Cobbs's reminiscence, and one so lightly given that it was conveyed through a mere passing parenthesis—namely, where the young father was described by Boots as standing beside Master Harry Walmers' bed, in the Holly Tree Inn, looking down at the little sleeping face, "looking wonderfully like it," says Cobbs, who adds, "(they do say as he ran away with Mrs. Walmers)." Although Boots described Master Harry's father from the first as "uncommon proud of him, as his only child, you see," the worthy fellow took especial care at once to add, that "he didn't spoil him neither." Having a will of his own, and a eye of his own, and being one that would be minded, while he never tired of hearing the fine bright boy "sing his songs about Young May Moons is beaming, love, and When he who adores thee has left but the name, and that: still," said Boots, "he kept the command over the child, and the child was a child, and it's very much to be wished more of 'em was." At the particular period referred to in this portion of his narrative, Boots informed us pleasantly, that he came to know all about it by reason of his being in his then capacity as Mr. Wahners' under-gardener, always about in the summer time, near the windows, on the lawn "a-mowing and sweeping, and weeding and pruning, and this and that"—with his eyes and ears open, of course, we may presume, in a manner befitting his intelligence.
Perhaps, there was after all nothing better in the delivery of the whole of this Reading, than the utterance of the two words italicised below in the first dialogue, reported by Boots as having taken place between himself and Master Harry Walmers, junior, when "that mite," as Boots calls him, stops one day, along with the fine young woman of seven already mentioned, where Boots (then under-gardener, remember) was hoeing weeds in the gravel:—
"'Cobbs,' he says, 'I like you.' 'Do you, sir? I'm proud to hear it.' 'Yes, I do, Cobbs. Why do I like you, do you think, Cobbs?' 'Don't know, Master Harry, I'm sure.' 'Because Norah likes you, Cobbs.' 'Indeed, sir? That's very gratifying.' 'Gratifying, Cobbs? It is better than millions of the brightest diamonds, to be liked by Norah?' 'Certainly, sir.'"
Confirmed naturally enough in his good opinion of Cobbs by this thorough community of sentiment, Master Harry, who has been given to understand from the latter that he is going to leave, and, further than that, on inquiring, that he wouldn't object to another situation "if it was a good 'un," observes, while tucking that other mite in her little sky-blue mantle under his arm, "Then, Cobbs, you shall be our head gardener when we are married." Boots, thereupon, in the person of the Reader, went on to describe how "the babies with their long bright curling hair, their sparkling eyes, and their beautiful light tread, rambled about the garden deep in love," sometimes here, sometimes there, always under his own sympathetic and admiring observation, until one day, down by the pond, he heard Master Harry say, "Adorable Norah, kiss me and say you love me to distraction." Altogether Cobbs seemed exactly, and with delicious humour, to define the entire situation when he declared, that "on the whole the contemplation of them two babies had a tendency to make him feel as if he was in love himself—only he didn't know who with!"
The delightful gravity of countenance (with a covert sparkle in the eye where the daintiest indications of fun were given by the Reader) lent a charm of its own to the merest nothing, comparatively, in the whimsical dialogues he was reporting. Master Harry, for example, having confided to Cobbs one evening, when the latter was watering the flowers, that he was going on a visit to his grandmama at York—"'Are you indeed, sir? I hope you'll have a pleasant time. I'm going into Yorkshire myself, when I leave here.' 'Are you going to your grandmama's, Cobbs?' 'No, sir. I haven't got such a thing.' 'Not as a grandmama, Cobbs?' 'No, sir.'" Immediately after which, on the boy observing to his humble confidant, that he shall be so glad to go because "Norah's going," Cobbs, naturally enough, as it seemed, took occasion to remark, "You'll be all right then, sir, with your beautiful sweetheart by your side." Whereupon we realised more clearly than ever the delicate whimsicality of the whole delineation, when we saw, as well as heard, the boy return a-flushing, "Cobbs, I never let anybody joke about that when I can prevent them," Cobbs immediately explaining in all humility, "It wasn't a joke, sir—wasn't so meant." No wonder, Boots had exclaimed previously: "And the courage of that boy! Bless you, he'd have throwed off his little hat and tucked up his little sleeves and gone in at a lion, he would—if they'd happened to meet one, and she [Norah] had been frightened." At the close of Boots's record of this last-quoted conversation with Master Harry, came one of the drollest touches in the Reading—"'Cobbs,' says that boy, 'I'll tell you a secret. At Norah's house, they have been joking her about me, and [with a wondering look] pretending to laugh at our being engaged! Pretending to make game of it, Cobbs!' 'Such, sir,' I says, 'is the depravity of human natur.'" A glance during the utterance of which words, either at the Reader himself or at his audience, was something enjoyable.
Hardly less inspiriting in its way was the incidental mention, directly after this by Cobbs, of the manner in which he gave Mr. Walmers notice, not that he'd anything to complain of—"'Thanking you, sir, I find myself as well sitiwated here as I could hope to be anywheres. The truth is, sir, that I'm a going to seek my fortun.' 'O, indeed, Cobbs?' he says, 'I hope you may find it.'" Boots hereupon giving his audience the assurance, with the characteristic touch of the bootjack to his forehead, that "he hadn't found it yet!"
Then came the delectable account of the elopement—full, true, and particular—from the veracious lips of Cobbs himself, at that time, and again some years afterwards, when he came to call up his recollections, Boots at the Holly Tree Inn. Passages here and there in his description of the incident were irrisistibly laughable. Master Harry's going down to the old lady's in York, for example, "which old lady were so wrapt up in that child as she would have give that child the teeth in her head (if she had had any)." The arrival of "them two children," again at the Holly Tree Inn, he, as bold as brass, tucking her in her little sky-blue mantle under his arm, with the memorable dinner order, "Chops and cherry pudding for two!" Their luggage, even, when gravely enumerated—the lady having "a parasol, a smelling bottle, a round and a half of cold buttered toast, eight peppermint drops, and a doll's hair-brush;" the gentleman having "about half a dozen yards of string, a knife, three or four sheets of writing paper folded up surprisingly small, a orange, and a chaney mug with his name on it." Several of the little chance phrases, the merest atoms of exclamation here and there, will still be borne in mind as having had an intense flavour of fun about them, as syllabled in the Reading. Boots's "Sir, to you," when his governor, the hotel-keeper, proposes to run over to York to quiet their friends' minds, while Cobbs keeps his eye upon the innocents! Master Harry's replying to Boots' suggestion, that they should wile away the time by a walk down Love-lane—"'Get out with you, Cobbs!'—that was that there boy's expression." The glee of the children was prettily told too on their finding "Good Cobbs! Dear Cobbs!" among the strangers around them at their temporary halting-place. They themselves appearing smaller than ever in his eyes, by reason of his finding them "with their little legs entirely off the ground, of course—and it really is not possible to express how small them children looked!—on a e-normous sofa;" immense at any time, but looking like a Great Bed of Ware then by comparison.
How, during the governor's absence in search of their friends, Cobbs, feeling himself all the while to be "the meanest rascal for deceiving 'em, that ever was born," gets up a cock and a bull story about a pony he's acquainted with, who'll take them on nicely to Gretna Green—but who was not at liberty the first day, and the next was only "half clipped, you see, and couldn't be took out in that state for fear it should strike to his inside"—was related with the zest of one who had naturally the keenest relish possible for every humorous particular. Finding the lady in tears one time when Boots goes to see how the runaway couple are getting on, "Mrs. Harry Walmers, junior, fatigued, sir?" asks Cobbs. "Yes, she is tired, Cobbs; but she is not used to be away from home, and she has been in low spirits again. Cobbs, do you think you could bring a biffin, please?"—"I ask your pardon, sir, What was it you ———?" "I think a Norfolk biffin would rouse her, Cobbs." Restoratives of that kind, Boots would seem to have regarded as too essential to Mrs. Harry Walmers junior's happiness. Hence, when he comes upon the pair over their dinner of "biled fowl and bread-and-butter pudding," Boots privately owns that "he could have wished to have seen her more sensible to the woice of love, and less abandoning of herself to the currants in the pudding." According to Cobbs's own account of the gentleman, however, it should be added that he too could play his part very effectively at table, for—having mentioned another while, how the two of them had ordered overnight sweet milk-and-water and toast and currant jelly for breakfast—when Cobbs comes upon them the next morning at their meal, he describes Master Harry as sitting behind his breakfast cup "a tearing away at the jelly as if he had been his own father!"
Remorseful in the thought of betraying them, Boots at one moment declared, that rather than combine any longer against them, he would by preference "have had it out in half-a-dozen rounds with the governor!" And at another time, when the said governor had returned from York, "with Mr. Walmers and a elderly lady," Boots, while conducting Mr. Walmers upstairs, could not for the life of him help pausing at the room door, with, "I beg your pardon, sir, I hope you are not angry with Master Harry. For Master Harry's a fine boy, sir, and will do you credit and honour." Boots signifying while he related the circumstance, that "if the fine boy's father had contradicted him in the state of mind in which he then was, he should have 'fetched him a crack' and took the consequences." As for the appreciation of Master Harry by the female dependents at the Holly Tree, there were two allusions to that—one general, as may be said, the other particular—that were always the most telling hits, the two chief successes of the Reading. Who that once heard it, for example, has forgotten the Author's inimitable manner of saying, as the Boots—"The way in which the women of that house—without exception—every one of 'em—married and single—took to that boy when they heard the story, is surprising. It was as much as could be done to keep 'em from dashing into the room and kissing him. They climbed up all sorts of places, at the risk of their lives, to look at him through a pane of glass. They was seven deep at the key-hole!" The climax of fun came naturally at the close, however, when, having described how Mr. Walmers lifted his boy up to kiss the sleeping "little warm face of little Mrs. Harry Walmers, junior," at the moment of their separation, Boots, that is the Reader, cried out in the shrill voice of one of the chambermaids, "It's a shame to part 'em!"
Two reflections indulged in by Boots during the course of his narrative, being among the pleasantest in connection with this most graceful of all the purely comic Readings, may here, while closing these allusions to it, be recalled to mind not inappropriately. One—where Cobbs "wished with all his heart there was any impossible place where them two babies could have made an impossible marriage, and have lived impossibly happy ever afterwards." The other—where, with genial sarcasm, Boots propounds this brace of opinions by way of general summing up—"Firstly, that there are not many couples on their way to be married who are half as innocent as them two children. Secondly, that it would be a jolly good thing for a great many couples on their way to be married, if they could only be stopped in time, and brought back separate." With which cynical scattering of sugar-plums in the teeth, of married and single, the blithe Reading was laughingly brought to its conclusion.
Nobody but the writer of this little freak of fancy could possibly have rendered the Reading of it in public worthy even of toleration. Perhaps no Reading that could be selected presents within the same compass so many difficulties to the audience who are listening, and to the Reader who is hardy enough to adventure upon its delivery. The closing incidents of the narrative are in themselves so improbable, we had all but said so impossible! Polly, at once so quaint and so captivating, when her words are perused upon the printed page, is so incapable of having her baby-prattle repeated by anybody else, without the imminent risk, the all but certainty, of its degenerating into mere childishness. It can scarcely be wondered, therefore, that "Barbox Brothers," though it actually was Read, and Read successfully, was hardly ever repeated. Everybody who has once looked into the story will bear in mind how, quite abruptly, almost haphazard, it comes to be narrated.
The lumbering, middle-aged, grey-headed hero of it, in obedience to the whim of a moment, gets out of a night train at the great central junction of the whole railway system of England. A drenching rain-storm and a windy platform, darkness and solitude are, to begin with, the agreeable surroundings of this eccentric traveller. He is stranded there, not high and dry, anything but that—on the contrary, soaked through and through, and at very low level indeed—during what the local officials regard as their deadest time in all the twenty-four hours: what one of them, later on, terms emphatically their deadest and buriedest time.
Already, even here, before the tale itself is in any way begun, the Author of it, in his capacity as Reader, somehow, by the mere manner of his delivery of a descriptive sentence or two, contrived to realise to his hearers in a wonderfully vivid way the strange incidents of the traffic in a scene like this, at those blackest intervals between midnight and daybreak. Now revealing—"Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls, and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end." Now, again—"Half miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they led, stopping when they stopped, backing when they backed." One while the spectacle, conjured up by a word or two was that of—"Unknown languages in the air, conspiring in red, green, and white characters." Another, with startling effect, it was—"An earthquake, with thunder and lightning, going up express to London." Here it is that Barbox Brothers, in the midst of these ghostly apparitions, is eventually extricated from the melancholy plight in which he finds himself saturated and isolated in the middle of a spiderous web of railroads.
His extricator is—Lamps! A worthy companion portrait to that of cinderous Mr. Toodles, the stoker, familiar to the readers of Dombey. Characters, those two, quite as typical, after their fashion, of the later railway period of Dickens, as even Sam Weller, the boots, and Old Weller, the coachman, were of his earlier coaching period in the days of Pickwick. To see him, in his capacity as Lamps, when excited, take what he called "a rounder"—that is to say, giving himself, with his oily handkerchief rolled up in the form of a ball, "an elaborate smear from behind the right ear, up the cheek, across the forehead, and down the other cheek, behind his left ear," after which operation he is described as having shone exceedingly—was to be with him, again, at once, in his greasy little cabin, which was suggestive to the sense of smell of a cabin in a whaler. How it came to pass that Lamps sang comic songs, of his own composition, to his bed-ridden daughter Phoebe, by way of enlivening her solitude, and how Phoebe, while manipulating the threads on her lace-pillow, as though she were playing a musical instrument, taught her little band of children to chant to a pleasant tune the multiplication-table, and so fix it and other useful knowledge indelibly upon the tablets of their memory, the Author-Reader would then relate, as no other Reader, however gifted, who was not also the Author, would have been allowed to do, supposing this latter had had the hardihood to attempt the relation.
As the Reading advanced, the difficulties not only increased, they became tenfold, immediately upon the introduction of Polly. Dickens, however, conquered them all somehow. But to anybody else, setting forth the story histrionically, impersonating the characters as they appeared, these difficulties would by necessity have been insuperable or simply overwhelming. Catching the very little fair-haired girl's Christian name readily enough, when she comes up to him in the street, with the surprising announcement, "O! if you please, I am lost!" Barbox Brothers can't for the life of him conjecture what her surname is,—carefully imitating, though he does, the sound that comes from the childish lips, each time on its repetition. Hazarding "Trivits," first of all, then "Paddens," then "Tappi-tarver." Eventually, when the two arrive hand-in-hand at Barbox Brothers' hotel, nobody there could make out her name as she set it forth, "except one chambermaid, who said it was Constantinople—which it wasn't."
No wonder Barbox feels bigger and heavier in person every minute when he is being catechised by Polly! Asked by her if he knows any stories, and compelled to answer, "No! What a dunce you must be, mustn't you?" says Polly. Frightened nearly out of his wits at the dinner-table, when they are feasting together, by her getting on her feet upon her chair to reward him with a kiss, and then toppling forward among the dishes—he himself crying out in dismay, "Gracious angels! Whew! I thought we were in the fire, Polly!"—"What a coward you are, ain't you?" says Polly, when replaced.
Upon the next morning, when brought down to breakfast, after a comfortable night's sleep, passed by the child in a bed shared with "the Constantinopolitan chambermaid," Polly, "by that time a mere heap of dimples," poses poor, unwieldy Barbox by asking him, in a wheedling manner, "What are we going to do, you dear old thing?" On his suggesting their having a sight, at the Circus, of two long-tailed ponies, speckled all over—"No, no, no!" cries Polly, in an ecstasy. When he afterwards throws out a proposition that they shall also look in at the toy-shop, and choose a doll—"Not dressed," ejaculates Polly; "No, no, no—not dressed!" Barbox replying, "Full dressed; together with a house, and all things necessary for housekeeping!" Polly gives a little scream, and seems in danger of falling into a swoon of bliss. "What a darling you are!" she languidly exclaims, leaning back in her chair: "Come and be hugged." All this will indicate plainly enough the difficulties investing every sentence of this Reading, capped as they all are by the astounding denouement of the plot—Polly turning out to be (sly little thing!) the purposely-lost daughter of Barbox Brothers' old love, Beatrice, and of her husband, Tresham, for whom Barbox had not only been jilted, but by whom Barbox had been simultaneously and rather heavily defrauded.
Perhaps the pleasantest recollection of the whole Reading is, not Polly—the small puss turns out to be such a cunningly reticent little emissary—but her Doll, a "lovely specimen of Circassian descent, possessing as much boldness of beauty as was reconcileable with extreme feebleness of mouth," and combining a sky-blue pelisse with rose-coloured satin trousers, and a black velvet hat, "the latter seemingly founded on the portraits of the late Duchess of Kent." One is almost reconciled to Polly, however,—becoming oblivious for the moment of her connivance in her mother's secret device, and reminiscent only of her own unsophisticated mixture of prattle and impertinence—on learning, immediately after this elaborate description of the gorgeous doll of her choice, that "the name of this distinguished foreigner was (on Polly's authority) Miss Melluka."
THE BOY AT MUGBY.
Several gamins have been contributed to our literature by Dickens—quite as typical and quite as truthful in their way, each of them, as Hugo's Gavroche. There is Jo the poor crossing-sweeper. There is the immortal Dodger. There is his pal the facetious Charley Bates. And there is that delightful boy at the end of "The Carol," who conveys such a world of wonder through his simple reply of "Why, Christmas Day!" The boy who is "as big," he says himself, as the prize turkey, and who gets off at last quicker than a shot propelled by the steadiest hand at a trigger! Scattered up and down the Boz fictions, there are abundant specimens of a genus that, in one instance, is actually termed by the Humorist, "a town-made little boy"—this is in the memorable street scene where Squeers hooks Smike by the coat-collar with the handle of his umbrella. He is always especially great in his delineation of what one might call the human cock-sparrows of London. Kit, at the outset of his career, is another example; and Tom Scott yet another.
Sloppy carries us away into the suburbs, thereby taking us in a manner off the stones, and otherwise represents in his own proper person, buttons and all, less one of the dapper urchins we are now more particularly referring to, than the shambling hobbledehoy. Even in the unfinished story with which the Author's voluminous writings were closed, there was portrayed an entirely novel specimen, one marked by the most grotesque extravagance, in the shape of that impish malignant, "the Deputy," whose pastime at once and whole duty in life seemed to be making a sort of vesper cock-shy of Durdles and his dinner-bundle.
Conspicuous among these comic boys of Dickens may be remembered one who, instead of being introduced in any of the Novelist's larger works, from the Pickwick Papers clown to Edwin Drood, interpolates himself, as may be said, among one of the groups of Christmas stories, through the medium of a shrill monologue. "The Boy at Mugby," to wit, the one exhilarated and exhilarating appreciate of the whole elaborate system of Refreshmenting in this Isle of the Brave and Land of the Free, by which he means to say Britannia.
Laconically, "I am the Boy at Mugby," he announces. "That's about what I am." His exact location he describes almost with the precision of one giving latitude and longitude—explaining to a nicety where his stand is taken. "Up in a corner of the Down Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction," in the height of twenty-seven draughts [he's counted 'em, he tells us parenthetically, as they brush the First Class, hair twenty-seven ways], bounded on the nor'-west by the beer, and so on. He himself, he frankly informs you—in the event of your ever presenting yourself there before him at the counter, in quest of nourishment of any kind, either liquid or solid—will seem not to hear you, and will appear "in a absent manner to survey the Line through a transparent medium composed of your head and body," determined evidently not to serve you, that is, as long as you can possibly bear it! "That's me!" cries the Boy at Mugby, exultantly,—adding, with an intense relish for his occupation, "what a delightful lark it is!" As for the eatables and drinkables habitually set forth upon the counter, by what he generally speaks of as the Refreshmenters, quoth the Boy at Mugby, in a naif confidence, addressed to you in your capacity at once as applicant and victim, "when you're telegraphed, you should see 'em begin to pitch the stale pastry into the plates, and chuck the sawdust sang-wiches under the glass covers, and get out the—ha, ha!—the sherry—O, my eye, my eye!—for your refreshment." Once or twice in a way only, "The Boy at Mugby" was introduced among the Readings, and then merely as a slight stop-gap or interlude. Thoroughly enjoying the delivery of it himself, and always provoking shouts of laughter whenever this colloquial morsel was given, the Novelist seemed to be perfectly conscious himself that it was altogether too slight and trivial of its kind, to be worthy of anything like artistic consideration; that it was an "airy nothing" in its way, to which it was scarcely deserving that he should give more than name and local habitation.
Critically regarded, it had its inconsistencies too, both as a writing and as a Reading. There was altogether too much precocity for a genuine boy, in the nice discrimination with which the Boy at Mugby hit off the contrasting nationalities. The foreigner, for example, who politely, hat in hand, "beseeched Our Young Ladies, and our Missis," for a "leetel gloss hoif prarndee," and who, after being repelled, on trying to help himself, exclaims, "with hands clasped and shoulders riz: 'Ah! is it possible this; that these disdaineous females are placed here by the administration, not only to empoisen the voyagers, but to affront them! Great Heaven! How arrives it? The English people. Or is he then a slave? Or idiot?'" Hardly would a veritable boy, even an urchin so well "to the fore" with his epoch, as the Boy at Mugby, depict so accurately, much less take off, with a manner so entirely life-like, the astounded foreigner, any more than he would the thoroughly wide-awake and gaily derisive American. The latter he describes as alternately trying and spitting out first the sawdust and then the—ha, ha!—the sherry, until finally, on paying for both and consuming neither, he says, very loud, to Our Missis, and very good tempered, "I tell Yew what 'tis ma'arm. I la'af. Theer! I la'af, I Dew. I oughter ha' seen most things, for I hail from the unlimited side of the Atlantic Ocean, and I haive travelled right slick over the Limited, head on, through Jeerusalem and the East, and likeways France and Italy, Europe, Old World, and I am now upon the track to the Chief European Village; but such an Institution as Yew and Yewer fixins, solid and liquid, afore the glorious Tarnal I never did see yet! And if I hain't found the eighth wonder of Monarchical Creation, in finding Yew and Yewer fixins, solid and liquid, in a country where the people air not absolute Loo-naticks, I am Extra Double Darned with a nip and frizzle to the innermost grit! Wheerfore—Theer!—I la'af! I Dew, ma'arm. I la'af!" A calotype, or rather, literally, a speaking likeness, so true to the life as that, would be a trifle, we take it, beyond the mimetic powers and the keenly observant faculties even of a Boy whose senses had been wakened up by the twenty-seven cross draughts of the Refreshment Room at Mugby.
As to the fun made of the bandolining by Our Young Ladies, and of Our Missis's lecture on Foreign Refreshmenting, and of Sniff's corkscrew and his servile disposition, it is intentionally fooling, no doubt, but it is—excellent fooling! As was admirably said in the number of Macmillan for January, 1871, by the anonymous writer of a Reminiscence of the Amateur Theatricals at Tavistock House,—the remark following immediately after Charles Dickens's version of the Ghost's Song in Henry Fielding's burlesque of Tom Thumb,—"Nonsense, it may be said, all this; but the nonsense of a great genius has always something of genius in it." Had not Swift his "little language" to Stella, to "Stellakins," to "roguish, impudent, pretty M. D.?" Than some of which little language, quoth Thackeray, in commenting upon it, "I know of nothing more manly, more tender, more exquisitely touching." Again, had not Pope, in conjunction with the Dean, his occasional unbending also as a farceur, in the wilder freaks and oddities of Martinus Scriblerus? So was it here with one who was beyond all doubt, more intensely a Humorist than either, when he wrote or read such harmless sarcasms and innocent whimsicalities, as those alternately underlying, and overlaying the boyish fun of this juvenile Refreshmenter at Mugby Junction.
Already mention has been made of the extraordinary care lavished, as a general rule, by the Novelist upon the preparation of these Readings before they were, each in turn, submitted for the first time to public scrutiny. A strikingly illustrative instance of this may be here particularised. It occurred upon the occasion of a purely experimental Reading of "Doctor Marigold," which came off privately, on the evening of the 18th of March, 1866, in the drawing-room of Charles Dickens's then town residence, in Southwick Place, Tyburnia. Including, among those present, the members of his own home circle, his entire audience numbered no more than ten persons altogether. Four, at any rate, of that party may be here identified, each of whom doubtless still bears the occasion referred to vividly in his remembrance,—Robert Browning the poet, Charles Fechter the actor, Wilkie Collins the novelist, and John Forster the historian of the Commonwealth. Even in private, Dickens had never Read "Doctor Marigold" until that evening. Often as he Read it afterwards, he never Read it with a more contagious air of exhilaration. He hardly ever, in fact, gave one of his almost wholly comic and but incidentally pathetic Readings so effectively. In every sentence there was a zest or relish that was irresistible. The volubility of the "poor chap in the sleeved-waistcoat" sped the Reading on with a rapidity quite beyond anticipation, when the time, which had been carefully marked at the commencement of the Reading, came to be notified at its conclusion. That the merest first rehearsal should have run off thus glibly seemed just simply incomprehensible. With the sense of this surprise still fresh upon us, the tentative Reading being at the time only a few seconds completed, everything was explained, however, by a half-whispered remark made, to the present writer, in passing, by the Novelist—made by him half-weariedly, yet half-laughingly—"There! If I have gone through that already to myself once, I have gone through it two—hundred—times!" It was not lightly or carelessly therefore, as may now be seen, that Charles Dickens, in his later capacity—not pen-in-hand, or through green monthly numbers, but standing at a reading-desk upon a public platform—undertook the office of a popular entertainer.
Resolved throughout his career as a Reader to acquit himself of those newly-assumed responsibilities to the utmost of his powers, to the fullest extent of his capabilities, both physical and intellectual, he applied his energies to the task, with a zeal that, it is impossible not to recognise now, amounted in the end to nothing less than (literally) self-sacrifice. But for the devotion of his energies thus unstintingly to the laborious task upon which he had adventured—a task involving in its accomplishment an enormous amount of rapid travelling by railway, keeping him for months together, besides, in one ceaseless whirl of bodily and mental excitement—his splendid constitution, sustained and strengthened as it was by his wholesome enjoyment of out-of-door life, and his habitual indulgence in bathing and pedes-trianism, gave him every reasonable hope of reaching the age of an octogenarian.
Bearing in mind in addition to the wear-and-tear of the Readings in England and America, the nervous shock of that terrible railway accident at Staplehurst, on the 9th of June, 1865, the lamentable catastrophe of exactly five years afterwards to the very day, that of the 9th of June, 1870, becomes readily comprehensible. Because of his absorption in his task, however, all through, he was unconscious for the most part of the wasting influence of his labours, or, if he was so at all towards the close of his career, he was so, even then, only fitfully and at the rarest intervals. Precisely in the same way, it may be remarked, in regard to those who watched his whole course as a Reader, that so facile and so pleasureable to himself, as well as to them, appeared to be the novel avocation which had come of late years to be alternated with his more accustomed toil as an author, that it rendered even the most observant amongst them unconscious in their turn of the disastrously exhausting influence of this unnatural blending together of two professions. A remorseful sense of this comes back upon us now, when it is all too late, in our remembrance of that remark made by the Novelist immediately after the Private Reading of "Doctor Marigold," a remark then regarded as simply curious and interesting, but now having about it an almost painful significance. Never was work more thoroughly or more conscientiously done, from first to last, than in the instance of these Readings.
In the minute elaboration of the care with which they were prepared, in the vivacity with which they were one and all of them delivered, in the punctuality with which, whirled like a shuttle in a loom, to and fro, hither and thither, through all parts of the United Kingdom and of the United States, the Reader kept, link by link, an immensely-lengthened chain of appointments, until the first link was broken suddenly at Preston—one can recognise at length the full force of those simple words uttered by him upon the occasion of his Farewell Reading, where he spoke of himself as "a faithful servant of the public, always imbued with a sense of duty to them, and always striving to do his best." Among the many radiant illustrations that have been preserved of how thoroughly he did his best, not the least brilliant in its way was this eminently characteristic Reading of "Doctor Mari-gold."
All through it, from the very beginning down to the very end of his Confidences, the Cheap Jack, in his belcher neckcloth and his sleeved-waistcoat with the mother-o'-pearl buttons, was there talking to us, as only he could talk to us, from the foot-board of his cart. He remained thus before us from his first mention of his own father having always consistently called himself Willum to the moment when little Sophy—the third little Sophy—comes clambering up the steps, and reveals that she at least is not deaf and dumb by crying out to him, "Grandfather!" As for the patter of Doctor Marigold, it is among the humorous revelations of imaginative literature. Hear him when he is perhaps the best worth listening to, when he is in his true rostrum, when his bluchers are on his native foot-board, and his name is, more intensely than ever, Doctor Marigold! Don't we all remember him there, for example, on a Saturday night in the market-place—"Here's a pair of razors that'll shave you closer than the board of guardians; here's a flat-iron worth its weight in gold; here's a frying-pan artificially flavoured with essence of beefsteaks to that degree that you've only got for the rest of your lives to fry bread and dripping in it and there you are replete with animal food; here's a genuine chronometer-watch, in such a solid silver case that you may knock at the door with it when you come home late from a social meeting, and rouse your wife and family and save up your knocker for the postman; and here's half a dozen dinner-plates that you may play the cymbals with to charm the baby when it's fractious. Stop! I'll throw you in another article, and I'll give you that, and it's a rolling-pin; and if the baby can only get it well into it's mouth when its teeth is coming, and rub the gums once with it, they'll come through double in a fit of laughter equal to being tickled." And so on, ringing the changes on a thousand wonderful conceits and whimsicalities that come tumbling out one after another in inexhaustible sequence and with uninterrupted volubility.
The very Prince of Cheap Jacks, surely, is this Doctor Marigold! And, more than that, one who makes good his claim to the title of wit, humorist, satirist, philanthropist, and philosopher.
As for his philosophic contentment, what can equal that as implied in his summing up of his own humble surroundings? "A roomy cart, with the large goods hung outside, and the bed slung underneath it when on the road; an iron-pot and a kettle, a fireplace for the cold weather, a chimney for the smoke, a hanging-shelf and a cupboard, a dog and a horse. What more do you want? You draw off on a bit of turf in a green lane or by the roadside, you hobble your old horse and turn him grazing, you light your fire upon the ashes of the last visitors, you cook your stew, and you wouldn't call the Emperor of France your father."
As for his wit, hear him describe—"What? Why, I'll tell you! It's made of fine gold, and it's not broke, though there's a hole in the middle of it, and it's stronger than any fetter that was ever forged. What else is it? I'll tell you. It's a hoop of solid gold wrapped in a silver curl-paper that I myself took off the shining locks of the ever-beautiful old lady in Threadneedle Street, London city. I wouldn't tell you so, if I hadn't the paper to show, or you mightn't believe it even of me. Now, what else is it? It's a man-trap, and a hand-cuff, the parish stocks and a leg-lock, all in gold and all in one. Now, what else is it? It's a wedding-ring!"
As for something far better than any mere taste of his skill as a satirist, see the whole of his delectable take off—in contradistinction to himself, the itinerant Cheap Jack—of the political Dear Jack in the public marketplace.
As for his philanthropy, it is unobtrusively proclaimed by the drift of his whole narrative, and especially by two or three among the more remarkable of its closing incidents.
As for his powers as a humorist, they may be found there passim, being scattered broadcast all through his autobiographic recollections.
To those recollections are we not indebted for a whole gallery of inimitable delineations? The Cheap Jack's very dog, for instance, who had taught himself out of his own head to growl at any person in the crowd that bid as low as sixpence! Or Pickleson the giant, with a little head and less in it. Of whom, observes Doctor Marigold, "He was a languid young man, which I attribute to the distance betwixt his extremities." About whom, when a sixpence is given to him by Doctor Marigold, the latter remarks in a preposterous parenthesis, "(for he was kept as short as he was long!)" As for Dickens's high falsetto, when speaking in the person of this same Pickleson, with a voice that, as Doctor Marigold says, seemed to come from his eyebrows, it was only just a shade more excruciatingly ridiculous than his guttural and growling objurgations in the character of the giant's proprietor, the fe-rocious Mim.
With all his modest appetite for the simpler pleasures of existence, Doctor Marigold betrays in one instance, by the way, the taste of a gourmet. "I knocked up a beefsteak-pudding for one," he says, "with two kidneys, a dozen oysters, and a couple of mushrooms thrown in:" adding, with a fine touch of nature drawn from experience, "It's a pudding to put a man in good humour with everything, except the two bottom buttons of his waistcoat."
Incomparably the finest portion of all this wonderfully original sketch of Doctor Marigold, both in the Writing and in the Reading, was that in which the poor Cheap Jack is represented as going through his customary patter on the foot-board with his poor little Sophy—the first of the three Sophies, his own by birth, and not simply by adoption—the while she is slowly dying on his shoulder. Thackeray was right when he said of the humour of Dickens, "It is a mixture of love and wit." Laughter and tears, with him, lay very near—speaking of him as an author, we may say by preference—lie very near indeed together. It is in those passages in which they come in astonishingly rapid alternation, and at moments almost simultaneously, that he is invariably at his very best. The incident here alluded to is one of these more exquisite descriptions, and it was one, that, by voice and look and manner, he himself most exquisitely delineated. When the poor Cheap Jack, with Sophy holding round his neck, steps out from the shelter of the cart upon the foot-board, and the waiting crowd all set up a laugh on seeing them—"one chuckle-headed Joskin (that I hated for it) making a bid 'tuppence for her!'"—Doctor Marigold begins his tragi-comic allocution. It is sown thickly all through with the most whimsical of his conceits, but it is interrupted also here and there with infinitely pathetic touches of tenderness.
Fragmentary illustrations of either would but dimly shadow forth, instead of clearly elucidating, what is here meant in the recollection of those who can still recall this Reading of "Doctor Marigold" to their remembrance. Those who never heard it as it actually fell from the Author's lips, by turning to the original sketch, and running through that particular portion of it to themselves, may more readily conjecture than by the aid of mere piecemeal quotation, all that the writer of those riant and tearful pages would be capable of accomplishing by its utterance, bringing to its delivery, as he could, so many of the rarer gifts of genius, and so many also of the rarest accomplishments of art.
SIKES AND NANCY.
On Saturday, the 14th of November, 1868, there were assembled together in front of the great platform in St. James's Hall, Piccadilly, as fit audience, but few, somewhere about fifty of the critics, artists, and literary men of London. A card of invitation, stamped with a facsimile of the well-known autograph of Charles Dickens, and countersigned by the Messrs. Chappell and Company, had, with a witty significance, bidden them to that rendezvous for a "Private Trial of the Murder in Oliver Twist." The occasion, in point of fact, was a sort of experimental rehearsal of the last and most daring of all these vividly dramatic Readings by the popular Novelist.
Conscious himself that there was a certain amount of audacity in his adventuring thus upon a delineation so really startling in its character, he was not unnaturally desirous of testing its fitness for representation before the public, first of all in the presence of those who were probably the best qualified to pronounce a perfectly dispassionate opinion. It certainly appeared somewhat dubious at the first, that question as to the suitability for portrayal before mixed assemblages, of one of the most powerfully tragic incidents ever depicted by him in the whole range of his voluminous contributions to imaginative literature. The passages selected to this end from his famous story of Oliver Twist were those relating more particularly to the Murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. A ghastlier atrocity than that murder could hardly be imagined. In the book itself, as will be remembered, the crime is painted as with a brush dipped in blood rather than pigment. The infamous deed is there described in language worthy of one of the greatest realists in fictitious narrative. Henri de Balzac, even in his more sanguinary imaginings, never showed a completer mastery of the horrible.
Remembering all this, and feeling perfectly assured at the same time, that the scene then about to be depicted by the Author in person, would most certainly lose nothing of its terror in the representation, the acknowledgment may here be made by the writer of these pages, that, on entering the Hall that evening, he was in considerable doubt as to what might be the result of the experiment. Compared with the size of the enormous building, the group of those assembled appeared to be the merest handful of an audience clustered together towards the front immediately below the platform of the orchestra. Standing at the back of this group, the writer recalls to mind, in regard to that evening, a circumstance plainly enough indicating how fully his own unexpressed uncertainty was akin to that of the Author-Reader himself. The circumstance, namely, that Charles Dickens, immediately on entering the hall, before taking his place at his reading-desk upon the platform, came round, and after exchanging a few words with him, uttered this earnest Aside,—"I want you to watch this particularly, for I am very doubtful about it myself!" Before that Experimental Reading was half over, however, all doubt upon the matter was utterly dissipated. In the powerful effect of it, the murder-scene immeasurably surpassed anything he had ever achieved before as an impersonator of his own creations. In its climax, it was as splendid a piece of tragic acting as had for many years been witnessed.
What, in effect, was Macready's comment upon it some months afterwards, when, with an especial eye to the great tragedian's opinion, "Sikes and Nancy" was given at Cheltenham? It was laconic enough, but it afforded a world of pleasure to the Author-Actor when his old friend—himself the hero of so many tragic triumphs—summed up his estimate, by saying, characteristically, "Two Macbeths!"
Four of the imaginary beings of the novel were introduced, or, it should rather be said, were severally produced before us as actual embodiments. Occasionally, during one of the earlier scenes, it is true that the gentle voice of Rose Maylie was audible, while a few impressive words were spoken there also at intervals by Mr. Brownlow. But, otherwise, the interlocutors were four, and four only: to wit—Nancy, Bill Sikes, Morris Bolter, otherwise Noah Claypole, and the Jew Fagin. Than those same characters no four perhaps in the whole range of fiction could be more widely contrasted. Yet, widely contrasted, utterly dissimilar, though they are, in themselves, the extraordinary histrionic powers of their creator, enabled him to present them to view, with a rapidity of sequence or alternation, so astonishing in its mingled facility and precision, that the characters themselves seemed not only to be before us in the flesh, but sometimes one might almost have said were there simultaneously. Each in turn as portrayed hy him—meaning portrayed hy him not simply in the hook hut hy himself in person—was in its way a finished masterpiece.
Looking at the Author as he himself embodied these creations—Fagin, the Jew, was there completely, audibly, visibly before us, by a sort of transformation! Here, in effect—as several years previously in the midst of his impersonation of Wilmot in Lord Lytton's comedy of Not so Bad as we Seem, namely, where, in the garret, the young patrician affects for a while to be Edmund Curll the bookseller—the impersonator's very stature, each time Fagin opened his lips, seemed to be changed instantaneously. Whenever he spoke, there started before us—high-shouldered, with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating hy their every movement the passionate words fiercely struggling for utterance at his lips—that most villainous old tutor of young thieves, receiver of stolen goods, and very devil incarnate: his features distorted with rage, his penthouse eyebrows (those wonderful eyebrows!) working like the antennae of some deadly reptile, his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness.
Whenever he spoke, again, Morris Bolter—quite as instantly, just as visibly and as audibly—was there upon the platform. Listening to him, though we were all of us perfectly conscious of doing, through the Protean voice, and looking at him through the variable features of the Novelist, we somehow saw, no longer the Novelist, but—each time Noah Clay-pole said a word—that chuckle-headed, long-limbed, clownish, sneaking varlet, who is the spy on Nancy, the tool of Fagin, and the secret evil-genius of Sikes, hounding the latter on, as he does, unwittingly, to the dreadful deed of homicide.
As for the Author's embodiment of Sikes—the burly ruffian with thews of iron and voice of Stentor—it was only necessary to hear that infuriated voice, and watch the appalling blows dealt by his imaginary bludgeon in the perpetration of the crime, to realise the force, the power, the passion, informing the creative mind of the Novelist at once in the original conception of the character, and then, so many years afterwards, in its equally astonishing representation.
It was in the portrayal of Nancy, however, that the genius of the Author-Actor found the opportunity, beyond all others, for its most signal manifestation. Only that the catastrophe was in itself, by necessity so utterly revolting, there would have been something exquisitely pathetic in many parts of that affecting delineation. The character was revealed with perfect consistency throughout—from the scene of suppressed emotion upon the steps of London Bridge, when she is scared with the eltrich horror of her forebodings, down to her last gasping, shrieking apostrophes, to "Bill, clear Bill," when she sinks, blinded by blood, under the murderous blows dealt upon her upturned face by her brutal paramour.
Then, again, the horror experienced by the assassin afterwards! So far as it went, it was as grand a reprehension of all murderers as hand could well have penned or tongue have uttered. It had about it something of the articulation of an avenging voice not against Sikes only, but against all who ever outraged, or ever dreamt of outraging, the sanctity of human life. And it was precisely this which tended to sublimate an incident otherwise of the ghastliest horror into a homily of burning eloquence, the recollection of which among those who once saw it revealed through the lips, the eyes, the whole aspect of Charles Dickens will not easily be obliterated. The moral drawn from it—and there was this moral interpenetrating or impregnating the whole—became appreciable, it might even have been by Sikes himself, from the first moment the ruffian realised that the crime had been actually accomplished. It spoke trumpet-tongued from the very instant when he recoiled from "it!" Nancy no more, but thenceforth flesh and blood—"But such flesh, and so much blood!" Nevertheless, in that Experimental Reading of the 14th of November, 1868, the effect of all this appeared, in the estimation of the present writer, to have been in a great measure marred by the abruptness with which, almost the instant after the crime had been committed, the Reading was terminated. Sikes burnt upon the hearth the blood-stained weapon with which the murder had been perpetrated—-was startled for a moment by the hair upon the end of the club shrinking to a light cinder and whirling up the chimney—and then, dragging the dog (whose very feet were bloody) after him, and locking the door, left the house. There, the Experimental Reading abruptly terminated. It seemed not only insufficient, but a lost opportunity. Insomuch, that the writer, on the following day, remonstrated with the Novelist as earnestly as possible, urging him to append to the Reading as it then stood some fragmentary portion, at least, of the chapter descriptive of the flight, so that the remorseful horror of Sikes might be more fully realised. Of the reasonableness of this objection, however, Dickens himself was so wholly unconvinced, that, in the midst of his arguments against it, he wrote, in a tone of good-humoured indignation, "My dear fellow, believe me that no audience on earth could be held for ten minutes after the girl's death. Give them time, and they would be revengeful for having had such a strain put upon them. Trust me to be right. I stand there, and I know." Than this nothing could very well have been more strongly expressed, as indicative of the conclusion at which he had deliberately arrived.
So frankly open to conviction was he, nevertheless, that, not disdaining to defer to the judgment of another when his own had been convinced, the Reading was eventually, after all, lengthened out by a very remarkable addition. The printed copy of this fragment of Oliver Twist, artistically compacted together as "A Reading," has, appended to it, in blue ink, three pages of manuscript in the Novelist's familiar handwriting, in which, with a cunning mastery of all the powers of condensation, he has compacted together in a few sentences what he always gave with wonderful effect before the public, the salient incidents of the murderer's flight, ending with his own destruction, and even his dog's, from the housetop.
Nothing that could most powerfully realise to the audience the ruffian's sense of horror and abhorrence has been there overlooked. The ghastly figure follows him everywhere. He hears its garments rustling in the leaves. "If he stopped, it stopped. If he ran, it followed." Turning at times to beat the phantom off, though it should strike him dead, the hair rises on his head, and his blood stands still, for it has turned with him and is behind him! Throwing himself on his back upon the road—"At his head it stood, silent, erect, and still: a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood."
What is as striking as anything in all this Reading, however—that is, in the Reading copy of it now lying before us as we write—is the mass of hints as to byplay in the stage directions for himself, so to speak, scattered up and down the margin. "Fagin raised his right hand, and shook his trembling forefinger in the air," is there, on p. 101, in print. Beside it, on the margin in MS., is the word "Action." Not a word of it was said. It was simply done. Again, immediately below that on the same page—Sikes' loquitur—"'Oh! you haven't, haven't you?' passing a pistol into a more convenient pocket ['Action,' again, in MS. on the margin.]' That's lucky for one of us—which one that is don't matter.'" Not a word was said about the pistol—the marginal direction was simply attended to. On the opposite page, in print, "Fagin laid his hand upon the bundle, and locked it in the cupboard. But he did not take his eyes off the robber for an instant." On the margin in MS., oddly but significantly underlined, are the words, "Cupboard Action." So again afterwards, as a rousing self-direction, one sees notified in manuscript, on p. 107, the grim stage direction, "Murder Coming."
As certainly as the "Trial from Pickwick" was the most laughter-moving of all the Readings, and as the "Story of Little Dombey," again, was the most pathetic, "Sikes and Nancy" was in all respects the most powerfully dramatic and, in the grand tragic force of it, in many ways, the most impressive and remarkable.
THE FAREWELL READING.
In recording the incident of his Farewell Reading, there comes back to us a yet later recollection of the great Novelist; and illustrating, as it does, his passionate love for the dramatic art, it may here be mentioned not inappropriately.
It relates simply to a remark suddenly made by him—and which had been suggested, so far as we can remember, by nothing we had been talking about previously—towards the close of our very last suburban walk together. Going round by way of Lambeth one afternoon in the early summer of 1870, we had skirted the Thames along the Surrey bank, had crossed the river higher up, and on our way back were returning at our leisure through Westminster; when, just as we were approaching the shadow of the old Abbey at Poet's Corner, under the roof-beams of which he was so soon to be laid in his grave, with a rain of tears and flowers, he abruptly asked—
"What do you think would be the realisation of one of my most cherished day-dreams?" Adding, instantly, without waiting for airy answer, "To settle down now for the remainder of my life within easy distance of a great theatre, in the direction of which I should hold supreme authority. It should be a house, of course, having a skilled and noble company, and one in every way magnificently appointed. The pieces acted should be dealt with according to my pleasure, and touched up here and there in obedience to my own judgment; the players as well as the plays being absolutely under my command. There," said he, laughingly, and in a glow at the mere fancy, "that's my daydream!"
Dickens's delighted enjoyment, in fact, of everything in any way connected with the theatrical profession, was second only to that shown by him in the indulgence of the master-passion of his life, his love of literature.
The way in which he threw himself into his labours, as a Reader, was only another indication of his intense affection for the dramatic art. For, as we have already insisted, the Readings were more than simply Readings, they were in the fullest meaning of the words singularly ingenious and highly elaborated histrionic performances. And his sustained success in them during fifteen years altogether, and, as we have seen, through as many as five hundred representations, may be accounted for in the same way as his still more prolonged success, from the beginning of his career as a Novelist down to its very close, from the Pickwick Papers to Edwin Drood, otherwise, during an interval of four-and-thirty consecutive years, as the most popular author of his generation.
The secret of his original success, and of the long sustamment of it in each of these two careers—as Writer and as Reader—is in a great measure discoverable in this, that whatever powers he possessed he applied to their very uttermost. Whether as Author or as Impersonator, he gave himself up to his appointed task, not partially or intermittingly, but thoroughly and indefatigably.
His rule in life, in this way, he has himself clearly explained in the forty-second chapter of David Copperfield. What he there says about David's industry and perseverance, applies as directly to himself, as what he also relates in regard to his young hero's earlier toils as a parliamentary reporter, and his precocious fame as a writer of fiction. Speaking at once for David and for himself, he there writes for both or for either, "Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; in great aims and in small I have always been thoroughly in earnest. I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of the steady, plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end. There is no substitute for thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness. Never to put one hand to anything on which I could throw my whole self; and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was, I find now to have been my golden rules." What is there said applies far more recognisably to the real Charles Dickens than to the imaginary David Copperfield.