Charles Dickens as a Reader
by Charles Kent
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Attestations of the truth of this were discoverable, at every turn, in regard to his regular system, his constant method, nay, his minutest tricks of habit, so to speak, both as Reader and as Novelist. It was so when as an Author, for example, note was taken, now of his careful forecast of a serial tale on as many slips as there were to be green monthly numbers; now of his elaborately corrected and recorrected manuscripts; now of the proof-sheets lying about, for revision at any and every spare moment, during the month immediately before publication. Or, when, on the other hand, in his capacity as a Reader, regard was had to the scrupulous exactitude with which the seemingly trivial minutiae of what one might call the mere accompaniments, were systematically cared for or methodised. Announced to read, for instance, for the first time in some town he had never before visited for that purpose, or in some building in which his voice had never before been raised, he would go down to the empty hall long before the hour appointed for the Reading, to take the bearings, as he would say, or, in other words, to familiarise himself with the place beforehand. His interest in his audience, again, was something delightful. He was hardly less keenly observant of them than they of him. Through a hole in the curtain at the side, or through a chink in the screen upon the platform, he would eagerly direct your attention to what never palled upon his own, namely, the effect of the suddenly brightened sea of faces on the turning up of the gas, immediately before the moment of his own appearance at the reading-desk.

The evening at length came for his very last appearance at that familiar little reading-desk, on Tuesday, the 15th of March, 1870, on the platform of the St. James's Hall, Piccadilly. The largest audience ever assembled in that immense building, the largest, as already intimated, that ever can be assembled there for purely Reading purposes, namely, when the orchestra and the upper end of the two side-galleries have necessarily to be barred or curtained off from the auditorium, were collected together there under the radiant pendants of the glittering ceiling, every available nook and corner, and all the ordinary gangways of the Great Hall being completely occupied. The money value of the house that night was L422. Crowds were unable to obtain admittance at the entrances in the Quadrant and in Piccadilly, long before the hour fixed for the Farewell Reading. Inside the building 2034 persons were seated there, eagerly awaiting the Novelist's appearance. The enthusiasm of his reception when eight o'clock came, and he advanced to the centre of the platform, of itself told plainly enough, as plainly as the printed hills announcing the fact in red, back, and yellow, that it was his last appearance.

The Readings selected were, as the very best that could have been chosen, his own favourites—"The Christmas Carol," and the "Trial from Pickwick." He never read better in his life than he did on that last evening. Evidently enough, he was nerved to a crowning effort. And by sympathy his audience—his last audience—responded to him throughout by their instant and intense appreciation. Not a point was lost. Every good thing told to the echo, that is, through the echoing laughter. Scrooge, Fezziwig, the Fiddler, Topper, every one of the Cratchits, everybody in "The Carol," including the Small Boy who is so great at repartee, all were welcomed in turn, as became them, with better than acclamations. It was the same exactly with the "Trial from Pickwick"—Justice Stareleigh, Serjeant Buzfuz, Mr. Winkle, Mrs. Cluppins, Sam Weller, one after another appearing for a brief interval, and then disappearing for ever, each of them a delightfully humorous, one of them in particular, the Judge, a simply incomparable impersonation.

Then came the moment of parting between the great Author and his audience—that last audience who were there as the representatives of his immense public in both hemispheres. When the resounding applause that greeted the close of that Final Reading had died out, there was a breathless hush as Charles Dickens, who had for once lingered there upon the platform, addressed to his hearers, with exquisitely clear articulation, but with unmistakably profound emotion, these few and simple words of farewell:—

"Ladies and Gentlemen,—It would be worse than "idle, for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling, if I "were to disguise that I close this episode in my life "with feelings of very considerable pain. For some "fifteen years in this hall, and in many kindred places, "I have had the honour of presenting my own che- "rished ideas before you for your recognition, and in "closely observing your reception of them have en- "joyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction, "which perhaps it is given to few men to know. In "this task and in every other I have ever undertaken "as a faithful servant of the public, always imbued "with the sense of duty to them, and always striving "to do his best, I have been uniformly cheered by the "readiest response, the most generous sympathy, and "the most stimulating support. Nevertheless, I have "thought it well, at the full flood-tide of your favour, "to retire upon those older associations between us, "which date from much further back than these, "thenceforth to devote myself exclusively to the art "that first brought us together. Ladies and gentle- "men, in two short weeks from this time I hope that "you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series "of readings at which my assistance will be indispen- "sable ; but from these garish lights I vanish now for "evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and "affectionate fare well."

The manly, cordial voice only faltered once at the very last. The mournful modulation of it in the utterance of the words, "From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore" lingers to this moment like a haunting melody in our remembrance. Within a few weeks afterwards those very words were touchingly inscribed on the Funeral Card distributed at the doors of Westminster Abbey on the day of the Novelist's interment in Poet's Corner. As he moved from the platform after the utterance of the last words of his address and, with his head drooping in emotion, passed behind the screen on his way to his retiring-room, a cordial hand was placed for one moment with a sympathetic grasp upon his shoulder. The popularity won by Charles Dickens, even among the million who never saw him or spoke with him, amounted to nothing less than personal affection. Among his friends and intimates no great author has ever been more truly or more tenderly beloved. The prolonged thunder of applause that followed him to his secluded room at the back of the platform, whither he had withdrawn alone, recalled him after the lapse of some minutes for another instant into the presence of his last audience, from whom, with a kiss of his hand, he then indeed parted for evermore.



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