Charles Dickens is well known for ‘A Christmas Carol’ but that wasn’t the only Christmas story he wrote. So here I present you with part one of ‘The Chimes’
A Goblin Story
SOME BELLS THAT RANG AN OLD YEAR OUT
AND A NEW YEAR IN
CHAPTER I—First Quarter.
There are not many people—and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again—there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church. I don’t mean at sermon-time in warm weather (when the thing has actually been done, once or twice), but in the night, and alone. A great multitude of persons will be violently astonished, I know, by this position, in the broad bold Day. But it applies to Night. It must be argued by night, and I will undertake to maintain it successfully on any gusty winter’s night appointed for the purpose, with any one opponent chosen from the rest, who will meet me singly in an old churchyard, before an old church-door; and will previously empower me to lock him in, if needful to his satisfaction, until morning.
For the night-wind has a dismal trick of wandering round and round a building of that sort, and moaning as it goes; and of trying, with its unseen hand, the windows and the doors; and seeking out some crevices by which to enter. And when it has got in; as one not finding what it seeks, whatever that may be, it wails and howls to issue forth again: and not content with stalking through the aisles, and gliding round and round the pillars, and tempting the deep organ, soars up to the roof, and strives to rend the rafters: then flings itself despairingly upon the stones below, and passes, muttering, into the vaults. Anon, it comes up stealthily, and creeps along the walls, seeming to read, in whispers, the Inscriptions sacred to the Dead. At some of these, it breaks out shrilly, as with laughter; and at others, moans and cries as if it were lamenting. It has a ghostly sound too, lingering within the altar; where it seems to chaunt, in its wild way, of Wrong and Murder done, and false Gods worshipped, in defiance of the Tables of the Law, which look so fair and smooth, but are so flawed and broken. Ugh! Heaven preserve us, sitting snugly round the fire! It has an awful voice, that wind at Midnight, singing in a church!
But, high up in the steeple! There the foul blast roars and whistles! High up in the steeple, where it is free to come and go through many an airy arch and loophole, and to twist and twine itself about the giddy stair, and twirl the groaning weathercock, and make the very tower shake and shiver! High up in the steeple, where the belfry is, and iron rails are ragged with rust, and sheets of lead and copper, shrivelled by the changing weather, crackle and heave beneath the unaccustomed tread; and birds stuff shabby nests into corners of old oaken joists and beams; and dust grows old and grey; and speckled spiders, indolent and fat with long security, swing idly to and fro in the vibration of the bells, and never loose their hold upon their thread-spun castles in the air, or climb up sailor-like in quick alarm, or drop upon the ground and ply a score of nimble legs to save one life! High up in the steeple of an old church, far above the light and murmur of the town and far below the flying clouds that shadow it, is the wild and dreary place at night: and high up in the steeple of an old church, dwelt the Chimes I tell of.
They were old Chimes, trust me. Centuries ago, these Bells had been baptized by bishops: so many centuries ago, that the register of their baptism was lost long, long before the memory of man, and no one knew their names. They had had their Godfathers and Godmothers, these Bells (for my own part, by the way, I would rather incur the responsibility of being Godfather to a Bell than a Boy), and had their silver mugs no doubt, besides. But Time had mowed down their sponsors, and Henry the Eighth had melted down their mugs; and they now hung, nameless and mugless, in the church-tower.
Not speechless, though. Far from it. They had clear, loud, lusty, sounding voices, had these Bells; and far and wide they might be heard upon the wind. Much too sturdy Chimes were they, to be dependent on the pleasure of the wind, moreover; for, fighting gallantly against it when it took an adverse whim, they would pour their cheerful notes into a listening ear right royally; and bent on being heard on stormy nights, by some poor mother watching a sick child, or some lone wife whose husband was at sea, they had been sometimes known to beat a blustering Nor’ Wester; aye, ‘all to fits,’ as Toby Veck said;—for though they chose to call him Trotty Veck, his name was Toby, and nobody could make it anything else either (except Tobias) without a special act of parliament; he having been as lawfully christened in his day as the Bells had been in theirs, though with not quite so much of solemnity or public rejoicing.
For my part, I confess myself of Toby Veck’s belief, for I am sure he had opportunities enough of forming a correct one. And whatever Toby Veck said, I say. And I take my stand by Toby Veck, although he did stand all day long (and weary work it was) just outside the church-door. In fact he was a ticket-porter, Toby Veck, and waited there for jobs.
And a breezy, goose-skinned, blue-nosed, red-eyed, stony-toed, tooth-chattering place it was, to wait in, in the winter-time, as Toby Veck well knew. The wind came tearing round the corner—especially the east wind—as if it had sallied forth, express, from the confines of the earth, to have a blow at Toby. And oftentimes it seemed to come upon him sooner than it had expected, for bouncing round the corner, and passing Toby, it would suddenly wheel round again, as if it cried ‘Why, here he is!’ Incontinently his little white apron would be caught up over his head like a naughty boy’s garments, and his feeble little cane would be seen to wrestle and struggle unavailingly in his hand, and his legs would undergo tremendous agitation, and Toby himself all aslant, and facing now in this direction, now in that, would be so banged and buffeted, and touzled, and worried, and hustled, and lifted off his feet, as to render it a state of things but one degree removed from a positive miracle, that he wasn’t carried up bodily into the air as a colony of frogs or snails or other very portable creatures sometimes are, and rained down again, to the great astonishment of the natives, on some strange corner of the world where ticket-porters are unknown.
But, windy weather, in spite of its using him so roughly, was, after all, a sort of holiday for Toby. That’s the fact. He didn’t seem to wait so long for a sixpence in the wind, as at other times; the having to fight with that boisterous element took off his attention, and quite freshened him up, when he was getting hungry and low-spirited. A hard frost too, or a fall of snow, was an Event; and it seemed to do him good, somehow or other—it would have been hard to say in what respect though, Toby! So wind and frost and snow, and perhaps a good stiff storm of hail, were Toby Veck’s red-letter days.
Wet weather was the worst; the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat—the only kind of great-coat Toby owned, or could have added to his comfort by dispensing with. Wet days, when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and re-passed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums, as they knocked against each other on the crowded footway, throwing off a little whirlpool of uncomfortable sprinklings; when gutters brawled and waterspouts were full and noisy; when the wet from the projecting stones and ledges of the church fell drip, drip, drip, on Toby, making the wisp of straw on which he stood mere mud in no time; those were the days that tried him. Then, indeed, you might see Toby looking anxiously out from his shelter in an angle of the church wall—such a meagre shelter that in summer time it never cast a shadow thicker than a good-sized walking stick upon the sunny pavement—with a disconsolate and lengthened face. But coming out, a minute afterwards, to warm himself by exercise, and trotting up and down some dozen times, he would brighten even then, and go back more brightly to his niche.
They called him Trotty from his pace, which meant speed if it didn’t make it. He could have walked faster perhaps; most likely; but rob him of his trot, and Toby would have taken to his bed and died. It bespattered him with mud in dirty weather; it cost him a world of trouble; he could have walked with infinitely greater ease; but that was one reason for his clinging to it so tenaciously. A weak, small, spare old man, he was a very Hercules, this Toby, in his good intentions. He loved to earn his money. He delighted to believe—Toby was very poor, and couldn’t well afford to part with a delight—that he was worth his salt. With a shilling or an eighteenpenny message or small parcel in hand, his courage always high, rose higher. As he trotted on, he would call out to fast Postmen ahead of him, to get out of the way; devoutly believing that in the natural course of things he must inevitably overtake and run them down; and he had perfect faith—not often tested—in his being able to carry anything that man could lift.
Thus, even when he came out of his nook to warm himself on a wet day, Toby trotted. Making, with his leaky shoes, a crooked line of slushy footprints in the mire; and blowing on his chilly hands and rubbing them against each other, poorly defended from the searching cold by threadbare mufflers of grey worsted, with a private apartment only for the thumb, and a common room or tap for the rest of the fingers; Toby, with his knees bent and his cane beneath his arm, still trotted. Falling out into the road to look up at the belfry when the Chimes resounded, Toby trotted still.
He made this last excursion several times a day, for they were company to him; and when he heard their voices, he had an interest in glancing at their lodging-place, and thinking how they were moved, and what hammers beat upon them. Perhaps he was the more curious about these Bells, because there were points of resemblance between themselves and him. They hung there, in all weathers, with the wind and rain driving in upon them; facing only the outsides of all those houses; never getting any nearer to the blazing fires that gleamed and shone upon the windows, or came puffing out of the chimney tops; and incapable of participation in any of the good things that were constantly being handed through the street doors and the area railings, to prodigious cooks. Faces came and went at many windows: sometimes pretty faces, youthful faces, pleasant faces: sometimes the reverse: but Toby knew no more (though he often speculated on these trifles, standing idle in the streets) whence they came, or where they went, or whether, when the lips moved, one kind word was said of him in all the year, than did the Chimes themselves.
Toby was not a casuist—that he knew of, at least—and I don’t mean to say that when he began to take to the Bells, and to knit up his first rough acquaintance with them into something of a closer and more delicate woof, he passed through these considerations one by one, or held any formal review or great field-day in his thoughts. But what I mean to say, and do say is, that as the functions of Toby’s body, his digestive organs for example, did of their own cunning, and by a great many operations of which he was altogether ignorant, and the knowledge of which would have astonished him very much, arrive at a certain end; so his mental faculties, without his privity or concurrence, set all these wheels and springs in motion, with a thousand others, when they worked to bring about his liking for the Bells.
And though I had said his love, I would not have recalled the word, though it would scarcely have expressed his complicated feeling. For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes. For all this, Toby scouted with indignation a certain flying rumour that the Chimes were haunted, as implying the possibility of their being connected with any Evil thing. In short, they were very often in his ears, and very often in his thoughts, but always in his good opinion; and he very often got such a crick in his neck by staring with his mouth wide open, at the steeple where they hung, that he was fain to take an extra trot or two, afterwards, to cure it.
The very thing he was in the act of doing one cold day, when the last drowsy sound of Twelve o’clock, just struck, was humming like a melodious monster of a Bee, and not by any means a busy bee, all through the steeple!
‘Dinner-time, eh!’ said Toby, trotting up and down before the church. ‘Ah!’
Toby’s nose was very red, and his eyelids were very red, and he winked very much, and his shoulders were very near his ears, and his legs were very stiff, and altogether he was evidently a long way upon the frosty side of cool.
‘Dinner-time, eh!’ repeated Toby, using his right-hand muffler like an infantine boxing-glove, and punishing his chest for being cold. ‘Ah-h-h-h!’
He took a silent trot, after that, for a minute or two.
‘There’s nothing,’ said Toby, breaking forth afresh—but here he stopped short in his trot, and with a face of great interest and some alarm, felt his nose carefully all the way up. It was but a little way (not being much of a nose) and he had soon finished.
‘I thought it was gone,’ said Toby, trotting off again. ‘It’s all right, however. I am sure I couldn’t blame it if it was to go. It has a precious hard service of it in the bitter weather, and precious little to look forward to; for I don’t take snuff myself. It’s a good deal tried, poor creetur, at the best of times; for when it does get hold of a pleasant whiff or so (which an’t too often) it’s generally from somebody else’s dinner, a-coming home from the baker’s.’
The reflection reminded him of that other reflection, which he had left unfinished.
‘There’s nothing,’ said Toby, ‘more regular in its coming round than dinner-time, and nothing less regular in its coming round than dinner. That’s the great difference between ’em. It’s took me a long time to find it out. I wonder whether it would be worth any gentleman’s while, now, to buy that obserwation for the Papers; or the Parliament!’
Toby was only joking, for he gravely shook his head in self-depreciation.
‘Why! Lord!’ said Toby. ‘The Papers is full of obserwations as it is; and so’s the Parliament. Here’s last week’s paper, now;’ taking a very dirty one from his pocket, and holding it from him at arm’s length; ‘full of obserwations! Full of obserwations! I like to know the news as well as any man,’ said Toby, slowly; folding it a little smaller, and putting it in his pocket again: ‘but it almost goes against the grain with me to read a paper now. It frightens me almost. I don’t know what we poor people are coming to. Lord send we may be coming to something better in the New Year nigh upon us!’
‘Why, father, father!’ said a pleasant voice, hard by.
But Toby, not hearing it, continued to trot backwards and forwards: musing as he went, and talking to himself.
‘It seems as if we can’t go right, or do right, or be righted,’ said Toby. ‘I hadn’t much schooling, myself, when I was young; and I can’t make out whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad. We seem to be dreadful things; we seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against. One way or other, we fill the papers. Talk of a New Year!’ said Toby, mournfully. ‘I can bear up as well as another man at most times; better than a good many, for I am as strong as a lion, and all men an’t; but supposing it should really be that we have no right to a New Year—supposing we really are intruding—’
‘Why, father, father!’ said the pleasant voice again.
Toby heard it this time; started; stopped; and shortening his sight, which had been directed a long way off as seeking the enlightenment in the very heart of the approaching year, found himself face to face with his own child, and looking close into her eyes.
Bright eyes they were. Eyes that would bear a world of looking in, before their depth was fathomed. Dark eyes, that reflected back the eyes which searched them; not flashingly, or at the owner’s will, but with a clear, calm, honest, patient radiance, claiming kindred with that light which Heaven called into being. Eyes that were beautiful and true, and beaming with Hope. With Hope so young and fresh; with Hope so buoyant, vigorous, and bright, despite the twenty years of work and poverty on which they had looked; that they became a voice to Trotty Veck, and said: ‘I think we have some business here—a little!’
Trotty kissed the lips belonging to the eyes, and squeezed the blooming face between his hands.
‘Why, Pet,’ said Trotty. ‘What’s to do? I didn’t expect you to-day, Meg.’
‘Neither did I expect to come, father,’ cried the girl, nodding her head and smiling as she spoke. ‘But here I am! And not alone; not alone!’
‘Why you don’t mean to say,’ observed Trotty, looking curiously at a covered basket which she carried in her hand, ‘that you—’
‘Smell it, father dear,’ said Meg. ‘Only smell it!’
Trotty was going to lift up the cover at once, in a great hurry, when she gaily interposed her hand.
‘No, no, no,’ said Meg, with the glee of a child. ‘Lengthen it out a little. Let me just lift up the corner; just the lit-tle ti-ny cor-ner, you know,’ said Meg, suiting the action to the word with the utmost gentleness, and speaking very softly, as if she were afraid of being overheard by something inside the basket; ‘there. Now. What’s that?’
Toby took the shortest possible sniff at the edge of the basket, and cried out in a rapture:
‘Why, it’s hot!’
‘It’s burning hot!’ cried Meg. ‘Ha, ha, ha! It’s scalding hot!’
‘Ha, ha, ha!’ roared Toby, with a sort of kick. ‘It’s scalding hot!’
‘But what is it, father?’ said Meg. ‘Come. You haven’t guessed what it is. And you must guess what it is. I can’t think of taking it out, till you guess what it is. Don’t be in such a hurry! Wait a minute! A little bit more of the cover. Now guess!’
Meg was in a perfect fright lest he should guess right too soon; shrinking away, as she held the basket towards him; curling up her pretty shoulders; stopping her ear with her hand, as if by so doing she could keep the right word out of Toby’s lips; and laughing softly the whole time.
Meanwhile Toby, putting a hand on each knee, bent down his nose to the basket, and took a long inspiration at the lid; the grin upon his withered face expanding in the process, as if he were inhaling laughing gas.
‘Ah! It’s very nice,’ said Toby. ‘It an’t—I suppose it an’t Polonies?’
‘No, no, no!’ cried Meg, delighted. ‘Nothing like Polonies!’
‘No,’ said Toby, after another sniff. ‘It’s—it’s mellower than Polonies. It’s very nice. It improves every moment. It’s too decided for Trotters. An’t it?’
Meg was in an ecstasy. He could not have gone wider of the mark than Trotters—except Polonies.
‘Liver?’ said Toby, communing with himself. ‘No. There’s a mildness about it that don’t answer to liver. Pettitoes? No. It an’t faint enough for pettitoes. It wants the stringiness of Cocks’ heads. And I know it an’t sausages. I’ll tell you what it is. It’s chitterlings!’
‘No, it an’t!’ cried Meg, in a burst of delight. ‘No, it an’t!’
‘Why, what am I a-thinking of!’ said Toby, suddenly recovering a position as near the perpendicular as it was possible for him to assume. ‘I shall forget my own name next. It’s tripe!’
Tripe it was; and Meg, in high joy, protested he should say, in half a minute more, it was the best tripe ever stewed.
‘And so,’ said Meg, busying herself exultingly with the basket, ‘I’ll lay the cloth at once, father; for I have brought the tripe in a basin, and tied the basin up in a pocket-handkerchief; and if I like to be proud for once, and spread that for a cloth, and call it a cloth, there’s no law to prevent me; is there, father?’
‘Not that I know of, my dear,’ said Toby. ‘But they’re always a-bringing up some new law or other.’
‘And according to what I was reading you in the paper the other day, father; what the Judge said, you know; we poor people are supposed to know them all. Ha ha! What a mistake! My goodness me, how clever they think us!’
‘Yes, my dear,’ cried Trotty; ‘and they’d be very fond of any one of us that did know ’em all. He’d grow fat upon the work he’d get, that man, and be popular with the gentlefolks in his neighbourhood. Very much so!’
‘He’d eat his dinner with an appetite, whoever he was, if it smelt like this,’ said Meg, cheerfully. ‘Make haste, for there’s a hot potato besides, and half a pint of fresh-drawn beer in a bottle. Where will you dine, father? On the Post, or on the Steps? Dear, dear, how grand we are. Two places to choose from!’
‘The steps to-day, my Pet,’ said Trotty. ‘Steps in dry weather. Post in wet. There’s a greater conveniency in the steps at all times, because of the sitting down; but they’re rheumatic in the damp.’
‘Then here,’ said Meg, clapping her hands, after a moment’s bustle; ‘here it is, all ready! And beautiful it looks! Come, father. Come!’
Since his discovery of the contents of the basket, Trotty had been standing looking at her—and had been speaking too—in an abstracted manner, which showed that though she was the object of his thoughts and eyes, to the exclusion even of tripe, he neither saw nor thought about her as she was at that moment, but had before him some imaginary rough sketch or drama of her future life. Roused, now, by her cheerful summons, he shook off a melancholy shake of the head which was just coming upon him, and trotted to her side. As he was stooping to sit down, the Chimes rang.
‘Amen!’ said Trotty, pulling off his hat and looking up towards them.
‘Amen to the Bells, father?’ cried Meg.
‘They broke in like a grace, my dear,’ said Trotty, taking his seat. ‘They’d say a good one, I am sure, if they could. Many’s the kind thing they say to me.’
‘The Bells do, father!’ laughed Meg, as she set the basin, and a knife and fork, before him. ‘Well!’
‘Seem to, my Pet,’ said Trotty, falling to with great vigour. ‘And where’s the difference? If I hear ’em, what does it matter whether they speak it or not? Why bless you, my dear,’ said Toby, pointing at the tower with his fork, and becoming more animated under the influence of dinner, ‘how often have I heard them bells say, “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart, Toby! Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart, Toby!” A million times? More!’
‘Well, I never!’ cried Meg.
She had, though—over and over again. For it was Toby’s constant topic.
‘When things is very bad,’ said Trotty; ‘very bad indeed, I mean; almost at the worst; then it’s “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, job coming soon, Toby! Toby Veck, Toby Veck, job coming soon, Toby!” That way.’
‘And it comes—at last, father,’ said Meg, with a touch of sadness in her pleasant voice.
‘Always,’ answered the unconscious Toby. ‘Never fails.’
While this discourse was holding, Trotty made no pause in his attack upon the savoury meat before him, but cut and ate, and cut and drank, and cut and chewed, and dodged about, from tripe to hot potato, and from hot potato back again to tripe, with an unctuous and unflagging relish. But happening now to look all round the street—in case anybody should be beckoning from any door or window, for a porter—his eyes, in coming back again, encountered Meg: sitting opposite to him, with her arms folded and only busy in watching his progress with a smile of happiness.
‘Why, Lord forgive me!’ said Trotty, dropping his knife and fork. ‘My dove! Meg! why didn’t you tell me what a beast I was?’
‘Sitting here,’ said Trotty, in penitent explanation, ‘cramming, and stuffing, and gorging myself; and you before me there, never so much as breaking your precious fast, nor wanting to, when—’
‘But I have broken it, father,’ interposed his daughter, laughing, ‘all to bits. I have had my dinner.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Trotty. ‘Two dinners in one day! It an’t possible! You might as well tell me that two New Year’s Days will come together, or that I have had a gold head all my life, and never changed it.’
‘I have had my dinner, father, for all that,’ said Meg, coming nearer to him. ‘And if you’ll go on with yours, I’ll tell you how and where; and how your dinner came to be brought; and—and something else besides.’
Toby still appeared incredulous; but she looked into his face with her clear eyes, and laying her hand upon his shoulder, motioned him to go on while the meat was hot. So Trotty took up his knife and fork again, and went to work. But much more slowly than before, and shaking his head, as if he were not at all pleased with himself.
‘I had my dinner, father,’ said Meg, after a little hesitation, ‘with—with Richard. His dinner-time was early; and as he brought his dinner with him when he came to see me, we—we had it together, father.’
Trotty took a little beer, and smacked his lips. Then he said, ‘Oh!’—because she waited.
‘And Richard says, father—’ Meg resumed. Then stopped.
‘What does Richard say, Meg?’ asked Toby.
‘Richard says, father—’ Another stoppage.
‘Richard’s a long time saying it,’ said Toby.
‘He says then, father,’ Meg continued, lifting up her eyes at last, and speaking in a tremble, but quite plainly; ‘another year is nearly gone, and where is the use of waiting on from year to year, when it is so unlikely we shall ever be better off than we are now? He says we are poor now, father, and we shall be poor then, but we are young now, and years will make us old before we know it. He says that if we wait: people in our condition: until we see our way quite clearly, the way will be a narrow one indeed—the common way—the Grave, father.’
A bolder man than Trotty Veck must needs have drawn upon his boldness largely, to deny it. Trotty held his peace.
‘And how hard, father, to grow old, and die, and think we might have cheered and helped each other! How hard in all our lives to love each other; and to grieve, apart, to see each other working, changing, growing old and grey. Even if I got the better of it, and forgot him (which I never could), oh father dear, how hard to have a heart so full as mine is now, and live to have it slowly drained out every drop, without the recollection of one happy moment of a woman’s life, to stay behind and comfort me, and make me better!’
Trotty sat quite still. Meg dried her eyes, and said more gaily: that is to say, with here a laugh, and there a sob, and here a laugh and sob together:
‘So Richard says, father; as his work was yesterday made certain for some time to come, and as I love him, and have loved him full three years—ah! longer than that, if he knew it!—will I marry him on New Year’s Day; the best and happiest day, he says, in the whole year, and one that is almost sure to bring good fortune with it. It’s a short notice, father—isn’t it?—but I haven’t my fortune to be settled, or my wedding dresses to be made, like the great ladies, father, have I? And he said so much, and said it in his way; so strong and earnest, and all the time so kind and gentle; that I said I’d come and talk to you, father. And as they paid the money for that work of mine this morning (unexpectedly, I am sure!) and as you have fared very poorly for a whole week, and as I couldn’t help wishing there should be something to make this day a sort of holiday to you as well as a dear and happy day to me, father, I made a little treat and brought it to surprise you.’
‘And see how he leaves it cooling on the step!’ said another voice.
It was the voice of this same Richard, who had come upon them unobserved, and stood before the father and daughter; looking down upon them with a face as glowing as the iron on which his stout sledge-hammer daily rung. A handsome, well-made, powerful youngster he was; with eyes that sparkled like the red-hot droppings from a furnace fire; black hair that curled about his swarthy temples rarely; and a smile—a smile that bore out Meg’s eulogium on his style of conversation.
‘See how he leaves it cooling on the step!’ said Richard. ‘Meg don’t know what he likes. Not she!’
Trotty, all action and enthusiasm, immediately reached up his hand to Richard, and was going to address him in great hurry, when the house-door opened without any warning, and a footman very nearly put his foot into the tripe.
‘Out of the vays here, will you! You must always go and be a-settin on our steps, must you! You can’t go and give a turn to none of the neighbours never, can’t you! Will you clear the road, or won’t you?’
Strictly speaking, the last question was irrelevant, as they had already done it.
‘What’s the matter, what’s the matter!’ said the gentleman for whom the door was opened; coming out of the house at that kind of light-heavy pace—that peculiar compromise between a walk and a jog-trot—with which a gentleman upon the smooth down-hill of life, wearing creaking boots, a watch-chain, and clean linen, maycome out of his house: not only without any abatement of his dignity, but with an expression of having important and wealthy engagements elsewhere. ‘What’s the matter! What’s the matter!’
‘You’re always a-being begged, and prayed, upon your bended knees you are,’ said the footman with great emphasis to Trotty Veck, ‘to let our door-steps be. Why don’t you let ’em be? Can’t you let ’em be?’
‘There! That’ll do, that’ll do!’ said the gentleman. ‘Halloa there! Porter!’ beckoning with his head to Trotty Veck. ‘Come here. What’s that? Your dinner?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Trotty, leaving it behind him in a corner.
‘Don’t leave it there,’ exclaimed the gentleman. ‘Bring it here, bring it here. So! This is your dinner, is it?’
‘Yes, sir,’ repeated Trotty, looking with a fixed eye and a watery mouth, at the piece of tripe he had reserved for a last delicious tit-bit; which the gentleman was now turning over and over on the end of the fork.
Two other gentlemen had come out with him. One was a low-spirited gentleman of middle age, of a meagre habit, and a disconsolate face; who kept his hands continually in the pockets of his scanty pepper-and-salt trousers, very large and dog’s-eared from that custom; and was not particularly well brushed or washed. The other, a full-sized, sleek, well-conditioned gentleman, in a blue coat with bright buttons, and a white cravat. This gentleman had a very red face, as if an undue proportion of the blood in his body were squeezed up into his head; which perhaps accounted for his having also the appearance of being rather cold about the heart.
He who had Toby’s meat upon the fork, called to the first one by the name of Filer; and they both drew near together. Mr. Filer being exceedingly short-sighted, was obliged to go so close to the remnant of Toby’s dinner before he could make out what it was, that Toby’s heart leaped up into his mouth. But Mr. Filer didn’t eat it.
‘This is a description of animal food, Alderman,’ said Filer, making little punches in it with a pencil-case, ‘commonly known to the labouring population of this country, by the name of tripe.’
The Alderman laughed, and winked; for he was a merry fellow, Alderman Cute. Oh, and a sly fellow too! A knowing fellow. Up to everything. Not to be imposed upon. Deep in the people’s hearts! He knew them, Cute did. I believe you!
‘But who eats tripe?’ said Mr. Filer, looking round. ‘Tripe is without an exception the least economical, and the most wasteful article of consumption that the markets of this country can by possibility produce. The loss upon a pound of tripe has been found to be, in the boiling, seven-eights of a fifth more than the loss upon a pound of any other animal substance whatever. Tripe is more expensive, properly understood, than the hothouse pine-apple. Taking into account the number of animals slaughtered yearly within the bills of mortality alone; and forming a low estimate of the quantity of tripe which the carcases of those animals, reasonably well butchered, would yield; I find that the waste on that amount of tripe, if boiled, would victual a garrison of five hundred men for five months of thirty-one days each, and a February over. The Waste, the Waste!’
Trotty stood aghast, and his legs shook under him. He seemed to have starved a garrison of five hundred men with his own hand.
‘Who eats tripe?’ said Mr. Filer, warmly. ‘Who eats tripe?’
Trotty made a miserable bow.
‘You do, do you?’ said Mr. Filer. ‘Then I’ll tell you something. You snatch your tripe, my friend, out of the mouths of widows and orphans.’
‘I hope not, sir,’ said Trotty, faintly. ‘I’d sooner die of want!’
‘Divide the amount of tripe before-mentioned, Alderman,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘by the estimated number of existing widows and orphans, and the result will be one pennyweight of tripe to each. Not a grain is left for that man. Consequently, he’s a robber.’
Trotty was so shocked, that it gave him no concern to see the Alderman finish the tripe himself. It was a relief to get rid of it, anyhow.
‘And what do you say?’ asked the Alderman, jocosely, of the red-faced gentleman in the blue coat. ‘You have heard friend Filer. What do you say?’
‘What’s it possible to say?’ returned the gentleman. ‘What is to be said? Who can take any interest in a fellow like this,’ meaning Trotty; ‘in such degenerate times as these? Look at him. What an object! The good old times, the grand old times, the great old times! Those were the times for a bold peasantry, and all that sort of thing. Those were the times for every sort of thing, in fact. There’s nothing now-a-days. Ah!’ sighed the red-faced gentleman. ‘The good old times, the good old times!’
The gentleman didn’t specify what particular times he alluded to; nor did he say whether he objected to the present times, from a disinterested consciousness that they had done nothing very remarkable in producing himself.
‘The good old times, the good old times,’ repeated the gentleman. ‘What times they were! They were the only times. It’s of no use talking about any other times, or discussing what the people are in these times. You don’t call these, times, do you? I don’t. Look into Strutt’s Costumes, and see what a Porter used to be, in any of the good old English reigns.’
‘He hadn’t, in his very best circumstances, a shirt to his back, or a stocking to his foot; and there was scarcely a vegetable in all England for him to put into his mouth,’ said Mr. Filer. ‘I can prove it, by tables.’
But still the red-faced gentleman extolled the good old times, the grand old times, the great old times. No matter what anybody else said, he still went turning round and round in one set form of words concerning them; as a poor squirrel turns and turns in its revolving cage; touching the mechanism, and trick of which, it has probably quite as distinct perceptions, as ever this red-faced gentleman had of his deceased Millennium.
It is possible that poor Trotty’s faith in these very vague Old Times was not entirely destroyed, for he felt vague enough at that moment. One thing, however, was plain to him, in the midst of his distress; to wit, that however these gentlemen might differ in details, his misgivings of that morning, and of many other mornings, were well founded. ‘No, no. We can’t go right or do right,’ thought Trotty in despair. ‘There is no good in us. We are born bad!’
But Trotty had a father’s heart within him; which had somehow got into his breast in spite of this decree; and he could not bear that Meg, in the blush of her brief joy, should have her fortune read by these wise gentlemen. ‘God help her,’ thought poor Trotty. ‘She will know it soon enough.’
He anxiously signed, therefore, to the young smith, to take her away. But he was so busy, talking to her softly at a little distance, that he only became conscious of this desire, simultaneously with Alderman Cute. Now, the Alderman had not yet had his say, but he was a philosopher, too—practical, though! Oh, very practical—and, as he had no idea of losing any portion of his audience, he cried ‘Stop!’
‘Now, you know,’ said the Alderman, addressing his two friends, with a self-complacent smile upon his face which was habitual to him, ‘I am a plain man, and a practical man; and I go to work in a plain practical way. That’s my way. There is not the least mystery or difficulty in dealing with this sort of people if you only understand ’em, and can talk to ’em in their own manner. Now, you Porter! Don’t you ever tell me, or anybody else, my friend, that you haven’t always enough to eat, and of the best; because I know better. I have tasted your tripe, you know, and you can’t “chaff” me. You understand what “chaff” means, eh? That’s the right word, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘it’s the easiest thing on earth to deal with this sort of people, if you understand ’em.’
Famous man for the common people, Alderman Cute! Never out of temper with them! Easy, affable, joking, knowing gentleman!
‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down. There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down. That’s all! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’
Trotty took Meg’s hand and drew it through his arm. He didn’t seem to know what he was doing though.
‘Your daughter, eh?’ said the Alderman, chucking her familiarly under the chin.
Always affable with the working classes, Alderman Cute! Knew what pleased them! Not a bit of pride!
‘Where’s her mother?’ asked that worthy gentleman.
‘Dead,’ said Toby. ‘Her mother got up linen; and was called to Heaven when She was born.’
‘Not to get up linen there, I suppose,’ remarked the Alderman pleasantly.
Toby might or might not have been able to separate his wife in Heaven from her old pursuits. But query: If Mrs. Alderman Cute had gone to Heaven, would Mr. Alderman Cute have pictured her as holding any state or station there?
‘And you’re making love to her, are you?’ said Cute to the young smith.
‘Yes,’ returned Richard quickly, for he was nettled by the question. ‘And we are going to be married on New Year’s Day.’
‘What do you mean!’ cried Filer sharply. ‘Married!’
‘Why, yes, we’re thinking of it, Master,’ said Richard. ‘We’re rather in a hurry, you see, in case it should be Put Down first.’
‘Ah!’ cried Filer, with a groan. ‘Put that down indeed, Alderman, and you’ll do something. Married! Married!! The ignorance of the first principles of political economy on the part of these people; their improvidence; their wickedness; is, by Heavens! enough to—Now look at that couple, will you!’
Well? They were worth looking at. And marriage seemed as reasonable and fair a deed as they need have in contemplation.
‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born. And that we know they haven’t. We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’
Alderman Cute was mightily diverted, and laid his right forefinger on the side of his nose, as much as to say to both his friends, ‘Observe me, will you! Keep your eye on the practical man!’—and called Meg to him.
‘Come here, my girl!’ said Alderman Cute.
The young blood of her lover had been mounting, wrathfully, within the last few minutes; and he was indisposed to let her come. But, setting a constraint upon himself, he came forward with a stride as Meg approached, and stood beside her. Trotty kept her hand within his arm still, but looked from face to face as wildly as a sleeper in a dream.
‘Now, I’m going to give you a word or two of good advice, my girl,’ said the Alderman, in his nice easy way. ‘It’s my place to give advice, you know, because I’m a Justice. You know I’m a Justice, don’t you?’
Meg timidly said, ‘Yes.’ But everybody knew Alderman Cute was a Justice! Oh dear, so active a Justice always! Who such a mote of brightness in the public eye, as Cute!
‘You are going to be married, you say,’ pursued the Alderman. ‘Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex! But never mind that. After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife. You may think not; but you will, because I tell you so. Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down. So, don’t be brought before me. You’ll have children—boys. Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings. Mind, my young friend! I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down. Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby. Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets. Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved, to Put all wandering mothers Down. All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down. Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down. And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down! If there is one thing,’ said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, ‘on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down. So don’t try it on. That’s the phrase, isn’t it? Ha, ha! now we understand each other.’
Toby knew not whether to be agonised or glad, to see that Meg had turned a deadly white, and dropped her lover’s hand.
‘And as for you, you dull dog,’ said the Alderman, turning with even increased cheerfulness and urbanity to the young smith, ‘what are you thinking of being married for? What do you want to be married for, you silly fellow? If I was a fine, young, strapping chap like you, I should be ashamed of being milksop enough to pin myself to a woman’s apron-strings! Why, she’ll be an old woman before you’re a middle-aged man! And a pretty figure you’ll cut then, with a draggle-tailed wife and a crowd of squalling children crying after you wherever you go!’
O, he knew how to banter the common people, Alderman Cute!
‘There! Go along with you,’ said the Alderman, ‘and repent. Don’t make such a fool of yourself as to get married on New Year’s Day. You’ll think very differently of it, long before next New Year’s Day: a trim young fellow like you, with all the girls looking after you. There! Go along with you!’
They went along. Not arm in arm, or hand in hand, or interchanging bright glances; but, she in tears; he, gloomy and down-looking. Were these the hearts that had so lately made old Toby’s leap up from its faintness? No, no. The Alderman (a blessing on his head!) had Put them Down.
‘As you happen to be here,’ said the Alderman to Toby, ‘you shall carry a letter for me. Can you be quick? You’re an old man.’
Toby, who had been looking after Meg, quite stupidly, made shift to murmur out that he was very quick, and very strong.
‘How old are you?’ inquired the Alderman.
‘I’m over sixty, sir,’ said Toby.
‘O! This man’s a great deal past the average age, you know,’ cried Mr. Filer breaking in as if his patience would bear some trying, but this really was carrying matters a little too far.
‘I feel I’m intruding, sir,’ said Toby. ‘I—I misdoubted it this morning. Oh dear me!’
The Alderman cut him short by giving him the letter from his pocket. Toby would have got a shilling too; but Mr. Filer clearly showing that in that case he would rob a certain given number of persons of ninepence-halfpenny a-piece, he only got sixpence; and thought himself very well off to get that.
Then the Alderman gave an arm to each of his friends, and walked off in high feather; but, he immediately came hurrying back alone, as if he had forgotten something.
‘Porter!’ said the Alderman.
‘Sir!’ said Toby.
‘Take care of that daughter of yours. She’s much too handsome.’
‘Even her good looks are stolen from somebody or other, I suppose,’ thought Toby, looking at the sixpence in his hand, and thinking of the tripe. ‘She’s been and robbed five hundred ladies of a bloom a-piece, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s very dreadful!’
‘She’s much too handsome, my man,’ repeated the Alderman. ‘The chances are, that she’ll come to no good, I clearly see. Observe what I say. Take care of her!’ With which, he hurried off again.
‘Wrong every way. Wrong every way!’ said Trotty, clasping his hands. ‘Born bad. No business here!’
The Chimes came clashing in upon him as he said the words. Full, loud, and sounding—but with no encouragement. No, not a drop.
‘The tune’s changed,’ cried the old man, as he listened. ‘There’s not a word of all that fancy in it. Why should there be? I have no business with the New Year nor with the old one neither. Let me die!’
Still the Bells, pealing forth their changes, made the very air spin. Put ’em down, Put ’em down! Good old Times, Good old Times! Facts and Figures, Facts and Figures! Put ’em down, Put ’em down! If they said anything they said this, until the brain of Toby reeled.
He pressed his bewildered head between his hands, as if to keep it from splitting asunder. A well-timed action, as it happened; for finding the letter in one of them, and being by that means reminded of his charge, he fell, mechanically, into his usual trot, and trotted off.