A Story by Charles Dickens — Part 3
The Chimes is Dickens’s second Christmas short story. This story is about a discouraged elderly messenger who has lost faith in humanity. He is drawn to the bell tower of a church where he finds the spirits of the bells and their goblin attendants. Through a series of visions, he learns why he must not give up hope in man’s ability to improve.
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The following was written by Charles Dickens and originally published in 1844.
CHAPTER III — Third Quarter.
Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead. Monsters uncouth and wild, arise in premature, imperfect resurrection; the several parts and shapes of different things are joined and mixed by chance; and when, and how, and by what wonderful degrees, each separates from each, and every sense and object of the mind resumes its usual form and lives again, no man — though every man is every day the casket of this type of the Great Mystery — can tell.
So, when and how the darkness of the night-black steeple changed to shining light; when and how the solitary tower was peopled with a myriad figures; when and how the whispered ‘Haunt and hunt him,’ breathing monotonously through his sleep or swoon, became a voice exclaiming in the waking ears of Trotty, ‘Break his slumbers;’ when and how he ceased to have a sluggish and confused idea that such things were, companioning a host of others that were not; there are no dates or means to tell. But, awake and standing on his feet upon the boards where he had lately lain, he saw this Goblin Sight.
He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive iron-girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them. He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl. He saw the air thick with them. He saw them come and go, incessantly. He saw them riding downward, soaring upward, sailing off afar, perching near at hand, all restless and all violently active. Stone, and brick, and slate, and tile, became transparent to him as to them. He saw them in the houses, busy at the sleepers’ beds. He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them cheering some with the songs of birds and the perfume of flowers; he saw them flashing awful faces on the troubled rest of others, from enchanted mirrors which they carried in their hands.
He saw these creatures, not only among sleeping men but waking also, active in pursuits irreconcilable with one another, and possessing or assuming natures the most opposite. He saw one buckling on innumerable wings to increase his speed; another loading himself with chains and weights, to retard his. He saw some putting the hands of clocks forward, some putting the hands of clocks backward, some endeavouring to stop the clock entirely. He saw them representing, here a marriage ceremony, there a funeral; in this chamber an election, in that a ball he saw, everywhere, restless and untiring motion.
Bewildered by the host of shifting and extraordinary figures, as well as by the uproar of the Bells, which all this while were ringing, Trotty clung to a wooden pillar for support, and turned his white face here and there, in mute and stunned astonishment.
As he gazed, the Chimes stopped. Instantaneous change! The whole swarm fainted! their forms collapsed, their speed deserted them; they sought to fly, but in the act of falling died and melted into air. No fresh supply succeeded them. One straggler leaped down pretty briskly from the surface of the Great Bell, and alighted on his feet, but he was dead and gone before he could turn round. Some few of the late company who had gambolled in the tower, remained there, spinning over and over a little longer; but these became at every turn more faint, and few, and feeble, and soon went the way of the rest. The last of all was one small hunchback, who had got into an echoing corner, where he twirled and twirled, and floated by himself a long time; showing such perseverance, that at last he dwindled to a leg and even to a foot, before he finally retired; but he vanished in the end, and then the tower was silent.
Then and not before, did Trotty see in every Bell a bearded figure of the bulk and stature of the Bell — incomprehensibly, a figure and the Bell itself. Gigantic, grave, and darkly watchful of him, as he stood rooted to the ground.
Mysterious and awful figures! Resting on nothing; poised in the night air of the tower, with their draped and hooded heads merged in the dim roof; motionless and shadowy. Shadowy and dark, although he saw them by some light belonging to themselves — none else was there — each with its muffled hand upon its goblin mouth.
He could not plunge down wildly through the opening in the floor; for all power of motion had deserted him. Otherwise he would have done so — aye, would have thrown himself, headforemost, from the steeple-top, rather than have seen them watching him with eyes that would have waked and watched although the pupils had been taken out.
Again, again, the dread and terror of the lonely place, and of the wild and fearful night that reigned there, touched him like a spectral hand. His distance from all help; the long, dark, winding, ghost-beleaguered way that lay between him and the earth on which men lived; his being high, high, high, up there, where it had made him dizzy to see the birds fly in the day; cut off from all good people, who at such an hour were safe at home and sleeping in their beds; all this struck coldly through him, not as a reflection but a bodily sensation. Meantime his eyes and thoughts and fears, were fixed upon the watchful figures; which, rendered unlike any figures of this world by the deep gloom and shade enwrapping and enfolding them, as well as by their looks and forms and supernatural hovering above the floor, were nevertheless as plainly to be seen as were the stalwart oaken frames, cross-pieces, bars and beams, set up there to support the Bells. These hemmed them, in a very forest of hewn timber; from the entanglements, intricacies, and depths of which, as from among the boughs of a dead wood blighted for their phantom use, they kept their darksome and unwinking watch.
A blast of air — how cold and shrill! — came moaning through the tower. As it died away, the Great Bell, or the Goblin of the Great Bell, spoke.
‘What visitor is this!’ it said. The voice was low and deep, and Trotty fancied that it sounded in the other figures as well.
‘I thought my name was called by the Chimes!’ said Trotty, raising his hands in an attitude of supplication. ‘I hardly know why I am here, or how I came. I have listened to the Chimes these many years. They have cheered me often.’
‘And you have thanked them?’ said the Bell.
‘A thousand times!’ cried Trotty.
‘I am a poor man,’ faltered Trotty, ‘and could only thank them in words.’
‘And always so?’ inquired the Goblin of the Bell. ‘Have you never done us wrong in words?’
‘No!’ cried Trotty eagerly.
‘Never done us foul, and false, and wicked wrong, in words?’ pursued the Goblin of the Bell.
Trotty was about to answer, ‘Never!’ But he stopped, and was confused.
‘The voice of Time,’ said the Phantom, ‘cries to man, Advance! Time is for his advancement and improvement; for his greater worth, his greater happiness, his better life; his progress onward to that goal within its knowledge and its view, and set there, in the period when Time and He began. Ages of darkness, wickedness, and violence, have come and gone — millions uncountable, have suffered, lived, and died — to point the way before him. Who seeks to turn him back, or stay him on his course, arrests a mighty engine which will strike the meddler dead; and be the fiercer and the wilder, ever, for its momentary check!’
‘I never did so to my knowledge, sir,’ said Trotty. ‘It was quite by accident if I did. I wouldn’t go to do it, I’m sure.’
‘Who puts into the mouth of Time, or of its servants,’ said the Goblin of the Bell, ‘a cry of lamentation for days which have had their trial and their failure, and have left deep traces of it which the blind may see — a cry that only serves the present time, by showing men how much it needs their help when any ears can listen to regrets for such a past — who does this, does a wrong. And you have done that wrong, to us, the Chimes.’
Trotty’s first excess of fear was gone. But he had felt tenderly and gratefully towards the Bells, as you have seen; and when he heard himself arraigned as one who had offended them so weightily, his heart was touched with penitence and grief.
‘If you knew,’ said Trotty, clasping his hands earnestly — ‘or perhaps you do know — if you know how often you have kept me company; how often you have cheered me up when I’ve been low; how you were quite the plaything of my little daughter Meg (almost the only one she ever had) when first her mother died, and she and me were left alone; you won’t bear malice for a hasty word!’
‘Who hears in us, the Chimes, one note bespeaking disregard, or stern regard, of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many-sorrowed throng; who hears us make response to any creed that gauges human passions and affections, as it gauges the amount of miserable food on which humanity may pine and wither; does us wrong. That wrong you have done us!’ said the Bell.
‘I have!’ said Trotty. ‘Oh forgive me!’
‘Who hears us echo the dull vermin of the earth: the Putters Down of crushed and broken natures, formed to be raised up higher than such maggots of the time can crawl or can conceive,’ pursued the Goblin of the Bell; ‘who does so, does us wrong. And you have done us wrong!’
‘Not meaning it,’ said Trotty. ‘In my ignorance. Not meaning it!’
‘Lastly, and most of all,’ pursued the Bell. ‘Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good — grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!’
‘Spare me!’ cried Trotty, falling on his knees; ‘for Mercy’s sake!’
‘Listen!’ said the Shadow.
‘Listen!’ cried the other Shadows.
‘Listen!’ said a clear and childlike voice, which Trotty thought he recognised as having heard before.
The organ sounded faintly in the church below. Swelling by degrees, the melody ascended to the roof, and filled the choir and nave. Expanding more and more, it rose up, up; up, up; higher, higher, higher up; awakening agitated hearts within the burly piles of oak: the hollow bells, the iron-bound doors, the stairs of solid stone; until the tower walls were insufficient to contain it, and it soared into the sky.
No wonder that an old man’s breast could not contain a sound so vast and mighty. It broke from that weak prison in a rush of tears; and Trotty put his hands before his face.
‘Listen!’ said the Shadow.
‘Listen!’ said the other Shadows.
‘Listen!’ said the child’s voice.
A solemn strain of blended voices, rose into the tower.
It was a very low and mournful strain — a Dirge — and as he listened, Trotty heard his child among the singers.
‘She is dead!’ exclaimed the old man. ‘Meg is dead! Her Spirit calls to me. I hear it!’
‘The Spirit of your child bewails the dead, and mingles with the dead — dead hopes, dead fancies, dead imaginings of youth,’ returned the Bell, ‘but she is living. Learn from her life, a living truth. Learn from the creature dearest to your heart, how bad the bad are born. See every bud and leaf plucked one by one from off the fairest stem, and know how bare and wretched it may be. Follow her! To desperation!’
Each of the shadowy figures stretched its right arm forth, and pointed downward.
‘The Spirit of the Chimes is your companion,’ said the figure.
‘Go! It stands behind you!’
Trotty turned, and saw — the child! The child Will Fern had carried in the street; the child whom Meg had watched, but now, asleep!
‘I carried her myself, to-night,’ said Trotty. ‘In these arms!’
‘Show him what he calls himself,’ said the dark figures, one and all.
The tower opened at his feet. He looked down, and beheld his own form, lying at the bottom, on the outside: crushed and motionless.
‘No more a living man!’ cried Trotty. ‘Dead!’
‘Dead!’ said the figures all together.
‘Gracious Heaven! And the New Year — ’
‘Past,’ said the figures.
‘What!’ he cried, shuddering. ‘I missed my way, and coming on the outside of this tower in the dark, fell down — a year ago?’
‘Nine years ago!’ replied the figures.
As they gave the answer, they recalled their outstretched hands; and where their figures had been, there the Bells were.
And they rung; their time being come again. And once again, vast multitudes of phantoms sprung into existence; once again, were incoherently engaged, as they had been before; once again, faded on the stopping of the Chimes; and dwindled into nothing.
‘What are these?’ he asked his guide. ‘If I am not mad, what are these?’
‘Spirits of the Bells. Their sound upon the air,’ returned the child. ‘They take such shapes and occupations as the hopes and thoughts of mortals, and the recollections they have stored up, give them.’
‘And you,’ said Trotty wildly. ‘What are you?’
‘Hush, hush!’ returned the child. ‘Look here!’
In a poor, mean room; working at the same kind of embroidery which he had often, often seen before her; Meg, his own dear daughter, was presented to his view. He made no effort to imprint his kisses on her face; he did not strive to clasp her to his loving heart; he knew that such endearments were, for him, no more. But, he held his trembling breath, and brushed away the blinding tears, that he might look upon her; that he might only see her.
Ah! Changed. Changed. The light of the clear eye, how dimmed. The bloom, how faded from the cheek. Beautiful she was, as she had ever been, but Hope, Hope, Hope, oh where was the fresh Hope that had spoken to him like a voice!
She looked up from her work, at a companion. Following her eyes, the old man started back.
In the woman grown, he recognised her at a glance. In the long silken hair, he saw the self-same curls; around the lips, the child’s expression lingering still. See! In the eyes, now turned inquiringly on Meg, there shone the very look that scanned those features when he brought her home!
Then what was this, beside him!
Looking with awe into its face, he saw a something reigning there: a lofty something, undefined and indistinct, which made it hardly more than a remembrance of that child — as yonder figure might be — yet it was the same: the same: and wore the dress.
Hark. They were speaking!
‘Meg,’ said Lilian, hesitating. ‘How often you raise your head from your work to look at me!’
‘Are my looks so altered, that they frighten you?’ asked Meg.
‘Nay, dear! But you smile at that, yourself! Why not smile, when you look at me, Meg?’
‘I do so. Do I not?’ she answered: smiling on her.
‘Now you do,’ said Lilian, ‘but not usually. When you think I’m busy, and don’t see you, you look so anxious and so doubtful, that I hardly like to raise my eyes. There is little cause for smiling in this hard and toilsome life, but you were once so cheerful.’
‘Am I not now!’ cried Meg, speaking in a tone of strange alarm, and rising to embrace her. ‘Do I make our weary life more weary to you, Lilian!’
‘You have been the only thing that made it life,’ said Lilian, fervently kissing her; ‘sometimes the only thing that made me care to live so, Meg. Such work, such work! So many hours, so many days, so many long, long nights of hopeless, cheerless, never-ending work — not to heap up riches, not to live grandly or gaily, not to live upon enough, however coarse; but to earn bare bread; to scrape together just enough to toil upon, and want upon, and keep alive in us the consciousness of our hard fate! Oh Meg, Meg!’ she raised her voice and twined her arms about her as she spoke, like one in pain. ‘How can the cruel world go round, and bear to look upon such lives!’
‘Lilly!’ said Meg, soothing her, and putting back her hair from her wet face. ‘Why, Lilly! You! So pretty and so young!’
‘Oh Meg!’ she interrupted, holding her at arm’s-length, and looking in her face imploringly. ‘The worst of all, the worst of all! Strike me old, Meg! Wither me, and shrivel me, and free me from the dreadful thoughts that tempt me in my youth!’
Trotty turned to look upon his guide. But the Spirit of the child had taken flight. Was gone.
Neither did he himself remain in the same place; for, Sir Joseph Bowley, Friend and Father of the Poor, held a great festivity at Bowley Hall, in honour of the natal day of Lady Bowley. And as Lady Bowley had been born on New Year’s Day (which the local newspapers considered an especial pointing of the finger of Providence to number One, as Lady Bowley’s destined figure in Creation), it was on a New Year’s Day that this festivity took place.
Bowley Hall was full of visitors. The red-faced gentleman was there, Mr. Filer was there, the great Alderman Cute was there — Alderman Cute had a sympathetic feeling with great people, and had considerably improved his acquaintance with Sir Joseph Bowley on the strength of his attentive letter: indeed had become quite a friend of the family since then — and many guests were there. Trotty’s ghost was there, wandering about, poor phantom, drearily; and looking for its guide.
There was to be a great dinner in the Great Hall. At which Sir Joseph Bowley, in his celebrated character of Friend and Father of the Poor, was to make his great speech. Certain plum-puddings were to be eaten by his Friends and Children in another Hall first; and, at a given signal, Friends and Children flocking in among their Friends and Fathers, were to form a family assemblage, with not one manly eye therein unmoistened by emotion.
But, there was more than this to happen. Even more than this. Sir Joseph Bowley, Baronet and Member of Parliament, was to play a match at skittles — real skittles — with his tenants!
‘Which quite reminds me,’ said Alderman Cute, ‘of the days of old King Hal, stout King Hal, bluff King Hal. Ah! Fine character!’
‘Very,’ said Mr. Filer, dryly. ‘For marrying women and murdering ’em. Considerably more than the average number of wives by the bye.’
‘You’ll marry the beautiful ladies, and not murder ’em, eh?’ said Alderman Cute to the heir of Bowley, aged twelve. ‘Sweet boy! We shall have this little gentleman in Parliament now,’ said the Alderman, holding him by the shoulders, and looking as reflective as he could, ‘before we know where we are. We shall hear of his successes at the poll; his speeches in the House; his overtures from Governments; his brilliant achievements of all kinds; ah! we shall make our little orations about him in the Common Council, I’ll be bound; before we have time to look about us!’
‘Oh, the difference of shoes and stockings!’ Trotty thought. But his heart yearned towards the child, for the love of those same shoeless and stockingless boys, predestined (by the Alderman) to turn out bad, who might have been the children of poor Meg.
‘Richard,’ moaned Trotty, roaming among the company, to and fro; ‘where is he? I can’t find Richard! Where is Richard?’ Not likely to be there, if still alive! But Trotty’s grief and solitude confused him; and he still went wandering among the gallant company, looking for his guide, and saying, ‘Where is Richard? Show me Richard!’
He was wandering thus, when he encountered Mr. Fish, the confidential Secretary: in great agitation.
‘Bless my heart and soul!’ cried Mr. Fish. ‘Where’s Alderman Cute? Has anybody seen the Alderman?’
Seen the Alderman? Oh dear! Who could ever help seeing the Alderman? He was so considerate, so affable, he bore so much in mind the natural desires of folks to see him, that if he had a fault, it was the being constantly On View. And wherever the great people were, there, to be sure, attracted by the kindred sympathy between great souls, was Cute.
Several voices cried that he was in the circle round Sir Joseph. Mr. Fish made way there; found him; and took him secretly into a window near at hand. Trotty joined them. Not of his own accord. He felt that his steps were led in that direction.
‘My dear Alderman Cute,’ said Mr. Fish. ‘A little more this way. The most dreadful circumstance has occurred. I have this moment received the intelligence. I think it will be best not to acquaint Sir Joseph with it till the day is over. You understand Sir Joseph, and will give me your opinion. The most frightful and deplorable event!’
‘Fish!’ returned the Alderman. ‘Fish! My good fellow, what is the matter? Nothing revolutionary, I hope! No — no attempted interference with the magistrates?’
‘Deedles, the banker,’ gasped the Secretary. ‘Deedles Brothers — who was to have been here to-day — high in office in the Goldsmiths’ Company — ’
‘Not stopped!’ exclaimed the Alderman, ‘It can’t be!’
‘Put a double-barrelled pistol to his mouth, in his own counting house,’ said Mr. Fish, ‘and blew his brains out. No motive. Princely circumstances!’
‘Circumstances!’ exclaimed the Alderman. ‘A man of noble fortune. One of the most respectable of men. Suicide, Mr. Fish! By his own hand!’
‘This very morning,’ returned Mr. Fish.
‘Oh the brain, the brain!’ exclaimed the pious Alderman, lifting up his hands. ‘Oh the nerves, the nerves; the mysteries of this machine called Man! Oh the little that unhinges it: poor creatures that we are! Perhaps a dinner, Mr. Fish. Perhaps the conduct of his son, who, I have heard, ran very wild, and was in the habit of drawing bills upon him without the least authority! A most respectable man. One of the most respectable men I ever knew! A lamentable instance, Mr. Fish. A public calamity! I shall make a point of wearing the deepest mourning. A most respectable man! But there is One above. We must submit, Mr. Fish. We must submit!’
What, Alderman! No word of Putting Down? Remember, Justice, your high moral boast and pride. Come, Alderman! Balance those scales. Throw me into this, the empty one, no dinner, and Nature’s founts in some poor woman, dried by starving misery and rendered obdurate to claims for which her offspring hasauthority in holy mother Eve. Weigh me the two, you Daniel, going to judgment, when your day shall come! Weigh them, in the eyes of suffering thousands, audience (not unmindful) of the grim farce you play. Or supposing that you strayed from your five wits — it’s not so far to go, but that it might be — and laid hands upon that throat of yours, warning your fellows (if you have a fellow) how they croak their comfortable wickedness to raving heads and stricken hearts. What then?
The words rose up in Trotty’s breast, as if they had been spoken by some other voice within him. Alderman Cute pledged himself to Mr. Fish that he would assist him in breaking the melancholy catastrophe to Sir Joseph when the day was over. Then, before they parted, wringing Mr. Fish’s hand in bitterness of soul, he said, ‘The most respectable of men!’ And added that he hardly knew (not even he), why such afflictions were allowed on earth.
‘It’s almost enough to make one think, if one didn’t know better,’ said Alderman Cute, ‘that at times some motion of a capsizing nature was going on in things, which affected the general economy of the social fabric. Deedles Brothers!’
The skittle-playing came off with immense success. Sir Joseph knocked the pins about quite skilfully; Master Bowley took an innings at a shorter distance also; and everybody said that now, when a Baronet and the Son of a Baronet played at skittles, the country was coming round again, as fast as it could come.
At its proper time, the Banquet was served up. Trotty involuntarily repaired to the Hall with the rest, for he felt himself conducted thither by some stronger impulse than his own free will. The sight was gay in the extreme; the ladies were very handsome; the visitors delighted, cheerful, and good-tempered. When the lower doors were opened, and the people flocked in, in their rustic dresses, the beauty of the spectacle was at its height; but Trotty only murmured more and more, ‘Where is Richard! He should help and comfort her! I can’t see Richard!’
There had been some speeches made; and Lady Bowley’s health had been proposed; and Sir Joseph Bowley had returned thanks, and had made his great speech, showing by various pieces of evidence that he was the born Friend and Father, and so forth; and had given as a Toast, his Friends and Children, and the Dignity of Labour; when a slight disturbance at the bottom of the Hall attracted Toby’s notice. After some confusion, noise, and opposition, one man broke through the rest, and stood forward by himself.
Not Richard. No. But one whom he had thought of, and had looked for, many times. In a scantier supply of light, he might have doubted the identity of that worn man, so old, and grey, and bent; but with a blaze of lamps upon his gnarled and knotted head, he knew Will Fern as soon as he stepped forth.
‘What is this!’ exclaimed Sir Joseph, rising. ‘Who gave this man admittance? This is a criminal from prison! Mr. Fish, sir, will you have the goodness — ’
‘A minute!’ said Will Fern. ‘A minute! My Lady, you was born on this day along with a New Year. Get me a minute’s leave to speak.’
She made some intercession for him. Sir Joseph took his seat again, with native dignity.
The ragged visitor — for he was miserably dressed — looked round upon the company, and made his homage to them with a humble bow.
‘Gentlefolks!’ he said. ‘You’ve drunk the Labourer. Look at me!’
‘Just come from jail,’ said Mr. Fish.
‘Just come from jail,’ said Will. ‘And neither for the first time, nor the second, nor the third, nor yet the fourth.’
Mr. Filer was heard to remark testily, that four times was over the average; and he ought to be ashamed of himself.
‘Gentlefolks!’ repeated Will Fern. ‘Look at me! You see I’m at the worst. Beyond all hurt or harm; beyond your help; for the time when your kind words or kind actions could have done me good,’ — he struck his hand upon his breast, and shook his head, ‘is gone, with the scent of last year’s beans or clover on the air. Let me say a word for these,’ pointing to the labouring people in the Hall; ‘and when you’re met together, hear the real Truth spoke out for once.’
‘There’s not a man here,’ said the host, ‘who would have him for a spokesman.’
‘Like enough, Sir Joseph. I believe it. Not the less true, perhaps, is what I say. Perhaps that’s a proof on it. Gentlefolks, I’ve lived many a year in this place. You may see the cottage from the sunk fence over yonder. I’ve seen the ladies draw it in their books, a hundred times. It looks well in a picter, I’ve heerd say; but there an’t weather in picters, and maybe ’tis fitter for that, than for a place to live in. Well! I lived there. How hard — how bitter hard, I lived there, I won’t say. Any day in the year, and every day, you can judge for your own selves.’
He spoke as he had spoken on the night when Trotty found him in the street. His voice was deeper and more husky, and had a trembling in it now and then; but he never raised it passionately, and seldom lifted it above the firm stern level of the homely facts he stated.
‘’Tis harder than you think for, gentlefolks, to grow up decent, commonly decent, in such a place. That I growed up a man and not a brute, says something for me — as I was then. As I am now, there’s nothing can be said for me or done for me. I’m past it.’
‘I am glad this man has entered,’ observed Sir Joseph, looking round serenely. ‘Don’t disturb him. It appears to be Ordained. He is an example: a living example. I hope and trust, and confidently expect, that it will not be lost upon my Friends here.’
‘I dragged on,’ said Fern, after a moment’s silence, ‘somehow. Neither me nor any other man knows how; but so heavy, that I couldn’t put a cheerful face upon it, or make believe that I was anything but what I was. Now, gentlemen — you gentlemen that sits at Sessions — when you see a man with discontent writ on his face, you says to one another, “He’s suspicious. I has my doubts,” says you, “about Will Fern. Watch that fellow!” I don’t say, gentlemen, it ain’t quite nat’ral, but I say ’tis so; and from that hour, whatever Will Fern does, or lets alone — all one — it goes against him.’
Alderman Cute stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat-pockets, and leaning back in his chair, and smiling, winked at a neighbouring chandelier. As much as to say, ‘Of course! I told you so. The common cry! Lord bless you, we are up to all this sort of thing — myself and human nature.’
‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this. I tries to live elsewhere. And I’m a vagabond. To jail with him! I comes back here. I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks — who don’t? — a limber branch or two. To jail with him! One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun. To jail with him! I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again. To jail with him! I cuts a stick. To jail with him! I eats a rotten apple or a turnip. To jail with him! It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road. To jail with him! At last, the constable, the keeper — anybody — finds me anywhere, a-doing anything. To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’
The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’
‘Do I say this to serve my cause!’ cried Fern. ‘Who can give me back my liberty, who can give me back my good name, who can give me back my innocent niece? Not all the Lords and Ladies in wide England. But, gentlemen, gentlemen, dealing with other men like me, begin at the right end. Give us, in mercy, better homes when we’re a-lying in our cradles; give us better food when we’re a-working for our lives; give us kinder laws to bring us back when we’re a-going wrong; and don’t set jail, jail, jail, afore us, everywhere we turn. There an’t a condescension you can show the Labourer then, that he won’t take, as ready and as grateful as a man can be; for, he has a patient, peaceful, willing heart. But you must put his rightful spirit in him first; for, whether he’s a wreck and ruin such as me, or is like one of them that stand here now, his spirit is divided from you at this time. Bring it back, gentlefolks, bring it back! Bring it back, afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes — in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”’
A sudden stir and agitation took place in Hall. Trotty thought at first, that several had risen to eject the man; and hence this change in its appearance. But, another moment showed him that the room and all the company had vanished from his sight, and that his daughter was again before him, seated at her work. But in a poorer, meaner garret than before; and with no Lilian by her side.
The frame at which she had worked, was put away upon a shelf and covered up. The chair in which she had sat, was turned against the wall. A history was written in these little things, and in Meg’s grief-worn face. Oh! who could fail to read it!
Meg strained her eyes upon her work until it was too dark to see the threads; and when the night closed in, she lighted her feeble candle and worked on. Still her old father was invisible about her; looking down upon her; loving her — how dearly loving her! — and talking to her in a tender voice about the old times, and the Bells. Though he knew, poor Trotty, though he knew she could not hear him.
A great part of the evening had worn away, when a knock came at her door. She opened it. A man was on the threshold. A slouching, moody, drunken sloven, wasted by intemperance and vice, and with his matted hair and unshorn beard in wild disorder; but, with some traces on him, too, of having been a man of good proportion and good features in his youth.
He stopped until he had her leave to enter; and she, retiring a pace or two from the open door, silently and sorrowfully looked upon him. Trotty had his wish. He saw Richard.
‘May I come in, Margaret?’
‘Yes! Come in. Come in!’
It was well that Trotty knew him before he spoke; for with any doubt remaining on his mind, the harsh discordant voice would have persuaded him that it was not Richard but some other man.
There were but two chairs in the room. She gave him hers, and stood at some short distance from him, waiting to hear what he had to say.
He sat, however, staring vacantly at the floor; with a lustreless and stupid smile. A spectacle of such deep degradation, of such abject hopelessness, of such a miserable downfall, that she put her hands before her face and turned away, lest he should see how much it moved her.
Roused by the rustling of her dress, or some such trifling sound, he lifted his head, and began to speak as if there had been no pause since he entered.
‘Still at work, Margaret? You work late.’
‘I generally do.’
‘So she said. She said you never tired; or never owned that you tired. Not all the time you lived together. Not even when you fainted, between work and fasting. But I told you that, the last time I came.’
‘You did,’ she answered. ‘And I implored you to tell me nothing more; and you made me a solemn promise, Richard, that you never would.’
‘A solemn promise,’ he repeated, with a drivelling laugh and vacant stare. ‘A solemn promise. To be sure. A solemn promise!’ Awakening, as it were, after a time; in the same manner as before; he said with sudden animation:
‘How can I help it, Margaret? What am I to do? She has been to me again!’
‘Again!’ cried Meg, clasping her hands. ‘O, does she think of me so often! Has she been again!’
‘Twenty times again,’ said Richard. ‘Margaret, she haunts me. She comes behind me in the street, and thrusts it in my hand. I hear her foot upon the ashes when I’m at my work (ha, ha! that an’t often), and before I can turn my head, her voice is in my ear, saying, “Richard, don’t look round. For Heaven’s love, give her this!” She brings it where I live: she sends it in letters; she taps at the window and lays it on the sill. What can I do? Look at it!’
He held out in his hand a little purse, and chinked the money it enclosed.
‘Hide it,’ said Meg. ‘Hide it! When she comes again, tell her, Richard, that I love her in my soul. That I never lie down to sleep, but I bless her, and pray for her. That, in my solitary work, I never cease to have her in my thoughts. That she is with me, night and day. That if I died to-morrow, I would remember her with my last breath. But, that I cannot look upon it!’
He slowly recalled his hand, and crushing the purse together, said with a kind of drowsy thoughtfulness:
‘I told her so. I told her so, as plain as words could speak. I’ve taken this gift back and left it at her door, a dozen times since then. But when she came at last, and stood before me, face to face, what could I do?’
‘You saw her!’ exclaimed Meg. ‘You saw her! O, Lilian, my sweet girl! O, Lilian, Lilian!’
‘I saw her,’ he went on to say, not answering, but engaged in the same slow pursuit of his own thoughts. ‘There she stood: trembling! “How does she look, Richard? Does she ever speak of me? Is she thinner? My old place at the table: what’s in my old place? And the frame she taught me our old work on — has she burnt it, Richard!” There she was. I heard her say it.’
Meg checked her sobs, and with the tears streaming from her eyes, bent over him to listen. Not to lose a breath.
With his arms resting on his knees; and stooping forward in his chair, as if what he said were written on the ground in some half legible character, which it was his occupation to decipher and connect; he went on.
‘“Richard, I have fallen very low; and you may guess how much I have suffered in having this sent back, when I can bear to bring it in my hand to you. But you loved her once, even in my memory, dearly. Others stepped in between you; fears, and jealousies, and doubts, and vanities, estranged you from her; but you did love her, even in my memory!” I suppose I did,’ he said, interrupting himself for a moment. ‘I did! That’s neither here nor there — “O Richard, if you ever did; if you have any memory for what is gone and lost, take it to her once more. Once more! Tell her how I laid my head upon your shoulder, where her own head might have lain, and was so humble to you, Richard. Tell her that you looked into my face, and saw the beauty which she used to praise, all gone: all gone: and in its place, a poor, wan, hollow cheek, that she would weep to see. Tell her everything, and take it back, and she will not refuse again. She will not have the heart!”’
So he sat musing, and repeating the last words, until he woke again, and rose.
‘You won’t take it, Margaret?’
She shook her head, and motioned an entreaty to him to leave her.
‘Good night, Margaret.’
He turned to look upon her; struck by her sorrow, and perhaps by the pity for himself which trembled in her voice. It was a quick and rapid action; and for the moment some flash of his old bearing kindled in his form. In the next he went as he had come. Nor did this glimmer of a quenched fire seem to light him to a quicker sense of his debasement.
In any mood, in any grief, in any torture of the mind or body, Meg’s work must be done. She sat down to her task, and plied it. Night, midnight. Still she worked.
She had a meagre fire, the night being very cold; and rose at intervals to mend it. The Chimes rang half-past twelve while she was thus engaged; and when they ceased she heard a gentle knocking at the door. Before she could so much as wonder who was there, at that unusual hour, it opened.
O Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should be, look at this. O Youth and Beauty, blest and blessing all within your reach, and working out the ends of your Beneficent Creator, look at this!
She saw the entering figure; screamed its name; cried ‘Lilian!’
It was swift, and fell upon its knees before her: clinging to her dress.
‘Up, dear! Up! Lilian! My own dearest!’
‘Never more, Meg; never more! Here! Here! Close to you, holding to you, feeling your dear breath upon my face!’
‘Sweet Lilian! Darling Lilian! Child of my heart — no mother’s love can be more tender — lay your head upon my breast!’
‘Never more, Meg. Never more! When I first looked into your face, you knelt before me. On my knees before you, let me die. Let it be here!’
‘You have come back. My Treasure! We will live together, work together, hope together, die together!’
‘Ah! Kiss my lips, Meg; fold your arms about me; press me to your bosom; look kindly on me; but don’t raise me. Let it be here. Let me see the last of your dear face upon my knees!’
O Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should be, look at this! O Youth and Beauty, working out the ends of your Beneficent Creator, look at this!
‘Forgive me, Meg! So dear, so dear! Forgive me! I know you do, I see you do, but say so, Meg!’
She said so, with her lips on Lilian’s cheek. And with her arms twined round — she knew it now — a broken heart.
‘His blessing on you, dearest love. Kiss me once more! He suffered her to sit beside His feet, and dry them with her hair. O Meg, what Mercy and Compassion!’
As she died, the Spirit of the child returning, innocent and radiant, touched the old man with its hand, and beckoned him away.