Charles Dickens’s The Bloomsbury Christening.

Between 1833 and 1836, the Victorian writer Charles Dickens wrote a number of sketches which were originally published in various newspapers and other periodicals including The Morning Chronicle, The Evening Chronicle, The Monthly Magazine, The Carlton Chronicle and Bell’s Weekly Messenger. Many were published under the pen name of Boz, which Dickens adopted early on in his career as a writer and journalist. The popular sketches were reproduced in 1836 in a collected work, Sketches by Boz, which contained 56 sketches divided into four sections: Our Parish (7 sketches) Scenes (25 sketches), Characters (12 sketches) and Tales (12 sketches). The material in the first three sections consists of portraits of London life and the last section comprised fictional stories.

 

Sketches by Boz. Tales, Chapter 11.

THE BLOOMSBURY CHRISTENING.

 

Mr. Nicodemus Dumps, or, as his acquaintance called him, ‘long Dumps,’ was a bachelor, six feet high, and fifty years old: cross, cadaverous, odd, and ill-natured.  He was never happy but when he was miserable; and always miserable when he had the best reason to be happy.  The only real comfort of his existence was to make everybody about him wretched—then he might be truly said to enjoy life.  He was afflicted with a situation in the Bank worth five hundred a-year, and he rented a ‘first-floor furnished,’ at Pentonville, which he originally took because it commanded a dismal prospect of an adjacent churchyard.  He was familiar with the face of every tombstone, and the burial service seemed to excite his strongest sympathy.  His friends said he was surly—he insisted he was nervous; they thought him a lucky dog, but he protested that he was ‘the most unfortunate man in the world.’  Cold as he was, and wretched as he declared himself to be, he was not wholly unsusceptible of attachments.  He revered the memory of Hoyle, as he was himself an admirable and imperturbable whist-player, and he chuckled with delight at a fretful and impatient adversary.  He adored King Herod for his massacre of the innocents; and if he hated one thing more than another, it was a child.  However, he could hardly be said to hate anything in particular, because he disliked everything in general; but perhaps his greatest antipathies were cabs, old women, doors that would not shut, musical amateurs, and omnibus cads.  He subscribed to the ‘Society for the Suppression of Vice’ for the pleasure of putting a stop to any harmless amusements; and he contributed largely towards the support of two itinerant methodist parsons, in the amiable hope that if circumstances rendered any people happy in this world, they might perchance be rendered miserable by fears for the next.

Mr. Dumps had a nephew who had been married about a year, and who was somewhat of a favourite with his uncle, because he was an admirable subject to exercise his misery-creating powers upon.  Mr. Charles Kitterbell was a small, sharp, spare man, with a very large head, and a broad, good-humoured countenance.  He looked like a faded giant, with the head and face partially restored; and he had a cast in his eye which rendered it quite impossible for any one with whom he conversed to know where he was looking.  His eyes appeared fixed on the wall, and he was staring you out of countenance; in short, there was no catching his eye, and perhaps it is a merciful dispensation of Providence that such eyes are not catching.  In addition to these characteristics, it may be added that Mr. Charles Kitterbell was one of the most credulous and matter-of-fact little personages that ever took to himself a wife, and for himself a house in Great Russell-street, Bedford-square.  (Uncle Dumps always dropped the ‘Bedford-square,’ and inserted in lieu thereof the dreadful words ‘Tottenham-court-road.’)

‘No, but, uncle, ’pon my life you must—you must promise to be godfather,’ said Mr. Kitterbell, as he sat in conversation with his respected relative one morning.

‘I cannot, indeed I cannot,’ returned Dumps.

‘Well, but why not?  Jemima will think it very unkind.  It’s very little trouble.’

‘As to the trouble,’ rejoined the most unhappy man in existence, ‘I don’t mind that; but my nerves are in that state—I cannot go through the ceremony.  You know I don’t like going out.—For God’s sake, Charles, don’t fidget with that stool so; you’ll drive me mad.’  Mr. Kitterbell, quite regardless of his uncle’s nerves, had occupied himself for some ten minutes in describing a circle on the floor with one leg of the office-stool on which he was seated, keeping the other three up in the air, and holding fast on by the desk.

‘I beg your pardon, uncle,’ said Kitterbell, quite abashed, suddenly releasing his hold of the desk, and bringing the three wandering legs back to the floor, with a force sufficient to drive them through it.

‘But come, don’t refuse.  If it’s a boy, you know, we must have two godfathers.’

If it’s a boy!’ said Dumps; ‘why can’t you say at once whether it is a boy or not?’

‘I should be very happy to tell you, but it’s impossible I can undertake to say whether it’s a girl or a boy, if the child isn’t born yet.’

‘Not born yet!’ echoed Dumps, with a gleam of hope lighting up his lugubrious visage.  ‘Oh, well, it may be a girl, and then you won’t want me; or if it is a boy, it may die before it is christened.’

‘I hope not,’ said the father that expected to be, looking very grave.

‘I hope not,’ acquiesced Dumps, evidently pleased with the subject.  He was beginning to get happy.  ‘I hope not, but distressing cases frequently occur during the first two or three days of a child’s life; fits, I am told, are exceedingly common, and alarming convulsions are almost matters of course.’

‘Lord, uncle!’ ejaculated little Kitterbell, gasping for breath.

‘Yes; my landlady was confined—let me see—last Tuesday: an uncommonly fine boy.  On the Thursday night the nurse was sitting with him upon her knee before the fire, and he was as well as possible.  Suddenly he became black in the face, and alarmingly spasmodic.  The medical man was instantly sent for, and every remedy was tried, but—’

‘How frightful!’ interrupted the horror-stricken Kitterbell.

‘The child died, of course.  However, your child may not die; and if it should be a boy, and should live to be christened, why I suppose I must be one of the sponsors.’  Dumps was evidently good-natured on the faith of his anticipations.

‘Thank you, uncle,’ said his agitated nephew, grasping his hand as warmly as if he had done him some essential service.  ‘Perhaps I had better not tell Mrs. K. what you have mentioned.’

‘Why, if she’s low-spirited, perhaps you had better not mention the melancholy case to her,’ returned Dumps, who of course had invented the whole story; ‘though perhaps it would be but doing your duty as a husband to prepare her for the worst.’

A day or two afterwards, as Dumps was perusing a morning paper at the chop-house which he regularly frequented, the following-paragraph met his eyes:—

Births.—On Saturday, the 18th inst., in Great Russell-street, the lady of Charles Kitterbell, Esq., of a son.’

‘It is a boy!’ he exclaimed, dashing down the paper, to the astonishment of the waiters.  ‘It is a boy!’  But he speedily regained his composure as his eye rested on a paragraph quoting the number of infant deaths from the bills of mortality.

Six weeks passed away, and as no communication had been received from the Kitterbells, Dumps was beginning to flatter himself that the child was dead, when the following note painfully resolved his doubts:—

Great Russell-street,
Monday morning.

‘Dear Uncle,—You will be delighted to hear that my dear Jemima has left her room, and that your future godson is getting on capitally.  He was very thin at first, but he is getting much larger, and nurse says he is filling out every day.  He cries a good deal, and is a very singular colour, which made Jemima and me rather uncomfortable; but as nurse says it’s natural, and as of course we know nothing about these things yet, we are quite satisfied with what nurse says.  We think he will be a sharp child; and nurse says she’s sure he will, because he never goes to sleep.  You will readily believe that we are all very happy, only we’re a little worn out for want of rest, as he keeps us awake all night; but this we must expect, nurse says, for the first six or eight months.  He has been vaccinated, but in consequence of the operation being rather awkwardly performed, some small particles of glass were introduced into the arm with the matter.  Perhaps this may in some degree account for his being rather fractious; at least, so nurse says.  We propose to have him christened at twelve o’clock on Friday, at Saint George’s church, in Hart-street, by the name of Frederick Charles William.  Pray don’t be later than a quarter before twelve.  We shall have a very few friends in the evening, when of course we shall see you.  I am sorry to say that the dear boy appears rather restless and uneasy to-day: the cause, I fear, is fever.

‘Believe me, dear Uncle,
‘Yours affectionately,
‘Charles Kitterbell.

‘P.S.—I open this note to say that we have just discovered the cause of little Frederick’s restlessness.  It is not fever, as I apprehended, but a small pin, which nurse accidentally stuck in his leg yesterday evening.  We have taken it out, and he appears more composed, though he still sobs a good deal.’

It is almost unnecessary to say that the perusal of the above interesting statement was no great relief to the mind of the hypochondriacal Dumps.  It was impossible to recede, however, and so he put the best face—that is to say, an uncommonly miserable one—upon the matter; and purchased a handsome silver mug for the infant Kitterbell, upon which he ordered the initials ‘F. C. W. K.,’ with the customary untrained grape-vine-looking flourishes, and a large full stop, to be engraved forthwith.

Monday was a fine day, Tuesday was delightful, Wednesday was equal to either, and Thursday was finer than ever; four successive fine days in London!  Hackney-coachmen became revolutionary, and crossing-sweepers began to doubt the existence of a First Cause.  The Morning Herald informed its readers that an old woman in Camden Town had been heard to say that the fineness of the season was ‘unprecedented in the memory of the oldest inhabitant;’ and Islington clerks, with large families and small salaries, left off their black gaiters, disdained to carry their once green cotton umbrellas, and walked to town in the conscious pride of white stockings and cleanly brushed Bluchers.  Dumps beheld all this with an eye of supreme contempt—his triumph was at hand.  He knew that if it had been fine for four weeks instead of four days, it would rain when he went out; he was lugubriously happy in the conviction that Friday would be a wretched day—and so it was.  ‘I knew how it would be,’ said Dumps, as he turned round opposite the Mansion-house at half-past eleven o’clock on the Friday morning.  ‘I knew how it would be.  I am concerned, and that’s enough;’—and certainly the appearance of the day was sufficient to depress the spirits of a much more buoyant-hearted individual than

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