Charles Dickens’s The Drunkard’s Death.

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 12.

THE DRUNKARD’S DEATH.

 

We will be bold to say, that there is scarcely a man in the constant habit of walking, day after day, through any of the crowded thoroughfares of London, who cannot recollect among the people whom he ‘knows by sight,’ to use a familiar phrase, some being of abject and wretched appearance whom he remembers to have seen in a very different condition, whom he has observed sinking lower and lower, by almost imperceptible degrees, and the shabbiness and utter destitution of whose appearance, at last, strike forcibly and painfully upon him, as he passes by.  Is there any man who has mixed much with society, or whose avocations have caused him to mingle, at one time or other, with a great number of people, who cannot call to mind the time when some shabby, miserable wretch, in rags and filth, who shuffles past him now in all the squalor of disease and poverty, with a respectable tradesman, or clerk, or a man following some thriving pursuit, with good prospects, and decent means?—or cannot any of our readers call to mind from among the list of their quondam acquaintance, some fallen and degraded man, who lingers about the pavement in hungry misery—from whom every one turns coldly away, and who preserves himself from sheer starvation, nobody knows how?  Alas! such cases are of too frequent occurrence to be rare items in any man’s experience; and but too often arise from one cause – drunkenness – that fierce rage for the slow, sure poison, that oversteps every other consideration; that casts aside wife, children, friends, happiness, and station; and hurries its victims madly on to degradation and death.

Some of these men have been impelled, by misfortune and misery, to the vice that has degraded them.  The ruin of worldly expectations, the death of those they loved, the sorrow that slowly consumes, but will not break the heart, has driven them wild; and they present the hideous spectacle of madmen, slowly dying by their own hands.  But by far the greater part have wilfully, and with open eyes, plunged into the gulf from which the man who once enters it never rises more, but into which he sinks deeper and deeper down, until recovery is hopeless.

Such a man as this once stood by the bedside of his dying wife, while his children knelt around, and mingled loud bursts of grief with their innocent prayers.  The room was scantily and meanly furnished; and it needed but a glance at the pale form from which the light of life was fast passing away, to know that grief, and want, and anxious care, had been busy at the heart for many a weary year.  An elderly woman, with her face bathed in tears, was supporting the head of the dying woman—her daughter—on her arm.  But it was not towards her that the was face turned; it was not her hand that the cold and trembling fingers clasped; they pressed the husband’s arm; the eyes so soon to be closed in death rested on his face, and the man shook beneath their gaze.  His dress was slovenly and disordered, his face inflamed, his eyes bloodshot and heavy.  He had been summoned from some wild debauch to the bed of sorrow and death.

A shaded lamp by the bed-side cast a dim light on the figures around, and left the remainder of the room in thick, deep shadow.  The silence of night prevailed without the house, and the stillness of death was in the chamber.  A watch hung over the mantel-shelf; its low ticking was the only sound that broke the profound quiet, but it was a solemn one, for well they knew, who heard it, that before it had recorded the passing of another hour, it would beat the knell of a departed spirit.

It is a dreadful thing to wait and watch for the approach of death; to know that hope is gone, and recovery impossible; and to sit and count the dreary hours through long, long nights – such nights as only watchers by the bed of sickness know.  It chills the blood to hear the dearest secrets of the heart—the pent-up, hidden secrets of many years—poured forth by the unconscious, helpless being before you; and to think how little the reserve and cunning of a whole life will avail, when fever and delirium tear off the mask at last.  Strange tales have been told in the wanderings of dying men; tales so full of guilt and crime, that those who stood by the sick person’s couch have fled in horror and affright, lest they should be scared to madness by what they heard and saw; and many a wretch has died alone, raving of deeds the very name of which has driven the boldest man away.

But no such ravings were to be heard at the bed-side by which the children knelt.  Their half-stifled sobs and moaning alone broke the silence of the lonely chamber.  And when at last the mother’s grasp relaxed, and, turning one look from the children to the father, she vainly strove to speak, and fell backward on the pillow, all was so calm and tranquil that she seemed to sink to sleep.  They leant over her; they called upon her name, softly at first, and then in the loud and piercing tones of desperation.  But there was no reply.  They listened for her breath, but no sound came.  They felt for the palpitation of the heart, but no faint throb responded to the touch.  That heart was broken, and she was dead!

The husband sunk into a chair by the bed-side, and clasped his hands upon his burning forehead.  He gazed from child to child, but when a weeping eye met his, he quailed beneath its look.  No word of comfort was whispered in his ear, no look of kindness lighted on his face.  All shrunk from and avoided him; and when at last he staggered from the room, no one sought to follow or console the widower.

The time had been when many a friend would have crowded round him in his affliction, and many a heartfelt condolence would have met him in his grief.  Where were they now?  One by one, friends, relations, the commonest acquaintance even, had fallen off from and deserted the drunkard.  His wife alone had clung to him in good and evil, in sickness and poverty, and how had he rewarded her?  He had reeled from the tavern to her bed-side in time to see her die.

He rushed from the house, and walked swiftly through the streets.  Remorse, fear, shame, all crowded on his mind.  Stupefied with drink, and bewildered with the scene he had just witnessed, he re-entered the tavern he had quitted shortly before.  Glass succeeded glass.  His blood mounted, and his brain whirled round.  Death!  Every one must die, and why not she?  She was too good for him; her relations had often told him so.  Curses on them!  Had they not deserted her, and left her to whine away the time at home?  Well—she was dead, and happy perhaps.  It was better as it was.  Another glass—one more!  Hurrah!  It was a merry life while it lasted; and he would make the most of it.

Time went on; the three children who were left to him, grew up, and were children no longer.  The father remained the same—poorer, shabbier, and more dissolute-looking, but the same confirmed and irreclaimable drunkard.  The boys had, long ago, run wild in the streets, and left him; the girl alone remained, but she worked hard, and words or blows could always procure him something for the tavern.  So he went on in the old course, and a merry life he led.

One night, as early as ten o’clock—for the girl had been sick for many days, and there was, consequently, little to spend at the public-house—he bent his steps homeward, bethinking himself that if he would have her able to earn money, it would be as well to apply to the parish surgeon, or, at all events, to take the trouble of inquiring what ailed her, which he had not yet thought it worth while to do.  It was a wet December night; the wind blew piercing cold, and the rain poured heavily down.  He begged a few halfpence from a passer-by, and having bought a small loaf (for it was his interest to keep the girl alive, if he could), he shuffled onwards as fast as the wind and rain would let him.

At the back of Fleet-street, and lying between it and the water-side, are several mean and narrow courts, which form a portion of Whitefriars: it was to one of these that he directed his steps.

The alley into which he turned, might, for filth and misery, have competed with the darkest corner of this ancient sanctuary in its dirtiest and most lawless time.  The houses, varying from two stories in height to four, were stained with every indescribable hue that long exposure to the weather, damp, and rottenness can impart to tenements composed originally of the roughest and coarsest materials.  The windows were patched with paper, and stuffed with the foulest rags; the doors were falling from their hinges; poles with lines on which to dry clothes, projected from every casement, and sounds of quarrelling or drunkenness issued from every room.

The solitary oil lamp in the centre of the court had been blown out, either by the violence of the wind or the act of some inhabitant who had excellent reasons for objecting to his residence being rendered too conspicuous; and the only light which fell upon the broken and uneven pavement, was derived from the miserable candles that here and there twinkled in the rooms of such of the more fortunate residents as could afford to indulge in so expensive a luxury.  A gutter ran down the centre of the alley—all the sluggish odours of which had been called forth by the rain; and as the wind whistled through the old houses, the doors and shutters creaked upon their hinges, and the windows shook in their frames, with a violence which every moment seemed to threaten the destruction of the whole place.

The man whom we have followed into this den, walked on in the darkness, sometimes stumbling into the main gutter, and at others into some branch repositories of garbage which had been formed by the rain, until he reached the last house in the court.  The door, or rather what was left of it, stood ajar, for the convenience of the numerous lodgers; and he proceeded to grope his way up the old and broken stair, to the attic story.

He was within a step or two of his room door, when it opened, and a girl, whose miserable and emaciated appearance was only to be equalled by that of the candle which she shaded with her hand, peeped anxiously out.

‘Is that you, father?’ said the girl.

‘Who else should it be?’ replied the man gruffly.  ‘What are you trembling at?  It’s little enough that I’ve had to drink to-day, for there’s no drink without money, and no money without work.  What the devil’s the matter with the girl?’

‘I am not well, father—not at all well,’ said the girl, bursting into tears.

‘Ah!’ replied the man, in the tone of a person who is compelled to admit a very unpleasant fact

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