The letter Toby had received from Alderman Cute, was addressed to a great man in the great district of the town. The greatest district of the town. It must have been the greatest district of the town, because it was commonly called ‘the world’ by its inhabitants. The letter positively seemed heavier in Toby’s hand, than another letter. Not because the Alderman had sealed it with a very large coat of arms and no end of wax, but because of the weighty name on the superscription, and the ponderous amount of gold and silver with which it was associated.
‘How different from us!’ thought Toby, in all simplicity and earnestness, as he looked at the direction. ‘Divide the lively turtles in the bills of mortality, by the number of gentlefolks able to buy ’em; and whose share does he take but his own! As to snatching tripe from anybody’s mouth—he’d scorn it!’
With the involuntary homage due to such an exalted character, Toby interposed a corner of his apron between the letter and his fingers.
‘His children,’ said Trotty, and a mist rose before his eyes; ‘his daughters—Gentlemen may win their hearts and marry them; they may be happy wives and mothers; they may be handsome like my darling M-e-’.
He couldn’t finish the name. The final letter swelled in his throat, to the size of the whole alphabet.
‘Never mind,’ thought Trotty. ‘I know what I mean. That’s more than enough for me.’ And with this consolatory rumination, trotted on.
It was a hard frost, that day. The air was bracing, crisp, and clear. The wintry sun, though powerless for warmth, looked brightly down upon the ice it was too weak to melt, and set a radiant glory there. At other times, Trotty might have learned a poor man’s lesson from the wintry sun; but, he was past that, now.
The Year was Old, that day. The patient Year had lived through the reproaches and misuses of its slanderers, and faithfully performed its work. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. It had laboured through the destined round, and now laid down its weary head to die. Shut out from hope, high impulse, active happiness, itself, but active messenger of many joys to others, it made appeal in its decline to have its toiling days and patient hours remembered, and to die in peace. Trotty might have read a poor man’s allegory in the fading year; but he was past that, now.
And only he? Or has the like appeal been ever made, by seventy years at once upon an English labourer’s head, and made in vain!
The streets were full of motion, and the shops were decked out gaily. The New Year, like an Infant Heir to the whole world, was waited for, with welcomes, presents, and rejoicings. There were books and toys for the New Year, glittering trinkets for the New Year, dresses for the New Year, schemes of fortune for the New Year; new inventions to beguile it. Its life was parcelled out in almanacks and pocket-books; the coming of its moons, and stars, and tides, was known beforehand to the moment; all the workings of its seasons in their days and nights, were calculated with as much precision as Mr. Filer could work sums in men and women.
The New Year, the New Year. Everywhere the New Year! The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap, like some drowned mariner’s aboardship. Its patterns were Last Year’s, and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone. Its treasures were mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor!
Trotty had no portion, to his thinking, in the New Year or the Old.
‘Put ’em down, Put ’em down! Facts and Figures, Facts and Figures! Good old Times, Good old Times! Put ’em down, Put ’em down!’—his trot went to that measure, and would fit itself to nothing else.
But, even that one, melancholy as it was, brought him, in due time, to the end of his journey. To the mansion of Sir Joseph Bowley, Member of Parliament.
The door was opened by a Porter. Such a Porter! Not of Toby’s order. Quite another thing. His place was the ticket though; not Toby’s.
This Porter underwent some hard panting before he could speak; having breathed himself by coming incautiously out of his chair, without first taking time to think about it and compose his mind. When he had found his voice—which it took him a long time to do, for it was a long way off, and hidden under a load of meat—he said in a fat whisper,
‘Who’s it from?’
Toby told him.
‘You’re to take it in, yourself,’ said the Porter, pointing to a room at the end of a long passage, opening from the hall. ‘Everything goes straight in, on this day of the year. You’re not a bit too soon; for the carriage is at the door now, and they have only come to town for a couple of hours, a’ purpose.’
Toby wiped his feet (which were quite dry already) with great care, and took the way pointed out to him; observing as he went that it was an awfully grand house, but hushed and covered up, as if the family were in the country. Knocking at the room-door, he was told to enter from within; and doing so found himself in a spacious library, where, at a table strewn with files and papers, were a stately lady in a bonnet; and a not very stately gentleman in black who wrote from her dictation; while another, and an older, and a much statelier gentleman, whose hat and cane were on the table, walked up and down, with one hand in his breast, and looked complacently from time to time at his own picture—a full length; a very full length—hanging over the fireplace.
‘What is this?’ said the last-named gentleman. ‘Mr. Fish, will you have the goodness to attend?’
Mr. Fish begged pardon, and taking the letter from Toby, handed it, with great respect.
‘From Alderman Cute, Sir Joseph.’
‘Is this all? Have you nothing else, Porter?’ inquired Sir Joseph.
Toby replied in the negative.
‘You have no bill or demand upon me—my name is Bowley, Sir Joseph Bowley—of any kind from anybody, have you?’ said Sir Joseph. ‘If you have, present it. There is a cheque-book by the side of Mr. Fish. I allow nothing to be carried into the New Year. Every description of account is settled in this house at the close of the old one. So that if death was to—to—’
‘To cut,’ suggested Mr. Fish.
‘To sever, sir,’ returned Sir Joseph, with great asperity, ‘the cord of existence—my affairs would be found, I hope, in a state of preparation.’
‘My dear Sir Joseph!’ said the lady, who was greatly younger than the gentleman. ‘How shocking!’
‘My lady Bowley,’ returned Sir Joseph, floundering now and then, as in the great depth of his observations, ‘at this season of the year we should think of—of—ourselves. We should look into our—our accounts. We should feel that every return of so eventful a period in human transactions, involves a matter of deep moment between a man and his—and his banker.’
Sir Joseph delivered these words as if he felt the full morality of what he was saying; and desired that even Trotty should have an opportunity of being improved by such discourse. Possibly he had this end before him in still forbearing to break the seal of the letter, and in telling Trotty to wait where he was, a minute.
‘You were desiring Mr. Fish to say, my lady—’ observed Sir Joseph.
‘Mr. Fish has said that, I believe,’ returned his lady, glancing at the letter. ‘But, upon my word, Sir Joseph, I don’t think I can let it go after all. It is so very dear.’
‘What is dear?’ inquired Sir Joseph.
‘That Charity, my love. They only allow two votes for a subscription of five pounds. Really monstrous!’
‘My lady Bowley,’ returned Sir Joseph, ‘you surprise me. Is the luxury of feeling in proportion to the number of votes; or is it, to a rightly constituted mind, in proportion to the number of applicants, and the wholesome state of mind to which their canvassing reduces them? Is there no excitement of the purest kind in having two votes to dispose of among fifty people?’
‘Not to me, I acknowledge,’ replied the lady. ‘It bores one. Besides, one can’t oblige one’s acquaintance. But you are the Poor Man’s Friend, you know, Sir Joseph. You think otherwise.’
‘I am the Poor Man’s Friend,’ observed Sir Joseph, glancing at the poor man present. ‘As such I may be taunted. As such I have been taunted. But I ask no other title.’
‘Bless him for a noble gentleman!’ thought Trotty.
‘I don’t agree with Cute here, for instance,’ said Sir Joseph, holding out the letter. ‘I don’t agree with the Filer party. I don’t agree with any party. My friend the Poor Man, has no business with anything of that sort, and nothing of that sort has any business with him. My friend the Poor Man, in my district, is my business. No man or body of men has any right to interfere between my friend and me. That is the ground I take. I assume a—a paternal character towards my friend. I say, “My good fellow, I will treat you paternally.”’
Toby listened with great gravity, and began to feel more comfortable.
‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me. You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything. I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent. Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence! Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour. Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there. Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’
‘Nice children, indeed, Sir Joseph!’ said the lady, with a shudder. ‘Rheumatisms, and fevers, and crooked legs, and asthmas, and all kinds of horrors!’
‘My lady,’ returned Sir Joseph, with solemnity, ‘not the less am I the Poor Man’s Friend and Father. Not the less shall he receive encouragement at my hands. Every quarter-day he will be put in communication with Mr. Fish. Every New Year’s Day, myself and friends will drink his health. Once every year, myself and friends will address him with the deepest feeling. Once in his life, he may even perhaps receive; in public, in the presence of the gentry; a Trifle from a Friend. And when, upheld no more by these stimulants, and the Dignity of Labour, he sinks into his comfortable grave, then, my lady’—here Sir Joseph blew his nose—‘I will be a Friend and a Father—on the same terms—to his children.’
Toby was greatly moved.
‘O! You have a thankful family, Sir Joseph!’ cried his wife.
‘My lady,’ said Sir Joseph, quite majestically, ‘Ingratitude is known to be the sin of that class. I expect no other return.’
‘Ah! Born bad!’ thought Toby. ‘Nothing melts us.’
‘What man can do, I do,’ pursued Sir Joseph. ‘I do my duty as the Poor Man’s Friend and Father; and I endeavour to educate his mind, by inculcating on all occasions the one great moral lesson which that class requires. That is, entire Dependence on myself. They have no business whatever with—with themselves. If wicked and designing persons tell them otherwise, and they become impatient and discontented, and are guilty of insubordinate conduct and black-hearted ingratitude; which is undoubtedly the case; I am their Friend and Father still. It is so Ordained. It is in the nature of things.’
With that great sentiment, he opened the Alderman’s letter; and read it.
‘Very polite and attentive, I am sure!’ exclaimed Sir Joseph. ‘My lady, the Alderman is so obliging as to remind me that he has had “the distinguished honour”—he is very good—of meeting me at the house of our mutual friend Deedles, the banker; and he does me the favour to inquire whether it will be agreeable to me to have Will Fern put down.’
‘Most agreeable!’ replied my Lady Bowley. ‘The worst man among them! He has been committing a robbery, I hope?’
‘Why no,’ said Sir Joseph’, referring to the letter. ‘Not quite. Very near. Not quite. He came up to London, it seems, to look for employment (trying to better himself—that’s his story), and being found at night asleep in a shed, was taken into custody, and carried next morning before the Alderman. The Alderman observes (very properly) that he is determined to put this sort of thing down; and that if it will be agreeable to me to have Will Fern put down, he will be happy to begin with him.’
‘Let him be made an example of, by all means,’ returned the lady. ‘Last winter, when I introduced pinking and eyelet-holing among the men and boys in the village, as a nice evening employment, and had the lines,
O let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations,
set to music on the new system, for them to sing the while; this very Fern—I see him now—touched that hat of his, and said, “I humbly ask your pardon, my lady, but an’t I something different from a great girl?” I expected it, of course; who can expect anything but insolence and ingratitude from that class of people! That is not to the purpose, however. Sir Joseph! Make an example of him!’
‘Hem!’ coughed Sir Joseph. ‘Mr. Fish, if you’ll have the goodness to attend—’
Mr. Fish immediately seized his pen, and wrote from Sir Joseph’s dictation.
‘Private. My dear Sir. I am very much indebted to you for your courtesy in the matter of the man William Fern, of whom, I regret to add, I can say nothing favourable. I have uniformly considered myself in the light of his Friend and Father, but have been repaid (a common case, I grieve to say) with ingratitude, and constant opposition to my plans. He is a turbulent and rebellious spirit. His character will not bear investigation. Nothing will persuade him to be happy when he might. Under these circumstances, it appears to me, I own, that when he comes before you again (as you informed me he promised to do to-morrow, pending your inquiries, and I think he may be so far relied upon), his committal for some short term as a Vagabond, would be a service to society, and would be a salutary example in a country where—for the sake of those who are, through good and evil report, the Friends and Fathers of the Poor, as well as with a view to that, generally speaking, misguided class themselves—examples are greatly needed. And I am,’ and so forth.
‘It appears,’ remarked Sir Joseph when he had signed this letter, and Mr. Fish was sealing it, ‘as if this were Ordained: really. At the close of the year, I wind up my account and strike my balance, even with William Fern!’
Trotty, who had long ago relapsed, and was very low-spirited, stepped forward with a rueful face to take the letter.
‘With my compliments and thanks,’ said Sir Joseph. ‘Stop!’
‘Stop!’ echoed Mr. Fish.
‘You have heard, perhaps,’ said Sir Joseph, oracularly, ‘certain remarks into which I have been led respecting the solemn period of time at which we have arrived, and the duty imposed upon us of settling our affairs, and being prepared. You have observed that I don’t shelter myself behind my superior standing in society, but that Mr. Fish—that gentleman—has a cheque-book at his elbow, and is in fact here, to enable me to turn over a perfectly new leaf, and enter on the epoch before us with a clean account. Now, my friend, can you lay your hand upon your heart, and say, that you also have made preparations for a New Year?’
‘I am afraid, sir,’ stammered Trotty, looking meekly at him, ‘that I am a—a—little behind-hand with the world.’
‘Behind-hand with the world!’ repeated Sir Joseph Bowley, in a tone of terrible distinctness.
‘I am afraid, sir,’ faltered Trotty, ‘that there’s a matter of ten or twelve shillings owing to Mrs. Chickenstalker.’
‘To Mrs. Chickenstalker!’ repeated Sir Joseph, in the same tone as before.
‘A shop, sir,’ exclaimed Toby, ‘in the general line. Also a—a little money on account of rent. A very little, sir. It oughtn’t to be owing, I know, but we have been hard put to it, indeed!’
Sir Joseph looked at his lady, and at Mr. Fish, and at Trotty, one after another, twice all round. He then made a despondent gesture with both hands at once, as if he gave the thing up altogether.
‘How a man, even among this improvident and impracticable race; an old man; a man grown grey; can look a New Year in the face, with his affairs in this condition; how he can lie down on his bed at night, and get up again in the morning, and—There!’ he said, turning his back on Trotty. ‘Take the letter. Take the letter!’
‘I heartily wish it was otherwise, sir,’ said Trotty, anxious to excuse himself. ‘We have been tried very hard.’
Sir Joseph still repeating ‘Take the letter, take the letter!’ and Mr. Fish not only saying the same thing, but giving additional force to the request by motioning the bearer to the door, he had nothing for it but to make his bow and leave the house. And in the street, poor Trotty pulled his worn old hat down on his head, to hide the grief he felt at getting no hold on the New Year, anywhere.
He didn’t even lift his hat to look up at the Bell tower when he came to the old church on his return. He halted there a moment, from habit: and knew that it was growing dark, and that the steeple rose above him, indistinct and faint, in the murky air. He knew, too, that the Chimes would ring immediately; and that they sounded to his fancy, at such a time, like voices in the clouds. But he only made the more haste to deliver the Alderman’s letter, and get out of the way before they began; for he dreaded to hear them tagging ‘Friends and Fathers, Friends and Fathers,’ to the burden they had rung out last.
Toby discharged himself of his commission, therefore, with all possible speed, and set off trotting homeward. But what with his pace, which was at best an awkward one in the street; and what with his hat, which didn’t improve it; he trotted against somebody in less than no time, and was sent staggering out into the road.
‘I beg your pardon, I’m sure!’ said Trotty, pulling up his hat in great confusion, and between the hat and the torn lining, fixing his head into a kind of bee-hive. ‘I hope I haven’t hurt you.’
As to hurting anybody, Toby was not such an absolute Samson, but that he was much more likely to be hurt himself: and indeed, he had flown out into the road, like a shuttlecock. He had such an opinion of his own strength, however, that he was in real concern for the other party: and said again,
‘I hope I haven’t hurt you?’
The man against whom he had run; a sun-browned, sinewy, country-looking man, with grizzled hair, and a rough chin; stared at him for a moment, as if he suspected him to be in jest. But, satisfied of his good faith, he answered:
‘No, friend. You have not hurt me.’
‘Nor the child, I hope?’ said Trotty.
‘Nor the child,’ returned the man. ‘I thank you kindly.’
As he said so, he glanced at a little girl he carried in his arms, asleep: and shading her face with the long end of the poor handkerchief he wore about his throat, went slowly on.
The tone in which he said ‘I thank you kindly,’ penetrated Trotty’s heart. He was so jaded and foot-sore, and so soiled with travel, and looked about him so forlorn and strange, that it was a comfort to him to be able to thank any one: no matter for how little. Toby stood gazing after him as he plodded wearily away, with the child’s arm clinging round his neck.
At the figure in the worn shoes—now the very shade and ghost of shoes—rough leather leggings, common frock, and broad slouched hat, Trotty stood gazing, blind to the whole street. And at the child’s arm, clinging round its neck.
Before he merged into the darkness the traveller stopped; and looking round, and seeing Trotty standing there yet, seemed undecided whether to return or go on. After doing first the one and then the other, he came back, and Trotty went half-way to meet him.
‘You can tell me, perhaps,’ said the man with a faint smile, ‘and if you can I am sure you will, and I’d rather ask you than another—where Alderman Cute lives.’
‘Close at hand,’ replied Toby. ‘I’ll show you his house with pleasure.’
‘I was to have gone to him elsewhere to-morrow,’ said the man, accompanying Toby, ‘but I’m uneasy under suspicion, and want to clear myself, and to be free to go and seek my bread—I don’t know where. So, maybe he’ll forgive my going to his house to-night.’
‘It’s impossible,’ cried Toby with a start, ‘that your name’s Fern!’
‘Eh!’ cried the other, turning on him in astonishment.
‘Fern! Will Fern!’ said Trotty.
‘That’s my name,’ replied the other.
‘Why then,’ said Trotty, seizing him by the arm, and looking cautiously round, ‘for Heaven’s sake don’t go to him! Don’t go to him! He’ll put you down as sure as ever you were born. Here! come up this alley, and I’ll tell you what I mean. Don’t go to him.’
His new acquaintance looked as if he thought him mad; but he bore him company nevertheless. When they were shrouded from observation, Trotty told him what he knew, and what character he had received, and all about it.
The subject of his history listened to it with a calmness that surprised him. He did not contradict or interrupt it, once. He nodded his head now and then—more in corroboration of an old and worn-out story, it appeared, than in refutation of it; and once or twice threw back his hat, and passed his freckled hand over a brow, where every furrow he had ploughed seemed to have set its image in little. But he did no more.
‘It’s true enough in the main,’ he said, ‘master, I could sift grain from husk here and there, but let it be as ’tis. What odds? I have gone against his plans; to my misfortun’. I can’t help it; I should do the like to-morrow. As to character, them gentlefolks will search and search, and pry and pry, and have it as free from spot or speck in us, afore they’ll help us to a dry good word!—Well! I hope they don’t lose good opinion as easy as we do, or their lives is strict indeed, and hardly worth the keeping. For myself, master, I never took with that hand’—holding it before him—‘what wasn’t my own; and never held it back from work, however hard, or poorly paid. Whoever can deny it, let him chop it off! But when work won’t maintain me like a human creetur; when my living is so bad, that I am Hungry, out of doors and in; when I see a whole working life begin that way, go on that way, and end that way, without a chance or change; then I say to the gentlefolks “Keep away from me! Let my cottage be. My doors is dark enough without your darkening of ’em more. Don’t look for me to come up into the Park to help the show when there’s a Birthday, or a fine Speechmaking, or what not. Act your Plays and Games without me, and be welcome to ’em, and enjoy ’em. We’ve nowt to do with one another. I’m best let alone!”’
Seeing that the child in his arms had opened her eyes, and was looking about her in wonder, he checked himself to say a word or two of foolish prattle in her ear, and stand her on the ground beside him. Then slowly winding one of her long tresses round and round his rough forefinger like a ring, while she hung about his dusty leg, he said to Trotty:
‘I’m not a cross-grained man by natu’, I believe; and easy satisfied, I’m sure. I bear no ill-will against none of ’em. I only want to live like one of the Almighty’s creeturs. I can’t—I don’t—and so there’s a pit dug between me, and them that can and do. There’s others like me. You might tell ’em off by hundreds and by thousands, sooner than by ones.’
Trotty knew he spoke the Truth in this, and shook his head to signify as much.
‘I’ve got a bad name this way,’ said Fern; ‘and I’m not likely, I’m afeared, to get a better. ’Tan’t lawful to be out of sorts, and I am out of sorts, though God knows I’d sooner bear a cheerful spirit if I could. Well! I don’t know as this Alderman could hurt me much by sending me to jail; but without a friend to speak a word for me, he might do it; and you see—!’ pointing downward with his finger, at the child.
‘She has a beautiful face,’ said Trotty.
‘Why yes!’ replied the other in a low voice, as he gently turned it up with both his hands towards his own, and looked upon it steadfastly. ‘I’ve thought so, many times. I’ve thought so, when my hearth was very cold, and cupboard very bare. I thought so t’other night, when we were taken like two thieves. But they—they shouldn’t try the little face too often, should they, Lilian? That’s hardly fair upon a man!’
He sunk his voice so low, and gazed upon her with an air so stern and strange, that Toby, to divert the current of his thoughts, inquired if his wife were living.
‘I never had one,’ he returned, shaking his head. ‘She’s my brother’s child: a orphan. Nine year old, though you’d hardly think it; but she’s tired and worn out now. They’d have taken care on her, the Union—eight-and-twenty mile away from where we live—between four walls (as they took care of my old father when he couldn’t work no more, though he didn’t trouble ’em long); but I took her instead, and she’s lived with me ever since. Her mother had a friend once, in London here. We are trying to find her, and to find work too; but it’s a large place. Never mind. More room for us to walk about in, Lilly!’
Meeting the child’s eyes with a smile which melted Toby more than tears, he shook him by the hand.
‘I don’t so much as know your name,’ he said, ‘but I’ve opened my heart free to you, for I’m thankful to you; with good reason. I’ll take your advice, and keep clear of this—’
‘Justice,’ suggested Toby.
‘Ah!’ he said. ‘If that’s the name they give him. This Justice. And to-morrow will try whether there’s better fortun’ to be met with, somewheres near London. Good night. A Happy New Year!’
‘Stay!’ cried Trotty, catching at his hand, as he relaxed his grip. ‘Stay! The New Year never can be happy to me, if we part like this. The New Year never can be happy to me, if I see the child and you go wandering away, you don’t know where, without a shelter for your heads. Come home with me! I’m a poor man, living in a poor place; but I can give you lodging for one night and never miss it. Come home with me! Here! I’ll take her!’ cried Trotty, lifting up the child. ‘A pretty one! I’d carry twenty times her weight, and never know I’d got it. Tell me if I go too quick for you. I’m very fast. I always was!’ Trotty said this, taking about six of his trotting paces to one stride of his fatigued companion; and with his thin legs quivering again, beneath the load he bore.
‘Why, she’s as light,’ said Trotty, trotting in his speech as well as in his gait; for he couldn’t bear to be thanked, and dreaded a moment’s pause; ‘as light as a feather. Lighter than a Peacock’s feather—a great deal lighter. Here we are and here we go! Round this first turning to the right, Uncle Will, and past the pump, and sharp off up the passage to the left, right opposite the public-house. Here we are and here we go! Cross over, Uncle Will, and mind the kidney pieman at the corner! Here we are and here we go! Down the Mews here, Uncle Will, and stop at the black door, with “T. Veck, Ticket Porter,” wrote upon a board; and here we are and here we go, and here we are indeed, my precious. Meg, surprising you!’
With which words Trotty, in a breathless state, set the child down before his daughter in the middle of the floor. The little visitor looked once at Meg; and doubting nothing in that face, but trusting everything she saw there; ran into her arms.
‘Here we are and here we go!’ cried Trotty, running round the room, and choking audibly. ‘Here, Uncle Will, here’s a fire you know! Why don’t you come to the fire? Oh here we are and here we go! Meg, my precious darling, where’s the kettle? Here it is and here it goes, and it’ll bile in no time!’
Trotty really had picked up the kettle somewhere or other in the course of his wild career and now put it on the fire: while Meg, seating the child in a warm corner, knelt down on the ground before her, and pulled off her shoes, and dried her wet feet on a cloth. Ay, and she laughed at Trotty too—so pleasantly, so cheerfully, that Trotty could have blessed her where she kneeled; for he had seen that, when they entered, she was sitting by the fire in tears.
‘Why, father!’ said Meg. ‘You’re crazy to-night, I think. I don’t know what the Bells would say to that. Poor little feet. How cold they are!’
‘Oh, they’re warmer now!’ exclaimed the child. ‘They’re quite warm now!’
‘No, no, no,’ said Meg. ‘We haven’t rubbed ’em half enough. We’re so busy. So busy! And when they’re done, we’ll brush out the damp hair; and when that’s done, we’ll bring some colour to the poor pale face with fresh water; and when that’s done, we’ll be so gay, and brisk, and happy—!’
The child, in a burst of sobbing, clasped her round the neck; caressed her fair cheek with its hand; and said, ‘Oh Meg! oh dear Meg!’
Toby’s blessing could have done no more. Who could do more!
‘Why, father!’ cried Meg, after a pause.
‘Here I am and here I go, my dear!’ said Trotty.
‘Good Gracious me!’ cried Meg. ‘He’s crazy! He’s put the dear child’s bonnet on the kettle, and hung the lid behind the door!’
‘I didn’t go for to do it, my love,’ said Trotty, hastily repairing this mistake. ‘Meg, my dear?’
Meg looked towards him and saw that he had elabourately stationed himself behind the chair of their male visitor, where with many mysterious gestures he was holding up the sixpence he had earned.
‘I see, my dear,’ said Trotty, ‘as I was coming in, half an ounce of tea lying somewhere on the stairs; and I’m pretty sure there was a bit of bacon too. As I don’t remember where it was exactly, I’ll go myself and try to find ’em.’
With this inscrutable artifice, Toby withdrew to purchase the viands he had spoken of, for ready money, at Mrs. Chickenstalker’s; and presently came back, pretending he had not been able to find them, at first, in the dark.
‘But here they are at last,’ said Trotty, setting out the tea-things, ‘all correct! I was pretty sure it was tea, and a rasher. So it is. Meg, my pet, if you’ll just make the tea, while your unworthy father toasts the bacon, we shall be ready, immediate. It’s a curious circumstance,’ said Trotty, proceeding in his cookery, with the assistance of the toasting-fork, ‘curious, but well known to my friends, that I never care, myself, for rashers, nor for tea. I like to see other people enjoy ’em,’ said Trotty, speaking very loud, to impress the fact upon his guest, ‘but to me, as food, they’re disagreeable.’
Yet Trotty sniffed the savour of the hissing bacon—ah!—as if he liked it; and when he poured the boiling water in the tea-pot, looked lovingly down into the depths of that snug cauldron, and suffered the fragrant steam to curl about his nose, and wreathe his head and face in a thick cloud. However, for all this, he neither ate nor drank, except at the very beginning, a mere morsel for form’s sake, which he appeared to eat with infinite relish, but declared was perfectly uninteresting to him.
No. Trotty’s occupation was, to see Will Fern and Lilian eat and drink; and so was Meg’s. And never did spectators at a city dinner or court banquet find such high delight in seeing others feast: although it were a monarch or a pope: as those two did, in looking on that night. Meg smiled at Trotty, Trotty laughed at Meg. Meg shook her head, and made belief to clap her hands, applauding Trotty; Trotty conveyed, in dumb-show, unintelligible narratives of how and when and where he had found their visitors, to Meg; and they were happy. Very happy.
‘Although,’ thought Trotty, sorrowfully, as he watched Meg’s face; ‘that match is broken off, I see!’
‘Now, I’ll tell you what,’ said Trotty after tea. ‘The little one, she sleeps with Meg, I know.’
‘With good Meg!’ cried the child, caressing her. ‘With Meg.’
‘That’s right,’ said Trotty. ‘And I shouldn’t wonder if she kiss Meg’s father, won’t she? I’m Meg’s father.’
Mightily delighted Trotty was, when the child went timidly towards him, and having kissed him, fell back upon Meg again.
‘She’s as sensible as Solomon,’ said Trotty. ‘Here we come and here we—no, we don’t—I don’t mean that—I—what was I saying, Meg, my precious?’
Meg looked towards their guest, who leaned upon her chair, and with his face turned from her, fondled the child’s head, half hidden in her lap.
‘To be sure,’ said Toby. ‘To be sure! I don’t know what I’m rambling on about, to-night. My wits are wool-gathering, I think. Will Fern, you come along with me. You’re tired to death, and broken down for want of rest. You come along with me.’ The man still played with the child’s curls, still leaned upon Meg’s chair, still turned away his face. He didn’t speak, but in his rough coarse fingers, clenching and expanding in the fair hair of the child, there was an eloquence that said enough.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Trotty, answering unconsciously what he saw expressed in his daughter’s face. ‘Take her with you, Meg. Get her to bed. There! Now, Will, I’ll show you where you lie. It’s not much of a place: only a loft; but, having a loft, I always say, is one of the great conveniences of living in a mews; and till this coach-house and stable gets a better let, we live here cheap. There’s plenty of sweet hay up there, belonging to a neighbour; and it’s as clean as hands, and Meg, can make it. Cheer up! Don’t give way. A new heart for a New Year, always!’
The hand released from the child’s hair, had fallen, trembling, into Trotty’s hand. So Trotty, talking without intermission, led him out as tenderly and easily as if he had been a child himself. Returning before Meg, he listened for an instant at the door of her little chamber; an adjoining room. The child was murmuring a simple Prayer before lying down to sleep; and when she had remembered Meg’s name, ‘Dearly, Dearly’—so her words ran—Trotty heard her stop and ask for his.
It was some short time before the foolish little old fellow could compose himself to mend the fire, and draw his chair to the warm hearth. But, when he had done so, and had trimmed the light, he took his newspaper from his pocket, and began to read. Carelessly at first, and skimming up and down the columns; but with an earnest and a sad attention, very soon.
For this same dreaded paper re-directed Trotty’s thoughts into the channel they had taken all that day, and which the day’s events had so marked out and shaped. His interest in the two wanderers had set him on another course of thinking, and a happier one, for the time; but being alone again, and reading of the crimes and violences of the people, he relapsed into his former train.
In this mood, he came to an account (and it was not the first he had ever read) of a woman who had laid her desperate hands not only on her own life but on that of her young child. A crime so terrible, and so revolting to his soul, dilated with the love of Meg, that he let the journal drop, and fell back in his chair, appalled!
‘Unnatural and cruel!’ Toby cried. ‘Unnatural and cruel! None but people who were bad at heart, born bad, who had no business on the earth, could do such deeds. It’s too true, all I’ve heard to-day; too just, too full of proof. We’re Bad!’
The Chimes took up the words so suddenly—burst out so loud, and clear, and sonorous—that the Bells seemed to strike him in his chair.
And what was that, they said?
‘Toby Veck, Toby Veck, waiting for you Toby! Toby Veck, Toby Veck, waiting for you Toby! Come and see us, come and see us, Drag him to us, drag him to us, Haunt and hunt him, haunt and hunt him, Break his slumbers, break his slumbers! Toby Veck Toby Veck, door open wide Toby, Toby Veck Toby Veck, door open wide Toby—’ then fiercely back to their impetuous strain again, and ringing in the very bricks and plaster on the walls.
Toby listened. Fancy, fancy! His remorse for having run away from them that afternoon! No, no. Nothing of the kind. Again, again, and yet a dozen times again. ‘Haunt and hunt him, haunt and hunt him, Drag him to us, drag him to us!’ Deafening the whole town!
‘Meg,’ said Trotty softly: tapping at her door. ‘Do you hear anything?’
‘I hear the Bells, father. Surely they’re very loud to-night.’
‘Is she asleep?’ said Toby, making an excuse for peeping in.
‘So peacefully and happily! I can’t leave her yet though, father. Look how she holds my hand!’
‘Meg,’ whispered Trotty. ‘Listen to the Bells!’
She listened, with her face towards him all the time. But it underwent no change. She didn’t understand them.
Trotty withdrew, resumed his seat by the fire, and once more listened by himself. He remained here a little time.
It was impossible to bear it; their energy was dreadful.
‘If the tower-door is really open,’ said Toby, hastily laying aside his apron, but never thinking of his hat, ‘what’s to hinder me from going up into the steeple and satisfying myself? If it’s shut, I don’t want any other satisfaction. That’s enough.’
He was pretty certain as he slipped out quietly into the street that he should find it shut and locked, for he knew the door well, and had so rarely seen it open, that he couldn’t reckon above three times in all. It was a low arched portal, outside the church, in a dark nook behind a column; and had such great iron hinges, and such a monstrous lock, that there was more hinge and lock than door.
But what was his astonishment when, coming bare-headed to the church; and putting his hand into this dark nook, with a certain misgiving that it might be unexpectedly seized, and a shivering propensity to draw it back again; he found that the door, which opened outwards, actually stood ajar!
He thought, on the first surprise, of going back; or of getting a light, or a companion, but his courage aided him immediately, and he determined to ascend alone.
‘What have I to fear?’ said Trotty. ‘It’s a church! Besides, the ringers may be there, and have forgotten to shut the door.’ So he went in, feeling his way as he went, like a blind man; for it was very dark. And very quiet, for the Chimes were silent.
The dust from the street had blown into the recess; and lying there, heaped up, made it so soft and velvet-like to the foot, that there was something startling, even in that. The narrow stair was so close to the door, too, that he stumbled at the very first; and shutting the door upon himself, by striking it with his foot, and causing it to rebound back heavily, he couldn’t open it again.
This was another reason, however, for going on. Trotty groped his way, and went on. Up, up, up, and round, and round; and up, up, up; higher, higher, higher up!
It was a disagreeable staircase for that groping work; so low and narrow, that his groping hand was always touching something; and it often felt so like a man or ghostly figure standing up erect and making room for him to pass without discovery, that he would rub the smooth wall upward searching for its face, and downward searching for its feet, while a chill tingling crept all over him. Twice or thrice, a door or niche broke the monotonous surface; and then it seemed a gap as wide as the whole church; and he felt on the brink of an abyss, and going to tumble headlong down, until he found the wall again.
Still up, up, up; and round and round; and up, up, up; higher, higher, higher up!
At length, the dull and stifling atmosphere began to freshen: presently to feel quite windy: presently it blew so strong, that he could hardly keep his legs. But, he got to an arched window in the tower, breast high, and holding tight, looked down upon the house-tops, on the smoking chimneys, on the blur and blotch of lights (towards the place where Meg was wondering where he was and calling to him perhaps), all kneaded up together in a leaven of mist and darkness.
This was the belfry, where the ringers came. He had caught hold of one of the frayed ropes which hung down through apertures in the oaken roof. At first he started, thinking it was hair; then trembled at the very thought of waking the deep Bell. The Bells themselves were higher. Higher, Trotty, in his fascination, or in working out the spell upon him, groped his way. By ladders now, and toilsomely, for it was steep, and not too certain holding for the feet.
Up, up, up; and climb and clamber; up, up, up; higher, higher, higher up!
Until, ascending through the floor, and pausing with his head just raised above its beams, he came among the Bells. It was barely possible to make out their great shapes in the gloom; but there they were. Shadowy, and dark, and dumb.
A heavy sense of dread and loneliness fell instantly upon him, as he climbed into this airy nest of stone and metal. His head went round and round. He listened, and then raised a wild ‘Holloa!’ Holloa! was mournfully protracted by the echoes.
Giddy, confused, and out of breath, and frightened, Toby looked about him vacantly, and sunk down in a swoon.
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