The Gift Bestowed.
Everybody said so.
Far be it from me to assert that what everybody says must be true. Everybody is, often, as likely to be wrong as right. In the general experience, everybody has been wrong so often, and it has taken, in most instances, such a weary while to find out how wrong, that the authority is proved to be fallible. Everybody may sometimes be right; “but that’s no rule,” as the ghost of Giles Scroggins says in the ballad.
The dread word, Ghost, recalls me.
Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.
Who could have seen his hollow cheek; his sunken brilliant eye; his black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well-knit and well-proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled sea-weed, about his face,—as if he had been, through his whole life, a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity,—but might have said he looked like a haunted man?
Who could have observed his manner, taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy, shadowed by habitual reserve, retiring always and jocund never, with a distraught air of reverting to a bygone place and time, or of listening to some old echoes in his mind, but might have said it was the manner of a haunted man?
Who could have heard his voice, slow-speaking, deep, and grave, with a natural fulness and melody in it which he seemed to set himself against and stop, but might have said it was the voice of a haunted man?
Who that had seen him in his inner chamber, part library and part labouratory,—for he was, as the world knew, far and wide, a learned man in chemistry, and a teacher on whose lips and hands a crowd of aspiring ears and eyes hung daily,—who that had seen him there, upon a winter night, alone, surrounded by his drugs and instruments and books; the shadow of his shaded lamp a monstrous beetle on the wall, motionless among a crowd of spectral shapes raised there by the flickering of the fire upon the quaint objects around him; some of these phantoms (the reflection of glass vessels that held liquids), trembling at heart like things that knew his power to uncombine them, and to give back their component parts to fire and vapour;—who that had seen him then, his work done, and he pondering in his chair before the rusted grate and red flame, moving his thin mouth as if in speech, but silent as the dead, would not have said that the man seemed haunted and the chamber too?
Who might not, by a very easy flight of fancy, have believed that everything about him took this haunted tone, and that he lived on haunted ground?
His dwelling was so solitary and vault-like,—an old, retired part of an ancient endowment for students, once a brave edifice, planted in an open place, but now the obsolete whim of forgotten architects; smoke-age-and-weather-darkened, squeezed on every side by the overgrowing of the great city, and choked, like an old well, with stones and bricks; its small quadrangles, lying down in very pits formed by the streets and buildings, which, in course of time, had been constructed above its heavy chimney stalks; its old trees, insulted by the neighbouring smoke, which deigned to droop so low when it was very feeble and the weather very moody; its grass-plots, struggling with the mildewed earth to be grass, or to win any show of compromise; its silent pavements, unaccustomed to the tread of feet, and even to the observation of eyes, except when a stray face looked down from the upper world, wondering what nook it was; its sun-dial in a little bricked-up corner, where no sun had straggled for a hundred years, but where, in compensation for the sun’s neglect, the snow would lie for weeks when it lay nowhere else, and the black east wind would spin like a huge humming-top, when in all other places it was silent and still.
His dwelling, at its heart and core—within doors—at his fireside—was so lowering and old, so crazy, yet so strong, with its worn-eaten beams of wood in the ceiling, and its sturdy floor shelving downward to the great oak chimney-piece; so environed and hemmed in by the pressure of the town yet so remote in fashion, age, and custom; so quiet, yet so thundering with echoes when a distant voice was raised or a door was shut,—echoes, not confined to the many low passages and empty rooms, but rumbling and grumbling till they were stifled in the heavy air of the forgotten Crypt where the Norman arches were half-buried in the earth.
You should have seen him in his dwelling about twilight, in the dead winter time.
When the wind was blowing, shrill and shrewd, with the going down of the blurred sun. When it was just so dark, as that the forms of things were indistinct and big—but not wholly lost. When sitters by the fire began to see wild faces and figures, mountains and abysses, ambuscades and armies, in the coals. When people in the streets bent down their heads and ran before the weather. When those who were obliged to meet it, were stopped at angry corners, stung by wandering snow-flakes alighting on the lashes of their eyes,—which fell too sparingly, and were blown away too quickly, to leave a trace upon the frozen ground. When windows of private houses closed up tight and warm. When lighted gas began to burst forth in the busy and the quiet streets, fast blackening otherwise. When stray pedestrians, shivering along the latter, looked down at the glowing fires in kitchens, and sharpened their sharp appetites by sniffing up the fragrance of whole miles of dinners.
When travellers by land were bitter cold, and looked wearily on gloomy landscapes, rustling and shuddering in the blast. When mariners at sea, outlying upon icy yards, were tossed and swung above the howling ocean dreadfully. When lighthouses, on rocks and headlands, showed solitary and watchful; and benighted sea-birds breasted on against their ponderous lanterns, and fell dead. When little readers of story-books, by the firelight, trembled to think of Cassim Baba cut into quarters, hanging in the Robbers’ Cave, or had some small misgivings that the fierce little old woman, with the crutch, who used to start out of the box in the merchant Abudah’s bedroom, might, one of these nights, be found upon the stairs, in the long, cold, dusky journey up to bed.
When, in rustic places, the last glimmering of daylight died away from the ends of avenues; and the trees, arching overhead, were sullen and black. When, in parks and woods, the high wet fern and sodden moss, and beds of fallen leaves, and trunks of trees, were lost to view, in masses of impenetrable shade. When mists arose from dyke, and fen, and river. When lights in old halls and in cottage windows, were a cheerful sight. When the mill stopped, the wheelwright and the blacksmith shut their workshops, the turnpike-gate closed, the plough and harrow were left lonely in the fields, the labourer and team went home, and the striking of the church clock had a deeper sound than at noon, and the churchyard wicket would be swung no more that night.
When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day, that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts. When they stood lowering, in corners of rooms, and frowned out from behind half-opened doors. When they had full possession of unoccupied apartments. When they danced upon the floors, and walls, and ceilings of inhabited chambers, while the fire was low, and withdrew like ebbing waters when it sprang into a blaze. When they fantastically mocked the shapes of household objects, making the nurse an ogress, the rocking-horse a monster, the wondering child, half-scared and half-amused, a stranger to itself,—the very tongs upon the hearth, a straddling giant with his arms a-kimbo, evidently smelling the blood of Englishmen, and wanting to grind people’s bones to make his bread.
When these shadows brought into the minds of older people, other thoughts, and showed them different images. When they stole from their retreats, in the likenesses of forms and faces from the past, from the grave, from the deep, deep gulf, where the things that might have been, and never were, are always wandering.
When he sat, as already mentioned, gazing at the fire. When, as it rose and fell, the shadows went and came. When he took no heed of them, with his bodily eyes; but, let them come or let them go, looked fixedly at the fire. You should have seen him, then.
When the sounds that had arisen with the shadows, and come out of their lurking-places at the twilight summons, seemed to make a deeper stillness all about him. When the wind was rumbling in the chimney, and sometimes crooning, sometimes howling, in the house. When the old trees outside were so shaken and beaten, that one querulous old rook, unable to sleep, protested now and then, in a feeble, dozy, high-up “Caw!” When, at intervals, the window trembled, the rusty vane upon the turret-top complained, the clock beneath it recorded that another quarter of an hour was gone, or the fire collapsed and fell in with a rattle.
—When a knock came at his door, in short, as he was sitting so, and roused him.
“Who’s that?” said he. “Come in!”
Surely there had been no figure leaning on the back of his chair; no face looking over it. It is certain that no gliding footstep touched the floor, as he lifted up his head, with a start, and spoke. And yet there was no mirror in the room on whose surface his own form could have cast its shadow for a moment; and, Something had passed darkly and gone!
“I’m humbly fearful, sir,” said a fresh-coloured busy man, holding the door open with his foot for the admission of himself and a wooden tray he carried, and letting it go again by very gentle and careful degrees, when he and the tray had got in, lest it should close noisily, “that it’s a good bit past the time to-night. But Mrs. William has been taken off her legs so often”—
“By the wind? Ay! I have heard it rising.”
“—By the wind, sir—that it’s a mercy she got home at all. Oh dear, yes. Yes. It was by the wind, Mr. Redlaw. By the wind.”
He had, by this time, put down the tray for dinner, and was employed in lighting the lamp, and spreading a cloth on the table. From this employment he desisted in a hurry, to stir and feed the fire, and then resumed it; the lamp he had lighted, and the blaze that rose under his hand, so quickly changing the appearance of the room, that it seemed as if the mere coming in of his fresh red face and active manner had made the pleasant alteration.
“Mrs. William is of course subject at any time, sir, to be taken off her balance by the elements. She is not formed superior to that.”
“No,” returned Mr. Redlaw good-naturedly, though abruptly.
“No, sir. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Earth; as for example, last Sunday week, when sloppy and greasy, and she going out to tea with her newest sister-in-law, and having a pride in herself, and wishing to appear perfectly spotless though pedestrian. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Air; as being once over-persuaded by a friend to try a swing at Peckham Fair, which acted on her constitution instantly like a steam-boat. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Fire; as on a false alarm of engines at her mother’s, when she went two miles in her nightcap. Mrs. William may be taken off her balance by Water; as at Battersea, when rowed into the piers by her young nephew, Charley Swidger junior, aged twelve, which had no idea of boats whatever. But these are elements. Mrs. William must be taken out of elements for the strength of her character to come into play.”
As he stopped for a reply, the reply was “Yes,” in the same tone as before.
“Yes, sir. Oh dear, yes!” said Mr. Swidger, still proceeding with his preparations, and checking them off as he made them. “That’s where it is, sir. That’s what I always say myself, sir. Such a many of us Swidgers!—Pepper. Why there’s my father, sir, superannuated keeper and custodian of this Institution, eighty-seven year old. He’s a Swidger!—Spoon.”
“True, William,” was the patient and abstracted answer, when he stopped again.
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Swidger. “That’s what I always say, sir. You may call him the trunk of the tree!—Bread. Then you come to his successor, my unworthy self—Salt—and Mrs. William, Swidgers both.—Knife and fork. Then you come to all my brothers and their families, Swidgers, man and woman, boy and girl. Why, what with cousins, uncles, aunts, and relationships of this, that, and t’other degree, and whatnot degree, and marriages, and lyings-in, the Swidgers—Tumbler—might take hold of hands, and make a ring round England!”
Receiving no reply at all here, from the thoughtful man whom he addressed, Mr. William approached, him nearer, and made a feint of accidentally knocking the table with a decanter, to rouse him. The moment he succeeded, he went on, as if in great alacrity of acquiescence.
“Yes, sir! That’s just what I say myself, sir. Mrs. William and me have often said so. ‘There’s Swidgers enough,’ we say, ‘without our voluntary contributions,’—Butter. In fact, sir, my father is a family in himself—Castors—to take care of; and it happens all for the best that we have no child of our own, though it’s made Mrs. William rather quiet-like, too. Quite ready for the fowl and mashed potatoes, sir? Mrs. William said she’d dish in ten minutes when I left the Lodge.”
“I am quite ready,” said the other, waking as from a dream, and walking slowly to and fro.
“Mrs. William has been at it again, sir!” said the keeper, as he stood warming a plate at the fire, and pleasantly shading his face with it. Mr. Redlaw stopped in his walking, and an expression of interest appeared in him.
“What I always say myself, sir. She will do it! There’s a motherly feeling in Mrs. William’s breast that must and will have went.”
“What has she done?”
“Why, sir, not satisfied with being a sort of mother to all the young gentlemen that come up from a variety of parts, to attend your courses of lectures at this ancient foundation—its surprising how stone-chaney catches the heat this frosty weather, to be sure!” Here he turned the plate, and cooled his fingers.
“Well?” said Mr. Redlaw.
“That’s just what I say myself, sir,” returned Mr. William, speaking over his shoulder, as if in ready and delighted assent. “That’s exactly where it is, sir! There ain’t one of our students but appears to regard Mrs. William in that light. Every day, right through the course, they puts their heads into the Lodge, one after another, and have all got something to tell her, or something to ask her. ‘Swidge’ is the appellation by which they speak of Mrs. William in general, among themselves, I’m told; but that’s what I say, sir. Better be called ever so far out of your name, if it’s done in real liking, than have it made ever so much of, and not cared about! What’s a name for? To know a person by. If Mrs. William is known by something better than her name—I allude to Mrs. William’s qualities and disposition—never mind her name, though it is Swidger, by rights. Let ’em call her Swidge, Widge, Bridge—Lord! London Bridge, Blackfriars, Chelsea, Putney, Waterloo, or Hammersmith Suspension—if they like.”
The close of this triumphant oration brought him and the plate to the table, upon which he half laid and half dropped it, with a lively sense of its being thoroughly heated, just as the subject of his praises entered the room, bearing another tray and a lantern, and followed by a venerable old man with long grey hair.
Mrs. William, like Mr. William, was a simple, innocent-looking person, in whose smooth cheeks the cheerful red of her husband’s official waistcoat was very pleasantly repeated. But whereas Mr. William’s light hair stood on end all over his head, and seemed to draw his eyes up with it in an excess of bustling readiness for anything, the dark brown hair of Mrs. William was carefully smoothed down, and waved away under a trim tidy cap, in the most exact and quiet manner imaginable. Whereas Mr. William’s very trousers hitched themselves up at the ankles, as if it were not in their iron-grey nature to rest without looking about them, Mrs. William’s neatly-flowered skirts—red and white, like her own pretty face—were as composed and orderly, as if the very wind that blew so hard out of doors could not disturb one of their folds. Whereas his coat had something of a fly-away and half-off appearance about the collar and breast, her little bodice was so placid and neat, that there should have been protection for her, in it, had she needed any, with the roughest people. Who could have had the heart to make so calm a bosom swell with grief, or throb with fear, or flutter with a thought of shame! To whom would its repose and peace have not appealed against disturbance, like the innocent slumber of a child!
“Punctual, of course, Milly,” said her husband, relieving her of the tray, “or it wouldn’t be you. Here’s Mrs. William, sir!—He looks lonelier than ever to-night,” whispering to his wife, as he was taking the tray, “and ghostlier altogether.”
Without any show of hurry or noise, or any show of herself even, she was so calm and quiet, Milly set the dishes she had brought upon the table,—Mr. William, after much clattering and running about, having only gained possession of a butter-boat of gravy, which he stood ready to serve.
“What is that the old man has in his arms?” asked Mr. Redlaw, as he sat down to his solitary meal.
“Holly, sir,” replied the quiet voice of Milly.
“That’s what I say myself, sir,” interposed Mr. William, striking in with the butter-boat. “Berries is so seasonable to the time of year!—Brown gravy!”
“Another Christmas come, another year gone!” murmured the Chemist, with a gloomy sigh. “More figures in the lengthening sum of recollection that we work and work at to our torment, till Death idly jumbles all together, and rubs all out. So, Philip!” breaking off, and raising his voice as he addressed the old man, standing apart, with his glistening burden in his arms, from which the quiet Mrs. William took small branches, which she noiselessly trimmed with her scissors, and decorated the room with, while her aged father-in-law looked on much interested in the ceremony.
“My duty to you, sir,” returned the old man. “Should have spoke before, sir, but know your ways, Mr. Redlaw—proud to say—and wait till spoke to! Merry Christmas, sir, and Happy New Year, and many of ’em. Have had a pretty many of ’em myself—ha, ha!—and may take the liberty of wishing ’em. I’m eighty-seven!”
“Have you had so many that were merry and happy?” asked the other.
“Ay, sir, ever so many,” returned the old man.
“Is his memory impaired with age? It is to be expected now,” said Mr. Redlaw, turning to the son, and speaking lower.
“Not a morsel of it, sir,” replied Mr. William. “That’s exactly what I say myself, sir. There never was such a memory as my father’s. He’s the most wonderful man in the world. He don’t know what forgetting means. It’s the very observation I’m always making to Mrs. William, sir, if you’ll believe me!”
Mr. Swidger, in his polite desire to seem to acquiesce at all events, delivered this as if there were no iota of contradiction in it, and it were all said in unbounded and unqualified assent.
The Chemist pushed his plate away, and, rising from the table, walked across the room to where the old man stood looking at a little sprig of holly in his hand.
“It recalls the time when many of those years were old and new, then?” he said, observing him attentively, and touching him on the shoulder. “Does it?”
“Oh many, many!” said Philip, half awaking from his reverie. “I’m eighty-seven!”
“Merry and happy, was it?” asked the Chemist in a low voice. “Merry and happy, old man?”
“Maybe as high as that, no higher,” said the old man, holding out his hand a little way above the level of his knee, and looking retrospectively at his questioner, “when I first remember ’em! Cold, sunshiny day it was, out a-walking, when some one—it was my mother as sure as you stand there, though I don’t know what her blessed face was like, for she took ill and died that Christmas-time—told me they were food for birds. The pretty little fellow thought—that’s me, you understand—that birds’ eyes were so bright, perhaps, because the berries that they lived on in the winter were so bright. I recollect that. And I’m eighty-seven!”
“Merry and happy!” mused the other, bending his dark eyes upon the stooping figure, with a smile of compassion. “Merry and happy—and remember well?”
“Ay, ay, ay!” resumed the old man, catching the last words. “I remember ’em well in my school time, year after year, and all the merry-making that used to come along with them. I was a strong chap then, Mr. Redlaw; and, if you’ll believe me, hadn’t my match at football within ten mile. Where’s my son William? Hadn’t my match at football, William, within ten mile!”
“That’s what I always say, father!” returned the son promptly, and with great respect. “You ARE a Swidger, if ever there was one of the family!”
“Dear!” said the old man, shaking his head as he again looked at the holly. “His mother—my son William’s my youngest son—and I, have sat among ’em all, boys and girls, little children and babies, many a year, when the berries like these were not shining half so bright all round us, as their bright faces. Many of ’em are gone; she’s gone; and my son George (our eldest, who was her pride more than all the rest!) is fallen very low: but I can see them, when I look here, alive and healthy, as they used to be in those days; and I can see him, thank God, in his innocence. It’s a blessed thing to me, at eighty-seven.”
The keen look that had been fixed upon him with so much earnestness, had gradually sought the ground.
“When my circumstances got to be not so good as formerly, through not being honestly dealt by, and I first come here to be custodian,” said the old man, “—which was upwards of fifty years ago—where’s my son William? More than half a century ago, William!”
“That’s what I say, father,” replied the son, as promptly and dutifully as before, “that’s exactly where it is. Two times ought’s an ought, and twice five ten, and there’s a hundred of ’em.”
“It was quite a pleasure to know that one of our founders—or more correctly speaking,” said the old man, with a great glory in his subject and his knowledge of it, “one of the learned gentlemen that helped endow us in Queen Elizabeth’s time, for we were founded afore her day—left in his will, among the other bequests he made us, so much to buy holly, for garnishing the walls and windows, come Christmas. There was something homely and friendly in it. Being but strange here, then, and coming at Christmas time, we took a liking for his very picter that hangs in what used to be, anciently, afore our ten poor gentlemen commuted for an annual stipend in money, our great Dinner Hall.—A sedate gentleman in a peaked beard, with a ruff round his neck, and a scroll below him, in old English letters, ‘Lord! keep my memory green!’ You know all about him, Mr. Redlaw?”
“I know the portrait hangs there, Philip.”
“Yes, sure, it’s the second on the right, above the panelling. I was going to say—he has helped to keep my memory green, I thank him; for going round the building every year, as I’m a doing now, and freshening up the bare rooms with these branches and berries, freshens up my bare old brain. One year brings back another, and that year another, and those others numbers! At last, it seems to me as if the birth-time of our Lord was the birth-time of all I have ever had affection for, or mourned for, or delighted in,—and they’re a pretty many, for I’m eighty-seven!”
“Merry and happy,” murmured Redlaw to himself.
The room began to darken strangely.
“So you see, sir,” pursued old Philip, whose hale wintry cheek had warmed into a ruddier glow, and whose blue eyes had brightened while he spoke, “I have plenty to keep, when I keep this present season. Now, where’s my quiet Mouse? Chattering’s the sin of my time of life, and there’s half the building to do yet, if the cold don’t freeze us first, or the wind don’t blow us away, or the darkness don’t swallow us up.”
The quiet Mouse had brought her calm face to his side, and silently taken his arm, before he finished speaking.
“Come away, my dear,” said the old man. “Mr. Redlaw won’t settle to his dinner, otherwise, till it’s cold as the winter. I hope you’ll excuse me rambling on, sir, and I wish you good night, and, once again, a merry—”
“Stay!” said Mr. Redlaw, resuming his place at the table, more, it would have seemed from his manner, to reassure the old keeper, than in any remembrance of his own appetite. “Spare me another moment, Philip. William, you were going to tell me something to your excellent wife’s honour. It will not be disagreeable to her to hear you praise her. What was it?”
“Why, that’s where it is, you see, sir,” returned Mr. William Swidger, looking towards his wife in considerable embarrassment. “Mrs. William’s got her eye upon me.”
“But you’re not afraid of Mrs. William’s eye?”
“Why, no, sir,” returned Mr. Swidger, “that’s what I say myself. It wasn’t made to be afraid of. It wouldn’t have been made so mild, if that was the intention. But I wouldn’t like to—Milly!—him, you know. Down in the Buildings.”
Mr. William, standing behind the table, and rummaging disconcertedly among the objects upon it, directed persuasive glances at Mrs. William, and secret jerks of his head and thumb at Mr. Redlaw, as alluring her towards him.
“Him, you know, my love,” said Mr. William. “Down in the Buildings. Tell, my dear! You’re the works of Shakespeare in comparison with myself. Down in the Buildings, you know, my love.—Student.”
“Student?” repeated Mr. Redlaw, raising his head.
“That’s what I say, sir!” cried Mr. William, in the utmost animation of assent. “If it wasn’t the poor student down in the Buildings, why should you wish to hear it from Mrs. William’s lips? Mrs. William, my dear—Buildings.”
“I didn’t know,” said Milly, with a quiet frankness, free from any haste or confusion, “that William had said anything about it, or I wouldn’t have come. I asked him not to. It’s a sick young gentleman, sir—and very poor, I am afraid—who is too ill to go home this holiday-time, and lives, unknown to any one, in but a common kind of lodging for a gentleman, down in Jerusalem Buildings. That’s all, sir.”
“Why have I never heard of him?” said the Chemist, rising hurriedly. “Why has he not made his situation known to me? Sick!—give me my hat and cloak. Poor!—what house?—what number?”
“Oh, you mustn’t go there, sir,” said Milly, leaving her father-in-law, and calmly confronting him with her collected little face and folded hands.
“Not go there?”
“Oh dear, no!” said Milly, shaking her head as at a most manifest and self-evident impossibility. “It couldn’t be thought of!”
“What do you mean? Why not?”
“Why, you see, sir,” said Mr. William Swidger, persuasively and confidentially, “that’s what I say. Depend upon it, the young gentleman would never have made his situation known to one of his own sex. Mrs. Williams has got into his confidence, but that’s quite different. They all confide in Mrs. William; they all trust her. A man, sir, couldn’t have got a whisper out of him; but woman, sir, and Mrs. William combined—!”
“There is good sense and delicacy in what you say, William,” returned Mr. Redlaw, observant of the gentle and composed face at his shoulder. And laying his finger on his lip, he secretly put his purse into her hand.
“Oh dear no, sir!” cried Milly, giving it back again. “Worse and worse! Couldn’t be dreamed of!”
Such a staid matter-of-fact housewife she was, and so unruffled by the momentary haste of this rejection, that, an instant afterwards, she was tidily picking up a few leaves which had strayed from between her scissors and her apron, when she had arranged the holly.
Finding, when she rose from her stooping posture, that Mr. Redlaw was still regarding her with doubt and astonishment, she quietly repeated—looking about, the while, for any other fragments that might have escaped her observation:
“Oh dear no, sir! He said that of all the world he would not be known to you, or receive help from you—though he is a student in your class. I have made no terms of secrecy with you, but I trust to your honour completely.”
“Why did he say so?”
“Indeed I can’t tell, sir,” said Milly, after thinking a little, “because I am not at all clever, you know; and I wanted to be useful to him in making things neat and comfortable about him, and employed myself that way. But I know he is poor, and lonely, and I think he is somehow neglected too.—How dark it is!”
The room had darkened more and more. There was a very heavy gloom and shadow gathering behind the Chemist’s chair.
“What more about him?” he asked.
“He is engaged to be married when he can afford it,” said Milly, “and is studying, I think, to qualify himself to earn a living. I have seen, a long time, that he has studied hard and denied himself much.—How very dark it is!”
“It’s turned colder, too,” said the old man, rubbing his hands. “There’s a chill and dismal feeling in the room. Where’s my son William? William, my boy, turn the lamp, and rouse the fire!”
Milly’s voice resumed, like quiet music very softly played:
“He muttered in his broken sleep yesterday afternoon, after talking to me” (this was to herself) “about some one dead, and some great wrong done that could never be forgotten; but whether to him or to another person, I don’t know. Not by him, I am sure.”
“And, in short, Mrs. William, you see—which she wouldn’t say herself, Mr. Redlaw, if she was to stop here till the new year after this next one—” said Mr. William, coming up to him to speak in his ear, “has done him worlds of good! Bless you, worlds of good! All at home just the same as ever—my father made as snug and comfortable—not a crumb of litter to be found in the house, if you were to offer fifty pound ready money for it—Mrs. William apparently never out of the way—yet Mrs. William backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, up and down, up and down, a mother to him!”
The room turned darker and colder, and the gloom and shadow gathering behind the chair was heavier.
“Not content with this, sir, Mrs. William goes and finds, this very night, when she was coming home (why it’s not above a couple of hours ago), a creature more like a young wild beast than a young child, shivering upon a door-step. What does Mrs. William do, but brings it home to dry it, and feed it, and keep it till our old Bounty of food and flannel is given away, on Christmas morning! If it ever felt a fire before, it’s as much as ever it did; for it’s sitting in the old Lodge chimney, staring at ours as if its ravenous eyes would never shut again. It’s sitting there, at least,” said Mr. William, correcting himself, on reflection, “unless it’s bolted!”
“Heaven keep her happy!” said the Chemist aloud, “and you too, Philip! and you, William! I must consider what to do in this. I may desire to see this student, I’ll not detain you any longer now. Good-night!”
“I thank’ee, sir, I thank’ee!” said the old man, “for Mouse, and for my son William, and for myself. Where’s my son William? William, you take the lantern and go on first, through them long dark passages, as you did last year and the year afore. Ha ha! I remember—though I’m eighty-seven! ‘Lord, keep my memory green!’ It’s a very good prayer, Mr. Redlaw, that of the learned gentleman in the peaked beard, with a ruff round his neck—hangs up, second on the right above the panelling, in what used to be, afore our ten poor gentlemen commuted, our great Dinner Hall. ‘Lord, keep my memory green!’ It’s very good and pious, sir. Amen! Amen!”
As they passed out and shut the heavy door, which, however carefully withheld, fired a long train of thundering reverberations when it shut at last, the room turned darker.
As he fell a musing in his chair alone, the healthy holly withered on the wall, and dropped—dead branches.
As the gloom and shadow thickened behind him, in that place where it had been gathering so darkly, it took, by slow degrees,—or out of it there came, by some unreal, unsubstantial process—not to be traced by any human sense,—an awful likeness of himself!
Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.
This, then, was the Something that had passed and gone already. This was the dread companion of the haunted man!
It took, for some moments, no more apparent heed of him, than he of it. The Christmas Waits were playing somewhere in the distance, and, through his thoughtfulness, he seemed to listen to the music. It seemed to listen too.
At length he spoke; without moving or lifting up his face.
“Here again!” he said.
“Here again,” replied the Phantom.
“I see you in the fire,” said the haunted man; “I hear you in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night.”
The Phantom moved its head, assenting.
“Why do you come, to haunt me thus?”
“I come as I am called,” replied the Ghost.
“No. Unbidden,” exclaimed the Chemist.
“Unbidden be it,” said the Spectre. “It is enough. I am here.”
Hitherto the light of the fire had shone on the two faces—if the dread lineaments behind the chair might be called a face—both addressed towards it, as at first, and neither looking at the other. But, now, the haunted man turned, suddenly, and stared upon the Ghost. The Ghost, as sudden in its motion, passed to before the chair, and stared on him.
The living man, and the animated image of himself dead, might so have looked, the one upon the other. An awful survey, in a lonely and remote part of an empty old pile of building, on a winter night, with the loud wind going by upon its journey of mystery—whence or whither, no man knowing since the world began—and the stars, in unimaginable millions, glittering through it, from eternal space, where the world’s bulk is as a grain, and its hoary age is infancy.
“Look upon me!” said the Spectre. “I am he, neglected in my youth, and miserably poor, who strove and suffered, and still strove and suffered, until I hewed out knowledge from the mine where it was buried, and made rugged steps thereof, for my worn feet to rest and rise on.”
“I am that man,” returned the Chemist.
“No mother’s self-denying love,” pursued the Phantom, “no father’s counsel, aided me. A stranger came into my father’s place when I was but a child, and I was easily an alien from my mother’s heart. My parents, at the best, were of that sort whose care soon ends, and whose duty is soon done; who cast their offspring loose, early, as birds do theirs; and, if they do well, claim the merit; and, if ill, the pity.”
It paused, and seemed to tempt and goad him with its look, and with the manner of its speech, and with its smile.
“I am he,” pursued the Phantom, “who, in this struggle upward, found a friend. I made him—won him—bound him to me! We worked together, side by side. All the love and confidence that in my earlier youth had had no outlet, and found no expression, I bestowed on him.”
“Not all,” said Redlaw, hoarsely.
“No, not all,” returned the Phantom. “I had a sister.”
The haunted man, with his head resting on his hands, replied “I had!” The Phantom, with an evil smile, drew closer to the chair, and resting its chin upon its folded hands, its folded hands upon the back, and looking down into his face with searching eyes, that seemed instinct with fire, went on:
“Such glimpses of the light of home as I had ever known, had streamed from her. How young she was, how fair, how loving! I took her to the first poor roof that I was master of, and made it rich. She came into the darkness of my life, and made it bright.—She is before me!”
“I saw her, in the fire, but now. I hear her in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night,” returned the haunted man.
“Did he love her?” said the Phantom, echoing his contemplative tone. “I think he did, once. I am sure he did. Better had she loved him less—less secretly, less dearly, from the shallower depths of a more divided heart!”
“Let me forget it!” said the Chemist, with an angry motion of his hand. “Let me blot it from my memory!”
The Spectre, without stirring, and with its unwinking, cruel eyes still fixed upon his face, went on:
“A dream, like hers, stole upon my own life.”
“It did,” said Redlaw.
“A love, as like hers,” pursued the Phantom, “as my inferior nature might cherish, arose in my own heart. I was too poor to bind its object to my fortune then, by any thread of promise or entreaty. I loved her far too well, to seek to do it. But, more than ever I had striven in my life, I strove to climb! Only an inch gained, brought me something nearer to the height. I toiled up! In the late pauses of my labour at that time,—my sister (sweet companion!) still sharing with me the expiring embers and the cooling hearth,—when day was breaking, what pictures of the future did I see!”
“I saw them, in the fire, but now,” he murmured. “They come back to me in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years.”
“—Pictures of my own domestic life, in aftertime, with her who was the inspiration of my toil. Pictures of my sister, made the wife of my dear friend, on equal terms—for he had some inheritance, we none—pictures of our sobered age and mellowed happiness, and of the golden links, extending back so far, that should bind us, and our children, in a radiant garland,” said the Phantom.
“Pictures,” said the haunted man, “that were delusions. Why is it my doom to remember them too well!”
“Delusions,” echoed the Phantom in its changeless voice, and glaring on him with its changeless eyes. “For my friend (in whose breast my confidence was locked as in my own), passing between me and the centre of the system of my hopes and struggles, won her to himself, and shattered my frail universe. My sister, doubly dear, doubly devoted, doubly cheerful in my home, lived on to see me famous, and my old ambition so rewarded when its spring was broken, and then—”
“Then died,” he interposed. “Died, gentle as ever; happy; and with no concern but for her brother. Peace!”
The Phantom watched him silently.
“Remembered!” said the haunted man, after a pause. “Yes. So well remembered, that even now, when years have passed, and nothing is more idle or more visionary to me than the boyish love so long outlived, I think of it with sympathy, as if it were a younger brother’s or a son’s. Sometimes I even wonder when her heart first inclined to him, and how it had been affected towards me.—Not lightly, once, I think.—But that is nothing. Early unhappiness, a wound from a hand I loved and trusted, and a loss that nothing can replace, outlive such fancies.”
“Thus,” said the Phantom, “I bear within me a Sorrow and a Wrong. Thus I prey upon myself. Thus, memory is my curse; and, if I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
“Mocker!” said the Chemist, leaping up, and making, with a wrathful hand, at the throat of his other self. “Why have I always that taunt in my ears?”
“Forbear!” exclaimed the Spectre in an awful voice. “Lay a hand on Me, and die!”
He stopped midway, as if its words had paralysed him, and stood looking on it. It had glided from him; it had its arm raised high in warning; and a smile passed over its unearthly features, as it reared its dark figure in triumph.
“If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would,” the Ghost repeated. “If I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
“Evil spirit of myself,” returned the haunted man, in a low, trembling tone, “my life is darkened by that incessant whisper.”
“It is an echo,” said the Phantom.
“If it be an echo of my thoughts—as now, indeed, I know it is,” rejoined the haunted man, “why should I, therefore, be tormented? It is not a selfish thought. I suffer it to range beyond myself. All men and women have their sorrows,—most of them their wrongs; ingratitude, and sordid jealousy, and interest, besetting all degrees of life. Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?”
“Who would not, truly, and be happier and better for it?” said the Phantom.
“These revolutions of years, which we commemorate,” proceeded Redlaw, “what do they recall! Are there any minds in which they do not re-awaken some sorrow, or some trouble? What is the remembrance of the old man who was here to-night? A tissue of sorrow and trouble.”
“But common natures,” said the Phantom, with its evil smile upon its glassy face, “unenlightened minds and ordinary spirits, do not feel or reason on these things like men of higher cultivation and profounder thought.”
“Tempter,” answered Redlaw, “whose hollow look and voice I dread more than words can express, and from whom some dim foreshadowing of greater fear is stealing over me while I speak, I hear again an echo of my own mind.”
“Receive it as a proof that I am powerful,” returned the Ghost. “Hear what I offer! Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” he repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre. “Say! Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand. “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others. What shall I lose, if I assent to this? What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections. Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.
But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.
“Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment! I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me. If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others. But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them? If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly. “I would forget it if I could! Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation? All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble. My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice. Yes, I close the bargain. Yes! I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is. And take this with you, man whom I here renounce! The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you. Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you. Go! Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
The Phantom, which had held its bloodless hand above him while it spoke, as if in some unholy invocation, or some ban; and which had gradually advanced its eyes so close to his, that he could see how they did not participate in the terrible smile upon its face, but were a fixed, unalterable, steady horror melted before him and was gone.
As he stood rooted to the spot, possessed by fear and wonder, and imagining he heard repeated in melancholy echoes, dying away fainter and fainter, the words, “Destroy its like in all whom you approach!” a shrill cry reached his ears. It came, not from the passages beyond the door, but from another part of the old building, and sounded like the cry of some one in the dark who had lost the way.
He looked confusedly upon his hands and limbs, as if to be assured of his identity, and then shouted in reply, loudly and wildly; for there was a strangeness and terror upon him, as if he too were lost.
The cry responding, and being nearer, he caught up the lamp, and raised a heavy curtain in the wall, by which he was accustomed to pass into and out of the theatre where he lectured,—which adjoined his room. Associated with youth and animation, and a high amphitheatre of faces which his entrance charmed to interest in a moment, it was a ghostly place when all this life was faded out of it, and stared upon him like an emblem of Death.
“Halloa!” he cried. “Halloa! This way! Come to the light!” When, as he held the curtain with one hand, and with the other raised the lamp and tried to pierce the gloom that filled the place, something rushed past him into the room like a wild-cat, and crouched down in a corner.
“What is it?” he said, hastily.
He might have asked “What is it?” even had he seen it well, as presently he did when he stood looking at it gathered up in its corner.
A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s. A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life. Bright eyes, but not youthful. Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy,—ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them. A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast.
Used, already, to be worried and hunted like a beast, the boy crouched down as he was looked at, and looked back again, and interposed his arm to ward off the expected blow.
“I’ll bite,” he said, “if you hit me!”
The time had been, and not many minutes since, when such a sight as this would have wrung the Chemist’s heart. He looked upon it now, coldly; but with a heavy effort to remember something—he did not know what—he asked the boy what he did there, and whence he came.
“Where’s the woman?” he replied. “I want to find the woman.”
“The woman. Her that brought me here, and set me by the large fire. She was so long gone, that I went to look for her, and lost myself. I don’t want you. I want the woman.”
He made a spring, so suddenly, to get away, that the dull sound of his naked feet upon the floor was near the curtain, when Redlaw caught him by his rags.
“Come! you let me go!” muttered the boy, struggling, and clenching his teeth. “I’ve done nothing to you. Let me go, will you, to the woman!”
“That is not the way. There is a nearer one,” said Redlaw, detaining him, in the same blank effort to remember some association that ought, of right, to bear upon this monstrous object. “What is your name?”
“Where do you live?
“Live! What’s that?”
The boy shook his hair from his eyes to look at him for a moment, and then, twisting round his legs and wrestling with him, broke again into his repetition of “You let me go, will you? I want to find the woman.”
The Chemist led him to the door. “This way,” he said, looking at him still confusedly, but with repugnance and avoidance, growing out of his coldness. “I’ll take you to her.”
The sharp eyes in the child’s head, wandering round the room, lighted on the table where the remnants of the dinner were.
“Give me some of that!” he said, covetously.
“Has she not fed you?”
“I shall be hungry again to-morrow, sha’n’t I? Ain’t I hungry every day?”
Finding himself released, he bounded at the table like some small animal of prey, and hugging to his breast bread and meat, and his own rags, all together, said:
“There! Now take me to the woman!”
As the Chemist, with a new-born dislike to touch him, sternly motioned him to follow, and was going out of the door, he trembled and stopped.
“The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will!”
The Phantom’s words were blowing in the wind, and the wind blew chill upon him.
“I’ll not go there, to-night,” he murmured faintly. “I’ll go nowhere to-night. Boy! straight down this long-arched passage, and past the great dark door into the yard,—you see the fire shining on the window there.”
“The woman’s fire?” inquired the boy.
He nodded, and the naked feet had sprung away. He came back with his lamp, locked his door hastily, and sat down in his chair, covering his face like one who was frightened at himself.
For now he was, indeed, alone. Alone, alone.