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Charles Dickens >> The Pickwick Papers (page 44)


On Mr. Pickwick's presenting himself at the bar, an elderlyfemale emerged from behind the screen therein, and presentedherself before him.

'Is Mr. Lowten here, ma'am?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

'Yes, he is, Sir,' replied the landlady. 'Here, Charley, show thegentleman in to Mr. Lowten.'

'The gen'l'm'n can't go in just now,' said a shambling pot-boy,with a red head, 'cos' Mr. Lowten's a-singin' a comic song, andhe'll put him out. He'll be done directly, Sir.'

The red-headed pot-boy had scarcely finished speaking,when a most unanimous hammering of tables, and jingling ofglasses, announced that the song had that instant terminated;and Mr. Pickwick, after desiring Sam to solace himself inthe tap, suffered himself to be conducted into the presence of Mr.Lowten.

At the announcement of 'A gentleman to speak to you, Sir,' apuffy-faced young man, who filled the chair at the head of thetable, looked with some surprise in the direction from whencethe voice proceeded; and the surprise seemed to be by no meansdiminished, when his eyes rested on an individual whom he hadnever seen before.

'I beg your pardon, Sir,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'and I am verysorry to disturb the other gentlemen, too, but I come on veryparticular business; and if you will suffer me to detain you at thisend of the room for five minutes, I shall be very much obliged to you.'

The puffy-faced young man rose, and drawing a chair close toMr. Pickwick in an obscure corner of the room, listened attentivelyto his tale of woe.

'Ah,'he said, when Mr. Pickwick had concluded, 'Dodson andFogg--sharp practice theirs--capital men of business, Dodsonand Fogg, sir.'

Mr. Pickwick admitted the sharp practice of Dodson andFogg, and Lowten resumed.'Perker ain't in town, and he won't be, neither, before the endof next week; but if you want the action defended, and will leavethe copy with me, I can do all that's needful till he comes back.'

'That's exactly what I came here for,' said Mr. Pickwick,handing over the document. 'If anything particular occurs, youcan write to me at the post-office, Ipswich.'

'That's all right,' replied Mr. Perker's clerk; and then seeingMr. Pickwick's eye wandering curiously towards the table, headded, 'will you join us, for half an hour or so? We are capitalcompany here to-night. There's Samkin and Green's managing-clerk, and Smithers and Price's chancery, and Pimkin andThomas's out o' doors--sings a capital song, he does--and JackBamber, and ever so many more. You're come out of the country,I suppose. Would you like to join us?'

Mr. Pickwick could not resist so tempting an opportunity ofstudying human nature. He suffered himself to be led to the table,where, after having been introduced to the company in due form,he was accommodated with a seat near the chairman and calledfor a glass of his favourite beverage.

A profound silence, quite contrary to Mr. Pickwick's expectation,succeeded.'You don't find this sort of thing disagreeable, I hope, sir?'said his right hand neighbour, a gentleman in a checked shirt andMosaic studs, with a cigar in his mouth.

'Not in the least,' replied Mr. Pickwick; 'I like it very much,although I am no smoker myself.'

'I should be very sorry to say I wasn't,' interposed anothergentleman on the opposite side of the table. 'It's board andlodgings to me, is smoke.'

Mr. Pickwick glanced at the speaker, and thought that if itwere washing too, it would be all the better.

Here there was another pause. Mr. Pickwick was a stranger,and his coming had evidently cast a damp upon the party.

'Mr. Grundy's going to oblige the company with a song,' saidthe chairman.

'No, he ain't,' said Mr. Grundy.

'Why not?' said the chairman.

'Because he can't,' said Mr. Grundy.'You had better say he won't,' replied the chairman.

'Well, then, he won't,' retorted Mr. Grundy. Mr. Grundy'spositive refusal to gratify the company occasioned another silence.'Won't anybody enliven us?' said the chairman, despondingly.

'Why don't you enliven us yourself, Mr. Chairman?' said ayoung man with a whisker, a squint, and an open shirt collar(dirty), from the bottom of the table.

'Hear! hear!' said the smoking gentleman, in the Mosaic jewellery.

'Because I only know one song, and I have sung it already, andit's a fine of "glasses round" to sing the same song twice in anight,' replied the chairman.

This was an unanswerable reply, and silence prevailed again.

'I have been to-night, gentlemen,' said Mr. Pickwick, hopingto start a subject which all the company could take a part indiscussing, 'I have been to-night, in a place which you all knowvery well, doubtless, but which I have not been in for some years,and know very little of; I mean Gray's Inn, gentlemen. Curiouslittle nooks in a great place, like London, these old inns are.'

'By Jove!' said the chairman, whispering across the table toMr. Pickwick, 'you have hit upon something that one of us, atleast, would talk upon for ever. You'll draw old Jack Bamber out;he was never heard to talk about anything else but the inns, andhe has lived alone in them till he's half crazy.'

The individual to whom Lowten alluded, was a little, yellow,high-shouldered man, whose countenance, from his habit ofstooping forward when silent, Mr. Pickwick had not observedbefore. He wondered, though, when the old man raised hisshrivelled face, and bent his gray eye upon him, with a keeninquiring look, that such remarkable features could have escapedhis attention for a moment. There was a fixed grim smileperpetually on his countenance; he leaned his chin on a long, skinnyhand, with nails of extraordinary length; and as he inclined hishead to one side, and looked keenly out from beneath his raggedgray eyebrows, there was a strange, wild slyness in his leer, quiterepulsive to behold.

This was the figure that now started forward, and burst into ananimated torrent of words. As this chapter has been a long one,however, and as the old man was a remarkable personage, it willbe more respectful to him, and more convenient to us, to let himspeak for himself in a fresh one.

CHAPTER XXIIN WHICH THE OLD MAN LAUNCHES FORTH INTO HISFAVOURITE THEME, AND RELATES A STORY ABOUT AQUEER CLIENT

Aha!' said the old man, a brief description of whose manner andappearance concluded the last chapter, 'aha! who was talking about the inns?'

'I was, Sir,' replied Mr. Pickwick--'I was observing whatsingular old places they are.'

'YOU!' said the old man contemptuously. 'What do YOU knowof the time when young men shut themselves up in those lonelyrooms, and read and read, hour after hour, and night after night,till their reason wandered beneath their midnight studies; tilltheir mental powers were exhausted; till morning's light broughtno freshness or health to them; and they sank beneath theunnatural devotion of their youthful energies to their dry oldbooks? Coming down to a later time, and a very different day,what do YOU know of the gradual sinking beneath consumption,or the quick wasting of fever--the grand results of "life"and dissipation--which men have undergone in these samerooms? How many vain pleaders for mercy, do you think,have turned away heart-sick from the lawyer's office, to finda resting-place in the Thames, or a refuge in the jail? Theyare no ordinary houses, those. There is not a panel in the oldwainscotting, but what, if it were endowed with the powers ofspeech and memory, could start from the wall, and tell its tale ofhorror--the romance of life, Sir, the romance of life! Common-place as they may seem now, I tell you they are strange oldplaces, and I would rather hear many a legend with a terrific-sounding name, than the true history of one old set of chambers.'

There was something so odd in the old man's sudden energy,and the subject which had called it forth, that Mr. Pickwick wasprepared with no observation in reply; and the old man checkinghis impetuosity, and resuming the leer, which had disappearedduring his previous excitement, said--

'Look at them in another light--their most common-place andleast romantic. What fine places of slow torture they are! Thinkof the needy man who has spent his all, beggared himself, andpinched his friends, to enter the profession, which is destinednever to yield him a morsel of bread. The waiting--the hope--the disappointment--the fear--the misery--the poverty--theblight on his hopes, and end to his career--the suicide perhaps, orthe shabby, slipshod drunkard. Am I not right about them?'And the old man rubbed his hands, and leered as if in delight athaving found another point of view in which to place hisfavourite subject.

Mr. Pickwick eyed the old man with great curiosity, and theremainder of the company smiled, and looked on in silence.

'Talk of your German universities,' said the little old man.'Pooh, pooh! there's romance enough at home without goinghalf a mile for it; only people never think of it.'

'I never thought of the romance of this particular subjectbefore, certainly,' said Mr. Pickwick, laughing.'To be sure you didn't,' said the little old man; 'of course not.As a friend of mine used to say to me, "What is there in chambersin particular?" "Queer old places," said I. "Not at all," said he."Lonely," said I. "Not a bit of it," said he. He died one morningof apoplexy, as he was going to open his outer door. Fell with hishead in his own letter-box, and there he lay for eighteen months.Everybody thought he'd gone out of town.'

'And how was he found out at last?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

'The benchers determined to have his door broken open, as hehadn't paid any rent for two years. So they did. Forced the lock;and a very dusty skeleton in a blue coat, black knee-shorts, andsilks, fell forward in the arms of the porter who opened the door.Queer, that. Rather, perhaps; rather, eh?'The little old man puthis head more on one side, and rubbed his hands with unspeakable glee.

'I know another case,' said the little old man, when his chuckleshad in some degree subsided. 'It occurred in Clifford's Inn.Tenant of a top set--bad character--shut himself up in hisbedroom closet, and took a dose of arsenic. The steward thoughthe had run away: opened the door, and put a bill up. Anotherman came, took the chambers, furnished them, and went to livethere. Somehow or other he couldn't sleep--always restless anduncomfortable. "Odd," says he. "I'll make the other room mybedchamber, and this my sitting-room." He made the change, andslept very well at night, but suddenly found that, somehow, hecouldn't read in the evening: he got nervous and uncomfortable,and used to be always snuffing his candles and staring about him."I can't make this out," said he, when he came home from theplay one night, and was drinking a glass of cold grog, with hisback to the wall, in order that he mightn't be able to fancy therewas any one behind him--"I can't make it out," said he; andjust then his eyes rested on the little closet that had been alwayslocked up, and a shudder ran through his whole frame from topto toe. "I have felt this strange feeling before," said he, "I cannothelp thinking there's something wrong about that closet." Hemade a strong effort, plucked up his courage, shivered the lockwith a blow or two of the poker, opened the door, and there, sureenough, standing bolt upright in the corner, was the last tenant,with a little bottle clasped firmly in his hand, and his face--well!'As the little old man concluded, he looked round on the attentivefaces of his wondering auditory with a smile of grim delight.

'What strange things these are you tell us of, Sir,' said Mr.Pickwick, minutely scanning the old man's countenance, by theaid of his glasses.

'Strange!' said the little old man. 'Nonsense; you think themstrange, because you know nothing about it. They are funny, butnot uncommon.'

'Funny!' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick involuntarily.'Yes, funny, are they not?' replied the little old man, with adiabolical leer; and then, without pausing for an answer, hecontinued--

'I knew another man--let me see--forty years ago now--whotook an old, damp, rotten set of chambers, in one of the mostancient inns, that had been shut up and empty for years andyears before. There were lots of old women's stories about theplace, and it certainly was very far from being a cheerful one;but he was poor, and the rooms were cheap, and that would havebeen quite a sufficient reason for him, if they had been ten timesworse than they really were. He was obliged to take somemouldering fixtures that were on the place, and, among the rest,was a great lumbering wooden press for papers, with large glassdoors, and a green curtain inside; a pretty useless thing for him,for he had no papers to put in it; and as to his clothes, he carriedthem about with him, and that wasn't very hard work, either.Well, he had moved in all his furniture--it wasn't quite a truck-full--and had sprinkled it about the room, so as to make the fourchairs look as much like a dozen as possible, and was sitting downbefore the fire at night, drinking the first glass of two gallons ofwhisky he had ordered on credit, wondering whether it would everbe paid for, and if so, in how many years' time, when his eyesencountered the glass doors of the wooden press. "Ah," says he,"if I hadn't been obliged to take that ugly article at the oldbroker's valuation, I might have got something comfortable forthe money. I'll tell you what it is, old fellow," he said, speakingaloud to the press, having nothing else to speak to, "if it wouldn'tcost more to break up your old carcass, than it would ever beworth afterward, I'd have a fire out of you in less than no time."He had hardly spoken the words, when a sound resembling afaint groan, appeared to issue from the interior of the case. Itstartled him at first, but thinking, on a moment's reflection, thatit must be some young fellow in the next chamber, who had beendining out, he put his feet on the fender, and raised the poker tostir the fire. At that moment, the sound was repeated; and one ofthe glass doors slowly opening, disclosed a pale and emaciatedfigure in soiled and worn apparel, standing erect in the press. Thefigure was tall and thin, and the countenance expressive of careand anxiety; but there was something in the hue of the skin, andgaunt and unearthly appearance of the whole form, which nobeing of this world was ever seen to wear. "Who are you?" saidthe new tenant, turning very pale; poising the poker in his hand,however, and taking a very decent aim at the countenance of thefigure. "Who are you?" "Don't throw that poker at me," repliedthe form; "if you hurled it with ever so sure an aim, it wouldpass through me, without resistance, and expend its force on thewood behind. I am a spirit." "And pray, what do you wanthere?" faltered the tenant. "In this room," replied the apparition,"my worldly ruin was worked, and I and my children beggared.In this press, the papers in a long, long suit, which accumulatedfor years, were deposited. In this room, when I had died of grief,and long-deferred hope, two wily harpies divided the wealth forwhich I had contested during a wretched existence, and of which,at last, not one farthing was left for my unhappy descendants. Iterrified them from the spot, and since that day have prowled bynight--the only period at which I can revisit the earth--about thescenes of my long-protracted misery. This apartment is mine:leave it to me." "If you insist upon making your appearancehere," said the tenant, who had had time to collect his presence ofmind during this prosy statement of the ghost's, "I shall give uppossession with the greatest pleasure; but I should like to ask youone question, if you will allow me." "Say on," said the apparitionsternly. "Well," said the tenant, "I don't apply the observationpersonally to you, because it is equally applicable to most of theghosts I ever heard of; but it does appear to me somewhatinconsistent, that when you have an opportunity of visiting thefairest spots of earth--for I suppose space is nothing to you--you should always return exactly to the very places where youhave been most miserable." "Egad, that's very true; I neverthought of that before," said the ghost. "You see, Sir," pursuedthe tenant, "this is a very uncomfortable room. From theappearance of that press, I should be disposed to say that it is notwholly free from bugs; and I really think you might find muchmore comfortable quarters: to say nothing of the climate ofLondon, which is extremely disagreeable." "You are very right,Sir," said the ghost politely, "it never struck me till now; I'll trychange of air directly"--and, in fact, he began to vanish as hespoke; his legs, indeed, had quite disappeared. "And if, Sir," saidthe tenant, calling after him, "if you WOULD have the goodness tosuggest to the other ladies and gentlemen who are now engagedin haunting old empty houses, that they might be much morecomfortable elsewhere, you will confer a very great benefit onsociety." "I will," replied the ghost; "we must be dull fellows--very dull fellows, indeed; I can't imagine how we can have beenso stupid." With these words, the spirit disappeared; and what israther remarkable,' added the old man, with a shrewd look roundthe table, 'he never came back again.'

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
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