Some new remembrance of the ghostly figures in the Bells; some faint impression of the ringing of the Chimes; some giddy consciousness of having seen the swarm of phantoms reproduced and reproduced until the recollection of them lost itself in the confusion of their numbers; some hurried knowledge, how conveyed to him he knew not, that more years had passed; and Trotty, with the Spirit of the child attending him, stood looking on at mortal company.
Fat company, rosy-cheeked company, comfortable company. They were but two, but they were red enough for ten. They sat before a bright fire, with a small low table between them; and unless the fragrance of hot tea and muffins lingered longer in that room than in most others, the table had seen service very lately. But all the cups and saucers being clean, and in their proper places in the corner-cupboard; and the brass toasting-fork hanging in its usual nook and spreading its four idle fingers out as if it wanted to be measured for a glove; there remained no other visible tokens of the meal just finished, than such as purred and washed their whiskers in the person of the basking cat, and glistened in the gracious, not to say the greasy, faces of her patrons.
This cosy couple (married, evidently) had made a fair division of the fire between them, and sat looking at the glowing sparks that dropped into the grate; now nodding off into a doze; now waking up again when some hot fragment, larger than the rest, came rattling down, as if the fire were coming with it.
It was in no danger of sudden extinction, however; for it gleamed not only in the little room, and on the panes of window-glass in the door, and on the curtain half drawn across them, but in the little shop beyond. A little shop, quite crammed and choked with the abundance of its stock; a perfectly voracious little shop, with a maw as accommodating and full as any shark’s. Cheese, butter, firewood, soap, pickles, matches, bacon, table-beer, peg-tops, sweetmeats, boys’ kites, bird-seed, cold ham, birch brooms, hearth-stones, salt, vinegar, blacking, red-herrings, stationery, lard, mushroom-ketchup, staylaces, loaves of bread, shuttlecocks, eggs, and slate pencil; everything was fish that came to the net of this greedy little shop, and all articles were in its net. How many other kinds of petty merchandise were there, it would be difficult to say; but balls of packthread, ropes of onions, pounds of candles, cabbage-nets, and brushes, hung in bunches from the ceiling, like extraordinary fruit; while various odd canisters emitting aromatic smells, established the veracity of the inscription over the outer door, which informed the public that the keeper of this little shop was a licensed dealer in tea, coffee, tobacco, pepper, and snuff.
Glancing at such of these articles as were visible in the shining of the blaze, and the less cheerful radiance of two smoky lamps which burnt but dimly in the shop itself, as though its plethora sat heavy on their lungs; and glancing, then, at one of the two faces by the parlour-fire; Trotty had small difficulty in recognising in the stout old lady, Mrs. Chickenstalker: always inclined to corpulency, even in the days when he had known her as established in the general line, and having a small balance against him in her books.
The features of her companion were less easy to him. The great broad chin, with creases in it large enough to hide a finger in; the astonished eyes, that seemed to expostulate with themselves for sinking deeper and deeper into the yielding fat of the soft face; the nose afflicted with that disordered action of its functions which is generally termed The Snuffles; the short thick throat and labouring chest, with other beauties of the like description; though calculated to impress the memory, Trotty could at first allot to nobody he had ever known: and yet he had some recollection of them too. At length, in Mrs. Chickenstalker’s partner in the general line, and in the crooked and eccentric line of life, he recognised the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley; an apoplectic innocent, who had connected himself in Trotty’s mind with Mrs. Chickenstalker years ago, by giving him admission to the mansion where he had confessed his obligations to that lady, and drawn on his unlucky head such grave reproach.
Trotty had little interest in a change like this, after the changes he had seen; but association is very strong sometimes; and he looked involuntarily behind the parlour-door, where the accounts of credit customers were usually kept in chalk. There was no record of his name. Some names were there, but they were strange to him, and infinitely fewer than of old; from which he argued that the porter was an advocate of ready-money transactions, and on coming into the business had looked pretty sharp after the Chickenstalker defaulters.
So desolate was Trotty, and so mournful for the youth and promise of his blighted child, that it was a sorrow to him, even to have no place in Mrs. Chickenstalker’s ledger.
‘What sort of a night is it, Anne?’ inquired the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley, stretching out his legs before the fire, and rubbing as much of them as his short arms could reach; with an air that added, ‘Here I am if it’s bad, and I don’t want to go out if it’s good.’
‘Blowing and sleeting hard,’ returned his wife; ‘and threatening snow. Dark. And very cold.’
‘I’m glad to think we had muffins,’ said the former porter, in the tone of one who had set his conscience at rest. ‘It’s a sort of night that’s meant for muffins. Likewise crumpets. Also Sally Lunns.’
The former porter mentioned each successive kind of eatable, as if he were musingly summing up his good actions. After which he rubbed his fat legs as before, and jerking them at the knees to get the fire upon the yet unroasted parts, laughed as if somebody had tickled him.
‘You’re in spirits, Tugby, my dear,’ observed his wife.
The firm was Tugby, late Chickenstalker.
‘No,’ said Tugby. ‘No. Not particular. I’m a little elewated. The muffins came so pat!’
With that he chuckled until he was black in the face; and had so much ado to become any other colour, that his fat legs took the strangest excursions into the air. Nor were they reduced to anything like decorum until Mrs. Tugby had thumped him violently on the back, and shaken him as if he were a great bottle.
‘Good gracious, goodness, lord-a-mercy bless and save the man!’ cried Mrs. Tugby, in great terror. ‘What’s he doing?’
Mr. Tugby wiped his eyes, and faintly repeated that he found himself a little elewated.
‘Then don’t be so again, that’s a dear good soul,’ said Mrs. Tugby, ‘if you don’t want to frighten me to death, with your struggling and fighting!’
Mr. Tugby said he wouldn’t; but, his whole existence was a fight, in which, if any judgment might be founded on the constantly-increasing shortness of his breath, and the deepening purple of his face, he was always getting the worst of it.
‘So it’s blowing, and sleeting, and threatening snow; and it’s dark, and very cold, is it, my dear?’ said Mr. Tugby, looking at the fire, and reverting to the cream and marrow of his temporary elevation.
‘Hard weather indeed,’ returned his wife, shaking her head.
‘Aye, aye! Years,’ said Mr. Tugby, ‘are like Christians in that respect. Some of ’em die hard; some of ’em die easy. This one hasn’t many days to run, and is making a fight for it. I like him all the better. There’s a customer, my love!’
Attentive to the rattling door, Mrs. Tugby had already risen.
‘Now then!’ said that lady, passing out into the little shop. ‘What’s wanted? Oh! I beg your pardon, sir, I’m sure. I didn’t think it was you.’
She made this apology to a gentleman in black, who, with his wristbands tucked up, and his hat cocked loungingly on one side, and his hands in his pockets, sat down astride on the table-beer barrel, and nodded in return.
‘This is a bad business up-stairs, Mrs. Tugby,’ said the gentleman. ‘The man can’t live.’
‘Not the back-attic can’t!’ cried Tugby, coming out into the shop to join the conference.
‘The back-attic, Mr. Tugby,’ said the gentleman, ‘is coming down-stairs fast, and will be below the basement very soon.’
Looking by turns at Tugby and his wife, he sounded the barrel with his knuckles for the depth of beer, and having found it, played a tune upon the empty part.
‘The back-attic, Mr. Tugby,’ said the gentleman: Tugby having stood in silent consternation for some time: ‘is Going.’
‘Then,’ said Tugby, turning to his wife, ‘he must Go, you know, before he’s Gone.’
‘I don’t think you can move him,’ said the gentleman, shaking his head. ‘I wouldn’t take the responsibility of saying it could be done, myself. You had better leave him where he is. He can’t live long.’
‘It’s the only subject,’ said Tugby, bringing the butter-scale down upon the counter with a crash, by weighing his fist on it, ‘that we’ve ever had a word upon; she and me; and look what it comes to! He’s going to die here, after all. Going to die upon the premises. Going to die in our house!’
‘And where should he have died, Tugby?’ cried his wife.
‘In the workhouse,’ he returned. ‘What are workhouses made for?’
‘Not for that,’ said Mrs. Tugby, with great energy. ‘Not for that! Neither did I marry you for that. Don’t think it, Tugby. I won’t have it. I won’t allow it. I’d be separated first, and never see your face again. When my widow’s name stood over that door, as it did for many years: this house being known as Mrs. Chickenstalker’s far and wide, and never known but to its honest credit and its good report: when my widow’s name stood over that door, Tugby, I knew him as a handsome, steady, manly, independent youth; I knew her as the sweetest-looking, sweetest-tempered girl, eyes ever saw; I knew her father (poor old creetur, he fell down from the steeple walking in his sleep, and killed himself), for the simplest, hardest-working, childest-hearted man, that ever drew the breath of life; and when I turn them out of house and home, may angels turn me out of Heaven. As they would! And serve me right!’
Her old face, which had been a plump and dimpled one before the changes which had come to pass, seemed to shine out of her as she said these words; and when she dried her eyes, and shook her head and her handkerchief at Tugby, with an expression of firmness which it was quite clear was not to be easily resisted, Trotty said, ‘Bless her! Bless her!’
Then he listened, with a panting heart, for what should follow. Knowing nothing yet, but that they spoke of Meg.
If Tugby had been a little elevated in the parlour, he more than balanced that account by being not a little depressed in the shop, where he now stood staring at his wife, without attempting a reply; secretly conveying, however—either in a fit of abstraction or as a precautionary measure—all the money from the till into his own pockets, as he looked at her.
The gentleman upon the table-beer cask, who appeared to be some authorised medical attendant upon the poor, was far too well accustomed, evidently, to little differences of opinion between man and wife, to interpose any remark in this instance. He sat softly whistling, and turning little drops of beer out of the tap upon the ground, until there was a perfect calm: when he raised his head, and said to Mrs. Tugby, late Chickenstalker:
‘There’s something interesting about the woman, even now. How did she come to marry him?’
‘Why that,’ said Mrs. Tugby, taking a seat near him, ‘is not the least cruel part of her story, sir. You see they kept company, she and Richard, many years ago. When they were a young and beautiful couple, everything was settled, and they were to have been married on a New Year’s Day. But, somehow, Richard got it into his head, through what the gentlemen told him, that he might do better, and that he’d soon repent it, and that she wasn’t good enough for him, and that a young man of spirit had no business to be married. And the gentlemen frightened her, and made her melancholy, and timid of his deserting her, and of her children coming to the gallows, and of its being wicked to be man and wife, and a good deal more of it. And in short, they lingered and lingered, and their trust in one another was broken, and so at last was the match. But the fault was his. She would have married him, sir, joyfully. I’ve seen her heart swell many times afterwards, when he passed her in a proud and careless way; and never did a woman grieve more truly for a man, than she for Richard when he first went wrong.’
‘Oh! he went wrong, did he?’ said the gentleman, pulling out the vent-peg of the table-beer, and trying to peep down into the barrel through the hole.
‘Well, sir, I don’t know that he rightly understood himself, you see. I think his mind was troubled by their having broke with one another; and that but for being ashamed before the gentlemen, and perhaps for being uncertain too, how she might take it, he’d have gone through any suffering or trial to have had Meg’s promise and Meg’s hand again. That’s my belief. He never said so; more’s the pity! He took to drinking, idling, bad companions: all the fine resources that were to be so much better for him than the Home he might have had. He lost his looks, his character, his health, his strength, his friends, his work: everything!’
‘He didn’t lose everything, Mrs. Tugby,’ returned the gentleman, ‘because he gained a wife; and I want to know how he gained her.’
‘I’m coming to it, sir, in a moment. This went on for years and years; he sinking lower and lower; she enduring, poor thing, miseries enough to wear her life away. At last, he was so cast down, and cast out, that no one would employ or notice him; and doors were shut upon him, go where he would. Applying from place to place, and door to door; and coming for the hundredth time to one gentleman who had often and often tried him (he was a good workman to the very end); that gentleman, who knew his history, said, “I believe you are incorrigible; there is only one person in the world who has a chance of reclaiming you; ask me to trust you no more, until she tries to do it.” Something like that, in his anger and vexation.’
‘Ah!’ said the gentleman. ‘Well?’
‘Well, sir, he went to her, and kneeled to her; said it was so; said it ever had been so; and made a prayer to her to save him.’
‘And she?—Don’t distress yourself, Mrs. Tugby.’
‘She came to me that night to ask me about living here. “What he was once to me,” she said, “is buried in a grave, side by side with what I was to him. But I have thought of this; and I will make the trial. In the hope of saving him; for the love of the light-hearted girl (you remember her) who was to have been married on a New Year’s Day; and for the love of her Richard.” And she said he had come to her from Lilian, and Lilian had trusted to him, and she never could forget that. So they were married; and when they came home here, and I saw them, I hoped that such prophecies as parted them when they were young, may not often fulfil themselves as they did in this case, or I wouldn’t be the makers of them for a Mine of Gold.’
The gentleman got off the cask, and stretched himself, observing:
‘I suppose he used her ill, as soon as they were married?’
‘I don’t think he ever did that,’ said Mrs. Tugby, shaking her head, and wiping her eyes. ‘He went on better for a short time; but, his habits were too old and strong to be got rid of; he soon fell back a little; and was falling fast back, when his illness came so strong upon him. I think he has always felt for her. I am sure he has. I have seen him, in his crying fits and tremblings, try to kiss her hand; and I have heard him call her “Meg,” and say it was her nineteenth birthday. There he has been lying, now, these weeks and months. Between him and her baby, she has not been able to do her old work; and by not being able to be regular, she has lost it, even if she could have done it. How they have lived, I hardly know!’
‘I know,’ muttered Mr. Tugby; looking at the till, and round the shop, and at his wife; and rolling his head with immense intelligence. ‘Like Fighting Cocks!’
He was interrupted by a cry—a sound of lamentation—from the upper story of the house. The gentleman moved hurriedly to the door.
‘My friend,’ he said, looking back, ‘you needn’t discuss whether he shall be removed or not. He has spared you that trouble, I believe.’
Saying so, he ran up-stairs, followed by Mrs. Tugby; while Mr. Tugby panted and grumbled after them at leisure: being rendered more than commonly short-winded by the weight of the till, in which there had been an inconvenient quantity of copper. Trotty, with the child beside him, floated up the staircase like mere air.
‘Follow her! Follow her! Follow her!’ He heard the ghostly voices in the Bells repeat their words as he ascended. ‘Learn it, from the creature dearest to your heart!’
It was over. It was over. And this was she, her father’s pride and joy! This haggard, wretched woman, weeping by the bed, if it deserved that name, and pressing to her breast, and hanging down her head upon, an infant. Who can tell how spare, how sickly, and how poor an infant! Who can tell how dear!
‘Thank God!’ cried Trotty, holding up his folded hands. ‘O, God be thanked! She loves her child!’
The gentleman, not otherwise hard-hearted or indifferent to such scenes, than that he saw them every day, and knew that they were figures of no moment in the Filer sums—mere scratches in the working of these calculations—laid his hand upon the heart that beat no more, and listened for the breath, and said, ‘His pain is over. It’s better as it is!’ Mrs. Tugby tried to comfort her with kindness. Mr. Tugby tried philosophy.
‘Come, come!’ he said, with his hands in his pockets, ‘you mustn’t give way, you know. That won’t do. You must fight up. What would have become of me if I had given way when I was porter, and we had as many as six runaway carriage-doubles at our door in one night! But, I fell back upon my strength of mind, and didn’t open it!’
Again Trotty heard the voices saying, ‘Follow her!’ He turned towards his guide, and saw it rising from him, passing through the air. ‘Follow her!’ it said. And vanished.
He hovered round her; sat down at her feet; looked up into her face for one trace of her old self; listened for one note of her old pleasant voice. He flitted round the child: so wan, so prematurely old, so dreadful in its gravity, so plaintive in its feeble, mournful, miserable wail. He almost worshipped it. He clung to it as her only safeguard; as the last unbroken link that bound her to endurance. He set his father’s hope and trust on the frail baby; watched her every look upon it as she held it in her arms; and cried a thousand times, ‘She loves it! God be thanked, she loves it!’
He saw the woman tend her in the night; return to her when her grudging husband was asleep, and all was still; encourage her, shed tears with her, set nourishment before her. He saw the day come, and the night again; the day, the night; the time go by; the house of death relieved of death; the room left to herself and to the child; he heard it moan and cry; he saw it harass her, and tire her out, and when she slumbered in exhaustion, drag her back to consciousness, and hold her with its little hands upon the rack; but she was constant to it, gentle with it, patient with it. Patient! Was its loving mother in her inmost heart and soul, and had its Being knitted up with hers as when she carried it unborn.
All this time, she was in want: languishing away, in dire and pining want. With the baby in her arms, she wandered here and there, in quest of occupation; and with its thin face lying in her lap, and looking up in hers, did any work for any wretched sum; a day and night of labour for as many farthings as there were figures on the dial. If she had quarrelled with it; if she had neglected it; if she had looked upon it with a moment’s hate; if, in the frenzy of an instant, she had struck it! No. His comfort was, She loved it always.
She told no one of her extremity, and wandered abroad in the day lest she should be questioned by her only friend: for any help she received from her hands, occasioned fresh disputes between the good woman and her husband; and it was new bitterness to be the daily cause of strife and discord, where she owed so much.
She loved it still. She loved it more and more. But a change fell on the aspect of her love. One night.
She was singing faintly to it in its sleep, and walking to and fro to hush it, when her door was softly opened, and a man looked in.
‘For the last time,’ he said.
‘For the last time.’
He listened like a man pursued: and spoke in whispers.
‘Margaret, my race is nearly run. I couldn’t finish it, without a parting word with you. Without one grateful word.’
‘What have you done?’ she asked: regarding him with terror.
He looked at her, but gave no answer.
After a short silence, he made a gesture with his hand, as if he set her question by; as if he brushed it aside; and said:
‘It’s long ago, Margaret, now: but that night is as fresh in my memory as ever ’twas. We little thought, then,’ he added, looking round, ‘that we should ever meet like this. Your child, Margaret? Let me have it in my arms. Let me hold your child.’
He put his hat upon the floor, and took it. And he trembled as he took it, from head to foot.
‘Is it a girl?’
He put his hand before its little face.
‘See how weak I’m grown, Margaret, when I want the courage to look at it! Let her be, a moment. I won’t hurt her. It’s long ago, but—What’s her name?’
‘Margaret,’ she answered, quickly.
‘I’m glad of that,’ he said. ‘I’m glad of that!’ He seemed to breathe more freely; and after pausing for an instant, took away his hand, and looked upon the infant’s face. But covered it again, immediately.
‘Margaret!’ he said; and gave her back the child. ‘It’s Lilian’s.’
‘I held the same face in my arms when Lilian’s mother died and left her.’
‘When Lilian’s mother died and left her!’ she repeated, wildly.
‘How shrill you speak! Why do you fix your eyes upon me so? Margaret!’
She sunk down in a chair, and pressed the infant to her breast, and wept over it. Sometimes, she released it from her embrace, to look anxiously in its face: then strained it to her bosom again. At those times, when she gazed upon it, then it was that something fierce and terrible began to mingle with her love. Then it was that her old father quailed.
‘Follow her!’ was sounded through the house. ‘Learn it, from the creature dearest to your heart!’
‘Margaret,’ said Fern, bending over her, and kissing her upon the brow: ‘I thank you for the last time. Good night. Good bye! Put your hand in mine, and tell me you’ll forget me from this hour, and try to think the end of me was here.’
‘What have you done?’ she asked again.
‘There’ll be a Fire to-night,’ he said, removing from her. ‘There’ll be Fires this winter-time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they’ll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. Good bye!’ She called to him; but he was gone. She sat down stupefied, until her infant roused her to a sense of hunger, cold, and darkness. She paced the room with it the livelong night, hushing it and soothing it. She said at intervals, ‘Like Lilian, when her mother died and left her!’ Why was her step so quick, her eye so wild, her love so fierce and terrible, whenever she repeated those words?
‘But, it is Love,’ said Trotty. ‘It is Love. She’ll never cease to love it. My poor Meg!’
She dressed the child next morning with unusual care—ah, vain expenditure of care upon such squalid robes!—and once more tried to find some means of life. It was the last day of the Old Year. She tried till night, and never broke her fast. She tried in vain.
She mingled with an abject crowd, who tarried in the snow, until it pleased some officer appointed to dispense the public charity (the lawful charity; not that once preached upon a Mount), to call them in, and question them, and say to this one, ‘Go to such a place,’ to that one, ‘Come next week;’ to make a football of another wretch, and pass him here and there, from hand to hand, from house to house, until he wearied and lay down to die; or started up and robbed, and so became a higher sort of criminal, whose claims allowed of no delay. Here, too, she failed.
She loved her child, and wished to have it lying on her breast. And that was quite enough.
It was night: a bleak, dark, cutting night: when, pressing the child close to her for warmth, she arrived outside the house she called her home. She was so faint and giddy, that she saw no one standing in the doorway until she was close upon it, and about to enter. Then, she recognised the master of the house, who had so disposed himself—with his person it was not difficult—as to fill up the whole entry.
‘O!’ he said softly. ‘You have come back?’
She looked at the child, and shook her head.
‘Don’t you think you have lived here long enough without paying any rent? Don’t you think that, without any money, you’ve been a pretty constant customer at this shop, now?’ said Mr. Tugby.
She repeated the same mute appeal.
‘Suppose you try and deal somewhere else,’ he said. ‘And suppose you provide yourself with another lodging. Come! Don’t you think you could manage it?’
She said in a low voice, that it was very late. To-morrow.
‘Now I see what you want,’ said Tugby; ‘and what you mean. You know there are two parties in this house about you, and you delight in setting ’em by the ears. I don’t want any quarrels; I’m speaking softly to avoid a quarrel; but if you don’t go away, I’ll speak out loud, and you shall cause words high enough to please you. But you shan’t come in. That I am determined.’
She put her hair back with her hand, and looked in a sudden manner at the sky, and the dark lowering distance.
‘This is the last night of an Old Year, and I won’t carry ill-blood and quarrellings and disturbances into a New One, to please you nor anybody else,’ said Tugby, who was quite a retail Friend and Father. ‘I wonder you an’t ashamed of yourself, to carry such practices into a New Year. If you haven’t any business in the world, but to be always giving way, and always making disturbances between man and wife, you’d be better out of it. Go along with you.’
‘Follow her! To desperation!’
Again the old man heard the voices. Looking up, he saw the figures hovering in the air, and pointing where she went, down the dark street.
‘She loves it!’ he exclaimed, in agonised entreaty for her. ‘Chimes! she loves it still!’
‘Follow her!’ The shadow swept upon the track she had taken, like a cloud.
He joined in the pursuit; he kept close to her; he looked into her face. He saw the same fierce and terrible expression mingling with her love, and kindling in her eyes. He heard her say, ‘Like Lilian! To be changed like Lilian!’ and her speed redoubled.
O, for something to awaken her! For any sight, or sound, or scent, to call up tender recollections in a brain on fire! For any gentle image of the Past, to rise before her!
‘I was her father! I was her father!’ cried the old man, stretching out his hands to the dark shadows flying on above. ‘Have mercy on her, and on me! Where does she go? Turn her back! I was her father!’
But they only pointed to her, as she hurried on; and said, ‘To desperation! Learn it from the creature dearest to your heart!’ A hundred voices echoed it. The air was made of breath expended in those words. He seemed to take them in, at every gasp he drew. They were everywhere, and not to be escaped. And still she hurried on; the same light in her eyes, the same words in her mouth, ‘Like Lilian! To be changed like Lilian!’ All at once she stopped.
‘Now, turn her back!’ exclaimed the old man, tearing his white hair. ‘My child! Meg! Turn her back! Great Father, turn her back!’
In her own scanty shawl, she wrapped the baby warm. With her fevered hands, she smoothed its limbs, composed its face, arranged its mean attire. In her wasted arms she folded it, as though she never would resign it more. And with her dry lips, kissed it in a final pang, and last long agony of Love.
Putting its tiny hand up to her neck, and holding it there, within her dress, next to her distracted heart, she set its sleeping face against her: closely, steadily, against her: and sped onward to the River.
To the rolling River, swift and dim, where Winter Night sat brooding like the last dark thoughts of many who had sought a refuge there before her. Where scattered lights upon the banks gleamed sullen, red, and dull, as torches that were burning there, to show the way to Death. Where no abode of living people cast its shadow, on the deep, impenetrable, melancholy shade.
To the River! To that portal of Eternity, her desperate footsteps tended with the swiftness of its rapid waters running to the sea. He tried to touch her as she passed him, going down to its dark level: but, the wild distempered form, the fierce and terrible love, the desperation that had left all human check or hold behind, swept by him like the wind.
He followed her. She paused a moment on the brink, before the dreadful plunge. He fell down on his knees, and in a shriek addressed the figures in the Bells now hovering above them.
‘I have learnt it!’ cried the old man. ‘From the creature dearest to my heart! O, save her, save her!’
He could wind his fingers in her dress; could hold it! As the words escaped his lips, he felt his sense of touch return, and knew that he detained her.
The figures looked down steadfastly upon him.
‘I have learnt it!’ cried the old man. ‘O, have mercy on me in this hour, if, in my love for her, so young and good, I slandered Nature in the breasts of mothers rendered desperate! Pity my presumption, wickedness, and ignorance, and save her.’ He felt his hold relaxing. They were silent still.
‘Have mercy on her!’ he exclaimed, ‘as one in whom this dreadful crime has sprung from Love perverted; from the strongest, deepest Love we fallen creatures know! Think what her misery must have been, when such seed bears such fruit! Heaven meant her to be good. There is no loving mother on the earth who might not come to this, if such a life had gone before. O, have mercy on my child, who, even at this pass, means mercy to her own, and dies herself, and perils her immortal soul, to save it!’
She was in his arms. He held her now. His strength was like a giant’s.
‘I see the Spirit of the Chimes among you!’ cried the old man, singling out the child, and speaking in some inspiration, which their looks conveyed to him. ‘I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart. I clasp her in my arms again. O Spirits, merciful and good, I take your lesson to my breast along with her! O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!’
He might have said more; but, the Bells, the old familiar Bells, his own dear, constant, steady friends, the Chimes, began to ring the joy-peals for a New Year: so lustily, so merrily, so happily, so gaily, that he leapt upon his feet, and broke the spell that bound him.
‘And whatever you do, father,’ said Meg, ‘don’t eat tripe again, without asking some doctor whether it’s likely to agree with you; for how you have been going on, Good gracious!’
She was working with her needle, at the little table by the fire; dressing her simple gown with ribbons for her wedding. So quietly happy, so blooming and youthful, so full of beautiful promise, that he uttered a great cry as if it were an Angel in his house; then flew to clasp her in his arms.
But, he caught his feet in the newspaper, which had fallen on the hearth; and somebody came rushing in between them.
‘No!’ cried the voice of this same somebody; a generous and jolly voice it was! ‘Not even you. Not even you. The first kiss of Meg in the New Year is mine. Mine! I have been waiting outside the house, this hour, to hear the Bells and claim it. Meg, my precious prize, a happy year! A life of happy years, my darling wife!’
And Richard smothered her with kisses.
You never in all your life saw anything like Trotty after this. I don’t care where you have lived or what you have seen; you never in all your life saw anything at all approaching him! He sat down in his chair and beat his knees and cried; he sat down in his chair and beat his knees and laughed; he sat down in his chair and beat his knees and laughed and cried together; he got out of his chair and hugged Meg; he got out of his chair and hugged Richard; he got out of his chair and hugged them both at once; he kept running up to Meg, and squeezing her fresh face between his hands and kissing it, going from her backwards not to lose sight of it, and running up again like a figure in a magic lantern; and whatever he did, he was constantly sitting himself down in his chair, and never stopping in it for one single moment; being—that’s the truth—beside himself with joy.
‘And to-morrow’s your wedding-day, my pet!’ cried Trotty. ‘Your real, happy wedding-day!’
‘To-day!’ cried Richard, shaking hands with him. ‘To-day. The Chimes are ringing in the New Year. Hear them!’
They were ringing! Bless their sturdy hearts, they were ringing! Great Bells as they were; melodious, deep-mouthed, noble Bells; cast in no common metal; made by no common founder; when had they ever chimed like that, before!
‘But, to-day, my pet,’ said Trotty. ‘You and Richard had some words to-day.’
‘Because he’s such a bad fellow, father,’ said Meg. ‘An’t you, Richard? Such a headstrong, violent man! He’d have made no more of speaking his mind to that great Alderman, and putting him down I don’t know where, than he would of—’
‘—Kissing Meg,’ suggested Richard. Doing it too!
‘No. Not a bit more,’ said Meg. ‘But I wouldn’t let him, father. Where would have been the use!’
‘Richard my boy!’ cried Trotty. ‘You was turned up Trumps originally; and Trumps you must be, till you die! But, you were crying by the fire to-night, my pet, when I came home! Why did you cry by the fire?’
‘I was thinking of the years we’ve passed together, father. Only that. And thinking that you might miss me, and be lonely.’
Trotty was backing off to that extraordinary chair again, when the child, who had been awakened by the noise, came running in half-dressed.
‘Why, here she is!’ cried Trotty, catching her up. ‘Here’s little Lilian! Ha ha ha! Here we are and here we go! O here we are and here we go again! And here we are and here we go! and Uncle Will too!’ Stopping in his trot to greet him heartily. ‘O, Uncle Will, the vision that I’ve had to-night, through lodging you! O, Uncle Will, the obligations that you’ve laid me under, by your coming, my good friend!’
Before Will Fern could make the least reply, a band of music burst into the room, attended by a lot of neighbours, screaming ‘A Happy New Year, Meg!’ ‘A Happy Wedding!’ ‘Many of ’em!’ and other fragmentary good wishes of that sort. The Drum (who was a private friend of Trotty’s) then stepped forward, and said:
‘Trotty Veck, my boy! It’s got about, that your daughter is going to be married to-morrow. There an’t a soul that knows you that don’t wish you well, or that knows her and don’t wish her well. Or that knows you both, and don’t wish you both all the happiness the New Year can bring. And here we are, to play it in and dance it in, accordingly.’
Which was received with a general shout. The Drum was rather drunk, by-the-bye; but, never mind.
‘What a happiness it is, I’m sure,’ said Trotty, ‘to be so esteemed! How kind and neighbourly you are! It’s all along of my dear daughter. She deserves it!’
They were ready for a dance in half a second (Meg and Richard at the top); and the Drum was on the very brink of feathering away with all his power; when a combination of prodigious sounds was heard outside, and a good-humoured comely woman of some fifty years of age, or thereabouts, came running in, attended by a man bearing a stone pitcher of terrific size, and closely followed by the marrow-bones and cleavers, and the bells; not the Bells, but a portable collection on a frame.
Trotty said, ‘It’s Mrs. Chickenstalker!’ And sat down and beat his knees again.
‘Married, and not tell me, Meg!’ cried the good woman. ‘Never! I couldn’t rest on the last night of the Old Year without coming to wish you joy. I couldn’t have done it, Meg. Not if I had been bed-ridden. So here I am; and as it’s New Year’s Eve, and the Eve of your wedding too, my dear, I had a little flip made, and brought it with me.’
Mrs. Chickenstalker’s notion of a little flip did honour to her character. The pitcher steamed and smoked and reeked like a volcano; and the man who had carried it, was faint.
‘Mrs. Tugby!’ said Trotty, who had been going round and round her, in an ecstasy.—‘I should say, Chickenstalker—Bless your heart and soul! A Happy New Year, and many of ’em! Mrs. Tugby,’ said Trotty when he had saluted her;—‘I should say, Chickenstalker—This is William Fern and Lilian.’
The worthy dame, to his surprise, turned very pale and very red.
‘Not Lilian Fern whose mother died in Dorsetshire!’ said she.
Her uncle answered ‘Yes,’ and meeting hastily, they exchanged some hurried words together; of which the upshot was, that Mrs. Chickenstalker shook him by both hands; saluted Trotty on his cheek again of her own free will; and took the child to her capacious breast.
‘Will Fern!’ said Trotty, pulling on his right-hand muffler. ‘Not the friend you was hoping to find?’
‘Ay!’ returned Will, putting a hand on each of Trotty’s shoulders. ‘And like to prove a’most as good a friend, if that can be, as one I found.’
‘O!’ said Trotty. ‘Please to play up there. Will you have the goodness!’
To the music of the band, and, the bells, the marrow-bones and cleavers, all at once; and while the Chimes were yet in lusty operation out of doors; Trotty, making Meg and Richard, second couple, led off Mrs. Chickenstalker down the dance, and danced it in a step unknown before or since; founded on his own peculiar trot.
Had Trotty dreamed? Or, are his joys and sorrows, and the actors in them, but a dream; himself a dream; the teller of this tale a dreamer, waking but now? If it be so, O listener, dear to him in all his visions, try to bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your sphere—none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end—endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them. So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.