CHAPTER I—MRS. LIRRIPER RELATES HOW SHE WENT ON, AND WENT OVER
Ah! It’s pleasant to drop into my own easy-chair my dear though a little palpitating what with trotting up-stairs and what with trotting down, and why kitchen stairs should all be corner stairs is for the builders to justify though I do not think they fully understand their trade and never did, else why the sameness and why not more conveniences and fewer draughts and likewise making a practice of laying the plaster on too thick I am well convinced which holds the damp, and as to chimney-pots putting them on by guess-work like hats at a party and no more knowing what their effect will be upon the smoke bless you than I do if so much, except that it will mostly be either to send it down your throat in a straight form or give it a twist before it goes there. And what I says speaking as I find of those new metal chimneys all manner of shapes (there’s a row of ’em at Miss Wozenham’s lodging-house lower down on the other side of the way) is that they only work your smoke into artificial patterns for you before you swallow it and that I’d quite as soon swallow mine plain, the flavour being the same, not to mention the conceit of putting up signs on the top of your house to show the forms in which you take your smoke into your inside.
Being here before your eyes my dear in my own easy-chair in my own quiet room in my own Lodging-House Number Eighty-one Norfolk Street Strand London situated midway between the City and St. James’s—if anything is where it used to be with these hotels calling themselves Limited but called unlimited by Major Jackman rising up everywhere and rising up into flagstaffs where they can’t go any higher, but my mind of those monsters is give me a landlord’s or landlady’s wholesome face when I come off a journey and not a brass plate with an electrified number clicking out of it which it’s not in nature can be glad to see me and to which I don’t want to be hoisted like molasses at the Docks and left there telegraphing for help with the most ingenious instruments but quite in vain—being here my dear I have no call to mention that I am still in the Lodgings as a business hoping to die in the same and if agreeable to the clergy partly read over at Saint Clement’s Danes and concluded in Hatfield churchyard when lying once again by my poor Lirriper ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Neither should I tell you any news my dear in telling you that the Major is still a fixture in the Parlours quite as much so as the roof of the house, and that Jemmy is of boys the best and brightest and has ever had kept from him the cruel story of his poor pretty young mother Mrs. Edson being deserted in the second floor and dying in my arms, fully believing that I am his born Gran and him an orphan, though what with engineering since he took a taste for it and him and the Major making Locomotives out of parasols broken iron pots and cotton-reels and them absolutely a getting off the line and falling over the table and injuring the passengers almost equal to the originals it really is quite wonderful. And when I says to the Major, “Major can’t you by any means give us a communication with the guard?” the Major says quite huffy, “No madam it’s not to be done,” and when I says “Why not?” the Major says, “That is between us who are in the Railway Interest madam and our friend the Right Honourable Vice-President of the Board of Trade” and if you’ll believe me my dear the Major wrote to Jemmy at school to consult him on the answer I should have before I could get even that amount of unsatisfactoriness out of the man, the reason being that when we first began with the little model and the working signals beautiful and perfect (being in general as wrong as the real) and when I says laughing “What appointment am I to hold in this undertaking gentlemen?” Jemmy hugs me round the neck and tells me dancing, “You shall be the Public Gran” and consequently they put upon me just as much as ever they like and I sit a growling in my easy-chair.
My dear whether it is that a grown man as clever as the Major cannot give half his heart and mind to anything—even a plaything—but must get into right down earnest with it, whether it is so or whether it is not so I do not undertake to say, but Jemmy is far out-done by the serious and believing ways of the Major in the management of the United Grand Junction Lirriper and Jackman Great Norfolk Parlour Line, “For” says my Jemmy with the sparkling eyes when it was christened, “we must have a whole mouthful of name Gran or our dear old Public” and there the young rogue kissed me, “won’t stump up.” So the Public took the shares—ten at ninepence, and immediately when that was spent twelve Preference at one and sixpence—and they were all signed by Jemmy and countersigned by the Major, and between ourselves much better worth the money than some shares I have paid for in my time. In the same holidays the line was made and worked and opened and ran excursions and had collisions and burst its boilers and all sorts of accidents and offences all most regular correct and pretty. The sense of responsibility entertained by the Major as a military style of station-master my dear starting the down train behind time and ringing one of those little bells that you buy with the little coal-scuttles off the tray round the man’s neck in the street did him honour, but noticing the Major of a night when he is writing out his monthly report to Jemmy at school of the state of the Rolling Stock and the Permanent Way and all the rest of it (the whole kept upon the Major’s sideboard and dusted with his own hands every morning before varnishing his boots) I notice him as full of thought and care as full can be and frowning in a fearful manner, but indeed the Major does nothing by halves as witness his great delight in going out surveying with Jemmy when he has Jemmy to go with, carrying a chain and a measuring-tape and driving I don’t know what improvements right through Westminster Abbey and fully believed in the streets to be knocking everything upside down by Act of Parliament. As please Heaven will come to pass when Jemmy takes to that as a profession!
Mentioning my poor Lirriper brings into my head his own youngest brother the Doctor though Doctor of what I am sure it would be hard to say unless Liquor, for neither Physic nor Music nor yet Law does Joshua Lirriper know a morsel of except continually being summoned to the County Court and having orders made upon him which he runs away from, and once was taken in the passage of this very house with an umbrella up and the Major’s hat on, giving his name with the door-mat round him as Sir Johnson Jones, K.C.B. in spectacles residing at the Horse Guards. On which occasion he had got into the house not a minute before, through the girl letting him on the mat when he sent in a piece of paper twisted more like one of those spills for lighting candles than a note, offering me the choice between thirty shillings in hand and his brains on the premises marked immediate and waiting for an answer. My dear it gave me such a dreadful turn to think of the brains of my poor dear Lirriper’s own flesh and blood flying about the new oilcloth however unworthy to be so assisted, that I went out of my room here to ask him what he would take once for all not to do it for life when I found him in the custody of two gentlemen that I should have judged to be in the feather-bed trade if they had not announced the law, so fluffy were their personal appearance. “Bring your chains, sir,” says Joshua to the littlest of the two in the biggest hat, “rivet on my fetters!” Imagine my feelings when I pictered him clanking up Norfolk Street in irons and Miss Wozenham looking out of window! “Gentlemen,” I says all of a tremble and ready to drop “please to bring him into Major Jackman’s apartments.” So they brought him into the Parlours, and when the Major spies his own curly-brimmed hat on him which Joshua Lirriper had whipped off its peg in the passage for a military disguise he goes into such a tearing passion that he tips it off his head with his hand and kicks it up to the ceiling with his foot where it grazed long afterwards. “Major” I says “be cool and advise me what to do with Joshua my dead and gone Lirriper’s own youngest brother.” “Madam” says the Major “my advice is that you board and lodge him in a Powder Mill, with a handsome gratuity to the proprietor when exploded.” “Major” I says “as a Christian you cannot mean your words.” “Madam” says the Major “by the Lord I do!” and indeed the Major besides being with all his merits a very passionate man for his size had a bad opinion of Joshua on account of former troubles even unattended by liberties taken with his apparel. When Joshua Lirriper hears this conversation betwixt us he turns upon the littlest one with the biggest hat and says “Come sir! Remove me to my vile dungeon. Where is my mouldy straw?” My dear at the picter of him rising in my mind dressed almost entirely in padlocks like Baron Trenck in Jemmy’s book I was so overcome that I burst into tears and I says to the Major, “Major take my keys and settle with these gentlemen or I shall never know a happy minute more,” which was done several times both before and since, but still I must remember that Joshua Lirriper has his good feelings and shows them in being always so troubled in his mind when he cannot wear mourning for his brother. Many a long year have I left off my widow’s mourning not being wishful to intrude, but the tender point in Joshua that I cannot help a little yielding to is when he writes “One single sovereign would enable me to wear a decent suit of mourning for my much-loved brother. I vowed at the time of his lamented death that I would ever wear sables in memory of him but Alas how short-sighted is man, How keep that vow when penniless!” It says a good deal for the strength of his feelings that he couldn’t have been seven year old when my poor Lirriper died and to have kept to it ever since is highly creditable. But we know there’s good in all of us,—if we only knew where it was in some of us,—and though it was far from delicate in Joshua to work upon the dear child’s feelings when first sent to school and write down into Lincolnshire for his pocket-money by return of post and got it, still he is my poor Lirriper’s own youngest brother and mightn’t have meant not paying his bill at the Salisbury Arms when his affection took him down to stay a fortnight at Hatfield churchyard and might have meant to keep sober but for bad company. Consequently if the Major had played on him with the garden-engine which he got privately into his room without my knowing of it, I think that much as I should have regretted it there would have been words betwixt the Major and me. Therefore my dear though he played on Mr. Buffle by mistake being hot in his head, and though it might have been misrepresented down at Wozenham’s into not being ready for Mr. Buffle in other respects he being the Assessed Taxes, still I do not so much regret it as perhaps I ought. And whether Joshua Lirriper will yet do well in life I cannot say, but I did hear of his coming, out at a Private Theatre in the character of a Bandit without receiving any offers afterwards from the regular managers.
Mentioning Mr. Baffle gives an instance of there being good in persons where good is not expected, for it cannot be denied that Mr. Buffle’s manners when engaged in his business were not agreeable. To collect is one thing, and to look about as if suspicious of the goods being gradually removing in the dead of the night by a back door is another, over taxing you have no control but suspecting is voluntary. Allowances too must ever be made for a gentleman of the Major’s warmth not relishing being spoke to with a pen in the mouth, and while I do not know that it is more irritable to my own feelings to have a low-crowned hat with a broad brim kept on in doors than any other hat still I can appreciate the Major’s, besides which without bearing malice or vengeance the Major is a man that scores up arrears as his habit always was with Joshua Lirriper. So at last my dear the Major lay in wait for Mr. Buffle, and it worrited me a good deal. Mr. Buffle gives his rap of two sharp knocks one day and the Major bounces to the door. “Collector has called for two quarters’ Assessed Taxes” says Mr. Buffle. “They are ready for him” says the Major and brings him in here. But on the way Mr. Buffle looks about him in his usual suspicious manner and the Major fires and asks him “Do you see a Ghost sir?” “No sir” says Mr. Buffle. “Because I have before noticed you” says the Major “apparently looking for a spectre very hard beneath the roof of my respected friend. When you find that supernatural agent, be so good as point him out sir.” Mr. Buffle stares at the Major and then nods at me. “Mrs. Lirriper sir” says the Major going off into a perfect steam and introducing me with his hand. “Pleasure of knowing her” says Mr. Buffle. “A—hum!—Jemmy Jackman sir!” says the Major introducing himself. “Honour of knowing you by sight” says Mr. Buffle. “Jemmy Jackman sir” says the Major wagging his head sideways in a sort of obstinate fury “presents to you his esteemed friend that lady Mrs. Emma Lirriper of Eighty-one Norfolk Street Strand London in the County of Middlesex in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Upon which occasion sir,” says the Major, “Jemmy Jackman takes your hat off.” Mr. Buffle looks at his hat where the Major drops it on the floor, and he picks it up and puts it on again. “Sir” says the Major very red and looking him full in the face “there are two quarters of the Gallantry Taxes due and the Collector has called.” Upon which if you can believe my words my dear the Major drops Mr. Buffle’s hat off again. “This—” Mr. Buffle begins very angry with his pen in his mouth, when the Major steaming more and more says “Take your bit out sir! Or by the whole infernal system of Taxation of this country and every individual figure in the National Debt, I’ll get upon your back and ride you like a horse!” which it’s my belief he would have done and even actually jerking his neat little legs ready for a spring as it was. “This,” says Mr. Buffle without his pen “is an assault and I’ll have the law of you.” “Sir” replies the Major “if you are a man of honour, your Collector of whatever may be due on the Honourable Assessment by applying to Major Jackman at the Parlours Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings, may obtain what he wants in full at any moment.”
When the Major glared at Mr. Buffle with those meaning words my dear I literally gasped for a teaspoonful of salvolatile in a wine-glass of water, and I says “Pray let it go no farther gentlemen I beg and beseech of you!” But the Major could be got to do nothing else but snort long after Mr. Buffle was gone, and the effect it had upon my whole mass of blood when on the next day of Mr. Buffle’s rounds the Major spruced himself up and went humming a tune up and down the street with one eye almost obliterated by his hat there are not expressions in Johnson’s Dictionary to state. But I safely put the street door on the jar and got behind the Major’s blinds with my shawl on and my mind made up the moment I saw danger to rush out screeching till my voice failed me and catch the Major round the neck till my strength went and have all parties bound. I had not been behind the blinds a quarter of an hour when I saw Mr. Buffle approaching with his Collecting-books in his hand. The Major likewise saw him approaching and hummed louder and himself approached. They met before the Airy railings. The Major takes off his hat at arm’s length and says “Mr. Buffle I believe?” Mr. Buffle takes off his hat at arm’s length and says “That is my name sir.” Says the Major “Have you any commands for me, Mr. Buffle?” Says Mr. Buffle “Not any sir.” Then my dear both of ’em bowed very low and haughty and parted, and whenever Mr. Buffle made his rounds in future him and the Major always met and bowed before the Airy railings, putting me much in mind of Hamlet and the other gentleman in mourning before killing one another, though I could have wished the other gentleman had done it fairer and even if less polite no poison.
Mr. Buffle’s family were not liked in this neighbourhood, for when you are a householder my dear you’ll find it does not come by nature to like the Assessed, and it was considered besides that a one-horse pheayton ought not to have elevated Mrs. Buffle to that height especially when purloined from the Taxes which I myself did consider uncharitable. But they were not liked and there was that domestic unhappiness in the family in consequence of their both being very hard with Miss Buffle and one another on account of Miss Buffle’s favouring Mr. Buffle’s articled young gentleman, that it was whispered that Miss Buffle would go either into a consumption or a convent she being so very thin and off her appetite and two close-shaved gentlemen with white bands round their necks peeping round the corner whenever she went out in waistcoats resembling black pinafores. So things stood towards Mr. Buffle when one night I was woke by a frightful noise and a smell of burning, and going to my bedroom window saw the whole street in a glow. Fortunately we had two sets empty just then and before I could hurry on some clothes I heard the Major hammering at the attics’ doors and calling out “Dress yourselves!—Fire! Don’t be frightened!—Fire! Collect your presence of mind!—Fire! All right—Fire!” most tremenjously. As I opened my bedroom door the Major came tumbling in over himself and me, and caught me in his arms. “Major” I says breathless “where is it?” “I don’t know dearest madam” says the Major—“Fire! Jemmy Jackman will defend you to the last drop of his blood—Fire! If the dear boy was at home what a treat this would be for him—Fire!” and altogether very collected and bold except that he couldn’t say a single sentence without shaking me to the very centre with roaring Fire. We ran down to the drawing-room and put our heads out of window, and the Major calls to an unfeeling young monkey, scampering by be joyful and ready to split “Where is it?—Fire!” The monkey answers without stopping “O here’s a lark! Old Buffle’s been setting his house alight to prevent its being found out that he boned the Taxes. Hurrah! Fire!” And then the sparks came flying up and the smoke came pouring down and the crackling of flames and spatting of water and banging of engines and hacking of axes and breaking of glass and knocking at doors and the shouting and crying and hurrying and the heat and altogether gave me a dreadful palpitation. “Don’t be frightened dearest madam,” says the Major, “—Fire! There’s nothing to be alarmed at—Fire! Don’t open the street door till I come back—Fire! I’ll go and see if I can be of any service—Fire! You’re quite composed and comfortable ain’t you?—Fire, Fire, Fire!” It was in vain for me to hold the man and tell him he’d be galloped to death by the engines—pumped to death by his over-exertions—wet-feeted to death by the slop and mess—flattened to death when the roofs fell in—his spirit was up and he went scampering off after the young monkey with all the breath he had and none to spare, and me and the girls huddled together at the parlour windows looking at the dreadful flames above the houses over the way, Mr. Buffle’s being round the corner. Presently what should we see but some people running down the street straight to our door, and then the Major directing operations in the busiest way, and then some more people and then—carried in a chair similar to Guy Fawkes—Mr. Buffle in a blanket!
My dear the Major has Mr. Buffle brought up our steps and whisked into the parlour and carted out on the sofy, and then he and all the rest of them without so much as a word burst away again full speed leaving the impression of a vision except for Mr. Buffle awful in his blanket with his eyes a rolling. In a twinkling they all burst back again with Mrs. Buffle in another blanket, which whisked in and carted out on the sofy they all burst off again and all burst back again with Miss Buffle in another blanket, which again whisked in and carted out they all burst off again and all burst back again with Mr. Buffle’s articled young gentleman in another blanket—him a holding round the necks of two men carrying him by the legs, similar to the picter of the disgraceful creetur who has lost the fight (but where the chair I do not know) and his hair having the appearance of newly played upon. When all four of a row, the Major rubs his hands and whispers me with what little hoarseness he can get together, “If our dear remarkable boy was only at home what a delightful treat this would be for him!”
My dear we made them some hot tea and toast and some hot brandy-and-water with a little comfortable nutmeg in it, and at first they were scared and low in their spirits but being fully insured got sociable. And the first use Mr. Buffle made of his tongue was to call the Major his Preserver and his best of friends and to say “My for ever dearest sir let me make you known to Mrs. Buffle” which also addressed him as her Preserver and her best of friends and was fully as cordial as the blanket would admit of. Also Miss Buffle. The articled young gentleman’s head was a little light and he sat a moaning “Robina is reduced to cinders, Robina is reduced to cinders!” Which went more to the heart on account of his having got wrapped in his blanket as if he was looking out of a violinceller case, until Mr. Buffle says “Robina speak to him!” Miss Buffle says “Dear George!” and but for the Major’s pouring down brandy-and-water on the instant which caused a catching in his throat owing to the nutmeg and a violent fit of coughing it might have proved too much for his strength. When the articled young gentleman got the better of it Mr. Buffle leaned up against Mrs. Buffle being two bundles, a little while in confidence, and then says with tears in his eyes which the Major noticing wiped, “We have not been an united family, let us after this danger become so, take her George.” The young gentleman could not put his arm out far to do it, but his spoken expressions were very beautiful though of a wandering class. And I do not know that I ever had a much pleasanter meal than the breakfast we took together after we had all dozed, when Miss Buffle made tea very sweetly in quite the Roman style as depicted formerly at Covent Garden Theatre and when the whole family was most agreeable, as they have ever proved since that night when the Major stood at the foot of the Fire-Escape and claimed them as they came down—the young gentleman head-foremost, which accounts. And though I do not say that we should be less liable to think ill of one another if strictly limited to blankets, still I do say that we might most of us come to a better understanding if we kept one another less at a distance.
Why there’s Wozenham’s lower down on the other side of the street. I had a feeling of much soreness several years respecting what I must still ever call Miss Wozenham’s systematic underbidding and the likeness of the house in Bradshaw having far too many windows and a most umbrageous and outrageous Oak which never yet was seen in Norfolk Street nor yet a carriage and four at Wozenham’s door, which it would have been far more to Bradshaw’s credit to have drawn a cab. This frame of mind continued bitter down to the very afternoon in January last when one of my girls, Sally Rairyganoo which I still suspect of Irish extraction though family represented Cambridge, else why abscond with a bricklayer of the Limerick persuasion and be married in pattens not waiting till his black eye was decently got round with all the company fourteen in number and one horse fighting outside on the roof of the vehicle,—I repeat my dear my ill-regulated state of mind towards Miss Wozenham continued down to the very afternoon of January last past when Sally Rairyganoo came banging (I can use no milder expression) into my room with a jump which may be Cambridge and may not, and said “Hurroo Missis! Miss Wozenham’s sold up!” My dear when I had it thrown in my face and conscience that the girl Sally had reason to think I could be glad of the ruin of a fellow-creeter, I burst into tears and dropped back in my chair and I says “I am ashamed of myself!”
Well! I tried to settle to my tea but I could not do it what with thinking of Miss Wozenham and her distresses. It was a wretched night and I went up to a front window and looked over at Wozenham’s and as well as I could make it out down the street in the fog it was the dismallest of the dismal and not a light to be seen. So at last I save to myself “This will not do,” and I puts on my oldest bonnet and shawl not wishing Miss Wozenham to be reminded of my best at such a time, and lo and behold you I goes over to Wozenham’s and knocks. “Miss Wozenham at home?” I says turning my head when I heard the door go. And then I saw it was Miss Wozenham herself who had opened it and sadly worn she was poor thing and her eyes all swelled and swelled with crying. “Miss Wozenham” I says “it is several years since there was a little unpleasantness betwixt us on the subject of my grandson’s cap being down your Airy. I have overlooked it and I hope you have done the same.” “Yes Mrs. Lirriper” she says in a surprise, “I have.” “Then my dear” I says “I should be glad to come in and speak a word to you.” Upon my calling her my dear Miss Wozenham breaks out a crying most pitiful, and a not unfeeling elderly person that might have been better shaved in a nightcap with a hat over it offering a polite apology for the mumps having worked themselves into his constitution, and also for sending home to his wife on the bellows which was in his hand as a writing-desk, looks out of the back parlour and says “The lady wants a word of comfort” and goes in again. So I was able to say quite natural “Wants a word of comfort does she sir? Then please the pigs she shall have it!” And Miss Wozenham and me we go into the front room with a wretched light that seemed to have been crying too and was sputtering out, and I says “Now my dear, tell me all,” and she wrings her hands and says “O Mrs. Lirriper that man is in possession here, and I have not a friend in the world who is able to help me with a shilling.”
It doesn’t signify a bit what a talkative old body like me said to Miss Wozenham when she said that, and so I’ll tell you instead my dear that I’d have given thirty shillings to have taken her over to tea, only I durstn’t on account of the Major. Not you see but what I knew I could draw the Major out like thread and wind him round my finger on most subjects and perhaps even on that if I was to set myself to it, but him and me had so often belied Miss Wozenham to one another that I was shamefaced, and I knew she had offended his pride and never mine, and likewise I felt timid that that Rairyganoo girl might make things awkward. So I says “My dear if you could give me a cup of tea to clear my muddle of a head I should better understand your affairs.” And we had the tea and the affairs too and after all it was but forty pound, and—There! she’s as industrious and straight a creeter as ever lived and has paid back half of it already, and where’s the use of saying more, particularly when it ain’t the point? For the point is that when she was a kissing my hands and holding them in hers and kissing them again and blessing blessing blessing, I cheered up at last and I says “Why what a waddling old goose I have been my dear to take you for something so very different!” “Ah but I too” says she “how have I mistaken you!” “Come for goodness’ sake tell me” I says “what you thought of me?” “O” says she “I thought you had no feeling for such a hard hand-to-mouth life as mine, and were rolling in affluence.” I says shaking my sides (and very glad to do it for I had been a choking quite long enough) “Only look at my figure my dear and give me your opinion whether if I was in affluence I should be likely to roll in it?” That did it? We got as merry as grigs (whatever they are, if you happen to know my dear—I don’t) and I went home to my blessed home as happy and as thankful as could be. But before I make an end of it, think even of my having misunderstood the Major! Yes! For next forenoon the Major came into my little room with his brushed hat in his hand and he begins “My dearest madam—” and then put his face in his hat as if he had just come into church. As I sat all in a maze he came out of his hat and began again. “My esteemed and beloved friend—” and then went into his hat again. “Major,” I cries out frightened “has anything happened to our darling boy?” “No, no, no” says the Major “but Miss Wozenham has been here this morning to make her excuses to me, and by the Lord I can’t get over what she told me.” “Hoity toity, Major,” I says “you don’t know yet that I was afraid of you last night and didn’t think half as well of you as I ought! So come out of church Major and forgive me like a dear old friend and I’ll never do so any more.” And I leave you to judge my dear whether I ever did or will. And how affecting to think of Miss Wozenham out of her small income and her losses doing so much for her poor old father, and keeping a brother that had had the misfortune to soften his brain against the hard mathematics as neat as a new pin in the three back represented to lodgers as a lumber-room and consuming a whole shoulder of mutton whenever provided!
And now my dear I really am a going to tell you about my Legacy if you’re inclined to favour me with your attention, and I did fully intend to have come straight to it only one thing does so bring up another. It was the month of June and the day before Midsummer Day when my girl Winifred Madgers—she was what is termed a Plymouth Sister, and the Plymouth Brother that made away with her was quite right, for a tidier young woman for a wife never came into a house and afterwards called with the beautifullest Plymouth Twins—it was the day before Midsummer Day when Winifred Madgers comes and says to me “A gentleman from the Consul’s wishes particular to speak to Mrs. Lirriper.” If you’ll believe me my dear the Consols at the bank where I have a little matter for Jemmy got into my head, and I says “Good gracious I hope he ain’t had any dreadful fall!” Says Winifred “He don’t look as if he had ma’am.” And I says “Show him in.”
The gentleman came in dark and with his hair cropped what I should consider too close, and he says very polite “Madame Lirrwiper!” I says, “Yes sir. Take a chair.” “I come,” says he “frrwom the Frrwench Consul’s.” So I saw at once that it wasn’t the Bank of England. “We have rrweceived,” says the gentleman turning his r’s very curious and skilful, “frrwom the Mairrwie at Sens, a communication which I will have the honour to rrwead. Madame Lirrwiper understands Frrwench?” “O dear no sir!” says I. “Madame Lirriper don’t understand anything of the sort.” “It matters not,” says the gentleman, “I will trrwanslate.”
With that my dear the gentleman after reading something about a Department and a Marie (which Lord forgive me I supposed till the Major came home was Mary, and never was I more puzzled than to think how that young woman came to have so much to do with it) translated a lot with the most obliging pains, and it came to this:—That in the town of Sons in France an unknown Englishman lay a dying. That he was speechless and without motion. That in his lodging there was a gold watch and a purse containing such and such money and a trunk containing such and such clothes, but no passport and no papers, except that on his table was a pack of cards and that he had written in pencil on the back of the ace of hearts: “To the authorities. When I am dead, pray send what is left, as a last Legacy, to Mrs. Lirriper Eighty-one Norfolk Street Strand London.” When the gentleman had explained all this, which seemed to be drawn up much more methodical than I should have given the French credit for, not at that time knowing the nation, he put the document into my hand. And much the wiser I was for that you may be sure, except that it had the look of being made out upon grocery paper and was stamped all over with eagles.
“Does Madame Lirrwiper” says the gentleman “believe she rrwecognises her unfortunate compatrrwiot?”
You may imagine the flurry it put me into my dear to be talked to about my compatriots.
I says “Excuse me. Would you have the kindness sir to make your language as simple as you can?”
“This Englishman unhappy, at the point of death. This compatrrwiot afflicted,” says the gentleman.
“Thank you sir” I says “I understand you now. No sir I have not the least idea who this can be.”
“Has Madame Lirrwiper no son, no nephew, no godson, no frrwiend, no acquaintance of any kind in Frrwance?”
“To my certain knowledge” says I “no relation or friend, and to the best of my belief no acquaintance.”
“Pardon me. You take Locataires?” says the gentleman.
My dear fully believing he was offering me something with his obliging foreign manners,—snuff for anything I knew,—I gave a little bend of my head and I says if you’ll credit it, “No I thank you. I have not contracted the habit.”
The gentleman looks perplexed and says “Lodgers!”
“Oh!” says I laughing. “Bless the man! Why yes to be sure!”
“May it not be a former lodger?” says the gentleman. “Some lodger that you pardoned some rrwent? You have pardoned lodgers some rrwent?”
“Hem! It has happened sir” says I, “but I assure you I can call to mind no gentleman of that description that this is at all likely to be.”
In short my dear, we could make nothing of it, and the gentleman noted down what I said and went away. But he left me the paper of which he had two with him, and when the Major came in I says to the Major as I put it in his hand “Major here’s Old Moore’s Almanac with the hieroglyphic complete, for your opinion.”
It took the Major a little longer to read than I should have thought, judging from the copious flow with which he seemed to be gifted when attacking the organ-men, but at last he got through it, and stood a gazing at me in amazement.
“Major” I says “you’re paralysed.”
“Madam” says the Major, “Jemmy Jackman is doubled up.”
Now it did so happen that the Major had been out to get a little information about railroads and steamboats, as our boy was coming home for his Midsummer holidays next day and we were going to take him somewhere for a treat and a change. So while the Major stood a gazing it came into my head to say to him “Major I wish you’d go and look at some of your books and maps, and see whereabouts this same town of Sens is in France.”
The Major he roused himself and he went into the Parlours and he poked about a little, and he came back to me and he says, “Sens my dearest madam is seventy-odd miles south of Paris.”
With what I may truly call a desperate effort “Major,” I says “we’ll go there with our blessed boy.”
If ever the Major was beside himself it was at the thoughts of that journey. All day long he was like the wild man of the woods after meeting with an advertisement in the papers telling him something to his advantage, and early next morning hours before Jemmy could possibly come home he was outside in the street ready to call out to him that we was all a going to France. Young Rosycheeks you may believe was as wild as the Major, and they did carry on to that degree that I says “If you two children ain’t more orderly I’ll pack you both off to bed.” And then they fell to cleaning up the Major’s telescope to see France with, and went out and bought a leather bag with a snap to hang round Jemmy, and him to carry the money like a little Fortunatus with his purse.
If I hadn’t passed my word and raised their hopes, I doubt if I could have gone through with the undertaking but it was too late to go back now. So on the second day after Midsummer Day we went off by the morning mail. And when we came to the sea which I had never seen but once in my life and that when my poor Lirriper was courting me, the freshness of it and the deepness and the airiness and to think that it had been rolling ever since and that it was always a rolling and so few of us minding, made me feel quite serious. But I felt happy too and so did Jemmy and the Major and not much motion on the whole, though me with a swimming in the head and a sinking but able to take notice that the foreign insides appear to be constructed hollower than the English, leading to much more tremenjous noises when bad sailors.
But my dear the blueness and the lightness and the coloured look of everything and the very sentry-boxes striped and the shining rattling drums and the little soldiers with their waists and tidy gaiters, when we got across to the Continent—it made me feel as if I don’t know what—as if the atmosphere had been lifted off me. And as to lunch why bless you if I kept a man-cook and two kitchen-maids I couldn’t got it done for twice the money, and no injured young woman a glaring at you and grudging you and acknowledging your patronage by wishing that your food might choke you, but so civil and so hot and attentive and every way comfortable except Jemmy pouring wine down his throat by tumblers-full and me expecting to see him drop under the table.
And the way in which Jemmy spoke his French was a real charm. It was often wanted of him, for whenever anybody spoke a syllable to me I says “Non-comprenny, you’re very kind, but it’s no use—Now Jemmy!” and then Jemmy he fires away at ’em lovely, the only thing wanting in Jemmy’s French being as it appeared to me that he hardly ever understood a word of what they said to him which made it scarcely of the use it might have been though in other respects a perfect Native, and regarding the Major’s fluency I should have been of the opinion judging French by English that there might have been a greater choice of words in the language though still I must admit that if I hadn’t known him when he asked a military gentleman in a gray cloak what o’clock it was I should have took him for a Frenchman born.
Before going on to look after my Legacy we were to make one regular day in Paris, and I leave you to judge my dear what a day that was with Jemmy and the Major and the telescope and me and the prowling young man at the inn door (but very civil too) that went along with us to show the sights. All along the railway to Paris Jemmy and the Major had been frightening me to death by stooping down on the platforms at stations to inspect the engines underneath their mechanical stomachs, and by creeping in and out I don’t know where all, to find improvements for the United Grand Junction Parlour, but when we got out into the brilliant streets on a bright morning they gave up all their London improvements as a bad job and gave their minds to Paris. Says the prowling young man to me “Will I speak Inglis No?” So I says “If you can young man I shall take it as a favour,” but after half-an-hour of it when I fully believed the man had gone mad and me too I says “Be so good as fall back on your French sir,” knowing that then I shouldn’t have the agonies of trying to understand him, which was a happy release. Not that I lost much more than the rest either, for I generally noticed that when he had described something very long indeed and I says to Jemmy “What does he say Jemmy?” Jemmy says looking with vengeance in his eye “He is so jolly indistinct!” and that when he had described it longer all over again and I says to Jemmy “Well Jemmy what’s it all about?” Jemmy says “He says the building was repaired in seventeen hundred and four, Gran.”
Wherever that prowling young man formed his prowling habits I cannot be expected to know, but the way in which he went round the corner while we had our breakfasts and was there again when we swallowed the last crumb was most marvellous, and just the same at dinner and at night, prowling equally at the theatre and the inn gateway and the shop doors when we bought a trifle or two and everywhere else but troubled with a tendency to spit. And of Paris I can tell you no more my dear than that it’s town and country both in one, and carved stone and long streets of high houses and gardens and fountains and statues and trees and gold, and immensely big soldiers and immensely little soldiers and the pleasantest nurses with the whitest caps a playing at skipping-rope with the bunchiest babies in the flattest caps, and clean table-cloths spread everywhere for dinner and people sitting out of doors smoking and sipping all day long and little plays being acted in the open air for little people and every shop a complete and elegant room, and everybody seeming to play at everything in this world. And as to the sparkling lights my dear after dark, glittering high up and low down and on before and on behind and all round, and the crowd of theatres and the crowd of people and the crowd of all sorts, it’s pure enchantment. And pretty well the only thing that grated on me was that whether you pay your fare at the railway or whether you change your money at a money-dealer’s or whether you take your ticket at the theatre, the lady or gentleman is caged up (I suppose by government) behind the strongest iron bars having more of a Zoological appearance than a free country.
Well to be sure when I did after all get my precious bones to bed that night, and my Young Rogue came in to kiss me and asks “What do you think of this lovely lovely Paris, Gran?” I says “Jemmy I feel as if it was beautiful fireworks being let off in my head.” And very cool and refreshing the pleasant country was next day when we went on to look after my Legacy, and rested me much and did me a deal of good.
So at length and at last my dear we come to Sens, a pretty little town with a great two-towered cathedral and the rooks flying in and out of the loopholes and another tower atop of one of the towers like a sort of a stone pulpit. In which pulpit with the birds skimming below him if you’ll believe me, I saw a speck while I was resting at the inn before dinner which they made signs to me was Jemmy and which really was. I had been a fancying as I sat in the balcony of the hotel that an Angel might light there and call down to the people to be good, but I little thought what Jemmy all unknown to himself was a calling down from that high place to some one in the town.
The pleasantest-situated inn my dear! Right under the two towers, with their shadows a changing upon it all day like a kind of a sundial, and country people driving in and out of the courtyard in carts and hooded cabriolets and such like, and a market outside in front of the cathedral, and all so quaint and like a picter. The Major and me agreed that whatever came of my Legacy this was the place to stay in for our holiday, and we also agreed that our dear boy had best not be checked in his joy that night by the sight of the Englishman if he was still alive, but that we would go together and alone. For you are to understand that the Major not feeling himself quite equal in his wind to the height to which Jemmy had climbed, had come back to me and left him with the Guide.
So after dinner when Jemmy had set off to see the river, the Major went down to the Mairie, and presently came back with a military character in a sword and spurs and a cocked hat and a yellow shoulder-belt and long tags about him that he must have found inconvenient. And the Major says “The Englishman still lies in the same state dearest madam. This gentleman will conduct us to his lodging.” Upon which the military character pulled off his cocked hat to me, and I took notice that he had shaved his forehead in imitation of Napoleon Bonaparte but not like.
We wont out at the courtyard gate and past the great doors of the cathedral and down a narrow High Street where the people were sitting chatting at their shop doors and the children were at play. The military character went in front and he stopped at a pork-shop with a little statue of a pig sitting up, in the window, and a private door that a donkey was looking out of.
When the donkey saw the military character he came slipping out on the pavement to turn round and then clattered along the passage into a back yard. So the coast being clear, the Major and me were conducted up the common stair and into the front room on the second, a bare room with a red tiled floor and the outside lattice blinds pulled close to darken it. As the military character opened the blinds I saw the tower where I had seen Jemmy, darkening as the sun got low, and I turned to the bed by the wall and saw the Englishman.
It was some kind of brain fever he had had, and his hair was all gone, and some wetted folded linen lay upon his head. I looked at him very attentive as he lay there all wasted away with his eyes closed, and I says to the Major—
“I never saw this face before.”
The Major looked at him very attentive too, and he says “I never saw this face before.”
When the Major explained our words to the military character, that gentleman shrugged his shoulders and showed the Major the card on which it was written about the Legacy for me. It had been written with a weak and trembling hand in bed, and I knew no more of the writing than of the face. Neither did the Major.
Though lying there alone, the poor creetur was as well taken care of as could be hoped, and would have been quite unconscious of any one’s sitting by him then. I got the Major to say that we were not going away at present and that I would come back to-morrow and watch a bit by the bedside. But I got him to add—and I shook my head hard to make it stronger—“We agree that we never saw this face before.”
Our boy was greatly surprised when we told him sitting out in the balcony in the starlight, and he ran over some of those stories of former Lodgers, of the Major’s putting down, and asked wasn’t it possible that it might be this lodger or that lodger. It was not possible, and we went to bed.
In the morning just at breakfast-time the military character came jingling round, and said that the doctor thought from the signs he saw there might be some rally before the end. So I says to the Major and Jemmy, “You two boys go and enjoy yourselves, and I’ll take my Prayer Book and go sit by the bed.” So I went, and I sat there some hours, reading a prayer for him poor soul now and then, and it was quite on in the day when he moved his hand.
He had been so still, that the moment he moved I knew of it, and I pulled off my spectacles and laid down my book and rose and looked at him. From moving one hand he began to move both, and then his action was the action of a person groping in the dark. Long after his eyes had opened, there was a film over them and he still felt for his way out into light. But by slow degrees his sight cleared and his hands stopped. He saw the ceiling, he saw the wall, he saw me. As his sight cleared, mine cleared too, and when at last we looked in one another’s faces, I started back, and I cries passionately:
“O you wicked wicked man! Your sin has found you out!”
For I knew him, the moment life looked out of his eyes, to be Mr. Edson, Jemmy’s father who had so cruelly deserted Jemmy’s young unmarried mother who had died in my arms, poor tender creetur, and left Jemmy to me.
“You cruel wicked man! You bad black traitor!”
With the little strength he had, he made an attempt to turn over on his wretched face to hide it. His arm dropped out of the bed and his head with it, and there he lay before me crushed in body and in mind. Surely the miserablest sight under the summer sun!
“O blessed Heaven,” I says a crying, “teach me what to say to this broken mortal! I am a poor sinful creetur, and the Judgment is not mine.”
As I lifted my eyes up to the clear bright sky, I saw the high tower where Jemmy had stood above the birds, seeing that very window; and the last look of that poor pretty young mother when her soul brightened and got free, seemed to shine down from it.
“O man, man, man!” I says, and I went on my knees beside the bed; “if your heart is rent asunder and you are truly penitent for what you did, Our Saviour will have mercy on you yet!”
As I leaned my face against the bed, his feeble hand could just move itself enough to touch me. I hope the touch was penitent. It tried to hold my dress and keep hold, but the fingers were too weak to close.
I lifted him back upon the pillows and I says to him:
“Can you hear me?”
He looked yes.
“Do you know me?”
He looked yes, even yet more plainly.
“I am not here alone. The Major is with me. You recollect the Major?”
Yes. That is to say he made out yes, in the same way as before.
“And even the Major and I are not alone. My grandson—his godson—is with us. Do you hear? My grandson.”
The fingers made another trial to catch my sleeve, but could only creep near it and fall.
“Do you know who my grandson is?”
“I pitied and loved his lonely mother. When his mother lay a dying I said to her, ‘My dear, this baby is sent to a childless old woman.’ He has been my pride and joy ever since. I love him as dearly as if he had drunk from my breast. Do you ask to see my grandson before you die?”
“Show me, when I leave off speaking, if you correctly understand what I say. He has been kept unacquainted with the story of his birth. He has no knowledge of it. No suspicion of it. If I bring him here to the side of this bed, he will suppose you to be a perfect stranger. It is more than I can do to keep from him the knowledge that there is such wrong and misery in the world; but that it was ever so near him in his innocent cradle I have kept from him, and I do keep from him, and I ever will keep from him, for his mother’s sake, and for his own.”
He showed me that he distinctly understood, and the tears fell from his eyes.
“Now rest, and you shall see him.”
So I got him a little wine and some brandy, and I put things straight about his bed. But I began to be troubled in my mind lest Jemmy and the Major might be too long of coming back. What with this occupation for my thoughts and hands, I didn’t hear a foot upon the stairs, and was startled when I saw the Major stopped short in the middle of the room by the eyes of the man upon the bed, and knowing him then, as I had known him a little while ago.
There was anger in the Major’s face, and there was horror and repugnance and I don’t know what. So I went up to him and I led him to the bedside, and when I clasped my hands and lifted of them up, the Major did the like.
“O Lord” I says “Thou knowest what we two saw together of the sufferings and sorrows of that young creetur now with Thee. If this dying man is truly penitent, we two together humbly pray Thee to have mercy on him!”
The Major says “Amen!” and then after a little stop I whispers him, “Dear old friend fetch our beloved boy.” And the Major, so clever as to have got to understand it all without being told a word, went away and brought him.
Never never never shall I forget the fair bright face of our boy when he stood at the foot of the bed, looking at his unknown father. And O so like his dear young mother then!
“Jemmy” I says, “I have found out all about this poor gentleman who is so ill, and he did lodge in the old house once. And as he wants to see all belonging to it, now that he is passing away, I sent for you.”
“Ah poor man!” says Jemmy stepping forward and touching one of his hands with great gentleness. “My heart melts for him. Poor, poor man!”
The eyes that were so soon to close for ever turned to me, and I was not that strong in the pride of my strength that I could resist them.
“My darling boy, there is a reason in the secret history of this fellow-creetur lying as the best and worst of us must all lie one day, which I think would ease his spirit in his last hour if you would lay your cheek against his forehead and say, ‘May God forgive you!’”
“O Gran,” says Jemmy with a full heart, “I am not worthy!” But he leaned down and did it. Then the faltering fingers made out to catch hold of my sleeve at last, and I believe he was a-trying to kiss me when he died.
* * * * *
There my dear! There you have the story of my Legacy in full, and it’s worth ten times the trouble I have spent upon it if you are pleased to like it.
You might suppose that it set us against the little French town of Sens, but no we didn’t find that. I found myself that I never looked up at the high tower atop of the other tower, but the days came back again when that fair young creetur with her pretty bright hair trusted in me like a mother, and the recollection made the place so peaceful to me as I can’t express. And every soul about the hotel down to the pigeons in the courtyard made friends with Jemmy and the Major, and went lumbering away with them on all sorts of expeditions in all sorts of vehicles drawn by rampagious cart-horses,—with heads and without,—mud for paint and ropes for harness,—and every new friend dressed in blue like a butcher, and every new horse standing on his hind legs wanting to devour and consume every other horse, and every man that had a whip to crack crack-crack-crack-crack-cracking it as if it was a schoolboy with his first. As to the Major my dear that man lived the greater part of his time with a little tumbler in one hand and a bottle of small wine in the other, and whenever he saw anybody else with a little tumbler, no matter who it was,—the military character with the tags, or the inn-servants at their supper in the courtyard, or townspeople a chatting on a bench, or country people a starting home after market,—down rushes the Major to clink his glass against their glasses and cry,—Hola! Vive Somebody! or Vive Something! as if he was beside himself. And though I could not quite approve of the Major’s doing it, still the ways of the world are the ways of the world varying according to the different parts of it, and dancing at all in the open Square with a lady that kept a barber’s shop my opinion is that the Major was right to dance his best and to lead off with a power that I did not think was in him, though I was a little uneasy at the Barricading sound of the cries that were set up by the other dancers and the rest of the company, until when I says “What are they ever calling out Jemmy?” Jemmy says, “They’re calling out Gran, Bravo the Military English! Bravo the Military English!” which was very gratifying to my feelings as a Briton and became the name the Major was known by.
But every evening at a regular time we all three sat out in the balcony of the hotel at the end of the courtyard, looking up at the golden and rosy light as it changed on the great towers, and looking at the shadows of the towers as they changed on all about us ourselves included, and what do you think we did there? My dear, if Jemmy hadn’t brought some other of those stories of the Major’s taking down from the telling of former lodgers at Eighty-one Norfolk Street, and if he didn’t bring ’em out with this speech:
“Here you are Gran! Here you are godfather! More of ’em! I’ll read. And though you wrote ’em for me, godfather, I know you won’t disapprove of my making ’em over to Gran; will you?”
“No, my dear boy,” says the Major. “Everything we have is hers, and we are hers.”
“Hers ever affectionately and devotedly J. Jackman, and J. Jackman Lirriper,” cries the Young Rogue giving me a close hug. “Very well then godfather. Look here. As Gran is in the Legacy way just now, I shall make these stories a part of Gran’s Legacy. I’ll leave ’em to her. What do you say godfather?”
“Hip hip Hurrah!” says the Major.
“Very well then,” cries Jemmy all in a bustle. “Vive the Military English! Vive the Lady Lirriper! Vive the Jemmy Jackman Ditto! Vive the Legacy! Now, you look out, Gran. And you look out, godfather. I’ll read! And I’ll tell you what I’ll do besides. On the last night of our holiday here when we are all packed and going away, I’ll top up with something of my own.”
“Mind you do sir” says I.