Chirp the First
The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.
As if the clock hadn’t finished striking, and the convulsive little Hay-maker at the top of it, jerking away right and left with a scythe in front of a Moorish Palace, hadn’t mowed down half an acre of imaginary grass before the Cricket joined in at all!
Why, I am not naturally positive. Every one knows that I wouldn’t set my own opinion against the opinion of Mrs. Peerybingle, unless I were quite sure, on any account whatever. Nothing should induce me. But, this is a question of fact. And the fact is, that the kettle began it at least five minutes before the Cricket gave any sign of being in existence. Contradict me, and I’ll say ten.
Let me narrate exactly how it happened. I should have proceeded to do so, in my very first word, but for this plain consideration—if I am to tell a story I must begin at the beginning; and how is it possible to begin at the beginning without beginning at the kettle?
It appeared as if there were a sort of match, or trial of skill, you must understand, between the kettle and the Cricket. And this is what led to it, and how it came about.
Mrs. Peerybingle, going out into the raw twilight, and clicking over the wet stones in a pair of pattens that worked innumerable rough impressions of the first proposition in Euclid all about the yard—Mrs. Peerybingle filled the kettle at the water-butt. Presently returning, less the pattens (and a good deal less, for they were tall, and Mrs. Peerybingle was but short), she set the kettle on the fire. In doing which she lost her temper, or mislaid it for an instant; for, the water being uncomfortably cold, and in that slippy, slushy, sleety sort of state wherein it seems to penetrate through every kind of substance, patten rings included—had laid hold of Mrs. Peerybingle’s toes, and even splashed her legs. And when we rather plume ourselves (with reason too) upon our legs, and keep ourselves particularly neat in point of stockings, we find this, for the moment, hard to bear.
Besides, the kettle was aggravating and obstinate. It wouldn’t allow itself to be adjusted on the top bar; it wouldn’t hear of accommodating itself kindly to the knobs of coal; it would lean forward with a drunken air, and dribble, a very Idiot of a kettle, on the hearth. It was quarrelsome, and hissed and spluttered morosely at the fire. To sum up all, the lid, resisting Mrs. Peerybingle’s fingers, first of all turned topsy-turvy, and then, with an ingenious pertinacity deserving of a better cause, dived sideways in—down to the very bottom of the kettle. And the hull of the Royal George has never made half the monstrous resistance to coming out of the water which the lid of that kettle employed against Mrs. Peerybingle before she got it up again.
It looked sullen and pig-headed enough, even then; carrying its handle with an air of defiance, and cocking its spout pertly and mockingly at Mrs. Peerybingle, as if it said, “I won’t boil. Nothing shall induce me!”
But, Mrs. Peerybingle, with restored good-humour, dusted her chubby little hands against each other, and sat down before the kettle laughing. Meantime, the jolly blaze uprose and fell, flashing and gleaming on the little Hay-maker at the top of the Dutch clock, until one might have thought he stood stock-still before the Moorish Palace, and nothing was in motion but the flame.
He was on the move, however; and had his spasms, two to the second, all right and regular. But his sufferings when the clock was going to strike were frightful to behold; and when a Cuckoo looked out of a trap-door in the Palace, and gave note six times, it shook him, each time, like a spectral voice—or like a something wiry plucking at his legs.
It was not until a violent commotion and a whirring noise among the weights and ropes below him had quite subsided that this terrified Hay-maker became himself again. Nor was he startled without reason; for these rattling, bony skeletons of clocks are very disconcerting in their operation, and I wonder very much how any set of men, but most of all how Dutchmen, can have had a liking to invent them. There is a popular belief that Dutchmen love broad cases and much clothing for their own lower selves; and they might know better than to leave their clocks so very lank and unprotected, surely.
Now it was, you observe, that the kettle began to spend the evening. Now it was that the kettle, growing mellow and musical, began to have irrepressible gurglings in its throat, and to indulge in short vocal snorts, which it checked in the bud, as if it hadn’t quite made up its mind yet to be good company. Now it was that after two or three such vain attempts to stifle its convivial sentiments, it threw off all moroseness, all reserve, and burst into a stream of song so cosy and hilarious as never maudlin nightingale yet formed the least idea of.
So plain, too! Bless you, you might have understood it like a book—better than some books you and I could name, perhaps. With its warm breath gushing forth in a light cloud which merrily and gracefully ascended a few feet, then hung about the chimney-corner as its own domestic Heaven, it trolled its song with that strong energy of cheerfulness, that its iron body hummed and stirred upon the fire; and the lid itself, the recently rebellious lid—such is the influence of a bright example—performed a sort of jig, and clattered like a deaf and dumb young cymbal that had never known the use of its twin brother.
That this song of the kettle’s was a song of invitation and welcome to somebody out of doors: to somebody at that moment coming on towards the snug small home and the crisp fire: there is no doubt whatever. Mrs. Peerybingle knew it perfectly, as she sat musing before the hearth. It’s a dark night, sang the kettle, and the rotten leaves are lying by the way; and, above, all is mist and darkness, and, below, all is mire and clay; and there’s only one relief in all the sad and murky air; and I don’t know that it is one, for it’s nothing but a glare; of deep and angry crimson, where the sun and wind together; set a brand upon the clouds for being guilty of such weather; and the widest open country is a long dull streak of black; and there’s hoar frost on the finger-post, and thaw upon the track; and the ice it isn’t water, and the water isn’t free; and you couldn’t say that anything is what it ought to be; but he’s coming, coming, coming!—
And here, if you like, the Cricket DID chime in! with a Chirrup, Chirrup, Chirrup of such magnitude, by way of chorus; with a voice so astoundingly disproportionate to its size, as compared with the kettle; (size! you couldn’t see it!) that, if it had then and there burst itself like an overcharged gun, if it had fallen a victim on the spot, and chirruped its little body into fifty pieces, it would have seemed a natural and inevitable consequence, for which it had expressly laboured.
The kettle had had the last of its solo performance. It persevered with undiminished ardour; but the Cricket took first fiddle, and kept it. Good Heaven, how it chirped! Its shrill, sharp, piercing voice resounded through the house, and seemed to twinkle in the outer darkness like a star. There was an indescribable little trill and tremble in it at its loudest, which suggested its being carried off its legs, and made to leap again, by its own intense enthusiasm. Yet they went very well together, the Cricket and the kettle. The burden of the song was still the same; and louder, louder, louder still, they sang it in their emulation.
The fair little listener—for fair she was, and young; though something of what is called the dumpling shape; but I don’t myself object to that—lighted a candle, glanced at the Hay-maker on the top of the clock, who was getting in a pretty average crop of minutes; and looked out of the window, where she saw nothing, owing to the darkness, but her own face imaged in the glass. And my opinion is (and so would yours have been) that she might have looked a long way and seen nothing half so agreeable. When she came back, and sat down in her former seat, the Cricket and the kettle were still keeping it up, with a perfect fury of competition. The kettle’s weak side clearly being that he didn’t know when he was beat.
There was all the excitement of a race about it. Chirp, chirp, chirp! Cricket a mile ahead. Hum, hum, hum—m—m! Kettle making play in the distance, like a great top. Chirp, chirp, chirp! Cricket round the corner. Hum, hum, hum—m—m! Kettle sticking to him in his own way; no idea of giving in. Chirp, chirp, chirp! Cricket fresher than ever. Hum, hum, hum—m—m! Kettle slow and steady. Chirp, chirp, chirp! Cricket going in to finish him. Hum, hum, hum—m—m! Kettle not to be finished. Until at last they got so jumbled together, in the hurry-skurry, helter-skelter, of the match, that whether the kettle chirped and the Cricket hummed, or the Cricket chirped and the kettle hummed, or they both chirped and both hummed, it would have taken a clearer head than yours or mine to have decided with anything like certainty. But of this there is no doubt: that, the kettle and the Cricket, at one and the same moment, and by some power of amalgamation best known to themselves, sent, each, his fireside song of comfort streaming into a ray of the candle that shone out through the window, and a long way down the lane. And this light, bursting on a certain person who, on the instant, approached towards it through the gloom, expressed the whole thing to him, literally in a twinkling, and cried, “Welcome home, old fellow! Welcome home, my boy!”
This end attained, the kettle, being dead beat, boiled over, and was taken off the fire. Mrs. Peerybingle then went running to the door, where, what with the wheels of a cart, the tramp of a horse, the voice of a man, the tearing in and out of an excited dog, and the surprising and mysterious appearance of a baby, there was soon the very What’s-his-name to play.
Where the baby came from, or how Mrs. Peerybingle got hold of it in that flash of time, I don’t know. But a live baby there was in Mrs. Peerybingle’s arms; and a pretty tolerable amount of pride she seemed to have in it, when she was drawn gently to the fire, by a sturdy figure of a man, much taller and much older than herself, who had to stoop a long way down to kiss her. But she was worth the trouble. Six foot six, with the lumbago, might have done it.
“Oh goodness, John!” said Mrs. P. “What a state you’re in with the weather!”
He was something the worse for it undeniably. The thick mist hung in clots upon his eyelashes like candied thaw; and, between the fog and fire together, there were rainbows in his very whiskers.
“Why, you see, Dot,” John made answer slowly, as he unrolled a shawl from about his throat, and warmed his hands; “it—it an’t exactly summer weather. So no wonder.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me Dot, John. I don’t like it,” said Mrs. Peerybingle: pouting in a way that clearly showed she did like it very much.
“Why, what else are you?” returned John, looking down upon her with a smile, and giving her waist as light a squeeze as his huge hand and arm could give. “A dot and”—here he glanced at the baby—”a dot and carry—I won’t say it, for fear I should spoil it; but I was very near a joke. I don’t know as ever I was nearer.”
He was often near to something or other very clever, by his own account: this lumbering, slow, honest John; this John so heavy, but so light of spirit; so rough upon the surface, but so gentle at the core; so dull without, so quick within; so stolid, but so good! Oh, Mother Nature, give thy children the true poetry of heart that hid itself in this poor Carrier’s breast—he was but a Carrier, by the way—and we can bear to have them talking prose, and leading lives of prose; and bear to bless thee for their company!
It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth. It was pleasant to observe how Tilly Slowboy, waiting in the background for the baby, took special cognizance (though in her earliest teens) of this grouping; and stood with her mouth and eyes wide open, and her head thrust forward, taking it in as if it were air. Nor was it less agreeable to observe how John the Carrier, reference being made by Dot to the aforesaid baby, checked his hand when on the point of touching the infant, as if he thought he might crack it; and, bending down, surveyed it from a safe distance, with a kind of puzzled pride, such as an amiable mastiff might be supposed to show if he found himself, one day, the father of a young canary.
“An’t he beautiful, John? Don’t he look precious in his sleep?”
“Very precious,” said John. “Very much so. He generally is asleep, an’t he?”
“Lor, John! Good gracious, no!”
“Oh!” said John, pondering. “I thought his eyes was generally shut. Halloa!”
“Goodness, John, how you startle one!”
“It an’t right for him to turn ’em up in that way,” said the astonished Carrier, “is it? See how he’s winking with both of ’em at once! and look at his mouth! Why, he’s gasping like a gold and silver fish!”
“You don’t deserve to be a father, you don’t,” said Dot, with all the dignity of an experienced matron. “But how should you know what little complaints children are troubled with, John? You wouldn’t so much as know their names, you stupid fellow.” And when she had turned the baby over on her left arm, and had slapped its back as a restorative, she pinched her husband’s ear, laughing.
“No,” said John, pulling off his outer coat. “It’s very true, Dot. I don’t know much about it. I only know that I’ve been fighting pretty stiffly with the wind to-night. It’s been blowing north-east, straight into the cart, the whole way home.”
“Poor old man, so it has!” cried Mrs. Peerybingle, instantly becoming very active. “Here, take the precious darling, Tilly, while I make myself of some use. Bless it, I could smother it with kissing it, I could! Hie then, good dog! Hie, Boxer, boy! Only let me make the tea first, John; and then I’ll help you with the parcels, like a busy bee. ‘How doth the little’—and all the rest of it, you know, John. Did you ever learn ‘How doth the little,’ when you went to school, John?”
“Not to quite know it,” John returned. “I was very near it once. But I should only have spoilt it, I dare say.”
“Ha, ha!” laughed Dot. She had the blithest little laugh you ever heard. “What a dear old darling of a dunce you are, John, to be sure!”
Not at all disputing this position, John went out to see that the boy with the lantern, which had been dancing to and fro before the door and window, like a Will of the Wisp, took due care of the horse; who was fatter than you would quite believe, if I gave you his measure, and so old that his birthday was lost in the mists of antiquity. Boxer, feeling that his attentions were due to the family in general, and must be impartially distributed, dashed in and out with bewildering inconstancy; now describing a circle of short barks round the horse, where he was being rubbed down at the stable door; now feigning to make savage rushes at his mistress, and facetiously bringing himself to sudden stops; now eliciting a shriek from Tilly Slowboy, in the low nursing-chair near the fire, by the unexpected application of his moist nose to her countenance; now exhibiting an obtrusive interest in the baby; now going round and round upon the hearth, and lying down as if he had established himself for the night; now getting up again, and taking that nothing of a fag-end of a tail of his out into the weather, as if he had just remembered an appointment, and was off at a round trot, to keep it.
“There! There’s the teapot, ready on the hob!” said Dot; as briskly busy as a child at play at keeping house. “And there’s the cold knuckle of ham; and there’s the butter; and there’s the crusty loaf, and all! Here’s a clothes basket for the small parcels, John, if you’ve got any there. Where are you, John? Don’t let the dear child fall under the grate, Tilly, whatever you do!”
It may be noted of Miss Slowboy, in spite of her rejecting the caution with some vivacity, that she had a rare and surprising talent for getting this baby into difficulties: and had several times imperilled its short life in a quiet way peculiarly her own. She was of a spare and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch that her garments appeared to be in constant danger of sliding off those sharp pegs, her shoulders, on which they were loosely hung. Her costume was remarkable for the partial development, on all possible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular structure; also for affording glimpses, in the region of the back, of a corset, or a pair of stays, in colour a dead green. Being always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed, besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress’s perfections and the baby’s, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of judgment, may be said to have done equal honour to her head and to her heart; and though these did less honour to the baby’s head, which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bed-posts, and other foreign substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy’s constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated, and installed in such a comfortable home. For the maternal and paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been bred by public charity, a foundling; which word, though only differing from fondling by one vowel’s length, is very different in meaning, and expresses quite another thing.
To have seen little Mrs. Peerybingle come back with her husband, tugging at the clothes basket, and making the most strenuous exertions to do nothing at all (for he carried it), would have amused you almost as much as it amused him. It may have entertained the Cricket, too, for anything I know; but, certainly, it now began to chirp again vehemently.
“Heyday!” said John in his slow way. “It’s merrier than ever to-night, I think.”
“And it’s sure to bring us good fortune, John! It always has done so. To have a Cricket on the Hearth is the luckiest thing in all the world!”
John looked at her as if he had very nearly got the thought into his head that she was his Cricket in chief, and he quite agreed with her. But it was probably one of his narrow escapes, for he said nothing.
“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”
Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!
“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”
John thoughtfully patted one of the shoulders, and then the head, as though he would have said No, no; he had had no such expectation; he had been quite content to take them as they were. And really he had reason. They were very comely.
“It spoke the truth, John, when it seemed to say so: for you have ever been, I am sure, the best, the most considerate, the most affectionate of husbands to me. This has been a happy home, John; and I love the Cricket for its sake!”
“Why, so do I, then,” said the Carrier. “So do I, Dot.”
“I love it for the many times I have heard it, and the many thoughts its harmless music has given me. Sometimes, in the twilight, when I have felt a little solitary and down-hearted, John—before baby was here, to keep me company and make the house gay—when I have thought how lonely you would be if I should die; how lonely I should be, if I could know that you had lost me, dear; its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp upon the hearth has seemed to tell me of another little voice, so sweet, so very dear to me, before whose coming sound my trouble vanished like a dream. And when I used to fear—I did fear once, John; I was very young, you know—that ours might prove to be an ill-assorted marriage, I being such a child, and you more like my guardian than my husband; and that you might not, however hard you tried, be able to learn to love me, as you hoped and prayed you might; its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp has cheered me up again, and filled me with new trust and confidence. I was thinking of these things to-night, dear, when I sat expecting you; and I love the Cricket for their sake!”
“And so do I,” repeated John. “But, Dot! I hope and pray that I might learn to love you? How you talk! I had learnt that long before I brought you here, to be the Cricket’s little mistress, Dot!”
She laid her hand, an instant, on his arm, and looked up at him with an agitated face, as if she would have told him something. Next moment, she was down upon her knees before the basket; speaking in a sprightly voice, and busy with the parcels.
“There are not many of them to-night, John, but I saw some goods behind the cart just now; and though they give more trouble, perhaps, still they pay as well; so we have no reason to grumble, have we? Besides, you have been delivering, I dare say, as you came along?”
“Oh, yes!” John said. “A good many.”
“Why, what’s this round box? Heart alive, John, it’s a wedding-cake!”
“Leave a woman alone to find out that,” said John admiringly. “Now, a man would never have thought of it! Whereas, it’s my belief that if you was to pack a wedding-cake up in a tea-chest, or a turn-up bedstead, or a pickled-salmon keg, or any unlikely thing, a woman would be sure to find it out directly. Yes; I called for it at the pastrycook’s.”
“And it weighs I don’t know what—whole hundredweights!” cried Dot, making a great demonstration of trying to lift it. “Whose is it, John? Where is it going?”
“Read the writing on the other side,” said John.
“Why, John! My Goodness, John!”
“Ah! who’d have thought it?” John returned.
“You never mean to say,” pursued Dot, sitting on the floor and shaking her head at him, “that it’s Gruff and Tackleton the toymaker!”
Mrs. Peerybingle nodded also, fifty times at least. Not in assent—in dumb and pitying amazement; screwing up her lips, the while, with all their little force (they were never made for screwing up; I am clear of that), and looking the good Carrier through and through, in her abstraction. Miss Slowboy, in the meantime, who had a mechanical power of reproducing scraps of current conversation for the delectation of the baby, with all the sense struck out of them, and all the nouns changed into the plural number, inquired aloud of that young creature, Was it Gruffs and Tackletons the toymakers then, and Would it call at Pastrycooks for wedding-cakes, and Did its mothers know the boxes when its fathers brought them home; and so on.
“And that is really to come about!” said Dot. “Why, she and I were girls at school together, John.”
He might have been thinking of her, or nearly thinking of her, perhaps, as she was in that same school-time. He looked upon her with a thoughtful pleasure, but he made no answer.
“And he’s as old! As unlike her!—Why, how many years older than you is Gruff and Tackleton, John?”
“How many more cups of tea shall I drink to-night, at one sitting, than Gruff and Tackleton ever took in four, I wonder?” replied John good-humouredly, as he drew a chair to the round table, and began at the cold ham. “As to eating, I eat but little; but that little I enjoy, Dot.”
Even this, his usual sentiment at meal-times, one of his innocent delusions (for his appetite was always obstinate, and flatly contradicted him), awoke no smile in the face of his little wife, who stood among the parcels, pushing the cake-box slowly from her with her foot, and never once looked, though her eyes were cast down too, upon the dainty shoe she generally was so mindful of. Absorbed in thought, she stood there, heedless alike of the tea and John (although he called to her and rapped the table with his knife to startle her), until he rose and touched her on the arm; when she looked at him for a moment, and hurried to her place behind the tea-board, laughing at her negligence. But not as she had laughed before. The manner and the music were quite changed.
The Cricket, too, had stopped. Somehow, the room was not so cheerful as it had been. Nothing like it.
“So, these are all the parcels, are they, John?” she said, breaking a long silence, which the honest Carrier had devoted to the practical illustration of one part of his favourite sentiment—certainly enjoying what he ate, if it couldn’t be admitted that he ate but little. “So these are all the parcels, are they, John?”
“That’s all,” said John. “Why—no—I”—laying down his knife and fork, and taking a long breath—”I declare—I’ve clean forgotten the old gentleman!”
“The old gentleman?”
“In the cart,” said John. “He was asleep among the straw, the last time I saw him. I’ve very nearly remembered him, twice, since I came in; but he went out of my head again. Halloa! Yahip there! Rouse up! That’s my hearty!”
John said these latter words outside the door, whither he had hurried with the candle in his hand.
Miss Slowboy, conscious of some mysterious reference to The Old Gentleman, and connecting, in her mystified imagination, certain associations of a religious nature with the phrase, was so disturbed, that hastily rising from the low chair by the fire to seek protection near the skirt of her mistress, and coming into contact, as she crossed the doorway, with an ancient Stranger, she instinctively made a charge or butt at him with the only offensive instrument within her reach. This instrument happening to be the baby, great commotion and alarm ensued, which the sagacity of Boxer rather tended to increase; for that good dog, more thoughtful than his master, had, it seemed, been watching the old gentleman in his sleep, lest he should walk off with a few young poplar-trees that were tied up behind the cart; and he still attended on him very closely, worrying his gaiters, in fact, and making dead sets at the buttons.
“You’re such an undeniably good sleeper, sir,” said John, when tranquillity was restored (in the meantime the old gentleman had stood, bareheaded and motionless, in the centre of the room), “that I have half a mind to ask you where the other six are—only that would be a joke, and I know I should spoil it. Very near, though,” murmured the Carrier with a chuckle; “very near!”
The Stranger, who had long white hair, good features, singularly bold and well defined for an old man, and dark, bright, penetrating eyes, looked round with a smile, and saluted the Carrier’s wife by gravely inclining his head.
His garb was very quaint and odd—a long, long way behind the time. Its hue was brown, all over. In his hand he held a great brown club or walking-stick; and, striking this upon the floor, it fell asunder, and became a chair. On which he sat down quite composedly.
“There!” said the Carrier, turning to his wife. “That’s the way I found him, sitting by the roadside! Upright as a milestone. And almost as deaf.”
“Sitting in the open air, John?”
“In the open air,” replied the Carrier, “just at dusk. ‘Carriage Paid,’ he said; and gave me eighteen-pence. Then he got in. And there he is.”
“He’s going, John, I think!”
Not at all. He was only going to speak.
“If you please, I was to be left till called for,” said the Stranger mildly. “Don’t mind me.”
With that he took a pair of spectacles from one of his large pockets, and a book from another, and leisurely began to read. Making no more of Boxer than if he had been a house lamb!
The Carrier and his wife exchanged a look of perplexity. The Stranger raised his head; and, glancing from the latter to the former, said:
“Your daughter, my good friend?”
“Wife,” returned John.
“Niece?” said the Stranger.
“Wife!” roared John.
“Indeed?” observed the Stranger. “Surely? Very young!”
He quietly turned over, and resumed his reading. But, before he could have read two lines, he again interrupted himself to say:
John gave him a gigantic nod: equivalent to an answer in the affirmative, delivered through a speaking trumpet.
“Bo-o-oy!” roared John.
“Also very young, eh?”
Mrs. Peerybingle instantly struck in. “Two months and three da-ays. Vaccinated just six weeks ago-o! Took very fine-ly! Considered, by the doctor, a remarkably beautiful chi-ild! Equal to the general run of children at five months o-ld! Takes notice in a way quite wonder-ful! May seem impossible to you, but feels his legs al-ready!”
Here, the breathless little mother, who had been shrieking these short sentences into the old man’s ear, until her pretty face was crimsoned, held up the Baby before him as a stubborn and triumphant fact; while Tilly Slowboy, with a melodious cry of “Ketcher, Ketcher”—which sounded like some unknown words, adapted to a popular Sneeze—performed some cow-like gambols around that all unconscious Innocent.
“Hark! He’s called for, sure enough,” said John. “There’s somebody at the door. Open it, Tilly.”
Before she could reach it, however, it was opened from without; being a primitive sort of door, with a latch that any one could lift if he chose—and a good many people did choose, for all kinds of neighbours liked to have a cheerful word or two with the Carrier, though he was no great talker himself. Being opened, it gave admission to a little, meagre, thoughtful, dingy-faced man, who seemed to have made himself a great-coat from the sackcloth covering of some old box; for, when he turned to shut the door and keep the weather out, he disclosed upon the back of that garment the inscription G & T in large black capitals. Also the word GLASS in bold characters.
“Good evening, John!” said the little man. “Good evening, mum! Good evening, Tilly! Good evening, Unbeknown! How’s Baby, mum? Boxer’s pretty well I hope?”
“All thriving, Caleb,” replied Dot. “I am sure you need only look at the dear child, for one, to know that.”
“And I’m sure I need only look at you for another,” said Caleb.
He didn’t look at her, though; he had a wandering and thoughtful eye, which seemed to be always projecting itself into some other time and place, no matter what he said; a description which will equally apply to his voice.
“Or at John for another,” said Caleb. “Or at Tilly, as far as that goes. Or certainly at Boxer.”
“Busy just now, Caleb?” asked the Carrier.
“Why, pretty well, John,” he returned, with the distraught air of a man who was casting about for the Philosopher’s stone, at least. “Pretty much so. There’s rather a run on Noah’s Arks at present. I could have wished to improve on the Family, but I don’t see how it’s to be done at the price. It would be a satisfaction to one’s mind to make it clearer which was Shems and Hams, and which was Wives. Flies an’t on that scale, neither, as compared with elephants, you know! Ah, well! Have you got anything in the parcel line for me, John?”
The Carrier put his hand into a pocket of the coat he had taken off; and brought out, carefully preserved in moss and paper, a tiny flower-pot.
“There it is!” he said, adjusting it with great care. “Not so much as a leaf damaged. Full of buds!”
Caleb’s dull eye brightened as he took it, and thanked him.
“Dear, Caleb,” said the Carrier. “Very dear at this season.”
“Never mind that. It would be cheap to me, what ever it cost,” returned the little man. “Anything else, John?”
“A small box,” replied the Carrier. “Here you are!”
“‘For Caleb Plummer,'” said the little man, spelling out the direction. “‘With Cash.’ With Cash, John? I don’t think it’s for me.”
“With Care,” returned the Carrier, looking over his shoulder. “Where do you make out cash?”
“Oh! To be sure!” said Caleb. “It’s all right. With care! Yes, yes; that’s mine. It might have been with cash, indeed, if my dear Boy in the Golden South Americas had lived, John. You loved him like a son; didn’t you? You needn’t say you did. I know, of course. ‘Caleb Plummer. With care.’ Yes, yes, it’s all right. It’s a box of dolls’ eyes for my daughters’ work. I wish it was her own sight in a box, John.”
“I wish it was, or could be!” cried the Carrier.
“Thankee,” said the little man. “You speak very hearty. To think that she should never see the Dolls—and them a staring at her, so bold, all day long! That’s where it cuts. What’s the damage, John?”
“I’ll damage you,” said John, “if you inquire. Dot! Very near?”
“Well! it’s like you to say so,” observed the little man. “It’s your kind way. Let me see. I think that’s all.”
“I think not,” said the Carrier. “Try again.”
“Something for our Governor, eh?” said Caleb after pondering a little while. “To be sure. That’s what I came for; but my head’s so running on them Arks and things! He hasn’t been here, has he?”
“Not he,” returned the Carrier. “He’s too busy, courting.”
“He’s coming round, though,” said Caleb; “for he told me to keep on the near side of the road going home, and it was ten to one he’d take me up. I had better go, by-the-bye.—You couldn’t have the goodness to let me pinch Boxer’s tail, mum, for half a moment, could you?”
“Why, Caleb, what a question!”
“Oh, never mind, mum!” said the little man. “He mightn’t like it, perhaps. There’s a small order just come in for barking dogs; and I should wish to go as close to Natur’ as I could for sixpence. That’s all. Never mind, mum.”
It happened opportunely that Boxer, without receiving the proposed stimulus, began to bark with great zeal. But, as this implied the approach of some new visitor, Caleb, postponing his study from the life to a more convenient season, shouldered the round box, and took a hurried leave. He might have spared himself the trouble, for he met the visitor upon the threshold.
“Oh! You are here, are you? Wait a bit. I’ll take you home. John Peerybingle, my service to you. More of my service to your pretty wife. Handsomer every day! Better too, if possible! And younger,” mused the speaker in a low voice, “that’s the devil of it!”
“I should be astonished at your paying compliments, Mr. Tackleton,” said Dot, not with the best grace in the world, “but for your condition.”
“You know all about it, then?”
“I have got myself to believe it somehow,” said Dot.
“After a hard struggle, I suppose?”
Tackleton the Toy merchant, pretty generally known as Gruff and Tackleton—for that was the firm, though Gruff had been bought out long ago; only leaving his name, and, as some said, his nature, according to its Dictionary meaning, in the business—Tackleton the Toy merchant was a man whose vocation had been quite misunderstood by his Parents and Guardians. If they had made him a Money Lender, or a sharp Attorney, or a Sheriff’s Officer, or a Broker, he might have sown his discontented oats in his youth, and, after having had the full run of himself in ill-natured transactions, might have turned out amiable, at last, for the sake of a little freshness and novelty. But, cramped and chafing in the peaceable pursuit of toymaking, he was a domestic Ogre, who had been living on children all his life, and was their implacable enemy. He despised all toys; wouldn’t have bought one for the world; delighted, in his malice, to insinuate grim expressions into the faces of brown-paper farmers who drove pigs to market, bellmen who advertised lost lawyers’ consciences, movable old ladies who darned stockings or carved pies; and other like samples of his stock-in-trade. In appalling masks; hideous, hairy, red-eyed Jacks in Boxes; Vampire Kites; demoniacal Tumblers who wouldn’t lie down, and were perpetually flying forward, to stare infants out of countenance; his soul perfectly revelled. They were his only relief, and safety-valve. He was great in such inventions. Anything suggestive of a Pony nightmare was delicious to him. He had even lost money (and he took to that toy very kindly) by getting up Goblin slides for magic lanterns, whereon the Powers of Darkness were depicted as a sort of supernatural shell-fish, with human faces. In intensifying the portraiture of Giants, he had sunk quite a little capital; and, though no painter himself, he could indicate, for the instruction of his artists, with a piece of chalk, a certain furtive leer for the countenances of those monsters, which was safe to destroy the peace of mind of any young gentleman between the ages of six and eleven, for the whole Christmas or Midsummer Vacation.
What he was in toys, he was (as most men are) in other things. You may easily suppose, therefore, that within the great green cape, which reached down to the calves of his legs, there was buttoned up to the chin an uncommonly pleasant fellow; and that he was about as choice a spirit, and as agreeable a companion, as ever stood in a pair of bull-headed-looking boots with mahogany-coloured tops.
Still, Tackleton, the toy merchant, was going to be married. In spite of all this, he was going to be married. And to a young wife too, a beautiful young wife.
He didn’t look much like a Bridegroom, as he stood in the Carrier’s kitchen, with a twist in his dry face, and a screw in his body, and his hat jerked over the bridge of his nose, and his hands tucked down into the bottoms of his pockets, and his whole sarcastic, ill-conditioned self peering out of one little corner of one little eye, like the concentrated essence of any number of ravens. But a Bridegroom he designed to be.
“In three days’ time. Next Thursday. The last day of the first month in the year. That’s my wedding-day,” said Tackleton.
Did I mention that he had always one eye wide open, and one eye nearly shut; and that the one eye nearly shut was always the expressive eye? I don’t think I did.
“That’s my wedding-day!” said Tackleton, rattling his money.
“Why, it’s our wedding-day too,” exclaimed the Carrier.
“Ha, ha!” laughed Tackleton. “Odd! You’re just such another couple. Just!”
The indignation of Dot at this presumptuous assertion is not to be described. What next? His imagination would compass the possibility of just such another Baby, perhaps. The man was mad.
“I say! A word with you,” murmured Tackleton, nudging the Carrier with his elbow, and taking him a little apart. “You’ll come to the wedding? We’re in the same boat, you know.”
“How in the same boat?” inquired the Carrier.
“A little disparity, you know,” said Tackleton with another nudge. “Come and spend an evening with us beforehand.”
“Why?” demanded John, astonished at this pressing hospitality.
“Why?” returned the other. “That’s a new way of receiving an invitation. Why, for pleasure—sociability, you know, and all that.”
“I thought you were never sociable,” said John in his plain way.
“Tchah! It’s of no use to be anything but free with you, I see,” said Tackleton. “Why, then, the truth is, you have a—what tea-drinking people call a sort of a comfortable appearance together, you and your wife. We know better, you know, but——”
“No, we don’t know better,” interposed John. “What are you talking about?”
“Well! We don’t know better, then,” said Tackleton. “We’ll agree that we don’t. As you like; what does it matter? I was going to say, as you have that sort of appearance, your company will produce a favourable effect on Mrs. Tackleton that will be. And, though I don’t think your good lady’s very friendly to me in this matter, still she can’t help herself from falling into my views, for there’s a compactness and cosiness of appearance about her that always tells, even in an indifferent case. You’ll say you’ll come?”
“We have arranged to keep our Wedding-day (as far as that goes) at home,” said John. “We have made the promise to ourselves these six months. We think, you see, that home—”
“Bah! what’s home?” cried Tackleton. “Four walls and a ceiling! (Why don’t you kill that Cricket? I would! I always do. I hate their noise.) There are four walls and a ceiling at my house. Come to me!”
“You kill your Crickets, eh?” said John.
“Scrunch ’em, sir,” returned the other, setting his heel heavily on the floor. “You’ll say you’ll come? It’s as much your interest as mine, you know, that the women should persuade each other that they’re quiet and contented, and couldn’t be better off. I know their way. Whatever one woman says, another woman is determined to clinch always. There’s that spirit of emulation among ’em, sir, that if your wife says to my wife, ‘I’m the happiest woman in the world, and mine’s the best husband in the world, and I dote on him,’ my wife will say the same to yours, or more, and half believe it.”
“Do you mean to say she don’t, then?” asked the Carrier.
“Don’t!” cried Tackleton with a short, sharp laugh. “Don’t what?”
The Carrier had some faint idea of adding, “dote upon you.” But, happening to meet the half-closed eye, as it twinkled upon him over the turned-up collar of the cape, which was within an ace of poking it out, he felt it such an unlikely part and parcel of anything to be doted on, that he substituted, “that she don’t believe it?”
“Ah, you dog! You’re joking,” said Tackleton.
But the Carrier, though slow to understand the full drift of his meaning, eyed him in such a serious manner, that he was obliged to be a little more explanatory.
“I have the humour,” said Tackleton: holding up the fingers of his left hand, and tapping the forefinger, to imply, “There I am, Tackleton to wit”: “I have the humour, sir, to marry a young wife, and a pretty wife”: here he rapped his little finger, to express the Bride; not sparingly, but sharply; with a sense of power. “I’m able to gratify that humour, and I do. It’s my whim. But—now look there!”
He pointed to where Dot was sitting, thoughtfully before the fire: leaning her dimpled chin upon her hand, and watching the bright blaze. The Carrier looked at her, and then at him, and then at her, and then at him again.
“She honours and obeys, no doubt, you know,” said Tackleton; “and that, as I am not a man of sentiment, is quite enough for me. But do you think there’s anything more in it?”
“I think,” observed the Carrier, “that I should chuck any man out of window who said there wasn’t.”
“Exactly so,” returned the other with an unusual alacrity of assent. “To be sure! Doubtless you would. Of course. I’m certain of it. Good night. Pleasant dreams!”
The Carrier was puzzled, and made uncomfortable and uncertain, in spite of himself. He couldn’t help showing it in his manner.
“Good night, my dear friend!” said Tackleton compassionately. “I’m off. We’re exactly alike in reality, I see. You won’t give us to-morrow evening? Well! Next day you go out visiting, I know. I’ll meet you there, and bring my wife that is to be. It’ll do her good. You’re agreeable? Thankee. What’s that?”
It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.
“Dot!” cried the Carrier. “Mary! Darling! What’s the matter?”
They were all about her in a moment. Caleb, who had been dozing on the cake-box, in the first imperfect recovery of his suspended presence of mind, seized Miss Slowboy by the hair of her head, but immediately apologised.
“Mary!” exclaimed the Carrier, supporting her in his arms. “Are you ill? What is it? Tell me dear!”
She only answered by beating her hands together, and falling into a wild fit of laughter. Then, sinking from his grasp upon the ground, she covered her face with her apron, and wept bitterly. And then, she laughed again, and then she cried again, and then she said how cold she was, and suffered him to lead her to the fire, where she sat down as before. The old man standing, as before, quite still.
“I’m better, John,” she said. “I’m quite well now—I——”
“John!” But John was on the other side of her. Why turn her face towards the strange old gentleman, as if addressing him. Was her brain wandering?
“Only a fancy, John dear—a kind of shock—a something coming suddenly before my eyes—I don’t know what it was. It’s quite gone, quite gone.”
“I’m glad it’s gone,” muttered Tackleton, turning the expressive eye all round the room. “I wonder where it’s gone, and what it was. Humph! Caleb, come here! Who’s that with the grey hair?”
“I don’t know, sir,” returned Caleb in a whisper. “Never see him before in all my life. A beautiful figure for a nut-cracker; quite a new model. With a screw-jaw opening down into his waistcoat, he’d be lovely.”
“Not ugly enough,” said Tackleton.
“Or for a fire-box either,” observed Caleb in deep contemplation, “what a model! Unscrew his head to put the matches in; turn him heels up’ards for the light; and what a fire-box for a gentleman’s mantel-shelf, just as he stands!”
“Not half ugly enough,” said Tackleton. “Nothing in him at all. Come! Bring that box! All right now, I hope?”
“Oh, quite gone! Quite gone!” said the little woman, waving him hurriedly away. “Good night!”
“Good night!” said Tackleton. “Good night, John Peerybingle! Take care how you carry that box, Caleb. Let it fall, and I’ll murder you! Dark as pitch, and weather worse than ever, eh? Good night!”
So, with another sharp look round the room, he went out at the door; followed by Caleb with the wedding-cake on his head.
The Carrier had been so much astounded by his little wife, and so busily engaged in soothing and tending her, that he had scarcely been conscious of the Stranger’s presence until now, when he again stood there, their only guest.
“He don’t belong to them, you see,” said John. “I must give him a hint to go.”
“I beg your pardon, friend,” said the old gentleman, advancing to him; “the more so as I fear your wife has not been well; but the Attendant whom my infirmity,” he touched his ears, and shook his head, “renders almost indispensable, not having arrived, I fear there must be some mistake. The bad night which made the shelter of your comfortable cart (may I never have a worse!) so acceptable, is still as bad as ever. Would you, in your kindness, suffer me to rent a bed here?”
“Yes, yes,” cried Dot. “Yes! Certainly!”
“Oh!” said the Carrier, surprised by the rapidity of this consent. “Well! I don’t object; but still I’m not quite sure that——”
“Hush!” she interrupted. “Dear John!”
“Why, he’s stone deaf,” urged John.
“I know he is, but——Yes, sir, certainly. Yes, certainly! I’ll make him up a bed directly, John.”
As she hurried off to do it, the flutter of her spirits, and the agitation of her manner, were so strange, that the Carrier stood looking after her, quite confounded.
“Did its mothers make it up a Beds, then!” cried Miss Slowboy to the Baby; “and did its hair grow brown and curly when its caps was lifted off, and frighten it, a precious Pets, a sitting by the fires!”
With that unaccountable attraction of the mind to trifles, which is often incidental to a state of doubt and confusion, the Carrier, as he walked slowly to and fro, found himself mentally repeating even these absurd words, many times. So many times, that he got them by heart, and was still conning them over and over, like a lesson, when Tilly, after administering as much friction to the little bald head with her hand as she thought wholesome (according to the practice of nurses), had once more tied the Baby’s cap on.
“And frighten it, a precious Pets, a sitting by the fires. What frightened Dot, I wonder?” mused the Carrier, pacing to and fro.
He scouted, from his heart, the insinuations of the toy merchant, and yet they filled him with a vague, indefinite uneasiness. For Tackleton was quick and sly; and he had that painful sense, himself, of being a man of slow perception, that a broken hint was always worrying to him. He certainly had no intention in his mind of linking anything that Tackleton had said with the unusual conduct of his wife, but the two subjects of reflection came into his mind together, and he could not keep them asunder.
The bed was soon made ready; and the visitor, declining all refreshment but a cup of tea, retired. Then, Dot—quite well again, she said, quite well again—arranged the great chair in the chimney-corner for her husband; filled his pipe and gave it him; and took her usual little stool beside him on the hearth.
She always would sit on that little stool. I think she must have had a kind of notion that it was a coaxing, wheedling little stool.
She was, out and out, the very best filler of a pipe, I should say, in the four quarters of the globe. To see her put that chubby little finger in the bowl, and then blow down the pipe to clear the tube, and, when she had done so, affect to think that there was really something in the tube, and blow a dozen times, and hold it to her eye like a telescope, with a most provoking twist in her capital little face, as she looked down it, was quite a brilliant thing. As to the tobacco, she was perfect mistress of the subject; and her lighting of the pipe, with a wisp of paper, when the Carrier had it in his mouth—going so very near his nose, and yet not scorching it—was Art, high Art.
And the Cricket and the Kettle, turning up again, acknowledged it! The bright fire, blazing up again, acknowledged it! The little Mower on the clock, in his unheeded work, acknowledged it! The Carrier, in his smoothing forehead and expanding face, acknowledged it, the readiest of all.
And as he soberly and thoughtfully puffed at his old pipe, and as the Dutch clock ticked, and as the red fire gleamed, and as the Cricket chirped, that Genius of his Hearth and Home (for such the Cricket was) came out, in fairy shape, into the room, and summoned many forms of Home about him. Dots of all ages and all sizes filled the chamber. Dots who were merry children, running on before him, gathering flowers in the fields; coy Dots, half shrinking from, half yielding to, the pleading of his own rough image; newly-married Dots, alighting at the door, and taking wondering possession of the household keys; motherly little Dots, attended by fictitious Slowboys, bearing babies to be christened; matronly Dots, still young and blooming, watching Dots of daughters, as they danced at rustic balls; fat Dots, encircled and beset by troops of rosy grandchildren; withered Dots, who leaned on sticks, and tottered as they crept along. Old Carriers, too, appeared with blind old Boxers lying at their feet; and newer carts with younger drivers (“Peerybingle Brothers” on the tilt); and sick old Carriers, tended by the gentlest hands; and graves of dead and gone old Carriers, green in the churchyard. And as the Cricket showed him all these things—he saw them plainly, though his eyes were fixed upon the fire—the Carrier’s heart grew light and happy, and he thanked his Household Gods with all his might, and cared no more for Gruff and Tackleton than you do.
But what was that young figure of a man, which the same Fairy Cricket set so near Her stool, and which remained there, singly and alone? Why did it linger still, so near her, with its arm upon the chimney-piece, ever repeating “Married! and not to me!”
Oh, Dot! Oh, failing Dot! There is no place for it in all your husband’s visions. Why has its shadow fallen on his hearth?