The Chimes by Charles Dickens
Abridged by Lee A. Hart
There are not, I say, many people who would dare to sleep in a church. I don’t mean at sermon-time on a warm Sunday; but in the dead of night, and alone. If you doubt this assertion, let us meet on a gusty winter’s night, in an old churchyard, before an old church-door, where I am empowered to lock you in until morning.
For the night-wind has a dismal trick of surrounding such a building, moaning as it goes. It tries, with its unseen hands, every window and door to seek out some crevice to enter. Once it is in, and finds not what it seeks, it wails and howls in frustration. Not content with stalking through the pews, and whistling round the deep organ, it soars up to the roof, and strives to rend the rafters. Then it flings itself despairingly upon the stones below, and passes, muttering, into the vaults. It creeps along the walls, whispering the Sacred Inscriptions to wake the restless saints and spirits of the Dead. At times, it breaks out shrilly, as with laughter; and at others, it moans and cries as if it were lamenting. It has a ghostly sound too, lingering in the altar; where it seems to chant of wicked Wrongs and foul Murders done, and false Gods worshipped in defiance of the Divine Laws, which sound so fair, but are so flawed and broken by the minds of men. Ugh! Heaven preserve us, from the awful voice of that Midnight wind, singing in a church!
But, high up in the steeple; there the foul blast roars and whistles! There it is free to come and go through many an airy arch and hole, to twist and twine about the giddy stair, and make the very tower shake and shiver! High up, where the belfry is, and the iron rails are weak from rust, and shingles of lead and copper creak and heave beneath an invisible tread, far above the murmur of the sleeping town, shrouded in the misty darkness, is a wild and dreary place. And high up in the steeple of the old church, dwelt the Chimes I shall tell of.
They were old, these Chimes. Centuries ago, they had been lovingly forged by their Godfathers and Godmothers. They had names, and had their silver christening cups no doubt. They had been baptized by bishops: but so long ago that the register of their baptism was lost. And Time had mowed down their sponsors, and kings had melted down their cups; so they now hung, nameless, in the church-tower.
Not speechless, though. Far from it! They had clear, lusty voices, these Bells; and far and wide were they heard upon the land. These Chimes fought gallantly against the wind, to pour forth their cheerful notes right royally. They made themselves heard on stormy nights; to comfort the poor mother watching over a sick child, or to guide home the fisherman lost in the fog. They had been known to shout down a blustering Nor’Wester.
“Aye, to that and more,” as Toby Veck said – for he knew these Bells better than any man alive. And I stand with Toby’s opinion of the Chimes, for he had ample opportunities to form a correct one. Indeed, he did stand all day long (and weary work it was) just outside the church-door. In fact, he was a ticket-porter (a courier as we say today), and there he waited for jobs.
And a breezy, goose-pimpled, blue-nosed, red-cheeked, stony-toed, tooth-chattering place it was in the winter-time, as Toby knew well. The wind sallied forth from the icy North, to round the corner and have a blow at Toby. Then his little white apron would be thrown up like a naughty girl’s skirt, and his feeble little cane would fly about, and his legs would undergo tremendous agitation in their struggle for balance. Toby would be so banged and buffeted that it was a wonder he was not lifted off his feet, to be deposited in some distant land.
But windy weather, in spite of it using him so roughly, was a sort of holiday for Toby. That’s a fact. A hard frost too, or a fall of snow, was an Event; and it seemed to do him good. So wind and rain, snow and perhaps a good stiff hailstorm, were Toby Veck’s red-letter days. For he was dependable. When bad weather drove the boys all home, and the young men retreated to some public house or lover’s arms, Toby would remain, so there were none but him to deliver the urgent document or important parcel.
And, he was prompt. They called him Trotty from his pace, which meant ‘speed’. Younger men could walk faster perhaps; but rob Toby of his trot, and he would have taken to his bed and died. He could have walked with infinitely greater ease; but he would have none of that. Though he looked like a weak, spare old man, he was a very Hercules, this Toby, in his good intentions. He loved to earn his money. He delighted to believe (and Toby was very poor, and had so few delights) that he was worth his salt. With a shilling for a document or small parcel in hand, his courage was high. As he trotted on, he would call out to Postmen ahead to get out of the way, devoutly believing that he must inevitably overtake and run them down. And, he had perfect faith – though not tested – in being able to deliver anything that a man could carry.
Thus, Toby stood in his little nook by the church-door on this bitter New Year’s eve. And each time the belfry Chimes sounded, Toby trotted out in his leaky shoes, leaving a crooked line of slushy footprints in the mire. He’d rub his chilly hands against each other, poorly defended as they were by threadbare mittens, with a private apartment only for the thumb, and a common room for the rest of the fingers. Toby, with his knees bent and his cane beneath his arm, would look up at the belfry and listen, every time the Chimes rang out, without fail.
He loved the Chimes, for they were his company and constant companions. When he heard their voices, he always looked to their lodging-place to see how they were doing. He felt there were points of resemblance between themselves and him. They hung there, in all weather, with the wind and rain upon them; facing only the outsides of all those houses. Never enjoying the blazing fires that gleamed in the windows, and never participating in any of the good things constantly being done inside. Faces came and went at the windows: pretty faces, pleasant faces; foolish young or wise ancient faces: but Toby knew no more of their world than did the Chimes themselves.
Being but a simple man (some even say simple-minded), he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were often heard but never seen; so mysterious, so high up, so far off, so full of such deep strong emotions, that he regarded them with a species of awe. Sometimes, he fancied hearing more than just the Bells. The Chimes spoke, he often said. They called the faithful to prayer; encouraged the worker to rise and shine; and spoke soothing comforts to the sick or lonely. They sang of the joy of a new birth, and mourned the death of a loved one. Sometimes, he even believed they spoke to him personally. In short, they were often in his ears, and very often in his thoughts. The Chimes were his trusted friends and steadfast advisors.
And so on that cold day, when the last lingering tone of Twelve o’clock had just struck, there stood Toby, smiling up to his friends, the Chimes.
“Dinner-time, you say?” said Toby. “Ah, but I’ve none to eat. Nothing’s more regular in its coming than dinner-time, and nothing’s less regular than a dinner to eat.” Pleased with himself, he added, “Now there’s an obserwation for the Papers!” He was only joking, for he gravely shook his head in self-depreciation. “Ah, but the Papers is full of obserwations as it is; and so’s the Parliament. Now here’s last week’s paper,” he said, taking a very dirty one from his pocket. “Full of obserwations! I like to know the news as well as any man,” said Toby, “But it frightens me to read a paper now. I don’t know what we poor people are coming to. Lord save from the obserwations of the high and mighty!”
“Why do you say that?” said a pleasant voice, nearby.
“They say we can’t go right, or do right, or be righted,” said Toby. “I can’t make out whether we have a place on this old earth, or not. The papers has so much bad stuff that I wonder if there is any good in people at all, or whether we are just born bad. We do dreadful things; we cause so many problems; we are always being complained about and guarded against. One way or other, we fill the papers,” said Toby, mournfully. “I can do as well as any man, better than most; for I am as strong as a lion, and as fast as a horse! Does that not earn a place in the New Year? What’s to become of us?”
“Now, father!” said the pleasant voice again.
Toby was startled; and stopped. He lowered his gaze, to find himself face to face with his own child, and looking close into her eyes.
Bright eyes they were, that would bear a world of looking in, before their depth was fathomed. Eyes with a clear, calm, honest, patient radiance, as might be found in Heaven. Eyes that were beautiful and true, beaming with Hope, still buoyant and bright despite their twenty years of work and poverty. She said, “I have a little business for you, here.”
Trotty kissed the lips belonging to the eyes, and said, “Why, Meg! I din’t think to see you here today! But business?” asked Trotty, looking curiously at the covered basket in her hand. He moved to lift the cover, but she gaily interposed her hand.
“No, no, no,” said Meg with the glee of a child. “Just lift a corner; a lit-tle ti-ny cor-ner,” she said, suiting the action to the word with the utmost gentleness, and speaking very softly, as if she were afraid of being overheard by something inside the basket. “Now; what is it?”
Toby put a hand on each knee, bent down his nose to the basket, and took a long inspiration at the lid; the grin upon his withered face expanded, as if he were inhaling laughing gas. “Ah! It’s food!” he exclaimed. “It an’t – I suppose it an’t sausages?”
“No, no!” cried Meg, delighted. “Nothing like sausages!”
“It smells wonderful. It improves every moment. Is it Liver?” said Toby, communing with himself. “No. There’s a mildness about it that don’t answer to liver. Petatoes? No, it an’t faint enough for petatoes. Aha! I’ll forget my own name next. It’s tripe!”
Tripe it was; and Meg, in high joy, proclaimed that it was the best tripe she had ever stewed. “And it is delivered for You!” exclaimed Meg, busying herself with the basket. “I’ll lay the cloth at once. Make haste, for there’s a hot potato besides, and half a pint of fresh-drawn beer. Where will you dine, father? On the Post, or the Steps? How grand we are; two places to choose from!”
“The steps, my Pet,” said Trotty. “Steps in dry weather, post in wet. There’s a greater satisfaction in the steps, because of the sitting down; though they be hard and damp.”
After but a moment’s bustle, Meg clapped her hands, and said, “It’s all ready! And how beautiful it looks! Come, father; Come!”
As he sat down, the Chimes rang the quarter. “Amen!” said Trotty, pulling off his hat and looking up to them.
“Amen to the Bells, father?” asked Meg.
“They broke in to say grace, my dear,” said Trotty. “Many’s the kind word they say to me.”
“Yes, so you have said!” laughed Meg, as she set the basket, and a knife and fork, before him.
“Indeed they do, my Pet,” said Trotty, falling to with great vigor. Becoming more animated under the influence of dinner, he added, “They’ve cheered me on a million times or more. Often have I heard the bells say, ‘Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart, Toby Veck.'”
“Well, I never did,” smiled Meg. She had, though – over and over again. For under Toby’s constant influence, that which he heard, you would begin to hear as well.
“When things is bad,” said Trotty, “I mean; almost at the worst; then it’s ‘Toby Veck, Toby Veck, job is coming! Toby Veck!’ And so it does. Always. Never fails!”
“Yes, it comes – at last,” said Meg, with a touch of sadness in her voice.
Trotty continued his attack upon the feast, until his eyes encountered Meg, sitting quietly, and watching his progress with a smile of happiness. “Lord forgive me!” said Trotty, dropping his knife and fork. “Here I sit, stuffing myself, without a bite for you to break your own fast!”
“But I have broken it, father,” interposed his daughter, laughing, “All to bits. I have had my dinner.”
“Impossible!” said Trotty. “Two full dinners in one day? Next you’ll be telling me tomorrow is both Christmas and New Year’s Day.”
“I had my dinner,” said Meg, “with – with Richard. He finished his work early; and brought his dinner when he came to see me, and well, we had it together. And Richard says – he says – Richard says – ” She hesitated.
Trotty took a little beer, then smacked his lips and said, “Richard’s a long time saying it.”
“He says,” Meg continued, now speaking in a rush, “Another year is nearly gone, and what is the use of waiting? He says we are poor now, and we shall be poor then. But we are young now, and years will make us old before we know it. He says that if we wait until we see our way ahead clearly, it will be a narrow way indeed – to the Grave, father.”
A bolder man might have denied it; but Trotty was not; he held his peace.
“And how hard it is, father, to grow old and die, when we might have cheered and helped each other! How hard to love each other; but apart. To see each other working, changing, growing old and grey. How often have you said that happiness does not require wealth or possessions; it only requires love. Even if we are poor; we can be happy, care for each other, help each other, and defend each other against the cruelties of the world.”
Trotty sat quite still.
Meg dried her eyes, and said more gaily (that is to say, with here a laugh, there a sob, and then a laugh and sob together). “So Richard says; as his work is certain for some time to come, and as I love him, and have loved him for three years now – will I marry him on New Year’s Day; the best and happiest day in the whole year, and one that is sure to bring good fortune with it. It’s short notice, I know: But I have no affairs to settle, and no wedding dress to make, and no family to summon save you and I. So I came to talk to you, father. And as the seamstress paid me for my work this morning (unexpectedly, I am sure!) and as you have fared very poorly this past week, and as I thought there should be something to make this day special for you as well as a dear and happy day for me, father, I – I made this little treat and brought it to surprise you.”
“And see how he leaves it cooling on the step?” said another voice. “I thought you knew what he likes, Meg!”
It was the voice of this same Richard, who had come upon them unobserved, and stood looking down with a face aglow like the iron on which his stout hammer daily rung. A handsome, powerful young man he was; with eyes that twinkled like sparks from a furnace, black hair that curled about his swarthy temples, and a broad smile that bore out Meg’s enthusiasm for his style of conversation.
Trotty jumped up in a great hurry, and was about to address Richard when the house-door opened without warning, and a footman very nearly put his foot into the tripe.
“Out of the way, you vagrants! Must you loiter about on our steps? Make way, make way!” Strictly speaking, the statement was irrelevant, as they had already done so.
“What’s the matter?” said the gentleman for whom the door was opened. He came out with an air of authority, wearing stylish boots, a watch-chain, and fine linen, with an expression of having important and wealthy engagements elsewhere.
“These beggars are always at our doorstep,” said the footman, and turned upon Trotty. “Begone! You’ll get nothing here!”
“There, there! That’ll do. I know you, Porter,” said the gentleman, eyeing Trotty. “Come here. What’s that? Your dinner?”
“Yes, sir,” said Trotty meekly.
“Well, bring it here,” exclaimed the gentleman. “Let us see what feast you have upon my steps.”
“Yes, sir,” repeated Trotty, looking at the generous piece of tripe he had reserved for a last delicious bite; and which the gentleman was now turning over on the end of the fork.
Two other gentlemen had come out with him. One was a low-spirited gentleman of middle age, dressed in black, with a pinched face and disproving gaze. The other was full-sized and well-dressed, in a blue coat with bright buttons, and a white cravat. His face was quite red, as if an undue proportion of his blood were squeezed into his head; this perhaps accounted for his appearance of being rather cold about the heart.
He who had Toby’s meat upon the fork, called to the first one. “Mr. Filer, what do you suppose we have here?”
“This is animal food, your Honor,” said Filer, poking at it with a pencil. “The stomach of a cow; commonly known to the labouring class as ‘tripe’.” He laughed, and winked; for Judge Cute was a merry fellow; and a sly one too! Trotty had delivered many a summons for him. (O, such a knowing fellow. One who looked deep into people’s hearts, in times of their greatest distress. One who delighted in imposing his judgements upon the rest of the world.)
“And who eats tripe?”, asked Cute.
Mr. Filer sniffed and said, “The poor. Tripe is without a doubt the least economical and most wasteful article of consumption ever produced. It loses seven eighths of its substance in the boiling. A thousand pound animal yields but two pounds of tripe. The cow eats twenty times more food that it produces. Taking all this into account, the amount of food that could otherwise have been grown would feed five hundred men for five months. So you eat tripe?” accused Filer. “Then consider this, my friend. Your poor choice of a meal has snatched food from the mouths of five hundred widows and orphans!”
Trotty stood aghast, and his legs shook under him. He seemed to have starved five hundred to death with his own hand! “I dearly pray this is not so, sir,” said Trotty, faintly. “I’d sooner starve meself!”
“Then I shall relieve your dilemma,” said Cute, and he finished the tripe himself. “And what do You say, Mr. Deedles?”, he asked the red-faced gentleman in the blue coat.
“What is there to say,” returned the gentleman, “in such degenerate times as these? Look at the pitiful wretch. He loafs about on your steps when he should be working. He squanders his money on luxuries when he should be paying his debts or investing for the future. We are over-run with such rabble. Send them all back where they came from! We must return to the old times, the grand old times, to make our nation great again! Times when the peasantry knew their place, and stayed in it! When the work-houses and jails are full, then we will have no problems!”
Poor Trotty’s fears for the future were deeply disturbed by these dire pronouncements. He was a simple, honest man; and so he took all others at their word as well. But he had a father’s heart; he could not bear that Meg, in the blush of her brief joy, should have her fortune read by these wise gentlemen. So he anxiously signed to the young smith to take her away. But Cute noticed it as well. The Judge too was a philosopher; and he had not yet had his say. As he did not want to lose any part of his audience, he cried, “Wait!”
“You know,” said the Judge to his two friends, “I am a plain man, a practical man; and I do my work in a plain practical way. There is not the least difficulty in dealing with this sort of people if you only understand ’em, and can talk to them correctly.”
Turning to Trotty, he said, “Now you, Porter! Don’t tell me that you haven’t always had enough to eat. And of the best; I know because I have tasted your tripe. You would not have reached your advanced years were it otherwise. And look at this lovely girl, and that handsome lad. They clearly have no complaints on the matter of nutrition, either. Else, they would have starved to death, and rid the world of its excess baggage.”
(Famous among the common people, was Judge Cute! Never out of temper with them. An easy, affable, joking, knowing gentleman! With but a glance, he can discern the truth of every situation, and its practical remedy.)
“You see, my friends,” pursued his Honor, “there’s a great deal of talk about ‘want’; want of food, of housing, of jobs. ‘Hard up’ is the phrase, isn’t it? Well, I intend to Put it Down. How do you cure a toothache? Pull it out, and the problem is solved! Or repair a crumbling old building? Tear it down, so a profitable new one can be built! If food should be scarce, reduce the population to balance the scales. That’s all!” said the Justice, turning to his friends again, “You may Put Down any misfortune among such people, if you look to the practical ways to remedy it.”
Trotty didn’t like the sound of this. He took Meg’s hand and drew it through his arm.
“Your daughter, I see.” said Cute, placing a friendly hand upon her shoulder. “Where’s her mother?”
(Always affable with the working classes, he was! Knew what pleased them! Not a bit of pride!)
“Dead,” said Toby sadly. “Her mother washed linen. She was called to Heaven when the child was born.”
“To wash linen up there, I suppose,” remarked the Justice pleasantly.
Toby’s state of mind was such that he could not tell if this was a compliment or an insult. Were servants on earth still expected to be servants in heaven?
“And you’re in love with her, are you?” said Cute to the young smith.
“Yes,” returned Richard, nettled by the question. “And we are going to be married on New Year’s Day.”
“What!” cried Filer sharply. “Married?”
“Why, yes, Master,” said Richard. “We’re rather in a hurry, you see, in case it should be Put Down first.”
Judge Cute was mightily amused, and glanced to his friends as if to say ‘Observe me. Keep your eye on the practical man!’ “Why are you thinking of marrying?”, said the justice, with increased cheerfulness and urbanity to the young smith. “If you keep your wits and curb that tongue, you’ll go far in life. If I were a fine, strapping young chap like you, I should be ashamed to pin myself to a woman’s apron-strings. Why, she’ll be worn out before you reach middle-age! And a pretty figure you’ll cut then, with a drag-tailed wife and a crowd of squalling children wherever you go! Now for you, my girl,” said he.
The young blood of her lover had been mounting, wrathfully, within the last few minutes; and he was indisposed to let her come. But restraining his temper, he came forward to stand beside Meg. Trotty too kept her hand within his arm, but looked from face to face wildly for fear of what may come next.
“Let me give you a word or two of good advice, my girl,” said Cute, in his nice easy way. “It’s my place to give advice, you know, because I’m a Judge. You know that, don’t you?”
Meg said timidly, “Yes, sir.”
(But everybody knew Cute was a Judge. Oh dear, such an active Judge! So ambitious, so bright in the public eye, always looking to get ahead.)
“You say you are going to be married,” he pursued. “Very unwise, for I see how he is. After you are married, you’ll quarrel, and come to be a distressed wife. You may think not; but you will; I know because I see it every day. Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put Down distressed wives. So, don’t be brought before me. You’ll have children – boys, no doubt. They will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, committing petty crimes. Mind you, I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put Down such delinquency. Perhaps your husband will die young (or more likely) run off and leave you with a baby. Then you can’t work, and will be turned out to wander the streets. Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved to Put Down such vagrancy. Homelessness of all kinds; I’ll Put it Down. And don’t think to plead illness as an excuse; if you can’t pay the doctors, you die. And if you attempt, desperately and impiously, to end your own life, there will be no pity for you in the courts or the church, for we are both determined to Put Down suicide! Now, do we understand each other?”
Toby was agonized to see that Meg had turned a deadly white, and dropped her lover’s hand.
(O, he knew how to banter the common people, did Justice Cute!)
“So think on what I said, and repent”, said Cute. “Don’t make such fools of yourselves as to get married on the morrow. Wait. You’ll think very differently, by next New Year’s Day. Now, off you go!” He said pleasantly.
They went off. Not hand in hand, or interchanging bright glances. But she in tears; he with clenched fists. Were these the same hearts that had so lately leapt for joy at the upcoming New Year? No, no. The Judge (a blessing on his head!) had Put Them Down.
“As you happen to be here,” said the justice to Toby, “you shall carry a letter for me. Can you be quick? You’re an old man.”
“I’m sixty, sir,” said Toby. He was about to add, quite stupidly, that he was very quick, and very strong, but was interrupted by Filer.
“Sixty! That’s a great deal past the useful age,” said Mr. Filer. “He should step aside, to make way for a younger man!”
“Has I ever failed to satisfy, your honor?” Toby asked; and Cute granted that he had indeed always been reliable. So the Judge cut Filer short, and gave Toby a letter from his pocket. Toby would have got a shilling too; but Mr. Filer interjected that this would be robbing a certain number of persons of a half-penny apiece, so he only got sixpence; and thought himself lucky to get that.
Then the Judge gave an arm to each of his friends, and they walked off in high feather.
“Wrong every way,” mourned Trotty, wringing his hands. “Born bad, they say. No business here!”
The Chimes came clashing upon him as he said those words. Full throated and loud – but with no encouragement. No, not a bit.
“The tune’s changed,” cried the old man, as he listened. “Have you no word of cheer for me? Oh, but why should there be? They say I have no business with the New Year, nor with the old one either. Let me die!”
The Bells rang on, making the very air spin. “Put ’em down, Put ’em down!” Trotty heard. “Good old Times, Facts and Figures, Put ’em down!” On and on they went, until poor Toby’s brain reeled.
He pressed his hands to his bewildered head, as if to block out the sound. A well-timed action, as it happened; for finding the letter in one of them, he was reminded of his charge, and so he fell, mechanically, into his usual trot, and headed off to deliver it.
The letter was addressed to a great man in the wealthiest district of the city. It seemed heavy in Toby’s hand, not only because the Judge had sealed it with a large coat of arms and no end of wax, but because of the weighty name on the address, and the ponderous amount of gold and silver with which it was associated.
“How different he must be from them gentlemen,” thought Toby, in all simplicity and earnestness. “He’d not think to better himself by ‘Putting Down’ those with nothing. He’d not be snatching tripe right out of someone’s mouth! And His daughters;” thought Trotty, and a mist rose before his eyes; “There’d be gentlemen to win their hearts and make ’em happy wives and mothers; and they’d stay beautiful like my darling M-m-me”. He couldn’t finish. The final letter swelled in his throat, to the size of the whole alphabet. “Stop it!” he chided himself. “Don’t hope for what can’t be. What I’ve got is enough for me. More than I deserve.” And with this meager consolation, he trotted on.
In this part of town, the streets were full of motion, and the shops were decked out gaily. The New Year, like an Infant Heir to the throne, was being welcomed with presents and rejoicing. There were toys and trinkets for the New Year, dresses for New Year’s parties, and all manner of inventions to entertain and beguile it. Its life was to be heralded in calendars and pocket-diaries. The coming of its moons and tides were being calculated with as much precision as Mr. Filer applied to working his sums in men and women. The Old Year was as good as dead; and its relics were selling cheap. Its styles and magazines were going at a sacrifice, before its final breath was gone. Its treasures were now mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor.
Trotty’s thoughts had no room for the New Year or the Old. His mind was filled with the voice of the Chimes, now at a distance, but still clear to him. “Put ’em down! Facts and Figures! Good old Times! Put ’em down!” His trot kept time to their measure, and nothing else. It brought him in due course to the end of his journey; the mansion of Sir Joseph Bowley, Member of Parliament.
The door was opened by a Porter. But such a Porter! This Porter was far above Toby’s station, elegantly attired, and as wide as he was tall. He looked at the letter, and then at Toby, disdainfully. “You’re to take it in, yourself,” sighed the Porter. “Everything goes straight in today, the last day of the year. Make haste, for the carriage is waiting, and they shall be leaving shortly.”
Toby wiped his feet with great care, and followed the Porter.
The house was very grand, but quiet and covered, as if the family were away in the country. The Porter knocked on a door. A voice from within asked, “What is it, Mr. Tugby?
“A letter, Sir Joseph.”
“Then bring it in.”
Doing so, Toby found himself in a spacious library, where, at a table strewn with papers, were a stately lady in a bonnet; and a plain gentleman in black who wrote from her dictation. Another older, and much statelier gentleman, stood looking complacently at his own portrait, hanging over the fireplace.
“Mr. Fish, will you attend?” said the last-named gentleman.
Mr. Fish begged pardon, rose, and took the letter from Toby. “It is from Judge Cute, Sir Joseph.”
“Is that all?” Sir Joseph inquired of Toby.
Toby replied that all he had was the letter.
“You misunderstand. Do you have a bill or demand upon me for your services?” asked Sir Joseph. “I allow nothing to be carried into the New Year. In this house, every account must be settled at the close of the year. That is my custom, and my wish. You see, at this season of the year, we should think carefully upon all our transactions. All debts must be paid, all promises kept, and all services completed, that we may enter the New Year with a fresh slate and a clear conscience. Each New Year is a time for clean endings, and new beginnings, and deep reflections between man and his maker.” Sir Joseph delivered these words as if it were a sermon, so that even Trotty could improve himself by such discourse.
Trotty replied, “No, sir; Judge Cute has paid me sixpence to deliver it.”
With that, Sir Joseph broke the seal on the letter, and began to read. As he did, he motioned to Trotty to wait where he was, a minute. “I don’t agree with Cute,” said Sir Joseph, holding out the letter. “Nor this Filer party, or any of their conservative views. For I am the Poor Man’s Friend, and I’ll have no business with anything of that sort. The Poor, in my district, are my business. No man or body of men has any right to interfere between my friend and me. I take a liberal stand. I feel a – a paternal obligation – towards my friend.”
“Bless him as a noble gentleman!” thought Trotty. He listened with great attention, and began to feel more comfortable.
“Your only business in life, my good fellow,” pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; “Is with me. You needn’t trouble yourself with the details of governance. I shall think it all out for you; for I know what is right. I am your perpetual parent. Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence! Concern yourself with the Dignity of Labor. Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air. Work hard, live temperately, be respectful, bring up your family on the fruits of your own labor, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, and be honest in all your dealings. Do not squander your money on senseless intoxication or brutal enjoyments. Raise your children to follow your example, that they grow up nice and straight. And you may trust me to be your Friend and Father.”
“Nice children, indeed,” murmured the lady, with a shudder. “Rheumatisms and fevers, crooked legs and blindness; thieves, idiots, and all other manner of horrors. What will you do with them?”
“We have discussed this, my dear,” returned Sir Joseph, “In such cases, I am still the Poor Man’s Friend. His children will be taken and provided for with the utmost care. I shall provide orphanages for the surplus children, reformatories for their crimes, work houses for the indigent, and asylums for the cripples and insane.”
Toby was greatly moved.
“I cannot possibly see how you expect to provide for such a large family. Who is going to pay for all this generosity?” asked his wife.
“Why, nothing could be simpler, my dear.” said Sir Joseph. “With taxes, of course. Just as the church expects a tithe for one day’s service per week, we shall take our share from the other six. Mr. Fish has calculated that approximately half their income should be sufficient.”
“Half!” exclaimed his wife. “O! You’ll have a thankful family for that, Sir Joseph!”
“Of course we would not do such a cruel and blatant thing,” said her husband. “It will be held out of their wages by their employers. The workers will hardly miss it; and it will make the collection simple and efficient. The landowners and factory owners benefit as well, for they shall have a dedicated and committed work force. They will naturally attend to their workers, just as a shepherd tends to his flock, as they are his means of production. Also, the workers will know that their sacrifices insure that there will be jobs, and support for the public institutions to care for them and their loved ones in times of need.” With that last great sentiment, he returned to the Judge’s letter. “Very polite and attentive,” said Sir Joseph. “My lady, his Honor inquires whether it will be agreeable to me to have Will Fern, a man from our district, convicted.”
“Most agreeable!” replied Lady Bowley. “I have encountered the wretch! He has committed some robbery, I hope?”
“Why no,” said Sir Joseph, referring to the letter. “Not quite. He came up to Cute’s district in the city (to better himself – that’s his story). He was found at night, in a shed with a young girl. He was taken into custody, and taken before Justice Cute. His Honor observes (very properly) that he is determined to Put Down this sort of thing.”
“Put him Down, by all means,” returned the lady. “Last winter, when I was introducing some new orphans into pinking and eyelet-holing, this very Fern comes in, touched his hat and says, ‘I humbly beg your pardon, my lady, but she aint an orphan; she’s my niece.’ And just like that, he walks out with this girl hanging about his neck! I, who had gone out of my way to give these girls a trade! Who can expect anything but insolence and ingratitude from that class of people! Make an example of him, Sir Joseph!”
“Ahem!” coughed Sir Joseph. “Despite your usually excellent judgment of character, my dear, there may be details here that bear further investigation. However, as it is New Year’s eve, I must settle my affairs now. So we’ll let Judge Cute decide the merits of the case. Mr. Fish, will you have the goodness to attend?”
Mr. Fish immediately readied his pen, and wrote from Sir Joseph’s dictation.
“My dear Sir: I am much indebted to you for your courtesy in the matter of William Fern, of whom, I regret to say, I have heard nothing favorable. I have uniformly considered myself in the light of his Friend and Father, but have been repaid (I grieve to say) with ingratitude and opposition. Under these circumstances, when he comes before you tomorrow, pending your inquiries, his committal for some short term as a Vagabond, would be a service to society. And I am… and so forth.”
Sir Joseph signed the letter, Mr. Fish sealed it, and handed it to Trotty. Sir Joseph said ruefully, “And so, I wind up my accounts and strike a balance, even with William Fern.”
Trotty, who had long ago relapsed into very low spirits, stepped forward with a gloomy face to take the letter.
“Wait,” said Sir Joseph. “One more thing. You have perhaps observed that Mr. Fish – that gentleman – has a cheque-book at his elbow, and is in fact here to enable me to enter the epoch before us with a clean account. Now, my friend, can you lay your hand upon your heart, and say that you are also prepared for the New Year?”
Trotty began to suspect that this may be his opportunity to repair the meager token he received for delivering Cute’s letter. “I am afraid, sir,” stammered Trotty, looking meekly at him, “that I am a – a – little behind with the world.”
“Behind with the world – ” repeated Sir Joseph Bowley, in a tone of terrible distinctness.
“I am afraid, sir,” faltered Trotty, “that there’s a matter of ten or twelve shillings owing to Mrs. Chickenstalker.”
“To Mrs. Chickenstalker – ” repeated Sir Joseph, in the same tone as before.
“A shop, sir,” explained Toby, “in the general line. It oughtn’t to be owing, I know, but we have been hard put, indeed!”
Sir Joseph looked at his lady, and at Mr. Fish, and at Trotty, one after another, twice all round. He then made a despondent gesture with both hands, as if he gave the thing up altogether. “How can a man, even among this improvident and impracticable class; an old man, grown grey, who should know better; look a New Year in the face, with his affairs in this condition. How can he lie in his bed at night, and – Never mind.” he said, turning his back on Trotty. “Take the letter and go.”
“I heartily wish it was otherwise, sir,” said Trotty, anxious to excuse himself. “But – ”
Sir Joseph just repeated, “Take the letter, and go!” Mr. Fish provided additional emphasis by pushing Trotty toward the door. There was nothing for it, but to make his bow, and leave. Mr. Tugby escorted him out. And in the street, poor Trotty pulled his worn old hat down on his head, to hide the grief he felt at getting no hold on the New Year, anywhere.
He didn’t even lift his hat to look up at the Bell tower upon his return to the old church. It was growing dark, and the steeple rose above him, indistinct in the gathering mists. He knew, too, that the Chimes would soon ring. They usually cheered him at such times, like angels in the clouds, that a good day’s work was done. So he made haste, and delivered Sir Bowley’s letter to Cute’s footman before they began. Then, he trotted off homeward. But with the growing dark, and his rapid pace, and his hat hindering his sight; he trotted right into someone, and was sent staggering into the road.
“I beg your pardon!” said Trotty, pulling up his hat in confusion. “I hope I haven’t hurt you!” As to that, Toby was more likely to be hurt himself. But he had such an opinion of his own strength, that he was truly concerned for the other party.
The man against whom he had run; a sun-browned, sinewy, country-looking man, with rough hair and a grizzled chin; stared at him as if he suspected it was a jest. But, satisfied of Toby’s sincerity, he answered, “No, friend. You have not hurt me.”
“Nor the child, I hope?” said Trotty, for he could now see that the man carried a young girl in his arms.
“Nor the child,” returned the man. “Sir, I thank you most kindly for your concern.”
The tone, and the look on the man’s face penetrated Trotty’s heart. The man was so worn, and soiled with travel, and so obviously out of place that it was a comfort to him to be able to thank any one, for even so small a kindness. Toby stood watching as the man plodded wearily away, with the child’s arms around his neck. But before they merged into the darkness, the traveler stopped; and seeing Trotty standing there still, seemed undecided. Then he turned back; so Trotty went to meet him half-way.
“Can you tell me, perhaps,” said the man with an earnest look, “where Justice Cute lives?”
“Close at hand,” replied Toby. “I’ll show you his house with pleasure.”
“I was to have gone to him tomorrow,” said the man, accompanying Toby, “but I have no place to stay, and I’m uneasy under suspicion, and want to clear myself, to be free to seek my bread from – I don’t know where. So, maybe he’ll forgive my going to his house tonight.”
At this moment, the Chimes finally sounded their message.
Toby looked up and listened, as was his custom. And then – his eyes widened, and he shivered with a sudden premonition. “Is it possible,” asked Toby with a start, “that your name is Fern?”
“Eh?” said the other, in astonishment. “That Is my name! How could you possibly know?”
Trotty seized him by the arm, and said, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t go to Cute! He’ll Put you Down, sure as you’re born. Here, come in this alley, and I’ll tell you what I know.”
His new acquaintance looked as if he thought Trotty was mad; but followed nevertheless. When they were shrouded from observation, Trotty told him what he’d heard, and the character of the judge he had witnessed.
The subject of his history listened with a calmness that surprised Toby. He did not contradict or interrupt it, even once. He nodded his head now and then – more in corroboration, it appeared, than in refutation of it. “I could sift grain from husk here and there,” he said, “but it’s true enough in the main. I has gone against them, to my misfortun’. I never took nothin’ that wasn’t my own. I never held back from work, however hard or poorly paid. But when work won’t treat me like a human creetur; when my living is so bad that I am hungry and out of doors; when I see a whole working life without a chance for better; then I say to these gentlefolks, “Keep away! My world is dark enough without you to darken it more. Let me be!”
Seeing that the child in his arms had opened her eyes, he checked himself to say a few words of foolish prattle in her ear, and stood her on the ground beside him. She clung to his dusty leg, as he wound one of her long tresses around his rough forefinger. To Trotty, he said, “I’m not cross-grained by natur’. I bear no ill-will against ’em. Just give me a way to live like one of the Almighty’s creeturs, and I’ll be satisfied. But I don’t – I can’t – every way I turn is blocked by a pit, and it seems they’s for nothin’ but a grave!”
Trotty noted a tear in the man’s eye, and knew he spoke the Truth; and nodded his head in agreement. “She has a beautiful face,” said Trotty, hoping to divert the man’s thoughts to a happier subject.
“Yes,” replied the other in a low voice, as he gently turned her face towards his own, and looked upon it steadfastly. “I’ve thought so, many times. I’ve thought so, when my hearth was cold, and the cupboard bare. I thought so when we was thrown from our farm, for lack of rent. And I thought so t’other night, when we was taken like thieves for sleepin’ in a shed.” He gazed upon her with a tone so solemn and strange, that Toby tried again, by inquiring of his wife. “I never had one,” he returned, shaking his head. “She’s my brother’s child; an orphan now. Nine year old, though you’d hardly think it, she’s so thin and worn. They were taking her to the workhouse. They’d lock her between the walls, as they did my father until he couldn’t work no more (though he didn’t trouble ’em long). So I took her instead, and she’s lived with me ever since. We have a relative, in the city somewhere. We been tryin’ to find her, and to find work too; but it’s a big place. Never mind. More room for us to walk about, eh Lilly?” He met the child’s eyes with a smile which melted Toby more than tears. Then he shook Toby by the hand, and said, “Master, I don’t so much as know your name, but I’ve opened my heart free to you. For that I’m thankful; for no one else will listen. So I’ll take your advice, and stay clear of this – ”
“Justice Cute,” suggested Toby.
“So that’s what they call him”, he said. “Justice. Cute. What a cruel trick that name is. Well, we’ll seek better fortun’ somewheres else. Good night, and a Happy New Year!”
Trotty’s heart made up his mind for him. “Wait!” he said, catching his hand. “Come home with me! The New Year cannot be happy if we part like this. I can’t let you two wander, without shelter for your heads. I’m a poor man, living in a poor place; but I can give you lodging for the night and never miss it. Here, I’ll take her! I can carry ten times her weight, and never know it. Tell me if I go too quick for you. I’m very fast!” Trotty said, taking about six of his trotting paces to one stride of his companion; and with his thin legs quivering beneath the load. “Why, she’s – light as – a peacock’s – feather,” puffed Trotty, trotting in his speech as well as his gait. “Here we are, and – and here we go! Round this turn, to the right, Uncle Will. Past the pump, and sharp to the left. Pass the public-house, then cross the street. Past the pieman at the corner, Uncle Will! To the stables here, up the stair and stop at the door. See, it’s got ‘T. Veck, Ticket Porter’ wrote on the board. And here we are, and there’s my precious Meg, to surprise you!” With which words, the breathless Trotty sat the child down before his daughter.
The child looked at Meg; and trusting what she saw, ran into her open arms.
“Here we are, Uncle Will,” gasped Trotty. “There’s a fire! Come warm yourself by the fire. Oh Meg, my precious darling, where’s the kettle? Ah, here it is; we’ll have it boiling in no time!”
Meg seated the child by the fire, and knelt down to pull off her shoes and dry her wet feet with a cloth. And she laughed at Trotty too – so pleasantly, so cheerfully, that Trotty could have blessed her where she sat; for when they entered, he saw that she had been sitting by the fire in tears.
“Father!” said Meg. “You’re crazy tonight! What on earth have the Bells been telling you?” Then she turned her attention to the child. “Poor little feet,” she said. “How cold they are! We’ve much to do. We’ll brush out your hair; and we’ll bring some colour to your dear face with clean water; and then we’ll find you something to eat. Oh, we’ll have a happy New Year’s eve, we will!”
The child, in a burst of sobbing, clasped her round the neck, and said, “Oh Meg! Thank you, dear Meg!”
A Bishop’s blessing could have meant no more. Who could say anything more!
Toby was too excited to sit still. “Father,” cried Meg, looking round. “What Are you doing? You put the child’s bonnet on the kettle, and hung the lid on the door!”
“What? I didn’t – I couldn’t – Oh, I did, didn’t I?” said Trotty, hastily repairing his mistake. “Meg, my dear – ”
Meg looked, and saw that he had placed himself behind the chair of their male guest, and was holding up the sixpence he had earned with many mysterious gestures.
“I left half an ounce of tea lying on the stair,” said Trotty, “and a bit of bacon, too. I’ll just pop out and fetch ’em.” With this improbable artifice, Toby dashed out to Mrs. Chickenstalker’s, to purchase the viands he had spoken of.
Presently he was back, pretending it had taken longer to find them in the dark. “Here they are,” said Trotty, setting out the tea-things. “Meg, my pet, if you’ll make the tea, your unworthy father will toast the bacon. It’s well known,” Trotty babbled, “that I don’t care for rashers or tea meself. But I likes to see my friends enjoy ’em,” he said to his guests. Yet Trotty sniffed the hissing bacon (Ah!) as if he liked it; and looked lovingly into the depths of the kettle, so the fragrant tea curled about his nose. But he neither ate nor drank, except a mere morsel for form’s sake, which he appeared to eat with great relish, all the while declaring how disagreeable it was to him.
Meg understood that Trotty’s antics were to see Will Fern and Lilian eat and drink; so she joined in the charade. Never did spectators at a court banquet take such delight in seeing others feast. Meg smiled at Trotty, and Trotty winked at Meg. Toby acted out a narrative of how he had found their visitors. Meg clapped her hands, applauding Trotty. And they were all happy; very happy.
At length, Trotty observed that Will Fern was nodding off in his chair. “Time for bed,” he announced. “Uncle Will, you come along with me. You’re tired to death, and broken down for want of rest. It’s not much of a place: only a loft over the stables. But we live here cheap, and there’s clean hay. And the little one, she can sleep with Meg.”
“Yes!” cried the child, giving Meg a kiss. Then she did the same for her Uncle Will.
“And do you have a kiss for our wonderful host?” asked Will.
Trotty was mightily delighted indeed, when the child came timidly to him, and kissed him on the cheek.
With no other place for himself, Trotty sat down in the big chair. It took some time for the foolish old fellow to compose himself. At last, he tended the fire, and drew his chair to the warm hearth. Then he trimmed the light, took his newspaper from his pocket, and began to read.
Carelessly at first, but with an earnest and then a sad attention. For the dreaded paper redirected Toby’s thoughts back to the day’s events. His interest in the two wanderers had set him on a happier course of thinking. But being alone, and reading of the crimes and violences of the day, he relapsed into his former despair. “Alas,” he thought sorrowfully, remembering Meg’s tears when they had first arrived. “Those gentlemen Put Down Meg and Richard as surely as they would poor Will Fern. That match is now burned, and broken.” In this mood, he came to an account (not the first he had read) of a woman who had taken the life not only of herself, but also her infant child. A crime so terrible, and so revolting to his soul, that he let the journal drop, appalled! “Unnatural and cruel!” Toby cried. “None but people who were born bad, bad to the heart, who had no business on earth, could do such deeds! It’s too true! All the news tells that people are basically bad. There’s no hope for us!”
The Chimes broke in so suddenly – loud, clear, and sonorous – that the Bells seemed to strike him in his chair. And what was it he heard?
“Toby Veck, Toby Veck, come to see us, Toby Veck! Waiting for you, Toby Veck! Hunt him, haunt him, Toby Veck! Door is open, Toby Veck! Come to see us, Toby Veck!” Repeating, ringing, shaking the very bricks and plaster of the walls.
“Meg!” exclaimed Trotty. “Listen to the Bells!” But she was asleep. The whole house was sleeping. Could they not hear it? Their energy was so dreadful that it was impossible to ignore.
At last, the Bells fell silent.
“Could it be?” thought Toby. “The church-door open at this time of night? It should be locked and barred. I – I must go to the steeple to satisfy myself. If it’s shut, I’ll know I was dreaming.” He rose, and trotted off for the church with even more than his usual speed. He knew that door well. It was a great arched portal, and had such huge iron hinges, and such a massive lock, that there was more hinge and lock than door. It was open to all by day, but always closed at night.
Arriving at the church, he put his hand into the dark opening. Imagine his astonishment when he found that the door actually stood ajar! He thought of going back; or of getting a light, or a companion; but his courage came to his aid, so he determined to enter. “What have I to fear?” thought Trotty. “It’s a church! Perhaps the ringers are here, and have forgotten to shut the door.” So in he went, like a blind man; for it was very dark. And very quiet, for the Chimes were silent.
But the darkness deterred him.
“This is folly,” he thought, and turned to go back. At that moment, a fickle gust of wind blew the door shut! Try as he might, Toby could not find the way to open it. There was nothing for it, but to go on. So he felt his way ahead, and presently bumped into a staircase.
It was a disagreeable stair for such groping work; so low and narrow. But up he went. Round and round, higher and higher. His groping hand was always kept on a wall or railing. In the darkness, his imagination conjured up ghostly figures, beckoning him on. At intervals, a door or niche broke the monotonous surface; and the gap seemed as wide as the whole church. Just when he feared he was about to plunge off the edge into the dark abyss, he’d find the wall again.
At length, the darkness was relieved a bit, and he began to feel the wind. Presently it blew so strong that he could hardly keep his legs. He had reached an arched window in the tower, waist high. Holding tight, he looked down upon the house-tops, the smoking chimneys, and the blotch of darkness where Meg was perhaps wondering where he was, all kneaded together in the mists and darkness. This was the belfry, where the ringers came. His fumbling hand encountered one of the frayed ropes which hung down through openings in the oaken roof. He quickly released it, trembling at the very thought of waking the Bells. The Chimes themselves were higher. So higher Trotty must go, to answer his dream or delusion, By ladders now, for it was steep, with footing none to certain.
Up, up, up; and higher, higher, higher!
Until, ascending through the floor, he came to the Bells. It was barely possible to make out their great shapes in the gloom; but there they were. Shadowy, dark, and silent.
He raised a timid, “Holloa? Holloa?”; but there was no reply. A heavy sense of hopeless dread fell upon him. His head went round and round. “Why am I here? I must be mad,” he thought. Giddy, confused, and out of breath, Toby sunk down in a swoon.
Black are the brooding clouds, and deep are the troubled waters of the Sea of Slumber, when the ship of Thought sinks beneath the waves of consciousness. Monsters rise from the depths in imperfect resurrection; past and present blur together; and future phantoms beckon just out of reach. When the mind resumes its usual form, who can say from whence these dreams came, or where they go?
“Hunt and haunt him,” they whispered monotonously through his sleep. Then louder, clearer, becoming a thunderous voice ringing in his ears. “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, break your slumbers, Toby Veck!” He leapt to his feet, and saw the Goblin Sight.
The tower was bathed in a mysterious light, and swarming with Goblins; twisted spirits, elfin creatures revealed by the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. They were all around; clambering up the ropes from below, and looking down from the massive iron-girded beams above. Wave upon wave of them, in spreading circles, like ripples from a huge stone that splashes into the sea. He saw them in all aspects and shapes; ugly, handsome, crippled, and exquisitely formed. He saw them young and old, cruel and kind. Some were merry, some were grim. He saw them dance and sing; he saw them tear their hair and howl. More and more appeared, all restless and violently active.
Wood and stone, brick and slate became transparent to him as to them. He saw them in the houses, busy at the sleepers’ beds. He saw them whispering to people in their dreams; and yelling into their waking ears. He saw them beating people with knotted whips; and charming them with flattering lies. Bewildered by the endless shifting figures and the thunderous roar of the Bells, Trotty clung to a wooden pillar for support, in stunned astonishment.
The Chimes finally stopped.
Instantaneous change! The entire swarm fainted. Their speed deserted them, and they fell, collapsed, and melted into thin air. A hunchbacked straggler, in an echoing corner, twirled and danced as the echoes faded, until he too vanished as the tower fell silent.
Then and not before, did Trotty see in every Bell a hooded figure of the same bulk and stature as the Bell itself. Gigantic, grave, and awful figures! Resting on nothing but the night air, with their draped and hidden faces high in the dim roof, they stared at him darkly. He sought to flee wildly down through the opening in the floor; but all power of motion had deserted him. Aye, he would have thrown himself, headfirst, from the steeple-top, rather than look at those watchful eyes!
A blast of cold air came moaning through the tower. As it touched the Great Bell, it spoke. “Who comes before us!” The voice was very deep and melodious; but soft, like a whisper.
“Toby Veck, great sir,” whimpered Trotty, raising his hands in supplication. “I – I thought my name was called by the Chimes! I hardly know why I am here, or how I came. I have listened to the Chimes these many years. They have cheered me often.”
“Oh? And you have you thanked them?” asked the Bell.
“I am a poor man,” faltered Trotty, “and could only thank them in words.”
“And not in deeds?” inquired the Great Bell. “Have you never done us wrong? Never false or foul, or wicked wrong, in words nor in deeds?” pursued the Voice of the Bell.
Trotty was about to answer, “Never!” But he stopped, and was confused. “I do not understand?”
“To listen to our words is not enough,” said the Phantom. “You must match them to your own words and deeds. We ring to remind you of your obligations to your fellow man, and to your Maker. Of Faith and Hope, Love and Charity. You have failed to heed our calls!”
“Not to my knowledge, sir!” said Trotty. “It was quite by accident if I did.” His first excess of fear was fading. He felt tenderly towards the Bells, as you have seen. When he heard himself arraigned as one who had offended them so weightily, his heart was touched with penitence and grief. “If you only knew,” said Trotty, clasping his hands earnestly – “or perhaps you do know – how often you have kept me company; how often you have cheered me when I’ve been low; and how often I’ve told others of your cheerful advice; you won’t bear malice for a hasty word!”
There followed a long silence, when the Bells seemed to be conferring. “Toby Veck,” intoned the Great Bell at last, “You have listened to us well in the past. But of late, you have doubted. You have listened to the voices of the Goblins. You have lost faith in us; and this is a time when a loss of faith has Dire Consequences.”
Each of the shadowy figures stretched its right arm forth, and pointed downward. The tower became transparent at Toby’s feet. He looked down, and beheld his own form, lying at the bottom of the steps, crushed and motionless.
“Dead?” cried Trotty, shuddering. “Did I miss my way in the dark, and fall?”
“Dead!” said the figures all together.
“What!” he cried, shuddering. “But, but – ”
“Toby Veck, you have been a good man and faithful servant. This was not meant to be. Therefore, it has been Decided that we are to show you the consequences of a lack of faith,” said the figure. “The Spirit of the Chimes will be your guide. Now Go! The future awaits you!”
Trotty turned, and saw – the child! The child Will Fern had carried in the streets; the child whom Meg watched, and was now asleep! “I carried you myself, tonight,” said Trotty. “In these arms!”
“No,” said the child. “That was nine years ago. “I am to show you what the future would be without you. Now come.”
With this, the Bells recalled their outstretched arms; and where their figures had stood, now there were only the Bells. And they rung; and once again, vast multitudes of phantom goblins sprang into existence. Once again, they were as madly engaged as before. But the entire scene faded away, and dwindled into nothing.
Trotty looked around. He and the spirit girl were somewhere else, in a poor mean room, where the Chimes could be heard faintly in the distance.
“What Are those – those Goblin things?” he asked his guide. “If I am not mad, tell me what they are!”
“They are the husks of men; what remains when the body lives but the soul has left,” returned the child. “They stand revealed by the spirit of the Bells. They take such shapes and occupations as the schemes and thoughts that such mortals give them. They do not hear, nor hearken to the message of the Bells.”
“And you,” said Trotty wildly. “What are you?”
“Hush!” said the child. “Look here.”
In the dim room, working at the embroidery which she had often done, sat Meg, his own dear daughter. He longed to kiss her; but somehow knew that he could not touch her, nor could she hear anything he said. Such endearments were, for him, no more. But, he held his trembling breath, and brushed away his blinding tears, that he might look upon her once more.
Ah, but the changes!
The clear light of her eyes had dimmed. The bloom had faded from her cheeks. Beautiful she was still, but Hope; oh, where was that fresh Hope that he had so often seen! She looked up from her work, at a companion. Following her eyes, the old man was startled.
Lilian! He recognized her at a glance; but years older. There were the same curls; but faded. The child’s expression still lingered. And the eyes, now turned inquiringly on Meg, still shone with the very look he had seen when he brought her home! Then what was this, beside him? Looking into its face, he saw that it was undefined and indistinct; a shadow rather than the child herself.
But wait; they were speaking:
“Meg,” said Lilian, hesitating. “How often you raise your head from your work to look at me! But why not smile, when you look at me?”
“I do, do I not?” answered Meg, smiling at her.
“Now you do,” said Lilian, “but not usually; not when you think I’m busy, or don’t notice. Then you look so anxious and worried.”
“Alas, it is hard to be cheerful in this weary life,” cried Meg. “So many hopeless hours, so many cheerless days, so much endless work. Not for riches, or even to live modestly; but for just enough to keep us alive and conscious of our fate!”
“Indeed, there is little cause for smiling in this hard and toilsome life,” said Lilian. “But you were once so cheerful.”
“That was when father was here,” said Meg, in a strange voice. “He was like a compass, always pointing out a true course. He could always find a way to cheer me up. Somehow, he listened to the Chimes, and understood their advice. I wish I could understand them. They always did him so much good!”
“Yes,” said Lilian. “He was the one good thing that saved my father and me in our time of greatest sorrow. Oh, Meg!” she raised her voice and twined her arms about her as she spoke, like one in pain. “How can the cruel world go round, and do such things to our lives!”
Trotty turned to look upon his guide. But the Spirit of the child had faded. Neither was he himself in the same place; he found himself in the Great Hall of Sir Joseph Bowley, Friend and Father of the Poor. It was a mighty feast, in honor of the natal day of Lady Bowley. And, as she had been born on New Year’s Day, it was on that day that the festivities took place.
Bowley Hall was full of visitors. The great Justice Cute – now an Alderman – was here. He was always sympathetic for great people, and had considerably improved his acquaintance with Sir Joseph in the intervening years. Indeed, he had become quite a friend of the family since then.
There was to be a grand dinner in the Great Hall, at which Sir Joseph, in his celebrated character of Friend and Father of the Poor, was to make a great speech. Plum-puddings were to be given to his Friends and their children in another hall. Then, they were to be herded in to form an assemblage, with not one eye to remain unmoistened by his great generosity.
A young boy, perhaps twelve, was crawling across the table to take an Apple. He was spotted by Cute, who grabbed him by the shoulders. “What have we here!” he exclaimed. “Why, it’s the heir of Bowley Hall! Sweet boy. We’ll have this little gentleman in Parliament soon,” said the Alderman, looking to be sure Sir Bowley was observing. “We shall hear of his successes in the House; in overtures from Government; and his brilliant achievements of all kinds, no doubt.”
“Oh, the difference that shoes and stockings can make!” moaned Trotty. How could Cute discern the future character of this boy? He thought of all the shoeless and stockingless boys, predestined (by the Alderman) to turn out bad, who might have been the children of poor Richard and Meg.
That reminded him. “Richard!” exclaimed Trotty, “Is he here?” He went looking for his guide to ask, “Where is Richard? Show me Richard!”
He was wandering thus, when he encountered Mr. Filer, Cute’s confidential Secretary, in great agitation. “Where is Alderman Cute?” called Mr. Filer. “Has anyone seen him?”
Several voices directed him to the circle around Sir Joseph. Mr. Filer made his was to Cute; and pulled him discretely to a window near at hand. Trotty joined them, though not of his own accord. It seemed that his steps were led in that direction.
“My dear sir,” said Mr. Filer. “A most dreadful circumstance has occurred. I have just this moment received the intelligence. I think it will be best not to acquaint Sir Joseph until the day is done. We must decide on our actions before the Market finds out.”
“What’s the matter, my good fellow?” returned Cute. “Nothing revolutionary, I hope! No interference with our business?”
“It’s Deedles, the banker,” gasped the Secretary. “Chairman of the Goldsmiths’ Company. He’s dead!”
“Put a double-barrelled pistol to his mouth, in his own counting house,” said Mr. Filer, “and blew his brains out. Some irregularities in the books, I gather. In princely sums! In which – err – I think we may be involved.”
“Such a noble man!” exclaimed the Alderman. “One of the most respectable. By his own hand?”
“Yes; this very day,” returned Mr. Fish.
“Suicide! Oh the tragedy of it!” exclaimed the pious Alderman, lifting up his hands. “Could he turn to no one for sympathy, for understanding, for help? A public calamity! It makes one think; is there some capsizing force in the social fabric that leads to such things?”
(What, Alderman? No word of Putting Down? Remember, Justice, your high moral principles. Come, now! Balance the scales. Is the life of one banker more precious than that of some poor woman, driven by starving misery to the same fate?) These thoughts rose up in Trotty’s mind, as if they had been spoken by some voice within him.
Alderman Cute continued, “We are going to need our friends in high places to escape this predicament in good order.” He pledged to Mr. Filer that he would personally inform Sir Joseph of the melancholy catastrophe – after he had quietly made certain arrangements, and withdrawn his funds, before the inevitable run on the bank.
At its proper time, the Banquet was served up.
Trotty involuntarily repaired to the Hall with the rest, conducted by some impulse stronger than his own free will. The sight was gay in the extreme; the ladies were very handsome; the gentlemen delighted, cheerful, and good-tempered. When the lower doors were opened, and the people in their rustic attire flocked in, the beauty of the spectacle could not fail to overwhelm them. But Trotty kept looking for Richard. “Where is he? Why is he not around to help and comfort my poor Meg?”
But then a man broke through the crowd, and stood by himself.
Not Richard. But another that Trotty had seen before. In a poorer light, he might have doubted the identity of this worn and grey figure. But in the blaze of lamps, he recognized Will Fern as soon as he stepped forth.
“What!” exclaimed Sir Joseph, rising. “Who gave this man admittance? This is a criminal from prison!”
“Wait!” said Will Fern. “My Lady, you was born on this day along with a New Year; and so was I. Give me a minute’s leave to speak, if you please.”
She made some grudging intercession for him. Sir Joseph took his seat again, with guarded dignity.
The ragged visitor – for he was miserably dressed – looked around the company, and made his homage to them with a humble bow. “Gentlefolks!” he said. “You’ve drunk to the Laborer. Well, that is I!”
“And just come from jail,” said Mr. Filer.
“Yes, just come from jail. And not for the first time, nor the last; and no doubt this day will add to the score.Gentlefolks!” repeated Will Fern. “Look at me! You say I’m the worst. Beyond all help; past the time when kind words or actions could have done me good.” He struck his hand upon his breast, and shook his head. “But let me say a word for these folk,” he said, pointing to the laboring class in the Hall. “Hear the real Truth, spoke out for once, by someone who’s got nothin’ to lose by sayin’ it.”
“There’s not a man here,” said the host, “who would have you for a spokesman.”
“That may be so, Sir Joseph. But what I say is still true. Gentlefolks, you’ll see my cottage by the fence over yonder. I’ve seen ladies draw it in their books, a hundred times. It looks good in a picter; but there an’t weather in picters, and it an’t fit to live in. Well, we lived there! But they took the lands so we couldn’t grow enough food, and it broke my dad, an’ killed my mom, and then they ‘victed us for not paying rent.”
At this point, Trotty observed Mr. Fish rush up to Sir Joseph with a note. Lord Bowley read it with ever widening eyes.
Will Fern continued to speak, in the same flat tone of voice as on the night when Trotty met him in the street. His voice was deeper and more husky, and trembled now and then; but he never raised it passionately, or above the firm level of the homely facts he stated. “‘Tis harder than you gentlefolks think, to grow up decent, in such a place. That I growed up a man and not a brute should say something for me. Now, see how your laws hunt and trap us,” said Will Fern, holding out his hands. “I’m homeless, and tries to sleep in a shed – I’m a vagabond; to jail with him! I comes out, and goes goes a-nutting in your woods – I’m a thief; to jail with him! When I get out, one of your keepers sees me in the broad day, keeping rabbits out of my own patch of garden with a gun – To jail with him! I has an angry word with a man, when I’m free again. To jail with him! I cuts a stick. To jail with him! I eats a rotten apple and gets sick. To jail with him! Now, the constable, the keeper – anybody – finds me anywhere, a-doing anything, and it’s to jail with him, for he’s a convict, and jail’s the only home he’s got.”
Alderman Cute nodded sagaciously, and said, “And a very good home, too!” He stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat-pockets, and smiled at Sir Joseph. “I told you so. This is why we should put them down for once and for all!”
“I for one am glad this man has entered,” observed Sir Joseph, looking sternly at Cute. “Don’t disturb him. It appears to be Ordained. He is a living example, I hope and trust, that will not be lost upon my Friends here. You see,” Sir Joseph went on, “It has come to my attention that there are those here that had a hand in creating this poor man’s misery. And other deplorable actions as well. Mr. Fish, would you be so kind as to escort Mr. Cute and his secretary from this Hall.”
A sudden stir and agitation took place.
Trotty thought that men were rising, voices were shouting. But, in another moment the room and all the company vanished from his sight. His daughter was again before him, seated at her work. But in an even poorer, meaner garret than before; and with no Lilian by her side.
The frame at which Lilian had worked was put away upon a shelf. The chair in which she had sat was turned against the wall. A history was written in these little things, and in Meg’s grief-worn face. Oh, who could fail to read it! She labored until it was too dark to see the threads.
Her old father looked on; loving her – dearly loving her! – and talking to her in a tender voice about the old times, and the Bells. But he knew, poor Trotty, that she could not hear him.
A knock came at her door. She opened it. A man was on the threshold. A slouching, moody, drunken lout, wasted by drink and vice, with his matted hair and an unshorn beard in wild disorder. But, there were traces that Trotty recognized.
Trotty got his wish. He saw Richard.
“May I come in, Margaret?”
“Yes; come in,” she said sadly.
It was well that Trotty knew him before he spoke; for the harsh discordant voice might have persuaded him that it was not Richard but some other man.
There were but two chairs in the room. She gave him one, and stood a short distance away, waiting to hear what he had to say.
He sat, staring vacantly at the floor, with a lustreless blank stare. A spectacle of such deep degradation and such a miserable downfall, that she turned away, lest he should see how much it moved her.
“Still at work, Margaret? You work late.”
“I generally do.”
“So she said. She said you never stopped. Not in all the time you lived together. Not until you fainted, from exhaustion and fasting.”
“Richard,” she said. “I implored you to tell me nothing more of her; and you made a solemn promise that you never would again.”
“A promise?” he repeated, with a driveling laugh. “But how can I – ” Awakening a bit, he said with sudden animation, “I can’t help it, Margaret! What can I do? She’s been to me again!”
“Again?” cried Meg, clasping her hands. “O, why does she do this?”
“Twenty times again!” said Richard. “She haunts me, Margaret. She comes behind me in the street, and thrusts it in my hand. I hear footsteps on the ashes when I’m at work, and she says, “Richard, give her this!” She brings it where I live; she sends it in letters; she taps at the window and lays it on the sill. What can I do? Look at it!”
He held out a little purse, and chinked the money it enclosed.
“Hide it,” said Meg. “Throw it away! If she comes again, tell her, Richard, that I love her in my soul. That I never lie down to sleep, until I bless and pray for her. That she is with me, night and day. That if I died tomorrow, I would remember her with my last breath. But, that money I cannot take, for I Know how it is earned!”
He slowly recalled his hand, and crushing the purse together, said with a kind of drowsy thoughtfulness, “I told her so, as plain as I could speak. This time, she stood before me, face to face. What could I do?”
“You saw her?” exclaimed Meg. “O, Lilian, my sweet girl! How does she look?”
“I saw her,” he said, in a low tone. “She asked about you. She says ‘Does she ever speak of me? Is she thinner? And the frame she taught me our work on – has she burnt it, Richard?’ On like that.”
Meg checked her sobs, and with the tears streaming from her eyes, bent over him to listen, not to miss a word.
He continued. “‘Richard,’ she said, ‘I have fallen very low; and suffered much to give you this. But you loved her once, dearly. And she loved you as well! But others put fears and doubts between you; and there was no one to drive them away. So Richard,’ she says, ‘if you have any memory for what you have loved and lost, take it to her once more. Tell her I laid my head upon your shoulder, where her own head should have lain, and begged you to take it. Tell her that you looked into my face, and saw the beauty she used to praise, all gone. In its place, a poor wretch that she would weep to see. Tell her everything. She will not refuse my dying request!’ So, you still won’t take it, Margaret?”
She shook her head no; but could not speak. Tearfully, she motioned an entreaty for him to leave.
“Good night, Margaret.”
Richard looked at her for a moment, struck by her sorrow, and perhaps by pity for himself. But in the next moment, he was gone.
Meg collapsed to the floor, sobbing inconsolably.
The scene faded. Time seemed to pass; Trotty could not tell how much. It was another night, dreary as before. In any mood, in any grief, in any torture of the mind or body, Meg’s work must be done. Day, night, midnight; still she worked. The Chimes rang half-past twelve while she was thus engaged; and as they ceased there was a gentle knocking at the door. Before she could so much as wonder who was there, at that unusual hour, it opened. She saw the entering figure, and screamed its name. “Lilian!”
The visitor entered, and fell to her knees before Meg, clinging to her dress.
“Oh, my dear Lilian! My own dearest! Up, get up!”
“Never more, Meg; never more! I am here, close to you, to see you, hold you, hear your dear voice one last time.”
“Sweet Lilian! Darling Lilian! Child of my heart – no mother’s love can be more – lay your head upon my breast!”
“No more, Meg. No more! When I first looked upon your face, you knelt before me. Now, on my knees before you, let me die. Let it be here!”
“You have come back! My Treasure! We will live together, work together, hope together, be happy again.”
“No, dear Meg. Let me die here, the closest to Heaven I shall ever get. Forgive me, Meg! I know you do, but let me hear you say it.”
And Meg said so, emphatically, with her lips on Lilian’s cheeks, and her arms around her wasted body. She knew now that Lilian was dying – and with a broken heart.
“Take the money, Meg! Take it for my grave. And use it to buy yourself and Richard what little happiness may remain for you. Please take it, with my blessing…” The little purse dropped from her hand, and clinked to the floor. As she died, the Spirit of the child returned, innocent and radiant, to touch the old man with its hand, and beckon him away.
Again the Chimes sounded, revealing the hideous Goblin swarms at their soulless activities, each insignificant uncaring act endlessly compounded by their multitudes. Their numbers seemed even greater, leading Trotty to believe that more years had passed. As the echoes died away, Trotty, with the spirit child attending him, stood looking upon a new mortal scene. “Haven’t I seen enough?” He implored. “I beg of you, let this misery end!”
“You have seen how uncaring deeds can set a tragic course,” said the Spirit. “Now you must see the destination of this journey that time would bring.”
A cozy couple sat before a comfortable fire. They were but two, but round enough for ten. There was a small low table between them, which had seen service very recently. But the cups and plates were clean; there remained no other visible tokens of the meal just finished.
Trotty had no difficulty recognising the stout old lady as Mrs. Chickenstalker. The features of her companion were less easy to place. He was quite surprised to finally recognize Mr. Tugby, the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley. They were evidently married, as the Firm’s name upon the window was now ‘Tugby’.
Trotty had little interest in all this, after all the miseries he had seen. So he looked to the parlor-door, where the accounts of credit customers were usually kept in chalk. The names were unfamiliar, and far fewer than of old; for Mr. Tugby was an advocate of ready-money transactions, and had looked pretty sharp after the Chickenstalker debtors. So it was a great sorrow to Trotty not to see the name of his suffering child in the list.
“I’m glad we had muffins,” said Tugby, in the tone of one whose palate was at peace. “It’s the sort of night that’s meant for muffins,” he laughed as if somebody had tickled him.
“You’re in high spirits, Tugby, my dear,” observed his wife.
“Well, it’s dark and cold; and blowing and threatening snow,” said Mr. Tugby, looking at the fire. “And here we are, warm and toasty, and delightfully well provisioned.”
“Hard weather indeed,” returned his wife, smiling.
“Aye!” said Mr. Tugby, “This old year hasn’t much time to run, and is making a fight of it. I like that! – O, there’s a customer, my love!”
Attentive to the rattling door, Mrs. Tugby had already risen. “Hello,” she said, passing out into the little shop. “Oh! I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t think it was you.” She made this apology to a gentleman in black, who sat down astride the table-cum-beer barrel.
“It’s a bad business up-stairs, Mrs. Tugby,” said the gentleman. “The man can’t live.”
“Who; the back-attic tenant?” said Tugby, coming into the shop to join them.
“The back-attic, Mr. Tugby,” said the gentleman, “is going down fast, and will be below ground very soon.”
“Then,” said Tugby, turning to his wife, “he must Go, you know, before he’s Gone.”
“I don’t think you can move him,” said the gentleman, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t risk it, myself. You had better leave him where he is. He won’t be long.”
“It’s the only subject that we’ve ever had a word upon; she and me,” said Tugby, bringing his fist down upon the butter-scale with a crash. “And look what it comes to! He’s going to die here, on the premises; in our house!”
“And where should he die?” cried his wife, accusingly.
“In the workhouse!” he returned. “That’s what workhouses are for!”
“Not for that,” said Mrs. Tugby, with great energy. “I did not marry you for that! I won’t allow it, Tugby. I’d separate first, and never see your face again. When my name stood over that door, this house was known as Mrs. Chickenstalker’s far and wide, and always known for its honest credit and good report! When my name stood over that door, Tugby, I knew him as a handsome, steady, manly, fellow. I knew her as the sweetest-tempered girl eyes ever saw; and I knew her father as the simplest, hardest-working, most child-hearted man that ever drew the breath of life. The day I turn them out of house and home, may the angels turn me out of Heaven!” Her old face, which had been cheerfully dimpled before the change, now glowed with intensity as she said these words. She dried her eyes, and turned her back on Tugby with an expression which made it quite clear that she was not to be resisted.
“Bless her,” thought Trotty, “O, bless her heart!”
Tugby stood staring at his wife, without attempting a reply. Instead, either as a customary precaution or in a fit of abstract anger, he began counting the money in the cash-box, and transferring it into his own pockets.
The gentleman appeared to be some sort of medical attendant upon the poor. He was too well accustomed to difficult domestic situations to interpose any remark. He warmed himself by the fire, and said to Mrs. Tugby: “Your comments suggest a story behind the couple upstairs. How did she come to marry him?”
“It’s a cruel tale, sir,” said Mrs. Tugby, taking a seat near him, “You see, when they were a young and beautiful couple, everything was settled, and they were to be married on a New Year’s Day. But some wicked gentlemen told ’em to put it off. They said he might do better, and that she wasn’t good enough for him. And the gentlemen frightened her, with tales of her children coming to the gallows, and a good deal more of it. In short, they lingered, and their trust was broken, and so was the match. The fault was his, I say. She would have married him, joyfully, if he but asked.”
“So, he went wrong, did he?” asked the gentleman.
“Well, I think his mind was deeply troubled by having broke with one another. He was angry, and ashamed, and uncertain of how to win her back. He fell victim to poor advice, bad companions, drinking, and idling. He lost his looks, his health, his work, his friends; everything!”
“Not everything, Mrs. Tugby,” observed the gentleman, “because he gained a wife. That’s the part I want to know.”
“I’m coming to it, sir. This went on for years and years; him sinking lower; she waiting and enduring, poor thing, miseries enough to wear her life away. An old friend finally told him, ‘There is but one person in the world who has a chance to save you; ask me for no more until she has tried.’ Something like that.”
“Ah!” said the gentleman. “And? – ”
“Well sir, he went to her, and knelt down, and proposed. He said he loved her, and it had ever been so; and prayed to her to save him,” Mrs. Tugby said with emotion.
“And did she?” he asked. “Don’t distress yourself, my dear.”
“She came to me that very night to ask my advice. ‘What we once had,’ she said, ‘is buried in a grave. But I will try to save him; for the love of that lighthearted girl I once was, and for that sturdy young man he once was.’ So they were married; and I gave them a home here, hoping they could prove the prophecies wrong, and get at least some happiness out of what life they had left.”
The gentleman got off the cask, and stretched. “I suppose he used her ill, as soon as they were married?”
“No, I don’t think he ever did,” said Mrs. Tugby, wiping her eyes. “He was better for a time; but his old habits left many scars, and then his illness came so strong upon him. He always felt for her; I am sure of it. I have seen him in his crying fits, hug her and kiss her hand; and I have heard him in his fevers, ramble about their happy past. Now he he has laid there, these weeks and months. Between him and her baby, she cannot do her old work; and so has lost her position. How they have lived, I hardly know!”
“I know,” muttered Mr. Tugby; looking at the till, and round the shop, and frowning at his wife.
They were interrupted by a cry of lamentation – from the upper story of the house. The gentleman moved hurriedly to the door. “My friends,” he said, looking back, “I believe he has spared you the need to discuss whether he should be moved or not.”
He ran up-stairs, followed by Mrs. Tugby. Mr. Tugby panted and struggled after them at leisure: being more short-winded than usual by an overly-large dinner, and the weight of the till.
“Follow her! Follow her!” the ghost-child cried. Trotty, with the spirit beside him, floated up the staircase like mere air. “Learn, from the one dearest to your heart!”
It was indeed over. Was that really his darling Meg? This haggard, wretched woman, weeping by the bed (if it deserved that name) and pressing an infant to her breast? And how spare and sickly an infant! Yet she hugged, and cradled, and comforted it as if it were the most precious thing in the world.
“O, God be thanked!” cried Trotty, holding up his folded hands. “She loves her child!”
The gentleman was accustomed to such scenes, as he saw them every day, and so he got down to business. He laid his hand upon the heart that beat no more, and listened for the breath that did not come, and said, “His pain is over. He’s in a better place now.” In his head, he knew the man was now just a figure in the Filer sums – mere scratches on the balance sheets and death certificates.
Mrs. Tugby tried to comfort Meg with kindness.
Mr. Tugby tried philosophy. “Come, come!” he said, with his hands in his pockets, “Don’t cry; that won’t do. You must fight on. Now you are free to regain employment. What would have become of me if I had given up when my position as porter was lost to a younger man who could manage six carriage-doubles at the door at one time! But, I fell back upon my strength of mind, and handled it!”
Again Trotty heard the spirit command, “Follow her!” He turned towards his guide, and saw it rising like mist, fading into the air. “Follow her!” it whispered. And vanished. He hovered about, seeking any trace of her old self, any note of her once pleasant voice. He flitted round the child: so wan, so prematurely old, so plaintive in its feeble, mournful wail. He set his father’s hope and trust on that frail baby. It was her only safeguard; the last unbroken link that bound her to endurance. He saw Mrs. Chickenstalker come in the night, when her grudging husband was asleep. She brought her nourishment, encouraged her, held her, and shed tears with her.
By day, she wandered the streets with the baby in her arms, taking any work for any wretched sum. She could not stay home, for if she were discovered, it led to fresh disputes between her benefactor and her husband; and she did not wish to be the cause of strife to one to which she owed so much. Trotty watched her loving care for the baby. The mother and child were knitted as tightly together as when she carried it unborn. She never quarrelled with it; never neglected it; never looked upon it with a moment’s hate. Even in the frenzy of an instant, she never struck it. No! “God be thanked, she loves it!” Trotty cried a thousand times. Trotty’s comfort was, that she loved it always.
Until one night.
She was singing faintly to it, and walking to and fro to hush it, when her door opened softly, and a man stepped in.
He listened like a man pursued, then spoke in whispers. “Margaret, my race is done. I won’t be caught, without one last, grateful, parting word.”
“What have you done?” she asked in alarm.
“It’s long ago, but that wonderful night we met is as fresh in my memory as ever. How could we know then,” he whispered, “that we would meet again in such desperate times. Your child, Margaret? May I see it? Let me hold it in my arms. He put his hat upon the floor, and then trembled from head to foot, as he held the child. “Is it a girl?”
“Lord, give me the courage to look at her!” he cried. “I can barely stand! What’s her name?”
“Margaret,” she answered, quickly.
“I’m glad of that,” he said. “I’m so glad! I was a-feared you would name her Lilian. And I don’t think I could’ve stood it. It would be like looking at her again,” he sobbed. “I held that same face in my arms when Lilian’s mother died, and I know the ruin she came to!”
At this, Meg took the infant, and collapsed in a chair. She gazed anxiously at its face; then pressed it to her breast, weeping. And in that gaze, Trotty saw something terrible and fierce beginning to mingle with her love. It was then that her old father quailed.
“Follow her!” the spirit voice whispered. “Learn, from the one dearest to your heart!”
“Margaret,” said Fern, bending over and kissing her upon the brow, “I thank you for the last time. You an’ Trotty were the only good ones in my whole life. Good night, and good-bye! Now forget me from this hour, and try to think the end of me was here.”
“What have you done?” she asked again.
“There’ll be fires set tonight,” he said, with that same flat voice Trotty had heard before. “Fires to light the dark skies, East, West, North, and South. When you see the sky red, then think of me no more; or if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me. Good night. And good-bye!”
She called to him; but he was gone. She sat down, stupefied, until her infant roused her to a sense of hunger, cold, and darkness. She paced the room with it all night, hushing and soothing it. She said at intervals, “Like Lilian, when her mother died!” Why were her eyes so wild, her look so fierce and terrible, whenever she repeated those words?
“But, it is Love,” said Trotty. “It is still Love. She’ll never stop loving it. My poor Meg!”
She dressed the child next morning with unusual care – ah, vain efforts upon such squalid robes! It was the last day of the Old Year. She went out, to mingle with an abject crowd, until it pleased some officer appointed to dispense the public charity. He questioned each one in turn, to say to this one, ‘Go to such a place,’ and to that one, ‘Come next week,’ until he tired of it, and made a football of one poor wretch and drove the rest away. Here, too, she found no aid.
Now it was night: a bleak, dark, cutting night. Pressing the child close to her for warmth, she arrived outside the house she called home. She was so faint and giddy, that she did not notice him in the doorway. It was the master of the house, standing so as to block her entry.
“O!” he said softly, “So you have come back?”
She looked at the child, and nodded.
“Don’t you think you have lived here long enough without paying any rent? Don’t you think that, without any money, you’ve been a pretty constant customer at this shop?” said Mr. Tugby.
She said nothing. What could she say?
“It’s time to find your lodging elsewhere,” he said. “Come! Don’t you think you could manage it?”
She said in a low voice, that it was very late. Tomorrow.
“I see what you want,” said Tugby. “You know there are two parties in this house, and you delight in setting ’em against each other. I’ll speak softly to avoid a quarrel; but if you don’t go away now, I’ll speak out loud, and cause words high enough to please you. But you shan’t come in. On that I am determined!”
She put her head back, and looked up at the sudden reddening of the sky, off in distance.
“This is the last night of the Old Year, and I won’t carry ill-blood or quarreling into the New One,” said Tugby, who was quite a believer in Lord Bowley’s practices. “You should be ashamed of yourself, to carry such debts into a New Year. If you haven’t any business in the world, you’d best be out of it! Now Go!”
Again, the old man heard the voices, “Follow her! To desperation!” Looking up, he saw dark figures hovering in the air. He followed her, in close pursuit. He saw the same terrible expression mingling with love, in her eyes. He heard her whispering, “Like Lilian! Like Lilian!” and her speed redoubled.
“Chimes! She loves it, still!” cried the old man, stretching out his hands to the dark shadows above. “Have you no mercy? Turn her back! I was her father!”
But they only kept repeating, “To desperation! Learn from the one dearest to your heart!” It was everywhere, and not to be escaped. And still she hurried on; the same light in her eyes, the same words in her mouth, “Like Lilian! To be changed like Lilian!” All at once she stopped. At the rolling River, as swift and dim as the last dark thoughts of many who had sought a refuge there before her. The sullen red sky was reflected in the water, like flickering torches to show the way to Death.
“Turn her back!” cried the old man, tearing his white hair. “My child! Meg! Turn her back! Great Father, turn her back!”
In her scanty shawl, she wrapped the baby warm. With her fevered hands, she smoothed its limbs, composed its face, arranged its mean attire. She held it tight in her wasted arms, never to let it go again. And with her dry lips, kissed it in one last, final, agony of Love. She paused a moment on the brink, before the dreadful plunge.
“My God, no!” sobbed the old man. “Not the one dearest to my heart! O, save her, please save her! Tell me that this must not be so!”
The figures looked down steadfastly upon him. “Do you see now,” they intoned, “How today’s actions can have dire consequences?”
“Yes, yes, I have learnt it!” he cried. “O, have mercy on me in this hour! In my moments of desperation, I thought that people must be wicked to do such terrible things. It is not so! It’s the wickedness done To them that drives them to it! No one can withstand such trials without faith and hope; without the love and help of others! Heaven means us to do good; not to drive people to this!”
He might have said more, but the Bells, the old familiar Bells, spoke again. “Toby Veck, we know your soul is true. You have listened and followed our advice for many years, and taken it to heart. But you do not convince others to listen. That is your failing,” the Great Bell intoned.
“I tell them of your words and wisdom every day!” cried Toby. “Some hear; but most do not. I am just a poor old man. I try; but they will not listen to me.”
“Our Names, Toby Veck! You do not tell them our Names!” exclaimed the Great Bell. “To many men, Who says a thing matters a more than What was said.”
“But, but – I do not know your names,” whimpered Toby.
“Not know? We tell you every day! Has mankind sunk so low that they have forgotten our very names?”
“I am Faith!” called the first Bell. “I call men to prayer. I remind them of their Creator, and their obligations to keep His holy Laws and Commandments. When you hear me, count your blessings, give thanks for what you have, and remember your duties to your fellow man.”
“I am Hope!” said the second Bell. “Hope rings eternal. I remind all that however dark it seems, there is always Hope for a new day; Hope for another chance; Hope for a fresh opportunity; Hope for time to repent, and Hope for a way forward.”
“I am Love!” exclaimed the third Bell. “Love of life, that we may learn and grow, to change things for the better. Love for those near and dear to us, who bring us such happiness and joy. Love even for strangers, who work in unseen ways, to make our lives better, by doing things we could not do for ourselves. Love for Nature, which preserves and supports us all. And Love of self, for our actions change us as well those around us.
“I am Charity!” sang the fourth Bell. I remind men that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Faith, Hope, and Love in your thoughts are not enough; you must also demonstrate them by your actions. Sharing what you have brings joy to the giver as well as to the receiver. Mankind is but a single body; it cannot survive by consuming itself. Every person is but a part of the main; a piece of the whole. Your happiness truly depends on the happiness of others.”
“And I am TIME!” cried the Great Bell. “Time to pray, to hope, to love, and to give. I call out to man, Rise! Get to your work! Time to advance and improve; for greater worth, greater happiness, a better life; progress for a better tomorrow. Ages of darkness, wickedness, and violence have come and gone. Millions uncountable have struggled, suffered, and died – to point the way here. He who seeks to return to the past, arrests a mighty engine. Men would die, nations crumble; and war, pestilence and misery would return to the earth, fiercer and wilder than ever, if you turn back Time!”
“Go now, Toby Veck! Tell them our message, and tell them our Names. TELL! TELL! TELL! – ”
The awful voices of the Chimes pounded into him, shaking his very being to the core. It seemed there were hands upon his shoulders, shaking him. “Toby! Toby Veck! Wake up, Toby!” a voice was saying.
Toby opened his eyes, and looked upon the concerned face of the old church Rector, Father Bemis. “Toby! Are you all right, man?”
Toby sat up, stiffly. He was lying on the church floor, inside the great door, at the base of the Bell tower, just where he had seen himself in the vision. “I – I think so,” he said.
“How in Heaven’s name did you get here? Have you been here all night? The door was locked; I locked it myself!” Father Bemis said, in a confused tone.
Not as confused as Trotty. “The Chimes; they called to me, Father! They let me in. They told me their names! They are Faith, Hope, Love, Charity, – oh, and Time!” he said in an excited babble. He then began to relate the night’s fantastic events in such a chaotic manner that the Rector knew not what to think.
“There, there, Toby,” he said in a comforting voice. “If you’re quite all right, perhaps you should be getting on home. I’m sure your poor Margaret must be worried. We can talk about this later.”
“Oh, you’re right. You’re right! I must be off!” said Trotty, standing up somewhat stiffly. “But tell the Bishop about the Chimes. Tell everyone! And tell them their names!” And off he trotted for home, leaving the dazed Rector, smiling and shaking his head.
He arrived at the stables, dashed up the stairs two at a time, and burst in through the door. At that moment, the Chimes, his own dear, constant, steady friends, began to greet the New Year; so lustily, so merrily, so happily, so gaily.
Meg was working with her needle, at the little table by the fire; dressing her simple gown with ribbons for her wedding. So quietly happy, so blooming and youthful, so full of promise, that he uttered a great cry as if she were an Angel; then flew to clasp her in his arms. “Father! she exclaimed. “Where have you been! Good gracious, you look like you’ve seen a ghost! Was it the tripe? We’ll not eat that again, if it’s to cause such behavior.”
He was about to kiss her, but a jolly voice boomed out, “No! Out of my way, Trotty. Meg’s first kiss of the year is mine! Meg, my precious prize, Happy New Year! A life of happy years, my darling wife-to-be!” And Richard smothered her with kisses.
Never in all your life have you seen anything like Trotty after this. He sat down in his chair and slapped his knees and cried. He stood up and ran around the room laughing. He sat down again and beat his knees and laughed and cried together. He rose again and hugged Meg. He sat down, then immediately jumped up and hugged Richard. Then he hugged them both at once. Up and down, up and down. He’d run around them sideways, so as not to lose sight of them for a moment. He danced around like a figure in a magic lantern. And whatever he did, he never stopped moving for an instant. He was – and that’s the truth – beside himself with joy. “So tomorrow’s your wedding-day, my pet?” cried Trotty. “Your real, happy wedding-day?”
“No!” shouted Richard. “Today! The Chimes are ringing in the New Year. Listen!”
Bless their sturdy hearts, they Were ringing! Great Bells they were; melodious, deep-mouthed, noble Bells, cast in no common metal, made by no common founder; when had they ever chimed like this before!
“But today, or was it yesterday,” said Trotty, “You and Richard had some words.”
“O, father! He’s such a bad boy, aren’t you Richard?”, said Meg. “Such a headstrong man! He’d have spoken his mind to that great Justice, and put Him down, if I hadn’t squeezed his hand and whispered to him to ‘shush'”.
“And I would, too!” exclaimed Richard. “Why, that puffed-up windbag! I’ll not let his blowing fill my sails!”
“Richard, my boy!” cried Trotty. “You were dealt trumps, and trumps it will be. You have the winning hand, both of you!” Then turning to his daughter, he said, “But, Meg; you were crying by the fire when I came home. I thought the marriage was off.”
“They were tears of joy, father,” she smiled. “If you saw sadness, it was just from thinking of all the years we’ve passed together. Only that. And thinking that you might miss me, and be lonely.”
Trotty was still bouncing in and out of his chair, when the child, awakened by the noise, came running in half-dressed. “Why, here she is!” cried Trotty, catching her up, and spinning her round and round. “Here’s little Lilian! Ha-ha-ha! O, here we are and here we go! Round and round and round again! And Uncle Will too!” he said, stopping in his trot to greet him heartily. “You’ll not believe the vision I’ve had tonight, through meeting you! O, the obligations laid upon me by your coming, my good friend!”
Before Will could make the least reply, a blast of music burst into the room, attended by a crowd of neighbors, shouting, “Happy New Year!” and “Happy Wedding, Meg and Richard!” and more of the same sort. The Drum (an old friend of Trotty’s) then stepped forward, and said:
“Trotty, me boy! It’s got out that your daughter Meg and this here Richard is to be married today. There an’t a soul that knows a one of you that don’t wish you well. Well, I knows you All, and so wishes you Triple happiness! So let’s sing and dance and play up the occasion, right proper!”
This was received with a general hurrah. The Drum was rather drunk, by-the-way; but never mind.
“What a joy it is,” said Trotty, “to have the kindest and best neighbors a man ever could wish for! And all for my dear daughter. She deserves it more than me!”
They were ready to dance in half a second (Meg and Richard at the top), and the Drum was on the very brink of feathering away with all his power; when a prodigious pounding was heard on the door. A good-humoured woman of some fifty years of age (that she admits to), came bustling in, attended by a man bearing a stone pitcher of terrific size, and a platter of marrow-bones and cleavers.
Trotty exclaimed, “It’s Mrs. Chickenstalker!” And sat down and beat his knees again.
“To be married, and not tell me?” cried the good woman. “I’d never forgive myself if I weren’t here to wish you joy. As it’s New Year’s Day as well, I made a little flip to celebrate, and brought it up with me.” Mrs. Chickenstalker’s notion of a little flip did honor to her character. The pitcher steamed and smoked like a volcano; and the man who carried it looked quite faint.
“Mrs. Tugby – err, Chickenstalker!” said Trotty, skipping round and round her, in a frenzy. “Bless your heart and soul! A very Happy New Year, and many more to you!”
“Tugby?” said Mrs. Chickenstalker, amazed. “Why, a handsome Mr. Tugby came to my shop, late last night, looking for you. He was sent by Sir Joseph Bowley, and as you could not be found, bless me if he didn’t pay your account! He said it was owed for a delivery you made!”
This revelation succeeded in lifting Trotty to an even greater state of ecstasy, if that were possible. Looking round the room, he saw that introductions were largely unnecessary, as Mrs. Chickenstalker already knew everyone, except for two. “Mrs. Chickenstalker, he said with a salute, “This is William Fern and his niece Lilian.”
The worthy dame, to his surprise, turned very pale and still. “‘Fern’, did you say? Not Lilian Fern, whose mother died some nine years ago?” said she.
Amazed, Will answered, “Yes! How did you – ” Meeting hastily, they exchanged some hurried words together, which Trotty was too excited to attend. But he did observe that Mrs. Chickenstalker shook Will by both hands; and hugged the child to her capacious breast, and then saluted Trotty on both his cheeks of her own free will.
“Uncle Will?” said Trotty, cupping his hand to hear above the rising din. “Is she the friend you was hoping to find?”
“Ay!” returned Will, putting a hand on each of Trotty’s shoulders. “Can you believe it? And like to prove a’most as good a friend, if that can be, as the one I found in you!”
“Ha-ha, we have even more to celebrate!” said Trotty. He shouted to the band, “Play it up, boys! Let’s ring it from the rafters!”
The joyous party continued to grow, until there was nothing for it but to move out-of-doors where there was room to dance. The music of the band, and the feast of marrow-bones and cleavers were in full swing, and even the Chimes were yet in lusty operation. Richard and Meg led off the dance, with Will and Mrs. Chickenstalker as second couple. Trotty danced along as well, in a step unknown before or since; founded on his own peculiar trot.
Much later, when feet were worn out, and appetites well sated, and throats were hoarse from songs and congratulations; Trotty finally settled down enough to tell his fantastic tale of the Chimes to those still in attendance. He did the task right proud, too; because, when he came to the Naming of the Bells, the Chimes Did sound, right on cue. And every one in attendance listened hard; and forswore, perhaps for the first time, that they Too heard the Message of the Chimes.
Did it really happen? Or was Trotty dreaming? Or, is Trotty himself, and all his joys and sorrows, and all the actors in this play itself but a dream? Is the teller of this tale the dreamer, only to awaken, here at the end? If so, dear reader, bear in mind that the shadows in this tale are cast by the stern realities of the harsh world in which we live. These injustices face us every day! Thus I ask, from this day forward, each time you hear the Chimes, let this tale remind you of their message. It is only through Faith, Hope, Love, and Charity that we can soften, correct, and eradicate these injustices from the world.
May the New Year be a happy one for you. May your resolutions not be for yourself; but for others whose happiness depends on you! Make each New Year happier than the last, until even the meanest of our brethren have their rightful share, of what our Great Creator made for them to enjoy.
“The Chimes” was written by Charles Dickens in 1844, one year after his classic “A Christmas Carol. Though another masterpiece, it has been all but forgotten. Yet its message is timeless, and as amazingly relevant today as it was then. The original is rather long, and the span of years has made the language difficult. My gift to you for this New Year’s Day is my abridged version of “The Chimes”, shortened and with some of the words and phrases updated for modern readers. Please enjoy it with my compliments. If you do, I promise you’ll never hear the chimes of a clock the same again! -Lee A. Hart