The Battle of Life by Charles Dickens (read online)

The Battle of Life

by Charles Dickens

CHAPTER I – Part The First

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England,

it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought

upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a

wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for

the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day,

and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour

from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying

men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track. The

painted butterfly took blood into the air upon the edges of its

wings. The stream ran red. The trodden ground became a quagmire,

whence, from sullen pools collected in the prints of human feet and

horses’ hoofs, the one prevailing hue still lowered and glimmered

at the sun.

Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the sights the moon beheld upon

that field, when, coming up above the black line of distant rising-

ground, softened and blurred at the edge by trees, she rose into

the sky and looked upon the plain, strewn with upturned faces that

had once at mothers’ breasts sought mothers’ eyes, or slumbered

happily. Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the secrets whispered

afterwards upon the tainted wind that blew across the scene of that

day’s work and that night’s death and suffering! Many a lonely

moon was bright upon the battle-ground, and many a star kept

mournful watch upon it, and many a wind from every quarter of the

earth blew over it, before the traces of the fight were worn away.

They lurked and lingered for a long time, but survived in little

things; for, Nature, far above the evil passions of men, soon

recovered Her serenity, and smiled upon the guilty battle-ground as

she had done before, when it was innocent. The larks sang high

above it; the swallows skimmed and dipped and flitted to and fro;

the shadows of the flying clouds pursued each other swiftly, over

grass and corn and turnip-field and wood, and over roof and church-

spire in the nestling town among the trees, away into the bright

distance on the borders of the sky and earth, where the red sunsets

faded. Crops were sown, and grew up, and were gathered in; the

stream that had been crimsoned, turned a watermill; men whistled at

the plough; gleaners and haymakers were seen in quiet groups at

work; sheep and oxen pastured; boys whooped and called, in fields,

to scare away the birds; smoke rose from cottage chimneys; sabbath

bells rang peacefully; old people lived and died; the timid

creatures of the field, the simple flowers of the bush and garden,

grew and withered in their destined terms: and all upon the fierce

and bloody battle-ground, where thousands upon thousands had been

killed in the great fight. But, there were deep green patches in

the growing corn at first, that people looked at awfully. Year

after year they re-appeared; and it was known that underneath those

fertile spots, heaps of men and horses lay buried,

indiscriminately, enriching the ground. The husbandmen who

ploughed those places, shrunk from the great worms abounding there;

and the sheaves they yielded, were, for many a long year, called

the Battle Sheaves, and set apart; and no one ever knew a Battle

Sheaf to be among the last load at a Harvest Home. For a long

time, every furrow that was turned, revealed some fragments of the

fight. For a long time, there were wounded trees upon the battle-

ground; and scraps of hacked and broken fence and wall, where

deadly struggles had been made; and trampled parts where not a leaf

or blade would grow. For a long time, no village girl would dress

her hair or bosom with the sweetest flower from that field of

death: and after many a year had come and gone, the berries

growing there, were still believed to leave too deep a stain upon

the hand that plucked them.

The Seasons in their course, however, though they passed as lightly

as the summer clouds themselves, obliterated, in the lapse of time,

even these remains of the old conflict; and wore away such

legendary traces of it as the neighbouring people carried in their

minds, until they dwindled into old wives’ tales, dimly remembered

round the winter fire, and waning every year. Where the wild

flowers and berries had so long remained upon the stem untouched,

gardens arose, and houses were built, and children played at

battles on the turf. The wounded trees had long ago made Christmas

logs, and blazed and roared away. The deep green patches were no

greener now than the memory of those who lay in dust below. The

ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of

metal, but it was hard to say what use they had ever served, and

those who found them wondered and disputed. An old dinted

corselet, and a helmet, had been hanging in the church so long,

that the same weak half-blind old man who tried in vain to make

them out above the whitewashed arch, had marvelled at them as a

baby. If the host slain upon the field, could have been for a

moment reanimated in the forms in which they fell, each upon the

spot that was the bed of his untimely death, gashed and ghastly

soldiers would have stared in, hundreds deep, at household door and

window; and would have risen on the hearths of quiet homes; and

would have been the garnered store of barns and granaries; and

would have started up between the cradled infant and its nurse; and

would have floated with the stream, and whirled round on the mill,

and crowded the orchard, and burdened the meadow, and piled the

rickyard high with dying men. So altered was the battle-ground,

where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight.

Nowhere more altered, perhaps, about a hundred years ago, than in

one little orchard attached to an old stone house with a

honeysuckle porch; where, on a bright autumn morning, there were

sounds of music and laughter, and where two girls danced merrily

together on the grass, while some half-dozen peasant women standing

on ladders, gathering the apples from the trees, stopped in their

work to look down, and share their enjoyment. It was a pleasant,

lively, natural scene; a beautiful day, a retired spot; and the two

girls, quite unconstrained and careless, danced in the freedom and

gaiety of their hearts.

If there were no such thing as display in the world, my private

opinion is, and I hope you agree with me, that we might get on a

great deal better than we do, and might be infinitely more

agreeable company than we are. It was charming to see how these

girls danced. They had no spectators but the apple-pickers on the

ladders. They were very glad to please them, but they danced to

please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you

could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How

they did dance!

Not like opera-dancers. Not at all. And not like Madame Anybody’s

finished pupils. Not the least. It was not quadrille dancing, nor

minuet dancing, nor even country-dance dancing. It was neither in

the old style, nor the new style, nor the French style, nor the

English style: though it may have been, by accident, a trifle in

the Spanish style, which is a free and joyous one, I am told,

deriving a delightful air of off-hand inspiration, from the

chirping little castanets. As they danced among the orchard trees,

and down the groves of stems and back again, and twirled each other

lightly round and round, the influence of their airy motion seemed

to spread and spread, in the sun-lighted scene, like an expanding

circle in the water. Their streaming hair and fluttering skirts,

the elastic grass beneath their feet, the boughs that rustled in

the morning air – the flashing leaves, the speckled shadows on the

soft green ground – the balmy wind that swept along the landscape,

glad to turn the distant windmill, cheerily – everything between

the two girls, and the man and team at plough upon the ridge of

land, where they showed against the sky as if they were the last

things in the world – seemed dancing too.

At last, the younger of the dancing sisters, out of breath, and

laughing gaily, threw herself upon a bench to rest. The other

leaned against a tree hard by. The music, a wandering harp and

fiddle, left off with a flourish, as if it boasted of its

freshness; though the truth is, it had gone at such a pace, and

worked itself to such a pitch of competition with the dancing, that

it never could have held on, half a minute longer. The apple-

pickers on the ladders raised a hum and murmur of applause, and

then, in keeping with the sound, bestirred themselves to work again

like bees.

The more actively, perhaps, because an elderly gentleman, who was

no other than Doctor Jeddler himself – it was Doctor Jeddler’s

house and orchard, you should know, and these were Doctor Jeddler’s

daughters – came bustling out to see what was the matter, and who

the deuce played music on his property, before breakfast. For he

was a great philosopher, Doctor Jeddler, and not very musical.

‘Music and dancing TO-DAY!’ said the Doctor, stopping short, and

speaking to himself. ‘I thought they dreaded to-day. But it’s a

world of contradictions. Why, Grace, why, Marion!’ he added,

aloud, ‘is the world more mad than usual this morning?’

‘Make some allowance for it, father, if it be,’ replied his younger

daughter, Marion, going close to him, and looking into his face,

‘for it’s somebody’s birth-day.’

‘Somebody’s birth-day, Puss!’ replied the Doctor. ‘Don’t you know

it’s always somebody’s birth-day? Did you never hear how many new

performers enter on this – ha! ha! ha! – it’s impossible to speak

gravely of it – on this preposterous and ridiculous business called

Life, every minute?’

‘No, father!’

‘No, not you, of course; you’re a woman – almost,’ said the Doctor.

‘By-the-by,’ and he looked into the pretty face, still close to

his, ‘I suppose it’s YOUR birth-day.’

‘No! Do you really, father?’ cried his pet daughter, pursing up

her red lips to be kissed.

‘There! Take my love with it,’ said the Doctor, imprinting his

upon them; ‘and many happy returns of the – the idea! – of the day.

The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this,’ said

the Doctor to himself, ‘is good! Ha! ha! ha!’

Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the

heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as

a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered

seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in

the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he

lived, as you shall presently understand.

‘Well! But how did you get the music?’ asked the Doctor.

‘Poultry-stealers, of course! Where did the minstrels come from?’

‘Alfred sent the music,’ said his daughter Grace, adjusting a few

simple flowers in her sister’s hair, with which, in her admiration

of that youthful beauty, she had herself adorned it half-an-hour

before, and which the dancing had disarranged.

‘Oh! Alfred sent the music, did he?’ returned the Doctor.

‘Yes. He met it coming out of the town as he was entering early.

The men are travelling on foot, and rested there last night; and as

it was Marion’s birth-day, and he thought it would please her, he

sent them on, with a pencilled note to me, saying that if I thought

so too, they had come to serenade her.’

‘Ay, ay,’ said the Doctor, carelessly, ‘he always takes your

opinion.’

‘And my opinion being favourable,’ said Grace, good-humouredly; and

pausing for a moment to admire the pretty head she decorated, with

her own thrown back; ‘and Marion being in high spirits, and

beginning to dance, I joined her. And so we danced to Alfred’s

music till we were out of breath. And we thought the music all the

gayer for being sent by Alfred. Didn’t we, dear Marion?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, Grace. How you tease me about Alfred.’

‘Tease you by mentioning your lover?’ said her sister.

‘I am sure I don’t much care to have him mentioned,’ said the

wilful beauty, stripping the petals from some flowers she held, and

scattering them on the ground. ‘I am almost tired of hearing of

him; and as to his being my lover – ‘

‘Hush! Don’t speak lightly of a true heart, which is all your own,

Marion,’ cried her sister, ‘even in jest. There is not a truer

heart than Alfred’s in the world!’

‘No-no,’ said Marion, raising her eyebrows with a pleasant air of

careless consideration, ‘perhaps not. But I don’t know that

there’s any great merit in that. I – I don’t want him to be so

very true. I never asked him. If he expects that I – But, dear

Grace, why need we talk of him at all, just now!’

It was agreeable to see the graceful figures of the blooming

sisters, twined together, lingering among the trees, conversing

thus, with earnestness opposed to lightness, yet, with love

responding tenderly to love. And it was very curious indeed to see

the younger sister’s eyes suffused with tears, and something

fervently and deeply felt, breaking through the wilfulness of what

she said, and striving with it painfully.

The difference between them, in respect of age, could not exceed

four years at most; but Grace, as often happens in such cases, when

no mother watches over both (the Doctor’s wife was dead), seemed,

in her gentle care of her young sister, and in the steadiness of

her devotion to her, older than she was; and more removed, in

course of nature, from all competition with her, or participation,

otherwise than through her sympathy and true affection, in her

wayward fancies, than their ages seemed to warrant. Great

character of mother, that, even in this shadow and faint reflection

of it, purifies the heart, and raises the exalted nature nearer to

the angels!

The Doctor’s reflections, as he looked after them, and heard the

purport of their discourse, were limited at first to certain merry

meditations on the folly of all loves and likings, and the idle

imposition practised on themselves by young people, who believed

for a moment, that there could be anything serious in such bubbles,

and were always undeceived – always!

But, the home-adorning, self-denying qualities of Grace, and her

sweet temper, so gentle and retiring, yet including so much

constancy and bravery of spirit, seemed all expressed to him in the

contrast between her quiet household figure and that of his younger

and more beautiful child; and he was sorry for her sake – sorry for

them both – that life should be such a very ridiculous business as

it was.

The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or

either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme a serious one.

But then he was a Philosopher.

A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over

that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than

the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up

kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold

to dross and every precious thing to poor account.

‘Britain!’ cried the Doctor. ‘Britain! Holloa!’

A small man, with an uncommonly sour and discontented face, emerged

from the house, and returned to this call the unceremonious

acknowledgment of ‘Now then!’

‘Where’s the breakfast table?’ said the Doctor.

‘In the house,’ returned Britain.

‘Are you going to spread it out here, as you were told last night?’

said the Doctor. ‘Don’t you know that there are gentlemen coming?

That there’s business to be done this morning, before the coach

comes by? That this is a very particular occasion?’

‘I couldn’t do anything, Dr. Jeddler, till the women had done

getting in the apples, could I?’ said Britain, his voice rising

with his reasoning, so that it was very loud at last.

‘Well, have they done now?’ replied the Doctor, looking at his

watch, and clapping his hands. ‘Come! make haste! where’s

Clemency?’

‘Here am I, Mister,’ said a voice from one of the ladders, which a

pair of clumsy feet descended briskly. ‘It’s all done now. Clear

away, gals. Everything shall be ready for you in half a minute,

Mister.’

With that she began to bustle about most vigorously; presenting, as

she did so, an appearance sufficiently peculiar to justify a word

of introduction.

She was about thirty years old, and had a sufficiently plump and

cheerful face, though it was twisted up into an odd expression of

tightness that made it comical. But, the extraordinary homeliness

of her gait and manner, would have superseded any face in the

world. To say that she had two left legs, and somebody else’s

arms, and that all four limbs seemed to be out of joint, and to

start from perfectly wrong places when they were set in motion, is

to offer the mildest outline of the reality. To say that she was

perfectly content and satisfied with these arrangements, and

regarded them as being no business of hers, and that she took her

arms and legs as they came, and allowed them to dispose of

themselves just as it happened, is to render faint justice to her

equanimity. Her dress was a prodigious pair of self-willed shoes,

that never wanted to go where her feet went; blue stockings; a

printed gown of many colours, and the most hideous pattern

procurable for money; and a white apron. She always wore short

sleeves, and always had, by some accident, grazed elbows, in which

she took so lively an interest, that she was continually trying to

turn them round and get impossible views of them. In general, a

little cap placed somewhere on her head; though it was rarely to be

met with in the place usually occupied in other subjects, by that

article of dress; but, from head to foot she was scrupulously

clean, and maintained a kind of dislocated tidiness. Indeed, her

laudable anxiety to be tidy and compact in her own conscience as

well as in the public eye, gave rise to one of her most startling

evolutions, which was to grasp herself sometimes by a sort of

wooden handle (part of her clothing, and familiarly called a busk),

and wrestle as it were with her garments, until they fell into a

symmetrical arrangement.

Such, in outward form and garb, was Clemency Newcome; who was

supposed to have unconsciously originated a corruption of her own

Christian name, from Clementina (but nobody knew, for the deaf old

mother, a very phenomenon of age, whom she had supported almost

from a child, was dead, and she had no other relation); who now

busied herself in preparing the table, and who stood, at intervals,

with her bare red arms crossed, rubbing her grazed elbows with

opposite hands, and staring at it very composedly, until she

suddenly remembered something else she wanted, and jogged off to

fetch it.

‘Here are them two lawyers a-coming, Mister!’ said Clemency, in a

tone of no very great good-will.

‘Ah!’ cried the Doctor, advancing to the gate to meet them. ‘Good

morning, good morning! Grace, my dear! Marion! Here are Messrs.

Snitchey and Craggs. Where’s Alfred!’

‘He’ll be back directly, father, no doubt,’ said Grace. ‘He had so

much to do this morning in his preparations for departure, that he

was up and out by daybreak. Good morning, gentlemen.’

‘Ladies!’ said Mr. Snitchey, ‘for Self and Craggs,’ who bowed,

‘good morning! Miss,’ to Marion, ‘I kiss your hand.’ Which he

did. ‘And I wish you’ – which he might or might not, for he didn’t

look, at first sight, like a gentleman troubled with many warm

outpourings of soul, in behalf of other people, ‘a hundred happy

returns of this auspicious day.’

‘Ha ha ha!’ laughed the Doctor thoughtfully, with his hands in his

pockets. ‘The great farce in a hundred acts!’

‘You wouldn’t, I am sure,’ said Mr. Snitchey, standing a small

professional blue bag against one leg of the table, ‘cut the great

farce short for this actress, at all events, Doctor Jeddler.’

‘No,’ returned the Doctor. ‘God forbid! May she live to laugh at

it, as long as she CAN laugh, and then say, with the French wit,

“The farce is ended; draw the curtain.”‘

‘The French wit,’ said Mr. Snitchey, peeping sharply into his blue

bag, ‘was wrong, Doctor Jeddler, and your philosophy is altogether

wrong, depend upon it, as I have often told you. Nothing serious

in life! What do you call law?’

‘A joke,’ replied the Doctor.

‘Did you ever go to law?’ asked Mr. Snitchey, looking out of the

blue bag.

‘Never,’ returned the Doctor.

‘If you ever do,’ said Mr. Snitchey, ‘perhaps you’ll alter that

opinion.’

Craggs, who seemed to be represented by Snitchey, and to be

conscious of little or no separate existence or personal

individuality, offered a remark of his own in this place. It

involved the only idea of which he did not stand seized and

possessed in equal moieties with Snitchey; but, he had some

partners in it among the wise men of the world.

‘It’s made a great deal too easy,’ said Mr. Craggs.

‘Law is?’ asked the Doctor.

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Craggs, ‘everything is. Everything appears to me

to be made too easy, now-a-days. It’s the vice of these times. If

the world is a joke (I am not prepared to say it isn’t), it ought

to be made a very difficult joke to crack. It ought to be as hard

a struggle, sir, as possible. That’s the intention. But, it’s

being made far too easy. We are oiling the gates of life. They

ought to be rusty. We shall have them beginning to turn, soon,

with a smooth sound. Whereas they ought to grate upon their

hinges, sir.’

Mr. Craggs seemed positively to grate upon his own hinges, as he

delivered this opinion; to which he communicated immense effect –

being a cold, hard, dry, man, dressed in grey and white, like a

flint; with small twinkles in his eyes, as if something struck

sparks out of them. The three natural kingdoms, indeed, had each a

fanciful representative among this brotherhood of disputants; for

Snitchey was like a magpie or raven (only not so sleek), and the

Doctor had a streaked face like a winter-pippin, with here and

there a dimple to express the peckings of the birds, and a very

little bit of pigtail behind that stood for the stalk.

As the active figure of a handsome young man, dressed for a

journey, and followed by a porter bearing several packages and

baskets, entered the orchard at a brisk pace, and with an air of

gaiety and hope that accorded well with the morning, these three

drew together, like the brothers of the sister Fates, or like the

Graces most effectually disguised, or like the three weird prophets

on the heath, and greeted him.

‘Happy returns, Alf!’ said the Doctor, lightly.

‘A hundred happy returns of this auspicious day, Mr. Heathfield!’

said Snitchey, bowing low.

‘Returns!’ Craggs murmured in a deep voice, all alone.

‘Why, what a battery!’ exclaimed Alfred, stopping short, ‘and one –

two – three – all foreboders of no good, in the great sea before

me. I am glad you are not the first I have met this morning: I

should have taken it for a bad omen. But, Grace was the first –

sweet, pleasant Grace – so I defy you all!’

‘If you please, Mister, I was the first you know,’ said Clemency

Newcome. ‘She was walking out here, before sunrise, you remember.

I was in the house.’

‘That’s true! Clemency was the first,’ said Alfred. ‘So I defy

you with Clemency.’

‘Ha, ha, ha, – for Self and Craggs,’ said Snitchey. ‘What a

defiance!’

‘Not so bad a one as it appears, may be,’ said Alfred, shaking

hands heartily with the Doctor, and also with Snitchey and Craggs,

and then looking round. ‘Where are the – Good Heavens!’

With a start, productive for the moment of a closer partnership

between Jonathan Snitchey and Thomas Craggs than the subsisting

articles of agreement in that wise contemplated, he hastily betook

himself to where the sisters stood together, and – however, I

needn’t more particularly explain his manner of saluting Marion

first, and Grace afterwards, than by hinting that Mr. Craggs may

possibly have considered it ‘too easy.’

Perhaps to change the subject, Dr. Jeddler made a hasty move

towards the breakfast, and they all sat down at table. Grace

presided; but so discreetly stationed herself, as to cut off her

sister and Alfred from the rest of the company. Snitchey and

Craggs sat at opposite corners, with the blue bag between them for

safety; the Doctor took his usual position, opposite to Grace.

Clemency hovered galvanically about the table, as waitress; and the

melancholy Britain, at another and a smaller board, acted as Grand

Carver of a round of beef and a ham.

‘Meat?’ said Britain, approaching Mr. Snitchey, with the carving

knife and fork in his hands, and throwing the question at him like

a missile.

‘Certainly,’ returned the lawyer.

‘Do YOU want any?’ to Craggs.

‘Lean and well done,’ replied that gentleman.

Having executed these orders, and moderately supplied the Doctor

(he seemed to know that nobody else wanted anything to eat), he

lingered as near the Firm as he decently could, watching with an

austere eye their disposition of the viands, and but once relaxing

the severe expression of his face. This was on the occasion of Mr.

Craggs, whose teeth were not of the best, partially choking, when

he cried out with great animation, ‘I thought he was gone!’

‘Now, Alfred,’ said the Doctor, ‘for a word or two of business,

while we are yet at breakfast.’

‘While we are yet at breakfast,’ said Snitchey and Craggs, who

seemed to have no present idea of leaving off.

Although Alfred had not been breakfasting, and seemed to have quite

enough business on his hands as it was, he respectfully answered:

‘If you please, sir.’

‘If anything could be serious,’ the Doctor began, ‘in such a – ‘

‘Farce as this, sir,’ hinted Alfred.

‘In such a farce as this,’ observed the Doctor, ‘it might be this

recurrence, on the eve of separation, of a double birthday, which

is connected with many associations pleasant to us four, and with

the recollection of a long and amicable intercourse. That’s not to

the purpose.’

‘Ah! yes, yes, Dr. Jeddler,’ said the young man. ‘It is to the

purpose. Much to the purpose, as my heart bears witness this

morning; and as yours does too, I know, if you would let it speak.

I leave your house to-day; I cease to be your ward to-day; we part

with tender relations stretching far behind us, that never can be

exactly renewed, and with others dawning – yet before us,’ he

looked down at Marion beside him, ‘fraught with such considerations

as I must not trust myself to speak of now. Come, come!’ he added,

rallying his spirits and the Doctor at once, ‘there’s a serious

grain in this large foolish dust-heap, Doctor. Let us allow to-

day, that there is One.’

‘To-day!’ cried the Doctor. ‘Hear him! Ha, ha, ha! Of all days

in the foolish year. Why, on this day, the great battle was fought

on this ground. On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my

two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been

gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are

struck in Men, not earth, – so many lives were lost, that within my

recollection, generations afterwards, a churchyard full of bones,

and dust of bones, and chips of cloven skulls, has been dug up from

underneath our feet here. Yet not a hundred people in that battle

knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the

inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not

half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not

half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and

nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the

mourners of the slain. Serious, too!’ said the Doctor, laughing.

‘Such a system!’

‘But, all this seems to me,’ said Alfred, ‘to be very serious.’

‘Serious!’ cried the Doctor. ‘If you allowed such things to be

serious, you must go mad, or die, or climb up to the top of a

mountain, and turn hermit.’

‘Besides – so long ago,’ said Alfred.

‘Long ago!’ returned the Doctor. ‘Do you know what the world has

been doing, ever since? Do you know what else it has been doing?

I don’t!’

‘It has gone to law a little,’ observed Mr. Snitchey, stirring his

tea.

‘Although the way out has been always made too easy,’ said his

partner.

‘And you’ll excuse my saying, Doctor,’ pursued Mr. Snitchey,

‘having been already put a thousand times in possession of my

opinion, in the course of our discussions, that, in its having gone

to law, and in its legal system altogether, I do observe a serious

side – now, really, a something tangible, and with a purpose and

intention in it – ‘

Clemency Newcome made an angular tumble against the table,

occasioning a sounding clatter among the cups and saucers.

‘Heyday! what’s the matter there?’ exclaimed the Doctor.

‘It’s this evil-inclined blue bag,’ said Clemency, ‘always tripping

up somebody!’

‘With a purpose and intention in it, I was saying,’ resumed

Snitchey, ‘that commands respect. Life a farce, Dr. Jeddler? With

law in it?’

The Doctor laughed, and looked at Alfred.

‘Granted, if you please, that war is foolish,’ said Snitchey.

‘There we agree. For example. Here’s a smiling country,’ pointing

it out with his fork, ‘once overrun by soldiers – trespassers every

man of ’em – and laid waste by fire and sword. He, he, he! The

idea of any man exposing himself, voluntarily, to fire and sword!

Stupid, wasteful, positively ridiculous; you laugh at your fellow-

creatures, you know, when you think of it! But take this smiling

country as it stands. Think of the laws appertaining to real

property; to the bequest and devise of real property; to the

mortgage and redemption of real property; to leasehold, freehold,

and copyhold estate; think,’ said Mr. Snitchey, with such great

emotion that he actually smacked his lips, ‘of the complicated laws

relating to title and proof of title, with all the contradictory

precedents and numerous acts of parliament connected with them;

think of the infinite number of ingenious and interminable chancery

suits, to which this pleasant prospect may give rise; and

acknowledge, Dr. Jeddler, that there is a green spot in the scheme

about us! I believe,’ said Mr. Snitchey, looking at his partner,

‘that I speak for Self and Craggs?’

Mr. Craggs having signified assent, Mr. Snitchey, somewhat

freshened by his recent eloquence, observed that he would take a

little more beef and another cup of tea.

‘I don’t stand up for life in general,’ he added, rubbing his hands

and chuckling, ‘it’s full of folly; full of something worse.

Professions of trust, and confidence, and unselfishness, and all

that! Bah, bah, bah! We see what they’re worth. But, you mustn’t

laugh at life; you’ve got a game to play; a very serious game

indeed! Everybody’s playing against you, you know, and you’re

playing against them. Oh! it’s a very interesting thing. There

are deep moves upon the board. You must only laugh, Dr. Jeddler,

when you win – and then not much. He, he, he! And then not much,’

repeated Snitchey, rolling his head and winking his eye, as if he

would have added, ‘you may do this instead!’

‘Well, Alfred!’ cried the Doctor, ‘what do you say now?’

‘I say, sir,’ replied Alfred, ‘that the greatest favour you could

do me, and yourself too, I am inclined to think, would be to try

sometimes to forget this battle-field and others like it in that

broader battle-field of Life, on which the sun looks every day.’

‘Really, I’m afraid that wouldn’t soften his opinions, Mr. Alfred,’

said Snitchey. ‘The combatants are very eager and very bitter in

that same battle of Life. There’s a great deal of cutting and

slashing, and firing into people’s heads from behind. There is

terrible treading down, and trampling on. It is rather a bad

business.’

‘I believe, Mr. Snitchey,’ said Alfred, ‘there are quiet victories

and struggles, great sacrifices of self, and noble acts of heroism,

in it – even in many of its apparent lightnesses and contradictions

– not the less difficult to achieve, because they have no earthly

chronicle or audience – done every day in nooks and corners, and in

little households, and in men’s and women’s hearts – any one of

which might reconcile the sternest man to such a world, and fill

him with belief and hope in it, though two-fourths of its people

were at war, and another fourth at law; and that’s a bold word.’

Both the sisters listened keenly.

‘Well, well!’ said the Doctor, ‘I am too old to be converted, even

by my friend Snitchey here, or my good spinster sister, Martha

Jeddler; who had what she calls her domestic trials ages ago, and

has led a sympathising life with all sorts of people ever since;

and who is so much of your opinion (only she’s less reasonable and

more obstinate, being a woman), that we can’t agree, and seldom

meet. I was born upon this battle-field. I began, as a boy, to

have my thoughts directed to the real history of a battle-field.

Sixty years have gone over my head, and I have never seen the

Christian world, including Heaven knows how many loving mothers and

good enough girls like mine here, anything but mad for a battle-

field. The same contradictions prevail in everything. One must

either laugh or cry at such stupendous inconsistencies; and I

prefer to laugh.’

Britain, who had been paying the profoundest and most melancholy

attention to each speaker in his turn, seemed suddenly to decide in

favour of the same preference, if a deep sepulchral sound that

escaped him might be construed into a demonstration of risibility.

His face, however, was so perfectly unaffected by it, both before

and afterwards, that although one or two of the breakfast party

looked round as being startled by a mysterious noise, nobody

connected the offender with it.

Except his partner in attendance, Clemency Newcome; who rousing him

with one of those favourite joints, her elbows, inquired, in a

reproachful whisper, what he laughed at.

‘Not you!’ said Britain.

‘Who then?’

‘Humanity,’ said Britain. ‘That’s the joke!’

‘What between master and them lawyers, he’s getting more and more

addle-headed every day!’ cried Clemency, giving him a lunge with

the other elbow, as a mental stimulant. ‘Do you know where you

are? Do you want to get warning?’

‘I don’t know anything,’ said Britain, with a leaden eye and an

immovable visage. ‘I don’t care for anything. I don’t make out

anything. I don’t believe anything. And I don’t want anything.’

Although this forlorn summary of his general condition may have

been overcharged in an access of despondency, Benjamin Britain –

sometimes called Little Britain, to distinguish him from Great; as

we might say Young England, to express Old England with a decided

difference – had defined his real state more accurately than might

be supposed. For, serving as a sort of man Miles to the Doctor’s

Friar Bacon, and listening day after day to innumerable orations

addressed by the Doctor to various people, all tending to show that

his very existence was at best a mistake and an absurdity, this

unfortunate servitor had fallen, by degrees, into such an abyss of

confused and contradictory suggestions from within and without,

that Truth at the bottom of her well, was on the level surface as

compared with Britain in the depths of his mystification. The only

point he clearly comprehended, was, that the new element usually

brought into these discussions by Snitchey and Craggs, never served

to make them clearer, and always seemed to give the Doctor a

species of advantage and confirmation. Therefore, he looked upon

the Firm as one of the proximate causes of his state of mind, and

held them in abhorrence accordingly.

‘But, this is not our business, Alfred,’ said the Doctor. ‘Ceasing

to be my ward (as you have said) to-day; and leaving us full to the

brim of such learning as the Grammar School down here was able to

give you, and your studies in London could add to that, and such

practical knowledge as a dull old country Doctor like myself could

graft upon both; you are away, now, into the world. The first term

of probation appointed by your poor father, being over, away you go

now, your own master, to fulfil his second desire. And long before

your three years’ tour among the foreign schools of medicine is

finished, you’ll have forgotten us. Lord, you’ll forget us easily

in six months!’

‘If I do – But you know better; why should I speak to you!’ said

Alfred, laughing.

‘I don’t know anything of the sort,’ returned the Doctor. ‘What do

you say, Marion?’

Marion, trifling with her teacup, seemed to say – but she didn’t

say it – that he was welcome to forget, if he could. Grace pressed

the blooming face against her cheek, and smiled.

‘I haven’t been, I hope, a very unjust steward in the execution of

my trust,’ pursued the Doctor; ‘but I am to be, at any rate,

formally discharged, and released, and what not this morning; and

here are our good friends Snitchey and Craggs, with a bagful of

papers, and accounts, and documents, for the transfer of the

balance of the trust fund to you (I wish it was a more difficult

one to dispose of, Alfred, but you must get to be a great man and

make it so), and other drolleries of that sort, which are to be

signed, sealed, and delivered.’

‘And duly witnessed as by law required,’ said Snitchey, pushing

away his plate, and taking out the papers, which his partner

proceeded to spread upon the table; ‘and Self and Crags having been

co-trustees with you, Doctor, in so far as the fund was concerned,

we shall want your two servants to attest the signatures – can you

read, Mrs. Newcome?’

‘I an’t married, Mister,’ said Clemency.

‘Oh! I beg your pardon. I should think not,’ chuckled Snitchey,

casting his eyes over her extraordinary figure. ‘You CAN read?’

‘A little,’ answered Clemency.

‘The marriage service, night and morning, eh?’ observed the lawyer,

jocosely.

‘No,’ said Clemency. ‘Too hard. I only reads a thimble.’

‘Read a thimble!’ echoed Snitchey. ‘What are you talking about,

young woman?’

Clemency nodded. ‘And a nutmeg-grater.’

‘Why, this is a lunatic! a subject for the Lord High Chancellor!’

said Snitchey, staring at her.

– ‘If possessed of any property,’ stipulated Craggs.

Grace, however, interposing, explained that each of the articles in

question bore an engraved motto, and so formed the pocket library

of Clemency Newcome, who was not much given to the study of books.

‘Oh, that’s it, is it, Miss Grace!’ said Snitchey.

‘Yes, yes. Ha, ha, ha! I thought our friend was an idiot. She

looks uncommonly like it,’ he muttered, with a supercilious glance.

‘And what does the thimble say, Mrs. Newcome?’

‘I an’t married, Mister,’ observed Clemency.

‘Well, Newcome. Will that do?’ said the lawyer. ‘What does the

thimble say, Newcome?’

How Clemency, before replying to this question, held one pocket

open, and looked down into its yawning depths for the thimble which

wasn’t there, – and how she then held an opposite pocket open, and

seeming to descry it, like a pearl of great price, at the bottom,

cleared away such intervening obstacles as a handkerchief, an end

of wax candle, a flushed apple, an orange, a lucky penny, a cramp

bone, a padlock, a pair of scissors in a sheath more expressively

describable as promising young shears, a handful or so of loose

beads, several balls of cotton, a needle-case, a cabinet collection

of curl-papers, and a biscuit, all of which articles she entrusted

individually and separately to Britain to hold, – is of no

consequence.

Nor how, in her determination to grasp this pocket by the throat

and keep it prisoner (for it had a tendency to swing, and twist

itself round the nearest corner), she assumed and calmly

maintained, an attitude apparently inconsistent with the human

anatomy and the laws of gravity. It is enough that at last she

triumphantly produced the thimble on her finger, and rattled the

nutmeg-grater: the literature of both those trinkets being

obviously in course of wearing out and wasting away, through

excessive friction.

‘That’s the thimble, is it, young woman?’ said Mr. Snitchey,

diverting himself at her expense. ‘And what does the thimble say?’

‘It says,’ replied Clemency, reading slowly round as if it were a

tower, ‘For-get and For-give.’

Snitchey and Craggs laughed heartily. ‘So new!’ said Snitchey.

‘So easy!’ said Craggs. ‘Such a knowledge of human nature in it!’

said Snitchey. ‘So applicable to the affairs of life!’ said

Craggs.

‘And the nutmeg-grater?’ inquired the head of the Firm.

‘The grater says,’ returned Clemency, ‘Do as you – wold – be – done

by.’

‘Do, or you’ll be done brown, you mean,’ said Mr. Snitchey.

‘I don’t understand,’ retorted Clemency, shaking her head vaguely.

‘I an’t no lawyer.’

‘I am afraid that if she was, Doctor,’ said Mr. Snitchey, turning

to him suddenly, as if to anticipate any effect that might

otherwise be consequent on this retort, ‘she’d find it to be the

golden rule of half her clients. They are serious enough in that –

whimsical as your world is – and lay the blame on us afterwards.

We, in our profession, are little else than mirrors after all, Mr.

Alfred; but, we are generally consulted by angry and quarrelsome

people who are not in their best looks, and it’s rather hard to

quarrel with us if we reflect unpleasant aspects. I think,’ said

Mr. Snitchey, ‘that I speak for Self and Craggs?’

‘Decidedly,’ said Craggs.

‘And so, if Mr. Britain will oblige us with a mouthful of ink,’

said Mr. Snitchey, returning to the papers, ‘we’ll sign, seal, and

deliver as soon as possible, or the coach will be coming past

before we know where we are.’

If one might judge from his appearance, there was every probability

of the coach coming past before Mr. Britain knew where HE was; for

he stood in a state of abstraction, mentally balancing the Doctor

against the lawyers, and the lawyers against the Doctor, and their

clients against both, and engaged in feeble attempts to make the

thimble and nutmeg-grater (a new idea to him) square with anybody’s

system of philosophy; and, in short, bewildering himself as much as

ever his great namesake has done with theories and schools. But,

Clemency, who was his good Genius – though he had the meanest

possible opinion of her understanding, by reason of her seldom

troubling herself with abstract speculations, and being always at

hand to do the right thing at the right time – having produced the

ink in a twinkling, tendered him the further service of recalling

him to himself by the application of her elbows; with which gentle

flappers she so jogged his memory, in a more literal construction

of that phrase than usual, that he soon became quite fresh and

brisk.

How he laboured under an apprehension not uncommon to persons in

his degree, to whom the use of pen and ink is an event, that he

couldn’t append his name to a document, not of his own writing,

without committing himself in some shadowy manner, or somehow

signing away vague and enormous sums of money; and how he

approached the deeds under protest, and by dint of the Doctor’s

coercion, and insisted on pausing to look at them before writing

(the cramped hand, to say nothing of the phraseology, being so much

Chinese to him), and also on turning them round to see whether

there was anything fraudulent underneath; and how, having signed

his name, he became desolate as one who had parted with his

property and rights; I want the time to tell. Also, how the blue

bag containing his signature, afterwards had a mysterious interest

for him, and he couldn’t leave it; also, how Clemency Newcome, in

an ecstasy of laughter at the idea of her own importance and

dignity, brooded over the whole table with her two elbows, like a

spread eagle, and reposed her head upon her left arm as a

preliminary to the formation of certain cabalistic characters,

which required a deal of ink, and imaginary counterparts whereof

she executed at the same time with her tongue. Also, how, having

once tasted ink, she became thirsty in that regard, as tame tigers

are said to be after tasting another sort of fluid, and wanted to

sign everything, and put her name in all kinds of places. In

brief, the Doctor was discharged of his trust and all its

responsibilities; and Alfred, taking it on himself, was fairly

started on the journey of life.

‘Britain!’ said the Doctor. ‘Run to the gate, and watch for the

coach. Time flies, Alfred.’

‘Yes, sir, yes,’ returned the young man, hurriedly. ‘Dear Grace! a

moment! Marion – so young and beautiful, so winning and so much

admired, dear to my heart as nothing else in life is – remember! I

leave Marion to you!’

‘She has always been a sacred charge to me, Alfred. She is doubly

so, now. I will be faithful to my trust, believe me.’

‘I do believe it, Grace. I know it well. Who could look upon your

face, and hear your voice, and not know it! Ah, Grace! If I had

your well-governed heart, and tranquil mind, how bravely I would

leave this place to-day!’

‘Would you?’ she answered with a quiet smile.

‘And yet, Grace – Sister, seems the natural word.’

‘Use it!’ she said quickly. ‘I am glad to hear it. Call me

nothing else.’

‘And yet, sister, then,’ said Alfred, ‘Marion and I had better have

your true and steadfast qualities serving us here, and making us

both happier and better. I wouldn’t carry them away, to sustain

myself, if I could!’

‘Coach upon the hill-top!’ exclaimed Britain.

‘Time flies, Alfred,’ said the Doctor.

Marion had stood apart, with her eyes fixed upon the ground; but,

this warning being given, her young lover brought her tenderly to

where her sister stood, and gave her into her embrace.

‘I have been telling Grace, dear Marion,’ he said, ‘that you are

her charge; my precious trust at parting. And when I come back and

reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life

lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to

consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her

wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can

return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.’

The younger sister had one hand in his; the other rested on her

sister’s neck. She looked into that sister’s eyes, so calm,

serene, and cheerful, with a gaze in which affection, admiration,

sorrow, wonder, almost veneration, were blended. She looked into

that sister’s face, as if it were the face of some bright angel.

Calm, serene, and cheerful, the face looked back on her and on her

lover.

‘And when the time comes, as it must one day,’ said Alfred, – ‘I

wonder it has never come yet, but Grace knows best, for Grace is

always right – when SHE will want a friend to open her whole heart

to, and to be to her something of what she has been to us – then,

Marion, how faithful we will prove, and what delight to us to know

that she, our dear good sister, loves and is loved again, as we

would have her!’

Still the younger sister looked into her eyes, and turned not –

even towards him. And still those honest eyes looked back, so

calm, serene, and cheerful, on herself and on her lover.

‘And when all that is past, and we are old, and living (as we

must!) together – close together – talking often of old times,’

said Alfred – ‘these shall be our favourite times among them – this

day most of all; and, telling each other what we thought and felt,

and hoped and feared at parting; and how we couldn’t bear to say

good bye – ‘

‘Coach coming through the wood!’ cried Britain.

‘Yes! I am ready – and how we met again, so happily in spite of

all; we’ll make this day the happiest in all the year, and keep it

as a treble birth-day. Shall we, dear?’

‘Yes!’ interposed the elder sister, eagerly, and with a radiant

smile. ‘Yes! Alfred, don’t linger. There’s no time. Say good

bye to Marion. And Heaven be with you!’

He pressed the younger sister to his heart. Released from his

embrace, she again clung to her sister; and her eyes, with the same

blended look, again sought those so calm, serene, and cheerful.

‘Farewell, my boy!’ said the Doctor. ‘To talk about any serious

correspondence or serious affections, and engagements and so forth,

in such a – ha ha ha! – you know what I mean – why that, of course,

would be sheer nonsense. All I can say is, that if you and Marion

should continue in the same foolish minds, I shall not object to

have you for a son-in-law one of these days.’

‘Over the bridge!’ cried Britain.

‘Let it come!’ said Alfred, wringing the Doctor’s hand stoutly.

‘Think of me sometimes, my old friend and guardian, as seriously as

you can! Adieu, Mr. Snitchey! Farewell, Mr. Craggs!’

‘Coming down the road!’ cried Britain.

‘A kiss of Clemency Newcome for long acquaintance’ sake! Shake

hands, Britain! Marion, dearest heart, good bye! Sister Grace!

remember!’

The quiet household figure, and the face so beautiful in its

serenity, were turned towards him in reply; but Marion’s look and

attitude remained unchanged.

The coach was at the gate. There was a bustle with the luggage.

The coach drove away. Marion never moved.

‘He waves his hat to you, my love,’ said Grace. ‘Your chosen

husband, darling. Look!’

The younger sister raised her head, and, for a moment, turned it.

Then, turning back again, and fully meeting, for the first time,

those calm eyes, fell sobbing on her neck.

‘Oh, Grace. God bless you! But I cannot bear to see it, Grace!

It breaks my heart.’

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