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The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens

Part 8 out of 8

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unquestionably inimical to health, the danger arising from
inhalation of particles of lead, or from contact between the lead
and the touch, or both. Against these dangers, I found good
respirators provided (simply made of flannel and muslin, so as to
be inexpensively renewed, and in some instances washed with scented
soap), and gauntlet gloves, and loose gowns. Everywhere, there was
as much fresh air as windows, well placed and opened, could
possibly admit. And it was explained that the precaution of
frequently changing the women employed in the worst parts of the
work (a precaution originating in their own experience or
apprehension of its ill effects) was found salutary. They had a
mysterious and singular appearance, with the mouth and nose
covered, and the loose gown on, and yet bore out the simile of the
old Turk and the seraglio all the better for the disguise.

At last this vexed white-lead, having been buried and resuscitated,
and heated and cooled and stirred, and separated and washed and
ground, and rolled and pressed, is subjected to the action of
intense fiery heat. A row of women, dressed as above described,
stood, let us say, in a large stone bakehouse, passing on the
baking-dishes as they were given out by the cooks, from hand to
hand, into the ovens. The oven, or stove, cold as yet, looked as
high as an ordinary house, and was full of men and women on
temporary footholds, briskly passing up and stowing away the
dishes. The door of another oven, or stove, about to be cooled and
emptied, was opened from above, for the uncommercial countenance to
peer down into. The uncommercial countenance withdrew itself, with
expedition and a sense of suffocation, from the dull-glowing heat
and the overpowering smell. On the whole, perhaps the going into
these stoves to work, when they are freshly opened, may be the
worst part of the occupation.

But I made it out to be indubitable that the owners of these lead-
mills honestly and sedulously try to reduce the dangers of the
occupation to the lowest point.

A washing-place is provided for the women (I thought there might
have been more towels), and a room in which they hang their
clothes, and take their meals, and where they have a good fire-
range and fire, and a female attendant to help them, and to watch
that they do not neglect the cleansing of their hands before
touching their food. An experienced medical attendant is provided
for them, and any premonitory symptoms of lead-poisoning are
carefully treated. Their teapots and such things were set out on
tables ready for their afternoon meal, when I saw their room; and
it had a homely look. It is found that they bear the work much
better than men: some few of them have been at it for years, and
the great majority of those I observed were strong and active. On
the other hand, it should be remembered that most of them are very
capricious and irregular in their attendance.

American inventiveness would seem to indicate that before very long
white-lead may be made entirely by machinery. The sooner, the
better. In the meantime, I parted from my two frank conductors
over the mills, by telling them that they had nothing there to be
concealed, and nothing to be blamed for. As to the rest, the
philosophy of the matter of lead-poisoning and workpeople seems to
me to have been pretty fairly summed up by the Irishwoman whom I
quoted in my former paper: 'Some of them gets lead-pisoned soon,
and some of them gets lead-pisoned later, and some, but not many,
niver; and 'tis all according to the constitooshun, sur; and some
constitooshuns is strong and some is weak.' Retracing my footsteps
over my beat, I went off duty.


Once upon a time (no matter when), I was engaged in a pursuit (no
matter what), which could be transacted by myself alone; in which I
could have no help; which imposed a constant strain on the
attention, memory, observation, and physical powers; and which
involved an almost fabulous amount of change of place and rapid
railway travelling. I had followed this pursuit through an
exceptionally trying winter in an always trying climate, and had
resumed it in England after but a brief repose. Thus it came to be
prolonged until, at length--and, as it seemed, all of a sudden--it
so wore me out that I could not rely, with my usual cheerful
confidence, upon myself to achieve the constantly recurring task,
and began to feel (for the first time in my life) giddy, jarred,
shaken, faint, uncertain of voice and sight and tread and touch,
and dull of spirit. The medical advice I sought within a few
hours, was given in two words: 'instant rest.' Being accustomed
to observe myself as curiously as if I were another man, and
knowing the advice to meet my only need, I instantly halted in the
pursuit of which I speak, and rested.

My intention was, to interpose, as it were, a fly-leaf in the book
of my life, in which nothing should be written from without for a
brief season of a few weeks. But some very singular experiences
recorded themselves on this same fly-leaf, and I am going to relate
them literally. I repeat the word: literally.

My first odd experience was of the remarkable coincidence between
my case, in the general mind, and one Mr. Merdle's as I find it
recorded in a work of fiction called LITTLE DORRIT. To be sure,
Mr. Merdle was a swindler, forger, and thief, and my calling had
been of a less harmful (and less remunerative) nature; but it was
all one for that.

Here is Mr. Merdle's case:

'At first, he was dead of all the diseases that ever were known,
and of several bran-new maladies invented with the speed of Light
to meet the demand of the occasion. He had concealed a dropsy from
infancy, he had inherited a large estate of water on the chest from
his grandfather, he had had an operation performed upon him every
morning of his life for eighteen years, he had been subject to the
explosion of important veins in his body after the manner of
fireworks, he had had something the matter with his lungs, he had
had something the matter with his heart, he had had something the
matter with his brain. Five hundred people who sat down to
breakfast entirely uninformed on the whole subject, believed before
they had done breakfast, that they privately and personally knew
Physician to have said to Mr. Merdle, "You must expect to go out,
some day, like the snuff of a candle;" and that they knew Mr.
Merdle to have said to Physician, "A man can die but once." By
about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, something the matter with the
brain, became the favourite theory against the field; and by twelve
the something had been distinctly ascertained to be "Pressure."

'Pressure was so entirely satisfactory to the public mind, and
seemed to make every one so comfortable, that it might have lasted
all day but for Bar's having taken the real state of the case into
Court at half-past nine. Pressure, however, so far from being
overthrown by the discovery, became a greater favourite than ever.
There was a general moralising upon Pressure, in every street. All
the people who had tried to make money and had not been able to do
it, said, There you were! You no sooner began to devote yourself
to the pursuit of wealth, than you got Pressure. The idle people
improved the occasion in a similar manner. See, said they, what
you brought yourself to by work, work, work! You persisted in
working, you overdid it, Pressure came on, and you were done for!
This consideration was very potent in many quarters, but nowhere
more so than among the young clerks and partners who had never been
in the slightest danger of overdoing it. These, one and all
declared, quite piously, that they hoped they would never forget
the warning as long as they lived, and that their conduct might be
so regulated as to keep off Pressure, and preserve them, a comfort
to their friends, for many years.'

Just my case--if I had only known it--when I was quietly basking in
the sunshine in my Kentish meadow!

But while I so rested, thankfully recovering every hour, I had
experiences more odd than this. I had experiences of spiritual
conceit, for which, as giving me a new warning against that curse
of mankind, I shall always feel grateful to the supposition that I
was too far gone to protest against playing sick lion to any stray
donkey with an itching hoof. All sorts of people seemed to become
vicariously religious at my expense. I received the most
uncompromising warning that I was a Heathen: on the conclusive
authority of a field preacher, who, like the most of his ignorant
and vain and daring class, could not construct a tolerable sentence
in his native tongue or pen a fair letter. This inspired
individual called me to order roundly, and knew in the freest and
easiest way where I was going to, and what would become of me if I
failed to fashion myself on his bright example, and was on terms of
blasphemous confidence with the Heavenly Host. He was in the
secrets of my heart, and in the lowest soundings of my soul--he!--
and could read the depths of my nature better than his A B C, and
could turn me inside out, like his own clammy glove. But what is
far more extraordinary than this--for such dirty water as this
could alone be drawn from such a shallow and muddy source--I found
from the information of a beneficed clergyman, of whom I never
heard and whom I never saw, that I had not, as I rather supposed I
had, lived a life of some reading, contemplation, and inquiry; that
I had not studied, as I rather supposed I had, to inculcate some
Christian lessons in books; that I had never tried, as I rather
supposed I had, to turn a child or two tenderly towards the
knowledge and love of our Saviour; that I had never had, as I
rather supposed I had had, departed friends, or stood beside open
graves; but that I had lived a life of 'uninterrupted prosperity,'
and that I needed this 'check, overmuch,' and that the way to turn
it to account was to read these sermons and these poems, enclosed,
and written and issued by my correspondent! I beg it may be
understood that I relate facts of my own uncommercial experience,
and no vain imaginings. The documents in proof lie near my hand.

Another odd entry on the fly-leaf, of a more entertaining
character, was the wonderful persistency with which kind
sympathisers assumed that I had injuriously coupled with the so
suddenly relinquished pursuit, those personal habits of mine most
obviously incompatible with it, and most plainly impossible of
being maintained, along with it. As, all that exercise, all that
cold bathing, all that wind and weather, all that uphill training--
all that everything else, say, which is usually carried about by
express trains in a portmanteau and hat-box, and partaken of under
a flaming row of gas-lights in the company of two thousand people.
This assuming of a whole case against all fact and likelihood,
struck me as particularly droll, and was an oddity of which I
certainly had had no adequate experience in life until I turned
that curious fly-leaf.

My old acquaintances the begging-letter writers came out on the
fly-leaf, very piously indeed. They were glad, at such a serious
crisis, to afford me another opportunity of sending that Post-
office order. I needn't make it a pound, as previously insisted
on; ten shillings might ease my mind. And Heaven forbid that they
should refuse, at such an insignificant figure, to take a weight
off the memory of an erring fellow-creature! One gentleman, of an
artistic turn (and copiously illustrating the books of the
Mendicity Society), thought it might soothe my conscience, in the
tender respect of gifts misused, if I would immediately cash up in
aid of his lowly talent for original design--as a specimen of which
he enclosed me a work of art which I recognized as a tracing from a
woodcut originally published in the late Mrs. Trollope's book on
America, forty or fifty years ago. The number of people who were
prepared to live long years after me, untiring benefactors to their
species, for fifty pounds apiece down, was astonishing. Also, of
those who wanted bank-notes for stiff penitential amounts, to give
away:- not to keep, on any account.

Divers wonderful medicines and machines insinuated recommendations
of themselves into the fly-leaf that was to have been so blank. It
was specially observable that every prescriber, whether in a moral
or physical direction, knew me thoroughly--knew me from head to
heel, in and out, through and through, upside down. I was a glass
piece of general property, and everybody was on the most
surprisingly intimate terms with me. A few public institutions had
complimentary perceptions of corners in my mind, of which, after
considerable self-examination, I have not discovered any
indication. Neat little printed forms were addressed to those
corners, beginning with the words: 'I give and bequeath.'

Will it seem exaggerative to state my belief that the most honest,
the most modest, and the least vain-glorious of all the records
upon this strange fly-leaf, was a letter from the self-deceived
discoverer of the recondite secret 'how to live four or five
hundred years'? Doubtless it will seem so, yet the statement is
not exaggerative by any means, but is made in my serious and
sincere conviction. With this, and with a laugh at the rest that
shall not be cynical, I turn the Fly-leaf, and go on again.


One day this last Whitsuntide, at precisely eleven o'clock in the
forenoon, there suddenly rode into the field of view commanded by
the windows of my lodging an equestrian phenomenon. It was a
fellow-creature on horseback, dressed in the absurdest manner. The
fellow-creature wore high boots; some other (and much larger)
fellow-creature's breeches, of a slack-baked doughy colour and a
baggy form; a blue shirt, whereof the skirt, or tail, was puffily
tucked into the waist-band of the said breeches; no coat; a red
shoulder-belt; and a demi-semi-military scarlet hat, with a
feathered ornament in front, which, to the uninstructed human
vision, had the appearance of a moulting shuttlecock. I laid down
the newspaper with which I had been occupied, and surveyed the
fellow-man in question with astonishment. Whether he had been
sitting to any painter as a frontispiece for a new edition of
'Sartor Resartus;' whether 'the husk or shell of him,' as the
esteemed Herr Teufelsdroch might put it, were founded on a jockey,
on a circus, on General Garibaldi, on cheap porcelain, on a toy
shop, on Guy Fawkes, on waxwork, on gold-digging, on Bedlam, or on
all,--were doubts that greatly exercised my mind. Meanwhile, my
fellow-man stumbled and slided, excessively against his will, on
the slippery stones of my Covent-garden street, and elicited
shrieks from several sympathetic females, by convulsively
restraining himself from pitching over his horse's head. In the
very crisis of these evolutions, and indeed at the trying moment
when his charger's tail was in a tobacconist's shop, and his head
anywhere about town, this cavalier was joined by two similar
portents, who, likewise stumbling and sliding, caused him to
stumble and slide the more distressingly. At length this Gilpinian
triumvirate effected a halt, and, looking northward, waved their
three right hands as commanding unseen troops, to 'Up, guards! and
at 'em.' Hereupon a brazen band burst forth, which caused them to
be instantly bolted with to some remote spot of earth in the
direction of the Surrey Hills.

Judging from these appearances that a procession was under way, I
threw up my window, and, craning out, had the satisfaction of
beholding it advancing along the streets. It was a Teetotal
procession, as I learnt from its banners, and was long enough to
consume twenty minutes in passing. There were a great number of
children in it, some of them so very young in their mothers' arms
as to be in the act of practically exemplifying their abstinence
from fermented liquors, and attachment to an unintoxicating drink,
while the procession defiled. The display was, on the whole,
pleasant to see, as any good-humoured holiday assemblage of clean,
cheerful, and well-conducted people should be. It was bright with
ribbons, tinsel, and shoulder-belts, and abounded in flowers, as if
those latter trophies had come up in profusion under much watering.
The day being breezy, the insubordination of the large banners was
very reprehensible. Each of these being borne aloft on two poles
and stayed with some half-dozen lines, was carried, as polite books
in the last century used to be written, by 'various hands,' and the
anxiety expressed in the upturned faces of those officers,--
something between the anxiety attendant on the balancing art, and
that inseparable from the pastime of kite-flying, with a touch of
the angler's quality in landing his scaly prey,--much impressed me.
Suddenly, too, a banner would shiver in the wind, and go about in
the most inconvenient manner. This always happened oftenest with
such gorgeous standards as those representing a gentleman in black,
corpulent with tea and water, in the laudable act of summarily
reforming a family, feeble and pinched with beer. The gentleman in
black distended by wind would then conduct himself with the most
unbecoming levity, while the beery family, growing beerier, would
frantically try to tear themselves away from his ministration.
Some of the inscriptions accompanying the banners were of a highly
determined character, as 'We never, never will give up the
temperance cause,' with similar sound resolutions rather suggestive
to the profane mind of Mrs. Micawber's 'I never will desert Mr.
Micawber,' and of Mr. Micawber's retort, 'Really, my dear, I am not
aware that you were ever required by any human being to do anything
of the sort.'

At intervals, a gloom would fall on the passing members of the
procession, for which I was at first unable to account. But this I
discovered, after a little observation, to be occasioned by the
coming on of the executioners,--the terrible official beings who
were to make the speeches by-and-by,--who were distributed in open
carriages at various points of the cavalcade. A dark cloud and a
sensation of dampness, as from many wet blankets, invariably
preceded the rolling on of the dreadful cars containing these
headsmen; and I noticed that the wretched people who closely
followed them, and who were in a manner forced to contemplate their
folded arms, complacent countenances, and threatening lips, were
more overshadowed by the cloud and damp than those in front.
Indeed, I perceived in some of these so moody an implacability
towards the magnates of the scaffold, and so plain a desire to tear
them limb from limb, that I would respectfully suggest to the
managers the expediency of conveying the executioners to the scene
of their dismal labours by unfrequented ways, and in closely-tilted
carts, next Whitsuntide.

The procession was composed of a series of smaller processions,
which had come together, each from its own metropolitan district.
An infusion of allegory became perceptible when patriotic Peckham
advanced. So I judged, from the circumstance of Peckham's
unfurling a silken banner that fanned heaven and earth with the
words, 'The Peckham Lifeboat.' No boat being in attendance, though
life, in the likeness of 'a gallant, gallant crew,' in nautical
uniform, followed the flag, I was led to meditate on the fact that
Peckham is described by geographers as an inland settlement, with
no larger or nearer shore-line than the towing-path of the Surrey
Canal, on which stormy station I had been given to understand no
lifeboat exists. Thus I deduced an allegorical meaning, and came
to the conclusion, that if patriotic Peckham picked a peck of
pickled poetry, this WAS the peck of pickled poetry which patriotic
Peckham picked.

I have observed that the aggregate procession was on the whole
pleasant to see. I made use of that qualified expression with a
direct meaning, which I will now explain. It involves the title of
this paper, and a little fair trying of teetotalism by its own
tests. There were many people on foot, and many people in vehicles
of various kinds. The former were pleasant to see, and the latter
were not pleasant to see; for the reason that I never, on any
occasion or under any circumstances, have beheld heavier
overloading of horses than in this public show. Unless the
imposition of a great van laden with from ten to twenty people on a
single horse be a moderate tasking of the poor creature, then the
temperate use of horses was immoderate and cruel. From the
smallest and lightest horse to the largest and heaviest, there were
many instances in which the beast of burden was so shamefully
overladen, that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals have frequently interposed in less gross cases.

Now, I have always held that there may be, and that there
unquestionably is, such a thing as use without abuse, and that
therefore the total abolitionists are irrational and wrong-headed.
But the procession completely converted me. For so large a number
of the people using draught-horses in it were so clearly unable to
use them without abusing them, that I perceived total abstinence
from horseflesh to be the only remedy of which the case admitted.
As it is all one to teetotalers whether you take half a pint of
beer or half a gallon, so it was all one here whether the beast of
burden were a pony or a cart-horse. Indeed, my case had the
special strength that the half-pint quadruped underwent as much
suffering as the half-gallon quadruped. Moral: total abstinence
from horseflesh through the whole length and breadth of the scale.
This pledge will be in course of administration to all teetotal
processionists, not pedestrians, at the publishing office of 'All
the Year Round,' on the 1st day of April, 1870.

Observe a point for consideration. This procession comprised many
persons in their gigs, broughams, tax-carts, barouches, chaises,
and what not, who were merciful to the dumb beasts that drew them,
and did not overcharge their strength. What is to be done with
those unoffending persons? I will not run amuck and vilify and
defame them, as teetotal tracts and platforms would most assuredly
do, if the question were one of drinking instead of driving: I
merely ask what is to be done with them! The reply admits of no
dispute whatever. Manifestly, in strict accordance with teetotal
doctrines, THEY must come in too, and take the total abstinence
from horseflesh pledge. It is not pretended that those members of
the procession misused certain auxiliaries which in most countries
and all ages have been bestowed upon man for his use, but it is
undeniable that other members of the procession did. Teetotal
mathematics demonstrate that the less includes the greater; that
the guilty include the innocent, the blind the seeing, the deaf the
hearing, the dumb the speaking, the drunken the sober. If any of
the moderate users of draught-cattle in question should deem that
there is any gentle violence done to their reason by these elements
of logic, they are invited to come out of the procession next
Whitsuntide, and look at it from my window.

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