This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Language:
Form:
Genre:
Published:
  • 1844
Collection:
Listen via Audible FREE Audible 30 days

‘What visitor is this!’ it said. The voice was low and deep, and Trotty fancied that it sounded in the other figures as well.

‘I thought my name was called by the Chimes!’ said Trotty, raising his hands in an attitude of supplication. ‘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.’

‘And you have thanked them?’ said the Bell.

‘A thousand times!’ cried Trotty.

‘How?’

‘I am a poor man,’ faltered Trotty, ‘and could only thank them in words.’

‘And always so?’ inquired the Goblin of the Bell. ‘Have you never done us wrong in words?’

‘No!’ cried Trotty eagerly.

‘Never done us foul, and false, and wicked wrong, in words?’ pursued the Goblin of the Bell.

Trotty was about to answer, ‘Never!’ But he stopped, and was confused.

‘The voice of Time,’ said the Phantom, ‘cries to man, Advance! Time is for his advancement and improvement; for his greater worth, his greater happiness, his better life; his progress onward to that goal within its knowledge and its view, and set there, in the period when Time and He began. Ages of darkness, wickedness, and violence, have come and gone–millions uncountable, have suffered, lived, and died–to point the way before him. Who seeks to turn him back, or stay him on his course, arrests a mighty engine which will strike the meddler dead; and be the fiercer and the wilder, ever, for its momentary check!’

‘I never did so to my knowledge, sir,’ said Trotty. ‘It was quite by accident if I did. I wouldn’t go to do it, I’m sure.’

‘Who puts into the mouth of Time, or of its servants,’ said the Goblin of the Bell, ‘a cry of lamentation for days which have had their trial and their failure, and have left deep traces of it which the blind may see–a cry that only serves the present time, by showing men how much it needs their help when any ears can listen to regrets for such a past–who does this, does a wrong. And you have done that wrong, to us, the Chimes.’

Trotty’s first excess of fear was gone. But he had felt tenderly and gratefully towards the Bells, as you have seen; and when he heard himself arraigned as one who had offended them so weightily, his heart was touched with penitence and grief.

‘If you knew,’ said Trotty, clasping his hands earnestly–‘or perhaps you do know–if you know how often you have kept me company; how often you have cheered me up when I’ve been low; how you were quite the plaything of my little daughter Meg (almost the only one she ever had) when first her mother died, and she and me were left alone; you won’t bear malice for a hasty word!’

‘Who hears in us, the Chimes, one note bespeaking disregard, or stern regard, of any hope, or joy, or pain, or sorrow, of the many- sorrowed throng; who hears us make response to any creed that gauges human passions and affections, as it gauges the amount of miserable food on which humanity may pine and wither; does us wrong. That wrong you have done us!’ said the Bell.

‘I have!’ said Trotty. ‘Oh forgive me!’

‘Who hears us echo the dull vermin of the earth: the Putters Down of crushed and broken natures, formed to be raised up higher than such maggots of the time can crawl or can conceive,’ pursued the Goblin of the Bell; ‘who does so, does us wrong. And you have done us wrong!’

‘Not meaning it,’ said Trotty. ‘In my ignorance. Not meaning it!’

‘Lastly, and most of all,’ pursued the Bell. ‘Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good–grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!’

‘Spare me!’ cried Trotty, falling on his knees; ‘for Mercy’s sake!’

‘Listen!’ said the Shadow.

‘Listen!’ cried the other Shadows.

‘Listen!’ said a clear and childlike voice, which Trotty thought he recognised as having heard before.

The organ sounded faintly in the church below. Swelling by degrees, the melody ascended to the roof, and filled the choir and nave. Expanding more and more, it rose up, up; up, up; higher, higher, higher up; awakening agitated hearts within the burly piles of oak: the hollow bells, the iron-bound doors, the stairs of solid stone; until the tower walls were insufficient to contain it, and it soared into the sky.

No wonder that an old man’s breast could not contain a sound so vast and mighty. It broke from that weak prison in a rush of tears; and Trotty put his hands before his face.

‘Listen!’ said the Shadow.

‘Listen!’ said the other Shadows.

‘Listen!’ said the child’s voice.

A solemn strain of blended voices, rose into the tower.

It was a very low and mournful strain–a Dirge–and as he listened, Trotty heard his child among the singers.

‘She is dead!’ exclaimed the old man. ‘Meg is dead! Her Spirit calls to me. I hear it!’

‘The Spirit of your child bewails the dead, and mingles with the dead–dead hopes, dead fancies, dead imaginings of youth,’ returned the Bell, ‘but she is living. Learn from her life, a living truth. Learn from the creature dearest to your heart, how bad the bad are born. See every bud and leaf plucked one by one from off the fairest stem, and know how bare and wretched it may be. Follow her! To desperation!’

Each of the shadowy figures stretched its right arm forth, and pointed downward.

‘The Spirit of the Chimes is your companion,’ said the figure.

‘Go! It stands behind you!’

Trotty turned, and saw–the child! The child Will Fern had carried in the street; the child whom Meg had watched, but now, asleep!

‘I carried her myself, to-night,’ said Trotty. ‘In these arms!’

‘Show him what he calls himself,’ said the dark figures, one and all.

The tower opened at his feet. He looked down, and beheld his own form, lying at the bottom, on the outside: crushed and motionless.

‘No more a living man!’ cried Trotty. ‘Dead!’

‘Dead!’ said the figures all together.

‘Gracious Heaven! And the New Year–‘

‘Past,’ said the figures.

‘What!’ he cried, shuddering. ‘I missed my way, and coming on the outside of this tower in the dark, fell down–a year ago?’

‘Nine years ago!’ replied the figures.

As they gave the answer, they recalled their outstretched hands; and where their figures had been, there the Bells were.

And they rung; their time being come again. And once again, vast multitudes of phantoms sprung into existence; once again, were incoherently engaged, as they had been before; once again, faded on the stopping of the Chimes; and dwindled into nothing.

‘What are these?’ he asked his guide. ‘If I am not mad, what are these?’

‘Spirits of the Bells. Their sound upon the air,’ returned the child. ‘They take such shapes and occupations as the hopes and thoughts of mortals, and the recollections they have stored up, give them.’

‘And you,’ said Trotty wildly. ‘What are you?’

‘Hush, hush!’ returned the child. ‘Look here!’

In a poor, mean room; working at the same kind of embroidery which he had often, often seen before her; Meg, his own dear daughter, was presented to his view. He made no effort to imprint his kisses on her face; he did not strive to clasp her to his loving heart; he knew that such endearments were, for him, no more. But, he held his trembling breath, and brushed away the blinding tears, that he might look upon her; that he might only see her.

Ah! Changed. Changed. The light of the clear eye, how dimmed. The bloom, how faded from the cheek. Beautiful she was, as she had ever been, but Hope, Hope, Hope, oh where was the fresh Hope that had spoken to him like a voice!

She looked up from her work, at a companion. Following her eyes, the old man started back.

In the woman grown, he recognised her at a glance. In the long silken hair, he saw the self-same curls; around the lips, the child’s expression lingering still. See! In the eyes, now turned inquiringly on Meg, there shone the very look that scanned those features when he brought her home!

Then what was this, beside him!

Looking with awe into its face, he saw a something reigning there: a lofty something, undefined and indistinct, which made it hardly more than a remembrance of that child–as yonder figure might be– yet it was the same: the same: and wore the dress.

Hark. They were speaking!

‘Meg,’ said Lilian, hesitating. ‘How often you raise your head from your work to look at me!’

‘Are my looks so altered, that they frighten you?’ asked Meg.

‘Nay, dear! But you smile at that, yourself! Why not smile, when you look at me, Meg?’

‘I do so. Do I not?’ she answered: smiling on her.

‘Now you do,’ said Lilian, ‘but not usually. When you think I’m busy, and don’t see you, you look so anxious and so doubtful, that I hardly like to raise my eyes. There is little cause for smiling in this hard and toilsome life, but you were once so cheerful.’

‘Am I not now!’ cried Meg, speaking in a tone of strange alarm, and rising to embrace her. ‘Do I make our weary life more weary to you, Lilian!’

‘You have been the only thing that made it life,’ said Lilian, fervently kissing her; ‘sometimes the only thing that made me care to live so, Meg. Such work, such work! So many hours, so many days, so many long, long nights of hopeless, cheerless, never- ending work–not to heap up riches, not to live grandly or gaily, not to live upon enough, however coarse; but to earn bare bread; to scrape together just enough to toil upon, and want upon, and keep alive in us the consciousness of our hard fate! Oh Meg, 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 bear to look upon such lives!’

‘Lilly!’ said Meg, soothing her, and putting back her hair from her wet face. ‘Why, Lilly! You! So pretty and so young!’

‘Oh Meg!’ she interrupted, holding her at arm’s-length, and looking in her face imploringly. ‘The worst of all, the worst of all! Strike me old, Meg! Wither me, and shrivel me, and free me from the dreadful thoughts that tempt me in my youth!’

Trotty turned to look upon his guide. But the Spirit of the child had taken flight. Was gone.

Neither did he himself remain in the same place; for, Sir Joseph Bowley, Friend and Father of the Poor, held a great festivity at Bowley Hall, in honour of the natal day of Lady Bowley. And as Lady Bowley had been born on New Year’s Day (which the local newspapers considered an especial pointing of the finger of Providence to number One, as Lady Bowley’s destined figure in Creation), it was on a New Year’s Day that this festivity took place.

Bowley Hall was full of visitors. The red-faced gentleman was there, Mr. Filer was there, the great Alderman Cute was there– Alderman Cute had a sympathetic feeling with great people, and had considerably improved his acquaintance with Sir Joseph Bowley on the strength of his attentive letter: indeed had become quite a friend of the family since then–and many guests were there. Trotty’s ghost was there, wandering about, poor phantom, drearily; and looking for its guide.

There was to be a great dinner in the Great Hall. At which Sir Joseph Bowley, in his celebrated character of Friend and Father of the Poor, was to make his great speech. Certain plum-puddings were to be eaten by his Friends and Children in another Hall first; and, at a given signal, Friends and Children flocking in among their Friends and Fathers, were to form a family assemblage, with not one manly eye therein unmoistened by emotion.

But, there was more than this to happen. Even more than this. Sir Joseph Bowley, Baronet and Member of Parliament, was to play a match at skittles–real skittles–with his tenants!

‘Which quite reminds me,’ said Alderman Cute, ‘of the days of old King Hal, stout King Hal, bluff King Hal. Ah! Fine character!’

‘Very,’ said Mr. Filer, dryly. ‘For marrying women and murdering ’em. Considerably more than the average number of wives by the bye.’

‘You’ll marry the beautiful ladies, and not murder ’em, eh?’ said Alderman Cute to the heir of Bowley, aged twelve. ‘Sweet boy! We shall have this little gentleman in Parliament now,’ said the Alderman, holding him by the shoulders, and looking as reflective as he could, ‘before we know where we are. We shall hear of his successes at the poll; his speeches in the House; his overtures from Governments; his brilliant achievements of all kinds; ah! we shall make our little orations about him in the Common Council, I’ll be bound; before we have time to look about us!’

‘Oh, the difference of shoes and stockings!’ Trotty thought. But his heart yearned towards the child, for the love of those same shoeless and stockingless boys, predestined (by the Alderman) to turn out bad, who might have been the children of poor Meg.

‘Richard,’ moaned Trotty, roaming among the company, to and fro; ‘where is he? I can’t find Richard! Where is Richard?’ Not likely to be there, if still alive! But Trotty’s grief and solitude confused him; and he still went wandering among the gallant company, looking for his guide, and saying, ‘Where is Richard? Show me Richard!’

He was wandering thus, when he encountered Mr. Fish, the confidential Secretary: in great agitation.

‘Bless my heart and soul!’ cried Mr. Fish. ‘Where’s Alderman Cute? Has anybody seen the Alderman?’

Seen the Alderman? Oh dear! Who could ever help seeing the Alderman? He was so considerate, so affable, he bore so much in mind the natural desires of folks to see him, that if he had a fault, it was the being constantly On View. And wherever the great people were, there, to be sure, attracted by the kindred sympathy between great souls, was Cute.

Several voices cried that he was in the circle round Sir Joseph. Mr. Fish made way there; found him; and took him secretly into a window near at hand. Trotty joined them. Not of his own accord. He felt that his steps were led in that direction.

‘My dear Alderman Cute,’ said Mr. Fish. ‘A little more this way. The most dreadful circumstance has occurred. I have this moment received the intelligence. I think it will be best not to acquaint Sir Joseph with it till the day is over. You understand Sir Joseph, and will give me your opinion. The most frightful and deplorable event!’

‘Fish!’ returned the Alderman. ‘Fish! My good fellow, what is the matter? Nothing revolutionary, I hope! No–no attempted interference with the magistrates?’

‘Deedles, the banker,’ gasped the Secretary. ‘Deedles Brothers– who was to have been here to-day–high in office in the Goldsmiths’ Company–‘

‘Not stopped!’ exclaimed the Alderman, ‘It can’t be!’

‘Shot himself.’

‘Good God!’

‘Put a double-barrelled pistol to his mouth, in his own counting house,’ said Mr. Fish, ‘and blew his brains out. No motive. Princely circumstances!’

‘Circumstances!’ exclaimed the Alderman. ‘A man of noble fortune. One of the most respectable of men. Suicide, Mr. Fish! By his own hand!’

‘This very morning,’ returned Mr. Fish.

‘Oh the brain, the brain!’ exclaimed the pious Alderman, lifting up his hands. ‘Oh the nerves, the nerves; the mysteries of this machine called Man! Oh the little that unhinges it: poor creatures that we are! Perhaps a dinner, Mr. Fish. Perhaps the conduct of his son, who, I have heard, ran very wild, and was in the habit of drawing bills upon him without the least authority! A most respectable man. One of the most respectable men I ever knew! A lamentable instance, Mr. Fish. A public calamity! I shall make a point of wearing the deepest mourning. A most respectable man! But there is One above. We must submit, Mr. Fish. We must submit!’

What, Alderman! No word of Putting Down? Remember, Justice, your high moral boast and pride. Come, Alderman! Balance those scales. Throw me into this, the empty one, no dinner, and Nature’s founts in some poor woman, dried by starving misery and rendered obdurate to claims for which her offspring HAS authority in holy mother Eve. Weigh me the two, you Daniel, going to judgment, when your day shall come! Weigh them, in the eyes of suffering thousands, audience (not unmindful) of the grim farce you play. Or supposing that you strayed from your five wits–it’s not so far to go, but that it might be–and laid hands upon that throat of yours, warning your fellows (if you have a fellow) how they croak their comfortable wickedness to raving heads and stricken hearts. What then?

The words rose up in Trotty’s breast, as if they had been spoken by some other voice within him. Alderman Cute pledged himself to Mr. Fish that he would assist him in breaking the melancholy catastrophe to Sir Joseph when the day was over. Then, before they parted, wringing Mr. Fish’s hand in bitterness of soul, he said, ‘The most respectable of men!’ And added that he hardly knew (not even he), why such afflictions were allowed on earth.

‘It’s almost enough to make one think, if one didn’t know better,’ said Alderman Cute, ‘that at times some motion of a capsizing nature was going on in things, which affected the general economy of the social fabric. Deedles Brothers!’

The skittle-playing came off with immense success. Sir Joseph knocked the pins about quite skilfully; Master Bowley took an innings at a shorter distance also; and everybody said that now, when a Baronet and the Son of a Baronet played at skittles, the country was coming round again, as fast as it could come.

At its proper time, the Banquet was served up. Trotty involuntarily repaired to the Hall with the rest, for he felt himself conducted thither by some stronger impulse than his own free will. The sight was gay in the extreme; the ladies were very handsome; the visitors delighted, cheerful, and good-tempered. When the lower doors were opened, and the people flocked in, in their rustic dresses, the beauty of the spectacle was at its height; but Trotty only murmured more and more, ‘Where is Richard! He should help and comfort her! I can’t see Richard!’

There had been some speeches made; and Lady Bowley’s health had been proposed; and Sir Joseph Bowley had returned thanks, and had made his great speech, showing by various pieces of evidence that he was the born Friend and Father, and so forth; and had given as a Toast, his Friends and Children, and the Dignity of Labour; when a slight disturbance at the bottom of the Hall attracted Toby’s notice. After some confusion, noise, and opposition, one man broke through the rest, and stood forward by himself.

Not Richard. No. But one whom he had thought of, and had looked for, many times. In a scantier supply of light, he might have doubted the identity of that worn man, so old, and grey, and bent; but with a blaze of lamps upon his gnarled and knotted head, he knew Will Fern as soon as he stepped forth.

‘What is this!’ exclaimed Sir Joseph, rising. ‘Who gave this man admittance? This is a criminal from prison! Mr. Fish, sir, WILL you have the goodness–‘

‘A minute!’ said Will Fern. ‘A minute! My Lady, you was born on this day along with a New Year. Get me a minute’s leave to speak.’

She made some intercession for him. Sir Joseph took his seat again, with native dignity.

The ragged visitor–for he was miserably dressed–looked round upon the company, and made his homage to them with a humble bow.

‘Gentlefolks!’ he said. ‘You’ve drunk the Labourer. Look at me!’

‘Just come from jail,’ said Mr. Fish.

‘Just come from jail,’ said Will. ‘And neither for the first time, nor the second, nor the third, nor yet the fourth.’

Mr. Filer was heard to remark testily, that four times was over the average; and he ought to be ashamed of himself.

‘Gentlefolks!’ repeated Will Fern. ‘Look at me! You see I’m at the worst. Beyond all hurt or harm; beyond your help; for the time when your kind words or kind actions could have done me good,’–he struck his hand upon his breast, and shook his head, ‘is gone, with the scent of last year’s beans or clover on the air. Let me say a word for these,’ pointing to the labouring people in the Hall; ‘and when you’re met together, hear the real Truth spoke out for once.’

‘There’s not a man here,’ said the host, ‘who would have him for a spokesman.’

‘Like enough, Sir Joseph. I believe it. Not the less true, perhaps, is what I say. Perhaps that’s a proof on it. Gentlefolks, I’ve lived many a year in this place. You may see the cottage from the sunk fence over yonder. I’ve seen the ladies draw it in their books, a hundred times. It looks well in a picter, I’ve heerd say; but there an’t weather in picters, and maybe ’tis fitter for that, than for a place to live in. Well! I lived there. How hard–how bitter hard, I lived there, I won’t say. Any day in the year, and every day, you can judge for your own selves.’

He spoke as he had spoken on the night when Trotty found him in the street. His voice was deeper and more husky, and had a trembling in it now and then; but he never raised it passionately, and seldom lifted it above the firm stern level of the homely facts he stated.

”Tis harder than you think for, gentlefolks, to grow up decent, commonly decent, in such a place. That I growed up a man and not a brute, says something for me–as I was then. As I am now, there’s nothing can be said for me or done for me. I’m past it.’

‘I am glad this man has entered,’ observed Sir Joseph, looking round serenely. ‘Don’t disturb him. It appears to be Ordained. He is an example: a living example. I hope and trust, and confidently expect, that it will not be lost upon my Friends here.’

‘I dragged on,’ said Fern, after a moment’s silence, ‘somehow. Neither me nor any other man knows how; but so heavy, that I couldn’t put a cheerful face upon it, or make believe that I was anything but what I was. Now, gentlemen–you gentlemen that sits at Sessions–when you see a man with discontent writ on his face, you says to one another, “He’s suspicious. I has my doubts,” says you, “about Will Fern. Watch that fellow!” I don’t say, gentlemen, it ain’t quite nat’ral, but I say ’tis so; and from that hour, whatever Will Fern does, or lets alone–all one–it goes against him.’

Alderman Cute stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat-pockets, and leaning back in his chair, and smiling, winked at a neighbouring chandelier. As much as to say, ‘Of course! I told you so. The common cry! Lord bless you, we are up to all this sort of thing– myself and human nature.’

‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this. I tries to live elsewhere. And I’m a vagabond. To jail with him! I comes back here. I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks–who don’t?- -a limber branch or two. To jail with him! One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun. To jail with him! I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again. To jail with him! I cuts a stick. To jail with him! I eats a rotten apple or a turnip. To jail with him! It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road. To jail with him! At last, the constable, the keeper–anybody–finds me anywhere, a-doing anything. To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’

The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’

‘Do I say this to serve MY cause!’ cried Fern. ‘Who can give me back my liberty, who can give me back my good name, who can give me back my innocent niece? Not all the Lords and Ladies in wide England. But, gentlemen, gentlemen, dealing with other men like me, begin at the right end. Give us, in mercy, better homes when we’re a-lying in our cradles; give us better food when we’re a- working for our lives; give us kinder laws to bring us back when were a-going wrong; and don’t set jail, jail, jail, afore us, everywhere we turn. There an’t a condescension you can show the Labourer then, that he won’t take, as ready and as grateful as a man can be; for, he has a patient, peaceful, willing heart. But you must put his rightful spirit in him first; for, whether he’s a wreck and ruin such as me, or is like one of them that stand here now, his spirit is divided from you at this time. Bring it back, gentlefolks, bring it back! Bring it back, afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes–in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!’

A sudden stir and agitation took place in Hall. Trotty thought at first, that several had risen to eject the man; and hence this change in its appearance. But, another moment showed him that the room and all the company had vanished from his sight, and that his daughter was again before him, seated at her work. But in a poorer, meaner garret than before; and with no Lilian by her side.

The frame at which she had worked, was put away upon a shelf and covered up. 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!

Meg strained her eyes upon her work until it was too dark to see the threads; and when the night closed in, she lighted her feeble candle and worked on. Still her old father was invisible about her; looking down upon her; loving her–how dearly loving her!–and talking to her in a tender voice about the old times, and the Bells. Though he knew, poor Trotty, though he knew she could not hear him.

A great part of the evening had worn away, when a knock came at her door. She opened it. A man was on the threshold. A slouching, moody, drunken sloven, wasted by intemperance and vice, and with his matted hair and unshorn beard in wild disorder; but, with some traces on him, too, of having been a man of good proportion and good features in his youth.

He stopped until he had her leave to enter; and she, retiring a pace of two from the open door, silently and sorrowfully looked upon him. Trotty had his wish. He saw Richard.

‘May I come in, Margaret?’

‘Yes! Come in. Come in!’

It was well that Trotty knew him before he spoke; for with any doubt remaining on his mind, the harsh discordant voice would have persuaded him that it was not Richard but some other man.

There were but two chairs in the room. She gave him hers, and stood at some short distance from him, waiting to hear what he had to say.

He sat, however, staring vacantly at the floor; with a lustreless and stupid smile. A spectacle of such deep degradation, of such abject hopelessness, of such a miserable downfall, that she put her hands before her face and turned away, lest he should see how much it moved her.

Roused by the rustling of her dress, or some such trifling sound, he lifted his head, and began to speak as if there had been no pause since he entered.

‘Still at work, Margaret? You work late.’

‘I generally do.’

‘And early?’

‘And early.’

‘So she said. She said you never tired; or never owned that you tired. Not all the time you lived together. Not even when you fainted, between work and fasting. But I told you that, the last time I came.’

‘You did,’ she answered. ‘And I implored you to tell me nothing more; and you made me a solemn promise, Richard, that you never would.’

‘A solemn promise,’ he repeated, with a drivelling laugh and vacant stare. ‘A solemn promise. To be sure. A solemn promise!’ Awakening, as it were, after a time; in the same manner as before; he said with sudden animation:

‘How can I help it, Margaret? What am I to do? She has been to me again!’

‘Again!’ cried Meg, clasping her hands. ‘O, does she think of me so often! Has she been again!’

‘Twenty times again,’ said Richard. ‘Margaret, she haunts me. She comes behind me in the street, and thrusts it in my hand. I hear her foot upon the ashes when I’m at my work (ha, ha! that an’t often), and before I can turn my head, her voice is in my ear, saying, “Richard, don’t look round. For Heaven’s love, 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 in his hand a little purse, and chinked the money it enclosed.

‘Hide it,’ sad Meg. ‘Hide it! When she comes again, tell her, Richard, that I love her in my soul. That I never lie down to sleep, but I bless her, and pray for her. That, in my solitary work, I never cease to have her in my thoughts. That she is with me, night and day. That if I died to-morrow, I would remember her with my last breath. But, that I cannot look upon it!’

He slowly recalled his hand, and crushing the purse together, said with a kind of drowsy thoughtfulness:

‘I told her so. I told her so, as plain as words could speak. I’ve taken this gift back and left it at her door, a dozen times since then. But when she came at last, and stood before me, face to face, what could I do?’

‘You saw her!’ exclaimed Meg. ‘You saw her! O, Lilian, my sweet girl! O, Lilian, Lilian!’

‘I saw her,’ he went on to say, not answering, but engaged in the same slow pursuit of his own thoughts. ‘There she stood: trembling! “How does she look, Richard? Does she ever speak of me? Is she thinner? My old place at the table: what’s in my old place? And the frame she taught me our old work on–has she burnt it, Richard!” There she was. I heard her say it.’

Meg checked her sobs, and with the tears streaming from her eyes, bent over him to listen. Not to lose a breath.

With his arms resting on his knees; and stooping forward in his chair, as if what he said were written on the ground in some half legible character, which it was his occupation to decipher and connect; he went on.

‘”Richard, I have fallen very low; and you may guess how much I have suffered in having this sent back, when I can bear to bring it in my hand to you. But you loved her once, even in my memory, dearly. Others stepped in between you; fears, and jealousies, and doubts, and vanities, estranged you from her; but you did love her, even in my memory!” I suppose I did,’ he said, interrupting himself for a moment. ‘I did! That’s neither here nor there–“O Richard, if you ever did; if you have any memory for what is gone and lost, take it to her once more. Once more! Tell her how I laid my head upon your shoulder, where her own head might have lain, and was so humble to you, Richard. Tell her that you looked into my face, and saw the beauty which she used to praise, all gone: all gone: and in its place, a poor, wan, hollow cheek, that she would weep to see. Tell her everything, and take it back, and she will not refuse again. She will not have the heart!”‘

So he sat musing, and repeating the last words, until he woke again, and rose.

‘You won’t take it, Margaret?’

She shook her head, and motioned an entreaty to him to leave her.

‘Good night, Margaret.’

‘Good night!’

He turned to look upon her; struck by her sorrow, and perhaps by the pity for himself which trembled in her voice. It was a quick and rapid action; and for the moment some flash of his old bearing kindled in his form. In the next he went as he had come. Nor did this glimmer of a quenched fire seem to light him to a quicker sense of his debasement.

In any mood, in any grief, in any torture of the mind or body, Meg’s work must be done. She sat down to her task, and plied it. Night, midnight. Still she worked.

She had a meagre fire, the night being very cold; and rose at intervals to mend it. The Chimes rang half-past twelve while she was thus engaged; and when they ceased she heard a gentle knocking at the door. Before she could so much as wonder who was there, at that unusual hour, it opened.

O Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should be, look at this. O Youth and Beauty, blest and blessing all within your reach, and working out the ends of your Beneficent Creator, look at this!

She saw the entering figure; screamed its name; cried ‘Lilian!’

It was swift, and fell upon its knees before her: clinging to her dress.

‘Up, dear! Up! Lilian! My own dearest!’

‘Never more, Meg; never more! Here! Here! Close to you, holding to you, feeling your dear breath upon my face!’

‘Sweet Lilian! Darling Lilian! Child of my heart–no mother’s love can be more tender–lay your head upon my breast!’

‘Never more, Meg. Never more! When I first looked into your face, you knelt before me. 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, die together!’

‘Ah! Kiss my lips, Meg; fold your arms about me; press me to your bosom; look kindly on me; but don’t raise me. Let it be here. Let me see the last of your dear face upon my knees!’

O Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should be, look at this! O Youth and Beauty, working out the ends of your Beneficent Creator, look at this!

‘Forgive me, Meg! So dear, so dear! Forgive me! I know you do, I see you do, but say so, Meg!’

She said so, with her lips on Lilian’s cheek. And with her arms twined round–she knew it now–a broken heart.

‘His blessing on you, dearest love. Kiss me once more! He suffered her to sit beside His feet, and dry them with her hair. O Meg, what Mercy and Compassion!’

As she died, the Spirit of the child returning, innocent and radiant, touched the old man with its hand, and beckoned him away.

CHAPTER IV–Fourth Quarter.

Some new remembrance of the ghostly figures in the Bells; some faint impression of the ringing of the Chimes; some giddy consciousness of having seen the swarm of phantoms reproduced and reproduced until the recollection of them lost itself in the confusion of their numbers; some hurried knowledge, how conveyed to him he knew not, that more years had passed; and Trotty, with the Spirit of the child attending him, stood looking on at mortal company.

Fat company, rosy-cheeked company, comfortable company. They were but two, but they were red enough for ten. They sat before a bright fire, with a small low table between them; and unless the fragrance of hot tea and muffins lingered longer in that room than in most others, the table had seen service very lately. But all the cups and saucers being clean, and in their proper places in the corner-cupboard; and the brass toasting-fork hanging in its usual nook and spreading its four idle fingers out as if it wanted to be measured for a glove; there remained no other visible tokens of the meal just finished, than such as purred and washed their whiskers in the person of the basking cat, and glistened in the gracious, not to say the greasy, faces of her patrons.

This cosy couple (married, evidently) had made a fair division of the fire between them, and sat looking at the glowing sparks that dropped into the grate; now nodding off into a doze; now waking up again when some hot fragment, larger than the rest, came rattling down, as if the fire were coming with it.

It was in no danger of sudden extinction, however; for it gleamed not only in the little room, and on the panes of window-glass in the door, and on the curtain half drawn across them, but in the little shop beyond. A little shop, quite crammed and choked with the abundance of its stock; a perfectly voracious little shop, with a maw as accommodating and full as any shark’s. Cheese, butter, firewood, soap, pickles, matches, bacon, table-beer, peg-tops, sweetmeats, boys’ kites, bird-seed, cold ham, birch brooms, hearth- stones, salt, vinegar, blacking, red-herrings, stationery, lard, mushroom-ketchup, staylaces, loaves of bread, shuttlecocks, eggs, and slate pencil; everything was fish that came to the net of this greedy little shop, and all articles were in its net. How many other kinds of petty merchandise were there, it would be difficult to say; but balls of packthread, ropes of onions, pounds of candles, cabbage-nets, and brushes, hung in bunches from the ceiling, like extraordinary fruit; while various odd canisters emitting aromatic smells, established the veracity of the inscription over the outer door, which informed the public that the keeper of this little shop was a licensed dealer in tea, coffee, tobacco, pepper, and snuff.

Glancing at such of these articles as were visible in the shining of the blaze, and the less cheerful radiance of two smoky lamps which burnt but dimly in the shop itself, as though its plethora sat heavy on their lungs; and glancing, then, at one of the two faces by the parlour-fire; Trotty had small difficulty in recognising in the stout old lady, Mrs. Chickenstalker: always inclined to corpulency, even in the days when he had known her as established in the general line, and having a small balance against him in her books.

The features of her companion were less easy to him. The great broad chin, with creases in it large enough to hide a finger in; the astonished eyes, that seemed to expostulate with themselves for sinking deeper and deeper into the yielding fat of the soft face; the nose afflicted with that disordered action of its functions which is generally termed The Snuffles; the short thick throat and labouring chest, with other beauties of the like description; though calculated to impress the memory, Trotty could at first allot to nobody he had ever known: and yet he had some recollection of them too. At length, in Mrs. Chickenstalker’s partner in the general line, and in the crooked and eccentric line of life, he recognised the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley; an apoplectic innocent, who had connected himself in Trotty’s mind with Mrs. Chickenstalker years ago, by giving him admission to the mansion where he had confessed his obligations to that lady, and drawn on his unlucky head such grave reproach.

Trotty had little interest in a change like this, after the changes he had seen; but association is very strong sometimes; and he looked involuntarily behind the parlour-door, where the accounts of credit customers were usually kept in chalk. There was no record of his name. Some names were there, but they were strange to him, and infinitely fewer than of old; from which he argued that the porter was an advocate of ready-money transactions, and on coming into the business had looked pretty sharp after the Chickenstalker defaulters.

So desolate was Trotty, and so mournful for the youth and promise of his blighted child, that it was a sorrow to him, even to have no place in Mrs. Chickenstalker’s ledger.

‘What sort of a night is it, Anne?’ inquired the former porter of Sir Joseph Bowley, stretching out his legs before the fire, and rubbing as much of them as his short arms could reach; with an air that added, ‘Here I am if it’s bad, and I don’t want to go out if it’s good.’

‘Blowing and sleeting hard,’ returned his wife; ‘and threatening snow. Dark. And very cold.’

‘I’m glad to think we had muffins,’ said the former porter, in the tone of one who had set his conscience at rest. ‘It’s a sort of night that’s meant for muffins. Likewise crumpets. Also Sally Lunns.’

The former porter mentioned each successive kind of eatable, as if he were musingly summing up his good actions. After which he rubbed his fat legs as before, and jerking them at the knees to get the fire upon the yet unroasted parts, laughed as if somebody had tickled him.

‘You’re in spirits, Tugby, my dear,’ observed his wife.

The firm was Tugby, late Chickenstalker.

‘No,’ said Tugby. ‘No. Not particular. I’m a little elewated. The muffins came so pat!’

With that he chuckled until he was black in the face; and had so much ado to become any other colour, that his fat legs took the strangest excursions into the air. Nor were they reduced to anything like decorum until Mrs. Tugby had thumped him violently on the back, and shaken him as if he were a great bottle.

‘Good gracious, goodness, lord-a-mercy bless and save the man!’ cried Mrs. Tugby, in great terror. ‘What’s he doing?’

Mr. Tugby wiped his eyes, and faintly repeated that he found himself a little elewated.

‘Then don’t be so again, that’s a dear good soul,’ said Mrs. Tugby, ‘if you don’t want to frighten me to death, with your struggling and fighting!’

Mr. Tugby said he wouldn’t; but, his whole existence was a fight, in which, if any judgment might be founded on the constantly- increasing shortness of his breath, and the deepening purple of his face, he was always getting the worst of it.

‘So it’s blowing, and sleeting, and threatening snow; and it’s dark, and very cold, is it, my dear?’ said Mr. Tugby, looking at the fire, and reverting to the cream and marrow of his temporary elevation.

‘Hard weather indeed,’ returned his wife, shaking her head.

‘Aye, aye! Years,’ said Mr. Tugby, ‘are like Christians in that respect. Some of ’em die hard; some of ’em die easy. This one hasn’t many days to run, and is making a fight for it. I like him all the better. There’s a customer, my love!’

Attentive to the rattling door, Mrs. Tugby had already risen.

‘Now then!’ said that lady, passing out into the little shop. ‘What’s wanted? Oh! I beg your pardon, sir, I’m sure. I didn’t think it was you.’

She made this apology to a gentleman in black, who, with his wristbands tucked up, and his hat cocked loungingly on one side, and his hands in his pockets, sat down astride on the table-beer barrel, and nodded in return.

‘This is a bad business up-stairs, Mrs. Tugby,’ said the gentleman. ‘The man can’t live.’

‘Not the back-attic can’t!’ cried Tugby, coming out into the shop to join the conference.

‘The back-attic, Mr. Tugby,’ said the gentleman, ‘is coming down- stairs fast, and will be below the basement very soon.’

Looking by turns at Tugby and his wife, he sounded the barrel with his knuckles for the depth of beer, and having found it, played a tune upon the empty part.

‘The back-attic, Mr. Tugby,’ said the gentleman: Tugby having stood in silent consternation for some time: ‘is Going.’

‘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 take the responsibility of saying it could be done, myself. You had better leave him where he is. He can’t live long.’

‘It’s the only subject,’ said Tugby, bringing the butter-scale down upon the counter with a crash, by weighing his fist on it, ‘that we’ve ever had a word upon; she and me; and look what it comes to! He’s going to die here, after all. Going to die upon the premises. Going to die in our house!’

‘And where should he have died, Tugby?’ cried his wife.

‘In the workhouse,’ he returned. ‘What are workhouses made for?’

‘Not for that,’ said Mrs. Tugby, with great energy. ‘Not for that! Neither did I marry you for that. Don’t think it, Tugby. I won’t have it. I won’t allow it. I’d be separated first, and never see your face again. When my widow’s name stood over that door, as it did for many years: this house being known as Mrs. Chickenstalker’s far and wide, and never known but to its honest credit and its good report: when my widow’s name stood over that door, Tugby, I knew him as a handsome, steady, manly, independent youth; I knew her as the sweetest-looking, sweetest-tempered girl, eyes ever saw; I knew her father (poor old creetur, he fell down from the steeple walking in his sleep, and killed himself), for the simplest, hardest-working, childest-hearted man, that ever drew the breath of life; and when I turn them out of house and home, may angels turn me out of Heaven. As they would! And serve me right!’

Her old face, which had been a plump and dimpled one before the changes which had come to pass, seemed to shine out of her as she said these words; and when she dried her eyes, and shook her head and her handkerchief at Tugby, with an expression of firmness which it was quite clear was not to be easily resisted, Trotty said, ‘Bless her! Bless her!’

Then he listened, with a panting heart, for what should follow. Knowing nothing yet, but that they spoke of Meg.

If Tugby had been a little elevated in the parlour, he more than balanced that account by being not a little depressed in the shop, where he now stood staring at his wife, without attempting a reply; secretly conveying, however–either in a fit of abstraction or as a precautionary measure–all the money from the till into his own pockets, as he looked at her.

The gentleman upon the table-beer cask, who appeared to be some authorised medical attendant upon the poor, was far too well accustomed, evidently, to little differences of opinion between man and wife, to interpose any remark in this instance. He sat softly whistling, and turning little drops of beer out of the tap upon the ground, until there was a perfect calm: when he raised his head, and said to Mrs. Tugby, late Chickenstalker:

‘There’s something interesting about the woman, even now. How did she come to marry him?’

‘Why that,’ said Mrs. Tugby, taking a seat near him, ‘is not the least cruel part of her story, sir. You see they kept company, she and Richard, many years ago. When they were a young and beautiful couple, everything was settled, and they were to have been married on a New Year’s Day. But, somehow, Richard got it into his head, through what the gentlemen told him, that he might do better, and that he’d soon repent it, and that she wasn’t good enough for him, and that a young man of spirit had no business to be married. And the gentlemen frightened her, and made her melancholy, and timid of his deserting her, and of her children coming to the gallows, and of its being wicked to be man and wife, and a good deal more of it. And in short, they lingered and lingered, and their trust in one another was broken, and so at last was the match. But the fault was his. She would have married him, sir, joyfully. I’ve seen her heart swell many times afterwards, when he passed her in a proud and careless way; and never did a woman grieve more truly for a man, than she for Richard when he first went wrong.’

‘Oh! he went wrong, did he?’ said the gentleman, pulling out the vent-peg of the table-beer, and trying to peep down into the barrel through the hole.

‘Well, sir, I don’t know that he rightly understood himself, you see. I think his mind was troubled by their having broke with one another; and that but for being ashamed before the gentlemen, and perhaps for being uncertain too, how she might take it, he’d have gone through any suffering or trial to have had Meg’s promise and Meg’s hand again. That’s my belief. He never said so; more’s the pity! He took to drinking, idling, bad companions: all the fine resources that were to be so much better for him than the Home he might have had. He lost his looks, his character, his health, his strength, his friends, his work: everything!’

‘He didn’t lose everything, Mrs. Tugby,’ returned the gentleman, ‘because he gained a wife; and I want to know how he gained her.’

‘I’m coming to it, sir, in a moment. This went on for years and years; he sinking lower and lower; she enduring, poor thing, miseries enough to wear her life away. At last, he was so cast down, and cast out, that no one would employ or notice him; and doors were shut upon him, go where he would. Applying from place to place, and door to door; and coming for the hundredth time to one gentleman who had often and often tried him (he was a good workman to the very end); that gentleman, who knew his history, said, “I believe you are incorrigible; there is only one person in the world who has a chance of reclaiming you; ask me to trust you no more, until she tries to do it.” Something like that, in his anger and vexation.’

‘Ah!’ said the gentleman. ‘Well?’

‘Well, sir, he went to her, and kneeled to her; said it was so; said it ever had been so; and made a prayer to her to save him.’

‘And she?–Don’t distress yourself, Mrs. Tugby.’

‘She came to me that night to ask me about living here. “What he was once to me,” she said, “is buried in a grave, side by side with what I was to him. But I have thought of this; and I will make the trial. In the hope of saving him; for the love of the light- hearted girl (you remember her) who was to have been married on a New Year’s Day; and for the love of her Richard.” And she said he had come to her from Lilian, and Lilian had trusted to him, and she never could forget that. So they were married; and when they came home here, and I saw them, I hoped that such prophecies as parted them when they were young, may not often fulfil themselves as they did in this case, or I wouldn’t be the makers of them for a Mine of Gold.’

The gentleman got off the cask, and stretched himself, observing:

‘I suppose he used her ill, as soon as they were married?’

‘I don’t think he ever did that,’ said Mrs. Tugby, shaking her head, and wiping her eyes. ‘He went on better for a short time; but, his habits were too old and strong to be got rid of; he soon fell back a little; and was falling fast back, when his illness came so strong upon him. I think he has always felt for her. I am sure he has. I have seen him, in his crying fits and tremblings, try to kiss her hand; and I have heard him call her “Meg,” and say it was her nineteenth birthday. There he has been lying, now, these weeks and months. Between him and her baby, she has not been able to do her old work; and by not being able to be regular, she has lost it, even if she could have done it. How they have lived, I hardly know!’

‘I know,’ muttered Mr. Tugby; looking at the till, and round the shop, and at his wife; and rolling his head with immense intelligence. ‘Like Fighting Cocks!’

He was interrupted by a cry–a sound of lamentation–from the upper story of the house. The gentleman moved hurriedly to the door.

‘My friend,’ he said, looking back, ‘you needn’t discuss whether he shall be removed or not. He has spared you that trouble, I believe.’

Saying so, he ran up-stairs, followed by Mrs. Tugby; while Mr. Tugby panted and grumbled after them at leisure: being rendered more than commonly short-winded by the weight of the till, in which there had been an inconvenient quantity of copper. Trotty, with the child beside him, floated up the staircase like mere air.

‘Follow her! Follow her! Follow her!’ He heard the ghostly voices in the Bells repeat their words as he ascended. ‘Learn it, from the creature dearest to your heart!’

It was over. It was over. And this was she, her father’s pride and joy! This haggard, wretched woman, weeping by the bed, if it deserved that name, and pressing to her breast, and hanging down her head upon, an infant. Who can tell how spare, how sickly, and how poor an infant! Who can tell how dear!

‘Thank God!’ cried Trotty, holding up his folded hands. ‘O, God be thanked! She loves her child!’

The gentleman, not otherwise hard-hearted or indifferent to such scenes, than that he saw them every day, and knew that they were figures of no moment in the Filer sums–mere scratches in the working of these calculations–laid his hand upon the heart that beat no more, and listened for the breath, and said, ‘His pain is over. It’s better as it is!’ Mrs. Tugby tried to comfort her with kindness. Mr. Tugby tried philosophy.

‘Come, come!’ he said, with his hands in his pockets, ‘you mustn’t give way, you know. That won’t do. You must fight up. What would have become of me if _I_ had given way when I was porter, and we had as many as six runaway carriage-doubles at our door in one night! But, I fell back upon my strength of mind, and didn’t open it!’

Again Trotty heard the voices saying, ‘Follow her!’ He turned towards his guide, and saw it rising from him, passing through the air. ‘Follow her!’ it said. And vanished.

He hovered round her; sat down at her feet; looked up into her face for one trace of her old self; listened for one note of her old pleasant voice. He flitted round the child: so wan, so prematurely old, so dreadful in its gravity, so plaintive in its feeble, mournful, miserable wail. He almost worshipped it. He clung to it as her only safeguard; as the last unbroken link that bound her to endurance. He set his father’s hope and trust on the frail baby; watched her every look upon it as she held it in her arms; and cried a thousand times, ‘She loves it! God be thanked, she loves it!’

He saw the woman tend her in the night; return to her when her grudging husband was asleep, and all was still; encourage her, shed tears with her, set nourishment before her. He saw the day come, and the night again; the day, the night; the time go by; the house of death relieved of death; the room left to herself and to the child; he heard it moan and cry; he saw it harass her, and tire her out, and when she slumbered in exhaustion, drag her back to consciousness, and hold her with its little hands upon the rack; but she was constant to it, gentle with it, patient with it. Patient! Was its loving mother in her inmost heart and soul, and had its Being knitted up with hers as when she carried it unborn.

All this time, she was in want: languishing away, in dire and pining want. With the baby in her arms, she wandered here and there, in quest of occupation; and with its thin face lying in her lap, and looking up in hers, did any work for any wretched sum; a day and night of labour for as many farthings as there were figures on the dial. If she had quarrelled with it; if she had neglected it; if she had looked upon it with a moment’s hate; if, in the frenzy of an instant, she had struck it! No. His comfort was, She loved it always.

She told no one of her extremity, and wandered abroad in the day lest she should be questioned by her only friend: for any help she received from her hands, occasioned fresh disputes between the good woman and her husband; and it was new bitterness to be the daily cause of strife and discord, where she owed so much.

She loved it still. She loved it more and more. But a change fell on the aspect of her love. One night.

She was singing faintly to it in its sleep, and walking to and fro to hush it, when her door was softly opened, and a man looked in.

‘For the last time,’ he said.

‘William Fern!’

‘For the last time.’

He listened like a man pursued: and spoke in whispers.

‘Margaret, my race is nearly run. I couldn’t finish it, without a parting word with you. Without one grateful word.’

‘What have you done?’ she asked: regarding him with terror.

He looked at her, but gave no answer.

After a short silence, he made a gesture with his hand, as if he set her question by; as if he brushed it aside; and said:

‘It’s long ago, Margaret, now: but that night is as fresh in my memory as ever ’twas. We little thought, then,’ he added, looking round, ‘that we should ever meet like this. Your child, Margaret? Let me have it in my arms. Let me hold your child.’

He put his hat upon the floor, and took it. And he trembled as he took it, from head to foot.

‘Is it a girl?’

‘Yes.’

He put his hand before its little face.

‘See how weak I’m grown, Margaret, when I want the courage to look at it! Let her be, a moment. I won’t hurt her. It’s long ago, but–What’s her name?’

‘Margaret,’ she answered, quickly.

‘I’m glad of that,’ he said. ‘I’m glad of that!’ He seemed to breathe more freely; and after pausing for an instant, took away his hand, and looked upon the infant’s face. But covered it again, immediately.

‘Margaret!’ he said; and gave her back the child. ‘It’s Lilian’s.’

‘Lilian’s!’

‘I held the same face in my arms when Lilian’s mother died and left her.’

‘When Lilian’s mother died and left her!’ she repeated, wildly.

‘How shrill you speak! Why do you fix your eyes upon me so? Margaret!’

She sunk down in a chair, and pressed the infant to her breast, and wept over it. Sometimes, she released it from her embrace, to look anxiously in its face: then strained it to her bosom again. At those times, when she gazed upon it, then it was that something fierce and terrible began to mingle with her love. Then it was that her old father quailed.

‘Follow her!’ was sounded through the house. ‘Learn it, from the creature dearest to your heart!’

‘Margaret,’ said Fern, bending over her, and kissing her upon the brow: ‘I thank you for the last time. Good night. Good bye! Put your hand in mine, and tell me you’ll 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 a Fire to-night,’ he said, removing from her. ‘There’ll be Fires this winter-time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they’ll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. 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 the livelong night, hushing it and soothing it. She said at intervals, ‘Like Lilian, when her mother died and left her!’ Why was her step so quick, her eye so wild, her love so fierce and terrible, whenever she repeated those words?

‘But, it is Love,’ said Trotty. ‘It is Love. She’ll never cease to love it. My poor Meg!’

She dressed the child next morning with unusual care–ah, vain expenditure of care upon such squalid robes!–and once more tried to find some means of life. It was the last day of the Old Year. She tried till night, and never broke her fast. She tried in vain.

She mingled with an abject crowd, who tarried in the snow, until it pleased some officer appointed to dispense the public charity (the lawful charity; not that once preached upon a Mount), to call them in, and question them, and say to this one, ‘Go to such a place,’ to that one, ‘Come next week;’ to make a football of another wretch, and pass him here and there, from hand to hand, from house to house, until he wearied and lay down to die; or started up and robbed, and so became a higher sort of criminal, whose claims allowed of no delay. Here, too, she failed.

She loved her child, and wished to have it lying on her breast. And that was quite enough.

It was night: a bleak, dark, cutting night: when, pressing the child close to her for warmth, she arrived outside the house she called her home. She was so faint and giddy, that she saw no one standing in the doorway until she was close upon it, and about to enter. Then, she recognised the master of the house, who had so disposed himself–with his person it was not difficult–as to fill up the whole entry.

‘O!’ he said softly. ‘You have come back?’

She looked at the child, and shook her head.

‘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, now?’ said Mr. Tugby.

She repeated the same mute appeal.

‘Suppose you try and deal somewhere else,’ he said. ‘And suppose you provide yourself with another lodging. Come! Don’t you think you could manage it?’

She said in a low voice, that it was very late. To-morrow.

‘Now I see what you want,’ said Tugby; ‘and what you mean. You know there are two parties in this house about you, and you delight in setting ’em by the ears. I don’t want any quarrels; I’m speaking softly to avoid a quarrel; but if you don’t go away, I’ll speak out loud, and you shall cause words high enough to please you. But you shan’t come in. That I am determined.’

She put her hair back with her hand, and looked in a sudden manner at the sky, and the dark lowering distance.

‘This is the last night of an Old Year, and I won’t carry ill-blood and quarrellings and disturbances into a New One, to please you nor anybody else,’ said Tugby, who was quite a retail Friend and Father. ‘I wonder you an’t ashamed of yourself, to carry such practices into a New Year. If you haven’t any business in the world, but to be always giving way, and always making disturbances between man and wife, you’d be better out of it. Go along with you.’

‘Follow her! To desperation!’

Again the old man heard the voices. Looking up, he saw the figures hovering in the air, and pointing where she went, down the dark street.

‘She loves it!’ he exclaimed, in agonised entreaty for her. ‘Chimes! she loves it still!’

‘Follow her!’ The shadow swept upon the track she had taken, like a cloud.

He joined in the pursuit; he kept close to her; he looked into her face. He saw the same fierce and terrible expression mingling with her love, and kindling in her eyes. He heard her say, ‘Like Lilian! To be changed like Lilian!’ and her speed redoubled.

O, for something to awaken her! For any sight, or sound, or scent, to call up tender recollections in a brain on fire! For any gentle image of the Past, to rise before her!

‘I was her father! I was her father!’ cried the old man, stretching out his hands to the dark shadows flying on above. ‘Have mercy on her, and on me! Where does she go? Turn her back! I was her father!’

But they only pointed to her, as she hurried on; and said, ‘To desperation! Learn it from the creature dearest to your heart!’ A hundred voices echoed it. The air was made of breath expended in those words. He seemed to take them in, at every gasp he drew. They were 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.

‘Now, turn her back!’ exclaimed the old man, tearing his white hair. ‘My child! Meg! Turn her back! Great Father, turn her back!’

In her own scanty shawl, she wrapped the baby warm. With her fevered hands, she smoothed its limbs, composed its face, arranged its mean attire. In her wasted arms she folded it, as though she never would resign it more. And with her dry lips, kissed it in a final pang, and last long agony of Love.

Putting its tiny hand up to her neck, and holding it there, within her dress, next to her distracted heart, she set its sleeping face against her: closely, steadily, against her: and sped onward to the River.

To the rolling River, swift and dim, where Winter Night sat brooding like the last dark thoughts of many who had sought a refuge there before her. Where scattered lights upon the banks gleamed sullen, red, and dull, as torches that were burning there, to show the way to Death. Where no abode of living people cast its shadow, on the deep, impenetrable, melancholy shade.

To the River! To that portal of Eternity, her desperate footsteps tended with the swiftness of its rapid waters running to the sea. He tried to touch her as she passed him, going down to its dark level: but, the wild distempered form, the fierce and terrible love, the desperation that had left all human check or hold behind, swept by him like the wind.

He followed her. She paused a moment on the brink, before the dreadful plunge. He fell down on his knees, and in a shriek addressed the figures in the Bells now hovering above them.

‘I have learnt it!’ cried the old man. ‘From the creature dearest to my heart! O, save her, save her!’

He could wind his fingers in her dress; could hold it! As the words escaped his lips, he felt his sense of touch return, and knew that he detained her.

The figures looked down steadfastly upon him.

‘I have learnt it!’ cried the old man. ‘O, have mercy on me in this hour, if, in my love for her, so young and good, I slandered Nature in the breasts of mothers rendered desperate! Pity my presumption, wickedness, and ignorance, and save her.’ He felt his hold relaxing. They were silent still.

‘Have mercy on her!’ he exclaimed, ‘as one in whom this dreadful crime has sprung from Love perverted; from the strongest, deepest Love we fallen creatures know! Think what her misery must have been, when such seed bears such fruit! Heaven meant her to be good. There is no loving mother on the earth who might not come to this, if such a life had gone before. O, have mercy on my child, who, even at this pass, means mercy to her own, and dies herself, and perils her immortal soul, to save it!’

She was in his arms. He held her now. His strength was like a giant’s.

‘I see the Spirit of the Chimes among you!’ cried the old man, singling out the child, and speaking in some inspiration, which their looks conveyed to him. ‘I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart. I clasp her in my arms again. O Spirits, merciful and good, I take your lesson to my breast along with her! O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!’

He might have said more; but, the Bells, the old familiar Bells, his own dear, constant, steady friends, the Chimes, began to ring the joy-peals for a New Year: so lustily, so merrily, so happily, so gaily, that he leapt upon his feet, and broke the spell that bound him.

‘And whatever you do, father,’ said Meg, ‘don’t eat tripe again, without asking some doctor whether it’s likely to agree with you; for how you HAVE been going on, Good gracious!’

She 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 beautiful promise, that he uttered a great cry as if it were an Angel in his house; then flew to clasp her in his arms.

But, he caught his feet in the newspaper, which had fallen on the hearth; and somebody came rushing in between them.

‘No!’ cried the voice of this same somebody; a generous and jolly voice it was! ‘Not even you. Not even you. The first kiss of Meg in the New Year is mine. Mine! I have been waiting outside the house, this hour, to hear the Bells and claim it. Meg, my precious prize, a happy year! A life of happy years, my darling wife!’

And Richard smothered her with kisses.

You never in all your life saw anything like Trotty after this. I don’t care where you have lived or what you have seen; you never in all your life saw anything at all approaching him! He sat down in his chair and beat his knees and cried; he sat down in his chair and beat his knees and laughed; he sat down in his chair and beat his knees and laughed and cried together; he got out of his chair and hugged Meg; he got out of his chair and hugged Richard; he got out of his chair and hugged them both at once; he kept running up to Meg, and squeezing her fresh face between his hands and kissing it, going from her backwards not to lose sight of it, and running up again like a figure in a magic lantern; and whatever he did, he was constantly sitting himself down in his chair, and never stopping in it for one single moment; being–that’s the truth– beside himself with joy.

‘And to-morrow’s your wedding-day, my pet!’ cried Trotty. ‘Your real, happy wedding-day!’

‘To-day!’ cried Richard, shaking hands with him. ‘To-day. The Chimes are ringing in the New Year. Hear them!’

They WERE ringing! Bless their sturdy hearts, they WERE ringing! Great Bells as they were; melodious, deep-mouthed, noble Bells; cast in no common metal; made by no common founder; when had they ever chimed like that, before!

‘But, to-day, my pet,’ said Trotty. ‘You and Richard had some words to-day.’

‘Because he’s such a bad fellow, father,’ said Meg. ‘An’t you, Richard? Such a headstrong, violent man! He’d have made no more of speaking his mind to that great Alderman, and putting HIM down I don’t know where, than he would of–‘

‘–Kissing Meg,’ suggested Richard. Doing it too!

‘No. Not a bit more,’ said Meg. ‘But I wouldn’t let him, father. Where would have been the use!’

‘Richard my boy!’ cried Trotty. ‘You was turned up Trumps originally; and Trumps you must be, till you die! But, you were crying by the fire to-night, my pet, when I came home! Why did you cry by the fire?’

‘I was thinking of the years we’ve passed together, father. Only that. And thinking that you might miss me, and be lonely.’

Trotty was backing off to that extraordinary chair again, when the child, who had been awakened by the noise, came running in half- dressed.

‘Why, here she is!’ cried Trotty, catching her up. ‘Here’s little Lilian! Ha ha ha! Here we are and here we go! O here we are and here we go again! And here we are and here we go! and Uncle Will too!’ Stopping in his trot to greet him heartily. ‘O, Uncle Will, the vision that I’ve had to-night, through lodging you! O, Uncle Will, the obligations that you’ve laid me under, by your coming, my good friend!’

Before Will Fern could make the least reply, a band of music burst into the room, attended by a lot of neighbours, screaming ‘A Happy New Year, Meg!’ ‘A Happy Wedding!’ ‘Many of ’em!’ and other fragmentary good wishes of that sort. The Drum (who was a private friend of Trotty’s) then stepped forward, and said:

‘Trotty Veck, my boy! It’s got about, that your daughter is going to be married to-morrow. There an’t a soul that knows you that don’t wish you well, or that knows her and don’t wish her well. Or that knows you both, and don’t wish you both all the happiness the New Year can bring. And here we are, to play it in and dance it in, accordingly.’

Which was received with a general shout. The Drum was rather drunk, by-the-bye; but, never mind.

‘What a happiness it is, I’m sure,’ said Trotty, ‘to be so esteemed! How kind and neighbourly you are! It’s all along of my dear daughter. She deserves it!’

They were ready for a 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 combination of prodigious sounds was heard outside, and a good-humoured comely woman of some fifty years of age, or thereabouts, came running in, attended by a man bearing a stone pitcher of terrific size, and closely followed by the marrow-bones and cleavers, and the bells; not THE Bells, but a portable collection on a frame.

Trotty said, ‘It’s Mrs. Chickenstalker!’ And sat down and beat his knees again.

‘Married, and not tell me, Meg!’ cried the good woman. ‘Never! I couldn’t rest on the last night of the Old Year without coming to wish you joy. I couldn’t have done it, Meg. Not if I had been bed-ridden. So here I am; and as it’s New Year’s Eve, and the Eve of your wedding too, my dear, I had a little flip made, and brought it with me.’

Mrs. Chickenstalker’s notion of a little flip did honour to her character. The pitcher steamed and smoked and reeked like a volcano; and the man who had carried it, was faint.

‘Mrs. Tugby!’ said Trotty, who had been going round and round her, in an ecstasy.–‘I SHOULD say, Chickenstalker–Bless your heart and soul! A Happy New Year, and many of ’em! Mrs. Tugby,’ said Trotty when he had saluted her;–‘I SHOULD say, Chickenstalker–This is William Fern and Lilian.’

The worthy dame, to his surprise, turned very pale and very red.

‘Not Lilian Fern whose mother died in Dorsetshire!’ said she.

Her uncle answered ‘Yes,’ and meeting hastily, they exchanged some hurried words together; of which the upshot was, that Mrs. Chickenstalker shook him by both hands; saluted Trotty on his cheek again of her own free will; and took the child to her capacious breast.

‘Will Fern!’ said Trotty, pulling on his right-hand muffler. ‘Not the friend you was hoping to find?’

‘Ay!’ returned Will, putting a hand on each of Trotty’s shoulders. ‘And like to prove a’most as good a friend, if that can be, as one I found.’

‘O!’ said Trotty. ‘Please to play up there. Will you have the goodness!’

To the music of the band, and, the bells, the marrow-bones and cleavers, all at once; and while the Chimes were yet in lusty operation out of doors; Trotty, making Meg and Richard, second couple, led off Mrs. Chickenstalker down the dance, and danced it in a step unknown before or since; founded on his own peculiar trot.

Had Trotty dreamed? Or, are his joys and sorrows, and the actors in them, but a dream; himself a dream; the teller of this tale a dreamer, waking but now? If it be so, O listener, dear to him in all his visions, try to bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your sphere–none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end–endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them. So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.