In Dickens's London/Chapter 1
"GEORGE INN," WHERE MR. PICKWICK FIRST MET SAM WELLER
"'Halloo,' replied the man with the white hat.
"'Number twenty-two wants his boots.'
"'Ask number twenty-two, vether he'll have 'em now, or vait till he gets 'em,' was the reply.
"'Come, don't be a fool, Sam,' said the girl, coaxingly, 'the gentleman wants his boots directly.'
"'Well, you are a nice young 'ooman for a musical party, you are,' said the boot-cleaner. 'Look at these here boots—eleven pair o' boots; and one shoe as b'longs to number six, with the wooden leg. The eleven boots is to be called at half-past eight and the shoe at nine. Who's number twenty-two, that's to put all the others out? No, no; reg'lar rotation, as Jack Ketch said, ven he tied the men up. Sorry to keep you a-waitin', Sir, but I'll attend to you directly.'
"Saying which, the man in the white hat set to work upon a top-boot with increased assiduity.
"There was another loud ring; and the bustling old land-lady of the White Hart made her appearance in the opposite gallery.
"'Sam,' cried the landlady, 'where's that lazy, idle—why Sam—oh, there you are; why don't you answer?'
"'Vouldn't be gen-teel to answer, 'till you'd done talking,' replied Sam, gruffly.
"'Here, clean them shoes for number seventeen directly, and take 'em to private sitting-room, number five, first floor.'
"The landlady flung a pair of lady's shoes into the yard, and bustled away.
"'Number 5,' said Sam, as he picked up the shoes, and taking a piece of chalk from his pocket, made a memorandum of their destination on the soles—'Lady's shoes and private sittin' room! I suppose she didn't come in the vaggin.'
"'She came in early this morning,' cried the girl, who was still leaning over the railing of the gallery, 'with a gentleman in a hackney-coach, and it's him as wants his boots, and you'd better do 'em, and that's all about it.'
"'Vy didn't you say so before?' said Sam, with great indignation, singling out the boots in question from the heap before him. 'For all I know'd he vas one o' the regular three-pennies. Private room! and a lady, too! If he's anything of a gen'lm'n, he's vurth a shillin' a day, let alone the arrands."
No smart young chambermaid called to me from over the balustrade of the upper sleeping gallery when I alighted from a hansom in the courtyard of this same inn, known then and now as "George Inn," and gazed about me this morning in June—nor did any bustling old landlady make her appearance on the opposite gallery.
GEORGE INN—It was over this balcony that the maid asked Sam Weller for No. 10's boots, and received the historic answer, "Vill he have 'em now or vait till he gits 'em?"
What did interest me—interest me enormously—was the hostelry itself—particularly that part of the sleeping gallery from which the musical chambermaid shouted to the boot cleaner in the sleeve waistcoat with blue-glass buttons. But for a coat of paint applied every twenty years or so, and the bracing up of a snaggle-toothed balustrade, it is precisely as Mr. Dickens saw and described it seventy-five years ago in his immortal "Pickwick." "There are in London," he says, "several old inns, once the headquarters of Celebrated Coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times." Whereupon he gave to a listening and uproarious world—and they are still laughing over it—a full and unabridged account of the scene with which this chapter opens.
And a wonderful old inn it is even now, its front in two connecting sections—each bracing the other, their shoulders touching. Seen from one end, in foreshortened perspective, it presents a continuous wabble from sill to eaves, its roof-line sagging, its chimney out of plumb, the shorter flues climbing up on the taller ones as if struggling for better air, the wonder being that it had not long ago lost all heart, and sunk into hopeless ruin. Looked at close by, however, say from beneath the chambermaid's gallery, it resolves itself to your glad surprise into quite another kind of rookery, putting to flight all your first conclusions; the same sort of surprise that comes to a man who, having made up his mind to ignore some approaching shabby person, finds himself bowing and scraping when he gets near enough to look into the kindly eyes and reassuring face of the misjudged individual.
It did not take me many minutes to change my own opinion of "George Inn."
Here was a welcome, inviting door, though its top sill was so low that off would go your hat if you forgot to stoop politely when you crossed its threshold, while the cosy little hall was so narrow that a trunk must go endways before it could reach the stairs that led to the bedrooms above. Here within a few feet of the door was a jolly little snuggery, made bright with pewter and glass and inviting easy chairs—one or two; a table, and a barmaid the whole redolent of the fumes of old Pineapple rum—the snuggery, of course, not the barmaid.
Here, too, within reach of the rummery, was a coffee-room, its yard wall lighted by a line of windows propping up a smoke-dried ceiling, their rays falling on a row of white-clothed tables, framed in settles, with pew backs—so high that the fellow in the next pew could by no possible stretch of his neck discover what the fellow in the adjoining pew was having for dinner—unless, of course, he stood on the settle and looked over the top—an unheard of liberty in so well-bred an inn as the "George." And here, scattering every last doubt, was a fireplace before whose cheery blaze hundreds and thousands of shivering shins had been toasted; and a mantel scratched and scarred by the bottoms of countless Tobys that had awaited the thawing out of the countless shins; and there were big, easy, fiddle-backed chairs, with and without arms; and an old, a very old and a very odd clock, one with a history which will be told later on,—as big as a coffin, this clock, and shaped the same,—to say nothing of papers, books, pipes, writing materials, old prints, rare china, rare plates:—Yes, a most wonderfully inviting and welcoming coffee-room,—so cosy and comfortable that once you were inside you would never want to get out, and once you were out you would be unhappy until you could again order "a fresh mug of 'alf-and-'alf, my dear, a brace of chops with a kidney, and, if you don't mind, a mealy with its jacket on."
This was my own order, and the landlady herself took it—and the seat beside me—and occupied it at short and long intervals, depending on her duties, after the meal had been served and before it had been eaten.
She was delightful in her talk.
She had told the story, no doubt, to hundreds of others, but it was none the less grateful to my ears. Every line that Charles Dickens had written which in any way made reference to the "George" was stored away in her memory.
"He often came here," she said with a proud toss of her head, "long after the 'Pickwick Papers' were written, so men who knew him have told me. You see, he lived not very far from here when he was a boy—over in Lant Street, near Guy's, and this old courtyard was one of his favourite resorts. That was his table over by the window. The Dickens' Fellowship Club located it for me. They come every year and have dinner—generally on his birthday—and then it's nothing but 'Mr. Dickens' all over the place."
It was easy to follow her—I had only to suggest a name or an incident and she was off. And she was good to look at as she talked—a hearty, well-built, alert woman, ruddy and strong, with an air about her of being in charge, of letting nothing in the management of the house slip by unnoticed, and of always being concerned about your comfort. "I should so love to have seen him," she continued. "I've seen a lot of men in my time (she is still single) but there is no one I'd rather have met than Mr. Dickens, and I've been here nearly thirty-five years." I made an incredulous movement with my eyelids, and in explanation suggested: "You must have been a child when you came." "No," she laughed, "I was in my best dancing days."
That is as near as I came to her age, but I can say confidentially, whatever it was, "she didn't look it."
"When you finish your coffee come up-stairs with me," she broke in again, removing a Cheshire cheese as big as a bandbox in answer to a call for a portion of its contents from the next pew, "and I'll show you the room where Miss Wardle passed the night when she ran off with Alfred Jingle, and the room where Mr. Perker settled the affair for one
COFFEE-ROOM, GEORGE INN—Where Mr. Pickwick first met Sam Weller when Mr. Wardle went in search of Jingle and Miss Wardle
"And the English-speaking race as well," I added.
"And the English-speaking race as well," came the echoing laugh. "It's just over our heads."
"If you had your 'Pickwick' with you," she said, my coffee finished, "you'd find that nothing has been changed in the bedroom." This came with a sort of reproof. Not to put a copy of "Pickwick" in one's pocket when visiting the "George" was like being in Westminster Abbey during morning service without a prayer-book.
I followed her up-stairs, strode into the famous room, and looked about me. Nothing was changed so far as my own memory served, and I had reread the passages the night before. The bed with its high posts and the short flight of steps leading to its mattress and pillows were still in place—just the kind of bed the famous spinster would have rejoiced in—dreaming dreams of her wedding on the morrow. And so were the chairs and the big rocker and rag-carpet rug and large fireplace, with its appropriate fittings.
I could even hear old Wardle's voice denouncing the scoundrel, and smooth Perker's cautious reminders, and Mr. Pickwick's bland inquiry regarding the nature of the compromise offered by "Mr. Perker of Gray's Inn," when:
"Old Wardle opened the door; and the whole three walked into the room just as Mr. Jingle, who had that moment returned, had produced the licence to the spinster aunt.
"The spinster uttered a loud shriek, and, throwing herself in a chair, covered her face with her hands. Mr. Jingle crumpled up the licence, and thrust it into his coat-pocket. The unwelcome visitors advanced into the middle of the room.
"'You—you are a nice rascal, ar'n't you?' exclaimed Wardle, breathless with passion.
"'My dear Sir, my dear Sir,' said the little man, laying his hat on the table. 'Pray, consider pray. Scandalum magnatum, defamation of character, action for damages. Calm yourself, my dear Sir, pray——'
"'How dare you drag my sister from my house?' said the old man.
"'Ay-ay-very good,' said the little gentleman, 'you may ask that. How dare you, Sir?—eh, Sir?'
"'Who the devil are you?' inquired Mr. Jingle, in so fierce a tone, that the little gentleman involuntarily fell back a step or two.
"'Who is he, you scoundrel?' interposed Wardle. 'He's my lawyer, Mr. Perker, of Gray's Inn. Perker, I'll have this fellow prosecuted—indicted—I'll—I'll—damme, I'll ruin him. And you,' continued Mr. Wardle turning abruptly round to his sister, 'you, Rachael, at a time of life when you ought to know better, what do you mean by running away with a vagabond, disgracing your family, and making yourself miserable. Get on your bonnet, and come back. Call a hackney-coach there, directly, and bring this lady's bill, d'ye hear—d'ye hear?'
"'Cert'nly, Sir,' replied Sam, who had answered Wardie's violent ringing of the bell with a degree of celerity, which must have appeared marvellous to anybody who didn't know that his eye had been applied to the outside of the key-hole during the whole interview.
"'Get on your bonnet,' repeated Wardle.
"'Do nothing of the kind,' said Jingle. 'Leave the room, Sir—no business here—lady's free to act as she pleases more than one and twenty.'
"'More than one-and-twenty!' ejaculated Wardle, contemptuously. 'More than one and forty!'
"I a'n't,' said the spinster aunt, her indignation getting the better of her determination to faint.
"'You are,' replied Wardle, 'you're fifty if you're an hour.'
"Here the spinster aunt uttered a loud shriek, and became senseless.
"'A glass of water,' said the humane Mr. Pickwick, summoning the landlady.
"'A glass of water!' said the passionate Wardle. 'Bring a bucket, and throw it all over her; it'll do her good, and she richly deserves it.'
"'Ugh, you brute!' ejaculated the kind-hearted landlady. 'Poor dear.' And with sundry ejaculations, of 'Come now, there's a dear—drink a little of this—it'll do you good—don't give way so—there's a love,' &c., &c., the landlady, assisted by a chambermaid, proceeded to vinegar the forehead, beat the hands, titillate the nose, and unlace the stays of the spinster aunt, and to administer such other restoratives as are usually applied by compassionate females to ladies who are endeavouring to ferment themselves into hysterics.
'"Coach is ready, Sir,' said Sam, appearing at the door.
'"Come along,' cried Wardle. 'I'll carry her down stairs.'"
All of this harrowing scene had taken place in the little and bigger room—none of them are very big—through which I was then sauntering, the landlady pointing out each bit of furniture as real to her as if Wardle himself had sent them to her with his compliments. Not the rooms, remember, in which the above events were supposed to have taken place, nor the room in which various admirers of Mr. Dickens believe they might have taken place, but the rooms in which they really did take place.
And here it will be just as well for me to inform my reader that if he entertains the slightest doubt of the truth of this and similar statements, and feels disposed to accentuate these doubts by indulging in loud and contemptuous pooh-poohs, he might better puff them all out at this first chapter, and then close the book, for he will be treated to no other point of view should he continue to the end.
Not to believe that Sam Weller and Pecksniff and David Copperfield, Peggotty, Little Dorrit, Micawber, Tom Pinch, and Oliver, and all the rest of them lived and moved and had their being, would be like doubting that Santa Claus, Robinson Crusoe, and Peter Pan ever lived.
As proof of the verity of the elopement incident, it may be said that if the high-post bedstead, steps, and fireplace in the room I have just described are not convincing, what shall be thought of the set-up-on-end coffin-shaped clock below stairs, which struck the hours while the timid fluttering creature slept, which has ticked away from the same corner of the coffee-room ever since, and to which the landlady had called my special attention.
"Yes, long before my day," she observed, as on our return to the coffee-room she caught my scrutinising glance. "Only a few of them left in the Borough or anywhere else. You see in the old days the government put a wicked tax on clocks, so high that the people refused to pay, and these old timepieces were put up in the publics so that you got your time with your mug of beer. Here is an old book will tell you about it."
I opened at the page and read that:
"In 1797 a tax was imposed upon all persons in respect of the possession and use of clocks as well as watches.…
"Although the imposition of the obnoxious tax paralyzed the Horological trades it had the effect of creating one new kind of time keeper for tavern keepers anticipating a scarcity of time keepers among individuals, who with one mind seem to have adapted a bold mural time piece for the benefit of those who visited their public rooms.
"These 'Act of Parliament' clocks as they were called, had a large dial of wood painted black with gilt figures, not covered by a glass and a trunk long enough to allow for a second pendulum."
"And it's a fine old clock, I want you to know," she continued, taking the volume from my hand; "never loses a minute. Bad thing for me if it did my first breakfast is at four o'clock in the morning for the market-men, and they'd swear awful if it was ten seconds behind time."
My own glances were not the only ones directed toward the old timepiece. Luncheon was at twelve, and the boiled mutton, boiled cabbage, and boiled potatoes—all excellent dishes—were hottest and therefore more palatable at this precise hour; a fact well known to each habitué, whose first act on entering was to consult its round moon-face, dragging out his own ticker for confirmation.
Soon each seat was occupied. The various groups were, apparently, intimate friends, judging from the chaff which sifted my way over the pew back.
One of the old habitués, catching sight of my easel, stool, and charcoal box, had stopped long enough in the snuggery to interview the barmaid as to my identity, nationality, and general purposes in life, as I afterward discovered when a brother habitué who had overheard the inquiry, and who was stuffed with statistics backed up to my table and began to unload.
"Jolly old place, isn't it? Lot of lies told about it, too. Most people think this is the inn Dickens had in his mind when he wrote 'Pickwick'; well, it wasn't, you know. It was the White Hart Inn, not a great ways from here, near Guy's Hospital. That was where Sam Weller blacked the boots. It was one of the old coach inns, with galleries and rooms just like this; but, you see," and a chuckle escaped him, "it was pulled down some thirty years ago. Both of them date back to the sixteenth century. Take my advice and don't let anybody fool you about this being Sam Weller's Inn, for it isn't."
"There you go, Blodgers, letting out your ignorance," chimed in another habitué, an old fellow with a ruddy face and grey side-whiskers. "I wouldn't pay any attention to him if I were you, Sir. He's been at that sort of talk now for ten years—ever since he's been having his meals here. You're eating in the very box where Mr. Dickens sat when he told my father how he came to pick this inn out instead of the White Hart, although he called it the White Hart. And he showed my father the very room where the Jingle event took place. Mr. Dickens lived over here in the Borough, and if you look through his books you'll find more than half of them have something to say about Southwark. He knew every inn within a mile of here. The 'Ship and Shovel,' for one, back of Guy's Hospital. Excuse my crowding in, but I know Blodgers and what harm he can do once he gets loose."
"They've been coming here for years," whispered the land- lady, "and I never saw any two of 'em agree on anything, and you couldn't pull 'em apart with a bootjack, they're so fond of one another."
With the gooseberry tarts (it was the gooseberry-tart season) the coffee was brought in, and then a round jar of "Special Mixture," and some long pipes, and last the backgammon-board—all helps to digestion.
It was past two o'clock and my sketch finished, when they separated, and even then, three or four dropped into the snuggery and had a word and a nip with the barmaid.
"No wonder," I said to myself, remembering the rush hour at Delmonico's, within a stone's throw of where I now sit and write, "no wonder that these Englishmen ride to hounds at eighty years of age."