In Dickens's London/Chapter 13



One cold, raw November day, some two years ago, when at work on the Thackeray series, I leaned over the half-door of the janitor's quarters, located just inside the archway leading to the first quadrangle of Staple Inn, his front windows overlooking Holborn, explained my purpose, was directed to the executors of the dear departed Furnival's Inn,—a great insurance company with a tender heart and an eye for the picturesque; and later on was given a character and a clerk, a most obliging and courteous clerk who became at once responsible for my further actions—and said so to the janitor.

On that occasion my purpose was to make a drawing of the inner courtyard in which Mr. Thackeray hid his mortification (if he did not cool his wrath) when, after having applied to the young Mr. Dickens for permission to illustrate "The Pickwick Papers," he was, as everybody knows, summarily turned down—a fact which he himself admitted in a speech made at a Royal Academy dinner with Mr. Dickens as one of the listeners.

I remember that on that raw November day (1912) the janitor led me through a gate, which he opened with a key, and conducted me to a square of grass containing more cubic feet of reeking moisture to the square inch of surface than any absorbent substance with which I have thus far become acquainted; that he was good enough to bring me a plank—a wide, dry plank—on which I placed my feet, and that I sat there two mortal hours, crouched under my umbrella, only my canvas protected, the drizzling rain soaking into my very bones; the sky a grey cotton batting; the black-green trees limp and utterly disgusted with life and quite ready to be cut up into anything from kindling to cord wood so they could be warmed up—I say, I sat there until the record of an Arctic thermometer applied anywhere over my person, from my feet up, would, if accompanied by proper scientific data, have been received by any group of learned men as prima-facie evidence of my having first discovered the North Pole.

I remember, too, that when my sketch was finished this same janitor—God bless him—lifted me to my feet, inserted one strong, fat hand under my armpit, and helped me in my step-ladder walk to his cosy front room aglow with a blazing coal fire; that after plank-shadding and Johnny-caking both sides of me I sent him out for a small bottle of the Best Ever (Hennessy, or any old brand, it didn't matter which), and that we two then and there fraternised until there was nothing left but the smell, and very little of that.

I remember, too, that my cigar case was full was when we commenced—and so was his cupboard—was when we fell to—and so later on were our stomachs were when we finished; that he threw, at short intervals, intermittent buckets of coal on the fire until he noted a January thaw developing in my face; and I remember that two days later, not having contracted pneumonia or sciatica or gangrene, that I went back and thanked him for saving my life, which, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind, he did.

And so—and this is why these interminable sentences have been written—it is not to be wondered at that when in June of the following year (1913) I, being now persona grata, leaned over the same half-door begging further indulgence (not for Mr. Thackeray, but for Mr. Dickens) that he should gladly have conducted me through the J. P. T. 1747 door, up a squeezed flight of wooden steps, and, on turning a knob, have ushered me into the identical office once occupied by Mr. Grewgious and Bazzard, and lighted by the very windows from which the evil face of John Jasper once peered.

All of which the obliging janitor did, expounding my purpose to the occupant in such suave, silver tones that Mr. Grewgious's successor, a smooth-shaven, full-blooded man, a quill pen gripped between his lips as a dog carries cane, a pair of gold spectacles framing his friendly eyes, answered without a moment's hesitation:

"Why, of course; when will it be?"

"Whenever it will disturb you the least," I replied humbly.

"Then come to-morrow. We close at twelve. Saturday, you know; when you won't have a soul in or out. When you get through lock the door and hang the key on a hook outside. American, are you? Glad to see you. I got a brother in the States."

I twisted my body down-stairs, thanked him in my heart for smashing the iron-clad rule that every Englishman's house was his castle, and now profoundly grateful for the act of Parliament which compelled him and every other Englishman to stop work on Saturday afternoon.

And not even janitors are exempt, as I learned the next day when I presented myself at the half-door.

"No, he ain't at home. He's off for the afternoon," answered his bright, cheery wife. "But I'll take ye up myself and unlock the place."

I thanked her, saw her through the door, and, picking out my point of view, started to work in the dead silence, the scratching of my coal the only sound. Soon there stole over me something of the same feeling that I had experienced the year before at Charter House when shut up in the very room in which the dear Colonel had died. Again I was alone with the ghosts of the past. Here was the window out of which Jasper craned his uncanny face; before this very fireplace had sat Mr. Grewgious on that foggy night when Edwin Drood invited himself to dinner; there, on the other side of that door, was Bazzard's room, and across the hall Mr. Grewgious's bedchamber where he lay and speculated about the ring set with diamonds and rubies which he had handed Mr. Edwin Drood "in discharge of a trust."

And it has lost nothing of its individuality nor have any changes been made in its fittings or condition: No new grate, nor mantel, nor doors; and, so far as can be seen, no fresh coat of paint upon any square foot of its surface inside or out. Even the window-panes are the same, the

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mischievous boy not being let loose in the quadrangle of Staple Inn. More wonderful still, the gold-spectacled Englishman with the kindly face, whose hospitality I was enjoying, was so steeped in the sentiment of the place that he had not locked up so much as a scrap of paper, such confidence had he in the man "from the States" where one of his brothers lived.

And so I worked on, the brilliant June sun patterning the floor; and that my reader may share something of my own delight, when comparing the room in which I sat with Mr. Dickens's text, I will recall for him the scene which took place within these same walls on that December afternoon toward six o'clock when Staple Inn was filled with fog, and candles shed murky and blurred rays through the windows of all its then-occupied sets of chambers; … in one of which sat Mr. Grewgious writing by his fire … as did the clerk of Mr. Grewgious, in the adjoining room, writing by his fire.—"A pale, puffy-faced, dark-haired person of thirty, with big dark eyes that wholly wanted lustre, and a dissatisfied, doughy complexion that seemed to ask to be sent to the baker's.…

"'Now, Bazzard,' said Mr. Grewgious, on the entrance of his clerk: looking up from his papers as he arranged them for the night: 'what is in the wind beside fog?'

"'Mr. Drood,' said Bazzard.

'"What of him?'

"'Has called,' said Bazzard.

"'You might have shown him in.'

'"I am doing it,' said Bazzard.

"The visitor came in accordingly … took the easy-chair in the corner; and the fog he had brought in with him, and the fog he took off with his greatcoat and neck-shawl, was speedily licked up by the eager fire.

"'I look,' said Edwin, smiling, 'as if I had come to stop.'

"'By-the-bye,' cried Mr. Grewgious; 'excuse my interrupting you: do stop. The fog may clear in an hour or two. We can have dinner in from just across Holborn.'…

"'You are very kind,' said Edwin.…

"'Not at all,' said Mr. Grewgious; 'you are very kind to join issue with a bachelor in chambers, and take pot-luck. And I'll ask,' said Mr. Grewgious, dropping his voice, … I'll ask Bazzard. He mightn't like it else. Bazzard!'

"Bazzard reappeared.

"'Dine presently with Mr. Drood and me.'

"'If I am ordered to dine, of course I will, Sir.' was the gloomy answer.

"'Save the man!' cried Mr. Grewgious. 'You're not ordered; you're invited.'

"'Thank you, Sir,' said Bazzard; 'in that case I don't care if I do.'

'"That's arranged. And perhaps you wouldn't mind,' said Mr. Grewgious, 'stepping over to the hotel in Furnival's, and asking them to send in materials for laying the cloth. For dinner we'll have a tureen of the hottest and strongest soup available, and we'll have the best made-dish that can be recommended, and we'll have a joint (such as a haunch of mutton), and we'll have a goose, or a turkey, or any little stuffed thing of that sort that may happen to be in the bill of fare—in short, we'll have whatever there is on hand.' …

"When Bazzard returned he was accompanied by two waiters—an immovable waiter, and a flying waiter; and the three brought in with them as much fog as gave a new roar to the fire. The flying waiter, who had brought everything on his shoulders, laid the cloth with amazing rapidity and dexterity; while the immovable waiter, who had brought nothing, found fault with him. The flying waiter then highly polished all the glasses he had brought, and the immovable waiter looked through them. The flying waiter then flew across Holborn for the soup, and flew back again, and then took another flight for the made-dish, and flew back again, and then took another flight for the joint and poultry, and flew back again, and between the whiles took supplementary flights for a great variety of articles, as it was discovered from time to time that the immovable waiter had forgotten them all. But let the flying waiter cleave the air as he might, he was always reproached on his return by the immovable waiter for bringing fog with him, and being out of breath. At the conclusion of the repast, by which time the flying waiter was severely blown, the immovable waiter gathered up the table-cloth under his arm with a grand air, and having sternly (not to say with indignation) looked on at the flying waiter while he set the clean glasses round, directed a valedictory glance toward Mr. Grewgious, conveying: 'Let it be clearly understood between us that the reward is mine, and that Nil is the claim of this slave,' and pushed the flying waiter before him out of the room."