In Dickens's London/Chapter 9



I knew the Temple fairly well and its several Courts, having studied them the year before in my search for Mr. Thackeray's haunts and those of his characters: Lamb Court, in which Pendennis and Warrington had their chambers; the façade of the building covered with vines and flowering creepers; Hare Court, where Mr. Thackeray began the study of law under Mr. Taprell—the room is on the first floor and the house is as old and mouldy as it was in his days; Brick Court, where Goldsmith lived and died and where Mr. Thackeray once had lodgings; Pump Court, where he located the "Hon. Algernon Percy Deuceace," the prototype of the card-sharper who robbed him of his patrimony and sent him out into the world to earn his bread—the luckiest thing that ever happened to the great novelist and the luckiest thing that ever happened to the reading world—all these I knew; but, somehow, although I had peeped in and wondered at the beauty of its surroundings, I had never seen the fountain at Fountain Court.

Tom Pinch's office had been pointed out to me, where the lovable fellow worked all day sorting and bringing into shape the chaotic mass that old Chuzzlewit had put him in charge of, and I had followed him in my mind out of the Court and across the narrow road which leads to Fleet Street and so on past Brick Court corner (Goldsmith's house) until I had lost him in the dense foliage. But I never pursued him any further, being more occupied that year with Mr. Thackeray than with Mr. Dickens. "There was a little plot between Tom Pinch and his sister," says the latter, "that Tom should always come out of the Temple by one way; and that was, past the fountain coming through Fountain Court, he was just to glance down the steps leading into Garden Court, and to look once all round him, and if Ruth had come to meet him, then he would see her … coming briskly up, with the best little laugh upon her face that ever played in opposition to the fountain, and beat it all to nothing."

No Bobby, on this June day, helped me in my search to find the fountain in Fountain Court. The law of the metropolis and the tramp of its guardians stop just outside the arched gate giving on Fleet Street, and A Person in Serviceable Livery looks after you the moment you put foot within the confines of the Temple. Nor are half-crowns of the slightest use; even cigars go a-begging; and friendly conversation, when attempted, ends in a "move-on" gesture. Certain high officials must be approached and with due form; you must have references—good ones, accompanied by a certificate that you are of a sane mind—neither a lunatic, a vagrant, a beggar, or a painter: the latter being especially undesirable by reason of an ungovernable desire to open ham sandwiches and white umbrellas.

Fortunately, my blameless life—how often has it saved me!—brought me the necessary permit,—and the Emblazoned Flunkey was satisfied and I unlimbered my trap on the edge of the great stone curb framing the basin in which were mirrored the overbending sky and gently waving trees. The E. F., now that the regulations had been conformed to, was then gracious enough to extend the non-gushing interim of the geyser's activity until 2 p. m., the water being always turned on again at 1 p. m. (two shillings and six again), but then, of course, everything in the season comes high in London—including fountains.

This done, he took himself off and left me alone to revive the memories of my youth—more especially the two love stories of Mr. Dickens which ring as true to me to-day as they did in the days of my boyhood:—The love of Dot Peerybingle for her husband John, the carman, in that exquisite prose poem, "The Cricket on the Hearth," which comes back to me in the tones of my father's voice, who read it with consummate skill and feeling; and the romance of Ruth Pinch and John Westlock.

Dickens had all London in which to set the scene of Ruth's wooing. There were benches tucked away under sheltering trees in many a park and garden; there were Vaux Hall, Richmond, Greenwich; unfrequented paths leading to the river; John Westlock's chambers in Furnival's Inn when Tom had stepped out for a moment: but none of these would do; there must be the warmth of the sunshine, the joy of laughing water, the caress of tender branches, long vistas of bending foliage, and an infinite perspective of still greater beauty beyond. So he chose a garden in the Temple

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the fountain in Fountain Court, the Temple—where Ruth Pinch met her lover.

and in choosing laid the scenes around the fountain of Fountain Court.

The description written in 1843 will answer to-day as foot-lines to my sketch:

"Brilliantly the Temple Fountain sparkled in the sun, and laughingly its liquid music played, and merrily the idle drops of water danced and danced, and peeping out in sport among the trees, plunged lightly down to hide themselves, as little Ruth and her companion came towards it."

And the love-scene is worthy of the setting.

"And why they came towards the Fountain at all is a mystery; for they had no business there. It was not in their way. It was quite out of their way. They had no more to do with the Fountain, bless you, than they had with with Love, or any out of the way thing of that sort.

"It was all very well for Tom and his sister to make appointments by the Fountain, but that was quite another affair.…

"However, there they found themselves. And another extraordinary part of the matter was, that they seemed to have come there, by a silent understanding. Yet when they got there, they were a little confused by being there, which was the strangest part of all; because there is nothing naturally confusing in a Fountain. We all know that.

"'What a good old place it was!' John said. With quite an earnest affection for it.

"'A pleasant place, indeed,' said little Ruth. 'So shady!'

"Oh wicked little Ruth!

"They came to a stop when John began to praise it. The day was exquisite; and stopping at all, it was quite natural—nothing could be more so—that they should glance down Garden Court; because Garden Court ends in the Garden, and the Garden ends in the River, and that glimpse is very bright and fresh and shining on a summer's day. Then, oh little Ruth, why not look boldly at it! Why fit that tiny, precious, blessed little foot into the cracked corner of an insensible old flagstone in the pavement; and be so very anxious to adjust it to a nicety!"

And so the story goes on; the two walking side by side in search of Tom, until: "They had reached their destination. She never could have gone any further. It would have been impossible to walk in such a tremble.

"Tom had not come in. They entered the triangular parlour together, and alone.…

"She sat down on the little sofa, and untied her bonnet-strings. He sat down by her side, and very near her: very, very near her. Oh, rapid, swelling, bursting little heart, you knew that it would come to this, and hoped it would. Why beat so wildly, heart!

"'Dear Ruth! Sweet Ruth! If I had loved you less, I could have told you that I loved you, long ago. I have loved you from the first. There never was a creature in the world more truly loved than you, dear Ruth, by me!'

"She clasped her little hands before her face. The gushing tears of joy, and pride, and hope, and innocent affection, would not be restrained. Fresh from her full young heart they came to answer him.

"'My dear love! If this is: I almost dare to hope it is, now: not painful or distressing to you, you make me happier than I can tell you, or you imagine. Darling Ruth!' … The soft, light touch fell coyly, but quite naturally, upon the lover's shoulder; the delicate waist, the drooping head, the blushing cheek, the beautiful eyes, the exquisite little mouth itself, were all as natural as possible."