ALEB PLUMMER and his Blind Daughter lived all alone by themselves, as the story-books say—and my blessing, with yours to back it I hope, on the story-books, for saying anything in this work-a-day world!—Caleb Plummer and his Blind Daughter lived all alone by themselves, in a little cracked nutshell of a wooden house, which was, in truth, no better than a pimple on the prominent red-brick nose of Gruff and Tackleton. The premises of Gruff and Tackleton were the great feature of the street; but you might have knocked down Caleb Plummer's dwelling with a hammer or two, and carried off the pieces in a cart.
If any one had done the dwelling-house of Caleb Plummer the honour to miss it after such an inroad, it would have been, no doubt, to commend its demolition as a vast improvement. It stuck to the premises of Gruff and Tackleton like a barnacle to a ship's keel, or a snail to a door, or a little bunch of toadstools to the stem of a tree. But it was the germ from which the full-grown trunk of Gruff and Tackleton had sprung; and under its crazy roof, the Gruff before last had, in a small way, made toys for a generation of old boys and girls, who had played with them and found them out, and broken them, and gone to sleep.
I have said that Caleb and his poor Blind Daughter lived here. I should have said that Caleb lived here, and his poor Blind Daughter somewhere else—in an enchanted home of Caleb's furnishing, where scarcity and shabbiness were not, and trouble never entered. Caleb was no sorcerer; but in the only magic art that still remains to us—the magic of devoted, deathless love—Nature had been the mistress of his study; and from her teaching all the wonder came.
The Blind Girl never knew that ceilings were discoloured, walls blotched and bare of plaster here and there, high crevices unstopped and widening every day, beams mouldering and tending downwards. The Blind Girl never knew that iron was rusting, wood rotting, paper peeling off; the size, and shape, and true proportion of the dwelling withering away. The Blind Girl never knew that ugly shapes of delf and earthenware were on the board; that sorrow and faint-heartedness were in the house; that Caleb's scanty hairs were turning greyer and more grey before her sightless face. The Blind Girl never knew they had a master, cold, exacting, and uninterested—never knew that Tackleton was Tackleton, in short; but lived in the belief of an eccentric humourist, who loved to have his jest with them, and who, while he was the Guardian Angel of their lives, disdained to hear one word of thankfulness.
And all was Caleb's doing; all the doing of her simple father! But he, too, had a Cricket on his Hearth; and listening sadly to its music when the motherless Blind Child was very young, that Spirit had inspired him with the thought that even her great deprivation might be almost changed into a blessing, and the girl made happy by these little means. For all the Cricket tribe are potent Spirits, even though the people who hold converse with them do not know it (which is frequently the case), and there are not in the unseen world voices more gentle and more true, that may be so implicitly relied on, or that are so certain to give none but tenderest counsel, as the Voices in which the Spirits of the Fireside and the Hearth address themselves to humankind.
Caleb and his daughter were at work together in their usual working-room, which served them for their ordinary living-room as well, and a strange place it was. There were houses in it, finished and unfinished, for Dolls of all stations in life. Suburban tenements for Dolls of moderate means; kitchen and single apartments for Dolls of the lower classes; capital town residences for Dolls of high estate. Some of these establishments were already furnished according to estimate, with a view to the convenience of Dolls of limited income; others could be fitted on the most expensive scale at a moment's notice, from whole shelves of chairs and tables, sofas, bedsteads and upholstery. The nobility and gentry and public in general, for whose accommodation these tenements were designed, lay here and there, in baskets, staring straight up at the ceiling; but in denoting their degrees in society, and confining them to their respective stations (which experience shows to be lamentably difficult in real life), the makers of these Dolls had far improved on Nature, who is often froward and perverse; for they, not resting on such arbitrary marks as satin, cotton print, and bits of rag, had superadded striking personal differences which allowed of no mistake. Thus, the Doll-lady of distinction had wax limbs of perfect symmetry; but only she and her compeers. The next grade in the social scale being made of leather, and the next of coarse linen stuff. As to the common people, they had just so many matches out of tinder-boxes for their arms and legs, and there they were—established in their sphere at once, beyond the possibility of getting out of it.
There were various other samples of his handicraft besides Dolls in Caleb Plummer's room. There were Noah's Arks, in which the Birds and Beasts were an uncommonly tight fit, I assure you; though they could be crammed in anyhow, at the roof, and rattled and shaken into the smallest compass. By a bold poetical licence, most of these Noah's Arks had knockers on the doors; inconsistent appendages, perhaps, as suggestive of morning callers and a postman, yet a pleasant finish to the outside of the building. There were scores of melancholy little carts, which, when the wheels went round, performed most doleful music. Many small fiddles, drums, and other instruments of torture; no end of cannon, shields, swords, spears, and guns. There were little tumblers in red breeches, incessantly swarming up high obstacles of red tape and coming down, head first, on the other side; and there were innumerable old gentlemen of respectable, not to say venerable appearance, insanely flying over horizontal pegs, inserted, for the purpose, in their own street-doors. There were beasts of all sorts; horses, in particular, of every breed, from the spotted barrel on four pegs, with a small tippet for a mane, to the thoroughbred rocker on his highest mettle. As it would have been hard to count the dozens upon dozens of grotesque figures that were ever ready to commit all sorts of absurdities on the turning of a handle, so it would have been no easy task to mention any human folly, vice, or weakness that had not its type, immediate or remote, in Caleb Plummer's room. And not in an exaggerated form, for very little handles will move men and women to as strange performances as any Toy was ever made to undertake.
In the midst of all these objects, Caleb and his daughter sat at work. The Blind Girl busy as a Doll's dressmaker; Caleb painting and glazing the four-pair front of a desirable family mansion.
The care imprinted in the lines of Caleb's face, and his absorbed and dreamy manner, which would have sat well on some alchemist or abstruse student, were at first sight an odd contrast to his occupation and the trivialities about him. But trivial things, invented and pursued for bread, become very serious matters of fact; and, apart from this consideration, I am not at all prepared to say, myself, that if Caleb had been a Lord Chamberlain, or a Member of Parliament, or a lawyer, or even a great speculator, he would have dealt in toys one whit less whimsical, while I have a very great doubt whether they would have been as harmless.
"So you were out in the rain last night, father, in your beautiful new great-coat," said Caleb's daughter.
"In my beautiful new great-coat," answered Caleb, glancing towards a clothes-line in the room, on which the sackcloth garment previously described was carefully hung up to dry.
"How glad I am you bought it, father!"
"And of such a tailor too," said Caleb. "Quite a fashionable tailor. It's too good for me."
The Blind Girl rested from her work, and laughed with delight. "Too good, father! What can be too good for you?"
"I'm half-ashamed to wear it, though," said Caleb, watching the effect of what he said upon her brightening face, "upon my word! When I hear the boys and people say behind me, 'Hal-loa! Here's a swell!' I don't know which way to look. And when the beggar wouldn't go away last night; and, when I said I was a very common man, said, 'No, your Honour! Bless your Honour, don't say that!' I was quite ashamed. I really felt as if I hadn't a right to wear it."
Happy Blind Girl! How merry she was in her exultation!
"I see you, father," she said, clasping her hands,
"as plainly as if I had the eyes I never want when you
are with me. A blue
"Bright blue," said Caleb.
"Yes, yes! Bright blue!" exclaimed the girl,
turning up her radiant face; "the colour I can just
remember in the blessed sky! You told me it was blue
before! A bright blue
"Made loose to the figure," suggested Caleb.
"Yes! loose to the figure!" cried the Blind Girl, laughing heartily; "and in it, you, dear father, with your merry eye, your smiling face, your free step, and your dark hair—looking so young and handsome!"
"Halloa! Halloa!" said Caleb. "I shall be vain presently!"
"I think you are already," cried the Blind Girl, pointing at him in her glee. "I know you, father! Ha, ha, ha! I've found you out, you see!"
How different the picture in her mind from Caleb, as he sat observing her! She had spoken of his free step. She was right in that. For years and years, he had never once crossed that threshold at his own slow pace, but with a footfall counterfeited for her ear; and never had he, when his heart was heaviest, forgotten the light tread that was to render hers so cheerful and courageous!
Heaven knows! But I think Caleb's vague bewilderment of manner may have half originated in his having confused himself about himself and everything around him, for the love of his Blind Daughter. How could the little man be otherwise than bewildered, after labouring for so many years to destroy his own identity, and that of all the objects that had any bearing on it?
"There we are," said Caleb, falling back a pace or two to form the better judgment of his work; "as near the real thing as sixpenn'orth of halfpence is to sixpence. What a pity that the whole front of the house opens at once! If there was only a staircase in it now, and regular doors to the rooms to go in at! But that's the worst of my calling, I'm always deluding myself, and swindling myself."
"You are speaking quite softly. You are not tired, father?"
"Tired!" echoed Caleb with a great burst of animation. "What should tire me, Bertha! I was never tired. What does it mean?"
To give the greater force to his words, he checked himself in an involuntary imitation of two half-length stretching and yawning figures on the mantelshelf, who were represented as in one eternal state of weariness from the waist upwards, and hummed a fragment of a song. It was a Bacchanalian song, something about a sparkling bowl. He sang it with an assumption of a devil-may-care voice, that made his face a thousand times more meagre and more thoughtful than ever.
"What! You're singing, are you?" said Tackleton, putting his head in at the door. "Go it! I can't sing."
Nobody would have suspected him of it. He hadn't what is generally termed a singing face, by any means.
"I can't afford to sing," said Tackleton. "I am glad you can. I hope you can afford to work too. Hardly time for both, I should think?"
"If you could only see him, Bertha, how he's winking at me!" whispered Caleb. "Such a man to joke! You'd think, if you didn't know him, he was in earnest—wouldn't you now?"
The Blind Girl smiled, and nodded.
"The bird that can sing and won't sing must be made to sing, they say," grumbled Tackleton. "What about the owl that can't sing, and oughtn't to sing, and will sing; is there anything that he should be made to do?"
"The extent to which he's winking at this moment!" whispered Caleb to his daughter. "O, my gracious!"
"Always merry and light-hearted with us!" cried the smiling Bertha.
"O, you're there, are you?" answered Tackleton. "Poor idiot!"
He really did believe she was an idiot; and he founded the belief, I can't say whether consciously or not, upon her being fond of him.
"Well! and being there, how are you?" said Tackleton, in his grudging way.
"Oh! well; quite well! And as happy as even you can wish me to be. As happy as you would make the whole world, if you could!"
"Poor idiot!" muttered Tackleton. "No gleam of reason. Not a gleam!"
The Blind Girl took his hand and kissed it, held it for a moment in her own two hands, and laid her cheek against it tenderly before releasing it. There was such unspeakable affection and such fervent gratitude in the act, that Tackleton himself was moved to say, in a milder growl than usual:
"What's the matter now?"
"I stood it close beside my pillow when I went to sleep last night, and remembered it in my dreams. And when the day broke, and the glorious red sun—the red sun, father?"
"Red in the mornings and the evenings, Bertha," said poor Caleb, with a woeful glance at his employer.
"When it rose, and the bright light I almost fear to strike myself against in walking came into the room, I turned the little tree towards it, and blessed Heaven for making things so precious, and blessed you for sending them to cheer me!"
"Bedlam broke loose!" said Tackleton under his breath. "We shall arrive at the strait-waistcoat and mufflers soon. We're getting on!"
Caleb, with his hands hooked loosely in each other, stared vacantly before him while his daughter spoke, as if he really were uncertain (I believe he was) whether Tackleton had done anything to deserve her thanks or not. If he could have been a perfectly free agent at that moment, required, on pain of death, to kick the toy merchant, or fall at his feet, according to his merits, I believe it would have been an even chance which course he would have taken. Yet Caleb knew that with his own hands he had brought the little rose-tree home for her so carefully, and that with his own lips he had forged the innocent deception which should help to keep her from suspecting how much, how very much, he every day denied himself, that she might be the happier.
"Bertha!" said Tackleton, assuming, for the nonce, a little cordiality. "Come here."
"Oh! I can come straight to you! You needn't guide me!" she rejoined.
"Shall I tell you a secret, Bertha?"
"If you will!" she answered eagerly.
How bright the darkened face! How adorned with light the listening head!
"This is the day on which little what's-her-name, the spoilt child, Peerybingle's wife, pays her regular visit to you—makes her fantastic Picnic here, an't it?" said Tackleton, with a strong expression of distaste for the whole concern.
"Yes," replied Bertha. "This is the day."
"I thought so," said Tackleton. "I should like to join the party."
"Do you hear that, father!" cried the Blind Girl in an ecstasy.
"Yes, yes, I hear it," murmured Caleb, with the fixed look of a sleep-walker; "but I don't believe it. It's one of my lies, I've no doubt."
"You see, I—I want to bring the Peerybingles a little more into company with May Fielding," said Tackleton. "I'm going to be married to May."
"Married!" cried the Blind Girl, starting from him.
"She's such a con-founded idiot," muttered Tackleton, "that I was afraid she'd never comprehend me. Ah, Bertha! Married! Church, parson, clerk, beadle, glass coach, bells, breakfast, bride-cake, favours, marrow-bones, cleavers, and all the rest of the tomfoolery. A wedding, you know; a wedding. Don't you know what a wedding is?"
"I know," replied the Blind Girl in a gentle tone. "I understand!"
"Do you?" muttered Tackleton. "It's more than I expected. Well! on that account I want to join the party, and to bring May and her mother. I'll send in a little something or other, before the afternoon. A cold leg of mutton, or some comfortable trifle of that sort. You'll expect me?"
"Yes," she answered.
She had drooped her head, and turned away; and so stood, with her hands crossed, musing.
"I don't think you will," muttered Tackleton, looking at her; "for you seem to have forgotten all about it already. Caleb!"
"I may venture to say I'm here, I suppose," thought Caleb. "Sir!"
"Take care she don't forget what I've been saying to her."
"She never forgets," returned Caleb. "It's one of the few things she an't clever in."
"Every man thinks his own geese swans," observed the toy merchant with a shrug. "Poor devil!"
Having delivered himself of which remark with infinite contempt, old Gruff and Tackleton withdrew.
Bertha remained where he had left her, lost in meditation. The gaiety had vanished from her downcast face, and it was very sad. Three or four times she shook her head, as if bewailing some remembrance or some loss; but her sorrowful reflections found no vent in words.
It was not until Caleb had been occupied some time in yoking a team of horses to a waggon by the summary process of nailing the harness to the vital parts of their bodies, that she drew near to his working-stool, and, sitting down beside him, said:
"Father, I am lonely in the dark. I want my eyes, my patient, willing eyes."
"Here they are," said Caleb. "Always ready. They are more yours than mine, Bertha, any hour in the four-and-twenty. What shall your eyes do for you, dear?"
"Look round the room, father."
"All right," said Caleb. "No sooner said than done, Bertha."
"Tell me about it."
"It's much the same as usual," said Caleb. "Homely, but very snug. The gay colours on the walls; the bright flowers on the plates and dishes; the shining wood, where there are beams or panels; the general cheerfulness and neatness of the building; make it very pretty."
Cheerful and neat it was, wherever Bertha's hands could busy themselves. But nowhere else were cheerfulness and neatness possible in the old crazy shed which Caleb's fancy so transformed.
"You have your working dress on, and are not so gallant as when you wear the handsome coat?" said Bertha, touching him.
"Not quite so gallant," answered Caleb. "Pretty brisk, though."
"Father," said the Blind Girl, drawing close to his side, and stealing one arm round his neck, "tell me something about May. She is very fair?"
"She is indeed," said Caleb. And she was indeed. It was quite a rare thing to Caleb not to have to draw on his invention.
"Her hair is dark," said Bertha pensively, "darker
than mine. Her voice is sweet and musical, I know. I
have often loved to hear it. Her
"There's not a Doll's in all the room to equal it,"
said Caleb. "And her
He stopped; for Bertha had drawn closer round his neck, and, from the arm that clung about him, came a warning pressure which he understood too well.
He coughed a moment, hammered for a moment, and then fell back upon the song about the sparkling bowl; his infallible resource in all such difficulties.
"Our friend, father, our benefactor. I am never tired, you know, of hearing about him.—Now, was I ever?" she said, hastily.
"Of course not," answered Caleb, "and with reason."
"Ah! With how much reason!" cried the Blind Girl. With such fervency, that Caleb, though his motives were so pure, could not endure to meet her face, but dropped his eyes, as if she could have read in them his innocent deceit.
"Then tell me again about him, dear father," said Bertha. "Many times again! His face is benevolent, kind and tender. Honest and true, I am sure it is. The manly heart that tries to cloak all his favours with a show of roughness and unwillingness, beats in its every look and glance."
"And makes it noble," added Caleb, in his quiet desperation.
"And makes it noble," cried the Blind Girl. "He is older than May, father."
"Ye-es," said Caleb, reluctantly. "He's a little older than May. But that don't signify."
"Oh, father, yes! To be his patient companion in infirmity and age; to be his gentle nurse in sickness, and his constant friend in suffering and sorrow; to know no weariness in working for his sake; to watch him, tend him; sit beside his bed and talk to him awake, and pray for him asleep; what privileges these would be! What opportunities for proving all her truth and her devotion to him! Would she do all this, dear father?"
"No doubt of it," said Caleb.
"I love her, father; I can love her from my soul!" exclaimed the Blind Girl. And saying so, she laid her poor blind face on Caleb's shoulder, and so wept and wept, that he was almost sorry to have brought that tearful happiness upon her.
In the meantime there had been a pretty sharp commotion at John Peerybingle's, for little Mrs. Peerybingle naturally couldn't think of going anywhere without the Baby; and to get the Baby under way took time. Not that there was much of the Baby, speaking of it as a thing of weight and measure, but there was a vast deal to do about and about it, and it all had to be done by easy stages. For instance, when the Baby was got, by hook and by crook, to a certain point of dressing, and you might have rationally supposed that another touch or two would finish him off, and turn him out a tip-top Baby challenging the world, he was unexpectedly extinguished in a flannel cap, and hustled off to bed, where he simmered (so to speak) between two blankets for the best part of an hour. From this state of inaction he was then recalled, shining very much and roaring violently, to partake of—well? I would rather say, if you'll permit me to speak generally—of a slight repast. After which he went to sleep again. Mrs. Peerybingle took advantage of this interval to make herself as smart in a small way as ever you saw anybody in all your life; and, during the same short truce, Miss Slowboy insinuated herself into a spencer of a fashion so surprising and ingenious, that it had no connection with herself, or anything else in the universe, but was a shrunken, dog's-eared, independent fact, pursuing its lonely course without the least regard to anybody. By this time, the Baby, being all alive again, was invested, by the united efforts of Mrs. Peerybingle and Miss Slowboy, with a cream-coloured mantle for its body and a sort of nankeen raised pie for its head; and so, in course of time, they all three got down to the door, where the old horse had already taken more than the full value of his day's toll out of the Turnpike Trust, by tearing up the road with his impatient autographs; and whence Boxer might be dimly seen in the remote perspective, standing looking back, and tempting him to come on without orders.
As to a chair, or anything of that kind for helping Mrs. Peerybingle into the cart, you know very little of John, if you think that was necessary. Before you could have seen him lift her from the ground there she was in her place, fresh and rosy, saying, "John! How can you! Think of Tilly!"
If I might be allowed to mention a young lady's legs on any terms, I would observe of Miss Slowboy's that there was a fatality about them which rendered them singularly liable to be grazed; and that she never effected the smallest ascent or descent without recording the circumstance upon them with a notch, as Robinson Crusoe marked the days upon his wooden calendar. But, as this might be considered ungenteel, I'll think of it.
"John! You've got the basket with the veal and ham pie and things, and the bottles of beer?" said Dot. "If you haven't, you must turn round again this very minute."
"You're a nice little article," returned the Carrier, "to be talking about turning round, after keeping me a full quarter of an hour behind my time."
"I am sorry for it, John," said Dot, in a great bustle, "but I really could not think of going to Bertha's—I would not do it, John, on any account—without the veal and ham pie and things, and the bottles of beer. Way!"
This monosyllable was addressed to the horse, who didn't mind it at all.
"Oh, do way, John!" said Mrs. Peerybingle. "Please!"
"It'll be time enough to do that," returned John, "when I begin to leave things behind me. The basket's here safe enough."
"What a hard-hearted monster you must be, John, not to have said so at once, and save me such a turn! I declare I wouldn't go to Bertha's without the veal and ham pie and things, and the bottles of beer, for any money. Regularly once a fortnight ever since we have been married, John, have we made our little Picnic there. If anything was to go wrong with it, I should almost think we were never to be lucky again."
"It was a kind thought in the first instance," said the Carrier; "and I honour you for it, little woman."
"My dear John," replied Dot, turning very red, "don't talk about honouring me. Good gracious!"
"By-the-bye," observed the Carrier, "that old
Again so visibly and instantly embarrassed!
"He's an odd fish," said the Carrier, looking straight along the road before them. "I can't make him out. I don't believe there's any harm in him."
"None at all. I'm—I'm sure there's none at all."
"Yes," said the Carrier, with his eyes attracted to her face by the great earnestness of her manner. "I am glad you feel so certain of it, because it's a confirmation to me. It's curious that he should have taken it into his head to ask leave to go on lodging with us, an't it? Things come about so strangely."
"So very strangely," she rejoined in a low voice, scarcely audible.
"However, he's a good-natured old gentleman," said
John, "and pays as a gentleman, and I think his word
is to be relied upon, like a gentleman's. I had quite a
long talk with him this morning: he can hear me better
already, he says, as he gets more used to my voice. He
told me a great deal about himself, and I told him a
good deal about myself, and a rare lot of questions he
asked me. I gave him information about my having two
beats, you know, in my business: one day to the right
from our house and back again; another day to the left
from our house and back again (for he's a stranger, and
don't know the names of places about here); and he
seemed quite pleased. 'Why, then I shall be returning
home to-night your way,' he says, 'when I thought
you'd be coming in an exactly opposite direction.
That's capital! I may
trouble you for another lift, perhaps, but I'll engage
not to fall so sound asleep again.' He was sound
"Thinking of, John? I—I was listening to you."
"Oh! That's all right!" said the honest Carrier. "I was afraid, from the look on your face, that I had gone rambling on so long as to set you thinking about something else. I was very near it, I'll be bound."
Dot making no reply, they jogged on, for some little time, in silence. But it was not easy to remain silent very long in John Peerybingle's cart, for everybody on the road had something to say. Though it might only be "How are you?" and, indeed, it was very often nothing else, still, to give that back again in the right spirit of cordiality, required, not merely a nod and a smile, but as wholesome an action of the lungs withal as a long-winded Parliamentary speech. Sometimes passengers on foot, or horseback, plodded on a little way beside the cart, for the express purpose of having a chat; and then there was a great deal to be said on both sides.
Then Boxer gave occasion to more good-natured recognitions of, and by, the Carrier, than half-a-dozen Christians could have done. Everybody knew him all along the road especially the fowls and pigs, who, when they saw him approaching, with his body all on one side, and his ears pricked up inquisitively, and that knob of a tail making the most of itself in the air, immediately withdrew into remote back-settlements, without waiting for the honour of a nearer acquaintance. He had business everywhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, "Halloa! here's Boxer!" and out came that somebody forthwith, accompanied by at least two or three other somebodies, to give John Peerybingle and his pretty wife Good-day.
The packages and parcels for the errand cart were numerous; and there were many stoppages to take them in and give them out, which were not by any means the worst parts of the journey. Some people were so full of wonder about their parcels, and other people were so full of inexhaustible directions about their parcels, and John had such a lively interest in all the parcels, that it was as good as a play. Likewise, there were articles to carry which required to be considered and discussed, and in reference to the adjustment and disposition of which councils had to be holden by the Carrier and the senders: at which Boxer usually assisted, in short fits of the closest attention, and long fits of tearing round and round the assembled sages, and barking himself hoarse. Of all these little incidents, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; and as she sat there, looking on—a charming little portrait framed to admiration by the tilt—there was no lack of nudgings and glancings and whisperings and envyings among the younger men. And this delighted John the Carrier beyond measure; for he was proud to have his little wife admired, knowing that she didn't mind it—that, if anything, she rather liked it perhaps.
The trip was a little foggy, to be sure, in the January weather, and was raw and cold. But who cared for such trifles? Not Dot, decidedly. Not Tilly Slowboy, for she deemed sitting in a cart, on any terms, to be the highest point of human joys, the crowning circumstance of earthly hopes. Not the Baby, I'll be sworn; for it's not in baby nature to be warmer or more sound asleep, though its capacity is great in both respects, than that blessed young Peerybingle was, all the way.
You couldn't see very far in the fog, of course; but you could see a good deal. It's astonishing how much you may see in a thicker fog than that, if you will only take the trouble to look for it. Why, even to sit watching for the fairy rings in the fields, and for the patches of hoar-frost still lingering in the shade, near hedges and by trees, was a pleasant occupation, to make no mention of the unexpected shapes in which the trees themselves came starting out of the mist, and glided into it again. The hedges were tangled and bare, and waved a multitude of blighted garlands in the wind; but there was no discouragement in this. It was agreeable to contemplate; for it made the fireside warmer in possession, and the summer greener in expectancy. The river looked chilly; but it was in motion, and moving at a good pace—which was a great point. The canal was rather slow and torpid; that must be admitted. Never mind. It would freeze the sooner when the frost set fairly in, and then there would be skating and sliding; and the heavy old barges, frozen up somewhere near a wharf, would smoke their rusty iron chimney pipes all day, and have a lazy time of it.
In one place there was a great mound of weeds or stubble burning; and they watched the fire, so white in the daytime, flaring through the fog, with only here and there a dash of red in it, until, in consequence, as she observed, of the smoke "getting up her nose," Miss Slowboy choked—she could do anything of that sort on the smallest provocation—and woke the Baby, who wouldn't go to sleep again. But Boxer, who was in advance some quarter of a mile or so, had already passed the outposts of the town, and gained the corner of the street where Caleb and his daughter lived; and, long before they had reached the door, he and the Blind Girl were on the pavement waiting to receive them.
Boxer, by the way, made certain delicate distinctions of his own, in his communication with Bertha, which persuade me fully that he knew her to be blind. He never sought to attract her attention by looking at her, as he often did with other people, but touched her invariably. What experience he could ever have had of blind people or blind dogs I don't know. He had never lived with a blind master; nor had Mr. Boxer the elder, nor Mrs. Boxer, nor any of his respectable family on either side, ever been visited with blindness, that I am aware of. He may have found it out for himself, perhaps, but he had got hold of it somehow; and therefore he had hold of Bertha too, by the skirt, and kept hold, until Mrs. Peerybingle and the Baby, and Miss Slowboy and the basket, were all got safely within doors.
May Fielding was already come; and so was her mother—a little querulous chip of an old lady with a peevish face, who, in right of having preserved a waist like a bedpost, was supposed to be a most transcendent figure; and who, in consequence of having once been better off, or of labouring under an impression that she might have been, if something had happened which never did happen and seemed to have never been particularly likely to come to pass—but it's all the same—was very genteel and patronising indeed. Gruff and Tackleton was also there, doing the agreeable, with the evident sensation of being as perfectly at home, and as unquestionably in his own element, as a fresh young salmon on the top of the Great Pyramid.
"May! My dear old friend!" cried Dot, running up to meet her. "What a happiness to see you!"
Her old friend was, to the full, as hearty and as glad as she; and it really was, if you'll believe me, quite a pleasant sight to see them embrace. Tackleton was a man of taste, beyond all question. May was very pretty.
You know sometimes, when you are used to a pretty face, how, when it comes into contact and comparison with another pretty face, it seems for the moment to be homely and faded, and hardly to deserve the high opinion you have had of it. Now, this was not at all the case either with Dot or May; for May's face set off Dot's, and Dot's face set off May's, so naturally and agreeably, that, as John Peerybingle was very near saying when he came into the room, they ought to have been born sisters—which was the only improvement you could have suggested.
Tackleton had brought his leg of mutton, and, wonderful to relate, a tart besides—but we don't mind a little dissipation when our brides are in the case—we don't get married every day; and, in addition to these dainties, there were the veal and ham pie and "things," as Mrs. Peerybingle called them, which were chiefly nuts and oranges and cakes, and such small deer. When the repast was set forth on the board flanked by Caleb's contribution, which was a great wooden bowl of smoking potatoes (he was prohibited, by solemn compact, from producing any other viands), Tackleton led his intended mother-in-law to the post of honour. For the better gracing of this place at the high festival, the majestic old soul had adorned herself with a cap, calculated to inspire the thoughtless with sentiments of awe. She also wore her gloves. But let us be genteel, or die!
Caleb sat next his daughter; Dot and her old school-fellow were side by side; the good Carrier took care of the bottom of the table. Miss Slowboy was isolated, for the time being, from every article of furniture but the chair she sat on, that she might have nothing else to knock the Baby's head against.
As Tilly stared about her at the dolls and toys, they stared at her and at the company. The venerable old gentlemen at the street-doors (who were all in full action) showed especial interest in the party, pausing occasionally before leaping, as if they were listening to the conversation, and then plunging wildly over and over, a great many times, without halting for breath—as in a frantic state of delight with the whole proceedings.
Certainly, if these old gentlemen were inclined to have a fiendish joy in the contemplation of Tackleton's discomfiture, they had good reason to be satisfied. Tackleton couldn't get on at all; and the more cheerful his intended bride became in Dot's society, the less he liked it, though he had brought them together for that purpose. For he was a regular dog in the manger, was Tackleton; and when they laughed and he couldn't, he took it into his head, immediately, that they must be laughing at him.
"Ah, May!" said Dot. "Dear, dear, what changes! To talk of those merry school days makes one young again."
"Why, you an't particularly old at any time, are you?" said Tackleton.
"Look at my sober, plodding husband there," returned Dot. "He adds twenty years to my age at least. Don't you, John?"
"Forty," John replied.
"How many you'll add to May's, I am sure I don't know," said Dot, laughing. "But she can't be much less than a hundred years of age on her next birthday."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Tackleton. Hollow as a drum that laugh, though. And he looked as if he could have twisted Dot's neck comfortably.
"Dear, dear!" said Dot. "Only to remember how we used to talk at school, about the husbands we would choose. I don't know how young, and how handsome, and how gay, and how lively mine was not to be! And as to May's!—Ah dear! I don't know whether to laugh or cry, when I think what silly girls we were."
May seemed to know which to do; for the colour flushed into her face, and tears stood in her eyes.
"Even the very persons themselves—real live young men—we fixed on sometimes," said Dot. "We little thought how things would come about. I never fixed on John, I'm sure; I never so much as thought of him. And if I had told you you were ever to be married to Mr. Tackleton, why, you'd have slapped me. Wouldn't you, May?"
Though May didn't say yes, she certainly didn't say no, or express no, by any means.
Tackleton laughed—quite shouted, he laughed so loud. John Peerybingle laughed too, in his ordinary good-natured and contented manner; but his was a mere whisper of a laugh to Tackleton's.
"You couldn't help yourselves, for all that. You couldn't resist us, you see," said Tackleton. "Here we are! Here we are! Where are your gay young bridegrooms now?"
"Some of them are dead," said Dot, "and some of them forgotten. Some of them if they could stand among us at this moment, would not believe we were the same creatures; would not believe that what they saw and heard was real, and we could forget them so. No! they would not believe one word of it!"
"Why, Dot!" exclaimed the Carrier. "Little woman!"
She had spoken with such earnestness and fire, that she stood in need of some recalling to herself, without doubt. Her husband's check was very gentle, for he merely interfered, as he supposed, to shield old Tackleton; but it proved effectual, for she stopped and said no more. There was an uncommon agitation, even in her silence, which the wary Tackleton, who had brought his half-shut eye to bear upon her, noted closely and remembered to some purpose too.
May uttered no word, good or bad, but sat quite still, with her eyes cast down, and made no sign of interest in what had passed. The good lady her mother now interposed, observing in the first instance, that girls were girls, and bygones bygones, and that, so long as young people were young and thoughtless, they would probably conduct themselves like young and thoughtless persons; with two or three other positions of a no less sound and incontrovertible character. She then remarked, in a devout spirit, that she thanked Heaven she had always found in her daughter May a dutiful and obedient child; for which she took no credit to herself, though she had every reason to believe it was entirely owing to herself. With regard to Mr. Tackleton, she said, That he was in a moral point of view an undeniable individual, and That he was in an eligible point of view a son-in-law to be desired, no one in their senses could doubt. (She was very emphatic here.) With regard to the family into which he was so soon about, after some solicitation, to be admitted, she believed Mr. Tackleton knew that, although reduced in purse, it had some pretensions to gentility; and that if certain circumstances, not wholly unconnected, she would go so far as to say, with the Indigo Trade, but to which she would not more particularly refer, had happened differently, it might perhaps have been in possession of wealth. She then remarked that she would not allude to the past, and would not mention that her daughter had for some time rejected the suit of Mr. Tackleton; and that she would not say a great many other things which she did say at great length. Finally, she delivered it as the general result of her observation and experience, that those marriages in which there was least of what was romantically and sillily called love, were always the happiest; and that she anticipated the greatest possible amount of bliss—not rapturous bliss, but the solid, steady-going article—from the approaching nuptials. She concluded by informing the company that to-morrow was the day she had lived for expressly; and that, when it was over, she would desire nothing better than to be packed up and disposed of in any genteel place of burial.
As these remarks were quite unanswerable
For you ought to know that he only rested there, and gave the old horse a bait. He had to go some four or five miles farther on; and, when he returned in the evening, he called for Dot, and took another rest on his way home. This was the order of the day on all the Picnic occasions, and had been ever since their institution.
There were two persons present, besides the bride and bridegroom elect, who did but indifferent honour to the toast. One of these was Dot, too flushed and discomposed to adapt herself to any small occurrence of the moment; the other, Bertha, who rose up hurriedly before the rest and left the table.
"Good-bye!" said stout John Peerybingle, pulling on his dreadnought coat. "I shall be back at the old time. Good-bye all!"
"Good-bye, John," returned Caleb.
He seemed to say it by rote, and to wave his hand in the same unconscious manner; for he stood observing Bertha with an anxious wondering face that never altered its expression.
"Good-bye, young shaver!" said the jolly Carrier,
bending down to kiss the child; which Tilly Slowboy,
now intent upon her knife and fork, had deposited
asleep (and, strange to say, without damage) in a
little cot of Bertha's furnishing; "good-bye! Time
will come, I suppose, when
"I'm here, John!" she said, starting.
"Come, come!" returned the Carrier, clapping his sounding hands. "Where's the pipe?"
"I quite forgot the pipe, John."
Forgot the pipe! Was such a wonder ever heard of? She! Forgot the pipe!
"I'll—I'll fill it directly. It's soon done."
But it was not so soon done, either. It lay in the usual place—the Carrier's dreadnought pocket—with the little pouch, her own work, from which she was used to fill it; but her hand shook so, that she entangled it (and yet her hand was small enough to have come out easily, I am sure), and bungled terribly. The filling of the pipe and lighting it, those little offices in which I have commended her discretion, were vilely done from first to last. During the whole process, Tackleton stood looking on maliciously with the half-closed eye; which, whenever it met hers—or caught it, for it can hardly be said to have ever met another eye: rather being a kind of trap to snatch it up—augmented her confusion in a most remarkable degree.
"Why, what a clumsy Dot you are this afternoon!" said John. "I could have done it better myself, I verily believe!"
With these good-natured words, he strode away, and presently was heard, in company with Boxer, and the old horse, and the cart, making lively music down the road. What time the dreamy Caleb still stood, watching his blind daughter, with the same expression on his face.
"Bertha!" said Caleb softly. "What has happened? How changed you are, my darling, in a few hours—since this morning! You silent and dull all day! What is it? Tell me!"
"Oh, father, father!" cried the Blind Girl, bursting into tears. "Oh, my hard, hard fate!"
Caleb drew his hand across his eyes before he answered her.
"But think how cheerful and how happy you have been, Bertha! How good, and how much loved, by many people."
"That strikes me to the heart, dear father! Always so mindful of me! Always so kind to me!"
Caleb was very much perplexed to understand her.
"To be—to be blind, Bertha, my poor dear," he
faltered, "is a great affliction;
"I have never felt it!" cried the Blind Girl. "I have never felt it in its fulness. Never! I have sometimes wished that I could see you, or could see him—only once, dear father, only for one little minute—that I might know what it is I treasure up," she laid her hands upon her breast, "and hold here! That I might be sure I have it right! And sometimes (but then I was a child) I have wept in my prayers at night, to think that, when your images ascended from my heart to Heaven, they might not be the true resemblance of yourselves. But I have never had these feelings long. They have passed away and left me tranquil and contented."
"And they will again," said Caleb.
"But, father! Oh, my good gentle father, bear with me, if I am wicked!" said the Blind Girl. "This is not the sorrow that so weighs me down!"
Her father could not choose but let his moist eyes overflow; she was so earnest and pathetic. But he did not understand her yet.
"Bring her to me," said Bertha. "I cannot hold it closed and shut within myself. Bring her to me, father!"
She knew he hesitated, and said, "May. Bring May!"
May heard the mention of her name, and, coming quietly towards her, touched her on the arm. The Blind Girl turned immediately, and held her by both hands.
"Look into my face, dear heart, sweetheart," said Bertha. "Read it with your beautiful eyes, and tell me if the truth is written on it."
"Dear Bertha, yes!"
The Blind Girl, still upturning the blank sightless face, down which the tears were coursing fast, addressed her in these words:
"There is not, in my soul, a wish or thought that is not for your good, bright May! There is not, in my soul, a grateful recollection stronger than the deep remembrance which is stored there of the many, many times when, in the full pride of sight and beauty, you have had consideration for Blind Bertha, even when we two were children, or when Bertha was as much a child as ever blindness can be! Every blessing on your head! Light upon your happy course, not the less, my dear May;" and she drew towards her in a closer grasp; "not the less, my bird, because, to-day, the knowledge that you are to be His wife has wrung my heart almost to breaking! Father, May, Mary! oh, forgive me that it is so, for the sake of all he has done to relieve the weariness of my dark life: and for the sake of the belief you have in me, when I call Heaven to witness that I could not wish him married to a wife more worthy of his goodness!"
While speaking she had released May Fielding's hands, and clasped her garments in an attitude of mingled supplication and love. Sinking lower and lower down, as she proceeded in her strange confession, she dropped at last at the feet of her friend and hid her blind face in the folds of her dress.
"Great Power!" exclaimed her father, smitten at one blow with the truth, "have I deceived her from the cradle but to break her heart at last?"
It was well for all of them that Dot, that beaming, useful, busy little Dot—for such she was, whatever faults she had; and however you may learn to hate her, in good time—it was well for all of them, I say, that she was there, or where this would have ended, it were hard to tell. But Dot, recovering her self-possession, interposed, before May could reply, or Caleb say another word.
"Come, come, dear Bertha! come away with me! Give her your arm, May. So! How composed she is, you see, already; and how good it is of her to mind us," said the cheery little woman, kissing her upon the forehead. "Come away, dear Bertha! Come! and here's her good father will come with her, won't you, Caleb? To—be—sure!"
Well, well, she was a noble little Dot in such things, and it must have been an obdurate nature that could have withstood her influence. When she had got poor Caleb and his Bertha away, that they might comfort and console each other, as she knew they only could, she presently came bouncing back—the saying is, as fresh as any daisy; I say fresher—to mount guard over that bridling little piece of consequence in the cap and gloves, and prevent the dear old creature from making discoveries.
"So bring me the precious Baby, Tilly," said she, drawing a chair to the fire; "and while I have it in my lap, here's Mrs. Fielding, Tilly, will tell me all about the management of Babies, and put me right in twenty points where I'm as wrong as can be. Won't you, Mrs. Fielding?"
Not even the Welsh Giant, who, according to the popular expression, was so "slow" as to perform a fatal surgical operation upon himself, in emulation of a juggling trick achieved by his arch enemy at breakfast-time; not even he fell half so readily into the snare prepared for him as the old lady into this artful pitfall. The fact of Tackleton having walked out; and furthermore, of two or three people having been talking together at a distance, for two minutes, leaving her to her own resources; was quite enough to have put her on her dignity, and the bewailment of that mysterious convulsion in the Indigo Trade, for four-and-twenty hours. But this becoming deference to her experience, on the part of the young mother, was so irresistible, that after a short affectation of humility, she began to enlighten her with the best grace in the world; and sitting bolt upright before the wicked Dot, she did, in half an hour, deliver more infallible domestic recipes and precepts than would (if acted on) have utterly destroyed and done up that Young Peerybingle, though he had been an Infant Samson.
To change the theme, Dot did a little needlework—she carried the contents of a whole workbox in her pocket; however she contrived it, I don't know—then did a little nursing; then a little more needlework; then had a little whispering chat with May, while the old lady dozed; and so in little bits of bustle, which was quite her manner always, found it a very short afternoon. Then, as it grew dark, and as it was a solemn part of this Institution of the Picnic that she should perform all Bertha's household tasks, she trimmed the fire, and swept the hearth, and set the tea-board out, and drew the curtains, and lighted a candle. Then she played an air or two on a rude kind of harp, which Caleb had contrived for Bertha, and played them very well; for Nature had made her delicate little ear as choice a one for music as it would have been for jewels, if she had had any to wear. By this time it was the established hour for having tea; and Tackleton came back again to share the meal, and spend the evening.
Caleb and Bertha had returned some time before, and Caleb sat down to his afternoon's work. But he couldn't settle to it, poor fellow, being anxious and remorseful for his daughter. It was touching to see him sitting idle on his working stool, regarding her so wistfully, and always saying in his face, "Have I deceived her from her cradle, but to break her heart?"
When it was night, and tea was done, and Dot had nothing more to do in washing up the cups and saucers; in a word—for I must come to it, and there is no use in putting it off—when the time drew nigh for expecting the Carrier's return in every sound of distant wheels, her manner changed again, her colour came and went, and she was very restless. Not as good wives are when listening for their husbands. No, no, no. It was another sort of restlessness from that.
Wheels heard. A horse's feet. The barking of a dog. The gradual approach of all the sounds. The scratching paw of Boxer at the door!
"Whose step is that?" cried Bertha, starting up.
"Whose step?" returned the Carrier, standing in the portal, with his brown face ruddy as a winter berry from the keen night air. "Why, mine."
"The other step," said Bertha. "The man's tread behind you!"
"She is not to be deceived," observed the Carrier, laughing. "Come along, sir. You'll be welcome, never fear!"
He spoke in a loud tone; and, as he spoke, the deaf old gentleman entered.
"He's not so much a stranger that you haven't seen him once, Caleb," said the Carrier. "You'll give him house room till we go?"
"Oh, surely, John, and take it as an honour!"
"He's the best company on earth to talk secrets in," said John. "I have reasonable good lungs, but he tries 'em, I can tell you. Sit down, sir. All friends here, and glad to see you!"
When he had imparted this assurance, in a voice that amply corroborated what he had said about his lungs, he added in his natural tone, "A chair in the chimney-corner, and leave to sit quite silent and look pleasantly about him, is all he cares for. He's easily pleased."
Bertha had been listening intently. She called Caleb to her side, when he had set the chair, and asked him, in a low voice, to describe their visitor. When he had done so (truly now, with scrupulous fidelity), she moved, for the first time since he had come in, and sighed, and seemed to have no further interest concerning him.
The Carrier was in high spirits, good fellow that he was, and fonder of his little wife than ever.
"A clumsy Dot she was, this afternoon!" he said, encircling her with his rough arm, as she stood, removed from the rest; "and yet I like her somehow. See yonder, Dot!"
He pointed to the old man. She looked down. I think she trembled.
"He's—ha, ha, ha!—he's full of admiration for you!" said the Carrier. "Talked of nothing else the whole way here. Why, he's a brave old boy! I like him for it!"
"I wish he had had a better subject, John," she said, with an uneasy glance about the room. At Tackleton especially.
"A better subject!" cried the jovial John. "There's no such thing. Come! off with the great-coat, off with the thick shawl, off with the heavy wrappers! and a cosy half-hour by the fire! My humble service, mistress. A game at cribbage, you and I? That's hearty. The cards and board, Dot. And a glass of beer here, if there's any left, small wife!"
His challenge was addressed to the old lady, who accepting it with gracious readiness, they were soon engaged upon the game. At first the Carrier looked about him sometimes with a smile, or now and then called Dot to peep over his shoulder at his hand, and advise him on some knotty point. But his adversary being a rigid disciplinarian, and subject to an occasional weakness in respect of pegging more than she was entitled to, required such vigilance on his part as left him neither eyes nor ears to spare. Thus his whole attention gradually became absorbed upon the cards; and he thought of nothing else, until a hand upon his shoulder restored him to a consciousness of Tackleton.
"I am sorry to disturb you—but a word directly."
"I'm going to deal," returned the Carrier. "It's a crisis."
"It is," said Tackleton. "Come here, man!"
There was that in his pale face which made the other rise immediately, and ask him, in a hurry, what the matter was.
"Hush! John Peerybingle," said Tackleton, "I am sorry for this. I am indeed. I have been afraid of it. I have suspected it from the first."
"What is it?" asked the Carrier with a frightened aspect.
"Hush! I'll show you, if you'll come with me."
The Carrier accompanied him without another word. They went across a yard, where the stars were shining, and by a little side door, into Tackleton's own counting-house, where there was a glass window, commanding the wareroom, which was closed for the night. There was no light in the counting-house itself, but there were lamps in the long narrow wareroom; and consequently the window was bright.
"A moment!" said Tackleton. "Can you bear to look through that window, do you think?"
"Why not?" returned the Carrier.
"A moment more," said Tackleton. "Don't commit any violence. It's of no use. It's dangerous too. You're a strong-made man, and you might do murder before you know it."
The Carrier looked him in the face, and recoiled a step
as if he had been struck. In one stride he was at the
window, and he
Oh, Shadow on the Hearth! Oh, truthful Cricket! Oh, perfidious wife!
He saw her with the old man—old no longer, but erect and gallant—bearing in his hand the false white hair that had won his way into their desolate and miserable home. He saw her listening to him, as he bent his head to whisper in her ear; and suffering him to clasp her round the waist, as they moved slowly down the dim wooden gallery towards the door by which they had entered it. He saw them stop, and saw her turn—to have the face, the face he loved so, so presented to his view!—and saw her, with her own hands, adjust the lie upon his head, laughing, as she did it, at his unsuspicious nature!
He clenched his strong right hand at first, as if it would have beaten down a lion. But, opening it immediately again, he spread it out before the eyes of Tackleton (for he was tender of her even then), and so, as they passed out, fell down upon a desk, and was as weak as any infant.
He was wrapped up to the chin, and busy with his horse and parcels, when she came into the room, prepared for going home.
"Now, John, dear! Good-night, May! Good-night, Bertha!"
Could she kiss them? Could she be blithe and cheerful in her parting? Could she venture to reveal her face to them without a blush? Yes. Tackleton observed her closely, and she did all this.
Tilly was hushing the Baby, and she crossed and recrossed Tackleton a dozen times, repeating drowsily:
"Did the knowledge that it was to be its wifes, then, wring its hearts almost to breaking; and did its fathers deceive it from its cradles but to break its hearts at last!"
"Now, Tilly, give me the Baby! Good-night, Mr. Tackleton. Where's John, for goodness' sake?"
"He's going to walk beside the horse's head," said Tackleton, who helped her to her seat.
"My dear John! Walk? To-night?"
The muffled figure of her husband made a hasty sign in the affirmative; and, the false stranger and the little nurse being in their places, the old horse moved off. Boxer, the unconscious Boxer, running on before, running back, running round and round the cart, and barking as triumphantly and merrily as ever.
When Tackleton had gone off likewise, escorting May and her mother home, poor Caleb sat down by the fire beside his daughter, anxious and remorseful at the core; and still saying, in his wistful contemplation of her, "Have I deceived her from her cradle, but to break her heart at last?"
The toys that had been set in motion for the Baby had all stopped and run down long ago. In the faint light and silence, the imperturbably calm dolls, the agitated rocking-horses with distended eyes and nostrils, the old gentlemen at the street-doors, standing half doubled up upon their failing knees and ankles, the wry-faced nutcrackers, the very beasts upon their way into the ark, in twos, like a boarding-school out walking, might have been imagined to be stricken motionless with fantastic wonder at Dot being false, or Tackleton beloved, under any combination of circumstances.