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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Charles Dickens (1812–1870)

Mr. Micawber’s Pecuniary Difficulties

MR. MICAWBER’S difficulties were an addition to my distressed state of mind. In my forlorn state I became quite attached to the family, and used to walk about, busy with Mrs. Micawber’s calculations of ways and means, and heavy with the weight of Mr. Micawber’s debts. On a Saturday night, which was my grand treat—partly because it was a great thing to walk home with six or seven shillings in my pocket, looking into the shops, and thinking what such a sum would buy, and partly because I went home early—Mrs. Micawber would make the most heart-rending confidences to me; also on a Sunday morning, when I mixed the portion of tea or coffee I had bought overnight, in a little shaving-pot, and sat late at my breakfast. It was nothing at all unusual for Mr. Micawber to sob violently at the beginning of one of these Saturday-night conversations, and sing about Jack’s delight being his lovely Nan, toward the end of it. I have known him to come home to supper with a flood of tears, and a declaration that nothing was now left but a jail; and go to bed making a calculation of the expense of putting bow-windows to the house, “in case anything turned up,” which was his favourite expression. And Mrs. Micawber was just the same.

A curious equality of friendship, originating, I suppose, in our respective circumstances, sprung up between me and these people, notwithstanding the ludicrous disparity in our years. But I never allowed myself to be prevailed upon to accept any invitation to eat and drink with them out of their stock (knowing that they got on badly with the butcher and baker, and had often not too much for themselves), until Mrs. Micawber took me into her entire confidence. This she did one evening as follows:

“Master Copperfield,” said Mrs. Micawber, “I make no stranger of you, and therefore do not hesitate to say that Mr. Micawber’s difficulties are coming to a crisis.”

It made me very miserable to hear it, and I looked at Mrs. Micawber’s red eyes with the utmost sympathy.

“With the exception of the heel of a Dutch cheese, which is not adapted to the wants of a young family,” said Mrs. Micawber, “there is really not a scrap of anything in the larder. I was accustomed to speak of the larder when I lived with papa and mamma, and I used the word almost unconsciously. What I mean to express is that there is nothing to eat in the house.”

“Dear me!” I said, in great concern.

I had two or three shillings of my week’s money in my pocket—from which I presume that it must have been on a Wednesday night when we held this conversation—and I hastily produced them, and with heartfelt emotion begged Mrs. Micawber to accept of them as a loan. But that lady, kissing me, and making me put them back into my pocket, replied that she couldn’t think of it.

“No, my dear Master Copperfield,” said she, “far be it from my thoughts! But you have a discretion beyond your years, and can render me another kind of service, if you will; and a service I will thankfully accept of.”

I begged Mrs. Micawber to name it.

“I have parted with the plate myself,” said Mrs. Micawber. “Six tea, two salt, and a pair of sugars I have at different times borrowed money on, in secret, with my own hands. But the twins are a great tie; and to me, with my recollections of papa and mamma, these transactions are very painful. There are still a few trifles that we could part with. Mr. Micawber’s feelings would never allow him to dispose of them; and Clickett”—this was the girl from the workhouse—“being of a vulgar mind, would take painful liberties if so much confidence was reposed in her. Master Copperfield, if I might ask you——”

I understood Mrs. Micawber now, and begged her to make use of me to any extent. I began to dispose of the more portable articles of property that very evening, and went out on a similar expedition almost every morning, before I went to Murdstone & Grinby’s.

Mr. Micawber had a few books on a little chiffonier, which he called the library; and those went first. I carried them, one after another, to a bookstall in the City Road—one part of which, near our house, was almost all bookstalls and bird-shops then—and sold them for whatever they would bring. The keeper of this little bookstall, who lived in a little house behind it, used to get tipsy every night, and to be violently scolded by his wife every morning. More than once, when I went there early, I had audience of him in a turn-up bedstead, with a cut on his forehead, or a black eye, bearing witness to his excesses overnight (I am afraid he was quarrelsome in his drink), and he, with a shaking hand, endeavouring to find the needful shillings in one or other of the pockets of his clothes, which lay upon the floor, while his wife, with a baby in her arms, and her shoes down at heel, never left off rating him. Sometimes he had lost his money, and then he would ask me to call again; but his wife had always got some—had taken his, I dare say, while he was drunk—and secretly completed the bargain on the stairs as we went down together.

At the pawnbroker’s shop, too, I began to be very well known. The principal gentleman who officiated behind the counter took a good deal of notice of me; and often got me, I recollect, to decline a Latin noun or adjective, or to conjugate a Latin verb, in his ear, while he transacted my business. After all these occasions Mrs. Micawber made a little treat, which was generally a supper; and there was a peculiar relish in these meals which I well remember.

At last Mr. Micawber’s difficulties came to a crisis, and he was arrested early one morning, and carried over to the King’s Bench prison in the Borough. He told me, as he went out of the house, that the God of Day had now gone down upon him—and I really thought his heart was broken, and mine too. But I heard afterward that he was seen to play a lively game at skittles before noon.

On the first Sunday after he was taken there I was to go and see him, and have dinner with him. I was to ask my way to such a place, and just short of that place I should see such another place, and just short of that I should see a yard, which I was to cross, and keep straight on until I saw a turnkey. All this I did; and when at last I did see a turnkey (poor little fellow that I was!), and thought how, when Roderick Random was in a debtors’ prison, there was a man there with nothing on him but an old rug, the turnkey swam before my dimmed eyes and my beating heart.

Mr. Micawber was waiting for me within the gate, and we went up to his room (top story but one), and cried very much. He solemnly conjured me, I remember, to take warning by his fate; and to observe that if a man had twenty pounds a year for his income, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be miserable. After which he borrowed a shilling of me for porter, gave me a written order on Mrs. Micawber for the amount, put away his pocket-handkerchief, and cheered up….

Mr. Micawber’s affairs, although past their crisis, were very much involved by reason of a certain “deed,” of which I used to hear a good deal, and which I suppose, now, to have been some former composition with his creditors, though I was so far from being clear about it then, that I am conscious of having confounded it with those demoniacal parchments which are held to have, once upon a time, obtained to a great extent in Germany. At last this document appeared to be got out of the way somehow. At all events, it ceased to be the rock ahead it had been; and Mrs. Micawber informed me that “her family” had decided that Mr. Micawber should apply for his release under the Insolvent Debtors’ Act, which would set him free, she expected, in about six weeks.

“And then,” said Mr. Micawber, who was present, “I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if—in short, if anything turns up.”

By way of going in for anything that might be on the cards, I call to mind that Mr. Micawber, about this time, composed a petition to the House of Commons, praying for an alteration in the law of imprisonment for debt….

I had begun to be a little uncomfortable, and to wish myself well out of the visit, when a figure coming down the street passed the door—it stood open to air the room, which was warm, the weather being close for the time of year—came back again, looked in, and walked in, exclaiming loudly, “Copperfield! Is it possible?”

It was Mr. Micawber, with his eye-glass and his walking-stick and his shirt-collar and his genteel air and the condescending roll in his voice, all complete!

“My dear Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, putting out his hand, “this is indeed a meeting which is calculated to impress the mind with a sense of the instability and uncertainty of all human—in short, it is a most extraordinary meeting. Walking along the street, reflecting upon the probability of something turning up—of which I am at present rather sanguine—I find a young but valued friend turn up, who is connected with the most eventful period of my life, I may say with the turning-point of my existence. Copperfield, my dear fellow, how do you do?”

I cannot say—I really cannot say—that I was glad to see Mr. Micawber there, but I was glad to see him, too, and shook hands with him heartily, inquiring how Mrs. Micawber was.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Micawber, waving his hand as of old, and settling his chin in his shirt-collar. “She is tolerably convalescent. The twins no longer derive their sustenance from Nature’s founts. In short,” said Mr. Micawber, in one of his bursts of confidence, “they are weaned, and Mrs. Micawber is, at present, my travelling companion. She will be rejoiced, Copperfield, to renew her acquaintance with one who has proved himself in all respects a worthy minister at the sacred altar of friendship.”

I said I should be delighted to see her.

“You are very good,” said Mr. Micawber.

Mr. Micawber then smiled, settled his chin again, and looked about him.

“I have discovered my friend Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber genteelly, and without addressing himself particularly to any one, “not in solitude, but partaking of a social meal in company with a widow lady, and one who is apparently her offspring—in short,” said Mr. Micawber, in another of his bursts of confidence, “her son. I shall esteem it an honour to be presented.”

I could do no less, under these circumstances, than make Mr. Micawber known to Uriah Heep and his mother, which I accordingly did. As they abased themselves before him, Mr. Micawber took a seat, and waved his hand in his most courtly manner.

“Any friend of my friend Copperfield’s,” said Mr. Micawber, “has a personal claim upon myself.”

“We are too ’umble, sir,” said Mrs. Heep, “my son and me, to be the friends of Master Copperfield. He has been so good as to take his tea with us, and we are thankful to him for his company; also to you, sir, for your notice.”

“Ma’am,” returned Mr. Micawber, with a bow, “you are very obliging. And what are you doing, Copperfield? Still in the wine trade?”

I was excessively anxious to get Mr. Micawber away; and replied, with my hat in my hand, and a very red face, I have no doubt, that I was a pupil at Dr. Strong’s.

“A pupil?” said Mr. Micawber, raising his eyebrows. “I am extremely happy to hear it. Although a mind like my friend Copperfield’s”—to Uriah and Mrs. Heep—“does not require that cultivation which, without his knowledge of men and things, it would require, still it is a rich soil teeming with latent vegetation—in short,” said Mr. Micawber, smiling, in another burst of confidence, “it is an intellect capable of getting up the classics to any extent.”

Uriah, with his long hands slowly twining over one another, made a ghastly writhe from the waist upward, to express his concurrence in this estimation of me.

“Shall we go and see Mrs. Micawber, sir?” I said, to get Mr. Micawber away.

“If you will do her that favour, Copperfield,” replied Mr. Micawber, rising. “I have no scruple in saying, in the presence of our friends here, that I am a man who has for some years contended against the pressure of pecuniary difficulties.” I knew he was certain to say something of this kind; he always would be so boastful about his difficulties. “Sometimes I have risen superior to my difficulties. Sometimes my difficulties have—in short, have floored me. There have been times when I have administered a succession of facers to them; there have been times when they have been too many for me, and I have given in, and said to Mrs. Micawber, in the words of Cato, ‘Plato, thou reasonest well. It’s all up now. I can show fight no more.’ But at no time of my life,” said Mr. Micawber, “have I enjoyed a higher degree of satisfaction than in pouring my griefs—if I may describe difficulties, chiefly arising out of warrants of attorney and promissory notes at two and four months, by that word—into the bosom of my friend Copperfield.”

Mr. Micawber closed this handsome tribute by saying, “Mr. Heep! Good-evening. Mrs. Heep! Your servant,” and then walking out with me in the most fashionable manner, making a good deal of noise on the pavement with his shoes, and humming a tune as he went.

It was a little inn where Mr. Micawber put up, and he occupied a little room in it, partitioned off from the commercial room, and strongly flavoured with tobacco smoke. I think it was over the kitchen, because a warm, greasy smell appeared to come up through the chinks in the floor, and there was a flabby perspiration on the walls. I know it was near the bar, on account of the smell of spirits and jingling of glasses. Here, recumbent on a small sofa, underneath the picture of a race-horse, with her head close to the fire, and her feet pushing the mustard off the dumb-waiter at the other end of the room, was Mrs. Micawber, to whom Mr. Micawber entered first, saying, “My dear, allow me to introduce to you a pupil of Dr. Strong’s.”

I noticed, by-the-bye, that although Mr. Micawber was just as much confused as ever about my age and standing, he always remembered, as a genteel thing, that I was a pupil of Dr. Strong’s.

Mrs. Micawber was amazed, but very glad to see me. I was very glad to see her, too, and, after an affectionate greeting on both sides, sat down on the small sofa near her.

“My dear,” said Mr. Micawber, “if you will mention to Copperfield what our present position is, which I have no doubt he will like to know, I will go and look at the paper the while, and see whether anything turns up among the advertisements.”

“I thought you were at Plymouth, ma’am,” I said to Mrs. Micawber, as she went out.

“My dear Master Copperfield,” she replied, “we went to Plymouth.”

“To be on the spot,” I hinted.

“Just so,” said Mrs. Micawber. “To be on the spot. But, the truth is, talent is not wanted in the Custom-House. The local influence of my family was quite unavailing to obtain any employment in that department for a man of Mr. Micawber’s abilities. They would rather not have a man of Mr. Micawber’s abilities. He would only show the deficiency of the others. Apart from which,” said Mrs. Micawber, “I will not disguise from you, my dear Master Copperfield, that when that branch of my family which is settled in Plymouth became aware that Mr. Micawber was accompanied by myself, and by little Wilkins and his sister, and by the twins, they did not receive him with that ardour which he might have expected, being so newly released from captivity. In fact,” said Mrs. Micawber, lowering her voice—“this is between ourselves—our reception was cool.”

“Dear me,” I said.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Micawber. “It is truly painful to contemplate mankind in such an aspect, Master Copperfield, but our reception was decidedly cool. There was no doubt about it. In fact, that branch of my family which is settled in Plymouth became quite personal to Mr. Micawber before he had been there a week.”

I said, and thought, that they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

“Still, so it was,” continued Mrs. Micawber. “Under such circumstances, what could a man of Mr. Micawber’s spirit do? But one obvious course was left. To borrow of that branch of my family the money to return to London, and to return at any sacrifice.”

“Then you all came back again, ma’am?” I said.

“We all came back again,” replied Mrs. Micawber. “Since then I have consulted other branches of my family on the course which it is most expedient for Mr. Micawber to take—for I maintain that he must take some course, Master Copperfield,” said Mrs. Micawber argumentatively. “It is clear that a family of six, not including a domestic, cannot live upon air.”

“Certainly, ma’am,” said I.

“The opinion of those other members of my family,” pursued Mrs. Micawber, “is, that Mr. Micawber should turn his attention to coals.”

“To what, ma’am?”

“To coals,” said Mrs. Micawber. “To the coal trade. Mr. Micawber was induced to think, on inquiry, that there might be an opening for a man of his talent in the Medway Coal Trade. Then, as Mr. Micawber very properly said, the first step to be taken clearly was to come and see the Medway. Which we came and saw. I say ‘we,’ Master Copperfield; for I never will,” said Mrs. Micawber, with emotion, “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.”

I murmured my admiration and approbation.

“We came,” repeated Mrs. Micawber, “and saw the Medway. My opinion of the coal trade on that river is, that it may require talent, but that it certainly requires capital. Talent, Mr. Micawber has; capital, Mr. Micawber has not. We saw, I think, the greater part of the Medway; and that is my individual conclusion. Being so near here, Mr. Micawber was of opinion that it would be rash not to come on and see the cathedral. Firstly, on account of its being so well worth seeing and our never having seen it; secondly, on account of the great probability of something turning up in a cathedral town. We have been here,” said Mrs. Micawber, “three days. Nothing has, as yet, turned up, and it may not surprise you, my dear Master Copperfield, so much as it would a stranger, to know that we are at present waiting for a remittance from London, to discharge our pecuniary obligations at the hotel. Until the arrival of that remittance,” said Mrs. Micawber, with much feeling, “I am cut off from my home—I allude to lodgings in Pentonville—from my boy and girl, and from my twins.”

I felt the utmost sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Micawber in this anxious extremity, and said as much to Mr. Micawber, who now returned, adding that I only wished I had money enough to lend them the amount they needed. Mr. Micawber’s answer expressed the disturbance of his mind. He said, shaking hands with me, “Copperfield, you are a true friend! But when the worst comes to the worst, no man is without a friend who is possessed of shaving materials.” At this dreadful hint Mrs. Micawber threw her arms around Mr. Micawber’s neck and entreated him to be calm. He wept, but so far recovered, almost immediately, as to ring the bell for the waiter, and bespeak a hot kidney pudding and a plate of shrimps for breakfast in the morning.