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

Charles Dickens (1812–1870)

Pecksniff at the Boarding-House

From “Martin Chuzzlewit”

THE USUAL Sunday dinner-hour at Todgers’s was two o’clock—a suitable time, it was considered, for all parties; convenient to Mrs. Todgers, on account of the baker’s; and convenient to the gentlemen, with reference to their afternoon engagements. But on the Sunday which was to introduce the two Misses Pecksniff to a full knowledge of Todgers’s and its society, the dinner was postponed until five, in order that everything might be as genteel as the occasion demanded.

When the hour drew nigh, Bailey junior, testifying great excitement, appeared in a complete suit of cast-off clothes several sizes too large for him, and, in particular, mounted a clean shirt of such extraordinary magnitude that one of the gentlemen (remarkable for his ready wit) called him “Collars” on the spot. At about a quarter before five a deputation, consisting of Mr. Jinkins and another gentleman whose name was Gander, knocked at the door of Mrs. Todgers’s room, and, being formally introduced to the two Misses Pecksniff by their parent, who was in waiting, besought the honour of conducting them up-stairs.

The drawing-room at Todgers’s was out of the common style; so much so, indeed, that you would hardly have taken it to be a drawing-room, unless you were told so by somebody who was in the secret. It was floor-clothed all over; and the ceiling, including a great beam in the middle, was papered. Besides the three little windows, with seats in them, commanding the opposite archway, there was another window looking point-blank, without any compromise at all about it, into Jinkins’s bedroom. And high up, all along one side of the wall, was a strip of panes of glass, two deep, giving light to the staircase. There were the oddest closets possible, with little casements in them like eight-day clocks, lurking in the wainscot, and taking the shape of the stairs; and the very door itself (which was painted black) had two great glass eyes in its forehead, with an inquisitive green pupil in the middle of each.

Here the gentlemen were all assembled. There was a general cry of “Hear, hear!” and “Bravo, Jink!” when Mr. Jinkins appeared with Charity on his arm, which became quite rapturous as Mr. Gander followed, escorting Mercy, and Mr. Pecksniff brought up the rear with Mrs. Todgers.

Then the presentations took place. They included a gentleman of a sporting turn, who propounded questions on jockey subjects to the editors of Sunday papers, which were regarded by his friends as rather stiff things to answer; and they included a gentleman of a theatrical turn, who had once entertained serious thoughts of “coming out,” but had been kept in by the wickedness of human nature; and they included a gentleman of a debating turn, who was strong at speech-making; and a gentleman of a literary turn, who wrote squibs upon the rest, and knew the weak side of everybody’s character but his own. There was a gentleman of a vocal turn, and a gentleman of a smoking turn, and a gentleman of a convivial turn; some of the gentlemen had a turn for whist, and a large proportion of the gentlemen had a strong turn for billiards and betting. They had all, it may be presumed, a turn for business, being all commercially employed in one way or other, and had, every one in his own way, a decided turn for pleasure to boot. Mr. Jinkins was of a fashionable turn, being a regular frequenter of the parks on Sundays, and knowing a great many carriages by sight. He spoke mysteriously, too, of splendid women, and was suspected of having once committed himself with a countess. Mr. Gander was of a witty turn, being indeed the gentleman who had originated the sally about collars, which sparkling pleasantry was now retailed from mouth to mouth, under the title of “Gander’s Last,” and was received in all parts of the room with great applause. Mr. Jinkins, it may be added, was much the oldest of the party, being a fish salesman’s book-keeper, aged forty. He was the oldest boarder also, and, in right of his double seniority, took the lead in the house, as Mrs. Todgers had already said.

There was considerable delay in the production of dinner, and poor Mrs. Todgers, being reproached in confidence by Jinkins, slipped in and out at least twenty times to see about it, always coming back as though she had no such thing upon her mind, and hadn’t been out at all. But there was no hitch in the conversation, nevertheless; for one gentleman, who travelled in the perfumery line, exhibited an interesting knick-knack, in the way of a remarkable cake of shaving soap, which he had lately met with in Germany; and the gentleman of a literary turn repeated (by desire) some sarcastic stanzas he had recently produced on the freezing of the tank at the back of the house. These amusements, with the miscellaneous conversation arising out of them, passed the time splendidly, until dinner was announced by Bailey junior in these terms:

“The wittles is up!”

On which notice they immediately descended to the banquet-hall; some of the more facetious spirits in the rear taking down gentlemen as if they were ladies, in imitation of the fortunate possessors of the two Misses Pecksniff.

Mr. Pecksniff said grace—a short and pious grace, invoking a blessing on the appetites of those present, and committing all persons who had nothing to eat to the care of Providence, whose business (so said the grace, in effect) it clearly was to look after them. This done, they fell to with less ceremony than appetite, the table groaning beneath the weight, not only of the delicacies whereof the Misses Pecksniff had been previously forewarned, but of boiled beef, roast veal, bacon, pies, and abundance of such heavy vegetables as are favourably known to housekeepers for their satisfying qualities. Besides which, there were bottles of stout, bottles of wine, bottles of ale, and divers other strong drinks, native and foreign.

All this was highly agreeable to the two Misses Pecksniff, who were in immense request, sitting one on either hand of Mr. Jinkins at the bottom of the table, and who were called upon to take wine with some new admirer every minute. They had hardly ever felt so pleasant and so full of conversation, in their lives. Mercy, in particular, was uncommonly brilliant, and said so many good things in the way of lively repartee that she was looked upon as a prodigy. “In short,” as that young lady observed, “they felt now, indeed, that they were in London, and for the first time too.”

Their young friend Bailey sympathised in these feelings to the fullest extent, and, abating nothing of his patronage, gave them every encouragement in his power, favouring them, when the general attention was diverted from his proceedings, with many nods and winks and other tokens of recognition, and occasionally touching his nose with a corkscrew, as if to express the bacchanalian character of the meeting. In truth, perhaps, even the spirit of the two Misses Pecksniff, and the hungry watchfulness of Mrs. Todgers, were less worthy of note than the proceedings of this remarkable boy, whom nothing disconcerted or put out of his way. If any piece of crockery—a dish or otherwise—chanced to slip through his hands (which happened once or twice), he let it go with perfect good-breeding, and never added to the painful emotions of the company by exhibiting the least regret. Nor did he, by hurrying to and fro, disturb the repose of the assembly, as many well-trained servants do; on the contrary, feeling the hopelessness of waiting upon so large a party, he left the gentlemen to help themselves to what they wanted, and seldom stirred from behind Mr. Jinkins’s chair, where, with his hands in his pockets, and his legs planted pretty wide apart, he led the laughter, and enjoyed the conversation.

The dessert was splendid. No waiting either. The pudding-plates had been washed in a little tub outside the door while cheese was on, and though they were moist and warm with friction, still there they were again—up to the mark, and true to time. Quarts of almonds; dozens of oranges; pounds of raisins; stack of biffins; soup-plates full of nuts. Oh, Todgers’s could do it when it chose! Mind that.

Then more wine came on, red wines and white wines, and a large china bowl of punch, brewed by the gentleman of a convivial turn, who adjured the Misses Pecksniff not to be despondent on account of its dimensions, as there were materials in the house for the concoction of half a dozen more of the same size. Good gracious, how they laughed! How they coughed when they sipped it, because it was so strong; and how they laughed again when somebody vowed that but for its colour it might have been mistaken, in regard of its innocuous qualities, for new milk! What a shout of “No!” burst from the gentlemen when they pathetically implored Mr. Jinkins to suffer them to qualify it with hot water; and how blushingly, by little and little, did each of them drink her whole glassful down to its very dregs!

Now comes the trying time. The sun, as Mr. Jinkins says (gentlemanly creature, Jinkins—never at a loss), is about to leave the firmament. “Miss Pecksniff!” said Mrs. Todgers softly, “will you—” “Oh, dear, no more, Mrs. Todgers!” Mrs. Todgers rises; the two Misses Pecksniff rise; all rise. Miss Mercy Pecksniff looks downward for her scarf. Where is it? Dear me, where can it be? Sweet girl, she has it on—not on her fair neck, but loose upon her flowing figure. A dozen hands assist her. She is all confusion. The youngest gentleman in company thirsts to murder Jinkins. She skips and joins her sister at the door. Her sister has her arm about the waist of Mrs. Todgers. She winds her arm around her sister. Diana, what a picture! The last things visible are a shape and a skip. “Gentlemen, let us drink to the ladies!”

The enthusiasm is tremendous. The gentleman of a debating turn rises in the midst, and suddenly lets loose a tide of eloquence which bears down everything before it. He is reminded of a toast—a toast to which they will respond. There is an individual present—he has him in his eye—to whom they owe a debt of gratitude. He repeats it—a debt of gratitude. Their rugged natures have been softened and ameliorated that day by the society of lovely woman. There is a gentleman in company whom two accomplished and delightful females regard with veneration, as the fountain of their existence. Yes, when yet the two Misses Pecksniff lisped in language scarce intelligible, they called that individual “Father!” There is great applause. He gives them “Mr. Pecksniff, and God bless him!” They all shake hands with Mr. Pecksniff as they drink the toast. The youngest gentleman in company does so with a thrill; for he feels that a mysterious influence pervades the man who claims that being in the pink scarf for his daughter.

What saith Mr. Pecksniff in reply? Or rather let the question be, What leaves he unsaid? Nothing. More punch is called for, and produced, and drunk. Enthusiasm mounts still higher. Every man comes out freely in his own character. The gentleman of a theatrical turn recites. The vocal gentleman regales them with a song. Gander leaves the Gander of all former feasts whole leagues behind. He rises to propose a toast. It is, “The Father of Todgers’s.” It is their common friend Jink—it is Old Jink, if he may call him by that familiar and endearing appellation. The youngest gentleman in company utters a frantic negative. He won’t have it—he can’t bear it—it mustn’t be. But his depth of feeling is misunderstood. He is supposed to be a little elevated, and nobody heeds him.

Mr. Jinkins thanks them from his heart. It is, by many degrees, the proudest day in his humble career. When he looks around him on the present occasion, he feels that he wants words in which to express his gratitude. One thing he will say. He hopes it has been shown that Todgers’s can be true to itself; and, an opportunity arising, that it can come out quite as strong as its neighbours—perhaps stronger. He reminds them, amidst thunders of encouragement, that they have heard of a somewhat similar establishment in Cannon Street, and that they have heard it praised. He wishes to draw no invidious comparisons; he would be the last man to do it; but when that Cannon Street establishment shall be able to produce such a combination of wit and beauty as has graced that board that day, and shall be able to serve up (all things considered) such a dinner as that of which they have just partaken, he will be happy to talk to it. Until then, gentlemen, he will stick to Todgers’s.

More punch, more enthusiasm, more speeches. Everybody’s health is drunk, saving the youngest gentleman in company. He sits apart, with his elbow on the back of a vacant chair, and glares disdainfully at Jinkins. Gander, in a convulsing speech, gives them the health of Bailey junior, hiccoughs are heard, and a glass is broken. Mr. Jinkins feels that it is time to join the ladies. He proposes, as a final sentiment, Mrs. Todgers. She is worthy to be remembered separately. Hear, hear. So she is; no doubt of it. They all find fault with her at other times; but every man feels, now, that he could die in her defence.

They go up-stairs, where they are not expected so soon; for Mrs. Todgers is asleep, Miss Charity is adjusting her hair, and Mercy, who has made a sofa of one of the window-seats, is in a gracefully recumbent attitude. She is rising hastily, when Mr. Jinkins implores her, for all their sakes, not to stir; she looks too graceful and too lovely, he remarks, to be disturbed. She laughs, and yields, and fans herself, and drops her fan, and there is a rush to pick it up. Being now installed, by one consent, as the beauty of the party, she is cruel and capricious, and sends gentlemen on messages to other gentlemen, and forgets all about them before they can return with the answer, and invents a thousand tortures, rending their hearts to pieces. Bailey brings up the tea and coffee. There is a small cluster of admirers round Charity, but they are only those who cannot get near her sister. The youngest gentleman in company is pale, but collected, and still sits apart; for his spirit loves to hold communion with itself, and his soul recoils from noisy revellers. She has a consciousness of his presence and his adoration. He sees it flashing sometimes in the corner of her eye. Have a care, Jinkins, ere you provoke a desperate man to frenzy!

Mr. Pecksniff had followed his younger friend up-stairs, and taken a chair at the side of Mrs. Todgers. He had also spilled a cup of coffee over his legs without appearing to be aware of the circumstance; nor did he seem to know that there was muffin on his knee.

“And how have they used you down-stairs, sir?” asked the hostess.

“Their conduct has been such, my dear madam,” said Mr. Pecksniff, “as I can never think of without emotion, or remember without a tear. Oh, Mrs. Todgers!”

“My goodness!” exclaimed that lady. “How low you are in your spirits, sir!”

“I am a man, my dear madam,” said Mr. Pecksniff, shedding tears, and speaking with an imperfect articulation, “but I am also a father. I am also a widower. My feelings, Mrs. Todgers, will not consent to be entirely smothered, like the young children in the Tower. They are grown up, and the more I press the bolster on them, the more they look round the corner of it.”

He suddenly became conscious of the bit of muffin, and stared at it intently, shaking his head the while, in a forlorn and imbecile manner, as if he regarded it as his evil genius, and mildly reproached it.

“She was beautiful, Mrs. Todgers,” he said, turning his glazed eye again upon her, without the least preliminary notice. “She had a small property.”

“So I have heard,” cried Mrs. Todgers with great sympathy.

“Those are her daughters,” said Mr. Pecksniff, pointing out the young ladies, with increased emotion.

Mrs. Todgers had no doubt of it.

“Mercy and Charity,” said Mr. Pecksniff, “Charity and Mercy. Not unholy names, I hope?”

“Mr. Pecksniff!” cried Mrs. Todgers, “what a ghastly smile! Are you ill, sir?”

He pressed his hand upon her arm, and answered in a solemn manner and a faint voice, “Chronic.”

“Cholic?” cried the frightened Mrs. Todgers.

“Chron-ic,” he repeated with some difficulty. “Chronic. A chronic disorder. I have been its victim from childhood. It is carrying me to my grave.”

“Heaven forbid!” cried Mrs. Todgers.

“Yes, it is,” said Mr. Pecksniff, reckless with despair. “I am rather glad of it, upon the whole. You are like her, Mrs. Todgers.”

“Don’t squeeze me so tight, pray, Mr. Pecksniff. If any of the gentlemen should notice us.”

“For her sake,” said Mr. Pecksniff. “Permit me—in honour of her memory. For the sake of a voice from the tomb. You are very like her, Mrs. Todgers! What a world this is!”

“Ah! Indeed you may say that!” cried Mrs. Todgers.

“I’m afraid it’s a vain and thoughtless world,” said Mr. Pecksniff, overflowing with despondency. “These young people about us. Oh! what sense have they of their responsibilities? None. Give me your other hand, Mrs. Todgers.”

That lady hesitated, and said “she didn’t like.”

“Has a voice from the grave no influence?” said Mr. Pecksniff, with dismal tenderness. “This is irreligious! My dear creature!”

“Hush!” urged Mrs. Todgers. “Really you mustn’t.”

“It’s not me,” said Mr. Pecksniff. “Don’t suppose it’s me; it’s the voice; it’s her voice.”

Mrs. Pecksniff deceased must have had an unusually thick and husky voice for a lady, and rather a stuttering voice, and, to say the truth, somewhat of a drunken voice, if it had ever borne much resemblance to that in which Mr. Pecksniff spoke just then. But perhaps this was delusion on his part.

“It has been a day of enjoyment, Mrs. Todgers, but still it has been a day of torture. It has reminded me of my loneliness. What am I in the world?”

“An excellent gentleman, Mr. Pecksniff,” said Mrs. Todgers.

“There is consolation in that too,” cried Mr. Pecksniff. “Am I?”

“There is no better man living,” said Mrs. Todgers, “I am sure.”

Mr. Pecksniff smiled through his tears, and slightly shook his head. “You are very good,” he said, “thank you. It is a great happiness to me, Mrs. Todgers, to make young people happy. The happiness of my pupils is my chief object. I dote upon ’em. They dote upon me too—sometimes.”

“Always,” said Mrs. Todgers.

“When they say they haven’t improved, ma’am,” whispered Mr. Pecksniff, looking at her with profound mystery, and motioning to her to advance her ear a little closer to his mouth. “When they say they haven’t improved, ma’am, and the premium was too high, they lie! I shouldn’t wish it to be mentioned; you will understand me; but I say to you as to an old friend, they lie.”

“Base wretches they must be!” said Mrs. Todgers.

“Madam,” said Mr. Pecksniff, “you are right. I respect you for that observation. A word in your ear. To parents and guardians. This is in confidence, Mrs. Todgers?”

“The strictest, of course!” cried that lady.

“To parents and guardians,” repeated Mr. Pecksniff. “An eligible opportunity now offers, which unites the advantages of the best practical architectural education with the comforts of a home, and the constant association with some, who, however humble their sphere and limited their capacity—observe—are not unmindful of their moral responsibilities.”

Mrs. Todgers looked a little puzzled to know what this might mean, as well she might; for it was, as the reader may perchance remember, Mr. Pecksniff’s usual form of advertisement when he wanted a pupil, and seemed to have no particular reference, at present, to anything. But Mr. Pecksniff held up his finger as a caution to her not to interrupt him.

“Do you know any parent or guardian, Mrs. Todgers,” said Mr. Pecksniff, “who desires to avail himself of such an opportunity for a young gentleman? An orphan would be preferred. Do you know of any orphan with three or four hundred pounds?”

Mrs. Todgers reflected, and shook her head.

“When you hear of an orphan with three or four hundred pounds,” said Mr. Pecksniff, “let that dear orphan’s friends apply, by letter post-paid, to S. P., Post-office, Salisbury. I don’t know who he is, exactly. Don’t be alarmed, Mrs. Todgers,” said Mr. Pecksniff, falling heavily against her. “Chronic—chronic! Let’s have a little drop of something to drink!”

“Bless my life, Miss Pecksniff!” cried Mrs. Todgers, aloud, “your dear pa’s took very poorly!”

Mr. Pecksniff straightened himself by a surprising effort, as every one turned hastily toward him, and standing on his feet, regarded the assembly with a look of ineffable wisdom. Gradually it gave place to a smile; a feeble, helpless, melancholy smile; bland, almost to sickliness. “Do not repine, my friends,” said Mr. Pecksniff tenderly. “Do not weep for me. It is chronic.” And with these words, after making a futile attempt to pull off his shoes, he fell into the fireplace.

The youngest gentleman in company had him out in a second. Yes, before a hair upon his head was singed, he had him on the hearth-rug—her father!

She was almost beside herself. So was her sister. Jinkins consoled them both. They all consoled them. Everybody had something to say except the youngest gentleman in company, who with a noble self-devotion did the heavy work, and held up Mr. Pecksniff’s head without being taken any notice of by anybody. At last they gathered round, and agreed to carry him up-stairs to bed. The youngest gentleman in company was rebuked by Jinkins for tearing Mr. Pecksniff’s coat! Ha, ha! But no matter.

They carried him up-stairs, and crushed the youngest gentleman at every step. His bedroom was at the top of the house, and it was a long way; but they got him there in course of time. He asked them frequently upon the road for a little drop of something to drink. It seemed an idiosyncrasy. The youngest gentleman in company proposed a draught of water. Mr. Pecksniff called him opprobrious names for the suggestion.

Jinkins and Gander took the rest upon themselves, and made him as comfortable as they could, on the outside of his bed; and when he seemed disposed to sleep, they left him. But before they had all gained the bottom of the staircase, a vision of Mr. Pecksniff, strangely attired, was seen to flutter on the top landing. He desired to collect their sentiments, it seemed, upon the nature of human life.

“My friends,” cried Mr. Pecksniff, looking over the balusters, “let us improve our minds by mutual inquiry and discussion. Let us be moral. Let us contemplate existence. Where is Jinkins?”

“Here!” cried that gentleman. “Go to bed again!”

“To bed!” said Mr. Pecksniff. “Bed! ’Tis the voice of the sluggard; I hear him complain; you have woke me too soon; I must slumber again. If any young orphan will repeat the remainder of that simple piece from Dr. Watts’s collection, an eligible opportunity now offers.”

Nobody volunteered.

“This is very soothing,” said Mr. Pecksniff, after a pause. “Extremely so. Cool and refreshing, particularly to the legs! The legs of the human subject, my friends, are a beautiful production. Compare them with wooden legs, and observe the difference between the anatomy of nature and the anatomy of art. Do you know,” said Mr. Pecksniff, leaning over the balusters, with an odd recollection of his familiar manner among new pupils at home, “that I should very much like to see Mrs. Todgers’s notion of a wooden leg, if perfectly agreeable to herself!”

As it appeared impossible to entertain any reasonable hopes of him after this speech, Mr. Jinkins and Mr. Gander went up-stairs again, and once more got him into bed. But they had not descended to the second floor before he was out again; nor, when they had repeated the process, had they descended the first flight, before he was out again. In a word, as often as he was shut up in his own room, he darted out afresh, charged with some new moral sentiment, which he continually repeated over the balusters, with extraordinary relish, and an irrepressible desire for the improvement of his fellow-creatures that nothing could subdue.

Under these circumstances, when they had got him into bed for the thirtieth time or so, Mr. Jinkins held him, while his companion went down-stairs in search of Bailey junior, with whom he presently returned. That youth, having been apprised of the service required of him, was in great spirits, and brought up a stool, a candle, and his supper, to the end that he might keep watch outside the bedroom door with tolerable comfort.

When he had completed his arrangements, they locked Mr. Pecksniff in, and left the key on the outside.