Master Humphrey s Clock
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 Next page
upon the subject, had not the papers that lay before me on the
table been a silent reproach for even this digression. I took them
up again when I had got thus far, and seriously prepared to read.
The handwriting was strange to me, for the manuscript had been
fairly copied. As it is against our rules, in such a case, to
inquire into the authorship until the reading is concluded, I could
only glance at the different faces round me, in search of some
expression which should betray the writer. Whoever he might be, he
was prepared for this, and gave no sign for my enlightenment.
I had the papers in my hand, when my deaf friend interposed with a
'It has occurred to me,' he said, 'bearing in mind your sequel to
the tale we have finished, that if such of us as have anything to
relate of our own lives could interweave it with our contribution
to the Clock, it would be well to do so. This need be no restraint
upon us, either as to time, or place, or incident, since any real
passage of this kind may be surrounded by fictitious circumstances,
and represented by fictitious characters. What if we make this an
article of agreement among ourselves?'
The proposition was cordially received, but the difficulty appeared
to be that here was a long story written before we had thought of
'Unless,' said I, 'it should have happened that the writer of this
tale - which is not impossible, for men are apt to do so when they
write - has actually mingled with it something of his own endurance
Nobody spoke, but I thought I detected in one quarter that this was
really the case.
'If I have no assurance to the contrary,' I added, therefore, 'I
shall take it for granted that he has done so, and that even these
papers come within our new agreement. Everybody being mute, we
hold that understanding if you please.'
And here I was about to begin again, when Jack informed us softly,
that during the progress of our last narrative, Mr. Weller's Watch
had adjourned its sittings from the kitchen, and regularly met
outside our door, where he had no doubt that august body would be
found at the present moment. As this was for the convenience of
listening to our stories, he submitted that they might be suffered
to come in, and hear them more pleasantly.
To this we one and all yielded a ready assent, and the party being
discovered, as Jack had supposed, and invited to walk in, entered
(though not without great confusion at having been detected), and
were accommodated with chairs at a little distance.
Then, the lamp being trimmed, the fire well stirred and burning
brightly, the hearth clean swept, the curtains closely drawn, the
clock wound up, we entered on our new story.
It is again midnight. My fire burns cheerfully; the room is filled
with my old friend's sober voice; and I am left to muse upon the
story we have just now finished.
It makes me smile, at such a time as this, to think if there were
any one to see me sitting in my easy-chair, my gray head hanging
down, my eyes bent thoughtfully upon the glowing embers, and my
crutch - emblem of my helplessness - lying upon the hearth at my
feet, how solitary I should seem. Yet though I am the sole tenant
of this chimney-corner, though I am childless and old, I have no
sense of loneliness at this hour; but am the centre of a silent
group whose company I love.
Thus, even age and weakness have their consolations. If I were a
younger man, if I were more active, more strongly bound and tied to
life, these visionary friends would shun me, or I should desire to
fly from them. Being what I am, I can court their society, and
delight in it; and pass whole hours in picturing to myself the
shadows that perchance flock every night into this chamber, and in
imagining with pleasure what kind of interest they have in the
frail, feeble mortal who is its sole inhabitant.
All the friends I have ever lost I find again among these visitors.
I love to fancy their spirits hovering about me, feeling still some
earthly kindness for their old companion, and watching his decay.
'He is weaker, he declines apace, he draws nearer and nearer to us,
and will soon be conscious of our existence.' What is there to
alarm me in this? It is encouragement and hope.
These thoughts have never crowded on me half so fast as they have
done to-night. Faces I had long forgotten have become familiar to
me once again; traits I had endeavoured to recall for years have
come before me in an instant; nothing is changed but me; and even I
can be my former self at will.
Raising my eyes but now to the face of my old clock, I remember,
quite involuntarily, the veneration, not unmixed with a sort of
childish awe, with which I used to sit and watch it as it ticked,
unheeded in a dark staircase corner. I recollect looking more
grave and steady when I met its dusty face, as if, having that
strange kind of life within it, and being free from all excess of
vulgar appetite, and warning all the house by night and day, it
were a sage. How often have I listened to it as it told the beads
of time, and wondered at its constancy! How often watched it
slowly pointing round the dial, and, while I panted for the eagerly
expected hour to come, admired, despite myself, its steadiness of
purpose and lofty freedom from all human strife, impatience, and
I thought it cruel once. It was very hard of heart, to my mind, I
remember. It was an old servant even then; and I felt as though it
ought to show some sorrow; as though it wanted sympathy with us in
our distress, and were a dull, heartless, mercenary creature. Ah!
how soon I learnt to know that in its ceaseless going on, and in
its being checked or stayed by nothing, lay its greatest kindness,
and the only balm for grief and wounded peace of mind.
To-night, to-night, when this tranquillity and calm are on my
spirits, and memory presents so many shifting scenes before me, I
take my quiet stand at will by many a fire that has been long
extinguished, and mingle with the cheerful group that cluster round
it. If I could be sorrowful in such a mood, I should grow sad to
think what a poor blot I was upon their youth and beauty once, and
now how few remain to put me to the blush; I should grow sad to
think that such among them as I sometimes meet with in my daily
walks are scarcely less infirm than I; that time has brought us to
a level; and that all distinctions fade and vanish as we take our
trembling steps towards the grave.
But memory was given us for better purposes than this, and mine is
not a torment, but a source of pleasure. To muse upon the gaiety
and youth I have known suggests to me glad scenes of harmless mirth
that may be passing now. From contemplating them apart, I soon
become an actor in these little dramas, and humouring my fancy,
lose myself among the beings it invokes.
When my fire is bright and high, and a warm blush mantles in the
walls and ceiling of this ancient room; when my clock makes
cheerful music, like one of those chirping insects who delight in
the warm hearth, and are sometimes, by a good superstition, looked
upon as the harbingers of fortune and plenty to that household in
whose mercies they put their humble trust; when everything is in a
ruddy genial glow, and there are voices in the crackling flame, and
smiles in its flashing light, other smiles and other voices
congregate around me, invading, with their pleasant harmony, the
silence of the time.
For then a knot of youthful creatures gather round my fireside, and
the room re-echoes to their merry voices. My solitary chair no
longer holds its ample place before the fire, but is wheeled into a
smaller corner, to leave more room for the broad circle formed
about the cheerful hearth. I have sons, and daughters, and
grandchildren, and we are assembled on some occasion of rejoicing
common to us all. It is a birthday, perhaps, or perhaps it may be
Christmas time; but be it what it may, there is rare holiday among
us; we are full of glee.
In the chimney-comer, opposite myself, sits one who has grown old
beside me. She is changed, of course; much changed; and yet I
recognise the girl even in that gray hair and wrinkled brow.
Glancing from the laughing child who half hides in her ample
skirts, and half peeps out, - and from her to the little matron of
twelve years old, who sits so womanly and so demure at no great
distance from me, - and from her again, to a fair girl in the full
bloom of early womanhood, the centre of the group, who has glanced
more than once towards the opening door, and by whom the children,
whispering and tittering among themselves, WILL leave a vacant
chair, although she bids them not, - I see her image thrice
repeated, and feel how long it is before one form and set of
features wholly pass away, if ever, from among the living. While I
am dwelling upon this, and tracing out the gradual change from
infancy to youth, from youth to perfect growth, from that to age,
and thinking, with an old man's pride, that she is comely yet, I
feel a slight thin hand upon my arm, and, looking down, see seated
at my feet a crippled boy, - a gentle, patient child, - whose
aspect I know well. He rests upon a little crutch, - I know it
too, - and leaning on it as he climbs my footstool, whispers in my
ear, 'I am hardly one of these, dear grandfather, although I love
them dearly. They are very kind to me, but you will be kinder
still, I know.'
I have my hand upon his neck, and stoop to kiss him, when my clock
strikes, my chair is in its old spot, and I am alone.
What if I be? What if this fireside be tenantless, save for the
presence of one weak old man? From my house-top I can look upon a
hundred homes, in every one of which these social companions are
matters of reality. In my daily walks I pass a thousand men whose
cares are all forgotten, whose labours are made light, whose dull
routine of work from day to day is cheered and brightened by their
glimpses of domestic joy at home. Amid the struggles of this
struggling town what cheerful sacrifices are made; what toil
endured with readiness; what patience shown and fortitude displayed
for the mere sake of home and its affections! Let me thank Heaven
that I can people my fireside with shadows such as these; with
shadows of bright objects that exist in crowds about me; and let me
say, 'I am alone no more.'
I never was less so - I write it with a grateful heart - than I am
to-night. Recollections of the past and visions of the present
come to bear me company; the meanest man to whom I have ever given
alms appears, to add his mite of peace and comfort to my stock; and
whenever the fire within me shall grow cold, to light my path upon