Master Humphrey s Clock
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subjects of its contemplation.
In all my idle speculations I am greatly assisted by various
legends connected with my venerable house, which are current in the
neighbourhood, and are so numerous that there is scarce a cupboard
or corner that has not some dismal story of its own. When I first
entertained thoughts of becoming its tenant, I was assured that it
was haunted from roof to cellar, and I believe that the bad opinion
in which my neighbours once held me, had its rise in my not being
torn to pieces, or at least distracted with terror, on the night I
took possession; in either of which cases I should doubtless have
arrived by a short cut at the very summit of popularity.
But traditions and rumours all taken into account, who so abets me
in every fancy and chimes with my every thought, as my dear deaf
friend? and how often have I cause to bless the day that brought us
two together! Of all days in the year I rejoice to think that it
should have been Christmas Day, with which from childhood we
associate something friendly, hearty, and sincere.
I had walked out to cheer myself with the happiness of others, and,
in the little tokens of festivity and rejoicing, of which the
streets and houses present so many upon that day, had lost some
hours. Now I stopped to look at a merry party hurrying through the
snow on foot to their place of meeting, and now turned back to see
a whole coachful of children safely deposited at the welcome house.
At one time, I admired how carefully the working man carried the
baby in its gaudy hat and feathers, and how his wife, trudging
patiently on behind, forgot even her care of her gay clothes, in
exchanging greeting with the child as it crowed and laughed over
the father's shoulder; at another, I pleased myself with some
passing scene of gallantry or courtship, and was glad to believe
that for a season half the world of poverty was gay.
As the day closed in, I still rambled through the streets, feeling
a companionship in the bright fires that cast their warm reflection
on the windows as I passed, and losing all sense of my own
loneliness in imagining the sociality and kind-fellowship that
everywhere prevailed. At length I happened to stop before a
Tavern, and, encountering a Bill of Fare in the window, it all at
once brought it into my head to wonder what kind of people dined
alone in Taverns upon Christmas Day.
Solitary men are accustomed, I suppose, unconsciously to look upon
solitude as their own peculiar property. I had sat alone in my
room on many, many anniversaries of this great holiday, and had
never regarded it but as one of universal assemblage and rejoicing.
I had excepted, and with an aching heart, a crowd of prisoners and
beggars; but THESE were not the men for whom the Tavern doors were
open. Had they any customers, or was it a mere form? - a form, no
Trying to feel quite sure of this, I walked away; but before I had
gone many paces, I stopped and looked back. There was a provoking
air of business in the lamp above the door which I could not
overcome. I began to be afraid there might be many customers -
young men, perhaps, struggling with the world, utter strangers in
this great place, whose friends lived at a long distance off, and
whose means were too slender to enable them to make the journey.
The supposition gave rise to so many distressing little pictures,
that in preference to carrying them home with me, I determined to
encounter the realities. So I turned and walked in.
I was at once glad and sorry to find that there was only one person
in the dining-room; glad to know that there were not more, and
sorry that he should be there by himself. He did not look so old
as I, but like me he was advanced in life, and his hair was nearly
white. Though I made more noise in entering and seating myself
than was quite necessary, with the view of attracting his attention
and saluting him in the good old form of that time of year, he did
not raise his head, but sat with it resting on his hand, musing
over his half-finished meal.
I called for something which would give me an excuse for remaining
in the room (I had dined early, as my housekeeper was engaged at
night to partake of some friend's good cheer), and sat where I
could observe without intruding on him. After a time he looked up.
He was aware that somebody had entered, but could see very little
of me, as I sat in the shade and he in the light. He was sad and
thoughtful, and I forbore to trouble him by speaking.
Let me believe it was something better than curiosity which riveted
my attention and impelled me strongly towards this gentleman. I
never saw so patient and kind a face. He should have been
surrounded by friends, and yet here he sat dejected and alone when
all men had their friends about them. As often as he roused
himself from his reverie he would fall into it again, and it was
plain that, whatever were the subject of his thoughts, they were of
a melancholy kind, and would not be controlled.
He was not used to solitude. I was sure of that; for I know by
myself that if he had been, his manner would have been different,
and he would have taken some slight interest in the arrival of
another. I could not fail to mark that he had no appetite; that he
tried to eat in vain; that time after time the plate was pushed
away, and he relapsed into his former posture.
His mind was wandering among old Christmas days, I thought. Many
of them sprung up together, not with a long gap between each, but
in unbroken succession like days of the week. It was a great
change to find himself for the first time (I quite settled that it
WAS the first) in an empty silent room with no soul to care for. I
could not help following him in imagination through crowds of
pleasant faces, and then coming back to that dull place with its
bough of mistletoe sickening in the gas, and sprigs of holly
parched up already by a Simoom of roast and boiled. The very
waiter had gone home; and his representative, a poor, lean, hungry
man, was keeping Christmas in his jacket.
I grew still more interested in my friend. His dinner done, a
decanter of wine was placed before him. It remained untouched for
a long time, but at length with a quivering hand he filled a glass
and raised it to his lips. Some tender wish to which he had been
accustomed to give utterance on that day, or some beloved name that
he had been used to pledge, trembled upon them at the moment. He
put it down very hastily - took it up once more - again put it down
- pressed his hand upon his face - yes - and tears stole down his
cheeks, I am certain.
Without pausing to consider whether I did right or wrong, I stepped
across the room, and sitting down beside him laid my hand gently on
'My friend,' I said, 'forgive me if I beseech you to take comfort
and consolation from the lips of an old man. I will not preach to
you what I have not practised, indeed. Whatever be your grief, be
of a good heart - be of a good heart, pray!'
'I see that you speak earnestly,' he replied, 'and kindly I am very
sure, but - '
I nodded my head to show that I understood what he would say; for I
had already gathered, from a certain fixed expression in his face,
and from the attention with which he watched me while I spoke, that
his sense of hearing was destroyed. 'There should be a freemasonry
between us,' said I, pointing from himself to me to explain my
meaning; 'if not in our gray hairs, at least in our misfortunes.
You see that I am but a poor cripple.'
I never felt so happy under my affliction since the trying moment
of my first becoming conscious of it, as when he took my hand in
his with a smile that has lighted my path in life from that day,
and we sat down side by side.
This was the beginning of my friendship with the deaf gentleman;
and when was ever the slight and easy service of a kind word in
season repaid by such attachment and devotion as he has shown to
He produced a little set of tablets and a pencil to facilitate our
conversation, on that our first acquaintance; and I well remember
how awkward and constrained I was in writing down my share of the
dialogue, and how easily he guessed my meaning before I had written
half of what I had to say. He told me in a faltering voice that he
had not been accustomed to be alone on that day - that it had
always been a little festival with him; and seeing that I glanced
at his dress in the expectation that he wore mourning, he added
hastily that it was not that; if it had been he thought he could
have borne it better. From that time to the present we have never
touched upon this theme. Upon every return of the same day we have
been together; and although we make it our annual custom to drink
to each other hand in hand after dinner, and to recall with
affectionate garrulity every circumstance of our first meeting, we
always avoid this one as if by mutual consent.
Meantime we have gone on strengthening in our friendship and regard
and forming an attachment which, I trust and believe, will only be
interrupted by death, to be renewed in another existence. I
scarcely know how we communicate as we do; but he has long since
ceased to be deaf to me. He is frequently my companion in my
walks, and even in crowded streets replies to my slightest look or
gesture, as though he could read my thoughts. From the vast number
of objects which pass in rapid succession before our eyes, we
frequently select the same for some particular notice or remark;
and when one of these little coincidences occurs, I cannot describe
the pleasure which animates my friend, or the beaming countenance
he will preserve for half-an-hour afterwards at least.
He is a great thinker from living so much within himself, and,
having a lively imagination, has a facility of conceiving and
enlarging upon odd ideas, which renders him invaluable to our
little body, and greatly astonishes our two friends. His powers in
this respect are much assisted by a large pipe, which he assures us
once belonged to a German Student. Be this as it may, it has
undoubtedly a very ancient and mysterious appearance, and is of
such capacity that it takes three hours and a half to smoke it out.
I have reason to believe that my barber, who is the chief authority
of a knot of gossips, who congregate every evening at a small
tobacconist's hard by, has related anecdotes of this pipe and the
grim figures that are carved upon its bowl, at which all the
smokers in the neighbourhood have stood aghast; and I know that my
housekeeper, while she holds it in high veneration, has a
superstitious feeling connected with it which would render her
exceedingly unwilling to be left alone in its company after dark.
Whatever sorrow my dear friend has known, and whatever grief may
linger in some secret corner of his heart, he is now a cheerful,
placid, happy creature. Misfortune can never have fallen upon such
a man but for some good purpose; and when I see its traces in his
gentle nature and his earnest feeling, I am the less disposed to