The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 22

A Gritty State of Things Comes on

Mr. Tartar’s chambers were the neatest, the cleanest, and the best-ordered chambers ever seen under the sun, moon, and stars. The floors were scrubbed to that extent, that you might have supposed the London blacks emancipated for ever, and gone out of the land for good. Every inch of brass-work in Mr. Tartar’s possession was polished and burnished, till it shone like a brazen mirror. No speck, nor spot, nor spatter soiled the purity of any of Mr. Tartar’s household gods, large, small, or middle-sized. His sitting-room was like the admiral’s cabin, his bath-room was like a dairy, his sleeping-chamber, fitted all about with lockers and drawers, was like a seedsman’s shop; and his nicely-balanced cot just stirred in the midst, as if it breathed. Everything belonging to Mr. Tartar had quarters of its own assigned to it: his maps and charts had their quarters; his books had theirs; his brushes had theirs; his boots had theirs; his clothes had theirs; his case-bottles had theirs; his telescopes and other instruments had theirs. Everything was readily accessible. Shelf, bracket, locker, hook, and drawer were equally within reach, and were equally contrived with a view to avoiding waste of room, and providing some snug inches of stowage for something that would have exactly fitted nowhere else. His gleaming little service of plate was so arranged upon his sideboard as that a slack salt-spoon would have instantly betrayed itself; his toilet implements were so arranged upon his dressing-table as that a toothpick of slovenly deportment could have been reported at a glance. So with the curiosities he had brought home from various voyages. Stuffed, dried, repolished, or otherwise preserved, according to their kind; birds, fishes, reptiles, arms, articles of dress, shells, seaweeds, grasses, or memorials of coral reef; each was displayed in its especial place, and each could have been displayed in no better place. Paint and varnish seemed to be kept somewhere out of sight, in constant readiness to obliterate stray finger-marks wherever any might become perceptible in Mr. Tartar’s chambers. No man-of-war was ever kept more spick and span from careless touch. On this bright summer day, a neat awning was rigged over Mr. Tartar’s flower-garden as only a sailor can rig it, and there was a sea-going air upon the whole effect, so delightfully complete, that the flower-garden might have appertained to stern-windows afloat, and the whole concern might have bowled away gallantly with all on board, if Mr. Tartar had only clapped to his lips the speaking-trumpet that was slung in a corner, and given hoarse orders to heave the anchor up, look alive there, men, and get all sail upon her!

Mr. Tartar doing the honours of this gallant craft was of a piece with the rest. When a man rides an amiable hobby that shies at nothing and kicks nobody, it is only agreeable to find him riding it with a humorous sense of the droll side of the creature. When the man is a cordial and an earnest man by nature, and withal is perfectly fresh and genuine, it may be doubted whether he is ever seen to greater advantage than at such a time. So Rosa would have naturally thought (even if she hadn’t been conducted over the ship with all the homage due to the First Lady of the Admiralty, or First Fairy of the Sea), that it was charming to see and hear Mr. Tartar half laughing at, and half rejoicing in, his various contrivances. So Rosa would have naturally thought, anyhow, that the sunburnt sailor showed to great advantage when, the inspection finished, he delicately withdrew out of his admiral’s cabin, beseeching her to consider herself its Queen, and waving her free of his flower-garden with the hand that had had Mr. Crisparkle’s life in it.

‘Helena! Helena Landless! Are you there?’

‘Who speaks to me? Not Rosa?’ Then a second handsome face appearing.

‘Yes, my darling!’

‘Why, how did you come here, dearest?’

‘I— I don’t quite know,’ said Rosa with a blush; ‘unless I am dreaming!’

Why with a blush? For their two faces were alone with the other flowers. Are blushes among the fruits of the country of the magic bean-stalk?

I am not dreaming,’ said Helena, smiling. ‘I should take more for granted if I were. How do we come together — or so near together — so very unexpectedly?’

Unexpectedly indeed, among the dingy gables and chimney-pots of P. J. T.‘s connection, and the flowers that had sprung from the salt sea. But Rosa, waking, told in a hurry how they came to be together, and all the why and wherefore of that matter.

‘And Mr. Crisparkle is here,’ said Rosa, in rapid conclusion; ‘and, could you believe it? long ago he saved his life!’

‘I could believe any such thing of Mr. Crisparkle,’ returned Helena, with a mantling face.

(More blushes in the bean-stalk country!)

‘Yes, but it wasn’t Crisparkle,’ said Rosa, quickly putting in the correction.

‘I don’t understand, love.’

‘It was very nice of Mr. Crisparkle to be saved,’ said Rosa, ‘and he couldn’t have shown his high opinion of Mr. Tartar more expressively. But it was Mr. Tartar who saved him.’

Helena’s dark eyes looked very earnestly at the bright face among the leaves, and she asked, in a slower and more thoughtful tone:

‘Is Mr. Tartar with you now, dear?’

‘No; because he has given up his rooms to me — to us, I mean. It is such a beautiful place!’

‘Is it?’

‘It is like the inside of the most exquisite ship that ever sailed. It is like — it is like —’

‘Like a dream?’ suggested Helena.

Rosa answered with a little nod, and smelled the flowers.

Helena resumed, after a short pause of silence, during which she seemed (or it was Rosa’s fancy) to compassionate somebody: ‘My poor Neville is reading in his own room, the sun being so very bright on this side just now. I think he had better not know that you are so near.’

‘O, I think so too!’ cried Rosa very readily.

‘I suppose,’ pursued Helena, doubtfully, ‘that he must know by-and-by all you have told me; but I am not sure. Ask Mr. Crisparkle’s advice, my darling. Ask him whether I may tell Neville as much or as little of what you have told me as I think best.’

Rosa subsided into her state-cabin, and propounded the question. The Minor Canon was for the free exercise of Helena’s judgment.

‘I thank him very much,’ said Helena, when Rosa emerged again with her report. ‘Ask him whether it would be best to wait until any more maligning and pursuing of Neville on the part of this wretch shall disclose itself, or to try to anticipate it: I mean, so far as to find out whether any such goes on darkly about us?’

The Minor Canon found this point so difficult to give a confident opinion on, that, after two or three attempts and failures, he suggested a reference to Mr. Grewgious. Helena acquiescing, he betook himself (with a most unsuccessful assumption of lounging indifference) across the quadrangle to P. J. T.‘s, and stated it. Mr. Grewgious held decidedly to the general principle, that if you could steal a march upon a brigand or a wild beast, you had better do it; and he also held decidedly to the special case, that John Jasper was a brigand and a wild beast in combination.

Thus advised, Mr. Crisparkle came back again and reported to Rosa, who in her turn reported to Helena. She now steadily pursuing her train of thought at her window, considered thereupon.

‘We may count on Mr. Tartar’s readiness to help us, Rosa?’ she inquired.

O yes! Rosa shyly thought so. O yes, Rosa shyly believed she could almost answer for it. But should she ask Mr. Crisparkle? ‘I think your authority on the point as good as his, my dear,’ said Helena, sedately, ‘and you needn’t disappear again for that.’ Odd of Helena!

‘You see, Neville,’ Helena pursued after more reflection, ‘knows no one else here: he has not so much as exchanged a word with any one else here. If Mr. Tartar would call to see him openly and often; if he would spare a minute for the purpose, frequently; if he would even do so, almost daily; something might come of it.’

‘Something might come of it, dear?’ repeated Rosa, surveying her friend’s beauty with a highly perplexed face. ‘Something might?’

‘If Neville’s movements are really watched, and if the purpose really is to isolate him from all friends and acquaintance and wear his daily life out grain by grain (which would seem to be the threat to you), does it not appear likely,’ said Helena, ‘that his enemy would in some way communicate with Mr. Tartar to warn him off from Neville? In which case, we might not only know the fact, but might know from Mr. Tartar what the terms of the communication were.’

‘I see!’ cried Rosa. And immediately darted into her state-cabin again.

Presently her pretty face reappeared, with a greatly heightened colour, and she said that she had told Mr. Crisparkle, and that Mr. Crisparkle had fetched in Mr. Tartar, and that Mr. Tartar —‘who is waiting now, in case you want him,’ added Rosa, with a half look back, and in not a little confusion between the inside of the state-cabin and out — had declared his readiness to act as she had suggested, and to enter on his task that very day.

‘I thank him from my heart,’ said Helena. ‘Pray tell him so.’

Again not a little confused between the Flower-garden and the Cabin, Rosa dipped in with her message, and dipped out again with more assurances from Mr. Tartar, and stood wavering in a divided state between Helena and him, which proved that confusion is not always necessarily awkward, but may sometimes present a very pleasant appearance.

‘And now, darling,’ said Helena, ‘we will be mindful of the caution that has restricted us to this interview for the present, and will part. I hear Neville moving too. Are you going back?’

‘To Miss Twinkleton’s?’ asked Rosa.

‘Yes.’

‘O, I could never go there any more. I couldn’t indeed, after that dreadful interview!’ said Rosa.

‘Then where are you going, pretty one?’

‘Now I come to think of it, I don’t know,’ said Rosa. ‘I have settled nothing at all yet, but my guardian will take care of me. Don’t be uneasy, dear. I shall be sure to be somewhere.’

(It did seem likely.)

‘And I shall hear of my Rosebud from Mr. Tartar?’ inquired Helena.

‘Yes, I suppose so; from —’ Rosa looked back again in a flutter, instead of supplying the name. ‘But tell me one thing before we part, dearest Helena. Tell me — that you are sure, sure, sure, I couldn’t help it.’

‘Help it, love?’

‘Help making him malicious and revengeful. I couldn’t hold any terms with him, could I?’

‘You know how I love you, darling,’ answered Helena, with indignation; ‘but I would sooner see you dead at his wicked feet.’

‘That’s a great comfort to me! And you will tell your poor brother so, won’t you? And you will give him my remembrance and my sympathy? And you will ask him not to hate me?’

With a mournful shake of the head, as if that would be quite a superfluous entreaty, Helena lovingly kissed her two hands to her friend, and her friend’s two hands were kissed to her; and then she saw a third hand (a brown one) appear among the flowers and leaves, and help her friend out of sight.

The refection that Mr. Tartar produced in the Admiral’s Cabin by merely touching the spring knob of a locker and the handle of a drawer, was a dazzling enchanted repast. Wonderful macaroons, glittering liqueurs, magically-preserved tropical spices, and jellies of celestial tropical fruits, displayed themselves profusely at an instant’s notice. But Mr. Tartar could not make time stand still; and time, with his hard-hearted fleetness, strode on so fast, that Rosa was obliged to come down from the bean-stalk country to earth and her guardian’s chambers.

‘And now, my dear,’ said Mr. Grewgious, ‘what is to be done next? To put the same thought in another form; what is to be done with you?’

Rosa could only look apologetically sensible of being very much in her own way and in everybody else’s. Some passing idea of living, fireproof, up a good many stairs in Furnival’s Inn for the rest of her life, was the only thing in the nature of a plan that occurred to her.

‘It has come into my thoughts,’ said Mr. Grewgious, ‘that as the respected lady, Miss Twinkleton, occasionally repairs to London in the recess, with the view of extending her connection, and being available for interviews with metropolitan parents, if any — whether, until we have time in which to turn ourselves round, we might invite Miss Twinkleton to come and stay with you for a month?’

‘Stay where, sir?’

‘Whether,’ explained Mr. Grewgious, ‘we might take a furnished lodging in town for a month, and invite Miss Twinkleton to assume the charge of you in it for that period?’

‘And afterwards?’ hinted Rosa.

‘And afterwards,’ said Mr. Grewgious, ‘we should be no worse off than we are now.’

‘I think that might smooth the way,’ assented Rosa.

‘Then let us,’ said Mr. Grewgious, rising, ‘go and look for a furnished lodging. Nothing could be more acceptable to me than the sweet presence of last evening, for all the remaining evenings of my existence; but these are not fit surroundings for a young lady. Let us set out in quest of adventures, and look for a furnished lodging. In the meantime, Mr. Crisparkle here, about to return home immediately, will no doubt kindly see Miss Twinkleton, and invite that lady to co-operate in our plan.’

Mr. Crisparkle, willingly accepting the commission, took his departure; Mr. Grewgious and his ward set forth on their expedition.

As Mr. Grewgious’s idea of looking at a furnished lodging was to get on the opposite side of the street to a house with a suitable bill in the window, and stare at it; and then work his way tortuously to the back of the house, and stare at that; and then not go in, but make similar trials of another house, with the same result; their progress was but slow. At length he bethought himself of a widowed cousin, divers times removed, of Mr. Bazzard’s, who had once solicited his influence in the lodger world, and who lived in Southampton Street, Bloomsbury Square. This lady’s name, stated in uncompromising capitals of considerable size on a brass door-plate, and yet not lucidly as to sex or condition, was BILLICKIN.

Personal faintness, and an overpowering personal candour, were the distinguishing features of Mrs. Billickin’s organisation. She came languishing out of her own exclusive back parlour, with the air of having been expressly brought-to for the purpose, from an accumulation of several swoons.

‘I hope I see you well, sir,’ said Mrs. Billickin, recognising her visitor with a bend.

‘Thank you, quite well. And you, ma’am?’ returned Mr. Grewgious.

‘I am as well,’ said Mrs. Billickin, becoming aspirational with excess of faintness, ‘as I hever ham.’

‘My ward and an elderly lady,’ said Mr. Grewgious, ‘wish to find a genteel lodging for a month or so. Have you any apartments available, ma’am?’

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ returned Mrs. Billickin, ‘I will not deceive you; far from it. I have apartments available.’

This with the air of adding: ‘Convey me to the stake, if you will; but while I live, I will be candid.’

‘And now, what apartments, ma’am?’ asked Mr. Grewgious, cosily. To tame a certain severity apparent on the part of Mrs. Billickin.

‘There is this sitting-room — which, call it what you will, it is the front parlour, Miss,’ said Mrs. Billickin, impressing Rosa into the conversation: ‘the back parlour being what I cling to and never part with; and there is two bedrooms at the top of the ’ouse with gas laid on. I do not tell you that your bedroom floors is firm, for firm they are not. The gas-fitter himself allowed, that to make a firm job, he must go right under your jistes, and it were not worth the outlay as a yearly tenant so to do. The piping is carried above your jistes, and it is best that it should be made known to you.’

Mr. Grewgious and Rosa exchanged looks of some dismay, though they had not the least idea what latent horrors this carriage of the piping might involve. Mrs. Billickin put her hand to her heart, as having eased it of a load.

‘Well! The roof is all right, no doubt,’ said Mr. Grewgious, plucking up a little.

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ returned Mrs. Billickin, ‘if I was to tell you, sir, that to have nothink above you is to have a floor above you, I should put a deception upon you which I will not do. No, sir. Your slates will rattle loose at that elewation in windy weather, do your utmost, best or worst! I defy you, sir, be you what you may, to keep your slates tight, try how you can.’ Here Mrs. Billickin, having been warm with Mr. Grewgious, cooled a little, not to abuse the moral power she held over him. ‘Consequent,’ proceeded Mrs. Billickin, more mildly, but still firmly in her incorruptible candour: ‘consequent it would be worse than of no use for me to trapse and travel up to the top of the ’ouse with you, and for you to say, “Mrs. Billickin, what stain do I notice in the ceiling, for a stain I do consider it?” and for me to answer, “I do not understand you, sir.” No, sir, I will not be so underhand. I do understand you before you pint it out. It is the wet, sir. It do come in, and it do not come in. You may lay dry there half your lifetime; but the time will come, and it is best that you should know it, when a dripping sop would be no name for you.’

Mr. Grewgious looked much disgraced by being prefigured in this pickle.

‘Have you any other apartments, ma’am?’ he asked.

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ returned Mrs. Billickin, with much solemnity, ‘I have. You ask me have I, and my open and my honest answer air, I have. The first and second floors is wacant, and sweet rooms.’

‘Come, come! There’s nothing against them,’ said Mr. Grewgious, comforting himself.

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ replied Mrs. Billickin, ‘pardon me, there is the stairs. Unless your mind is prepared for the stairs, it will lead to inevitable disappointment. You cannot, Miss,’ said Mrs. Billickin, addressing Rosa reproachfully, ‘place a first floor, and far less a second, on the level footing of a parlour. No, you cannot do it, Miss, it is beyond your power, and wherefore try?’

Mrs. Billickin put it very feelingly, as if Rosa had shown a headstrong determination to hold the untenable position.

‘Can we see these rooms, ma’am?’ inquired her guardian.

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ returned Mrs. Billickin, ‘you can. I will not disguise it from you, sir; you can.’

Mrs. Billickin then sent into her back parlour for her shawl (it being a state fiction, dating from immemorial antiquity, that she could never go anywhere without being wrapped up), and having been enrolled by her attendant, led the way. She made various genteel pauses on the stairs for breath, and clutched at her heart in the drawing-room as if it had very nearly got loose, and she had caught it in the act of taking wing.

‘And the second floor?’ said Mr. Grewgious, on finding the first satisfactory.

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ replied Mrs. Billickin, turning upon him with ceremony, as if the time had now come when a distinct understanding on a difficult point must be arrived at, and a solemn confidence established, ‘the second floor is over this.’

‘Can we see that too, ma’am?’

‘Yes, sir,’ returned Mrs. Billickin, ‘it is open as the day.’

That also proving satisfactory, Mr. Grewgious retired into a window with Rosa for a few words of consultation, and then asking for pen and ink, sketched out a line or two of agreement. In the meantime Mrs. Billickin took a seat, and delivered a kind of Index to, or Abstract of, the general question.

‘Five-and-forty shillings per week by the month certain at the time of year,’ said Mrs. Billickin, ‘is only reasonable to both parties. It is not Bond Street nor yet St. James’s Palace; but it is not pretended that it is. Neither is it attempted to be denied — for why should it? — that the Arching leads to a mews. Mewses must exist. Respecting attendance; two is kep’, at liberal wages. Words has arisen as to tradesmen, but dirty shoes on fresh hearth– stoning was attributable, and no wish for a commission on your orders. Coals is either BY the fire, or per the scuttle.’ She emphasised the prepositions as marking a subtle but immense difference. ‘Dogs is not viewed with favour. Besides litter, they gets stole, and sharing suspicions is apt to creep in, and unpleasantness takes place.’

By this time Mr. Grewgious had his agreement-lines, and his earnest-money, ready. ‘I have signed it for the ladies, ma’am,’ he said, ‘and you’ll have the goodness to sign it for yourself, Christian and Surname, there, if you please.’

‘Mr. Grewgious,’ said Mrs. Billickin in a new burst of candour, ‘no, sir! You must excuse the Christian name.’

Mr. Grewgious stared at her.

‘The door-plate is used as a protection,’ said Mrs. Billickin, ‘and acts as such, and go from it I will not.’

Mr. Grewgious stared at Rosa.

‘No, Mr. Grewgious, you must excuse me. So long as this ’ouse is known indefinite as Billickin’s, and so long as it is a doubt with the riff-raff where Billickin may be hidin’, near the street-door or down the airy, and what his weight and size, so long I feel safe. But commit myself to a solitary female statement, no, Miss! Nor would you for a moment wish,’ said Mrs. Billickin, with a strong sense of injury, ‘to take that advantage of your sex, if you were not brought to it by inconsiderate example.’

Rosa reddening as if she had made some most disgraceful attempt to overreach the good lady, besought Mr. Grewgious to rest content with any signature. And accordingly, in a baronial way, the sign-manual Billickin got appended to the document.

Details were then settled for taking possession on the next day but one, when Miss Twinkleton might be reasonably expected; and Rosa went back to Furnival’s Inn on her guardian’s arm.

Behold Mr. Tartar walking up and down Furnival’s Inn, checking himself when he saw them coming, and advancing towards them!

‘It occurred to me,’ hinted Mr. Tartar, ‘that we might go up the river, the weather being so delicious and the tide serving. I have a boat of my own at the Temple Stairs.’

‘I have not been up the river for this many a day,’ said Mr. Grewgious, tempted.

‘I was never up the river,’ added Rosa.

Within half an hour they were setting this matter right by going up the river. The tide was running with them, the afternoon was charming. Mr. Tartar’s boat was perfect. Mr. Tartar and Lobley (Mr. Tartar’s man) pulled a pair of oars. Mr. Tartar had a yacht, it seemed, lying somewhere down by Greenhithe; and Mr. Tartar’s man had charge of this yacht, and was detached upon his present service. He was a jolly-favoured man, with tawny hair and whiskers, and a big red face. He was the dead image of the sun in old woodcuts, his hair and whiskers answering for rays all around him. Resplendent in the bow of the boat, he was a shining sight, with a man-of-war’s man’s shirt on — or off, according to opinion — and his arms and breast tattooed all sorts of patterns. Lobley seemed to take it easily, and so did Mr. Tartar; yet their oars bent as they pulled, and the boat bounded under them. Mr. Tartar talked as if he were doing nothing, to Rosa who was really doing nothing, and to Mr. Grewgious who was doing this much that he steered all wrong; but what did that matter, when a turn of Mr. Tartar’s skilful wrist, or a mere grin of Mr. Lobley’s over the bow, put all to rights! The tide bore them on in the gayest and most sparkling manner, until they stopped to dine in some ever– lastingly-green garden, needing no matter-of-fact identification here; and then the tide obligingly turned — being devoted to that party alone for that day; and as they floated idly among some osier-beds, Rosa tried what she could do in the rowing way, and came off splendidly, being much assisted; and Mr. Grewgious tried what he could do, and came off on his back, doubled up with an oar under his chin, being not assisted at all. Then there was an interval of rest under boughs (such rest!) what time Mr. Lobley mopped, and, arranging cushions, stretchers, and the like, danced the tight-rope the whole length of the boat like a man to whom shoes were a superstition and stockings slavery; and then came the sweet return among delicious odours of limes in bloom, and musical ripplings; and, all too soon, the great black city cast its shadow on the waters, and its dark bridges spanned them as death spans life, and the everlastingly-green garden seemed to be left for everlasting, unregainable and far away.


Up the river

‘Cannot people get through life without gritty stages, I wonder?’ Rosa thought next day, when the town was very gritty again, and everything had a strange and an uncomfortable appearance of seeming to wait for something that wouldn’t come. NO. She began to think, that, now the Cloisterham school-days had glided past and gone, the gritty stages would begin to set in at intervals and make themselves wearily known!

Yet what did Rosa expect? Did she expect Miss Twinkleton? Miss Twinkleton duly came. Forth from her back parlour issued the Billickin to receive Miss Twinkleton, and War was in the Billickin’s eye from that fell moment.

Miss Twinkleton brought a quantity of luggage with her, having all Rosa’s as well as her own. The Billickin took it ill that Miss Twinkleton’s mind, being sorely disturbed by this luggage, failed to take in her personal identity with that clearness of perception which was due to its demands. Stateliness mounted her gloomy throne upon the Billickin’s brow in consequence. And when Miss Twinkleton, in agitation taking stock of her trunks and packages, of which she had seventeen, particularly counted in the Billickin herself as number eleven, the B. found it necessary to repudiate.

‘Things cannot too soon be put upon the footing,’ said she, with a candour so demonstrative as to be almost obtrusive, ‘that the person of the ’ouse is not a box nor yet a bundle, nor a carpet-bag. No, I am ’ily obleeged to you, Miss Twinkleton, nor yet a beggar.’

This last disclaimer had reference to Miss Twinkleton’s distractedly pressing two-and-sixpence on her, instead of the cabman.

Thus cast off, Miss Twinkleton wildly inquired, ‘which gentleman’ was to be paid? There being two gentlemen in that position (Miss Twinkleton having arrived with two cabs), each gentleman on being paid held forth his two-and-sixpence on the flat of his open hand, and, with a speechless stare and a dropped jaw, displayed his wrong to heaven and earth. Terrified by this alarming spectacle, Miss Twinkleton placed another shilling in each hand; at the same time appealing to the law in flurried accents, and recounting her luggage this time with the two gentlemen in, who caused the total to come out complicated. Meanwhile the two gentlemen, each looking very hard at the last shilling grumblingly, as if it might become eighteen-pence if he kept his eyes on it, descended the doorsteps, ascended their carriages, and drove away, leaving Miss Twinkleton on a bonnet-box in tears.

The Billickin beheld this manifestation of weakness without sympathy, and gave directions for ‘a young man to be got in’ to wrestle with the luggage. When that gladiator had disappeared from the arena, peace ensued, and the new lodgers dined.

But the Billickin had somehow come to the knowledge that Miss Twinkleton kept a school. The leap from that knowledge to the inference that Miss Twinkleton set herself to teach her something, was easy. ‘But you don’t do it,’ soliloquised the Billickin; ‘I am not your pupil, whatever she,’ meaning Rosa, ‘may be, poor thing!’

Miss Twinkleton, on the other hand, having changed her dress and recovered her spirits, was animated by a bland desire to improve the occasion in all ways, and to be as serene a model as possible. In a happy compromise between her two states of existence, she had already become, with her workbasket before her, the equably vivacious companion with a slight judicious flavouring of information, when the Billickin announced herself.

‘I will not hide from you, ladies,’ said the B., enveloped in the shawl of state, ‘for it is not my character to hide neither my motives nor my actions, that I take the liberty to look in upon you to express a ’ope that your dinner was to your liking. Though not Professed but Plain, still her wages should be a sufficient object to her to stimilate to soar above mere roast and biled.’

‘We dined very well indeed,’ said Rosa, ‘thank you.’

‘Accustomed,’ said Miss Twinkleton with a gracious air, which to the jealous ears of the Billickin seemed to add ‘my good woman’— ‘accustomed to a liberal and nutritious, yet plain and salutary diet, we have found no reason to bemoan our absence from the ancient city, and the methodical household, in which the quiet routine of our lot has been hitherto cast.’

‘I did think it well to mention to my cook,’ observed the Billickin with a gush of candour, ‘which I ’ope you will agree with, Miss Twinkleton, was a right precaution, that the young lady being used to what we should consider here but poor diet, had better be brought forward by degrees. For, a rush from scanty feeding to generous feeding, and from what you may call messing to what you may call method, do require a power of constitution which is not often found in youth, particular when undermined by boarding-school!’

It will be seen that the Billickin now openly pitted herself against Miss Twinkleton, as one whom she had fully ascertained to be her natural enemy.

‘Your remarks,’ returned Miss Twinkleton, from a remote moral eminence, ‘are well meant, I have no doubt; but you will permit me to observe that they develop a mistaken view of the subject, which can only be imputed to your extreme want of accurate information.’

‘My informiation,’ retorted the Billickin, throwing in an extra syllable for the sake of emphasis at once polite and powerful —‘my informiation, Miss Twinkleton, were my own experience, which I believe is usually considered to be good guidance. But whether so or not, I was put in youth to a very genteel boarding-school, the mistress being no less a lady than yourself, of about your own age or it may be some years younger, and a poorness of blood flowed from the table which has run through my life.’

‘Very likely,’ said Miss Twinkleton, still from her distant eminence; ‘and very much to be deplored. — Rosa, my dear, how are you getting on with your work?’

‘Miss Twinkleton,’ resumed the Billickin, in a courtly manner, ‘before retiring on the ’int, as a lady should, I wish to ask of yourself, as a lady, whether I am to consider that my words is doubted?’

‘I am not aware on what ground you cherish such a supposition,’ began Miss Twinkleton, when the Billickin neatly stopped her.

‘Do not, if you please, put suppositions betwixt my lips where none such have been imparted by myself. Your flow of words is great, Miss Twinkleton, and no doubt is expected from you by your pupils, and no doubt is considered worth the money. NO doubt, I am sure. But not paying for flows of words, and not asking to be favoured with them here, I wish to repeat my question.’

‘If you refer to the poverty of your circulation,’ began Miss Twinkleton, when again the Billickin neatly stopped her.

‘I have used no such expressions.’

‘If you refer, then, to the poorness of your blood —’

‘Brought upon me,’ stipulated the Billickin, expressly, ‘at a boarding-school —’

‘Then,’ resumed Miss Twinkleton, ‘all I can say is, that I am bound to believe, on your asseveration, that it is very poor indeed. I cannot forbear adding, that if that unfortunate circumstance influences your conversation, it is much to be lamented, and it is eminently desirable that your blood were richer. — Rosa, my dear, how are you getting on with your work?’

‘Hem! Before retiring, Miss,’ proclaimed the Billickin to Rosa, loftily cancelling Miss Twinkleton, ‘I should wish it to be understood between yourself and me that my transactions in future is with you alone. I know no elderly lady here, Miss, none older than yourself.’

‘A highly desirable arrangement, Rosa my dear,’ observed Miss Twinkleton.

‘It is not, Miss,’ said the Billickin, with a sarcastic smile, ‘that I possess the Mill I have heard of, in which old single ladies could be ground up young (what a gift it would be to some of us), but that I limit myself to you totally.’

‘When I have any desire to communicate a request to the person of the house, Rosa my dear,’ observed Miss Twinkleton with majestic cheerfulness, ‘I will make it known to you, and you will kindly undertake, I am sure, that it is conveyed to the proper quarter.’

‘Good-evening, Miss,’ said the Billickin, at once affectionately and distantly. ‘Being alone in my eyes, I wish you good-evening with best wishes, and do not find myself drove, I am truly ’appy to say, into expressing my contempt for an indiwidual, unfortunately for yourself, belonging to you.’

The Billickin gracefully withdrew with this parting speech, and from that time Rosa occupied the restless position of shuttlecock between these two battledores. Nothing could be done without a smart match being played out. Thus, on the daily-arising question of dinner, Miss Twinkleton would say, the three being present together:

‘Perhaps, my love, you will consult with the person of the house, whether she can procure us a lamb’s fry; or, failing that, a roast fowl.’

On which the Billickin would retort (Rosa not having spoken a word), ‘If you was better accustomed to butcher’s meat, Miss, you would not entertain the idea of a lamb’s fry. Firstly, because lambs has long been sheep, and secondly, because there is such things as killing-days, and there is not. As to roast fowls, Miss, why you must be quite surfeited with roast fowls, letting alone your buying, when you market for yourself, the agedest of poultry with the scaliest of legs, quite as if you was accustomed to picking ’em out for cheapness. Try a little inwention, Miss. Use yourself to ’ousekeeping a bit. Come now, think of somethink else.’

To this encouragement, offered with the indulgent toleration of a wise and liberal expert, Miss Twinkleton would rejoin, reddening:

‘Or, my dear, you might propose to the person of the house a duck.’

‘Well, Miss!’ the Billickin would exclaim (still no word being spoken by Rosa), ‘you do surprise me when you speak of ducks! Not to mention that they’re getting out of season and very dear, it really strikes to my heart to see you have a duck; for the breast, which is the only delicate cuts in a duck, always goes in a direction which I cannot imagine where, and your own plate comes down so miserably skin-and-bony! Try again, Miss. Think more of yourself, and less of others. A dish of sweetbreads now, or a bit of mutton. Something at which you can get your equal chance.’

Occasionally the game would wax very brisk indeed, and would be kept up with a smartness rendering such an encounter as this quite tame. But the Billickin almost invariably made by far the higher score; and would come in with side hits of the most unexpected and extraordinary description, when she seemed without a chance.

All this did not improve the gritty state of things in London, or the air that London had acquired in Rosa’s eyes of waiting for something that never came. Tired of working, and conversing with Miss Twinkleton, she suggested working and reading: to which Miss Twinkleton readily assented, as an admirable reader, of tried powers. But Rosa soon made the discovery that Miss Twinkleton didn’t read fairly. She cut the love-scenes, interpolated passages in praise of female celibacy, and was guilty of other glaring pious frauds. As an instance in point, take the glowing passage: ‘Ever dearest and best adored — said Edward, clasping the dear head to his breast, and drawing the silken hair through his caressing fingers, from which he suffered it to fall like golden rain — ever dearest and best adored, let us fly from the unsympathetic world and the sterile coldness of the stony-hearted, to the rich warm Paradise of Trust and Love.’ Miss Twinkleton’s fraudulent version tamely ran thus: ‘Ever engaged to me with the consent of our parents on both sides, and the approbation of the silver-haired rector of the district — said Edward, respectfully raising to his lips the taper fingers so skilful in embroidery, tambour, crochet, and other truly feminine arts — let me call on thy papa ere to-morrow’s dawn has sunk into the west, and propose a suburban establishment, lowly it may be, but within our means, where he will be always welcome as an evening guest, and where every arrangement shall invest economy, and constant interchange of scholastic acquirements with the attributes of the ministering angel to domestic bliss.’

As the days crept on and nothing happened, the neighbours began to say that the pretty girl at Billickin’s, who looked so wistfully and so much out of the gritty windows of the drawing-room, seemed to be losing her spirits. The pretty girl might have lost them but for the accident of lighting on some books of voyages and sea-adventure. As a compensation against their romance, Miss Twinkleton, reading aloud, made the most of all the latitudes and longitudes, bearings, winds, currents, offsets, and other statistics (which she felt to be none the less improving because they expressed nothing whatever to her); while Rosa, listening intently, made the most of what was nearest to her heart. So they both did better than before.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ed/chapter22.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30