No Thoroughfare, by Charles Dickens

ACT I

THE CURTAIN RISES

In a court-yard in the City of London, which was No Thoroughfare either for vehicles or foot-passengers; a court-yard diverging from a steep, a slippery, and a winding street connecting Tower Street with the Middlesex shore of the Thames; stood the place of business of Wilding & Co., Wine Merchants. Probably as a jocose acknowledgment of the obstructive character of this main approach, the point nearest to its base at which one could take the river (if so inodorously minded) bore the appellation Break-Neck-Stairs. The court-yard itself had likewise been descriptively entitled in old time, Cripple Corner.

Years before the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, people had left off taking boat at Break-Neck-Stairs, and watermen had ceased to ply there. The slimy little causeway had dropped into the river by a slow process of suicide, and two or three stumps of piles and a rusty iron mooring-ring were all that remained of the departed Break-Neck glories. Sometimes, indeed, a laden coal barge would bump itself into the place, and certain laborious heavers, seemingly mud-engendered, would arise, deliver the cargo in the neighbourhood, shove off, and vanish; but at most times the only commerce of Break-Neck-Stairs arose out of the conveyance of casks and bottles, both full and empty, both to and from the cellars of Wilding & Co., Wine Merchants. Even that commerce was but occasional, and through three-fourths of its rising tides the dirty indecorous drab of a river would come solitarily oozing and lapping at the rusty ring, as if it had heard of the Doge and the Adriatic, and wanted to be married to the great conserver of its filthiness, the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor.

Some two hundred and fifty yards on the right, up the opposite hill (approaching it from the low ground of Break-Neck-Stairs) was Cripple Corner. There was a pump in Cripple Corner, there was a tree in Cripple Corner. All Cripple Corner belonged to Wilding and Co., Wine Merchants. Their cellars burrowed under it, their mansion towered over it. It really had been a mansion in the days when merchants inhabited the City, and had a ceremonious shelter to the doorway without visible support, like the sounding-board over an old pulpit. It had also a number of long narrow strips of window, so disposed in its grave brick front as to render it symmetrically ugly. It had also, on its roof, a cupola with a bell in it.

“When a man at five-and-twenty can put his hat on, and can say ‘this hat covers the owner of this property and of the business which is transacted on this property,’ I consider, Mr. Bintrey, that, without being boastful, he may be allowed to be deeply thankful. I don’t know how it may appear to you, but so it appears to me.”

Thus Mr. Walter Wilding to his man of law, in his own counting- house; taking his hat down from its peg to suit the action to the word, and hanging it up again when he had done so, not to overstep the modesty of nature.

An innocent, open-speaking, unused-looking man, Mr. Walter Wilding, with a remarkably pink and white complexion, and a figure much too bulky for so young a man, though of a good stature. With crispy curling brown hair, and amiable bright blue eyes. An extremely communicative man: a man with whom loquacity was the irrestrainable outpouring of contentment and gratitude. Mr. Bintrey, on the other hand, a cautious man, with twinkling beads of eyes in a large overhanging bald head, who inwardly but intensely enjoyed the comicality of openness of speech, or hand, or heart.

“Yes,” said Mr. Bintrey. “Yes. Ha, ha!”

A decanter, two wine-glasses, and a plate of biscuits, stood on the desk.

“You like this forty-five year old port-wine?” said Mr. Wilding.

“Like it?” repeated Mr. Bintrey. “Rather, sir!”

“It’s from the best corner of our best forty-five year old bin,” said Mr. Wilding.

“Thank you, sir,” said Mr. Bintrey. “It’s most excellent.”

He laughed again, as he held up his glass and ogled it, at the highly ludicrous idea of giving away such wine.

“And now,” said Wilding, with a childish enjoyment in the discussion of affairs, “I think we have got everything straight, Mr. Bintrey.”

“Everything straight,” said Bintrey.

“A partner secured —”

“Partner secured,” said Bintrey.

“A housekeeper advertised for —”

“Housekeeper advertised for,” said Bintrey, “‘apply personally at Cripple Corner, Great Tower Street, from ten to twelve’— to-morrow, by the bye.”

“My late dear mother’s affairs wound up —”

“Wound up,” said Bintrey.

“And all charges paid.”

“And all charges paid,” said Bintrey, with a chuckle: probably occasioned by the droll circumstance that they had been paid without a haggle.

“The mention of my late dear mother,” Mr. Wilding continued, his eyes filling with tears and his pocket-handkerchief drying them, “unmans me still, Mr. Bintrey. You know how I loved her; you (her lawyer) know how she loved me. The utmost love of mother and child was cherished between us, and we never experienced one moment’s division or unhappiness from the time when she took me under her care. Thirteen years in all! Thirteen years under my late dear mother’s care, Mr. Bintrey, and eight of them her confidentially acknowledged son! You know the story, Mr. Bintrey, who but you, sir!” Mr. Wilding sobbed and dried his eyes, without attempt at concealment, during these remarks.

Mr. Bintrey enjoyed his comical port, and said, after rolling it in his mouth: “I know the story.”

“My late dear mother, Mr. Bintrey,” pursued the wine-merchant, “had been deeply deceived, and had cruelly suffered. But on that subject my late dear mother’s lips were for ever sealed. By whom deceived, or under what circumstances, Heaven only knows. My late dear mother never betrayed her betrayer.”

“She had made up her mind,” said Mr. Bintrey, again turning his wine on his palate, “and she could hold her peace.” An amused twinkle in his eyes pretty plainly added —“A devilish deal better than YOU ever will!”

“‘Honour,’” said Mr. Wilding, sobbing as he quoted from the Commandments, “‘thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land.’ When I was in the Foundling, Mr. Bintrey, I was at such a loss how to do it, that I apprehended my days would be short in the land. But I afterwards came to honour my mother deeply, profoundly. And I honour and revere her memory. For seven happy years, Mr. Bintrey,” pursued Wilding, still with the same innocent catching in his breath, and the same unabashed tears, “did my excellent mother article me to my predecessors in this business, Pebbleson Nephew. Her affectionate forethought likewise apprenticed me to the Vintners’ Company, and made me in time a free Vintner, and — and — everything else that the best of mothers could desire. When I came of age, she bestowed her inherited share in this business upon me; it was her money that afterwards bought out Pebbleson Nephew, and painted in Wilding and Co.; it was she who left me everything she possessed, but the mourning ring you wear. And yet, Mr. Bintrey,” with a fresh burst of honest affection, “she is no more. It is little over half a year since she came into the Corner to read on that door-post with her own eyes, WILDING AND CO., WINE MERCHANTS. And yet she is no more!”

“Sad. But the common lot, Mr. Wilding,” observed Bintrey. “At some time or other we must all be no more.” He placed the forty-five year old port-wine in the universal condition, with a relishing sigh.

“So now, Mr. Bintrey,” pursued Wilding, putting away his pocket- handkerchief, and smoothing his eyelids with his fingers, “now that I can no longer show my love and honour for the dear parent to whom my heart was mysteriously turned by Nature when she first spoke to me, a strange lady, I sitting at our Sunday dinner-table in the Foundling, I can at least show that I am not ashamed of having been a Foundling, and that I, who never knew a father of my own, wish to be a father to all in my employment. Therefore,” continued Wilding, becoming enthusiastic in his loquacity, “therefore, I want a thoroughly good housekeeper to undertake this dwelling-house of Wilding and Co., Wine Merchants, Cripple Corner, so that I may restore in it some of the old relations betwixt employer and employed! So that I may live in it on the spot where my money is made! So that I may daily sit at the head of the table at which the people in my employment eat together, and may eat of the same roast and boiled, and drink of the same beer! So that the people in my employment may lodge under the same roof with me! So that we may one and all — I beg your pardon, Mr. Bintrey, but that old singing in my head has suddenly come on, and I shall feel obliged if you will lead me to the pump.”

Alarmed by the excessive pinkness of his client, Mr. Bintrey lost not a moment in leading him forth into the court-yard. It was easily done; for the counting-house in which they talked together opened on to it, at one side of the dwelling-house. There the attorney pumped with a will, obedient to a sign from the client, and the client laved his head and face with both hands, and took a hearty drink. After these remedies, he declared himself much better.

“Don’t let your good feelings excite you,” said Bintrey, as they returned to the counting-house, and Mr. Wilding dried himself on a jack-towel behind an inner door.

“No, no. I won’t,” he returned, looking out of the towel. “I won’t. I have not been confused, have I?”

“Not at all. Perfectly clear.”

“Where did I leave off, Mr. Bintrey?”

“Well, you left off — but I wouldn’t excite myself, if I was you, by taking it up again just yet.”

“I’ll take care. I’ll take care. The singing in my head came on at where, Mr. Bintrey?”

“At roast, and boiled, and beer,” answered the lawyer — “prompting lodging under the same roof — and one and all —”

“Ah! And one and all singing in the head together —”

“Do you know, I really WOULD NOT let my good feelings excite me, if I was you,” hinted the lawyer again, anxiously. “Try some more pump.”

“No occasion, no occasion. All right, Mr. Bintrey. And one and all forming a kind of family! You see, Mr. Bintrey, I was not used in my childhood to that sort of individual existence which most individuals have led, more or less, in their childhood. After that time I became absorbed in my late dear mother. Having lost her, I find that I am more fit for being one of a body than one by myself one. To be that, and at the same time to do my duty to those dependent on me, and attach them to me, has a patriarchal and pleasant air about it. I don’t know how it may appear to you, Mr Bintrey, but so it appears to me.”

“It is not I who am all-important in the case, but you,” returned Bintrey. “Consequently, how it may appear to me is of very small importance.”

“It appears to me,” said Mr. Wilding, in a glow, “hopeful, useful, delightful!”

“Do you know,” hinted the lawyer again, “I really would not ex —”

“I am not going to. Then there’s Handel.”

“There’s who?” asked Bintrey.

“Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Kent, Purcell, Doctor Arne, Greene, Mendelssohn. I know the choruses to those anthems by heart. Foundling Chapel Collection. Why shouldn’t we learn them together?”

“Who learn them together?” asked the lawyer, rather shortly.

“Employer and employed.”

“Ay, ay,” returned Bintrey, mollified; as if he had half expected the answer to be, Lawyer and client. “That’s another thing.”

“Not another thing, Mr. Bintrey! The same thing. A part of the bond among us. We will form a Choir in some quiet church near the Corner here, and, having sung together of a Sunday with a relish, we will come home and take an early dinner together with a relish. The object that I have at heart now is, to get this system well in action without delay, so that my new partner may find it founded when he enters on his partnership.”

“All good be with it!” exclaimed Bintrey, rising. “May it prosper! Is Joey Ladle to take a share in Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Kent, Purcell, Doctor Arne, Greene, and Mendelssohn?

“I hope so.”

“I wish them all well out of it,” returned Bintrey, with much heartiness. “Good-bye, sir.”

They shook hands and parted. Then (first knocking with his knuckles for leave) entered to Mr. Wilding from a door of communication between his private counting-house and that in which his clerks sat, the Head Cellarman of the cellars of Wilding and Co., Wine Merchants, and erst Head Cellarman of the cellars of Pebbleson Nephew. The Joey Ladle in question. A slow and ponderous man, of the drayman order of human architecture, dressed in a corrugated suit and bibbed apron, apparently a composite of door-mat and rhinoceros-hide.

“Respecting this same boarding and lodging, Young Master Wilding,” said he.

“Yes, Joey?”

“Speaking for myself, Young Master Wilding — and I never did speak and I never do speak for no one else — I don’t want no boarding nor yet no lodging. But if you wish to board me and to lodge me, take me. I can peck as well as most men. Where I peck ain’t so high a object with me as What I peck. Nor even so high a object with me as How Much I peck. Is all to live in the house, Young Master Wilding? The two other cellarmen, the three porters, the two ‘prentices, and the odd men?”

“Yes. I hope we shall all be an united family, Joey.”

“Ah!” said Joey. “I hope they may be.”

“They? Rather say we, Joey.”

Joey Ladle shook his held. “Don’t look to me to make we on it, Young Master Wilding, not at my time of life and under the circumstances which has formed my disposition. I have said to Pebbleson Nephew many a time, when they have said to me, ‘Put a livelier face upon it, Joey’— I have said to them, ‘Gentlemen, it is all wery well for you that has been accustomed to take your wine into your systems by the conwivial channel of your throttles, to put a lively face upon it; but,’ I says, ‘I have been accustomed to take MY wine in at the pores of the skin, and, took that way, it acts different. It acts depressing. It’s one thing, gentlemen,’ I says to Pebbleson Nephew, ‘to charge your glasses in a dining-room with a Hip Hurrah and a Jolly Companions Every One, and it’s another thing to be charged yourself, through the pores, in a low dark cellar and a mouldy atmosphere. It makes all the difference betwixt bubbles and wapours,’ I tells Pebbleson Nephew. And so it do. I’ve been a cellarman my life through, with my mind fully given to the business. What’s the consequence? I’m as muddled a man as lives — you won’t find a muddleder man than me — nor yet you won’t find my equal in molloncolly. Sing of Filling the bumper fair, Every drop you sprinkle, O’er the brow of care, Smooths away a wrinkle? Yes. P’raps so. But try filling yourself through the pores, underground, when you don’t want to it!”

“I am sorry to hear this, Joey. I had even thought that you might join a singing-class in the house.”

“Me, sir? No, no, Young Master Wilding, you won’t catch Joey Ladle muddling the Armony. A pecking-machine, sir, is all that I am capable of proving myself, out of my cellars; but that you’re welcome to, if you think it is worth your while to keep such a thing on your premises.”

“I do, Joey.”

“Say no more, sir. The Business’s word is my law. And you’re a going to take Young Master George Vendale partner into the old Business?”

“I am, Joey.”

“More changes, you see! But don’t change the name of the Firm again. Don’t do it, Young Master Wilding. It was bad luck enough to make it Yourself and Co. Better by far have left it Pebbleson Nephew that good luck always stuck to. You should never change luck when it’s good, sir.”

“At all events, I have no intention of changing the name of the House again, Joey.”

“Glad to hear it, and wish you good-day, Young Master Wilding. But you had better by half,” muttered Joey Ladle inaudibly, as he closed the door and shook his head, “have let the name alone from the first. You had better by half have followed the luck instead of crossing it.”

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