No Thoroughfare, by Charles Dickens

EXIT WILDING

On the morning of the next day, Wilding went out alone, after leaving a message with his clerk. “If Mr. Vendale should ask for me,” he said, “or if Mr. Bintrey should call, tell them I am gone to the Foundling.” All that his partner had said to him, all that his lawyer, following on the same side, could urge, had left him persisting unshaken in his own point of view. To find the lost man, whose place he had usurped, was now the paramount interest of his life, and to inquire at the Foundling was plainly to take the first step in the direction of discovery. To the Foundling, accordingly, the wine-merchant now went.

The once familiar aspect of the building was altered to him, as the look of the portrait over the chimney-piece was altered to him. His one dearest association with the place which had sheltered his childhood had been broken away from it for ever. A strange reluctance possessed him, when he stated his business at the door. His heart ached as he sat alone in the waiting-room while the Treasurer of the institution was being sent for to see him. When the interview began, it was only by a painful effort that he could compose himself sufficiently to mention the nature of his errand.

The Treasurer listened with a face which promised all needful attention, and promised nothing more.

“We are obliged to be cautious,” he said, when it came to his turn to speak, “about all inquiries which are made by strangers.”

“You can hardly consider me a stranger,” answered Wilding, simply. “I was one of your poor lost children here, in the bygone time.”

The Treasurer politely rejoined that this circumstance inspired him with a special interest in his visitor. But he pressed, nevertheless for that visitor’s motive in making his inquiry. Without further preface, Wilding told him his motive, suppressing nothing. The Treasurer rose, and led the way into the room in which the registers of the institution were kept. “All the information which our books can give is heartily at your service,” he said. “After the time that has elapsed, I am afraid it is the only information we have to offer you.”

The books were consulted, and the entry was found expressed as follows:

“3d March, 1836. Adopted, and removed from the Foundling Hospital, a male infant, named Walter Wilding. Name and condition of the person adopting the child — Mrs. Jane Ann Miller, widow. Address — Lime-Tree Lodge, Groombridge Wells. References — the Reverend John Harker, Groombridge Wells; and Messrs. Giles, Jeremie, and Giles, bankers, Lombard Street.”

“Is that all?” asked the wine-merchant. “Had you no after- communication with Mrs. Miller?”

“None — or some reference to it must have appeared in this book.”

“May I take a copy of the entry?”

“Certainly! You are a little agitated. Let me make a copy for you.”

“My only chance, I suppose,” said Wilding, looking sadly at the copy, “is to inquire at Mrs. Miller’s residence, and to try if her references can help me?”

“That is the only chance I see at present,” answered the Treasurer. “I heartily wish I could have been of some further assistance to you.”

With those farewell words to comfort him Wilding set forth on the journey of investigation which began from the Foundling doors. The first stage to make for, was plainly the house of business of the bankers in Lombard Street. Two of the partners in the firm were inaccessible to chance-visitors when he asked for them. The third, after raising certain inevitable difficulties, consented to let a clerk examine the ledger marked with the initial letter “M.” The account of Mrs. Miller, widow, of Groombridge Wells, was found. Two long lines, in faded ink, were drawn across it; and at the bottom of the page there appeared this note Account closed, September 30th, 1837.”

So the first stage of the journey was reached — and so it ended in No Thoroughfare! After sending a note to Cripple Corner to inform his partner that his absence might be prolonged for some hours, Wilding took his place in the train, and started for the second stage on the journey — Mrs. Miller’s residence at Groombridge Wells.

Mothers and children travelled with him; mothers and children met each other at the station; mothers and children were in the shops when he entered them to inquire for Lime-Tree Lodge. Everywhere, the nearest and dearest of human relations showed itself happily in the happy light of day. Everywhere, he was reminded of the treasured delusion from which he had been awakened so cruelly — of the lost memory which had passed from him like a reflection from a glass.

Inquiring here, inquiring there, he could hear of no such place as Lime-Tree Lodge. Passing a house-agent’s office, he went in wearily, and put the question for the last time. The house-agent pointed across the street to a dreary mansion of many windows, which might have been a manufactory, but which was an hotel. “That’s where Lime-Tree Lodge stood, sir,” said the man, “ten years ago.”

The second stage reached, and No Thoroughfare again!

But one chance was left. The clerical reference, Mr. Harker, still remained to be found. Customers coming in at the moment to occupy the house-agent’s attention, Wilding went down the street, and entering a bookseller’s shop, asked if he could be informed of the Reverend John Harker’s present address.

The bookseller looked unaffectedly shocked and astonished, and made no answer.

Wilding repeated his question.

The bookseller took up from his counter a prim little volume in a binding of sober gray. He handed it to his visitor, open at the title-page. Wilding read:

“The martyrdom of the Reverend John Harker in New Zealand. Related by a former member of his flock.”

Wilding put the book down on the counter. “I beg your pardon,” he said thinking a little, perhaps, of his own present martyrdom while he spoke. The silent bookseller acknowledged the apology by a bow. Wilding went out.

Third and last stage, and No Thoroughfare for the third and last time.

There was nothing more to be done; there was absolutely no choice but to go back to London, defeated at all points. From time to time on the return journey, the wine-merchant looked at his copy of the entry in the Foundling Register. There is one among the many forms of despair — perhaps the most pitiable of all — which persists in disguising itself as Hope. Wilding checked himself in the act of throwing the useless morsel of paper out of the carriage window. “It may lead to something yet,” he thought. “While I live, I won’t part with it. When I die, my executors shall find it sealed up with my will.”

Now, the mention of his will set the good wine-merchant on a new track of thought, without diverting his mind from its engrossing subject. He must make his will immediately.

The application of the phrase No Thoroughfare to the case had originated with Mr. Bintrey. In their first long conference following the discovery, that sagacious personage had a hundred times repeated, with an obstructive shake of the head, “No Thoroughfare, Sir, No Thoroughfare. My belief is that there is no way out of this at this time of day, and my advice is, make yourself comfortable where you are.”

In the course of the protracted consultation, a magnum of the forty- five year old port-wine had been produced for the wetting of Mr. Bintrey’s legal whistle; but the more clearly he saw his way through the wine, the more emphatically he did not see his way through the case; repeating as often as he set his glass down empty. “Mr. Wilding, No Thoroughfare. Rest and be thankful.”

It is certain that the honest wine-merchant’s anxiety to make a will originated in profound conscientiousness; though it is possible (and quite consistent with his rectitude) that he may unconsciously have derived some feeling of relief from the prospect of delegating his own difficulty to two other men who were to come after him. Be that as it may, he pursued his new track of thought with great ardour, and lost no time in begging George Vendale and Mr. Bintrey to meet him in Cripple Corner and share his confidence.

“Being all three assembled with closed doors,” said Mr. Bintrey, addressing the new partner on the occasion, “I wish to observe, before our friend (and my client) entrusts us with his further views, that I have endorsed what I understand from him to have been your advice, Mr. Vendale, and what would be the advice of every sensible man. I have told him that he positively must keep his secret. I have spoken with Mrs. Goldstraw, both in his presence and in his absence; and if anybody is to be trusted (which is a very large IF), I think she is to be trusted to that extent. I have pointed out to our friend (and my client), that to set on foot random inquiries would not only be to raise the Devil, in the likeness of all the swindlers in the kingdom, but would also be to waste the estate. Now, you see, Mr. Vendale, our friend (and my client) does not desire to waste the estate, but, on the contrary, desires to husband it for what he considers — but I can’t say I do — the rightful owner, if such rightful owner should ever be found. I am very much mistaken if he ever will be, but never mind that. Mr. Wilding and I are, at least, agreed that the estate is not to be wasted. Now, I have yielded to Mr. Wilding’s desire to keep an advertisement at intervals flowing through the newspapers, cautiously inviting any person who may know anything about that adopted infant, taken from the Foundling Hospital, to come to my office; and I have pledged myself that such advertisement shall regularly appear. I have gathered from our friend (and my client) that I meet you here to-day to take his instructions, not to give him advice. I am prepared to receive his instructions, and to respect his wishes; but you will please observe that this does not imply my approval of either as a matter of professional opinion.”

Thus Mr. Bintrey; talking quite is much AT Wilding as TO Vendale. And yet, in spite of his care for his client, he was so amused by his client’s Quixotic conduct, as to eye him from time to time with twinkling eyes, in the light of a highly comical curiosity.

“Nothing,” observed Wilding, “can be clearer. I only wish my head were as clear as yours, Mr. Bintrey.”

“If you feel that singing in it coming on,” hinted the lawyer, with an alarmed glance, “put it off. — I mean the interview.”

“Not at all, I thank you,” said Wilding. “What was I going to —”

“Don’t excite yourself, Mr. Wilding,” urged the lawyer.

“No; I WASN’T going to,” said the wine-merchant. “Mr. Bintrey and George Vendale, would you have any hesitation or objection to become my joint trustees and executors, or can you at once consent?”

“I consent,” replied George Vendale, readily.

“I consent,” said Bintrey, not so readily.

“Thank you both. Mr. Bintrey, my instructions for my last will and testament are short and plain. Perhaps you will now have the goodness to take them down. I leave the whole of my real and personal estate, without any exception or reservation whatsoever, to you two, my joint trustees and executors, in trust to pay over the whole to the true Walter Wilding, if he shall be found and identified within two years after the day of my death. Failing that, in trust to you two to pay over the whole as a benefaction and legacy to the Foundling Hospital.”

“Those are all your instructions, are they, Mr. Wilding?” demanded Bintrey, after a blank silence, during which nobody had looked at anybody.

“The whole.”

“And as to those instructions, you have absolutely made up your mind, Mr. Wilding?”

“Absolutely, decidedly, finally.”

“It only remains,” said the lawyer, with one shrug of his shoulders, “to get them into technical and binding form, and to execute and attest. Now, does that press? Is there any hurry about it? You are not going to die yet, sir.”

“Mr. Bintrey,” answered Wilding, gravely, “when I am going to die is within other knowledge than yours or mine. I shall be glad to have this matter off my mind, if you please.”

“We are lawyer and client again,” rejoined Bintrey, who, for the nonce, had become almost sympathetic. “If this day week — here, at the same hour — will suit Mr. Vendale and yourself, I will enter in my Diary that I attend you accordingly.”

The appointment was made, and in due sequence, kept. The will was formally signed, sealed, delivered, and witnessed, and was carried off by Mr. Bintrey for safe storage among the papers of his clients, ranged in their respective iron boxes, with their respective owners’ names outside, on iron tiers in his consulting-room, as if that legal sanctuary were a condensed Family Vault of Clients.

With more heart than he had lately had for former subjects of interest, Wilding then set about completing his patriarchal establishment, being much assisted not only by Mrs. Goldstraw but by Vendale too: who, perhaps, had in his mind the giving of an Obenreizer dinner as soon as possible. Anyhow, the establishment being reported in sound working order, the Obenreizers, Guardian and Ward, were asked to dinner, and Madame Dor was included in the invitation. If Vendale had been over head and ears in love before — a phrase not to be taken as implying the faintest doubt about it — this dinner plunged him down in love ten thousand fathoms deep. Yet, for the life of him, he could not get one word alone with charming Marguerite. So surely as a blessed moment seemed to come, Obenreizer, in his filmy state, would stand at Vendale’s elbow, or the broad back of Madame Dor would appear before his eyes. That speechless matron was never seen in a front view, from the moment of her arrival to that of her departure — except at dinner. And from the instant of her retirement to the drawing-room, after a hearty participation in that meal, she turned her face to the wall again.

Yet, through four or five delightful though distracting hours, Marguerite was to be seen, Marguerite was to be heard, Marguerite was to be occasionally touched. When they made the round of the old dark cellars, Vendale led her by the hand; when she sang to him in the lighted room at night, Vendale, standing by her, held her relinquished gloves, and would have bartered against them every drop of the forty-five year old, though it had been forty-five times forty-five years old, and its nett price forty-five times forty-five pounds per dozen. And still, when she was gone, and a great gap of an extinguisher was clapped on Cripple Corner, he tormented himself by wondering, Did she think that he admired her! Did she think that he adored her! Did she suspect that she had won him, heart and soul! Did she care to think at all about it! And so, Did she and Didn’t she, up and down the gamut, and above the line and below the line, dear, dear! Poor restless heart of humanity! To think that the men who were mummies thousands of years ago, did the same, and ever found the secret how to be quiet after it!

“What do you think, George,” Wilding asked him next day, “of Mr. Obenreizer? (I won’t ask you what you think of Miss Obenreizer.)”

“I don’t know,” said Vendale, “and I never did know, what to think of him.”

“He is well informed and clever,” said Wilding.

“Certainly clever.”

“A good musician.” (He had played very well, and sung very well, overnight.)

“Unquestionably a good musician.”

“And talks well.”

“Yes,” said George Vendale, ruminating, “and talks well. Do you know, Wilding, it oddly occurs to me, as I think about him, that he doesn’t keep silence well!”

“How do you mean? He is not obtrusively talkative.”

“No, and I don’t mean that. But when he is silent, you can hardly help vaguely, though perhaps most unjustly, mistrusting him. Take people whom you know and like. Take any one you know and like.”

“Soon done, my good fellow,” said Wilding. “I take you.”

“I didn’t bargain for that, or foresee it,” returned Vendale, laughing. “However, take me. Reflect for a moment. Is your approving knowledge of my interesting face mainly founded (however various the momentary expressions it may include) on my face when I am silent?”

“I think it is,” said Wilding.

“I think so too. Now, you see, when Obenreizer speaks — in other words, when he is allowed to explain himself away — he comes out right enough; but when he has not the opportunity of explaining himself away, he comes out rather wrong. Therefore it is, that I say he does not keep silence well. And passing hastily in review such faces as I know, and don’t trust, I am inclined to think, now I give my mind to it, that none of them keep silence well.”

This proposition in Physiognomy being new to Wilding, he was at first slow to admit it, until asking himself the question whether Mrs. Goldstraw kept silence well, and remembering that her face in repose decidedly invited trustfulness, he was as glad as men usually are to believe what they desire to believe.

But, as he was very slow to regain his spirits or his health, his partner, as another means of setting him up — and perhaps also with contingent Obenreizer views — reminded him of those musical schemes of his in connection with his family, and how a singing-class was to be formed in the house, and a Choir in a neighbouring church. The class was established speedily, and, two or three of the people having already some musical knowledge, and singing tolerably, the Choir soon followed. The latter was led, and chiefly taught, by Wilding himself: who had hopes of converting his dependents into so many Foundlings, in respect of their capacity to sing sacred choruses.

Now, the Obenreizers being skilled musicians, it was easily brought to pass that they should be asked to join these musical unions. Guardian and Ward consenting, or Guardian consenting for both, it was necessarily brought to pass that Vendale’s life became a life of absolute thraldom and enchantment. For, in the mouldy Christopher- Wren church on Sundays, with its dearly beloved brethren assembled and met together, five-and-twenty strong, was not that Her voice that shot like light into the darkest places, thrilling the walls and pillars as though they were pieces of his heart! What time, too, Madame Dor in a corner of the high pew, turning her back upon everybody and everything, could not fail to be Ritualistically right at some moment of the service; like the man whom the doctors recommended to get drunk once a month, and who, that he might not overlook it, got drunk every day.

But, even those seraphic Sundays were surpassed by the Wednesday concerts established for the patriarchal family. At those concerts she would sit down to the piano and sing them, in her own tongue, songs of her own land, songs calling from the mountain-tops to Vendale, “Rise above the grovelling level country; come far away from the crowd; pursue me as I mount higher; higher, higher, melting into the azure distance; rise to my supremest height of all, and love me here!” Then would the pretty bodice, the clocked stocking, and the silver-buckled shoe be, like the broad forehead and the bright eyes, fraught with the spring of a very chamois, until the strain was over.

Not even over Vendale himself did these songs of hers cast a more potent spell than over Joey Ladle in his different way. Steadily refusing to muddle the harmony by taking any share in it, and evincing the supremest contempt for scales and such-like rudiments of music — which, indeed, seldom captivate mere listeners — Joey did at first give up the whole business for a bad job, and the whole of the performers for a set of howling Dervishes. But, descrying traces of unmuddled harmony in a part-song one day, he gave his two under cellarmen faint hopes of getting on towards something in course of time. An anthem of Handel’s led to further encouragement from him: though he objected that that great musician must have been down in some of them foreign cellars pretty much, for to go and say the same thing so many times over; which, took it in how you might, he considered a certain sign of your having took it in somehow. On a third occasion, the public appearance of Mr. Jarvis with a flute, and of an odd man with a violin, and the performance of a duet by the two, did so astonish him that, solely of his own impulse and motion, he became inspired with the words, “Ann Koar!” repeatedly pronouncing them as if calling in a familiar manner for some lady who had distinguished herself in the orchestra. But this was his final testimony to the merits of his mates, for, the instrumental duet being performed at the first Wednesday concert, and being presently followed by the voice of Marguerite Obenreizer, he sat with his mouth wide open, entranced, until she had finished; when, rising in his place with much solemnity, and prefacing what he was about to say with a bow that specially included Mr. Wilding in it, he delivered himself of the gratifying sentiment: “Arter that, ye may all on ye get to bed!” And ever afterwards declined to render homage in any other words to the musical powers of the family.

Thus began a separate personal acquaintance between Marguerite Obenreizer and Joey Ladle. She laughed so heartily at his compliment, and yet was so abashed by it, that Joey made bold to say to her, after the concert was over, he hoped he wasn’t so muddled in his head as to have took a liberty? She made him a gracious reply, and Joey ducked in return.

“You’ll change the luck time about, Miss,” said Joey, ducking again. “It’s such as you in the place that can bring round the luck of the place.”

“Can I? Round the luck?” she answered, in her pretty English, and with a pretty wonder. “I fear I do not understand. I am so stupid.”

“Young Master Wilding, Miss,” Joey explained confidentially, though not much to her enlightenment, “changed the luck, afore he took in young Master George. So I say, and so they’ll find. Lord! Only come into the place and sing over the luck a few times, Miss, and it won’t be able to help itself!”

With this, and with a whole brood of ducks, Joey backed out of the presence. But Joey being a privileged person, and even an involuntary conquest being pleasant to youth and beauty, Marguerite merrily looked out for him next time.

“Where is my Mr. Joey, please?” she asked Vendale.

So Joey was produced, and shaken hands with, and that became an Institution.

Another Institution arose in this wise. Joey was a little hard of hearing. He himself said it was “Wapours,” and perhaps it might have been; but whatever the cause of the effect, there the effect was, upon him. On this first occasion he had been seen to sidle along the wall, with his left hand to his left ear, until he had sidled himself into a seat pretty near the singer, in which place and position he had remained, until addressing to his friends the amateurs the compliment before mentioned. It was observed on the following Wednesday that Joey’s action as a Pecking Machine was impaired at dinner, and it was rumoured about the table that this was explainable by his high-strung expectations of Miss Obenreizer’s singing, and his fears of not getting a place where he could hear every note and syllable. The rumour reaching Wilding’s ears, he in his good nature called Joey to the front at night before Marguerite began. Thus the Institution came into being that on succeeding nights, Marguerite, running her hands over the keys before singing, always said to Vendale, “Where is my Mr. Joey, please?” and that Vendale always brought him forth, and stationed him near by. That he should then, when all eyes were upon him, express in his face the utmost contempt for the exertions of his friends and confidence in Marguerite alone, whom he would stand contemplating, not unlike the rhinocerous out of the spelling-book, tamed and on his hind legs, was a part of the Institution. Also that when he remained after the singing in his most ecstatic state, some bold spirit from the back should say, “What do you think of it, Joey?” and he should be goaded to reply, as having that instant conceived the retort, “Arter that ye may all on ye get to bed!” These were other parts of the Institution.

But, the simple pleasures and small jests of Cripple Corner were not destined to have a long life. Underlying them from the first was a serious matter, which every member of the patriarchal family knew of, but which, by tacit agreement, all forbore to speak of. Mr. Wilding’s health was in a bad way.

He might have overcome the shock he had sustained in the one great affection of his life, or he might have overcome his consciousness of being in the enjoyment of another man’s property; but the two together were too much for him. A man haunted by twin ghosts, he became deeply depressed. The inseparable spectres sat at the board with him, ate from his platter, drank from his cup, and stood by his bedside at night. When he recalled his supposed mother’s love, he felt as though he had stolen it. When he rallied a little under the respect and attachment of his dependants, he felt as though he were even fraudulent in making them happy, for that should have been the unknown man’s duty and gratification.

Gradually, under the pressure of his brooding mind, his body stooped, his step lost its elasticity, his eyes were seldom lifted from the ground. He knew he could not help the deplorable mistake that had been made, but he knew he could not mend it; for the days and weeks went by, and no one claimed his name or his possessions. And now there began to creep over him a cloudy consciousness of often-recurring confusion in his head. He would unaccountably lose, sometimes whole hours, sometimes a whole day and night. Once, his remembrance stopped as he sat at the head of the dinner-table, and was blank until daybreak. Another time, it stopped as he was beating time to their singing, and went on again when he and his partner were walking in the courtyard by the light of the moon, half the night later. He asked Vendale (always full of consideration, work, and help) how this was? Vendale only replied, “You have not been quite well; that’s all.” He looked for explanation into the faces of his people. But they would put it off with “Glad to see you looking so much better, sir;” or “Hope you’re doing nicely now, sir;” in which was no information at all.

At length, when the partnership was but five months old, Walter Wilding took to his bed, and his housekeeper became his nurse.

“Lying here, perhaps you will not mind my calling you Sally, Mrs. Goldstraw?” said the poor wine-merchant.

“It sounds more natural to me, sir, than any other name, and I like it better.”

“Thank you, Sally. I think, Sally, I must of late have been subject to fits. Is that so, Sally? Don’t mind telling me now.”

“It has happened, sir.”

“Ah! That is the explanation!” he quietly remarked. “Mr. Obenreizer, Sally, talks of the world being so small that it is not strange how often the same people come together, and come together at various places, and in various stages of life. But it does seem strange, Sally, that I should, as I may say, come round to the Foundling to die.”

He extended his hand to her, and she gently took it.

“You are not going to die, dear Mr. Wilding.”

“So Mr. Bintrey said, but I think he was wrong. The old child- feeling is coming back upon me, Sally. The old hush and rest, as I used to fall asleep.”

After an interval he said, in a placid voice, “Please kiss me, Nurse,” and, it was evident, believed himself to be lying in the old Dormitory.

As she had been used to bend over the fatherless and motherless children, Sally bent over the fatherless and motherless man, and put her lips to his forehead, murmuring:

“God bless you!”

“God bless you!” he replied, in the same tone.

After another interval, he opened his eyes in his own character, and said: “Don’t move me, Sally, because of what I am going to say; I lie quite easily. I think my time is come, I don’t know how it may appear to you, Sally, but —”

Insensibility fell upon him for a few minutes; he emerged from it once more.

“— I don’t know how it may appear to you, Sally, but so it appears to me.”

When he had thus conscientiously finished his favourite sentence, his time came, and he died.

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