Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

Chapter V

The Broker’s Man

The excitement of the late election has subsided, and our parish being once again restored to a state of comparative tranquillity, we are enabled to devote our attention to those parishioners who take little share in our party contests or in the turmoil and bustle of public life. And we feel sincere pleasure in acknowledging here, that in collecting materials for this task we have been greatly assisted by Mr. Bung himself, who has imposed on us a debt of obligation which we fear we can never repay. The life of this gentleman has been one of a very chequered description: he has undergone transitions — not from grave to gay, for he never was grave — not from lively to severe, for severity forms no part of his disposition; his fluctuations have been between poverty in the extreme, and poverty modified, or, to use his own emphatic language, ‘between nothing to eat and just half enough.’ He is not, as he forcibly remarks, ‘one of those fortunate men who, if they were to dive under one side of a barge stark-naked, would come up on the other with a new suit of clothes on, and a ticket for soup in the waistcoat-pocket:’ neither is he one of those, whose spirit has been broken beyond redemption by misfortune and want. He is just one of the careless, good-for-nothing, happy fellows, who float, cork-like, on the surface, for the world to play at hockey with: knocked here, and there, and everywhere: now to the right, then to the left, again up in the air, and anon to the bottom, but always reappearing and bounding with the stream buoyantly and merrily along. Some few months before he was prevailed upon to stand a contested election for the office of beadle, necessity attached him to the service of a broker; and on the opportunities he here acquired of ascertaining the condition of most of the poorer inhabitants of the parish, his patron, the captain, first grounded his claims to public support. Chance threw the man in our way a short time since. We were, in the first instance, attracted by his prepossessing impudence at the election; we were not surprised, on further acquaintance, to find him a shrewd, knowing fellow, with no inconsiderable power of observation; and, after conversing with him a little, were somewhat struck (as we dare say our readers have frequently been in other cases) with the power some men seem to have, not only of sympathising with, but to all appearance of understanding feelings to which they themselves are entire strangers. We had been expressing to the new functionary our surprise that he should ever have served in the capacity to which we have just adverted, when we gradually led him into one or two professional anecdotes. As we are induced to think, on reflection, that they will tell better in nearly his own words, than with any attempted embellishments of ours, we will at once entitle them.

Mr Bung’s Narrative

‘It’s very true, as you say, sir,’ Mr. Bung commenced, ‘that a broker’s man’s is not a life to be envied; and in course you know as well as I do, though you don’t say it, that people hate and scout ’em because they’re the ministers of wretchedness, like, to poor people. But what could I do, sir? The thing was no worse because I did it, instead of somebody else; and if putting me in possession of a house would put me in possession of three and sixpence a day, and levying a distress on another man’s goods would relieve my distress and that of my family, it can’t be expected but what I’d take the job and go through with it. I never liked it, God knows; I always looked out for something else, and the moment I got other work to do, I left it. If there is anything wrong in being the agent in such matters — not the principal, mind you — I’m sure the business, to a beginner like I was, at all events, carries its own punishment along with it. I wished again and again that the people would only blow me up, or pitch into me — that I wouldn’t have minded, it’s all in my way; but it’s the being shut up by yourself in one room for five days, without so much as an old newspaper to look at, or anything to see out o’ the winder but the roofs and chimneys at the back of the house, or anything to listen to, but the ticking, perhaps, of an old Dutch clock, the sobbing of the missis, now and then, the low talking of friends in the next room, who speak in whispers, lest “the man” should overhear them, or perhaps the occasional opening of the door, as a child peeps in to look at you, and then runs half-frightened away — it’s all this, that makes you feel sneaking somehow, and ashamed of yourself; and then, if it’s wintertime, they just give you fire enough to make you think you’d like more, and bring in your grub as if they wished it ’ud choke you — as I dare say they do, for the matter of that, most heartily. If they’re very civil, they make you up a bed in the room at night, and if they don’t, your master sends one in for you; but there you are, without being washed or shaved all the time, shunned by everybody, and spoken to by no one, unless some one comes in at dinner-time, and asks you whether you want any more, in a tone as much to say, “I hope you don’t,” or, in the evening, to inquire whether you wouldn’t rather have a candle, after you’ve been sitting in the dark half the night. When I was left in this way, I used to sit, think, think, thinking, till I felt as lonesome as a kitten in a wash-house copper with the lid on; but I believe the old brokers’ men who are regularly trained to it, never think at all. I have heard some on ’em say, indeed, that they don’t know how!

‘I put in a good many distresses in my time (continued Mr. Bung), and in course I wasn’t long in finding, that some people are not as much to be pitied as others are, and that people with good incomes who get into difficulties, which they keep patching up day after day and week after week, get so used to these sort of things in time, that at last they come scarcely to feel them at all. I remember the very first place I was put in possession of, was a gentleman’s house in this parish here, that everybody would suppose couldn’t help having money if he tried. I went with old Fixem, my old master, ‘bout half arter eight in the morning; rang the area-bell; servant in livery opened the door: “Governor at home?” — “Yes, he is,” says the man; “but he’s breakfasting just now.” “Never mind,” says Fixem, “just you tell him there’s a gentleman here, as wants to speak to him partickler.” So the servant he opens his eyes, and stares about him all ways — looking for the gentleman, as it struck me, for I don’t think anybody but a man as was stone-blind would mistake Fixem for one; and as for me, I was as seedy as a cheap cowcumber. Hows’ever, he turns round, and goes to the breakfast-parlour, which was a little snug sort of room at the end of the passage, and Fixem (as we always did in that profession), without waiting to be announced, walks in arter him, and before the servant could get out, “Please, sir, here’s a man as wants to speak to you,” looks in at the door as familiar and pleasant as may be. “Who the devil are you, and how dare you walk into a gentleman’s house without leave?” says the master, as fierce as a bull in fits. “My name,” says Fixem, winking to the master to send the servant away, and putting the warrant into his hands folded up like a note, “My name’s Smith,” says he, “and I called from Johnson’s about that business of Thompson’s.” — “Oh,” says the other, quite down on him directly, “How IS Thompson?” says he; “Pray sit down, Mr. Smith: John, leave the room.” Out went the servant; and the gentleman and Fixem looked at one another till they couldn’t look any longer, and then they varied the amusements by looking at me, who had been standing on the mat all this time. “Hundred and fifty pounds, I see,” said the gentleman at last. “Hundred and fifty pound,” said Fixem, “besides cost of levy, sheriff’s poundage, and all other incidental expenses.” — “Um,” says the gentleman, “I shan’t be able to settle this before to-morrow afternoon.” — “Very sorry; but I shall be obliged to leave my man here till then,” replies Fixem, pretending to look very miserable over it. “That’s very unfort’nate,” says the gentleman, “for I have got a large party here to-night, and I’m ruined if those fellows of mine get an inkling of the matter — just step here, Mr. Smith,” says he, after a short pause. So Fixem walks with him up to the window, and after a good deal of whispering, and a little chinking of suverins, and looking at me, he comes back and says, “Bung, you’re a handy fellow, and very honest I know. This gentleman wants an assistant to clean the plate and wait at table to-day, and if you’re not particularly engaged,” says old Fixem, grinning like mad, and shoving a couple of suverins into my hand, “he’ll be very glad to avail himself of your services.” Well, I laughed: and the gentleman laughed, and we all laughed; and I went home and cleaned myself, leaving Fixem there, and when I went back, Fixem went away, and I polished up the plate, and waited at table, and gammoned the servants, and nobody had the least idea I was in possession, though it very nearly came out after all; for one of the last gentlemen who remained, came down-stairs into the hall where I was sitting pretty late at night, and putting half-a-crown into my hand, says, “Here, my man,” says he, “run and get me a coach, will you?” I thought it was a do, to get me out of the house, and was just going to say so, sulkily enough, when the gentleman (who was up to everything) came running down-stairs, as if he was in great anxiety. “Bung,” says he, pretending to be in a consuming passion. “Sir,” says I. “Why the devil an’t you looking after that plate?” — “I was just going to send him for a coach for me,” says the other gentleman. “And I was just a-going to say,” says I— “Anybody else, my dear fellow,” interrupts the master of the house, pushing me down the passage to get out of the way — “anybody else; but I have put this man in possession of all the plate and valuables, and I cannot allow him on any consideration whatever, to leave the house. Bung, you scoundrel, go and count those forks in the breakfast-parlour instantly.” You may be sure I went laughing pretty hearty when I found it was all right. The money was paid next day, with the addition of something else for myself, and that was the best job that I (and I suspect old Fixem too) ever got in that line.

‘But this is the bright side of the picture, sir, after all,’ resumed Mr. Bung, laying aside the knowing look and flash air, with which he had repeated the previous anecdote — ‘and I’m sorry to say, it’s the side one sees very, very seldom, in comparison with the dark one. The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none; and there’s a consolation even in being able to patch up one difficulty, to make way for another, to which very poor people are strangers. I was once put into a house down George’s-yard — that little dirty court at the back of the gas-works; and I never shall forget the misery of them people, dear me! It was a distress for half a year’s rent — two pound ten, I think. There was only two rooms in the house, and as there was no passage, the lodgers up-stairs always went through the room of the people of the house, as they passed in and out; and every time they did so — which, on the average, was about four times every quarter of an hour — they blowed up quite frightful: for their things had been seized too, and included in the inventory. There was a little piece of enclosed dust in front of the house, with a cinder-path leading up to the door, and an open rain-water butt on one side. A dirty striped curtain, on a very slack string, hung in the window, and a little triangular bit of broken looking-glass rested on the sill inside. I suppose it was meant for the people’s use, but their appearance was so wretched, and so miserable, that I’m certain they never could have plucked up courage to look themselves in the face a second time, if they survived the fright of doing so once. There was two or three chairs, that might have been worth, in their best days, from eightpence to a shilling a-piece; a small deal table, an old corner cupboard with nothing in it, and one of those bedsteads which turn up half way, and leave the bottom legs sticking out for you to knock your head against, or hang your hat upon; no bed, no bedding. There was an old sack, by way of rug, before the fireplace, and four or five children were grovelling about, among the sand on the floor. The execution was only put in, to get ’em out of the house, for there was nothing to take to pay the expenses; and here I stopped for three days, though that was a mere form too: for, in course, I knew, and we all knew, they could never pay the money. In one of the chairs, by the side of the place where the fire ought to have been, was an old ’ooman — the ugliest and dirtiest I ever see — who sat rocking herself backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, without once stopping, except for an instant now and then, to clasp together the withered hands which, with these exceptions, she kept constantly rubbing upon her knees, just raising and depressing her fingers convulsively, in time to the rocking of the chair. On the other side sat the mother with an infant in her arms, which cried till it cried itself to sleep, and when it ‘woke, cried till it cried itself off again. The old ’ooman’s voice I never heard: she seemed completely stupefied; and as to the mother’s, it would have been better if she had been so too, for misery had changed her to a devil. If you had heard how she cursed the little naked children as was rolling on the floor, and seen how savagely she struck the infant when it cried with hunger, you’d have shuddered as much as I did. There they remained all the time: the children ate a morsel of bread once or twice, and I gave ’em best part of the dinners my missis brought me, but the woman ate nothing; they never even laid on the bedstead, nor was the room swept or cleaned all the time. The neighbours were all too poor themselves to take any notice of ’em, but from what I could make out from the abuse of the woman up-stairs, it seemed the husband had been transported a few weeks before. When the time was up, the landlord and old Fixem too, got rather frightened about the family, and so they made a stir about it, and had ’em taken to the workhouse. They sent the sick couch for the old ’ooman, and Simmons took the children away at night. The old ’ooman went into the infirmary, and very soon died. The children are all in the house to this day, and very comfortable they are in comparison. As to the mother, there was no taming her at all. She had been a quiet, hard-working woman, I believe, but her misery had actually drove her wild; so after she had been sent to the house of correction half-a-dozen times, for throwing inkstands at the overseers, blaspheming the churchwardens, and smashing everybody as come near her, she burst a blood-vessel one mornin’, and died too; and a happy release it was, both for herself and the old paupers, male and female, which she used to tip over in all directions, as if they were so many skittles, and she the ball.

‘Now this was bad enough,’ resumed Mr. Bung, taking a half-step towards the door, as if to intimate that he had nearly concluded. ‘This was bad enough, but there was a sort of quiet misery — if you understand what I mean by that, sir — about a lady at one house I was put into, as touched me a good deal more. It doesn’t matter where it was exactly: indeed, I’d rather not say, but it was the same sort o’ job. I went with Fixem in the usual way — there was a year’s rent in arrear; a very small servant-girl opened the door, and three or four fine-looking little children was in the front parlour we were shown into, which was very clean, but very scantily furnished, much like the children themselves. “Bung,” says Fixem to me, in a low voice, when we were left alone for a minute, “I know something about this here family, and my opinion is, it’s no go.” “Do you think they can’t settle?” says I, quite anxiously; for I liked the looks of them children. Fixem shook his head, and was just about to reply, when the door opened, and in come a lady, as white as ever I see any one in my days, except about the eyes, which were red with crying. She walked in, as firm as I could have done; shut the door carefully after her, and sat herself down with a face as composed as if it was made of stone. “What is the matter, gentlemen?” says she, in a surprisin’ steady voice. “IS this an execution?” “It is, mum,” says Fixem. The lady looked at him as steady as ever: she didn’t seem to have understood him. “It is, mum,” says Fixem again; “this is my warrant of distress, mum,” says he, handing it over as polite as if it was a newspaper which had been bespoke arter the next gentleman.

‘The lady’s lip trembled as she took the printed paper. She cast her eye over it, and old Fixem began to explain the form, but saw she wasn’t reading it, plain enough, poor thing. “Oh, my God!” says she, suddenly a-bursting out crying, letting the warrant fall, and hiding her face in her hands. “Oh, my God! what will become of us!” The noise she made, brought in a young lady of about nineteen or twenty, who, I suppose, had been a-listening at the door, and who had got a little boy in her arms: she sat him down in the lady’s lap, without speaking, and she hugged the poor little fellow to her bosom, and cried over him, till even old Fixem put on his blue spectacles to hide the two tears, that was a-trickling down, one on each side of his dirty face. “Now, dear ma,” says the young lady, “you know how much you have borne. For all our sakes — for pa’s sake,” says she, “don’t give way to this!” — “No, no, I won’t!” says the lady, gathering herself up, hastily, and drying her eyes; “I am very foolish, but I’m better now — much better.” And then she roused herself up, went with us into every room while we took the inventory, opened all the drawers of her own accord, sorted the children’s little clothes to make the work easier; and, except doing everything in a strange sort of hurry, seemed as calm and composed as if nothing had happened. When we came down-stairs again, she hesitated a minute or two, and at last says, “Gentlemen,” says she, “I am afraid I have done wrong, and perhaps it may bring you into trouble. I secreted just now,” she says, “the only trinket I have left in the world — here it is.” So she lays down on the table a little miniature mounted in gold. “It’s a miniature,” she says, “of my poor dear father! I little thought once, that I should ever thank God for depriving me of the original, but I do, and have done for years back, most fervently. Take it away, sir,” she says, “it’s a face that never turned from me in sickness and distress, and I can hardly bear to turn from it now, when, God knows, I suffer both in no ordinary degree.” I couldn’t say nothing, but I raised my head from the inventory which I was filling up, and looked at Fixem; the old fellow nodded to me significantly, so I ran my pen through the “MINI” I had just written, and left the miniature on the table.

‘Well, sir, to make short of a long story, I was left in possession, and in possession I remained; and though I was an ignorant man, and the master of the house a clever one, I saw what he never did, but what he would give worlds now (if he had ’em) to have seen in time. I saw, sir, that his wife was wasting away, beneath cares of which she never complained, and griefs she never told. I saw that she was dying before his eyes; I knew that one exertion from him might have saved her, but he never made it. I don’t blame him: I don’t think he COULD rouse himself. She had so long anticipated all his wishes, and acted for him, that he was a lost man when left to himself. I used to think when I caught sight of her, in the clothes she used to wear, which looked shabby even upon her, and would have been scarcely decent on any one else, that if I was a gentleman it would wring my very heart to see the woman that was a smart and merry girl when I courted her, so altered through her love for me. Bitter cold and damp weather it was, yet, though her dress was thin, and her shoes none of the best, during the whole three days, from morning to night, she was out of doors running about to try and raise the money. The money WAS raised and the execution was paid out. The whole family crowded into the room where I was, when the money arrived. The father was quite happy as the inconvenience was removed — I dare say he didn’t know how; the children looked merry and cheerful again; the eldest girl was bustling about, making preparations for the first comfortable meal they had had since the distress was put in; and the mother looked pleased to see them all so. But if ever I saw death in a woman’s face, I saw it in hers that night.

‘I was right, sir,’ continued Mr. Bung, hurriedly passing his coat-sleeve over his face; ‘the family grew more prosperous, and good fortune arrived. But it was too late. Those children are motherless now, and their father would give up all he has since gained — house, home, goods, money: all that he has, or ever can have, to restore the wife he has lost.’

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