Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

The Old Couple

They are grandfather and grandmother to a dozen grown people and have great-grandchildren besides; their bodies are bent, their hair is grey, their step tottering and infirm. Is this the lightsome pair whose wedding was so merry, and have the young couple indeed grown old so soon!

It seems but yesterday — and yet what a host of cares and griefs are crowded into the intervening time which, reckoned by them, lengthens out into a century! How many new associations have wreathed themselves about their hearts since then! The old time is gone, and a new time has come for others — not for them. They are but the rusting link that feebly joins the two, and is silently loosening its hold and dropping asunder.

It seems but yesterday — and yet three of their children have sunk into the grave, and the tree that shades it has grown quite old. One was an infant — they wept for him; the next a girl, a slight young thing too delicate for earth — her loss was hard indeed to bear. The third, a man. That was the worst of all, but even that grief is softened now.

It seems but yesterday — and yet how the gay and laughing faces of that bright morning have changed and vanished from above ground! Faint likenesses of some remain about them yet, but they are very faint and scarcely to be traced. The rest are only seen in dreams, and even they are unlike what they were, in eyes so old and dim.

One or two dresses from the bridal wardrobe are yet preserved. They are of a quaint and antique fashion, and seldom seen except in pictures. White has turned yellow, and brighter hues have faded. Do you wonder, child? The wrinkled face was once as smooth as yours, the eyes as bright, the shrivelled skin as fair and delicate. It is the work of hands that have been dust these many years.

Where are the fairy lovers of that happy day whose annual return comes upon the old man and his wife, like the echo of some village bell which has long been silent? Let yonder peevish bachelor, racked by rheumatic pains, and quarrelling with the world, let him answer to the question. He recollects something of a favourite playmate; her name was Lucy — so they tell him. He is not sure whether she was married, or went abroad, or died. It is a long while ago, and he don’t remember.

Is nothing as it used to be; does no one feel, or think, or act, as in days of yore? Yes. There is an aged woman who once lived servant with the old lady’s father, and is sheltered in an alms-house not far off. She is still attached to the family, and loves them all; she nursed the children in her lap, and tended in their sickness those who are no more. Her old mistress has still something of youth in her eyes; the young ladies are like what she was but not quite so handsome, nor are the gentlemen as stately as Mr. Harvey used to be. She has seen a great deal of trouble; her husband and her son died long ago; but she has got over that, and is happy now — quite happy.

If ever her attachment to her old protectors were disturbed by fresher cares and hopes, it has long since resumed its former current. It has filled the void in the poor creature’s heart, and replaced the love of kindred. Death has not left her alone, and this, with a roof above her head, and a warm hearth to sit by, makes her cheerful and contented. Does she remember the marriage of great-grandmamma? Ay, that she does, as well — as if it was only yesterday. You wouldn’t think it to look at her now, and perhaps she ought not to say so of herself, but she was as smart a young girl then as you’d wish to see. She recollects she took a friend of hers up-stairs to see Miss Emma dressed for church; her name was — ah! she forgets the name, but she remembers that she was a very pretty girl, and that she married not long afterwards, and lived — it has quite passed out of her mind where she lived, but she knows she had a bad husband who used her ill, and that she died in Lambeth work-house. Dear, dear, in Lambeth workhouse!

And the old couple — have they no comfort or enjoyment of existence? See them among their grandchildren and great– grandchildren; how garrulous they are, how they compare one with another, and insist on likenesses which no one else can see; how gently the old lady lectures the girls on points of breeding and decorum, and points the moral by anecdotes of herself in her young days — how the old gentleman chuckles over boyish feats and roguish tricks, and tells long stories of a ‘barring-out’ achieved at the school he went to: which was very wrong, he tells the boys, and never to be imitated of course, but which he cannot help letting them know was very pleasant too — especially when he kissed the master’s niece. This last, however, is a point on which the old lady is very tender, for she considers it a shocking and indelicate thing to talk about, and always says so whenever it is mentioned, never failing to observe that he ought to be very penitent for having been so sinful. So the old gentleman gets no further, and what the schoolmaster’s niece said afterwards (which he is always going to tell) is lost to posterity.

The old gentleman is eighty years old, to-day — ‘Eighty years old, Crofts, and never had a headache,’ he tells the barber who shaves him (the barber being a young fellow, and very subject to that complaint). ‘That’s a great age, Crofts,’ says the old gentleman. ‘I don’t think it’s sich a wery great age, Sir,’ replied the barber. ‘Crofts,’ rejoins the old gentleman, ‘you’re talking nonsense to me. Eighty not a great age?’ ‘It’s a wery great age, Sir, for a gentleman to be as healthy and active as you are,’ returns the barber; ‘but my grandfather, Sir, he was ninety-four.’ ‘You don’t mean that, Crofts?’ says the old gentleman. ‘I do indeed, Sir,’ retorts the barber, ‘and as wiggerous as Julius Caesar, my grandfather was.’ The old gentleman muses a little time, and then says, ‘What did he die of, Crofts?’ ‘He died accidentally, Sir,’ returns the barber; ‘he didn’t mean to do it. He always would go a running about the streets — walking never satisfied HIS spirit — and he run against a post and died of a hurt in his chest.’ The old gentleman says no more until the shaving is concluded, and then he gives Crofts half-a-crown to drink his health. He is a little doubtful of the barber’s veracity afterwards, and telling the anecdote to the old lady, affects to make very light of it — though to be sure (he adds) there was old Parr, and in some parts of England, ninety-five or so is a common age, quite a common age.

This morning the old couple are cheerful but serious, recalling old times as well as they can remember them, and dwelling upon many passages in their past lives which the day brings to mind. The old lady reads aloud, in a tremulous voice, out of a great Bible, and the old gentleman with his hand to his ear, listens with profound respect. When the book is closed, they sit silent for a short space, and afterwards resume their conversation, with a reference perhaps to their dead children, as a subject not unsuited to that they have just left. By degrees they are led to consider which of those who survive are the most like those dearly-remembered objects, and so they fall into a less solemn strain, and become cheerful again.

How many people in all, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and one or two intimate friends of the family, dine together to-day at the eldest son’s to congratulate the old couple, and wish them many happy returns, is a calculation beyond our powers; but this we know, that the old couple no sooner present themselves, very sprucely and carefully attired, than there is a violent shouting and rushing forward of the younger branches with all manner of presents, such as pocket-books, pencil-cases, pen-wipers, watch-papers, pin-cushions, sleeve-buckles, worked-slippers, watch-guards, and even a nutmeg-grater: the latter article being presented by a very chubby and very little boy, who exhibits it in great triumph as an extraordinary variety. The old couple’s emotion at these tokens of remembrance occasions quite a pathetic scene, of which the chief ingredients are a vast quantity of kissing and hugging, and repeated wipings of small eyes and noses with small square pocket-handkerchiefs, which don’t come at all easily out of small pockets. Even the peevish bachelor is moved, and he says, as he presents the old gentleman with a queer sort of antique ring from his own finger, that he’ll be de’ed if he doesn’t think he looks younger than he did ten years ago.

But the great time is after dinner, when the dessert and wine are on the table, which is pushed back to make plenty of room, and they are all gathered in a large circle round the fire, for it is then — the glasses being filled, and everybody ready to drink the toast — that two great-grandchildren rush out at a given signal, and presently return, dragging in old Jane Adams leaning upon her crutched stick, and trembling with age and pleasure. Who so popular as poor old Jane, nurse and story-teller in ordinary to two generations; and who so happy as she, striving to bend her stiff limbs into a curtsey, while tears of pleasure steal down her withered cheeks!

The old couple sit side by side, and the old time seems like yesterday indeed. Looking back upon the path they have travelled, its dust and ashes disappear; the flowers that withered long ago, show brightly again upon its borders, and they grow young once more in the youth of those about them.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54sb/chapter82.html

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