Elia and The Last Essays of Elia / Charles Lamb, by Charles Lamb

A Death-Bed

In a Letter to R.H. Esq. of B——

I called upon you this morning, and found that you were gone to visit a dying friend. I had been upon a like errand. Poor N.R. has lain dying now for almost a week; such is the penalty we pay for having enjoyed through life a strong constitution. Whether he knew me or not, I know not, or whether he saw me through his poor glazed eyes; but the group I saw about him I shall not forget. Upon the bed, or about it, were assembled his Wife, their two Daughters, and poor deaf Robert, looking doubly stupified. There they were, and seemed to have been sitting all the week. I could only reach out a hand to Mrs. R. Speaking was impossible in that mute chamber. By this time it must be all over with him. In him I have a loss the world cannot make up. He was my friend, and my father’s friend, for all the life that I can remember. I seem to have made foolish friendships since. Those are the friendships, which outlast a second generation. Old as I am getting, in his eyes I was still the child he knew me. To the last he called me Jemmy. I have none to call me Jemmy now. He was the last link that bound me to B——. You are but of yesterday. In him I seem to have lost the old plainness of manners and singleness of heart. Lettered he was not; his reading scarcely exceeded the Obituary of the old Gentleman’s Magazine, to which he has never failed of having recourse for these last fifty years. Yet there was the pride of literature about him from that slender perusal; and moreover from his office of archive-keeper to your ancient city, in which he must needs pick up some equivocal Latin; which, among his less literary friends, assumed the air of a very pleasant pedantry. Can I forget the erudite look with which, having tried to puzzle out the text of a Black lettered Chaucer in your Corporation Library, to which he was a sort of Librarian, he gave it up with this consolatory reflection —“Jemmy,” said he, “I do not know what you find in these very old books, but I observe, there is a deal of very indifferent spelling in them.” His jokes (for he had some) are ended; but they were old Perennials, staple, and always as good as new. He had one Song, that spake of the “flat bottoms of our foes coming over in darkness,” and alluded to a threatened Invasion, many years since blown over; this he reserved to be sung on Christmas Night, which we always passed with him, and he sung it with the freshness of an impending event. How his eyes would sparkle when he came to the passage:

We’ll still make ’em run, and we’ll still make ’em sweat,

In spite of the devil and Brussels’ Gazette!

What is the Brussels’ Gazette now? I cry, while I endite these trifles. His poor girls who are, I believe, compact of solid goodness, will have to receive their afflicted mother at an unsuccessful home in a petty village in —— shire, where for years they have been struggling to raise a Girls’ School with no effect. Poor deaf Robert (and the less hopeful for being so) is thrown upon a deaf world, without the comfort to his father on his death-bed of knowing him provided for. They are left almost provisionless. Some life assurance there is; but, I fear, not exceeding ——. Their hopes must be from your Corporation, which their father has served for fifty years. Who or what are your Leading Members now, I know not. Is there any, to whom without impertinence, you can represent the true circumstances of the family? You cannot say good enough of poor R., and his poor wife. Oblige me and the dead, if you can.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38