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Chapter 1 - Chirp the First

The kettle began it! Don't tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I
know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of
time that she couldn't say which of them began it; but, I say the
kettle did. I ought to know, I hope! The kettle began it, full
five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner,
before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

As if the clock hadn't finished striking, and the convulsive little
Haymaker at the top of it, jerking away right and left with a
scythe in front of a Moorish Palace, hadn't mowed down half an acre
of imaginary grass before the Cricket joined in at all!

Why, I am not naturally positive. Every one knows that. I
wouldn't set my own opinion against the opinion of Mrs.
Peerybingle, unless I were quite sure, on any account whatever.
Nothing should induce me. But, this is a question of act. And the
fact is, that the kettle began it, at least five minutes before the
Cricket gave any sign of being in existence. Contradict me, and
I'll say ten.

Let me narrate exactly how it happened. I should have proceeded to
do so in my very first word, but for this plain consideration--if I
am to tell a story I must begin at the beginning; and how is it
possible to begin at the beginning, without beginning at the
kettle?

It appeared as if there were a sort of match, or trial of skill,
you must understand, between the kettle and the Cricket. And this
is what led to it, and how it came about.

Mrs. Peerybingle, going out into the raw twilight, and clicking
over the wet stones in a pair of pattens that worked innumerable
rough impressions of the first proposition in Euclid all about the
yard--Mrs. Peerybingle filled the kettle at the water-butt.
Presently returning, less the pattens (and a good deal less, for
they were tall and Mrs. Peerybingle was but short), she set the
kettle on the fire. In doing which she lost her temper, or mislaid
it for an instant; for, the water being uncomfortably cold, and in
that slippy, slushy, sleety sort of state wherein it seems to
penetrate through every kind of substance, patten rings included--
had laid hold of Mrs. Peerybingle's toes, and even splashed her
legs. And when we rather plume ourselves (with reason too) upon
our legs, and keep ourselves particularly neat in point of
stockings, we find this, for the moment, hard to bear.

Besides, the kettle was aggravating and obstinate. It wouldn't
allow itself to be adjusted on the top bar; it wouldn't hear of
accommodating itself kindly to the knobs of coal; it WOULD lean
forward with a drunken air, and dribble, a very Idiot of a kettle,
on the hearth. It was quarrelsome, and hissed and spluttered
morosely at the fire. To sum up all, the lid, resisting Mrs.
Peerybingle's fingers, first of all turned topsy-turvy, and then,
with an ingenious pertinacity deserving of a better cause, dived
sideways in--down to the very bottom of the kettle. And the hull
of the Royal George has never made half the monstrous resistance to
coming out of the water, which the lid of that kettle employed
against Mrs. Peerybingle, before she got it up again.

It looked sullen and pig-headed enough, even then; carrying its
handle with an air of defiance, and cocking its spout pertly and
mockingly at Mrs. Peerybingle, as if it said, 'I won't boil.
Nothing shall induce me!'

But Mrs. Peerybingle, with restored good humour, dusted her chubby
little hands against each other, and sat down before the kettle,
laughing. Meantime, the jolly blaze uprose and fell, flashing and
gleaming on the little Haymaker at the top of the Dutch clock,
until one might have thought he stood stock still before the
Moorish Palace, and nothing was in motion but the flame.

He was on the move, however; and had his spasms, two to the second,
all right and regular. But, his sufferings when the clock was
going to strike, were frightful to behold; and, when a Cuckoo
looked out of a trap-door in the Palace, and gave note six times,
it shook him, each time, like a spectral voice--or like a something
wiry, plucking at his legs.

It was not until a violent commotion and a whirring noise among the
weights and ropes below him had quite subsided, that this terrified
Haymaker became himself again. Nor was he startled without reason;
for these rattling, bony skeletons of clocks are very disconcerting
in their operation, and I wonder very much how any set of men, but
most of all how Dutchmen, can have had a liking to invent them.
There is a popular belief that Dutchmen love broad cases and much
clothing for their own lower selves; and they might know better
than to leave their clocks so very lank and unprotected, surely.

Now it was, you observe, that the kettle began to spend the
evening. Now it was, that the kettle, growing mellow and musical,
began to have irrepressible gurglings in its throat, and to indulge
in short vocal snorts, which it checked in the bud, as if it hadn't
quite made up its mind yet, to be good company. Now it was, that
after two or three such vain attempts to stifle its convivial
sentiments, it threw off all moroseness, all reserve, and burst
into a stream of song so cosy and hilarious, as never maudlin
nightingale yet formed the least idea of.

So plain too! Bless you, you might have understood it like a book-
-better than some books you and I could name, perhaps. With its
warm breath gushing forth in a light cloud which merrily and
gracefully ascended a few feet, then hung about the chimney-corner
as its own domestic Heaven, it trolled its song with that strong
energy of cheerfulness, that its iron body hummed and stirred upon
the fire; and the lid itself, the recently rebellious lid--such is
the influence of a bright example--performed a sort of jig, and
clattered like a deaf and dumb young cymbal that had never known
the use of its twin brother.

That this song of the kettle's was a song of invitation and welcome
to somebody out of doors: to somebody at that moment coming on,
towards the snug small home and the crisp fire: there is no doubt
whatever. Mrs. Peerybingle knew it, perfectly, as she sat musing
before the hearth. It's a dark night, sang the kettle, and the
rotten leaves are lying by the way; and, above, all is mist and
darkness, and, below, all is mire and clay; and there's only one
relief in all the sad and murky air; and I don't know that it is
one, for it's nothing but a glare; of deep and angry crimson, where
the sun and wind together; set a brand upon the clouds for being
guilty of such weather; and the widest open country is a long dull
streak of black; and there's hoar-frost on the finger-post, and
thaw upon the track; and the ice it isn't water, and the water
isn't free; and you couldn't say that anything is what it ought to
be; but he's coming, coming, coming! -

And here, if you like, the Cricket DID chime in! with a Chirrup,
Chirrup, Chirrup of such magnitude, by way of chorus; with a voice
so astoundingly disproportionate to its size, as compared with the
kettle; (size! you couldn't see it!) that if it had then and there
burst itself like an overcharged gun, if it had fallen a victim on
the spot, and chirruped its little body into fifty pieces, it would
have seemed a natural and inevitable consequence, for which it had
expressly laboured.

The kettle had had the last of its solo performance. It persevered
with undiminished ardour; but the Cricket took first fiddle and
kept it. Good Heaven, how it chirped! Its shrill, sharp, piercing
voice resounded through the house, and seemed to twinkle in the
outer darkness like a star. There was an indescribable little
trill and tremble in it, at its loudest, which suggested its being
carried off its legs, and made to leap again, by its own intense
enthusiasm. Yet they went very well together, the Cricket and the
kettle. The burden of the song was still the same; and louder,
louder, louder still, they sang it in their emulation.

The fair little listener--for fair she was, and young: though
something of what is called the dumpling shape; but I don't myself
object to that--lighted a candle, glanced at the Haymaker on the
top of the clock, who was getting in a pretty average crop of
minutes; and looked out of the window, where she saw nothing, owing
to the darkness, but her own face imaged in the glass. And my
opinion is (and so would yours have been), that she might have
looked a long way, and seen nothing half so agreeable. When she
came back, and sat down in her former seat, the Cricket and the
kettle were still keeping it up, with a perfect fury of
competition. The kettle's weak side clearly being, that he didn't
know when he was beat.

There was all the excitement of a race about it. Chirp, chirp,
chirp! Cricket a mile ahead. Hum, hum, hum--m--m! Kettle making
play in the distance, like a great top. Chirp, chirp, chirp!
Cricket round the corner. Hum, hum, hum--m--m! Kettle sticking to
him in his own way; no idea of giving in. Chirp, chirp, chirp!
Cricket fresher than ever. Hum, hum, hum--m--m! Kettle slow and
steady. Chirp, chirp, chirp! Cricket going in to finish him.
Hum, hum, hum--m--m! Kettle not to be finished. Until at last
they got so jumbled together, in the hurry-skurry, helter-skelter,
of the match, that whether the kettle chirped and the Cricket
hummed, or the Cricket chirped and the kettle hummed, or they both
chirped and both hummed, it would have taken a clearer head than
yours or mine to have decided with anything like certainty. But,
of this, there is no doubt: that, the kettle and the Cricket, at
one and the same moment, and by some power of amalgamation best
known to themselves, sent, each, his fireside song of comfort
streaming into a ray of the candle that shone out through the
window, and a long way down the lane. And this light, bursting on
a certain person who, on the instant, approached towards it through
the gloom, expressed the whole thing to him, literally in a
twinkling, and cried, 'Welcome home, old fellow! Welcome home, my
boy!'

This end attained, the kettle, being dead beat, boiled over, and
was taken off the fire. Mrs. Peerybingle then went running to the
door, where, what with the wheels of a cart, the tramp of a horse,
the voice of a man, the tearing in and out of an excited dog, and
the surprising and mysterious appearance of a baby, there was soon
the very What's-his-name to pay.

Where the baby came from, or how Mrs. Peerybingle got hold of it in
that flash of time, _I_ don't know. But a live baby there was, in
Mrs. Peerybingle's arms; and a pretty tolerable amount of pride she
seemed to have in it, when she was drawn gently to the fire, by a
sturdy figure of a man, much taller and much older than herself,
who had to stoop a long way down, to kiss her. But she was worth
the trouble. Six foot six, with the lumbago, might have done it.

'Oh goodness, John!' said Mrs. P. 'What a state you are in with
the weather!'

He was something the worse for it, undeniably. The thick mist hung
in clots upon his eyelashes like candied thaw; and between the fog
and fire together, there were rainbows in his very whiskers.

'Why, you see, Dot,' John made answer, slowly, as he unrolled a
shawl from about his throat; and warmed his hands; 'it--it an't
exactly summer weather. So, no wonder.'

'I wish you wouldn't call me Dot, John. I don't like it,' said
Mrs. Peerybingle: pouting in a way that clearly showed she DID
like it, very much.

'Why what else are you?' returned John, looking down upon her with
a smile, and giving her waist as light a squeeze as his huge hand
and arm could give. 'A dot and'--here he glanced at the baby--'a
dot and carry--I won't say it, for fear I should spoil it; but I
was very near a joke. I don't know as ever I was nearer.'

He was often near to something or other very clever, by his own
account: this lumbering, slow, honest John; this John so heavy,
but so light of spirit; so rough upon the surface, but so gentle at
the core; so dull without, so quick within; so stolid, but so good!
Oh Mother Nature, give thy children the true poetry of heart that
hid itself in this poor Carrier's breast--he was but a Carrier by
the way--and we can bear to have them talking prose, and leading
lives of prose; and bear to bless thee for their company!

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure, and her baby in
her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish
thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head
just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural,
half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great
rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his
tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her
slight need, and make his burly middle-age a leaning-staff not
inappropriate to her blooming youth. It was pleasant to observe
how Tilly Slowboy, waiting in the background for the baby, took
special cognizance (though in her earliest teens) of this grouping;
and stood with her mouth and eyes wide open, and her head thrust
forward, taking it in as if it were air. Nor was it less agreeable
to observe how John the Carrier, reference being made by Dot to the
aforesaid baby, checked his hand when on the point of touching the
infant, as if he thought he might crack it; and bending down,
surveyed it from a safe distance, with a kind of puzzled pride,
such as an amiable mastiff might be supposed to show, if he found
himself, one day, the father of a young canary.

'An't he beautiful, John? Don't he look precious in his sleep?'

'Very precious,' said John. 'Very much so. He generally IS
asleep, an't he?'

'Lor, John! Good gracious no!'

'Oh,' said John, pondering. 'I thought his eyes was generally
shut. Halloa!'

'Goodness, John, how you startle one!'

'It an't right for him to turn 'em up in that way!' said the
astonished Carrier, 'is it? See how he's winking with both of 'em
at once! And look at his mouth! Why he's gasping like a gold and
silver fish!'

'You don't deserve to be a father, you don't,' said Dot, with all
the dignity of an experienced matron. 'But how should you know
what little complaints children are troubled with, John! You
wouldn't so much as know their names, you stupid fellow.' And when
she had turned the baby over on her left arm, and had slapped its
back as a restorative, she pinched her husband's ear, laughing.

'No,' said John, pulling off his outer coat. 'It's very true, Dot.
I don't know much about it. I only know that I've been fighting
pretty stiffly with the wind to-night. It's been blowing north-
east, straight into the cart, the whole way home.'

'Poor old man, so it has!' cried Mrs. Peerybingle, instantly
becoming very active. 'Here! Take the precious darling, Tilly,
while I make myself of some use. Bless it, I could smother it with
kissing it, I could! Hie then, good dog! Hie, Boxer, boy! Only
let me make the tea first, John; and then I'll help you with the
parcels, like a busy bee. "How doth the little"--and all the rest
of it, you know, John. Did you ever learn "how doth the little,"
when you went to school, John?'

'Not to quite know it,' John returned. 'I was very near it once.
But I should only have spoilt it, I dare say.'

'Ha ha,' laughed Dot. She had the blithest little laugh you ever
heard. 'What a dear old darling of a dunce you are, John, to be
sure!'

Not at all disputing this position, John went out to see that the
boy with the lantern, which had been dancing to and fro before the
door and window, like a Will of the Wisp, took due care of the
horse; who was fatter than you would quite believe, if I gave you
his measure, and so old that his birthday was lost in the mists of
antiquity. Boxer, feeling that his attentions were due to the
family in general, and must be impartially distributed, dashed in
and out with bewildering inconstancy; now, describing a circle of
short barks round the horse, where he was being rubbed down at the
stable-door; now feigning to make savage rushes at his mistress,
and facetiously bringing himself to sudden stops; now, eliciting a
shriek from Tilly Slowboy, in the low nursing-chair near the fire,
by the unexpected application of his moist nose to her countenance;
now, exhibiting an obtrusive interest in the baby; now, going round
and round upon the hearth, and lying down as if he had established
himself for the night; now, getting up again, and taking that
nothing of a fag-end of a tail of his, out into the weather, as if
he had just remembered an appointment, and was off, at a round
trot, to keep it.

'There! There's the teapot, ready on the hob!' said Dot; as
briskly busy as a child at play at keeping house. 'And there's the
old knuckle of ham; and there's the butter; and there's the crusty
loaf, and all! Here's the clothes-basket for the small parcels,
John, if you've got any there--where are you, John?'

'Don't let the dear child fall under the grate, Tilly, whatever you
do!'

It may be noted of Miss Slowboy, in spite of her rejecting the
caution with some vivacity, that she had a rare and surprising
talent for getting this baby into difficulties and had several
times imperilled its short life, in a quiet way peculiarly her own.
She was of a spare and straight shape, this young lady, insomuch
that her garments appeared to be in constant danger of sliding off
those sharp pegs, her shoulders, on which they were loosely hung.
Her costume was remarkable for the partial development, on all
possible occasions, of some flannel vestment of a singular
structure; also for affording glimpses, in the region of the back,
of a corset, or pair of stays, in colour a dead-green. Being
always in a state of gaping admiration at everything, and absorbed,
besides, in the perpetual contemplation of her mistress's
perfections and the baby's, Miss Slowboy, in her little errors of
judgment, may be said to have done equal honour to her head and to
her heart; and though these did less honour to the baby's head,
which they were the occasional means of bringing into contact with
deal doors, dressers, stair-rails, bed-posts, and other foreign
substances, still they were the honest results of Tilly Slowboy's
constant astonishment at finding herself so kindly treated, and
installed in such a comfortable home. For, the maternal and
paternal Slowboy were alike unknown to Fame, and Tilly had been
bred by public charity, a foundling; which word, though only
differing from fondling by one vowel's length, is very different in
meaning, and expresses quite another thing.

To have seen little Mrs. Peerybingle come back with her husband,
tugging at the clothes-basket, and making the most strenuous
exertions to do nothing at all (for he carried it), would have
amused you almost as much as it amused him. It may have
entertained the Cricket too, for anything I know; but, certainly,
it now began to chirp again, vehemently.

'Heyday!' said John, in his slow way. 'It's merrier than ever, to-
night, I think.'

'And it's sure to bring us good fortune, John! It always has done
so. To have a Cricket on the Hearth, is the luckiest thing in all
the world!'

John looked at her as if he had very nearly got the thought into
his head, that she was his Cricket in chief, and he quite agreed
with her. But, it was probably one of his narrow escapes, for he
said nothing.

'The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that
night when you brought me home--when you brought me to my new home
here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect,
John?'

O yes. John remembered. I should think so!

'Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise
and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle
with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to
find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.'

John thoughtfully patted one of the shoulders, and then the head,
as though he would have said No, no; he had had no such
expectation; he had been quite content to take them as they were.
And really he had reason. They were very comely.

'It spoke the truth, John, when it seemed to say so; for you have
ever been, I am sure, the best, the most considerate, the most
affectionate of husbands to me. This has been a happy home, John;
and I love the Cricket for its sake!'

'Why so do I then,' said the Carrier. 'So do I, Dot.'

'I love it for the many times I have heard it, and the many
thoughts its harmless music has given me. Sometimes, in the
twilight, when I have felt a little solitary and down-hearted,
John--before baby was here to keep me company and make the house
gay--when I have thought how lonely you would be if I should die;
how lonely I should be if I could know that you had lost me, dear;
its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp upon the hearth, has seemed to tell me of
another little voice, so sweet, so very dear to me, before whose
coming sound my trouble vanished like a dream. And when I used to
fear--I did fear once, John, I was very young you know--that ours
might prove to be an ill-assorted marriage, I being such a child,
and you more like my guardian than my husband; and that you might
not, however hard you tried, be able to learn to love me, as you
hoped and prayed you might; its Chirp, Chirp, Chirp has cheered me
up again, and filled me with new trust and confidence. I was
thinking of these things to-night, dear, when I sat expecting you;
and I love the Cricket for their sake!'

'And so do I,' repeated John. 'But, Dot? _I_ hope and pray that I
might learn to love you? How you talk! I had learnt that, long
before I brought you here, to be the Cricket's little mistress,
Dot!'

She laid her hand, an instant, on his arm, and looked up at him
with an agitated face, as if she would have told him something.
Next moment she was down upon her knees before the basket, speaking
in a sprightly voice, and busy with the parcels.

'There are not many of them to-night, John, but I saw some goods
behind the cart, just now; and though they give more trouble,
perhaps, still they pay as well; so we have no reason to grumble,
have we? Besides, you have been delivering, I dare say, as you
came along?'

'Oh yes,' John said. 'A good many.'

'Why what's this round box? Heart alive, John, it's a wedding-
cake!'

'Leave a woman alone to find out that,' said John, admiringly.
'Now a man would never have thought of it. Whereas, it's my belief
that if you was to pack a wedding-cake up in a tea-chest, or a
turn-up bedstead, or a pickled salmon keg, or any unlikely thing, a
woman would be sure to find it out directly. Yes; I called for it
at the pastry-cook's.'

'And it weighs I don't know what--whole hundredweights!' cried Dot,
making a great demonstration of trying to lift it.

'Whose is it, John? Where is it going?'

'Read the writing on the other side,' said John.

'Why, John! My Goodness, John!'

'Ah! who'd have thought it!' John returned.

'You never mean to say,' pursued Dot, sitting on the floor and
shaking her head at him, 'that it's Gruff and Tackleton the
toymaker!'

John nodded.

Mrs. Peerybingle nodded also, fifty times at least. Not in assent-
-in dumb and pitying amazement; screwing up her lips the while with
all their little force (they were never made for screwing up; I am
clear of that), and looking the good Carrier through and through,
in her abstraction. Miss Slowboy, in the mean time, who had a
mechanical power of reproducing scraps of current conversation for
the delectation of the baby, with all the sense struck out of them,
and all the nouns changed into the plural number, inquired aloud of
that young creature, Was it Gruffs and Tackletons the toymakers
then, and Would it call at Pastry-cooks for wedding-cakes, and Did
its mothers know the boxes when its fathers brought them homes; and
so on.

'And that is really to come about!' said Dot. 'Why, she and I were
girls at school together, John.'

He might have been thinking of her, or nearly thinking of her,
perhaps, as she was in that same school time. He looked upon her
with a thoughtful pleasure, but he made no answer.

'And he's as old! As unlike her!--Why, how many years older than
you, is Gruff and Tackleton, John?'

'How many more cups of tea shall I drink to-night at one sitting,
than Gruff and Tackleton ever took in four, I wonder!' replied
John, good-humouredly, as he drew a chair to the round table, and
began at the cold ham. 'As to eating, I eat but little; but that
little I enjoy, Dot.'

Even this, his usual sentiment at meal times, one of his innocent
delusions (for his appetite was always obstinate, and flatly
contradicted him), awoke no smile in the face of his little wife,
who stood among the parcels, pushing the cake-box slowly from her
with her foot, and never once looked, though her eyes were cast
down too, upon the dainty shoe she generally was so mindful of.
Absorbed in thought, she stood there, heedless alike of the tea and
John (although he called to her, and rapped the table with his
knife to startle her), until he rose and touched her on the arm;
when she looked at him for a moment, and hurried to her place
behind the teaboard, laughing at her negligence. But, not as she
had laughed before. The manner and the music were quite changed.

The Cricket, too, had stopped. Somehow the room was not so
cheerful as it had been. Nothing like it.

'So, these are all the parcels, are they, John?' she said, breaking
a long silence, which the honest Carrier had devoted to the
practical illustration of one part of his favourite sentiment--
certainly enjoying what he ate, if it couldn't be admitted that he
ate but little. 'So, these are all the parcels; are they, John?'

'That's all,' said John. 'Why--no--I--' laying down his knife and
fork, and taking a long breath. 'I declare--I've clean forgotten
the old gentleman!'

'The old gentleman?'

'In the cart,' said John. 'He was asleep, among the straw, the
last time I saw him. I've very nearly remembered him, twice, since
I came in; but he went out of my head again. Holloa! Yahip there!
Rouse up! That's my hearty!'

John said these latter words outside the door, whither he had
hurried with the candle in his hand.

Miss Slowboy, conscious of some mysterious reference to The Old
Gentleman, and connecting in her mystified imagination certain
associations of a religious nature with the phrase, was so
disturbed, that hastily rising from the low chair by the fire to
seek protection near the skirts of her mistress, and coming into
contact as she crossed the doorway with an ancient Stranger, she
instinctively made a charge or butt at him with the only offensive
instrument within her reach. This instrument happening to be the
baby, great commotion and alarm ensued, which the sagacity of Boxer
rather tended to increase; for, that good dog, more thoughtful than
its master, had, it seemed, been watching the old gentleman in his
sleep, lest he should walk off with a few young poplar trees that
were tied up behind the cart; and he still attended on him very
closely, worrying his gaiters in fact, and making dead sets at the
buttons.

'You're such an undeniable good sleeper, sir,' said John, when
tranquillity was restored; in the mean time the old gentleman had
stood, bareheaded and motionless, in the centre of the room; 'that
I have half a mind to ask you where the other six are--only that
would be a joke, and I know I should spoil it. Very near though,'
murmured the Carrier, with a chuckle; 'very near!'

The Stranger, who had long white hair, good features, singularly
bold and well defined for an old man, and dark, bright, penetrating
eyes, looked round with a smile, and saluted the Carrier's wife by
gravely inclining his head.

His garb was very quaint and odd--a long, long way behind the time.
Its hue was brown, all over. In his hand he held a great brown
club or walking-stick; and striking this upon the floor, it fell
asunder, and became a chair. On which he sat down, quite
composedly.

'There!' said the Carrier, turning to his wife. 'That's the way I
found him, sitting by the roadside! Upright as a milestone. And
almost as deaf.'

'Sitting in the open air, John!'

'In the open air,' replied the Carrier, 'just at dusk. "Carriage
Paid," he said; and gave me eighteenpence. Then he got in. And
there he is.'

'He's going, John, I think!'

Not at all. He was only going to speak.

'If you please, I was to be left till called for,' said the
Stranger, mildly. 'Don't mind me.'

With that, he took a pair of spectacles from one of his large
pockets, and a book from another, and leisurely began to read.
Making no more of Boxer than if he had been a house lamb!

The Carrier and his wife exchanged a look of perplexity. The
Stranger raised his head; and glancing from the latter to the
former, said,

'Your daughter, my good friend?'

'Wife,' returned John.

'Niece?' said the Stranger.

'Wife,' roared John.

'Indeed?' observed the Stranger. 'Surely? Very young!'

He quietly turned over, and resumed his reading. But, before he
could have read two lines, he again interrupted himself to say:

'Baby, yours?'

John gave him a gigantic nod; equivalent to an answer in the
affirmative, delivered through a speaking trumpet.

'Girl?'

'Bo-o-oy!' roared John.

'Also very young, eh?'

Mrs. Peerybingle instantly struck in. 'Two months and three da-
ays! Vaccinated just six weeks ago-o! Took very fine-ly!
Considered, by the doctor, a remarkably beautiful chi-ild! Equal
to the general run of children at five months o-old! Takes notice,
in a way quite wonderful! May seem impossible to you, but feels
his legs al-ready!'

Here the breathless little mother, who had been shrieking these
short sentences into the old man's ear, until her pretty face was
crimsoned, held up the Baby before him as a stubborn and triumphant
fact; while Tilly Slowboy, with a melodious cry of 'Ketcher,
Ketcher'--which sounded like some unknown words, adapted to a
popular Sneeze--performed some cow-like gambols round that all
unconscious Innocent.

'Hark! He's called for, sure enough,' said John. 'There's
somebody at the door. Open it, Tilly.'

Before she could reach it, however, it was opened from without;
being a primitive sort of door, with a latch, that any one could
lift if he chose--and a good many people did choose, for all kinds
of neighbours liked to have a cheerful word or two with the
Carrier, though he was no great talker himself. Being opened, it
gave admission to a little, meagre, thoughtful, dingy-faced man,
who seemed to have made himself a great-coat from the sack-cloth
covering of some old box; for, when he turned to shut the door, and
keep the weather out, he disclosed upon the back of that garment,
the inscription G & T in large black capitals. Also the word GLASS
in bold characters.

'Good evening, John!' said the little man. 'Good evening, Mum.
Good evening, Tilly. Good evening, Unbeknown! How's Baby, Mum?
Boxer's pretty well I hope?'

'All thriving, Caleb,' replied Dot. 'I am sure you need only look
at the dear child, for one, to know that.'

'And I'm sure I need only look at you for another,' said Caleb.

He didn't look at her though; he had a wandering and thoughtful eye
which seemed to be always projecting itself into some other time
and place, no matter what he said; a description which will equally
apply to his voice.

'Or at John for another,' said Caleb. 'Or at Tilly, as far as that
goes. Or certainly at Boxer.'

'Busy just now, Caleb?' asked the Carrier.

'Why, pretty well, John,' he returned, with the distraught air of a
man who was casting about for the Philosopher's stone, at least.
'Pretty much so. There's rather a run on Noah's Arks at present.
I could have wished to improve upon the Family, but I don't see how
it's to be done at the price. It would be a satisfaction to one's
mind, to make it clearer which was Shems and Hams, and which was
Wives. Flies an't on that scale neither, as compared with
elephants you know! Ah! well! Have you got anything in the parcel
line for me, John?'

The Carrier put his hand into a pocket of the coat he had taken
off; and brought out, carefully preserved in moss and paper, a tiny
flower-pot.

'There it is!' he said, adjusting it with great care. 'Not so much
as a leaf damaged. Full of buds!'

Caleb's dull eye brightened, as he took it, and thanked him.

'Dear, Caleb,' said the Carrier. 'Very dear at this season.'

'Never mind that. It would be cheap to me, whatever it cost,'
returned the little man. 'Anything else, John?'

'A small box,' replied the Carrier. 'Here you are!'

'"For Caleb Plummer,"' said the little man, spelling out the
direction. '"With Cash." With Cash, John? I don't think it's for
me.'

'With Care,' returned the Carrier, looking over his shoulder.
'Where do you make out cash?'

'Oh! To be sure!' said Caleb. 'It's all right. With care! Yes,
yes; that's mine. It might have been with cash, indeed, if my dear
Boy in the Golden South Americas had lived, John. You loved him
like a son; didn't you? You needn't say you did. _I_ know, of
course. "Caleb Plummer. With care." Yes, yes, it's all right.
It's a box of dolls' eyes for my daughter's work. I wish it was
her own sight in a box, John.'

'I wish it was, or could be!' cried the Carrier.

'Thank'ee,' said the little man. 'You speak very hearty. To think
that she should never see the Dolls--and them a-staring at her, so
bold, all day long! That's where it cuts. What's the damage,
John?'

'I'll damage you,' said John, 'if you inquire. Dot! Very near?'

'Well! it's like you to say so,' observed the little man. 'It's
your kind way. Let me see. I think that's all.'

'I think not,' said the Carrier. 'Try again.'

'Something for our Governor, eh?' said Caleb, after pondering a
little while. 'To be sure. That's what I came for; but my head's
so running on them Arks and things! He hasn't been here, has he?'

'Not he,' returned the Carrier. 'He's too busy, courting.'

'He's coming round though,' said Caleb; 'for he told me to keep on
the near side of the road going home, and it was ten to one he'd
take me up. I had better go, by the bye.--You couldn't have the
goodness to let me pinch Boxer's tail, Mum, for half a moment,
could you?'

'Why, Caleb! what a question!'

'Oh never mind, Mum,' said the little man. 'He mightn't like it
perhaps. There's a small order just come in, for barking dogs; and
I should wish to go as close to Natur' as I could, for sixpence.
That's all. Never mind, Mum.'

It happened opportunely, that Boxer, without receiving the proposed
stimulus, began to bark with great zeal. But, as this implied the
approach of some new visitor, Caleb, postponing his study from the
life to a more convenient season, shouldered the round box, and
took a hurried leave. He might have spared himself the trouble,
for he met the visitor upon the threshold.

'Oh! You are here, are you? Wait a bit. I'll take you home.
John Peerybingle, my service to you. More of my service to your
pretty wife. Handsomer every day! Better too, if possible! And
younger,' mused the speaker, in a low voice; 'that's the Devil of
it!'

'I should be astonished at your paying compliments, Mr. Tackleton,'
said Dot, not with the best grace in the world; 'but for your
condition.'

'You know all about it then?'

'I have got myself to believe it, somehow,' said Dot.

'After a hard struggle, I suppose?'

'Very.'

Tackleton the Toy-merchant, pretty generally known as Gruff and
Tackleton--for that was the firm, though Gruff had been bought out
long ago; only leaving his name, and as some said his nature,
according to its Dictionary meaning, in the business--Tackleton the
Toy-merchant, was a man whose vocation had been quite misunderstood
by his Parents and Guardians. If they had made him a Money Lender,
or a sharp Attorney, or a Sheriff's Officer, or a Broker, he might
have sown his discontented oats in his youth, and, after having had
the full run of himself in ill-natured transactions, might have
turned out amiable, at last, for the sake of a little freshness and
novelty. But, cramped and chafing in the peaceable pursuit of toy-
making, he was a domestic Ogre, who had been living on children all
his life, and was their implacable enemy. He despised all toys;
wouldn't have bought one for the world; delighted, in his malice,
to insinuate grim expressions into the faces of brown-paper farmers
who drove pigs to market, bellmen who advertised lost lawyers'
consciences, movable old ladies who darned stockings or carved
pies; and other like samples of his stock in trade. In appalling
masks; hideous, hairy, red-eyed Jacks in Boxes; Vampire Kites;
demoniacal Tumblers who wouldn't lie down, and were perpetually
flying forward, to stare infants out of countenance; his soul
perfectly revelled. They were his only relief, and safety-valve.
He was great in such inventions. Anything suggestive of a Pony-
nightmare was delicious to him. He had even lost money (and he
took to that toy very kindly) by getting up Goblin slides for
magic-lanterns, whereon the Powers of Darkness were depicted as a
sort of supernatural shell-fish, with human faces. In intensifying
the portraiture of Giants, he had sunk quite a little capital; and,
though no painter himself, he could indicate, for the instruction
of his artists, with a piece of chalk, a certain furtive leer for
the countenances of those monsters, which was safe to destroy the
peace of mind of any young gentleman between the ages of six and
eleven, for the whole Christmas or Midsummer Vacation.

What he was in toys, he was (as most men are) in other things. You
may easily suppose, therefore, that within the great green cape,
which reached down to the calves of his legs, there was buttoned up
to the chin an uncommonly pleasant fellow; and that he was about as
choice a spirit, and as agreeable a companion, as ever stood in a
pair of bull-headed-looking boots with mahogany-coloured tops.

Still, Tackleton, the toy-merchant, was going to be married. In
spite of all this, he was going to be married. And to a young wife
too, a beautiful young wife.

He didn't look much like a bridegroom, as he stood in the Carrier's
kitchen, with a twist in his dry face, and a screw in his body, and
his hat jerked over the bridge of his nose, and his hands tucked
down into the bottoms of his pockets, and his whole sarcastic ill-
conditioned self peering out of one little corner of one little
eye, like the concentrated essence of any number of ravens. But, a
Bridegroom he designed to be.

'In three days' time. Next Thursday. The last day of the first
month in the year. That's my wedding-day,' said Tackleton.

Did I mention that he had always one eye wide open, and one eye
nearly shut; and that the one eye nearly shut, was always the
expressive eye? I don't think I did.

'That's my wedding-day!' said Tackleton, rattling his money.

'Why, it's our wedding-day too,' exclaimed the Carrier.

'Ha ha!' laughed Tackleton. 'Odd! You're just such another
couple. Just!'

The indignation of Dot at this presumptuous assertion is not to be
described. What next? His imagination would compass the
possibility of just such another Baby, perhaps. The man was mad.

'I say! A word with you,' murmured Tackleton, nudging the Carrier
with his elbow, and taking him a little apart. 'You'll come to the
wedding? We're in the same boat, you know.'

'How in the same boat?' inquired the Carrier.

'A little disparity, you know,' said Tackleton, with another nudge.
'Come and spend an evening with us, beforehand.'

'Why?' demanded John, astonished at this pressing hospitality.

'Why?' returned the other. 'That's a new way of receiving an
invitation. Why, for pleasure--sociability, you know, and all
that!'

'I thought you were never sociable,' said John, in his plain way.

'Tchah! It's of no use to be anything but free with you, I see,'
said Tackleton. 'Why, then, the truth is you have a--what tea-
drinking people call a sort of a comfortable appearance together,
you and your wife. We know better, you know, but--'

'No, we don't know better,' interposed John. 'What are you talking
about?'

'Well! We DON'T know better, then,' said Tackleton. 'We'll agree
that we don't. As you like; what does it matter? I was going to
say, as you have that sort of appearance, your company will produce
a favourable effect on Mrs. Tackleton that will be. And, though I
don't think your good lady's very friendly to me, in this matter,
still she can't help herself from falling into my views, for
there's a compactness and cosiness of appearance about her that
always tells, even in an indifferent case. You'll say you'll
come?'

'We have arranged to keep our Wedding-Day (as far as that goes) at
home,' said John. 'We have made the promise to ourselves these six
months. We think, you see, that home--'

'Bah! what's home?' cried Tackleton. 'Four walls and a ceiling!
(why don't you kill that Cricket? _I_ would! I always do. I hate
their noise.) There are four walls and a ceiling at my house.
Come to me!'

'You kill your Crickets, eh?' said John.

'Scrunch 'em, sir,' returned the other, setting his heel heavily on
the floor. 'You'll say you'll come? it's as much your interest as
mine, you know, that the women should persuade each other that
they're quiet and contented, and couldn't be better off. I know
their way. Whatever one woman says, another woman is determined to
clinch, always. There's that spirit of emulation among 'em, sir,
that if your wife says to my wife, "I'm the happiest woman in the
world, and mine's the best husband in the world, and I dote on
him," my wife will say the same to yours, or more, and half believe
it.'

'Do you mean to say she don't, then?' asked the Carrier.

'Don't!' cried Tackleton, with a short, sharp laugh. 'Don't what?'

The Carrier had some faint idea of adding, 'dote upon you.' But,
happening to meet the half-closed eye, as it twinkled upon him over
the turned-up collar of the cape, which was within an ace of poking
it out, he felt it such an unlikely part and parcel of anything to
be doted on, that he substituted, 'that she don't believe it?'

'Ah you dog! You're joking,' said Tackleton.

But the Carrier, though slow to understand the full drift of his
meaning, eyed him in such a serious manner, that he was obliged to
be a little more explanatory.

'I have the humour,' said Tackleton: holding up the fingers of his
left hand, and tapping the forefinger, to imply 'there I am,
Tackleton to wit:' 'I have the humour, sir, to marry a young wife,
and a pretty wife:' here he rapped his little finger, to express
the Bride; not sparingly, but sharply; with a sense of power. 'I'm
able to gratify that humour and I do. It's my whim. But--now look
there!'

He pointed to where Dot was sitting, thoughtfully, before the fire;
leaning her dimpled chin upon her hand, and watching the bright
blaze. The Carrier looked at her, and then at him, and then at
her, and then at him again.

'She honours and obeys, no doubt, you know,' said Tackleton; 'and
that, as I am not a man of sentiment, is quite enough for ME. But
do you think there's anything more in it?'

'I think,' observed the Carrier, 'that I should chuck any man out
of window, who said there wasn't.'

'Exactly so,' returned the other with an unusual alacrity of
assent. 'To be sure! Doubtless you would. Of course. I'm
certain of it. Good night. Pleasant dreams!'

The Carrier was puzzled, and made uncomfortable and uncertain, in
spite of himself. He couldn't help showing it, in his manner.

'Good night, my dear friend!' said Tackleton, compassionately.
'I'm off. We're exactly alike, in reality, I see. You won't give
us to-morrow evening? Well! Next day you go out visiting, I know.
I'll meet you there, and bring my wife that is to be. It'll do her
good. You're agreeable? Thank'ee. What's that!'

It was a loud cry from the Carrier's wife: a loud, sharp, sudden
cry, that made the room ring, like a glass vessel. She had risen
from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and
surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm
himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite
still.

'Dot!' cried the Carrier. 'Mary! Darling! What's the matter?'

They were all about her in a moment. Caleb, who had been dozing on
the cake-box, in the first imperfect recovery of his suspended
presence of mind, seized Miss Slowboy by the hair of her head, but
immediately apologised.

'Mary!' exclaimed the Carrier, supporting her in his arms. 'Are
you ill! What is it? Tell me, dear!'

She only answered by beating her hands together, and falling into a
wild fit of laughter. Then, sinking from his grasp upon the
ground, she covered her face with her apron, and wept bitterly.
And then she laughed again, and then she cried again, and then she
said how cold it was, and suffered him to lead her to the fire,
where she sat down as before. The old man standing, as before,
quite still.

'I'm better, John,' she said. 'I'm quite well now--I -'

'John!' But John was on the other side of her. Why turn her face
towards the strange old gentleman, as if addressing him! Was her
brain wandering?

'Only a fancy, John dear--a kind of shock--a something coming
suddenly before my eyes--I don't know what it was. It's quite
gone, quite gone.'

'I'm glad it's gone,' muttered Tackleton, turning the expressive
eye all round the room. 'I wonder where it's gone, and what it
was. Humph! Caleb, come here! Who's that with the grey hair?'

'I don't know, sir,' returned Caleb in a whisper. 'Never see him
before, in all my life. A beautiful figure for a nut-cracker;
quite a new model. With a screw-jaw opening down into his
waistcoat, he'd be lovely.'

'Not ugly enough,' said Tackleton.

'Or for a firebox, either,' observed Caleb, in deep contemplation,
'what a model! Unscrew his head to put the matches in; turn him
heels up'ards for the light; and what a firebox for a gentleman's
mantel-shelf, just as he stands!'

'Not half ugly enough,' said Tackleton. 'Nothing in him at all!
Come! Bring that box! All right now, I hope?'

'Quite gone!' said the little woman, waving him hurriedly away.
'Good night!'

'Good night,' said Tackleton. 'Good night, John Peerybingle! Take
care how you carry that box, Caleb. Let it fall, and I'll murder
you! Dark as pitch, and weather worse than ever, eh? Good night!'

So, with another sharp look round the room, he went out at the
door; followed by Caleb with the wedding-cake on his head.

The Carrier had been so much astounded by his little wife, and so
busily engaged in soothing and tending her, that he had scarcely
been conscious of the Stranger's presence, until now, when he again
stood there, their only guest.

'He don't belong to them, you see,' said John. 'I must give him a
hint to go.'

'I beg your pardon, friend,' said the old gentleman, advancing to
him; 'the more so, as I fear your wife has not been well; but the
Attendant whom my infirmity,' he touched his ears and shook his
head, 'renders almost indispensable, not having arrived, I fear
there must be some mistake. The bad night which made the shelter
of your comfortable cart (may I never have a worse!) so acceptable,
is still as bad as ever. Would you, in your kindness, suffer me to
rent a bed here?'

'Yes, yes,' cried Dot. 'Yes! Certainly!'

'Oh!' said the Carrier, surprised by the rapidity of this consent.

'Well! I don't object; but, still I'm not quite sure that--'

'Hush!' she interrupted. 'Dear John!'

'Why, he's stone deaf,' urged John.

'I know he is, but--Yes, sir, certainly. Yes! certainly! I'll
make him up a bed, directly, John.'

As she hurried off to do it, the flutter of her spirits, and the
agitation of her manner, were so strange that the Carrier stood
looking after her, quite confounded.

'Did its mothers make it up a Beds then!' cried Miss Slowboy to the
Baby; 'and did its hair grow brown and curly, when its caps was
lifted off, and frighten it, a precious Pets, a-sitting by the
fires!'

With that unaccountable attraction of the mind to trifles, which is
often incidental to a state of doubt and confusion, the Carrier as
he walked slowly to and fro, found himself mentally repeating even
these absurd words, many times. So many times that he got them by
heart, and was still conning them over and over, like a lesson,
when Tilly, after administering as much friction to the little bald
head with her hand as she thought wholesome (according to the
practice of nurses), had once more tied the Baby's cap on.

'And frighten it, a precious Pets, a-sitting by the fires. What
frightened Dot, I wonder!' mused the Carrier, pacing to and fro.

He scouted, from his heart, the insinuations of the Toy-merchant,
and yet they filled him with a vague, indefinite uneasiness. For,
Tackleton was quick and sly; and he had that painful sense,
himself, of being of slow perception, that a broken hint was always
worrying to him. He certainly had no intention in his mind of
linking anything that Tackleton had said, with the unusual conduct
of his wife, but the two subjects of reflection came into his mind
together, and he could not keep them asunder.

The bed was soon made ready; and the visitor, declining all
refreshment but a cup of tea, retired. Then, Dot--quite well
again, she said, quite well again--arranged the great chair in the
chimney-corner for her husband; filled his pipe and gave it him;
and took her usual little stool beside him on the hearth.

She always WOULD sit on that little stool. I think she must have
had a kind of notion that it was a coaxing, wheedling little stool.

She was, out and out, the very best filler of a pipe, I should say,
in the four quarters of the globe. To see her put that chubby
little finger in the bowl, and then blow down the pipe to clear the
tube, and, when she had done so, affect to think that there was
really something in the tube, and blow a dozen times, and hold it
to her eye like a telescope, with a most provoking twist in her
capital little face, as she looked down it, was quite a brilliant
thing. As to the tobacco, she was perfect mistress of the subject;
and her lighting of the pipe, with a wisp of paper, when the
Carrier had it in his mouth--going so very near his nose, and yet
not scorching it--was Art, high Art.

And the Cricket and the kettle, turning up again, acknowledged it!
The bright fire, blazing up again, acknowledged it! The little
Mower on the clock, in his unheeded work, acknowledged it! The
Carrier, in his smoothing forehead and expanding face, acknowledged
it, the readiest of all.

And as he soberly and thoughtfully puffed at his old pipe, and as
the Dutch clock ticked, and as the red fire gleamed, and as the
Cricket chirped; that Genius of his Hearth and Home (for such the
Cricket was) came out, in fairy shape, into the room, and summoned
many forms of Home about him. Dots of all ages, and all sizes,
filled the chamber. Dots who were merry children, running on
before him gathering flowers, in the fields; coy Dots, half
shrinking from, half yielding to, the pleading of his own rough
image; newly-married Dots, alighting at the door, and taking
wondering possession of the household keys; motherly little Dots,
attended by fictitious Slowboys, bearing babies to be christened;
matronly Dots, still young and blooming, watching Dots of
daughters, as they danced at rustic balls; fat Dots, encircled and
beset by troops of rosy grandchildren; withered Dots, who leaned on
sticks, and tottered as they crept along. Old Carriers too,
appeared, with blind old Boxers lying at their feet; and newer
carts with younger drivers ('Peerybingle Brothers' on the tilt);
and sick old Carriers, tended by the gentlest hands; and graves of
dead and gone old Carriers, green in the churchyard. And as the
Cricket showed him all these things--he saw them plainly, though
his eyes were fixed upon the fire--the Carrier's heart grew light
and happy, and he thanked his Household Gods with all his might,
and cared no more for Gruff and Tackleton than you do.


But, what was that young figure of a man, which the same Fairy
Cricket set so near Her stool, and which remained there, singly and
alone? Why did it linger still, so near her, with its arm upon the
chimney-piece, ever repeating 'Married! and not to me!'

O Dot! O failing Dot! There is no place for it in all your
husband's visions; why has its shadow fallen on his hearth!

Charles Dickens

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