Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

THE R. WILFER FAMILY


Reginald Wilfer is a name with rather a grand sound, suggesting
on first acquaintance brasses in country churches, scrolls in
stained-glass windows, and generally the De Wilfers who came
over with the Conqueror. For, it is a remarkable fact in genealogy
that no De Any ones ever came over with Anybody else.

But, the Reginald Wilfer family were of such commonplace
extraction and pursuits that their forefathers had for generations
modestly subsisted on the Docks, the Excise Office, and the
Custom House, and the existing R. Wilfer was a poor clerk. So
poor a clerk, though having a limited salary and an unlimited
family, that he had never yet attained the modest object of his
ambition: which was, to wear a complete new suit of clothes, hat
and boots included, at one time. His black hat was brown before
he could afford a coat, his pantaloons were white at the seams and
knees before he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn out
before he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and, by the time
he worked round to the hat again, that shining modern article
roofed-in an ancient ruin of various periods.

If the conventional Cherub could ever grow up and be clothed, he
might be photographed as a portrait of Wilfer. His chubby,
smooth, innocent appearance was a reason for his being always
treated with condescension when he was not put down. A stranger
entering his own poor house at about ten o'clock P.M. might have
been surprised to find him sitting up to supper. So boyish was he
in his curves and proportions, that his old schoolmaster meeting
him in Cheapside, might have been unable to withstand the
temptation of caning him on the spot. In short, he was the
conventional cherub, after the supposititious shoot just mentioned,
rather grey, with signs of care on his expression, and in decidedly
insolvent circumstances.

He was shy, and unwilling to own to the name of Reginald, as
being too aspiring and self-assertive a name. In his signature he
used only the initial R., and imparted what it really stood for, to
none but chosen friends, under the seal of confidence. Out of this,
the facetious habit had arisen in the neighbourhood surrounding
Mincing Lane of making christian names for him of adjectives and
participles beginning with R. Some of these were more or less
appropriate: as Rusty, Retiring, Ruddy, Round, Ripe, Ridiculous,
Ruminative; others, derived their point from their want of
application: as Raging, Rattling, Roaring, Raffish. But, his
popular name was Rumty, which in a moment of inspiration had
been bestowed upon him by a gentleman of convivial habits
connected with the drug-markets, as the beginning of a social
chorus, his leading part in the execution of which had led this
gentleman to the Temple of Fame, and of which the whole
expressive burden ran:

'Rumty iddity, row dow dow,
Sing toodlely, teedlely, bow wow wow.'

Thus he was constantly addressed, even in minor notes on
business, as 'Dear Rumty'; in answer to which, he sedately signed
himself, 'Yours truly, R. Wilfer.'

He was clerk in the drug-house of Chicksey, Veneering, and
Stobbles. Chicksey and Stobbles, his former masters, had both
become absorbed in Veneering, once their traveller or commission
agent: who had signalized his accession to supreme power by
bringing into the business a quantity of plate-glass window and
French-polished mahogany partition, and a gleaming and
enormous doorplate.

R. Wilfer locked up his desk one evening, and, putting his bunch
of keys in his pocket much as if it were his peg-top, made for
home. His home was in the Holloway region north of London, and
then divided from it by fields and trees. Between Battle Bridge
and that part of the Holloway district in which he dwelt, was a
tract of suburban Sahara, where tiles and bricks were burnt, bones
were boiled, carpets were beat, rubbish was shot, dogs were
fought, and dust was heaped by contractors. Skirting the border of
this desert, by the way he took, when the light of its kiln-fires made
lurid smears on the fog, R. Wilfer sighed and shook his head.

'Ah me!' said he, 'what might have been is not what is!'

With which commentary on human life, indicating an experience
of it not exclusively his own, he made the best of his way to the
end of his journey.

Mrs Wilfer was, of course, a tall woman and an angular. Her lord
being cherubic, she was necessarily majestic, according to the
principle which matrimonially unites contrasts. She was much
given to tying up her head in a pocket-handkerchief, knotted under
the chin. This head-gear, in conjunction with a pair of gloves worn
within doors, she seemed to consider as at once a kind of armour
against misfortune (invariably assuming it when in low spirits or
difficulties), and as a species of full dress. It was therefore with
some sinking of the spirit that her husband beheld her thus
heroically attired, putting down her candle in the little hall, and
coming down the doorsteps through the little front court to open
the gate for him.

Something had gone wrong with the house-door, for R. Wilfer
stopped on the steps, staring at it, and cried:

'Hal-loa?'

'Yes,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'the man came himself with a pair of
pincers, and took it off, and took it away. He said that as he had
no expectation of ever being paid for it, and as he had an order for
another LADIES' SCHOOL door-plate, it was better (burnished
up) for the interests of all parties.'

'Perhaps it was, my dear; what do you think?'

'You are master here, R. W.,' returned his wife. 'It is as you think;
not as I do. Perhaps it might have been better if the man had taken
the door too?'

'My dear, we couldn't have done without the door.'

'Couldn't we?'

'Why, my dear! Could we?'

'It is as you think, R. W.; not as I do.' With those submissive
words, the dutiful wife preceded him down a few stairs to a little
basement front room, half kitchen, half parlour, where a girl of
about nineteen, with an exceedingly pretty figure and face, but with
an impatient and petulant expression both in her face and in her
shoulders (which in her sex and at her age are very expressive of
discontent), sat playing draughts with a younger girl, who was the
youngest of the House of Wilfer. Not to encumber this page by
telling off the Wilfers in detail and casting them up in the gross, it
is enough for the present that the rest were what is called 'out in the
world,' in various ways, and that they were Many. So many,
that when one of his dutiful children called in to see him, R. Wilfer
generally seemed to say to himself, after a little mental arithmetic,
'Oh! here's another of 'em!' before adding aloud, 'How de do, John,'
or Susan, as the case might be.

'Well Piggywiggies,' said R. W., 'how de do to-night? What I was
thinking of, my dear,' to Mrs Wilfer already seated in a corner with
folded gloves, 'was, that as we have let our first floor so well, and
as we have now no place in which you could teach pupils even if
pupils--'

'The milkman said he knew of two young ladies of the highest
respectability who were in search of a suitable establishment, and
he took a card,' interposed Mrs Wilfer, with severe monotony, as if
she were reading an Act of Parliament aloud. 'Tell your father
whether it was last Monday, Bella.'

'But we never heard any more of it, ma,' said Bella, the elder girl.

'In addition to which, my dear,' her husband urged, 'if you have no
place to put two young persons into--'

'Pardon me,' Mrs Wilfer again interposed; 'they were not young
persons. Two young ladies of the highest respectability. Tell your
father, Bella, whether the milkman said so.'

'My dear, it is the same thing.'

'No it is not,' said Mrs Wilfer, with the same impressive monotony.
'Pardon me!'

'I mean, my dear, it is the same thing as to space. As to space. If
you have no space in which to put two youthful fellow-creatures,
however eminently respectable, which I do not doubt, where are
those youthful fellow-creatures to be accommodated? I carry it no
further than that. And solely looking at it,' said her husband,
making the stipulation at once in a conciliatory, complimentary,
and argumentative tone--'as I am sure you will agree, my love--
from a fellow-creature point of view, my dear.'

'I have nothing more to say,' returned Mrs Wilfer, with a meek
renunciatory action of her gloves. 'It is as you think, R. W.;
not as I do.'

Here, the huffing of Miss Bella and the loss of three of her men at a
swoop, aggravated by the coronation of an opponent, led to that
young lady's jerking the draught-board and pieces off the table:
which her sister went down on her knees to pick up.

'Poor Bella!' said Mrs Wilfer.

'And poor Lavinia, perhaps, my dear?' suggested R. W.

'Pardon me,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'no!'

It was one of the worthy woman's specialities that she had an
amazing power of gratifying her splenetic or wordly-minded
humours by extolling her own family: which she thus proceeded, in
the present case, to do.

'No, R. W. Lavinia has not known the trial that Bella has known.
The trial that your daughter Bella has undergone, is, perhaps,
without a parallel, and has been borne, I will say, Nobly. When
you see your daughter Bella in her black dress, which she alone of
all the family wears, and when you remember the circumstances
which have led to her wearing it, and when you know how those
circumstances have been sustained, then, R. W., lay your head
upon your pillow and say, "Poor Lavinia!"'

Here, Miss Lavinia, from her kneeling situation under the table,
put in that she didn't want to be 'poored by pa', or anybody else.

'I am sure you do not, my dear,' returned her mother, 'for you have
a fine brave spirit. And your sister Cecilia has a fine brave spirit of
another kind, a spirit of pure devotion, a beau-ti-ful spirit! The
self-sacrifice of Cecilia reveals a pure and womanly character, very
seldom equalled, never surpassed. I have now in my pocket a
letter from your sister Cecilia, received this morning--received
three months after her marriage, poor child!--in which she tells me
that her husband must unexpectedly shelter under their roof his
reduced aunt. "But I will be true to him, mamma," she touchingly
writes, "I will not leave him, I must not forget that he is my
husband. Let his aunt come!" If this is not pathetic, if this is not
woman's devotion--!' The good lady waved her gloves in a sense
of the impossibility of saying more, and tied the pocket-
handkerchief over her head in a tighter knot under her chin.

Bella, who was now seated on the rug to warm herself, with her
brown eyes on the fire and a handful of her brown curls in her
mouth, laughed at this, and then pouted and half cried.

'I am sure,' said she, 'though you have no feeling for me, pa, I am
one of the most unfortunate girls that ever lived. You know how
poor we are' (it is probable he did, having some reason to know
it!), 'and what a glimpse of wealth I had, and how it melted away,
and how I am here in this ridiculous mourning--which I hate!--a
kind of a widow who never was married. And yet you don't feel
for me.--Yes you do, yes you do.'

This abrupt change was occasioned by her father's face. She
stopped to pull him down from his chair in an attitude highly
favourable to strangulation, and to give him a kiss and a pat or two
on the cheek.

'But you ought to feel for me, you know, pa.'

'My dear, I do.'

'Yes, and I say you ought to. If they had only left me alone and
told me nothing about it, it would have mattered much less. But
that nasty Mr Lightwood feels it his duty, as he says, to write and
tell me what is in reserve for me, and then I am obliged to get rid
of George Sampson.'

Here, Lavinia, rising to the surface with the last draughtman
rescued, interposed, 'You never cared for George Sampson, Bella.'

'And did I say I did, miss?' Then, pouting again, with the curls in
her mouth; 'George Sampson was very fond of me, and admired me
very much, and put up with everything I did to him.'

'You were rude enough to him,' Lavinia again interposed.

'And did I say I wasn't, miss? I am not setting up to be sentimental
about George Sampson. I only say George Sampson was better
than nothing.'

'You didn't show him that you thought even that,' Lavinia again
interposed.

'You are a chit and a little idiot,' returned Bella, 'or you wouldn't
make such a dolly speech. What did you expect me to do? Wait
till you are a woman, and don't talk about what you don't
understand. You only show your ignorance!' Then, whimpering
again, and at intervals biting the curls, and stopping to look how
much was bitten off, 'It's a shame! There never was such a hard
case! I shouldn't care so much if it wasn't so ridiculous. It was
ridiculous enough to have a stranger coming over to marry me,
whether he liked it or not. It was ridiculous enough to know what
an embarrassing meeting it would be, and how we never could
pretend to have an inclination of our own, either of us. It was
ridiculous enough to know I shouldn't like him--how COULD I
like him, left to him in a will, like a dozen of spoons, with
everything cut and dried beforehand, like orange chips. Talk of
orange flowers indeed! I declare again it's a shame! Those
ridiculous points would have been smoothed away by the money,
for I love money, and want money--want it dreadfully. I hate to be
poor, and we are degradingly poor, offensively poor, miserably
poor, beastly poor. But here I am, left with all the ridiculous parts
of the situation remaining, and, added to them all, this ridiculous
dress! And if the truth was known, when the Harmon murder was
all over the town, and people were speculating on its being suicide,
I dare say those impudent wretches at the clubs and places made
jokes about the miserable creature's having preferred a watery
grave to me. It's likely enough they took such liberties; I shouldn't
wonder! I declare it's a very hard case indeed, and I am a most
unfortunate girl. The idea of being a kind of a widow, and never
having been married! And the idea of being as poor as ever after
all, and going into black, besides, for a man I never saw, and
should have hated--as far as HE was concerned--if I had seen!'

The young lady's lamentations were checked at this point by a
knuckle, knocking at the half-open door of the room. The knuckle
had knocked two or three times already, but had not been heard.

'Who is it?' said Mrs Wilfer, in her Act-of-Parliament manner.
'Enter!'

A gentleman coming in, Miss Bella, with a short and sharp
exclamation, scrambled off the hearth-rug and massed the bitten
curls together in their right place on her neck.

'The servant girl had her key in the door as I came up, and directed
me to this room, telling me I was expected. I am afraid I should
have asked her to announce me.'

'Pardon me,' returned Mrs Wilfer. 'Not at all. Two of my
daughters. R. W., this is the gentleman who has taken your first-
floor. He was so good as to make an appointment for to-night,
when you would be at home.'

A dark gentleman. Thirty at the utmost. An expressive, one might
say handsome, face. A very bad manner. In the last degree
constrained, reserved, diffident, troubled. His eyes were on Miss
Bella for an instant, and then looked at the ground as he addressed
the master of the house.

'Seeing that I am quite satisfied, Mr Wilfer, with the rooms, and
with their situation, and with their price, I suppose a memorandum
between us of two or three lines, and a payment down, will bind
the bargain? I wish to send in furniture without delay.'

Two or three times during this short address, the cherub addressed
had made chubby motions towards a chair. The gentleman now
took it, laying a hesitating hand on a corner of the table, and with
another hesitating hand lifting the crown of his hat to his lips, and
drawing it before his mouth.

'The gentleman, R. W.,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'proposes to take your
apartments by the quarter. A quarter's notice on either side.'

'Shall I mention, sir,' insinuated the landlord, expecting it to be
received as a matter of course, 'the form of a reference?'

'I think,' returned the gentleman, after a pause, 'that a reference is
not necessary; neither, to say the truth, is it convenient, for I am a
stranger in London. I require no reference from you, and perhaps,
therefore, you will require none from me. That will be fair on both
sides. Indeed, I show the greater confidence of the two, for I will
pay in advance whatever you please, and I am going to trust my
furniture here. Whereas, if you were in embarrassed
circumstances--this is merely supposititious--'

Conscience causing R. Wilfer to colour, Mrs Wilfer, from a corner
(she always got into stately corners) came to the rescue with a
deep-toned 'Per-fectly.'

'--Why then I--might lose it.'

'Well!' observed R. Wilfer, cheerfully, 'money and goods are
certainly the best of references.'

'Do you think they ARE the best, pa?' asked Miss Bella, in a low
voice, and without looking over her shoulder as she warmed her
foot on the fender.

'Among the best, my dear.'

'I should have thought, myself, it was so easy to add the usual kind
of one,' said Bella, with a toss of her curls.

The gentleman listened to her, with a face of marked attention,
though he neither looked up nor changed his attitude. He sat, still
and silent, until his future landlord accepted his proposals, and
brought writing materials to complete the business. He sat, still
and silent, while the landlord wrote.

When the agreement was ready in duplicate (the landlord having
worked at it like some cherubic scribe, in what is conventionally
called a doubtful, which means a not at all doubtful, Old Master),
it was signed by the contracting parties, Bella looking on as
scornful witness. The contracting parties were R. Wilfer, and John
Rokesmith Esquire.

When it came to Bella's turn to sign her name, Mr Rokesmith, who
was standing, as he had sat, with a hesitating hand upon the table,
looked at her stealthily, but narrowly. He looked at the pretty
figure bending down over the paper and saying, 'Where am I to go,
pa? Here, in this corner?' He looked at the beautiful brown hair,
shading the coquettish face; he looked at the free dash of the
signature, which was a bold one for a woman's; and then they
looked at one another.

'Much obliged to you, Miss Wilfer.'

'Obliged?'

'I have given you so much trouble.'

'Signing my name? Yes, certainly. But I am your landlord's
daughter, sir.'

As there was nothing more to do but pay eight sovereigns in
earnest of the bargain, pocket the agreement, appoint a time for the
arrival of his furniture and himself, and go, Mr Rokesmith did that
as awkwardly as it might be done, and was escorted by his
landlord to the outer air. When R. Wilfer returned, candlestick in
hand, to the bosom of his family, he found the bosom agitated.

'Pa,' said Bella, 'we have got a Murderer for a tenant.'

'Pa,' said Lavinia, 'we have got a Robber.'

'To see him unable for his life to look anybody in the face!' said
Bella. 'There never was such an exhibition.'

'My dears,' said their father, 'he is a diffident gentleman, and I
should say particularly so in the society of girls of your age.'

'Nonsense, our age!' cried Bella, impatiently. 'What's that got to do
with him?'

'Besides, we are not of the same age:--which age?' demanded
Lavinia.

'Never YOU mind, Lavvy,' retorted Bella; 'you wait till you are of
an age to ask such questions. Pa, mark my words! Between Mr
Rokesmith and me, there is a natural antipathy and a deep distrust;
and something will come of it!'

'My dear, and girls,' said the cherub-patriarch, 'between Mr
Rokesmith and me, there is a matter of eight sovereigns, and
something for supper shall come of it, if you'll agree upon the
article.'

This was a neat and happy turn to give the subject, treats being
rare in the Wilfer household, where a monotonous appearance of
Dutch-cheese at ten o'clock in the evening had been rather
frequently commented on by the dimpled shoulders of Miss Bella.
Indeed, the modest Dutchman himself seemed conscious of his
want of variety, and generally came before the family in a state of
apologetic perspiration. After some discussion on the relative
merits of veal-cutlet, sweetbread, and lobster, a decision was
pronounced in favour of veal-cutlet. Mrs Wilfer then solemnly
divested herself of her handkerchief and gloves, as a preliminary
sacrifice to preparing the frying-pan, and R. W. himself went out to
purchase the viand. He soon returned, bearing the same in a fresh
cabbage-leaf, where it coyly embraced a rasher of ham. Melodious
sounds were not long in rising from the frying-pan on the fire, or in
seeming, as the firelight danced in the mellow halls of a couple of
full bottles on the table, to play appropriate dance-music.

The cloth was laid by Lavvy. Bella, as the acknowledged
ornament of the family, employed both her hands in giving her hair
an additional wave while sitting in the easiest chair, and
occasionally threw in a direction touching the supper: as, 'Very
brown, ma;' or, to her sister, 'Put the saltcellar straight, miss, and
don't be a dowdy little puss.'

Meantime her father, chinking Mr Rokesmith's gold as he sat
expectant between his knife and fork, remarked that six of those
sovereigns came just in time for their landlord, and stood them in a
little pile on the white tablecloth to look at.

'I hate our landlord!' said Bella.

But, observing a fall in her father's face, she went and sat down by
him at the table, and began touching up his hair with the handle of
a fork. It was one of the girl's spoilt ways to be always arranging
the family's hair--perhaps because her own was so pretty, and
occupied so much of her attention.

'You deserve to have a house of your own; don't you, poor pa?'

'I don't deserve it better than another, my dear.'

'At any rate I, for one, want it more than another,' said Bella,
holding him by the chin, as she stuck his flaxen hair on end, 'and I
grudge this money going to the Monster that swallows up so much,
when we all want--Everything. And if you say (as you want to say;
I know you want to say so, pa) "that's neither reasonable nor
honest, Bella," then I answer, "Maybe not, pa--very likely--but it's
one of the consequences of being poor, and of thoroughly hating
and detesting to be poor, and that's my case." Now, you look
lovely, pa; why don't you always wear your hair like that? And
here's the cutlet! If it isn't very brown, ma, I can't eat it, and must
have a bit put back to be done expressly.'

However, as it was brown, even to Bella's taste, the young lady
graciously partook of it without reconsignment to the frying-pan,
and also, in due course, of the contents of the two bottles: whereof
one held Scotch ale and the other rum. The latter perfume, with
the fostering aid of boiling water and lemon-peel, diffused itself
throughout the room, and became so highly concentrated around
the warm fireside, that the wind passing over the house roof must
have rushed off charged with a delicious whiff of it, after buzzing
like a great bee at that particular chimneypot.

'Pa,' said Bella, sipping the fragrant mixture and warming her
favourite ankle; 'when old Mr Harmon made such a fool of me (not
to mention himself, as he is dead), what do you suppose he did it
for?'

'Impossible to say, my dear. As I have told you time out of number
since his will was brought to light, I doubt if I ever exchanged a
hundred words with the old gentleman. If it was his whim to
surprise us, his whim succeeded. For he certainly did it.'

'And I was stamping my foot and screaming, when he first took
notice of me; was I?' said Bella, contemplating the ankle before
mentioned.

'You were stamping your little foot, my dear, and screaming with
your little voice, and laying into me with your little bonnet, which
you had snatched off for the purpose,' returned her father, as if the
remembrance gave a relish to the rum; 'you were doing this one
Sunday morning when I took you out, because I didn't go the exact
way you wanted, when the old gentleman, sitting on a seat near,
said, "That's a nice girl; that's a VERY nice girl; a promising girl!"
And so you were, my dear.'

'And then he asked my name, did he, pa?'

'Then he asked your name, my dear, and mine; and on other
Sunday mornings, when we walked his way, we saw him again,
and--and really that's all.'

As that was all the rum and water too, or, in other words, as R. W.
delicately signified that his glass was empty, by throwing back his
head and standing the glass upside down on his nose and upper
lip, it might have been charitable in Mrs Wilfer to suggest
replenishment. But that heroine briefly suggesting 'Bedtime'
instead, the bottles were put away, and the family retired; she
cherubically escorted, like some severe saint in a painting, or
merely human matron allegorically treated.

'And by this time to-morrow,' said Lavinia when the two girls were
alone in their room, 'we shall have Mr Rokesmith here, and shall
be expecting to have our throats cut.'

'You needn't stand between me and the candle for all that,' retorted
Bella. 'This is another of the consequences of being poor! The
idea of a girl with a really fine head of hair, having to do it by one
flat candle and a few inches of looking-glass!'

'You caught George Sampson with it, Bella, bad as your means of
dressing it are.'

'You low little thing. Caught George Sampson with it! Don't talk
about catching people, miss, till your own time for catching--as
you call it--comes.'

'Perhaps it has come,' muttered Lavvy, with a toss of her head.

'What did you say?' asked Bella, very sharply. 'What did you say,
miss?'

Lavvy declining equally to repeat or to explain, Bella gradually
lapsed over her hair-dressing into a soliloquy on the miseries of
being poor, as exemplified in having nothing to put on, nothing to
go out in, nothing to dress by, only a nasty box to dress at instead
of a commodious dressing-table, and being obliged to take in
suspicious lodgers. On the last grievance as her climax, she laid
great stress--and might have laid greater, had she known that if Mr
Julius Handford had a twin brother upon earth, Mr John
Rokesmith was the man.

Charles Dickens