Fondness for Athletic Sports.--His love of bathing.--His study of the raven.--Calling the doctor in.--My father with our dogs.--The cats of "Gad's Hill."--"Bumble" and "Mrs. Bouncer."--A strange friendship.
As a child my father was prevented from any active participation in the sports and amusements of his boyish companions by his extreme delicacy and frequent illnesses, so that until his manhood his knowledge of games was gained merely from long hours of watching others while lying upon the grass. With manhood, however, came the strength and activity which enabled him to take part in all kinds of outdoor exercise and sports, and it seemed that in his passionate enjoyment and participation in those later years he was recompensed for the weary childhood years of suffering and inability. Athletic sports were a passion with him in his manhood, as I have said. In 1839 he rented a cottage at Petersham, not far from London "where," to quote from Mr. Forster, "the extensive garden grounds admitted of much athletic competition, in which Dickens, for the most part, held his own against even such accomplished athletes as Maclise and Mr. Beard. Bar leaping, bowling and quoits were among the games carried on with the greatest ardor, and in sustained energy Dickens certainly distanced every competitor. Even the lighter recreations of battledore and bagatelle were pursued with relentless activity. At such amusements as the Petersham races, in those days rather celebrated, and which he visited daily while they lasted, he worked much harder than the running horses did."
Riding was a favorite recreation at all times with my father, and he was constantly inviting one or another of his friends to bear him company on these excursions. Always fond, in his leisure hours, of companions, he seemed to find his rides and walks quite incomplete if made alone. He writes on one occasion: "What think you of a fifteen-mile ride out, ditto in, and a lunch on the road, with a wind-up of six o'clock dinner in Doughty Street?" And again: "Not knowing whether my head was off or on, it became so addled with work, I have gone riding over the old road, and shall be truly delighted to meet or be overtaken by you." As a young man he was extremely fond of riding, but as I never remember seeing him on horseback I think he must have deprived himself of this pastime soon after his marriage.
But walking was, perhaps, his chiefest pleasure, and the country lanes and city streets alike found him a close observer of their beauties and interests. He was a rapid walker, his usual pace being four miles an hour, and to keep step with him required energy and activity similar to his own. In many of his letters he speaks with most evident enjoyment of this pastime. In one he writes: "What a brilliant morning for a country walk! I start precisely--precisely, mind--at half-past one. Come, come, come and walk in the green lanes!" Again: "You don't feel disposed, do you, to muffle yourself up and start off with me for a good, brisk walk over Hampstead Heath?"
Outdoor games of the simpler kinds delighted him. Battledore and shuttlecock was played constantly in the garden at Devonshire Terrace, though I do not remember my father ever playing it elsewhere. The American game of bowls pleased him, and rounders found him more than expert. Croquet he disliked, but cricket he enjoyed intensely as a spectator, always keeping one of the scores during the matches at "Gad's Hill."
He was a firm believer in the hygiene of bathing, and cold baths, sea baths and shower baths were among his most constant practices. In those days scientific ablution was not very generally practised, and I am sure that in many places during his travels my father was looked upon as an amiable maniac with a penchant for washing.
During his first visit to America, while he was making some journey in a rather rough and uncomfortable canal boat, he wrote: "I am considered very hardy in the morning, for I run up barenecked and plunge my head into the half-frozen water by half-past five o'clock. I am respected for my activity, inasmuch as I jump from the boat to the towing path, and walk five or six miles before breakfast, keeping up with the horses all the time." And from Broadstairs: "In a bay window sits, from nine o'clock to one, a gentleman with rather long hair and no neckcloth, who writes and grins as if he thought he were very funny, indeed. At one o'clock he disappears, presently emerges from a bathing machine, and may be seen a kind of salmon-colored porpoise, splashing about in the ocean. After that, he may be viewed in another bay window on the ground floor, eating a good lunch; and after that, walking a dozen miles or so, or lying on his back on the sand reading. Nobody bothers him, unless they know he is disposed to be talked to; and I am told he is very comfortable, indeed."
During the hottest summer months of our year's residence in Italy, we lived at a little seaport of the Mediterranean called Albaro. The bathing here was of the most primitive kind, one division of the clear, dark-blue pools among the rocks being reserved for women, the other for men, and as we children were as much at home in the water as any known variety of fish, we used to look with wonder at the so-called bathing of the Italian women. They would come in swarms, beautifully dressed, and with most elaborately arranged heads of hair, but the slightest of wettings with them was the equivalent of a bath. In the open bay at Albaro the current was very strong, and the bathing most dangerous to even an experienced swimmer. I remember one morning the terrible fright we were given by an uncle of ours; he swam out into the bay, was caught by the current of an ebb tide and borne out of reach of our eyes. A fishing boat picked him up still alive, though greatly exhausted. "It was a world of horror and anguish crowded into four or five minutes of dreadful agitation," wrote my father, "and to complete the terror of it the entire family, including the children, were on the rock in full view of it all, crying like mad creatures."
He loved animals, flowers and birds, his fondness for the latter being shown nowhere more strongly than in his devotion to his ravens at Devonshire Terrace. He writes characteristically of the death of "Grip," the first raven: "You will be greatly shocked and grieved to hear that the raven is no more. He expired to-day at a few minutes after twelve o'clock, at noon. He had been ailing for a few days, but we anticipated no serious result, conjecturing that a portion of the white paint he swallowed last summer might be lingering about his vitals. Yesterday afternoon he was taken so much worse that I sent an express for the medical gentleman, who promptly attended and administered a powerful dose of castor oil. Under the influence of this medicine he recovered so far as to be able, at eight o'clock, p.m., to bite Topping (the coachman). His night was peaceful. This morning, at daybreak, he appeared better, and partook plentifully of some warm gruel, the flavor of which he appeared to relish. Toward eleven o'clock he was so much worse that it was found necessary to muffle the stable knocker. At half-past, or thereabouts, he was heard talking to himself about the horse and Topping's family, and to add some incoherent expressions which are supposed to have been either a foreboding of his approaching dissolution or some wishes relative to the disposal of his little property, consisting chiefly of half-pence which he had buried in different parts of the garden. On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach house, stopped to bark, staggered, and exclaimed 'Halloa, old girl!' (his favorite expression) and died. He behaved throughout with decent fortitude, equanimity and self-possession. I deeply regret that, being in ignorance of his danger, I did not attend to receive his last instructions.
"Something remarkable about his eyes occasioned Topping to run for the doctor at twelve. When they returned together, our friend was gone. It was the medical gentleman who informed me of his decease. He did it with caution and delicacy, preparing me by the remark that 'a jolly queer start had taken place.' I am not wholly free from suspicions of poison. A malicious butcher has been heard to say that he would 'do' for him. His plea was that he would not be molested in taking orders down the mews by any bird that wore a tail. Were they ravens who took manna to somebody in the wilderness? At times I hope they were, and at others I fear they were not, or they would certainly have stolen it by the way. Kate is as well as can be expected. The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles, but that was in play." As my father was writing "Barnaby Rudge" at this time, and wished to continue his study of raven nature, another and a larger "Grip" took the place of "our friend" but it was he whose talking tricks and comical ways gave my father the idea of making a raven one of the characters in this book. My father's fondness for "Grip" was, however, never transferred to any other raven, and none of us ever forgave the butcher whom we all held in some way responsible for his untimely taking off.
But I think his strongest love, among animals, was for dogs. I find a delightful anecdote told by him of a dog belonging to a lady whom he knew well, "Of," an immense, black, good-humored, Newfoundland dog. He came from Oxford and had lived all his life in a brewery. Instructions were given with him that if he were let out every morning alone he would immediately find out the river, regularly take a swim and come gravely home again. This he did with the greatest punctuality, but after a little while was observed to smell of beer. His owner was so sure that he smelled of beer that she resolved to watch him. He was seen to come back from his swim round the usual corner and to go up a flight of steps into a beer shop. Being instantly followed, the beer shopkeeper is seen to take down a pot (pewter pot) and is heard to say: "Well, old chap, come for your beer as usual, have you?" Upon which he draws a pint and puts it down and the dog drinks it. Being required to explain how this comes to pass the man says: "Yes, ma'am. I know he's your dog, ma'am, but I didn't when he first came. He looked in, ma'am, as a brick-maker might, and then he come in, as a brickmaker might, and he wagged his tail at the pots, and he giv a sniff round and conveyed to me as he was used to beer. So I draw'd him a drop, and he drunk it up. Next morning he come agen by the clock and I draw'd him a pint, and ever since he has took his pint reg'lar."
On account of our birds, cats were not allowed in the house; but from a friend in London I received a present of a white kitten--Williamina--and she and her numerous offspring had a happy home at "Gad's Hill." She became a favorite with all the household, and showed particular devotion to my father. I remember on one occasion when she had presented us with a family of kittens, she selected a corner of father's study for their home. She brought them one by one from the kitchen and deposited them in her chosen corner. My father called to me to remove them, saying that he could not allow the kittens to remain in his room. I did so, but Williamina brought them back again, one by one. Again they were removed. The third time, instead of putting them in the corner, she placed them all, and herself beside them, at my father's feet, and gave him such an imploring glance that he could resist no longer, and they were allowed to remain. As the kittens grew older they became more and more frolicsome, swarming up the curtains, playing about on the writing table and scampering behind the book shelves. But they were never complained of and lived happily in the study until the time came for finding them other homes. One of these kittens was kept, who, as he was quite deaf, was left unnamed, and became known by the servants as "the master's cat," because of his devotion to my father. He was always with him, and used to follow him about the garden like a dog, and sit with him while he wrote. One evening we were all, except father, going to a ball, and when we started, left "the master" and his cat in the drawing-room together. "The master" was reading at a small table, on which a lighted candle was placed. Suddenly the candle went out. My father, who was much interested in his book, relighted the candle stroked the cat, who was looking at him pathetically he noticed, and continued his reading. A few minutes later, as the light became dim, he looked up just in time to see puss deliberately put out the candle with his paw, and then look appealingly toward him. This second and unmistakable hint was not disregarded, and puss was given the petting he craved. Father was full of this anecdote when all met at breakfast the next morning.
Among our dogs were "Turk" and "Linda," the former a beautiful mastiff and the latter a soft-eyed, gentle, good-tempered St. Bernard. "Mrs. Bouncer," a Pomeranian, came next, a tiny ball of white fluffy fur, who came as a special gift to me, and speedily won her way by her grace and daintiness into the affections of every member of the household. My father became her special slave, and had a peculiar voice for her--as he had for us, when we were children--to which she would respond at once by running to him from any part of the house when she heard his call. He delighted to see her with the large dogs, with whom she gave herself great airs, "because," as he said, "she looks so preposterously small." A few years later came "Don," a Newfoundland, and then "Bumble," his son, named after "Oliver Twist's" beadle, because of "a peculiarly pompous and overbearing manner he had of appearing to mount guard over the yard when he was an absolute infant." Lastly came "Sultan," an Irish bloodhound, who had a bitter experience with his life at "Gad's Hill." One evening, having broken his chain, he fell upon a little girl who was passing and bit her so severely that my father considered it necessary to have him shot, although this decision cost him a great deal of sorrow.
For a short time I had the care of a mongrel called "Gipsy." She was not allowed to enter any of the family rooms, and used to spend her time lying contentedly on the rug outside the drawing-room. One afternoon a friend came from Chatham bringing with him a wonderful poodle who had been specially invited to perform all his tricks for my father's enjoyment. On his arrival, "Mrs. Bouncer" became furious, and when he began his tricks she went deliberately into the hall and escorted "Gipsy" into the drawing-room, as much as to say: "I can't stand this. If strange dogs are to be made much of, surely the dogs in the house may be at least permitted to enter the room." She would not look at "Fosco," the poodle, but sat throughout his performance with her back toward him, the picture of offended dignity. Just as soon, however, as he was fairly out of the house, and not until then, she escorted "Gipsy" back to her rug. My father was intensely amused by this behaviour of "Bouncer's" and delighted in telling this story about her.
"Mrs. Bouncer" was honored by many messages from her master during his absences from home. Here is one written as I was convalescing from a serious illness: "In my mind's eye I behold 'Mrs. Bouncer,' still with some traces of anxiety on her faithful countenance, balancing herself a little unequally on her forelegs, pricking up her ears with her head on one side, and slightly opening her intellectual nostrils. I send my loving and respectful duty to her." Again: "Think of my dreaming of 'Mrs. Bouncer,' each night!!!"
My father's love for dogs led him into a strange friendship during our stay at Boulogne. There lived in a cottage on the street which led from our house to the town, a cobbler who used to sit at his window working all day with his dog--a Pomeranian--on the table beside him. The cobbler, in whom my father became very much interested because of the intelligence of his Pomeranian companion, was taken ill, and for many months was unable to work. My father writes: "The cobbler has been ill these many months. The little dog sits at the door so unhappy and anxious to help that I every day expect to see him beginning a pair of top boots." Another time father writes in telling the history of this little animal: "A cobbler at Boulogne, who had the nicest of little dogs that always sat in his sunny window watching him at his work, asked me if I would bring the dog home as he couldn't afford to pay the tax for him. The cobbler and the dog being both my particular friends I complied. The cobbler parted with the dog heartbroken. When the dog got home here, my man, like an idiot as he is, tied him up and then untied him. The moment the gate was open, the dog (on the very day after his arrival) ran out. Next day Georgy and I saw him lying all covered with mud, dead, outside the neighbouring church. How am I ever to tell the cobbler? He is too poor to come to England, so I feel that I must lie to him for life, and say that the dog is fat and happy."
Of horses and ponies we possessed but few during our childhood, and these were not of very choice breed. I remember, however, one pretty pony which was our delight, and dear old "Toby," the good sturdy horse which for many years we used at "Gad's Hill." My father, however, was very fond of horses, and I recall hearing him comment on the strange fact that an animal "so noble in its qualities should be the cause of so much villainy."
* * * * *
Miss Dickens' Pomeranian.
Furry, lazy, warm and bright, Peeing from her fringe of white, She blinks and sleeps both day and night,
A happy Spitz!
She need not fear the cruel stick, Nor has she learnt a single trick-- Just deigns her mistress' hand to lick,
As she knits.
She eats, and drinks, and eats again, Is never out in wind or rain,-- Takes many a journey in the train,
And her admits.
She has her own coquettish charms, Knows no sorrows, no alarms, And dozes in her mistress' arms--
A sleepy Spitz.
How small and piquant are her feet-- Ben Allen's sister had as neat-- She looks so saucy, one could beat
Her into fits.
Quite ravishing when neat and clean, Her cars seem lined with crinoline: She rules the house, a haughty queen,
A saucy Spitz!
Just tolerates the frequent hug-- Snoozing all day upon the rug, Complacent, philosophic--snug,
Her paws like mits.
At dinner--ah! that pleasant Babel! Touch her paw beneath the table, She'd bite your foot--were she but able--
A naughty Spitz.
To find her mistress how she flew! Faithful the coming step she knew Let others be as brave and true--
Lords or Wits!
When SULTAN, TURK, and LINDA fleet The lost lov'd Master rushed to meet, His kindly voice would always greet
The little Spitz!
Alas! so furry, warm, and white, From this cold world she took her flight, No more on rug, by fireside bright,
Dear BOUNCER sits.