Interest in London birds.--Our pet bird "Dick."--Devotion of his dogs.--Decision to visit America.--His arrival in New York.--Comments on American courtesies.--Farewell public appearances.
The warm affection which was so characteristic of my father toward people was also directed, as I have already told, towards animals and birds. A few further anecdotes occur to me, and I have ventured to give them here, before proceeding to tell of his visit to America, his readings, and the, to me, sad story of his last public appearance.
My father's quick and amusing observation of London birds and their habits, and of their fondness for "low company," is full of charm and quaint oddity. He writes: "That anything born of an egg and invested with wings should have got to the pass that it hops contentedly down a ladder into a cellar, and calls that going home, is a circumstance so amazing as to leave one nothing more in this connection to wonder at. I know a low fellow, originally of a good family from Dorking, who takes his whole establishment of wives in single file in at the door of the jug department of a disorderly tavern near the Haymarket, manoeuvres them among the company's legs, and emerges with them at the bottle entrance, seldom in the season going to bed before two in the morning. And thus he passes his life. But the family I am best acquainted with reside in the densest part of Bethnal Green. Their abstraction from the objects in which they live, or rather their conviction that these objects have all come into existence in express subservience to fowls, has so enchanted me that I have made them the subject of many journeys at divers hours. After careful observation of the two lords and of the ten ladies of whom this family consists, I have come to the conclusion that their opinions are represented by the leading lord and leading lady, the latter, as I judge, an aged personage, afflicted with a paucity of feather and visibility of quill that gives her the appearance of a bundle of office pens. They look upon old shoes, wrecks of kettles, saucepans and fragments of bonnets as a kind of meteoric discharge for fowls to peck at. Gaslight comes quite as natural to them as any other light; and I have more than a suspicion that in the minds of the two lords, the early public house at the corner has superseded the sun. They always begin to crow when the public house shutters begin to be taken down, and they salute the pot-boy the instant he appears to perform that duty, as if he were Phoebus in person."
During one of his walks through the slums, my father was so fascinated by the intelligence of a busy goldfinch drawing water for himself in his cage--he had other accomplishments as well--that he went in and bought it. But not a thing would the little bird do, not a trick would he perform when he got to his new home in Doughty Street, and would only draw up water in the dark or when he thought no one was looking. "After an interval of futile and at length hopeless expectation," my father writes, "the merchant who had educated him was appealed to. The merchant was a bow-legged character, with a flat and cushiony nose, like the last new strawberry. He wore a fur cap and shorts, and was of the velveteen race velveteeny. He sent word that he would 'look round.' He looked round, appeared in the doorway of the room, and slightly cocked up his evil eye at the goldfinch. Instantly a raging thirst beset the bird, and when it was appeased he still drew several unnecessary buckets of water, leaping about the perch and sharpening his bill with irrepressible satisfaction."
While at Broadstairs one summer, our bathing woman, who reared birds, gave a canary to my sister and myself. "Dick," who was only a few weeks old when he came to us, grew to be a very king of birds, and became in time a most important member of the household. There was a fierce war waged against cats during his lifetime, and writing from Boulogne my father very funnily describes our troubles with the feline race: "War is raging against two particularly tigerish and fearful cats (from the mill, I suppose), which are always glaring in dark corners after our wonderful little 'Dick.' Keeping the house open at all points it is impossible to shut them out, and they hide themselves in the most terrific manner, hanging themselves up behind draperies like bats, and tumbling out in the dead of night with frightful caterwaulings. Hereupon French, the footman, borrows a gun, loads it to the muzzle, discharges it twice in vain, and throws himself over with the recoil exactly like a clown. But at last, while I was in town, he aims at the more amiable cat of the two and shoots that animal dead. Insufferably elated by this victory he is now engaged from morning to night in hiding behind bushes to get aim at the other. He does nothing else whatever. All the boys encourage him and watch for the enemy, on whose appearance they give an alarm, which immediately serves as a warning to the creature, who runs away. They--the boys--are at this moment (ready dressed for church) all lying on their stomachs in various parts of the garden. I am afraid to go out lest I should be shot. Mr. Plornish, says his prayers at night in a whisper lest the cat should overhear him and take offence. The tradesmen cry out as they come up the avenue: 'Me Voici! C'est Moi--boulanger--me tirez pas, Monsieur Frenche!' It is like living in a state of siege, and the wonderful manner in which the cat preserves the character of being the only person not much put out by the intensity of this monomania is most ridiculous. The finest thing is that immediately after I have heard the noble sportsman blazing away at her in the garden in front I look out of my room door into the drawing-room and am pretty sure to see her coming in after the bird, in the calmest manner possible, by the back window." But no harm ever came to "our wonderful little 'Dick,'" who lived to a ripe old age--sixteen years--and was buried under a rose tree at "Gad's Hill."
On his return from his last visit to America he wrote a charming account of his welcome home by the dogs at "Gad's Hill." "As you ask me about the dogs, I begin with them. When I came down first I came to Gravesend, five miles off. The two Newfoundland dogs coming to meet me with the usual carriage and the usual driver, and beholding me coming in my usual dress out at the usual door, it struck me that their recollection of my having been absent for any unusual time was at once cancelled. They behaved (they are both young dogs) exactly in their usual manner, coming behind the basket phaeton as we trotted along and lifting their heads to have their ears pulled, a special attention which they received from no one else. But when I drove into the stableyard, 'Linda' was greatly excited; weeping profusely, and throwing herself on her back that she might caress my foot with her great forepaws. Mamie's little dog, too, 'Mrs. Bouncer,' barked in the greatest agitation on being called down and asked: 'Who is this?' tore round me, like the dog in the Faust outlines."
My father brought with him, on his return from his first visit to America, a small, shaggy Havana spaniel, which had been given to him and which he had named "Timber Doodle." He wrote of him: "Little doggy improves rapidly and now jumps over my stick at the word of command." "Timber," travelled with us in all our foreign wanderings, and while at Albaro the poor little fellow had a most unfortunate experience--an encounter of some duration with a plague of fleas. Father writes: "'Timber' has had every hair upon his body cut off because of the fleas, and he looks like the ghost of a drowned dog come out of a pond after a week or so. It is very awful to see him sidle into a room. He knows the change upon him, and is always turning-round and round to look for himself. I think he'll die of grief; it is to be hoped that the hair will grow again."
For many years my father's public readings were an important part of his life, and into their performance and preparation he threw the best energy of his heart and soul, practising and rehearsing at all times and places. The meadow near our home was a favorite place, and people passing through the lane, not knowing who he was, or what doing, must have thought him a madman from his reciting and gesticulation. The great success of these readings led to many tempting offers from the United States, which, as time went on, and we realized how much the fatigue of the readings together with his other work were sapping his strength, we earnestly opposed his even considering. However, after much discussion and deliberation he wrote to me on September 28th, 1867: "As I telegraphed after I saw you I am off to consult with Mr. Forster and Dolby together. You shall hear either on Monday or by Monday's post from London how I decide finally." Three days later: "You will have had my telegram that I go to America. After a long discussion with Forster and consideration of what is to be said on both sides, I have decided to go through with it, and have telegraphed 'yes' to Boston." There was, at first, some talk of my accompanying him, but when the programme of the tour was submitted to my father and he saw how much time must be devoted to business and how little, indeed almost no time could be given to sightseeing, this idea was given up.
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A farewell banquet was given him in London on the second of November, and on the ninth he sailed. A large party of us went to Liverpool to see him sail, and with heavy hearts to bid him farewell. In those days a journey to America was a serious matter, and we felt in our hearts that he was about to tax his health and strength too cruelly. And so he did.
Soon after reaching the United States, my father contracted a severe cold which never left him during his visit, and which caused him the greatest annoyance. I will give you a few quotations from his letters to show how pluckily he fought against his ailment and under what a strain he continued his work. On his arrival at New York on Christmas Day, in response to a letter of mine which awaited him there, he wrote: "I wanted your letter much, for I had a frightful cold (English colds are nothing to those of this country) and was very miserable." He adds to this letter, a day or two later: "I managed to read last night but it was as much as I could do. To-day I am so unwell that I have sent for a doctor." Again he writes: "It likewise happens, not seldom, that I am so dead beat when I come off the stage, that they lay me down on a sofa after I have been washed and dressed, and I lie there extremely faint for a quarter of an hour. In that time I rally and come right." Again: "On the afternoon of my birthday my catarrh was in such a state that Charles Sumner coming in at five o'clock and finding me covered with mustard poultices and apparently voiceless, turned to Dolby and said: 'Surely, Mr. Dolby, it is impossible that he can read to-night.' Says Dolby: 'Sir, I have told Mr. Dickens so four times to-day and I have been very anxious. But you have no idea how he will change when he gets to the little table.' After five minutes of the little table I was not, for the time, even hoarse. The frequent experience of this return of force when it is wanted saves me much anxiety, but I am not at times without the nervous dread that I may some day sink altogether."
But as a reward for his unstinted self-giving came the wonderful success of his tour, the pride and delight which he felt in the enthusiasm which greeted him everywhere, the personal affection lavished upon him, and the many dear friends he made. He writes from Boston, a propos of these rewards: "When we reached here last Saturday night we found that Mrs. Fields had not only garnished the room with flowers, but also with holly (with real red berries), and festoons of moss dependent from the looking-glasses and picture-frames. The homely Christmas look of the place quite affected us."
Later, from Washington: "I couldn't help laughing at myself on my birthday here; it was observed as much as though I were a little boy. Flowers and garlands of the most exquisite kind, arranged in all manner of green baskets, bloomed over the room; letters, radiant with good wishes, poured in. Also, by hands unknown, the hall at night was decorated; and after 'Boots at the Holly Tree Inn' the audience rose, great people and all, standing and cheering until I went back to the table and made them a little speech."
He wrote home constantly, giving frequent commissions for improvements at "Gad's Hill," to be made before his return. He was much impressed on his second visit, as on his first, I remember, with the beauty of the American women. "The ladies are remarkably handsome," he wrote.
In the autumn of 1869 he began a series of farewell readings, which were another heavy tax upon his health and strength. During his tour at this time he writes to Mr. Forster after some rather alarming symptoms had developed: "I told Beard, a year after the Staplehurst accident, that I was certain that my heart had been fluttered and wanted a little helping. This the stethoscope confirmed; and considering the immense exertion I am undergoing, and the constant jarring of express trains, the case seems to me quite intelligible. Don't say anything in the 'Gad's' direction about my being a little out of sorts. I have broached the matter, of course, but very lightly."
But even such warning as this failed to make him realize how much less was his strength, and with indomitable courage and spirit he continued his tour. The trouble in his feet increased, and his sufferings from this cause were very great. It became necessary at one time for him to have a physician in attendance upon him at every reading. But in spite of his perseverance, he became so ill that the readings had to be stopped.