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Chapter 7

OUR NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOUR

We are very fond of speculating as we walk through a street, on the
character and pursuits of the people who inhabit it; and nothing so
materially assists us in these speculations as the appearance of
the house doors. The various expressions of the human countenance
afford a beautiful and interesting study; but there is something in
the physiognomy of street-door knockers, almost as characteristic,
and nearly as infallible. Whenever we visit a man for the first
time, we contemplate the features of his knocker with the greatest
curiosity, for we well know, that between the man and his knocker,
there will inevitably be a greater or less degree of resemblance
and sympathy.

For instance, there is one description of knocker that used to be
common enough, but which is fast passing away--a large round one,
with the jolly face of a convivial lion smiling blandly at you, as
you twist the sides of your hair into a curl or pull up your shirt-
collar while you are waiting for the door to be opened; we never
saw that knocker on the door of a churlish man--so far as our
experience is concerned, it invariably bespoke hospitality and
another bottle.

No man ever saw this knocker on the door of a small attorney or
bill-broker; they always patronise the other lion; a heavy
ferocious-looking fellow, with a countenance expressive of savage
stupidity--a sort of grand master among the knockers, and a great
favourite with the selfish and brutal.

Then there is a little pert Egyptian knocker, with a long thin
face, a pinched-up nose, and a very sharp chin; he is most in vogue
with your government-office people, in light drabs and starched
cravats; little spare, priggish men, who are perfectly satisfied
with their own opinions, and consider themselves of paramount
importance.

We were greatly troubled a few years ago, by the innovation of a
new kind of knocker, without any face at all, composed of a wreath
depending from a hand or small truncheon. A little trouble and
attention, however, enabled us to overcome this difficulty, and to
reconcile the new system to our favourite theory. You will
invariably find this knocker on the doors of cold and formal
people, who always ask you why you DON'T come, and never say DO.

Everybody knows the brass knocker is common to suburban villas, and
extensive boarding-schools; and having noticed this genus we have
recapitulated all the most prominent and strongly-defined species.

Some phrenologists affirm, that the agitation of a man's brain by
different passions, produces corresponding developments in the form
of his skull. Do not let us be understood as pushing our theory to
the full length of asserting, that any alteration in a man's
disposition would produce a visible effect on the feature of his
knocker. Our position merely is, that in such a case, the
magnetism which must exist between a man and his knocker, would
induce the man to remove, and seek some knocker more congenial to
his altered feelings. If you ever find a man changing his
habitation without any reasonable pretext, depend upon it, that,
although he may not be aware of the fact himself, it is because he
and his knocker are at variance. This is a new theory, but we
venture to launch it, nevertheless, as being quite as ingenious and
infallible as many thousands of the learned speculations which are
daily broached for public good and private fortune-making.

Entertaining these feelings on the subject of knockers, it will be
readily imagined with what consternation we viewed the entire
removal of the knocker from the door of the next house to the one
we lived in, some time ago, and the substitution of a bell. This
was a calamity we had never anticipated. The bare idea of anybody
being able to exist without a knocker, appeared so wild and
visionary, that it had never for one instant entered our
imagination.

We sauntered moodily from the spot, and bent our steps towards
Eaton-square, then just building. What was our astonishment and
indignation to find that bells were fast becoming the rule, and
knockers the exception! Our theory trembled beneath the shock. We
hastened home; and fancying we foresaw in the swift progress of
events, its entire abolition, resolved from that day forward to
vent our speculations on our next-door neighbours in person. The
house adjoining ours on the left hand was uninhabited, and we had,
therefore, plenty of leisure to observe our next-door neighbours on
the other side.

The house without the knocker was in the occupation of a city
clerk, and there was a neatly-written bill in the parlour window
intimating that lodgings for a single gentleman were to be let
within.

It was a neat, dull little house, on the shady side of the way,
with new, narrow floorcloth in the passage, and new, narrow stair-
carpets up to the first floor. The paper was new, and the paint
was new, and the furniture was new; and all three, paper, paint,
and furniture, bespoke the limited means of the tenant. There was
a little red and black carpet in the drawing-room, with a border of
flooring all the way round; a few stained chairs and a pembroke
table. A pink shell was displayed on each of the little
sideboards, which, with the addition of a tea-tray and caddy, a few
more shells on the mantelpiece, and three peacock's feathers
tastefully arranged above them, completed the decorative furniture
of the apartment.

This was the room destined for the reception of the single
gentleman during the day, and a little back room on the same floor
was assigned as his sleeping apartment by night.

The bill had not been long in the window, when a stout, good-
humoured looking gentleman, of about five-and-thirty, appeared as a
candidate for the tenancy. Terms were soon arranged, for the bill
was taken down immediately after his first visit. In a day or two
the single gentleman came in, and shortly afterwards his real
character came out.

First of all, he displayed a most extraordinary partiality for
sitting up till three or four o'clock in the morning, drinking
whiskey-and-water, and smoking cigars; then he invited friends
home, who used to come at ten o'clock, and begin to get happy about
the small hours, when they evinced their perfect contentment by
singing songs with half-a-dozen verses of two lines each, and a
chorus of ten, which chorus used to be shouted forth by the whole
strength of the company, in the most enthusiastic and vociferous
manner, to the great annoyance of the neighbours, and the special
discomfort of another single gentleman overhead.

Now, this was bad enough, occurring as it did three times a week on
the average, but this was not all; for when the company DID go
away, instead of walking quietly down the street, as anybody else's
company would have done, they amused themselves by making alarming
and frightful noises, and counterfeiting the shrieks of females in
distress; and one night, a red-faced gentleman in a white hat
knocked in the most urgent manner at the door of the powdered-
headed old gentleman at No. 3, and when the powdered-headed old
gentleman, who thought one of his married daughters must have been
taken ill prematurely, had groped down-stairs, and after a great
deal of unbolting and key-turning, opened the street door, the red-
faced man in the white hat said he hoped he'd excuse his giving him
so much trouble, but he'd feel obliged if he'd favour him with a
glass of cold spring water, and the loan of a shilling for a cab to
take him home, on which the old gentleman slammed the door and went
up-stairs, and threw the contents of his water jug out of window--
very straight, only it went over the wrong man; and the whole
street was involved in confusion.

A joke's a joke; and even practical jests are very capital in their
way, if you can only get the other party to see the fun of them;
but the population of our street were so dull of apprehension, as
to be quite lost to a sense of the drollery of this proceeding:
and the consequence was, that our next-door neighbour was obliged
to tell the single gentleman, that unless he gave up entertaining
his friends at home, he really must be compelled to part with him.

The single gentleman received the remonstrance with great good-
humour, and promised from that time forward, to spend his evenings
at a coffee-house--a determination which afforded general and
unmixed satisfaction.

The next night passed off very well, everybody being delighted with
the change; but on the next, the noises were renewed with greater
spirit than ever. The single gentleman's friends being unable to
see him in his own house every alternate night, had come to the
determination of seeing him home every night; and what with the
discordant greetings of the friends at parting, and the noise
created by the single gentleman in his passage up-stairs, and his
subsequent struggles to get his boots off, the evil was not to be
borne. So, our next-door neighbour gave the single gentleman, who
was a very good lodger in other respects, notice to quit; and the
single gentleman went away, and entertained his friends in other
lodgings.

The next applicant for the vacant first floor, was of a very
different character from the troublesome single gentleman who had
just quitted it. He was a tall, thin, young gentleman, with a
profusion of brown hair, reddish whiskers, and very slightly
developed moustaches. He wore a braided surtout, with frogs
behind, light grey trousers, and wash-leather gloves, and had
altogether rather a military appearance. So unlike the roystering
single gentleman. Such insinuating manners, and such a delightful
address! So seriously disposed, too! When he first came to look
at the lodgings, he inquired most particularly whether he was sure
to be able to get a seat in the parish church; and when he had
agreed to take them, he requested to have a list of the different
local charities, as he intended to subscribe his mite to the most
deserving among them.

Our next-door neighbour was now perfectly happy. He had got a
lodger at last, of just his own way of thinking--a serious, well-
disposed man, who abhorred gaiety, and loved retirement. He took
down the bill with a light heart, and pictured in imagination a
long series of quiet Sundays, on which he and his lodger would
exchange mutual civilities and Sunday papers.

The serious man arrived, and his luggage was to arrive from the
country next morning. He borrowed a clean shirt, and a prayer-
book, from our next-door neighbour, and retired to rest at an early
hour, requesting that he might be called punctually at ten o'clock
next morning--not before, as he was much fatigued.

He WAS called, and did not answer: he was called again, but there
was no reply. Our next-door neighbour became alarmed, and burst
the door open. The serious man had left the house mysteriously;
carrying with him the shirt, the prayer-book, a teaspoon, and the
bedclothes.

Whether this occurrence, coupled with the irregularities of his
former lodger, gave our next-door neighbour an aversion to single
gentlemen, we know not; we only know that the next bill which made
its appearance in the parlour window intimated generally, that
there were furnished apartments to let on the first floor. The
bill was soon removed. The new lodgers at first attracted our
curiosity, and afterwards excited our interest.

They were a young lad of eighteen or nineteen, and his mother, a
lady of about fifty, or it might be less. The mother wore a
widow's weeds, and the boy was also clothed in deep mourning. They
were poor--very poor; for their only means of support arose from
the pittance the boy earned, by copying writings, and translating
for booksellers.

They had removed from some country place and settled in London;
partly because it afforded better chances of employment for the
boy, and partly, perhaps, with the natural desire to leave a place
where they had been in better circumstances, and where their
poverty was known. They were proud under their reverses, and above
revealing their wants and privations to strangers. How bitter
those privations were, and how hard the boy worked to remove them,
no one ever knew but themselves. Night after night, two, three,
four hours after midnight, could we hear the occasional raking up
of the scanty fire, or the hollow and half-stifled cough, which
indicated his being still at work; and day after day, could we see
more plainly that nature had set that unearthly light in his
plaintive face, which is the beacon of her worst disease.

Actuated, we hope, by a higher feeling than mere curiosity, we
contrived to establish, first an acquaintance, and then a close
intimacy, with the poor strangers. Our worst fears were realised;
the boy was sinking fast. Through a part of the winter, and the
whole of the following spring and summer, his labours were
unceasingly prolonged: and the mother attempted to procure needle-
work, embroidery--anything for bread.

A few shillings now and then, were all she could earn. The boy
worked steadily on; dying by minutes, but never once giving
utterance to complaint or murmur.

One beautiful autumn evening we went to pay our customary visit to
the invalid. His little remaining strength had been decreasing
rapidly for two or three days preceding, and he was lying on the
sofa at the open window, gazing at the setting sun. His mother had
been reading the Bible to him, for she closed the book as we
entered, and advanced to meet us.

'I was telling William,' she said, 'that we must manage to take him
into the country somewhere, so that he may get quite well. He is
not ill, you know, but he is not very strong, and has exerted
himself too much lately.' Poor thing! The tears that streamed
through her fingers, as she turned aside, as if to adjust her close
widow's cap, too plainly showed how fruitless was the attempt to
deceive herself.

We sat down by the head of the sofa, but said nothing, for we saw
the breath of life was passing gently but rapidly from the young
form before us. At every respiration, his heart beat more slowly.

The boy placed one hand in ours, grasped his mother's arm with the
other, drew her hastily towards him, and fervently kissed her
cheek. There was a pause. He sunk back upon his pillow, and
looked long and earnestly in his mother's face.

'William, William!' murmured the mother, after a long interval,
'don't look at me so--speak to me, dear!'

The boy smiled languidly, but an instant afterwards his features
resolved into the same cold, solemn gaze.

'William, dear William! rouse yourself; don't look at me so, love--
pray don't! Oh, my God! what shall I do!' cried the widow,
clasping her hands in agony--'my dear boy! he is dying!' The boy
raised himself by a violent effort, and folded his hands together--
'Mother! dear, dear mother, bury me in the open fields--anywhere
but in these dreadful streets. I should like to be where you can
see my grave, but not in these close crowded streets; they have
killed me; kiss me again, mother; put your arm round my neck--'

He fell back, and a strange expression stole upon his features; not
of pain or suffering, but an indescribable fixing of every line and
muscle.

The boy was dead.

Charles Dickens