24DEC2021 – Quote of the Day – A Christmas Carol – Part 20

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (IN PROSE BEING, A Ghost Story of Christmas)

by Charles Dickens

(OCF editing – Part 20)

 

They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part

of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before,

although he recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The

ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched;

the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and

archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of

smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the

whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.

 

Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed,

beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags,

bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor

within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges,

files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets

that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in

mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and

sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a

charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal,

nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the

cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous

tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury

of calm retirement.

 

Scrooge and the Phantom came into the presence of this

man, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the

shop. But she had scarcely entered, when another woman,

similarly laden, came in too; and she was closely followed by

a man in faded black, who was no less startled by the sight

of them, than they had been upon the recognition of each

other. After a short period of blank astonishment, in which

the old man with the pipe had joined them, they all three

burst into a laugh.

 

“Let the charwoman alone to be the first!” cried she who

had entered first. “Let the laundress alone to be the second;

and let the undertaker’s man alone to be the third. Look

here, old Joe, here’s a chance! If we haven’t all three met

here without meaning it!”

 

“You couldn’t have met in a better place,” said old Joe,

removing his pipe from his mouth. “Come into the parlour.

You were made free of it long ago, you know; and the other

two an’t strangers. Stop till I shut the door of the shop.

Ah! How it skreeks! There an’t such a rusty bit of metal

in the place as its own hinges, I believe; and I’m sure there’s

no such old bones here, as mine. Ha, ha! We’re all suitable

to our calling, we’re well matched. Come into the

parlour. Come into the parlour.”

 

The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The

old man raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and

having trimmed his smoky lamp (for it was night), with the

stem of his pipe, put it in his mouth again.

 

While he did this, the woman who had already spoken

threw her bundle on the floor, and sat down in a flaunting

manner on a stool; crossing her elbows on her knees, and

looking with a bold defiance at the other two.

 

“What odds then! What odds, Mrs. Dilber?” said the

woman. “Every person has a right to take care of themselves.

He always did.”

 

“That’s true, indeed!” said the laundress. “No man

more so.”

 

“Why then, don’t stand staring as if you was afraid,

woman; who’s the wiser? We’re not going to pick holes in

each other’s coats, I suppose?”

 

“No, indeed!” said Mrs. Dilber and the man together.

“We should hope not.”

 

“Very well, then!” cried the woman. “That’s enough.

Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these?

Not a dead man, I suppose.”

 

“No, indeed,” said Mrs. Dilber, laughing.

 

“If he wanted to keep ’em after he was dead, a wicked old

screw,” pursued the woman, “why wasn’t he natural in his

lifetime? If he had been, he’d have had somebody to look

after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying

gasping out his last there, alone by himself.”

 

“It’s the truest word that ever was spoke,” said Mrs.

Dilber. “It’s a judgment on him.”

 

“I wish it was a little heavier judgment,” replied the

woman; “and it should have been, you may depend upon it,

if I could have laid my hands on anything else. Open that

bundle, old Joe, and let me know the value of it. Speak out

plain. I’m not afraid to be the first, nor afraid for them to

see it. We know pretty well that we were helping ourselves,

before we met here, I believe. It’s no sin. Open the bundle,

Joe.”

 

But the gallantry of her friends would not allow of this;

and the man in faded black, mounting the breach first,

produced his plunder. It was not extensive. A seal or two,

a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no

great value, were all. They were severally examined and

appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed

to give for each, upon the wall, and added them up into a

total when he found there was nothing more to come.

 

“That’s your account,” said Joe, “and I wouldn’t give

another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it.

Who’s next?”

 

Mrs. Dilber was next. Sheets and towels, a little wearing

apparel, two old-fashioned silver teaspoons, a pair of

sugar-tongs, and a few boots. Her account was stated on the wall

in the same manner.

 

“I always give too much to ladies. It’s a weakness of mine,

and that’s the way I ruin myself,” said old Joe. “That’s

your account. If you asked me for another penny, and made

it an open question, I’d repent of being so liberal and knock

off half-a-crown.”

 

“And now undo my bundle, Joe,” said the first woman.

 

Joe went down on his knees for the greater convenience

of opening it, and having unfastened a great many knots,

dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.

 

“What do you call this?” said Joe. “Bed-curtains!”

 

“Ah!” returned the woman, laughing and leaning forward

on her crossed arms. “Bed-curtains!”

 

“You don’t mean to say you took ’em down, rings and

all, with him lying there?” said Joe.

 

“Yes I do,” replied the woman. “Why not?”

 

“You were born to make your fortune,” said Joe, “and

you’ll certainly do it.”

 

“I certainly shan’t hold my hand, when I can get anything

in it by reaching it out, for the sake of such a man as He

was, I promise you, Joe,” returned the woman coolly. “Don’t

drop that oil upon the blankets, now.”

 

“His blankets?” asked Joe.

 

“Whose else’s do you think?” replied the woman. “He

isn’t likely to take cold without ’em, I dare say.”

 

“I hope he didn’t die of anything catching? Eh?” said

old Joe, stopping in his work, and looking up.

 

“Don’t you be afraid of that,” returned the woman. “I

an’t so fond of his company that I’d loiter about him for

such things, if he did. Ah! you may look through that

shirt till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor

a threadbare place. It’s the best he had, and a fine one too.

They’d have wasted it, if it hadn’t been for me.”

 

“What do you call wasting of it?” asked old Joe.

 

“Putting it on him to be buried in, to be sure,” replied

the woman with a laugh. “Somebody was fool enough to

do it, but I took it off again. If calico an’t good enough for

such a purpose, it isn’t good enough for anything. It’s quite

as becoming to the body. He can’t look uglier than he did

in that one.”

 

Scrooge listened to this dialogue in horror. As they sat

grouped about their spoil, in the scanty light afforded by

the old man’s lamp, he viewed them with a detestation and

disgust, which could hardly have been greater, though they

had been obscene demons, marketing the corpse itself.

 

“Ha, ha!” laughed the same woman, when old Joe,

producing a flannel bag with money in it, told out their

several gains upon the ground. “This is the end of it, you

see! He frightened every one away from him when he was

alive, to profit us when he was dead! Ha, ha, ha!”

 

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. “I

see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own.

My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is

this!”

Charles Dickens

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