‘Get you home, my dear sir. You should not be standing outside in this bitter weather. The coach is due soon and I shall shelter here in the doorway.’
Charles Dickens and his companion, a rather frail looking elderly man, were standing outside the King’s Arms Inn in a little Yorkshire market town. It was a bitter night, cold as a marble tomb, and as white, for it had snowed heavily. The rounded hills were white, the roofs were white and the narrow street was white and silent under the perfect circle of a white moon. It had been clear when they set out to walk from an old house called Thorns Hall to the inn where Dickens was to take the mail coach to Malton. Now clouds were moving in. It might snow again, thought Dickens. He hoped not.
‘Very well, my dear Dickens, I shall leave you. It has been a most pleasant few days and I have so enjoyed hearing your schemes for your new stories. I like the idea of your Mr Pickwick and I wish you great success in your endeavours. I’ll bid you goodnight – come north again soon.’
‘Surely, surely, not a grain of a doubt, Mr Sedgwick. And goodnight to you.’
Dickens watched the old man make his way along the narrow main street until he disappeared into the darkness. He stamped his feet and moved into the shelter of the doorway. It was devilishly cold. He looked up. There were great billows of cloud unfolding beneath the moon which lit up their edges. In the porch light, he looked at his pocket watch. Near eight o’clock – surely, the coach must come soon, though the snow might cause a delay, he supposed. He wanted to get on to Malton where the Smithsons expected him – Charles Smithson had been in training with him when the law had seemed a possible career. Not now – now he was fizzing with ideas. The publication of his first works the Sketches had been very successful, but now he was to try a book of adventures –The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.
He felt warmer as he thought about it. In his mind’s eye he could see Mr Pickwick as he had described him to old Mr Sedgwick – the bald head, the beaming eyes twinkling behind the circular spectacles, the tights, the gaiters.
But, it was only a temporary warmth. His feet were freezing. His watch told a quarter past the hour. Perhaps, he ought to go back inside. The ostler could tell him when the coach arrived, though the horn would sound loudly enough to give him warning.
The sound of a horse’s hooves. He looked out again. It was here. At last. But what a curious contraption it was. Like a mail coach from the last century. Certainly, a bit worn out – the iron work was rusty, the paint was worn away in parts, and one of the lamps seemed to be out. There was a thick layer of snow on the roof. The horse was black and when the moon shone again, he saw its wild white eyes, and black, shaggy mane. In all, it looked horribly like a dilapidated hearse on its way to a pauper funeral. Perhaps, it was a substitute for a better coach that had been overturned in the snow. Still, it would have to do.
‘Now then,’ said a voice, as Dickens felt a hand on his shoulder, ‘You’re booked for one inside. You’d better get in.’
Where had he sprung from? From the mail coach, obviously. Not from thin air – though the air was decidedly thin. And he was dressed as a mail guard, with a wig on his head- albeit a somewhat dusty one, and most enormous cuffs to his coat, a large if ragged garment which smelt of mildew. Dickens thought of the grave and shivered. The guard held a lantern in one hand which gave off a sickly yellow light which illuminated his face. Dickens thought of the grave again – a pale face, and bony, with a nose as sharp as a blade and black eyes that gleamed like polished jet, but had no expression. The eyes were all surface, he thought. The other hand held a large blunderbuss.
‘Now are you going to get in?’ The voice was hoarse, the voice of solitude and disuse like a voice underground – that sensation of the grave again. Dickens stepped back. He would stay, he thought, wait until the morning. Lord, it didn’t look safe at all. He thought of a blazing fire inside The King’s Arms, hot punch and a plate of steaming roast beef.
He turned to the door of the inn. There was the sound of bolts being driven home. Why were they closing so early? The porch light went out. Damnation. Locked out. He thought of knocking.
‘Are you going to get in, Charles Dickens?’
Was there a threat in that voice? He looked at the blunderbuss, the muzzle of which pointed at him. Highway robbery, he thought. Some highway. And a broken-down Dick Turpin. Pooh! Time to assert himself.
‘That’s familiar. Isn’t there a “Mister” before it?’ That’ll show him.
It did not. The black eyes stared. ‘No, there is not.’
Nothing for it but to get in. The smell of damp straw. A smell, he’d always hated. It reminded him of the lonely journey he had made as a boy from Rochester to London – packed and forwarded like game, carriage paid. He remembered eating his sandwiches in solitude and dreariness. As now – no other passengers. The weather, he supposed. No sandwiches this time. He couldn’t help thinking about the King’s Arms and the possibility of that hot beef.
The inside of the coach was as dismal as the outside. The seat on which he sat still had its cushions, but they were threadbare things and he could feel the hard wood beneath. The door linings had been stripped off, only a shred hanging here and there by a rusty nail and the snow which had collected on the roof dripped into the inside with a hollow and melancholy sound. No, I’ll get out and knock at the inn door. They’ll surely let me in.
Too late. The coach was moving off. He heard the church clock striking the hours – it seemed to go on and on. Past nine, ten - how could two hours? The sound went on – twice more. The church clock had struck midnight. It could not be. He had not stood in the lee of that doorway for almost four hours. Why, he would have been frozen solid. No, it was the cold interfering with the mechanism of the clock. Surely. He looked out. The snow was falling again and the street was deserted. Ghost town, he thought, traversed by a solitary coach with a solitary passenger and a solitary driver. He had not, he was sure now, seen anyone else. Only the cadaverous man who had come for him. Come for him only.
They were passing out of the town now and onto the road which passed Thorns Hall. He could get out. They were travelling slowly.
But his portmanteau was on top and inside it the manuscript of the first part of The Pickwick Papers. He couldn’t leave that behind. In any case, as if in answer to his thoughts, the coach was picking up speed. He saw as a blur the lane leading to Thorns Hall where a light winked and then went out. Farewell, it said.
The moon had vanished. There was only the fast whirling snow. The window slid down and great white flakes swirled in, settling on his coat, his hair, his eyes. He opened his mouth to shout out and snow filled it. The window wouldn’t move up again. He looked out. The snow turned into columns then it seemed to shape itself into ghostly figures. The air was full of snow phantoms crowding at the window, leaning in, touching him with icy fingers, whispering at his ears. It seemed almost as if they were trying to draw him out.
And sometimes there were faces, seen dimly through his snow-blind eyes – ghost faces of snow, shifting and wavering, merging into one face then dividing. Half faces became whole then multiplied and receded like the faces of the kings seen by Macbeth. And even odder – as if it were not odd enough – was that he half recognised them whilst at the same time the faces were those of strangers. It was like one of those dreams in which faces come at you – the faces of strangers whom, unaccountably, you recognise, knowing at the same time that you have never met them before. A dream of snow and wind.
The coach gained speed, rocking from side to side, the horse plunging into the darkness beyond. The phantoms dissolved, though he thought he heard the wind wailing. Follow, follow, the wind cried. He fumbled for the leather strap which hung from above, but it came away in his hand. He could only grip the edge of the seat to stop himself falling. He wanted to shout out – to tell the driver that he must slow down, but when he tried to, he saw the words float out of his mouth, snow words, hovering in the air as if they had been written by some ghostly hand.
The words wafted out of the window and were lost. The coach sped on and the world whirled by, white and blurred.
Then they seemed to slow down. Even the snow slowed. Great veils of snow fell like curtains descending. The curtains thinned and he could see through them to the black trees that lined the road, and beyond them he saw the great, dark curves of hills and above them the moon again. The snow stopped. The coach stopped. The world was still in the silver light.
He pushed open the door and jumped down to find himself thigh deep in snow and silence except for the horse snorting and neighing. He worked his way towards it. The coachman was just a black shape on his box.
‘What’s happened?’ His voice sounded too high and loud in the stillness.
‘Road’s blocked.’ That voice again. It emerged from some dark materials swathed round the head. It was impossible to see his face.
‘Can’t we go back? I can return to my friend’s house.’
‘Can’t never go back.’
‘What do you mean?’ He was frightened now. That voice – from the grave. The very voice of doom.
‘Never go back.’
‘But we can’t go on – you’ve said so.’
He felt desperate. Trapped in the snow with a madman. That’s what he was – a raving lunatic. Well, he wasn’t raving – a quiet lunatic. The worst kind. You never knew what the quiet ones might do. He thought of the blunderbuss. He’ll probably blow my head off. Be temperate, he told himself, be calm, reasonable. The breath he took brought the icy air into his mouth. It seemed to freeze there. He thought his heart might leap from his breast. Calmly, now. Courage, persevere.
‘Have you a lamp? A light.’ He wanted to see that face. To talk to a human creature – man to man.
‘Lights out.’ That sounded ominous.
He persisted. Reasonable. Calm. ‘What are we to do? Sleep in the coach until morning?’
‘Likely you’d perish. Walk on, Charles Dickens, walk on.’
‘But where to?’ He looked around at the empty fields and dark trees, and to the empty road ahead. The road to infinity, he thought. A road with no ending – only death.
‘There’s an inn yonder. The Holly Tree. They’ll take you in if …’
You can get there. Dickens silently filled in the end of the sentence.
‘And you? What will you do? Won’t you come with me?’ He didn’t want the man, but any company would be better than a solitary walk to – to - he didn’t know where. The Holly Tree might be a phantom inn
‘You go alone, Charles Dickens.’
Alone. Why did the word sound so ominous? The very word was like a knell.
‘But, my portmanteau. I need it.’
The portmanteau landed at his feet in a plume of snow. He picked it up. Not so heavy. Perhaps he’d manage. The clouds gathered again. The moon was veiled and snow began to fall. He turned to go.
‘Farewell, Charles Dickens.’
He looked back at the black coach and the black horse and the black figure on top. He raised his hand and began to walk on, pushing through the snow, gripping the handle of the portmanteau. There was a kind of comfort in holding on to the worn leather strap. That at least was real in a world in which there seemed to be no reality, only the dreamlike snow, and when he looked back, the black shapes becoming vaguer, as if some hand were rubbing them out. They were like faint pencil marks on white paper. Then they were gone.
The white world seemed to darken round him yet he seemed to see ahead something shimmering as if a light were beckoning him on.
The snow under the moon ahead of him. The moon falling from the sky. And the shimmering became shapes. Those snow phantoms ahead, leading him on into light. Death then, he thought. This is how it ends – before I’ve begun. What might I have been? A terrible sadness filled him. Tears froze on his face. All his hopes blasted, and yet he continued his way, stumbling towards that shimmering light.
What fate awaits Charles Dickens? Find out in Part 2, coming soon...
By J.C. Briggs