Read the first part of Charles Dickens and the Immortals.
‘Is he dead?’
‘I don’t know.’ A figure dressed in white knelt by the fallen man who was white, too. Snow covered him like a winding sheet, though his white face was lit by the moon. He looked like a marble effigy of himself. Other figures crowded in. They were all white, but their garments were recognisable as human clothes – clothes made of snow. The man who knelt wore a waistcoat, breeches and leggings and a hat on one side of his head.
‘I don’t want him to be dead. We can’t live without him.’ Another speaker robed in white. A girl with a thin face and large eyes which gleamed in the moonlight. She put out a white hand and touched the recumbent form tenderly. ‘Don’t die.’ Her voice was soft and sweet like the sound of icicles chiming in a winter night.
‘He can’t live without us, you mean. He needs us.’ A philosophic voice from the figure of a man, and where the face might be were two round discs like little glinting moons.
‘She means we’ll never live without him.’ A young man, slight of build whose arm was about a poor shambling boy who whispered, ‘We’ll die with him. My heart will break. It will. It will.’
‘No, Smike, there is always hope.’
‘I wanted to eat an’ eat an’ eat. Never to ’ave all them pies.’ The speaker sighed – a round form very like a portly snowman.
‘I want to be with him when I die.’ Crystals shone on the white face. The girl knelt beside the fallen man.
‘What might we have been?’ The young man looked at the face. It was too like a death mask. There was no hope.
‘What might he have been?’ The poor shambling boy’s voice broke with tears.
‘Immortal.’ So spoke the philosopher.
Charles Dickens thought he heard voices whispering; he felt the snow as gentle fingers on his face, but he had not the strength to rise. Sleep, he thought, only sleep. Sleep that certain knot of peace, the death of each day’s life – nothing mattered now but sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The Holly Tree Inn was tucked into a dip in the road, a low, white-washed building inside of which there was a parlour where the landlady, Mistress Emma Smart, served her famous dinners to passing travellers, those who came on the mail coach, those who rode by on their horses and those tramped on foot from market day in the little town. The landlord, Tom Smart, was known far and wide as a genial, warm, hospitable and, above all, charitable man. No traveller – poor as he or she might be - was ever turned away. Sometimes a woman with a child might beg a cup of water – Tom Smart asked no questions, but a couple of shillings and a piece of Mistress Smart’s famed pigeon pie might save them from the workhouse – that miserable edifice in the town’s main street where a woman with not a farthing, but with a child to feed must ask for shelter. Sometimes a tramping man might pass on his way to find work in the mills. He might entreat a crust – Mistress Smart and her charitable spouse would give more than that – a pot of ale and a plate of nourishing beef and that delicious, savoury batter pudding known as Yorkshire pudding.
But there had been no travellers on that snowy night. No mail coach had come for the roads were impassable. Tom Smart sat in his parlour by a roaring fire in the black range upon whose bars bubbled a pot of rabbit stew. A man of cheerful mien with beaming eyes and white hair at his ears, wearing a buff waistcoat across which lay a heavy gold watch chain.
Mistress Smart, equally cheerful in her white cap, put down her knitting and declared that it was time to go to bed. The hour was late and no traveller would come on a night such as this.
‘I’ll tek a squint outdoor, lass, see what snow is doin’.’
‘It’s fallin’, that’s what it’s doin’, lad, I can see it through the casement.’
‘Still, I’ll look.’
‘Tek thy pipe then, if tha must.’ She smiled at him, knowing well that he would like a few moments to puff his pipe and watch the falling snow and – just in case – make sure that there was no traveller who might freeze out there on the lonely road.
He opened the heavy door, pulling it towards him. Even he, the most phlegmatic of men, started back at the sight of the apparition before him. For a moment he thought it must be a ghost for it was white from top to toe and it looked at him with burning eyes, eyes that stared from a face as white as the snow which lay thick upon the ground. Tom Smart glanced beyond him; he thought he saw someone else, but there was no one, just the snow falling.
The figure stumbled forward. It uttered a word which sounded like ‘Pickwick’ and then collapsed into his arms.
‘Emma!’ shouted Tom Smart, ‘come quick – there’s a traveller. We mun get him in by the fire.’
The traveller was a slight, young man in his early twenties, perhaps. Tom Smart picked him up and turned to his wife who had hastened into the passage.
‘Blankets, brandy, the warming pans.’
Tom Smart carried the young man into the parlour and laid him gently on the settle near the fire. Mistress Emma came swiftly with the blankets and brandy. Together they removed the sodden clothes and boots and wrapped him as tight as could be. Tom moistened the blue lips with brandy and Mistress Emma chafed the frozen feet. Meantime, their young servant girl came in to fill the warming pans with hot coals.
‘Bessie Capstick, tek the pans and warm the bed upstairs and light the fire. Come down and tell me when it’s goin’ and the room’s warmed up.’
The night and morning were dreadful: the young man’s fever burned; he had been delirious, crying out for someone called Pickwick – his father, wondered Tom Smart. He had called for Nell, for Sam, for Joe, a fat boy, it seemed. Give him pie, he had cried. Then he seemed to think he was at the Golden Cross Inn – wherever that was. It was only when Tom Smart found a portmanteau on the doorstep and showed it to the patient that he became quieter.
The doctor came from the town on horseback, pronounced that the fever would reach its crisis and if he survived that, the young man would live. The fever broke and the patient was ready to take some hot pea and ham soup and then to sleep, a nourishing, restful sleep from which he awoke, restored, if somewhat weakened.
They learned that the young man was a writer from London. His name was Charles Dickens. He told them of the dilapidated coach and the strange driver and asked if Tom Smart had seen anyone when he had found him at the door of the inn.
Tom said not. But, privately, he wondered about the portmanteau which he had found neatly placed on the doorstep – it had not been there when the young man had stumbled in. His guest would have had to step over it, and he himself would have seen it. Someone else had put it there. He wondered about the ghostly figure he thought he had seen who might have been, except for his snowy whiteness, the kind of young man to be found employed as a boots at a coaching inn. But, it had only been a fleeting glimpse and the heavy falling snow could play tricks with the eye. Tales told by lost travellers on the moors proved that. There was a story told of a mysterious woman who walked the track of the old Roman road. Those who followed swore that she vanished as she crossed the main road, but it was not a female figure that he had seen, if it was anything at all.
Now, he thought, let’s say I didn’t see owt but snow, I didn’t see any white figure, but I did see that portmanteau on my step so ow’d it get theer? Why, someone must have put it theer – some passing farmer’s lad, some tramping man. He left it there.
Charles Dickens did not refer to Mr Pickwick again nor to the mysterious Nell or Sam or Joe, but Mr Sedgwick of Thorns Hall came to see him and after a few days, Mr Smithson of Malton came for him, and with many expressions of gratitude to his hosts, Mr Dickens departed.
In quiet moments when Tom Smart was drawing water from the well – pure, sweet water it was – or feeding his birds, or watching the road winding back to the town, he wondered sometimes about that ghostly mail coach and its driver – the driver who wasn’t George, the mail coach driver who so often stopped at The Holly Tree. And there had been no guard. Now that was a facer. Why not two on the mail coach as was always the case? And the description given by Mr Dickens was so eloquent and vivid – he must have been in that coach. He couldn’t have walked all the way from town – not on a night like that.
But, eventually, the memory faded like one of those dreams that leave just a faint echo once the night is over.
* * * * * * * * * * *
And the months passed: winter turned into a fresh spring with daffodils on the bank opposite and catkins on the willow branches. Travellers came and went, filled to satisfaction with beef and Yorkshire pudding, ham and eggs, salmon fresh from the river and refreshing ale. All was right with the world, thought Tom Smart, lifting his eyes to the hills on a sunny morning.
And then, later, before winter closed its iron grip, Mr and Mistress Smart went to the town for the market. Tom Smart idled at the booksellers whilst Mistress Emma bargained for her cheese, and he saw there the advertisements for a new work by Charles Dickens: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. That’s who the young man had meant by Pickwick He purchased a copy.
That night seated by his fire in the range, he began to read. He chuckled richly at the adventures of Pickwick, Tupman, Snodgrass and Winkle, laughing out loud at Jingle’s story of the woman who lost her head. But, he felt something very like the touch of an icy finger at his neck when he read about Sam Weller in his waistcoat and breeches and with his hat on the side of his head. And that finger at his neck travelled down his spine when he found The Story of the Bagman’s Uncle. There was Mr Dickens’s coach: the rusty ironwork, the worn paint and the lamp which was out. Even the coachman’s words were the same: You’re booked for one inside.
And there were the words of a certain fat boy: I wants to make your flesh creep. Well, he knew all about that.
‘A nice piece of pie?’ cried Mistress Emma from the kitchen.
‘Nay lass – I think I’ve lost me appetite.’
By J.C. Briggs