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Charles Dickens London - The Vestry Of St. George's Church

( Originally Published 1915 )



THE VESTRY OF ST. GEORGE'S CHURCH, SOUTHWARK, WHERE LITTLE DORRIT AND MAGGY PASSED THE NIGHT

"Is this the church where Little Dorrit slept on the pew cushions in the vestry?"

"It is," replied the "sexton or the beadle or the verger, or whatever he was."

"Can I come in and make a drawing of the room? Not now, but on any day most convenient to you and at an hour when I shall not disturb the church service."

"Well, I don't know whether you can or not," said the verger, or the beadle, or the sexton, "we have to be very careful particular careful. We came near being blowed up by a couple of crazy women carrying bombs or some-thing. Orders are very strict."

"If I were searched at the door, and my matchbox, scarf-pin, and penknife taken away from me, would it make any difference?"

"It might, and it mightn't. You'll have to ask the warden. You'll find him next to the fruiterer's across the way. There ain't but one, and you can't miss it."

"Can I see the vestry?"

"You can. Come in. It was over in the corner between the fireplace and the wall where they say they piled the cushions."

There is no use in my describing the room, my sketch tells the story.

Just at this juncture, a faded, half-sized little woman with a face as shrivelled as a last year's apple, one bird-claw hand gripping a dingy, black silk wrap, moved into the room. She had overheard my inquiry and wanted to be of assistance.

" I can tell you anything you want to know, sir. I've been here more than forty-six years. My name is---- and I am in charge of the outside work of--- " and she gave me her name and occupation, both of which I forget, and which, if I could remember, I would not put into print.

"This room," she continued, "is where all the business of the church is done, and there hasn't been a tuppence spent on it since I've been here; and it looks just as it did when I first came. So I suppose it is just the same as when Maggy and Little Dorrit spent the night over there. Step this way and I'll show you the very spot. Right here between this fender and the corner of that wall. Wait, I'll move the chair."

I warmed to her at once. She did not tell me that Mr. Dickens, who, as a boy, lived in this Borough and therefore knew the inside and outside of St. George's Church, Southwark, better than he did the inside and outside of St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey, and who, in casting about for some place where Little Dorrit could rest her weary feet, had recalled this same vestry, driving in, no doubt, from Gad's Hill (where the novel was finished) and so on across Southwark or London Bridge, stopping at the same steps at which my own cab was now waiting, and having asked for "the beadle or the verger or the sexton," just as I had asked, had, after refreshing his memory, returned home to develop the mental negative which his eyes had focussed.

No, the little, old, half-sized lady with the bird-claw hand and dried-apple face told me none of these things. She said, pointing to the corner just behind the armchair seen in my sketch, that " that was the very spot where Little Dorrit and Maggy had spent the night."

And she also said that the curious-looking tin scoop hanging on the wall just above the card in high light on which church notices were displayed was older than anybody knew and was still used to wash the communion service; that the double iron grating, patched and interlaced with wire, was put there a hundred or more years ago in order to protect the glass of the one window most wicked boys having smashed some panes in days gone by; that the table occupying part of the floor space was so antiquated that the memory of the oldest inhabitant was of no earthly and perhaps of no heavenly use vestrymen after death being some-times difficult to locate; that outside in the church (and would I please come with her) was the very font where Little Dorrit was baptised, and if I stepped a little nearer I could put my foot on the very spot in the carpet where she stood when she was married.

She regretted having to confess that of the Marshalsea, near by, from which Little Dorrit was shut out on that eventful night, nothing was now left except a small, narrow archway, on one side of which I should find a sign (she would go and point it out if she hadn't so much to do that morning) saying that it was "Angel Place, leading to Bermondsey," which, if I cared to explore, would lead me through a damp, narrow alley, where printing-presses pounded away one called the Marshalsea Press, could easily be read on a big lantern (the same as shown in my sketch) ; but that there was nothing else anywhere except buildings, all erected since Mr. Dickens's time, and even before Little Dorrit's creation, as could be proved by Mr. Dickens's own testimony in his preface to the novel itself.

"Some of my readers," he says (1857), "may have an interest in being informed whether or no any portions of the Marshalsea Prison are yet standing. I did not know, myself, until the sixth of the present month, when I went to look. I found the outer front court-yard, often mentioned in this story, metamorphosed into a butter-shop; and then I almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. . . But whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered, if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debt-ors lived; and will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years."

In the novel itself, when describing the prison as he knew it, in the days when his own father was confined within its walls, lie says :

"Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of St. George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshal-sea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterward; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it.

" It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excises or customs, who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door, closing up the second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles."

When the dear little old lady had bidden me farewell, I bowing her out in my best Chesterfieldian manner, holding one of the big doors wide open till she passed, I went again in search of the sexton or the verger or the beadle, but that ubiquitous person had suddenly become quite offish, and his suave, most obliging manner I mean his compound manner had disappeared. He listened attentively to what I had to say, made no reply, and became instantly interested in the inspection of some possible dust on a pew seat across the church. Not wishing to disturb him,

I began to roam about the interior, confirming the old lady's data, and, as his absence was prolonged, I opened my "Little Dorrit " and reread that portion of the novel in which the scene in the vestry is described the scene which was so real to the little old lady, and, now that I had seen the locality, so real to me.

"Three o'clock, and half-past three, and they had passed over London Bridge. They had heard the rush of the tide against obstacles; and looked down, awed, through the dark vapour on the river; had seen little spots of lighted water where the bridge lamps were reflected, shining like demon eyes, with a terrible fascination in them for guilt and misery. They had shrunk past homeless people, lying coiled up in nooks. They had run from drunkards. They had started from slinking men, whistling and signing to one another at bye corners, or running away at full speed. Though everywhere the leader and the guide, Little Dorrit, happy for once in her youthful appearance, feigned to cling to and rely upon Maggy. And more than once some voice, from among a knot of brawling or prowling figures in their path, had called out to the rest, to `let the woman and the child go by!'

"So, the woman and the child had gone by, and gone on, and five had sounded from the steeples. They were walking slowly towards the east, already looking for the first pale streak of day. . . . Going round by the church, she saw lights there, and the door open; and went up the steps, and looked in.

" `Who's that?' cried a stout old man, who was putting on a nightcap as if he were going to bed in a vault.

" ` It's no one particular, sir,' said Little Dorrit.

" `Stop!' cried the man. `Let's have a look at you!' "This caused her to turn back again, in the act of going out, and to present herself and her charge before him. " `I thought so!' said he. `I know you.'

" 'We have often seen each other,' said Little Dorrit, recognising the sexton, or the beadle, or the verger, or whatever he was, `when I have been at church here.'

" `More than that, we've got your birth in our Register, you know; you're one of our curiosities.'

" `Indeed?' said Little Dorrit.

" `To be sure. As the child of the by-the-bye, how did you get out so early?'

" 'We were shut out last night, and are waiting to get in.,

" `You don't mean it? And there's another hour good yet! Come into the vestry. You'll find a fire in the vestry, on account of the painters. I'm waiting for the painters, or I shouldn't be here, you may depend upon it. One of our curiosities mustn't be cold, when we have it in our power to warm her up comfortable. Come along... . Stay a bit. I'll get some cushions out of the church, and you and your friend shall lie down before the fire. Don't be afraid of not going in to join your father when the gate opens. I'll call you.'

"He soon brought in the cushions, and strewed them on the ground.

" `There you are, you see. Again as large as life. Oh, never mind thanking. I've daughters of my own. And though they weren't born in the Marshalsea Prison, they might have been, if I had been, in my ways of carrying on, of your father's breed. Stop a bit. I must put something under the cushion for your head. Here's a burial volume. Just the thing! We have got Mrs. Bangham in this book. But what makes these books interesting to most people is not who's in 'em, but who isn't who's coming, you know, and when. That's the interesting question.'

"Commendingly looking back at the pillow he had improvised, he left them to their hour's repose. Maggy was snoring already, and Little Dorrit was soon fast asleep."

When I had closed the book the compound gentleman ambled back, and before I could renew my inquiries began to voice certain difficulties insurmountable obstacles and impregnable barriers between me and my permit. The address, once so freely offered, of the fruiterer, under whose sheltering roof the Warden was to be found when off duty, and whose permission was so absolutely necessary to me, was not, now that he came to think it over, likely to be of any service. The Warden was a vagarious individual had numbers of places where he might or might not be found in fact, there was not any particular place in which he could with any certainty be found. The best way much the best way would be for me to give the beadle or the sexton or the verger my card, upon which would be written the date and hour of my proposed occupancy of the room in which Little Dorrit and Maggy were said to have slept (the reader will kindly note the distinction between his belief in the incident and that of the little old woman) ; he would then present the card himself, waiting up all night if necessary until the warden returned home, wherever that home happened to be, whether over the fruiterer's or else-where; and on the morrow I could return better make it in the afternoon say four o'clock, when he would hand me the answer.

And I did.

And this was it:

"Yes, the Warden has no objection. But he insists on one thing, and that is that you reward me handsomely be-fore you begin work."

And the painter did and was glad to considering how hard the industrious night-owl had worked dropping the coins in the outstretched palms of the sexton, the verger, or the beadle he cannot remember which, nor does he much care.

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