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Charles Dickens London - Westminter Abbey

( Originally Published 1915 )



CHARLES DICKENS'S GRAVE IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY

HAS reverence altogether departed from us?

In China off goes your head if you prowl through certain graveyards; in Mecca it is certain death for an unbeliever to enter the shrine; in Stamboul you must either shed your shoes and slip your polluting toes into a purified Mohammedan flop-about, or you are whirled out as no better than a dog.

In the more so-called civilised parts of the earth in St. Mark's, in the Cathedral of Seville, under the dome of St. Peter's, and other sacred buildings enshrining the dust of the great one wanders around at will, looking over the shoulders of kneeling penitents, their breviaries in their hands, or striding across the graves of the sanctified dead, whose names and titles and often whose Coats of Arms are worn into illegibility by the tramping multitude. And it is but little better in Westminster Abbey, except at the hours of service.

As for me, I confess I could not escape a certain hesitation in approaching the holy place. Dared I ask for a permit to set up an easel before the Poet's Corner, a place made sacred by the "congregated bones of the great men of all times" ?

Yet have a sketch of Charles Dickens's grave I must, or my series would be incomplete.

So, timidly and with a certain shamed hesitancy, I began on the beadle.

He listened to my story patiently and calmly; seemed to be revolving it over in his mind; told me to abide by a certain pew until he returned; whispered confidentially in the ear of a fellow beadle, who turned me over to a sexton, who then introduced me to a verger, who said that I should come with him, which I did, the route lying through the door seen in the left hand of my sketch into an opening with columns and begrimed walls, round the outside of the Abbey, as far as a square building and up a flight of steps to a door marked "Office."

I realised now my position. I was to be confronted with a Dignitary of the Church of England; cross-examined as to my purpose in making the drawing and the uses to which it would be put; pumped dry as to my acquaintances in London; asked pointedly for references and then told to call again. I even glanced down at my clothes, wondering whether the clerk who took my card to the High Dignitary in the adjoining room would be unfavourably impressed at my appearance, whether he would make proper allowance for my painting jacket; wondering, too, whether I should not have worn my Prince Albert coat, silk hat, yellow gloves, and a gardenia in my buttonhole, and determining to do so when I called again, should I detect the slightest sign of disapproval in the Dignitary's eye.

When the clerk returned he held out to me a square piece of pasteboard on which was inscribed my name and London address.

"What am I to do with this?"

"Show it to the beadle."

"And is that all I've got to do?"

"No."

"What else?"

"Pay me two shillings and sixpence. It goes to the repair of the Abbey."

"And when can I begin work?"

"Any day between twelve and four o'clock. Good morning."

It was all over. Permits were kept on tap like peppermints in a slot-machine. All I had to do was to drop in my two and six and out would come a licence permitting me to walk over as many graves as I liked between twelve and four.

Outside the office I found the verger who had acted as guide a patient, long-suffering, expectant verger. He, too, needed repairs; more especially about his pockets, which required relining. The sexton was also waiting. He took up his position near the door by which I left the church. He, too, was suffering, and so was the head beadle, who wore a gown and a silver chain around his neck, and who could easily have been taken for the wine man in a restaurant. He scrutinised the card, regarded me intently, seemed favourably impressed, and pointed out the precise spot where I could sit. His sufferings did not be-come acute until my work was finished.

I selected the view looking across the small area holding the remains of David Garrick, with those of Henry Irving in the near foreground, my shoulders brushing Shakespeare's monument, my easel and stool backed close to the base of the supporting marble. The bust of Mr. Thackeray, on the extreme right, I could barely make out. The door leading to the left the verger was good enough to keep open for me. This, with the black, dingy, time-stained benches which had been moved close together that morning and which he would have removed but for my protest, gave me two massive shadows with which to accentuate my strong foreground light, centred by Mr. Dickens's grave.

On the opening up of my easel the mob of sightseers thickened. It was evident that a live painter was infinitely more interesting than a dead poet. When the forest of legs and straight-fronts topped by bare heads and summer bonnets completely obliterated six feet of the sculptured wall facing me, I begged silently for an opening in my perspective, my hand gently waving in mid-air. This encouraged conversation.

"Can you tell me where I can find Shakespeare's monument?" came the voice of one of my countrymen, evidently from the Middle West, judging from his accent.

"You're looking at it, sir."

He was gazing straight over my head at the figure of the Immortal Bard done in stone, one white marble hand graciously extended as if hoping somebody would shake it.

"Oh, thank you. And can you tell me where I can find Mr. Dickens's grave?"

"You're standing on it, sir."

Another gasp and a quick movement as if he had stepped on a hot brick.

The discovery produced an oasis, the women shrinking back, the men crowding together, the oblong slab covering the ashes of the man that the world loved free for a moment from the polluting touch of irreverent feet.

This went on for an hour up to one o'clock, in fact when the pangs of hunger began to assert themselves. Another hour, my coal working like mad, and the space was cleared, with only the verger left and a young German officer who strutted about on his thin legs like a crane, avoiding the holiest spots. Soon they both disappeared, and I was left alone.

And with their absence the spell of the marvellous interior fell upon me. The kind of awe which appealed to Washington Irving when the magnitude of the building broke fully upon his mind.

"The eye gazes with wonder," he writes, "at clustered columns of gigantic dimensions, with arches springing from them to such an amazing height. It seems as if the awful nature of the place presses down upon the soul, and hushes the beholder into noiseless reverence."

And yet none of this seems to have impressed Mr. Dickens not in this same way nor would he have chosen Westminster Abbey as his last resting-place could he have been consulted.

"He would . . . have preferred," says Forster in describing the causes which led up to his burial in the Sanctuary and the ceremonies that followed, "to lie in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne; but all these were found to be closed; and the desire of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester to lay him in their Cathedral had been entertained, when the Dean of Westminster's request, and the considerate kindness of his generous assurance that there should be only such ceremonial as would strictly obey all in-junctions of privacy, made it a grateful duty to accept that offer. The spot already had been chosen by the Dean; and before midday on the following morning, Tuesday the 14th of June, with knowledge of those only who took part in the burial, all was done. The solemnity had not lost by the simplicity. Nothing so grand or so touching could have accompanied it, as the stillness and the silence of the vast Cathedral. Then, later in the day and all the following day, came unbidden mourners in such crowds, that the Dean had to re-quest permission to keep open the grave until Thursday; but after it was closed they did not cease to come, and `all day long,' Doctor Stanley wrote on the 17th, `there was a constant pressure to the spot, and many flowers were strewn upon it by unknown hands, many tears shed from unknown eyes.' He alluded to this in the impressive funeral discourse delivered by him in the Abbey on the morning of Sunday the 19th, pointing to the fresh flowers that then had been newly thrown (as they still are thrown, in this fourth year after the death), and saying that `the spot would thence forward be a sacred one with both the New World and the Old, as that of the representative of the literature, not of this island only, but of all who speak our English tongue.'

The stone placed upon it is inscribed: CHARLES DICKENS.

Born February the Seventh 1812. Died June the Ninth 1870.

The spell of the mighty mausoleum still upon me, I pushed aside my easel and looked silently on the tomb before me, repeating to myself the line of Lord Bacon:

"Death openeth the gate to good fame And extinguisheth envy."

A line eminently fitting to be remembered in the presence of the illustrious dead; for if any one of the goodly company whose names and effigies were about me had, by their achievements, "won fame and extinguished envy, " it could certainly be said of Charles Dickens. If, when his light first began to flame, any such jealousy existed, it was soon replaced by sincere and undying gratitude. I for one can never repay the debt I owe him and this debt is one of a lifetime, for I am only one year younger than his first published book. And then, what very dear friends he has given me : Sam Weller, Dot Peerybingle, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Peggotty, Little Em'ly, Lizzie Hexam, Sarah Gamp, Micawber, Mark Tapley, David Copperfield each and every one a welcome guest in my household! I can hear my father's voice now as he read aloud the "Christmas Carol," and I can still feel a tear trickle down my cheek when Tiny Tim's "active little crutch was heard upon the floor."

I can hear, too, the tones of the author's voice as I listened to him in New York on that snowy night in December, 1867, when, to quote his letter to his daughter, "there were at nine o'clock in the morning, 3000 people in waiting and they had begun to assemble in the bitter cold as early as two o'clock in the morning." I remember the choke in his throat and his very gesture when, as Doctor Marigold, he laid out the imaginary wares of the imaginary Cheap John on the reading-desk before him, and can recall his every intonation in the closing paragraphs of his wonderful story when the child of his blind ward, Sophy, clambered up the steps of his Cheap John's cart.

"Looking full at me, the tiny creature took off her mite of a straw hat, and a quantity of dark curls fell about her face. Then she opened her lips, and said in a pretty voice : "`Grandfather!'

"`Ah my God!' I cries out, `she can speak.'

"In a moment Sophy was around my neck as well as the child, and her husband was wringing my hand with his face hid, and we all had to shake ourselves together before we could get over it. And when we did begin to get over it, and I saw the pretty child a talking, pleased and quick and eager and busy, to her mother, in the signs that I had first taught her mother, the happy and yet pitying tears fell rolling down my face."

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