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Charles Dickens London - In Lant Street

( Originally Published 1915 )



The location of the exact house was not difficult. Mr. Dickens is still as well known and popular with the present residents of the Borough as he was in the days when, in the height of his fame, he immortalised their streets, inns, and homes. You have only to ask the barmaid at the public on the corner, or the man unloading coals, or the solicitor's clerk, or the secretary, or the Great Person himself. Any one of them will point out the very spot and indulge in all manner of reminiscences in which his aunt, or his father, or his partner's uncle played a prominent part.

The driver of the big team, seen in my sketch, was spokesman this morning.

"Where Bob Sawyer lived? Why right in front of ye. That's the house with the round-top door and white steps. I been living here for forty years and everybody will tell you that Bob Sawyer's house was the wery house in which Mr. Dickens lived when a boy. It's a school now, and if you don't believe it all you got to do is to rap at the door and the lady will tell ye same as me. And there ain't been no difference in my time 'cept that about five year ago she put a new coat of white paint on the woodwork round the front door. If I don't miss my guess, there won't be an-other coat put on for five year more."

There was no disputing facts like these. Nor could I doubt the accuracy of the driver's identification. He was a resident and should have known possibly did know his neighbours. Had any doubt arisen Mr. Dickens's own statement would have banished it, so dull and expressionless was the vista that stretched before me.

"There is a repose," he says, "about Lant Street which sheds so gentle a melancholy upon the soul, that if a man wished to place himself beyond the possibility of any inducement to look out of the window, he should by all means select it as a residence."

That Mr. Bob Sawyer and his intimate friend Mr. Ben Allen had ignored these depressing possibilities, is well known to every one. Whatever of melancholy lay stranded on the outside of their domicile none of it was ever permitted within those hospitable walls, to which personages even as distinguished as Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Tracy Tupman themselves were invited. That their welcome was bound to be cordial was indicated by a little pleasantry indulged in on the part of Mr. Sawyer when he thrust his forefinger between two of Mr. Pickwick's ribs and with native drollery inquired :

" ` I say, old boy, where do you hang out?'

"Mr. Pickwick replied that he was at present suspended at `The George and Vulture.'

" ` I wish you would come and see me,' said Bob Sawyer. `Lant Street, Borough; it's near Guy's, and handy for me,you know. Little distance after you've passed Saint George's Church turns out of the High Street on the right hand side the way."

To have refused such an invitation from such a host was out of the question. Mr. Pickwick would not only come, but it would give him the greatest pleasure to come, the occasion being celebrated by a "party" made famous the world over as "Bob Sawyer's party" than which there is nothing more delightful in the whole range of modern fiction.

Great preparations we are told had been made for this festivity. Mr. Bob Sawyer had himself purchased the spirits at a wine vaults in High Street; the punch was ready-made in a red pan in the bedroom; a little table, covered with a green baize cloth, had been borrowed from the parlour, to play at cards on; and the glasses of the establishment, together with those which had been loaned for the occasion by the public-house, were all drawn up on a tray: nothing, in fact, had been omitted which could in any way add to the enjoyment of the evening. And yet, notwithstanding the highly satisfactory nature of all these arrangements, there was no question that a storm was brewing in the domestic atmosphere. This could plainly be seen in the hurried movements of several small puff clouds, one of which was slowly settling over the countenance of Mr. Bob Sawyer as he sat by his fireside awaiting the arrival of his guests. Another, equally ominous, had swept in the direction of that gentleman's landlady, while a third was slowly enveloping Bob's companion and fellow lodger, Mr. Ben Allen, who after gazing intently on the coals, had remarked in a tone of melancholy, after a long silence:

" ` It'll be a deuced unpleasant thing if she takes it into her head to let out, when those fellows are here, won't it?'...'Horrible,' replied Bob Sawyer, `horrible.'

"A low tap was heard at the room door,... and a... dirty slipshod girl in black cotton stockings,... thrust in her head, and said,

" `Please, Mister Sawyer, Missis Raddle wants to speak to you.'

"Before Mr. Bob Sawyer could return any answer,... a little fierce woman bounced into the room, all in a tremble with passion, and pale with rage.

"`Now Mr. Sawyer,' said the little fierce woman, trying to appear very calm, `if you'll have the kindness to settle that little bill of mine I'll thank you, because I've got my rent to pay this afternoon, and my landlord's a waiting below now.' Here the little woman rubbed her hands, and looked steadily over Mr. Bob Sawyer's head, at the wall behind him.

"'I am very sorry to put you to any inconvenience, Mrs. Raddle,' said Bob Sawyer deferentially, `but

"'Oh, it isn't any inconvenience...You promised me this afternoon, Mr. Sawyer, and every gentleman as has ever lived here has kept his word, Sir, as of course anybody as calls himself a gentleman does.' And Mrs. Raddle tossed her head, bit her lips, rubbed her hands harder, and looked at the wall more steadily than ever... "'I am very sorry, Mrs. Raddle,' said Bob Sawyer with all imaginable humility, `but the fact is, that I have been disappointed in the City today.'...

"'Well, Mr. Sawyer,' said Mrs. Raddle, planting herself firmly on a purple cauliflower in the Kidderminster carpet, `and what's that to me, Sir?'

" ` I — I —have no doubt, Mrs. Raddle,' said Bob Sawyer, blinking this last question, `that before the middle of next week we shall be able to set ourselves quite square, and go on on a better system, afterwards.'

"This was all Mrs. Raddle wanted...

"`Do you suppose, Mr. Sawyer,' said Mrs. Raddle, elevating her voice for the information of the neighbours, `do you suppose that I'm a-going day after day to let a feller occupy my lodgings as never thinks of paying his rent, nor even the very money laid out for the fresh butter and lump sugar that's bought for his breakfast, and the very milk that's took in, at the street door?... Do you

"`My good soul,' interposed Mr. Benjamin Allen, soothingly.

"`Have the goodness to keep your observashuns to yourself, Sir, I beg,' said Mrs. Raddle, suddenly arresting the rapid torrent of her speech, and addressing the third party with impressive slowness and solemnity. 'I am not aweer, Sir, that you have any right to address your conversation to me. I don't think I let these apartments to you, Sir.'

"`No, you certainly did not?' said Mr. Benjamin Allen.

"`Very good, Sir,' responded Mrs. Raddle, with lofty politeness. `Then p'raps, Sir, you'll confine yourself to breaking the arms and legs of the poor people in the hospitals,'...

"'But you are such an unreasonable woman,' remonstrated Mr. Benjamin Allen.

"'I beg your parding, young man,' said Mrs. Raddle, in a cold perspiration of anger... `But who do you call a woman? Did you make that remark to me, Sir?'

"`Why, bless my heart!' said Mr. Benjamin Allen.

"`Did you apply that name to me, I ask of you, Sir?'...

"`Why, of course I did,' replied Mr. Benjamin Allen.

"'Yes, of course, you did,' said Mrs. Raddle, backing gradually to the door, and raising her voice to its loudest pitch, for the special behoof of Mr. Raddle in the kitchen...and, finding that it had not been successful, proceeded to descend the stairs with sobs innumerable, when there came a loud double knock at the street door...

"`Does Mr. Sawyer live here?' said Mr. Pickwick, when the door was opened.

"`Yes,' said the girl, `first floor.'

"Whether Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Tracy Tupman and Mr. Snodgrass felt the chill of the gentle melancholy common to Lant Street, we have no means of knowing, but if any such depressing influences were abroad, they were at once dispelled when the two visitors ascended the stairs and paused for a moment to listen to the sound of voices within Mr. Sawyer's door, where they were received by Mr. Bob Sawyer himself, who had been afraid to go down lest he should be waylaid by Mrs. Raddle.

"'How are you?' said the discomfited student`Glad to see you, take care of the glasses.' This caution was addressed to Mr. Pickwick, who had put his hat in the tray.

"`Dear me,' said Mr. Pickwick, `I beg your pardon.' "`Don't mention it, don't mention it,' said Bob Sawyer.

`I'm rather confined for room here. Walk in.' They had scarcely taken their seats when there was another double knock.

"'I hope that's Jack Hopkins!' said Mr. Bob Sawyer. `Hush. Yes, it is. Come up, Jack; come up.'

"A heavy footstep was heard upon the stairs, and Jack Hopkins presented himself. He wore a black velvet waist-coat, with thunder-and-lightning buttons; and a blue striped shirt, with a white false collar.

"`You're late, Jack?' said Mr. Benjamin Allen.

"`Been detained at Bartholomew's,' replied Hopkins. "`Anything new?'

," `No, nothing particular. Rather a good accident brought into the casualty ward.'

"`What was that, Sir?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

"`Only a man fallen out of a four pair of stairs' window; but it's a very fair case very fair case indeed.'

"`Do you mean that the patient is in a fair way to recover?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

"`No,' replied Hopkins, carelessly. `No, I should rather say he wouldn't. There must be a splendid operation though, tomorrow magnificent sight if Slasher does it.'

"'You consider Mr. Slasher a good operator?' said Mr. Pickwick.

"`Best alive,' replied Hopkins. `Took a boy's leg out of the socket last week boy ate five apples and a gingerbread cake exactly two minutes after it was all over, boy said he wouldn't lie there to be made game of; and 'he'd tell his mother if they didn't begin.'

"'Dear me!' said Mr. Pickwick, astonished.

"`Pooh! That's nothing, that ain't,' said Jack Hopkins, to which Bob at once agreed... 'Is it, Bob?'...

"'And now,' said Jack, when every one was comfortably seated, ` just to set us going again, Bob, I don't mind singing a song.' And Hopkins, incited thereto, by tumultuous applause, plunged himself at once into `The King, God bless him,' which he sang as loud as he could, to a novel air, compounded of the `Bay of Biscay,' and `A Frog he would.'The chorus was the essence of the song, and, as each gentleman sang it to the tune he knew best, the effect was very striking indeed...It was at the end of the chorus to the first verse, that Mr. Pickwick held up his hand in a listening attitude, and said, as soon as silence was restored :

"`Hush! I beg your pardon. I thought I heard somebody calling from up stairs.'

"A profound silence immediately ensued; and Mr. Bob Sawyer was observed to turn pale.

"'I think I hear it now,' said Mr. Pickwick. `Have the goodness to open the door.'

"The door was no sooner opened than all doubt on the subject was removed.

"'Mr. Sawyer, Mr. Sawyer,' screamed a voice from the two-pair landing.

"'It's my landlady,' said Bob Sawyer, looking round him with great dismay. `Yes, Mrs. Raddle.'

"'What do you mean by this, Mr. Sawyer?' replied the voice, with great shrillness and rapidity of utterance.

"'Ain't it enough to be swindled out. of one's rent, and money lent out of pocket besides, and abused and insulted by your friends that dares to call themselves men, without having the house turned out of window, and noise enough made to bring the fire-engines here, at two o'clock in the morning? Turn them wretches away.'

"'You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,' said the voice of Mr. Raddle, which appeared to proceed from beneath some distant bed-clothes.

"'Ashamed of themselves!' said Mrs. Raddle. `Why don't you go down and knock 'em every one down stairs? You would if you was a man.'

"'I should if I was a dozen men, my dear,' replied Mr. Raddle, pacifically, `but they've rather the advantage of me in numbers, my dear.'

"'They're going, Mrs. Raddle, they're going,' said the miserable Bob. `I am afraid you'd better go,' said Mr. Bob Sawyer to his friends. `I thought you were making too much noise.'

"`Now, Mr. Sawyer,' screamed the shrill voice of Mrs. Raddle, `are them brutes going?'

"`They're only looking for their hats, Mrs. Raddle,' said Bob; `they are going directly.'

"'Going!' said Mrs. Raddle, thrusting her night-cap over the banisters just as Mr. Pickwick, followed by Mr. Tupman, emerged from the sitting-room. 'Going! what did they ever come for?'

"`My dear Ma'am,' remonstrated Mr. Pickwick, looking up.

"'Get along with you, you old wretch!' replied Mrs. Raddle, hastily withdrawing the nightcap. `Old enough to be his grandfather, you villin! You're worse than any of 'em

Whether the old fireplace around which the two cronies sat trembling is still intact behind the measly front I do not know, for I did not go in to see; but yet it must be! For if any ambition to renew or repair had ever inspired the dwellers within it must have long since died out in so dreary a byway as Lant Street; nor will it ever be again revived. Houses, like old people, dry up and crumble, and end at last with only a graveyard fence and a tablet giving their names and future prospects.

And now for another of Mr. Sawyer's haunts, for there is no doubt in my mind when considering that gentleman's partiality for the flowing bowl that the subject of my sketch the "Ship and Shovel" must have been one of our distinguished sawbone's resorts. Perhaps the ingredients of the punch when "readymade in a red pan" came from behind its bar, or it might be that the glasses which had been "borrowed for the occasion from the public house" were gathered up within its precincts, as well as the tray itself a foregone conclusion when one realises that the wall of the enclosure in which Guy's Hospital stands is opposite the inn itself, and thus but a step from the classroom to its bar, the dividing highway being known as Maze Pond Terrace a short shadow-flecked street arched by feathery trees, its perspective melting into a mist of leaves.

I hope that its stretches of trees, shrubbery, and vines, their roots fast in the garden adjoining the "Ship and Shovel" and in the spaces surrounding Guy's Hospital, were as lovely in the days of that delightful young reprobate as they are now, but I cannot say. The tree trunks are not so very large; the limbs and branches not so very long; the foliage does not grow so very high all necessary data in determining the age of a tree. These may, in fact, be only the grandchildren of the trees under which Bob walked, victims of their surroundings, their limbs sawed off like those of many another unfortunate housed in the hospital grounds. It may be, too, that the exquisite shimmering vista of leaf and branch is only a kind of modern scientific growth, a sort of horticultural lobster-claw evolved out of the loss of its predecessor, and therefore all the fresher and greener, with more gleam and glint and grace of movement than the trees we see in most of the streets of smoke-choked London.

The landlord at the " Ship and Shovel," who had been catering for the doctors' mess for years before he moved over and took charge of the inn, did not know, as he explained in answer to my inquiry he had found me at work and at once became friendly and conversational. He had never taken much notice of the trees, but if I would step inside here he winked meaningly he had some "particular old port" that he thought would warm the inner side of my shirt-front. It had had that effect on every doctor who had been graduated from Guy's these last thirty years, and did yet, for they all came back to see him. He would open a bottle if I would permit him, and serve it in the little room off the bar, and on the very table on whose top had been cut, with their own pen-knives, the names of hundreds of distinguished surgeons the world over.

I blew a spray of fixative from my atomiser over my charcoal drawing, unshackled my easel, and followed him into a little, kiln-dried, elbow-and-trouser-seat-polished cubby-room, just big enough for a small table and a dozen encircling chairs. Here, the bottle uncorked, he called my attention to the surgical operations performed on the table top; to the half dozen of old English mezzotints from drawings made of London Bridge during its construction, in 1830; and to the various souvenirs in the way of mugs, old china, and silhouettes of the several sawbones who had enjoyed his hospitality in this little ten-by-twelve box of a room.

Later on, as I sipped the port,and very good port it was (1849) I scanned the cuts and scars of the table itself, and, not finding either the first name or initials of my friend Mr. Sawyer carved in its top, asked the landlord in all seriousness if he had ever met the distinguished man, a habit one falls into when engaged in my kind of a still hunt. He pursed his lips, consulted the ceiling, asked the full name, gave a cursory glance at the mutilated table top, as if to refresh his memory with the signatures, and remarked:

"I think I remember him but I ain't quite sure we had a fellow here with a red head named Sawyer, drank Scotch whisky mixed with his beer went to Australia, I heard. But maybe he's another man."

"That's very curious," I remarked in a hurt, sad way, drawing the bottle closer and refilling my glass. " I thought everybody knew Mr. Sawyer everybody about Guy's. He graduated, of course, a good many years ago, but I can think of no medical man of his time who is so well known. I come from America, and his reputation has followed him there."

The landlord became interested and, I think, a little ashamed of his memory, unlocked a drawer, took from it a well-thumbed, ink-stained account-book, and began running his finger down the index.

"S. Oh, yes — S — ! Sawyer, did you say. What's his first name?"

"Robert."

"Well, it would be under the `S'

The finger-nail, guided by the knuckle-joint, had now reached the bottom of the page.

"No, it isn't here. Odd, too."

"What book is that?" I ventured.

"Oh, just a sort of log-book where I keep my accounts. When they pay I check 'em off. Some of them run along five years or more. Got three pounds ten from New Zealand last week. Thought the man was dead. Sawyer, did you say? Robert Sawyer. Maybe he is a lord by this time. Anyhow, if he had paid back what he owed he would be in this book."

"Don't look any further, my friend," I said "not in a book of that kind. I am very sorry to have troubled you."

The door opened and one of Bob's fellow students blew in an admirable expression when I consider the breeze he brought with him.

"This gentleman is inquiring about a man named Sawyer," blurted out the landlord. "Says everybody in the United States has heard of him."

Two eyes receded under two knitted eyebrows and a firm, set mouth became expressive of deepest thought.

"Sawyer — Sawyer never heard of him. Before my time, I expect." Then he glanced at the bottle.

"Some of the old stuff, Henry? Don't care if I do." And he did.

And so did the landlord. And so did the stranger.

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