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Charles Dickens London - The Bull At Rochester

( Originally Published 1915 )



THE BULL AT ROCHESTER, WHERE DOCTOR SLAMMER CHALLENGED MR. JINGLE AND MR. WINKLE WAS PUT TO BED

Not to have dropped one's luggage at The Bull, in Rochester, is to be counted outside the pale of good society. Half the nobility of England, to say nothing of distinguished commoners from every part of the Empire, have enjoyed its hospitality; and this dates a long way back, as can be seen from the many framed autograph letters addressed to Mr. Birch, once proprietor of the Inn.

In 1836 Their Royal Highnesses the Duchess of Kent and her daughter the Princess Victoria, afterward England's Queen, with their suite changed horses here on their way to Dartforth; "Each post boy to receive 6d. per mile, 11s. to be paid per pair for horses, including hostlers and toll . gates."

In 1837 His Serene Highness the Prince of Leiningen ordered "two setts of four horses, the Best with careful drivers to change at the Rose Inn, Sitting Bourne."

On March 9 (no year) Mr. Tennyson ordered and occupied "a well-aired bed room (with dressing room) also a well-aired Sitting Room and fires lighted."

And in June, 1913, no less a person than the humble scribe tucked his legs under one of the mahoganies of the coffee-room and stretched them to their full length in the high poster on the second floor back.

As to the hosts of the shadowy and intangible, Dickens himself says that up these very stairs sprinted the volatile Mr. Alfred Jingle on his way to the Assembly Ball, given on the next floor where he danced and made love to Doctor Slammer's buxom widow; that down this same flight roared the doctor, thirsting for Mr. Jingle's blood; and that around this same coffee-room fumed Slammer's belligerent second, loaded with instructions which he was to fire pointblank at Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, or some one representing that bibulous and forgetful gentleman, the moment he came in sight.

Strange to say, in The Bull and its environs few changes have taken place since Mr. Dickens described them, either in its surroundings, its interiors, nor yet in its appointments. The ballroom is quite as the Pickwick party found it, even to the row of chairs and small "elevated den" where the musicians were securely confined. Nothing, certainly, has been done to the scrambling, twisted-about stairs on which Mr. Jingle stood when he asked :

"Devil of a mess on the staircase, waiter — forms going up — carpenters coming down — lamps, glasses, harps

Neither has anything been done to the coffee-room, where Doctor Slammer's belligerent second tried to calm his warlike spirit until the night porter could wake Mr. Winkle, if one can judge from the appearance of its several articles of furniture and adornment; — its table and chairs of old mahogany; walls lined with odd pictures, old engravings, autographed letters all framed under glass, the side-table set out in silver plate, the mantel capped with a sun-moon-and-stars clock, flanked by glittering side candelabra, their sconces decorated with tinkling glass earrings : — each telling the story of The Bull's earlier days.

So real was it all that before I opened my trap I began to revive my memory of the text by comparing it with what lay before me, particularly the cramped, jammed-together hall with that same twisted staircase leading to the ballroom above, where Jingle, accompanied by Mr. Tupman, hailed the same waiter later on with:

" `What's going forward?'

" `Ball, Sir,' said the waiter.

" `Assembly — eh?'

" 'No, Sir, not Assembly, Sir. Ball for the benefit of a charity, Sir.'

" 'Many fine women in this town, Sir, do you know,' inquired Mr. Tupman with great interest.

" `Splendid — capital. Kent, Sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops and women. Glass of wine, Sir?'

" `With great pleasure,' replied Mr. Tupman. The stranger filled and emptied.

" 'I should like very much to go,' replied Mr. Tupman, resuming the subject of the ball. `Very much.'

" `Tickets at the bar, Sir,' interposed the waiter. `Half a guinea each, Sir.' "

As for this ballroom, if anybody, since those hilarious days, has devoted so small a sum as an English sixpence toward its restoration and adornment there is not the slightest evidence of any such wasteful extravagance. The same old chairs are still backed up against the wall -- the identical pair in which the widow and Mr. Jingle sat after the dance — the "elevated den" still hangs from the ceiling with its flight of back stairs up which the musicians climbed and from which issued the music that set everybody's feet in motion; the old, battered fireplace; the left-behind portrait decorating the far wall; the high, curtained windows through which the afternoon sun blazed, stencilling patterns of light and dark over the bare floor; the door leading to the small passage through which Doctor Slammer stormed and swore they are all here !

It was quite easy, therefore, with the rooms spread out before me, to recall the scene which took place on its floor the night when Jingle (who had borrowed Mr. Winkle's coat while that worthy Pickwickian slept) -- after eyeing the buxom lady soon to be Slammer's bride, broke out with:

"Lots of money old girl — pompous doctor — not a bad idea — good fun," and announced to Mr. Tupman's amazement :

" `I'll dance with the widow. ..

" `Who is she?' inquired Mr. Tupman.

" `Don't know never saw her in all my life — cut out the Doctor — here goes.' And Jingle forthwith crossed the room and leaning against the mantelpiece commenced gazing with an air of respectful and melancholy admiration on the fat countenance of the ittle old lady. Mr. Tupman looked on in mute astonishment... The widow dropped her fan; the stranger picked it up and presented it. . . Returned with the Master of the Ceremonies; a little introductory pantomime; and the stranger and Mrs. Badger took their places in the quadrille.

"Doctor Slammer was paralysed. He, Doctor Slammer of the 97th, to be extinguished in a moment by a man whom nobody had ever seen before, and whom nobody knew even now ! Doctor Slammer — Doctor Slammer of the 97th rejected! Impossible!"

And the final scene when the stranger, upon returning from his triumph, was accosted by the doctor, who, thirsting for his life, blazed forth with:

"`Sir!' said the Doctor, in an awful voice, producing a card, and retiring into an angle of the passage, `my name is Slammer, Doctor Slammer, Sir 97th Regiment — Chatham Barracks — my card, Sir, my card.' He would have added more, but his indignation choked him.

" `Ah !' replied the stranger, coolly. ` Slammer — much obliged — polite attention — not ill now, Slammer — but when I am — knock you up.'

"`You — you're a shuffler, Sir,' gasped the furious Doctor, `a poltroon — a coward a liar — a — a — will nothing in-duce you to give me your card, Sir.'

"`Oh! I see,' said the stranger, half aside, `negus too strong here — liberal landlord — very foolish — very; lemonade much better — hot rooms — elderly gentlemen — suffer for it in the morning — cruel — cruel' ; and he moved on a step or two.

"`You are stopping in this house, Sir,' said the indignant little man; `you are intoxicated now, Sir; you shall hear from me in the morning, Sir. I shall find you out, Sir; I shall find you out.'

"'Rather you found me out than found me at home,' replied the unmoved stranger."

And then the duel when the irate doctor discovers he had challenged the wrong man.

"'What's all this?' said Doctor Slammer, as his friend and Mr. Snodgrass came running up — `That's not the man.'

"'Not the man!' said Doctor Slammer's second. "`Not the man!' said Mr. Snodgrass.

"'Not the man!' said the gentleman with the camp-stool in his hand.

"'Certainly not,' replied the little Doctor. `That's not the person who insulted me last night.'

"'Very extraordinary!' exclaimed the officer.

"'Very,' said the gentleman with the camp-stool... . "Now Mr. Winkle had opened his eyes. . . . `I am not the person. I know it.'

"'Then, that,' said the man with the camp-stool, `is an affront to Doctor Slammer, and a sufficient reason for proceeding immediately.'

"'Pray be quiet, Payne,' said the Doctor's second. `Why did you not communicate this fact to me, this morning, Sir?'

"`To be sure — to be sure,' said the man with the camp-stool, indignantly.

'I entreat you to be quiet, Payne,' said the other. `May I repeat my question, Sir?'

"'Because, Sir,' replied Mr. Winkle, who had had time to deliberate upon his answer`because, Sir, you described an intoxicated and ungentlemanly person as wearing a coat, which I have the honour, not only to wear, but to have invented, the proposed uniform, Sir, of the Pickwick Club in London. The honour of that uniform I feel bound to maintain, and I therefore, without inquiry, accepted the challenge which you offered me.'

" `My dear Sir,' said the good-humoured little Doctor, advancing with extended hand, ` I honour your gallantry'...

" ` I beg you won't mention it, Sir,' said Mr. Winkle.

"'I shall feel proud of your acquaintance, Sir,' said the little Doctor."

At which everybody returned to the Inn where the night was spent in unlimited libations.

My work at The Bull finished, I set out the next afternoon to find The Leather Bottle at Cobham, following the road taken by Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Winkle, and Mr. Snodgrass when they went in search of Mr. Tracy Tupman, who having been deserted by a lovely and fascinating creature — a victim to the artifices of a villain had retired to this commodious village ale-house, there to rest his heavy load of worldly cares and troubles, and where on my arrival I was ushered into the very room in which Mr. Pickwick had found the heartbroken lover assuaging his grief.

Rather a forlorn, cobwebby kind of a room, I must say, its walls covered with portraits, photographs, personal souvenirs of the novelist, advertisements of his readings, newspaper clippings descriptive of his death and funeral services, each and every one of them elaborated in a fog-horn voice which broke loose from the top of a tall man who said he was the original landlord, a voice which could have been heard, and doubtless was, a mile away, in Rochester.

After listening to it for half an hour I paid my bill through a hole in a pine board, shutting off the tap-room from the dusty, level-with-the-dirt-road passageway, and walked back to The Bull a wiser and sadder man. One eats an olive to get the taste of a poor wine out of the mouth and thus prepare his palate for better things. I have no grudge against The Leather Bottle. The mug of bass was of the proper quality and temperature and the mug itself was clean. I could have wished that the landlord had had mumps, or quinsy sore throat, or a well-developed case of bronchitis, and I would have been glad had the Coney Island atmos- phere permeating the place been allowed to escape out of the open window, taking most of the gimcracks along with it : or perhaps Mr. Tupman's love-affair did not interest me as much as did Mr. Jingle's. One thing is certain, however, the olive of The Bull at Rochester removed the taste of the contents of The Leather Bottle.

That same day I drove to Gad's Hill, some two miles away.

My experiences were not tempestuously pleasant. I went through the same formula used on Doughty Street, which has never failed me the world over when on similar errands, giving the smart-looking young maid who opened the door a condensed, account of my blameless life, family history, and present lofty purpose, ending with the presentation of an immaculate white card, typical of the purity of my motive,none of which, I regret to say, produced the slightest effect.

Perhaps it was the slant of my slouch-hat which caused her to hesitate, the card balanced on her palm; perhaps it might have been my smudgy fingers — I had been at work that morning. Or perhaps her hesitation was due to the peculiar cut of my knickerbockers and the accumulated dust on my shoes; but certain it was that only a very decided voice from inside the library door, wanting to know what it was "all about," finally set her feet in motion.

"Wants to see me? What for?"

I remained bareheaded, standing humbly within three feet of where he sat, that peculiar, book-agent feeling trickling down my spine as I listened to the maid's account of my personal appearance; after which I was ushered into the presence of a self-contained, unperturbed Englishman of advanced years, who first looked at me with an expression of "how dare you, sir," modified it to a "well, sirrah," and succeeded at last, when he did open his mouth, in informing me that it was a private house; that the library in which he then sat and in which Mr. Dickens had written was his especial "den," and that on no account — positively on no account, and so forth and so forth and so forth.

I urged my youth, my long distance from home, my poverty — how necessary it was for me to make this final sketch in order to feed myself and my family — that I would come at any hour of the day or night, using only one of them, certainly not over one and a half, etc., etc.; but the face did not relax.

"Outside, I have no objections try the rear view." Then came a wave of his hand toward the maid — a "show-the-man-out" wave.

"I am aware," I began again, standing my ground, " that you must be greatly annoyed with applications of this kind, but that is a penalty we all pay when we are custodians of something that the whole world loves. From my boyhood days I

Out went the hand again — straight out this time — with a set-the-dog-on-him movement.

I understood. I realised my helplessness. Alone and in a foreign land; without friends; twenty miles from my consul; more than twice that distance from our ambassador; aware of the sanctity of an Englishman's home — his castle, and that sort of thing — and so I folded my tent (my slouch-hat) and silently stole away.

And this, my dear reader, is why I am unable to give you, in this modest book, devoted to the genius of Charles Dickens, a view of the interior of his library; of the bow window looking out upon his garden; of his book-shelves and of the very spot where, on the 8th of June, 1870, Miss Hogarth, "seeing with alarm a singular expression of trouble and pain cross his face, caught him in her arms, only to hear the last words he ever spoke as he sank heavily on his left side on the ground." He lay unconscious all that night and died the next day about the same hour.

So, outside it was, with the result to be seen in my sketch and with the same summer light bathing the faηade smothered in ivy and climbing vines, and almost at the same hour at which he died, for my note-book makes record that it was in the second week of June, 1913, and in the afternoon of that day that I made this drawing.

And the "outside" was not altogether a wilderness. A coin of the realm, a large, fat silver coin (it is marvellous how many of these a stranger puts in circulation), won over the gardener who brought me an extra chair; two of my best "stogies" (made in Germany) captured a stable-boy who took a message to my cab-driver telling him when to return for me; and one of my best and blandest smiles rewarded the smart young girl who brought out a tea-tray with the necessary accompaniments. As the sun was sinking a very intelligent third, fourth, or fifth man showed me the exact spot upon which stood the kiosk which Fechter gave Mr. Dickens and where he wrote every day and where he was writing up to within a day of his death and which is now in Cobham Park; and he also showed me the grave in which the "best of birds" lies buried — "Dick who passed away at Gad's Hill Place, October 14, 1860."

There is now a wooden tombstone over it, about as large as a shingle — it might have been made of one — and a bed of pansies lend their fragrance. My doubts as to its genuineness, not of the grave but of the gravestone, have been con-firmed by a sight of the original of copper, bearing the above inscription, and engraved by Mr. Dickens's own hand. It belongs to my good friend Mr. Sessler, of Philadelphia, as does also the letter describing how it came into his possession, all of which the reader will find duly set forth in these pages.

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