THE SECRET DIARY OF CHARLES DICKENS, Aged 13¾
22nd February 1826
Mama and Mrs Fitzharris have also had some sort of falling-out. Mama was very short with her when she came round to our house this evening – Mrs Fitzharris got no further than the doorstep – and she looked distinctly tearful after Mrs F. had departed. I asked Fanny whatever was the matter. She said that Mama was preoccupied with whether she should forgive Papa. I asked her ‘for the hats?’, and she replied, ‘why, for everything, Charley’, and walked off, sniffing.
I hope Selena and I never argue.
21st February 1826
20th February 1826
From the top of Ballast’s-Head (a bare mound, devoid of life) (A) to the tip of his nose (a craggy protusion) (B), there is an acute depression (AB). Calculate, to the nearest whole number, the cause of his misery, viz. how many pupils are paying propositions (X), expressed as the root of all evil. Be sure to conceal you’re working. (CD)
19th February 1826
Much to my relief, Mama decided that it was best not to take the youngest children to the chapel in the first instance, ‘so as to gain a reasonable impression of the place, without any distraction.’ (I think she meant make a good impression!). Therefore, Mama, Fanny and Letty and I walked down to Red Lion Square. Papa did not accompany us, despite his solemn promise, on account of ‘an appointment with a man about a hat.’ Mama was awfully vexed and said that there was a time and place for selling hats; and that it was an insult to OUR LORD. Papa replied that he was not selling anything but merely asking for a modest testimonial; and, as for OUR LORD, perhaps if the Romans had had ventilated hats, then calmer heads might have prevailed. This atheistic notion was rather too much for Mama, who walked off in great dudgeon, with her progeny trailing behind.
We arrived just in time for the beginning of the service. The chapel itself proved quite as gloomy inside as out. There were only a trio of small round windows on each side of the hall, resembling the muddy port-holes on a Thames steamer. The Little Bethesdans, thus confined below decks, were naturally an unsmiling lot, mostly dressed in black. I tried to peer about and spot Selena and old Mrs Hathersage but the whole place seemed full of nothing but long faces and shadows. The Reverend Prater was plainly the brother of the lady who had accosted me in the square; for, as the pair of them stood at the front of the congregation, they looked so uncannily alike, barely different in age and height, with sharp noses and dark hair scraped tight back from the face, that it was a good thing one wore a hat and the other a bonnet. Fanny saw me staring at them, lent over to me and whispered, ‘Salt and Pepper! Mr and Mrs Cruet!’ I whispered back that I thought, from the look of them, they might both be the pepper.
Reverend Prater, at the very least, had a peppery temper when he stood in the pulpit. Everything seemed to rile him. He told us – in a scratchy, reedy voice, that positively screeched whenever he flared up – which was every other sentence – that we were all running to the most evil courses. Firstly, men were sinful; secondly, women were weak and sinful vessels; thirdly, children were the next best thing to diabolical imps – at which point, I will swear he stared at me! – and we had not even brought the boys!! – and not a single soul amongst us was sixpence better than a savage. The pepper continued to be sprinkled very liberally as he went on (for two hours!). The Bishop of London was a ‘great big purple humbug’ (‘Amen’ from certain members of the congregation); the metropolis was a ‘Babylon-upon-Thames’ (gasps and admiration); and – for some reason which I did not quite follow – the Commissioners of Sewers were ‘money changers in the Temple’ (I think perhaps he has been given a summons for the rates). There was a good deal of Satan; a dash of Pharisees and Sadducees; and a pinch of The Serpent in the Garden; and it was altogether a very fiery brew, and the Reverend ended up so very red-faced and overheated, that poor Letty looked positively terrified.
When it was all over, the Reverend went and stood outside by the doors, along with his sister, and seasoned the congregation with a tight-lipped blessing as they left. When he came to Mama, however, he paused, clasped her hand and grew more lively and agitated.
‘Glory be! A new addition to our flock! You are welcome amongst us, ma’am, though we are all but poor sinners. There is joy in heaven, this morn! Joy!’
Mama praised the sermon and the Reverend Prater’s face creased a little around the lips, as if commencing a journey towards a smile, without reliable map or directions. His sister then leaned forward and asked, ‘And these are your little lambs, ma’am?’
She looked kindly enough at Fanny and Letty, but bestowed upon me a glance which, I am certain, was intended to hint that I had, at best, only borrowed a fleece; and, most likely, skinned its original owner into the bargain. Mama, however, saw none of this and dutifully recounted our names, ages and virtuous dispositions – and those of her absent, even more tender lambkins – and it was soon settled between them that we would return in one week’s time, with all goodwill and best wishes.
It was then, as we stepped into the street, that I saw SELENA. I nudged Mama and she needed no encouragement to shepherd us out to where Mrs Hathersage and her niece were adjusting their bonnets and gloves. Needless to say, Mama exclaimed that this was an astonishing coincidence; that the Reverend Prater quite lived up to his reputation; that she was quite certain that we had all been thoroughly raised up in the eyes of the Lord – and had dear Mrs Hathersage been coming here long?
Mrs Hathersage replied, sternly, that she had been a Little Bethesdan since her marriage and that her late husband – God rest his soul – had been a Little Bethesdan since birth, which was good enough for anybody. This rather dumbfounded Mama and so I took the opportunity to speak.
‘Did you enjoy the service, Miss Hathersage?’
‘I dare say,’ replied Selena, without any particular show of interest, barely looking in my direction.
‘I should say,’ I replied, summoning up my courage, ‘that Reverend Prater is a beacon of light on a rocky shore.’
I looked carefully at Selena to see if she took my meaning – had she liked MY VALENTINE? – but she remained wholly – impossibly – beautifully – maddeningly – reserved.
‘What a colourful little expression, my dear!’ interposed my mother, turning things back to Mrs Hathersage. ‘Charles has recently displayed a literary bent, ma’am. We have hopes that he might one day become a playwright. Do you ever attend the play?’
‘No, ma’am,’ replied Mrs Hathersage, coldly, ‘I assuredly do not. Ah, here is our carriage, at last.’
I had not thought what I should do or say if Montague Pym’s carriage appeared, accompanied by its owner. Fortunately, it was only a regular hackney coach. Mama plainly entertained high hopes that we might receive an invitation to ride home in company. When the old lady turned around, as she was climbing the steps, Mama positively stumbled forward, tripping over herself in expectation of a carriage ride. Mrs Hathersage, however, only wished to share her thoughts on matters theatrical: ‘I would steer your family clear of such idle diversions, ma’am. They are an introduction to blasphemy and vice. Good-day.’
With that, the cabman closed the door, and the carriage rattled off. Mama said nothing but I could tell that she was smarting. Nonetheless, she had done me a great service. For, when she had spoken about my play – of all things she might have said – Miss Selena Hathersage turned and looked at me with – dare I believe it? – a glimmer of interest!
There is now nothing for it – I simply must become a playwright.
18th February 1826
I told Papa this morning that – if he liked – I could deliver some of his prospectuses. For it occurred to me during the night that I might combine this favour with discovering the Hathersages’ place of worship. (He was very grateful and promised me sixpence ‘at the earliest practicable opportunity.’)
The task of shifting these notices, however, proved quite impossible; and, indeed, dispiriting. I was mocked and bullied at every turn. I cannot say how many times some wag asked me to ‘give them a song’ – for I did look rather like a pathetic imitation of a ballad-singer with a bundle of papers draped over my arm. I rang the bell at some of the more genteel houses en route to Holborn. I was met with half a dozen flat refusals. By the time I had reached a two dozen – ‘no callers’ – ‘not today’ – ‘the master ain’t at home’ &c – I was utterly exhausted – for the prospectuses grew awfully heavy. The only consolation was that I had finally arrived in Red Lion Square.
There was, thankfully, only one candidate for Mrs Hathersage’s place of worship in the vicinity: a squat and shabby little building, quite in keeping with the shabby tone of the neighbourhood. The place could have easily passed for some sort of grimy manufactory but for a modest wooden cross upon the roof and the words Little Bethesda Tabernacle painted in white, fading upon the soot-blackened lintel. There was also an ivy-encrusted sign, affixed to the front railings:
The Little Bethesda Tabernacle of Holy Joy
Rev. Septimus B. Prater
‘Make a joyful noise unto God’
While I was reading this inscription, a tall woman emerged from a nearby doorway. This creature was very pale, thin as a reed, wearing the plainest, most sombre black dress and bonnet. She was, doubtless, bound on some particular errand; but, having caught sight of me peering at the sign, she marched straight over to where I stood.
‘You there! Papers! Yes, you! Boy with all the papers! Yes, I am addressing you, Papers!’
‘You, sir. Tell me, are you a wolf or a lamb?’
While I hesitated, she looked me up and down, and remarked, darkly, ‘All boys are wolves, in my experience. But if you care to have a little less of the wolf about you, our service is at ten o’clock on Sunday.’ ‘Ten o’clock, Papers,’ she repeated, narrowing her eyes, as if trying to make out what pointy ears I had, and what sharp teeth besides. Then, without waiting to hear a reply, she stalked off.
(I was now perfectly convinced this was Mrs Hathersage’s church. For there was something very much of this fearful woman in Mrs Hathersage’s own gloomy dress and manner.)
My thoughts, naturally, then returned to Pa’s commission, which was weighing heavy on my mind – and my arm! I tried two more houses. The boy who answered the bell at the first, said that I had ‘no right to be bothering folks with elasticated articles of any description – it ain’t decent’; and the maid who belonged to the second establishment out-and-out laughed in my face. I only record these humiliating details to demonstrate how a poor young fellow might eventually yield to temptation. For, having left the square, I chanced upon a tumble-down old-fashioned building with a sign which read George T. Poole, Waste Paper. In short, I began to look upon my burden in a more practical and remunerative light. The old man behind the counter gave me a shilling for the lot and I do not suppose the G.N.E.L.E.V.H.C. shall suffer much by it.
Perhaps I shall use the money to buy back Papa’s hat from Oddenbury; or save for another waistcoat.
Nine o’clock p.m.
Mama rather strange and peevish at dinner. At first, I thought she had somehow discovered that I had wagged school but there was no mention of Dr Ballast. Most likely it has something to do with Papa.
Nonetheless, I have successfully persuaded her to visit the Little Bethesda Tabernacle tomorrow. I served up a load of nonsense about the boys at school having heard of this Reverend Prater; and how Sykes visited last week and promptly swore off hard liquor (!). It was not very hard because she has always had a fondness for ranters. Indeed, she has dragged us to many a damp and dreary little chapel, solely upon the doubtful recommendation of Mrs Jericho or Mrs Fitzharris. I finished my speech with the greatest inducement, namely the likely presence of our most esteemed and respectable neighbour, Mrs Hathersage. Mama, after some deliberation, finally agreed that we might attend as a family, ‘to see what all the fuss was about.’
(LORD! I am swift becoming a CUNNING ROGUE – but it is all for LOVE!)
I have, this very evening, also completed the second scene of The Gadabout Duke. Pistacchio, having saved the wrongly-accused Mexican – named Pablo – adopts him as his personal valet. They return to Pistacchio’s quest for Selenia St. Cristophero, who has run away to a castle in the Italian Alps, which sits beneath enormous storm clouds of great foreboding. The way to the castle is well-guarded and so Pistacchio must use his wits, disguising himself as a beggar-woman and borrowing an intelligent dog from a gypsy.
I read the best sections to Letty and she says it is very good, especially the part about the dog.
17th February 1826
Slept poorly and woke up surrounded by hats. Papa has, at least, finally persuaded Mama that the card was a cruel prank played upon them both; and, for good measure, has promised to come to church on Sunday.
After school had finished, I decided that it was high time to attend to my own affairs of the heart, viz. speak with Forsythe about MONTAGUE PYM. When I arrived at Buckingham Street, however, no-one answered the door-bell. I went inside, therefore, walked up, and, to my surprise, found the door to his apartments lay wide open. The room had been emptied of furniture and possessions, except for a careworn pair of high-backed chairs and a faded print of Vauxhall Gardens pinned to the wall. Then a familiar voice shouted down from the top landing.
‘What ho! young Tittlebat!’ exclaimed Montague Pym, whose bewhiskered face poked over the banisters like some cheerful moustachioed gargoyle – ‘thought you might be a Philistine.’
‘Philistine?’ I replied.
‘A broker’s man, my green cabbage,’ replied Pym, ‘come to squeeze blood from the stone. But they won’t get any joy hereabouts. Our mutual friend, Mr G. Forsythe, has flown the coop, leaving only two porter’s chairs and his apologies. Rather decent of him, all things considered – the chairs, I mean – even if they aren’t quite up to the fashion. Come up, young fellow! Come up and take tea, what?’
I could hardly object and so followed him upstairs to his attic rooms. A scent of hops and tobacco lurked in the air, along with a strong stinging suggestion of the water of Cologne. I peered through the smutted attic windows and could just make out the chimneys of the manufactories across the water; the coal barges at the river’s edge; and the occasional fiery belch of smoke from a passing steamboat. Pym, meanwhile, seated himself on a sofa, next to an oval tea-tray, holding tea-pot, cups and bread and butter, balanced on a little mahogany table. The tray bore the cautionary inscription ‘Property of Garew’s Chop House, Fetter Lane.’
Pym told me how Forsythe had found himself in debt to his tailor – ‘positively a slave to the wretched fellow’ – and had thus been obliged to ‘make himself scarce’, to the extent of resigning from the Minor Emoluments Office – ‘though I don’t believe the guv’nor has noticed’ – and ‘burying himself in some rat-hole in the country.’ I said that I was sorry to hear it and he advised me that, ‘if you do one thing right in life, my young Tittlebat’ – I wished he would not call me that; but it is, unfortunately, the time-honoured custom of Neptunians to refer to newcomers as minor members of the finny tribe – ‘then find a tailor with good tick and a short memory.’
I could muster little in the way of conversation but I remarked that, by a peculiar coincidence, I was sure I had seen him in a carriage in Camden on Sunday, along with our elderly neighbour, Mrs Hathersage.
‘I say, Tittlebat!’ he exclaimed, ‘You astound me! You live in the same queer out-of-the-way part of town as The Old Flint?’
I could not make out whether it was the mysterious character of Camden or my proximity to the old party in question which he considered the more extraordinary, and so merely nodded.
‘She’s my cousin, Tittlebat,’ he continued, ‘three times removed. On the odd occasion, when I ain’t preoccupied with pressing matters of business, I lend her my private vehicle for church-going. Fine little rig-out, ain’t it? A fellow tries to do the decent thing by his relations. I’m the only family that she possesses, as it goes, apart from Selly – and they do say blood is thicker than water.’
‘Selly? You mean Miss Hathersage?’
(The presumption! That he should have called her Selly!)
‘That’s the one, little Selena. Known her since she was a tadpole –’
‘I confess,’ he continued, ‘I had a youthful fancy for her, before I had moustachios; and I do believe the little minx was tolerable warm for me. But a decent pair of moustachios give a fellow a dose of perspective, don’t you know? Well, perhaps you don’t –’
(Here, I could contain myself no longer.)
‘Sir,’ I exclaimed, ‘as a fellow Neptunian and a gentleman,’ – which was giving him far too much credit – ‘I will thank you not to speak so lightly of Miss Selena Hathersage!’
‘Good lord,’ he replied, ‘what a blow-up! Do I take it, Tittlebat, that you are bent upon defending the young lady’s honour?’
I rashly replied that, now that he mentioned it, I rather supposed I was.
‘Well, come now,’ he replied, jumping up and grabbing a pair of white kid gloves which lay casually discarded on the mantelpiece, ‘take these, my boy, and throw down the gauntlet!’
(I believe I must have looked quite astonished.)
‘I can procure the pistols, if you permit it; and, of course, we must each have a second. Come to think of it, I know a fellow in the Guards who might oblige. Now, where shall it be? Hampstead Heath or Hyde Park – or somewhere more out-of-the-way, for privacy, what? – Blackheath?’
‘Where shall what be?’
‘Why, the duel, my dear fellow. This is an affair of honour!’
He said this so very gravely and earnestly that, for a moment, I was quite at a loss. But then, plainly relishing my horrified confusion, his lips curled into a sly and wicked smile. Then came laughter – and more laughter still – until he slapped his thighs in pantomime fashion and doubled up, leaning on the mantelpiece for support. I blushed bright red, while he replaced the gloves and composed himself.
‘Oh my dear boy,’ he said, ‘your face! Come now! Think, Tittlebat! A fellow of my standing at the bar – admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, don’t you know? – yourself a mere schoolboy – whatever would people make of it? Forgive me! I am teasing you, my dear fellow; please do not take it to heart. Come now, I’ll find you a glass of something stronger and we’ll toast our mutual acquaintance – La Flint!’
A glass of gin soon appeared and Pym raised the toast to his cousin. Reluctantly, I joined him.
‘To Mrs Edwina Hathersage – long may she live – and then – well, may she remember her family!’
I was not bold enough to enquire about the precise nature or scale of his expectations – my mind briefly turned to Skillet’s rumours of buried treasure – but I consoled myself that he did not, at least, seem to have any strong personal claim on Selena’s affections.
‘The thing is, Tittlebat,’ he said, putting a hand on my arm as I made my excuses and rose to depart, ‘feel terrible about my little jest. Do let me do you a small service, eh? – Neptune forever! – all pickled in the same brine, what? Hear me out – are you a church-and-chapel sort? I only bring it up, my boy, since Miss Selena Hathersage is powerful fond of Our Lord and Saviour. Almighty fond, one might say! Useful intelligence, eh?’
I could not make immediate sense of it, but he continued regardless.
‘Don’t go in for it myself, mind you – no more than necessary – but both my cousin and her little niece are out-and-out chapel-goers – peculiar sect – queer little crib in Red Lion Square – not the place for a fellow with moustachios – wouldn’t do at all for me’ – he said this in the most insinuating fashion – ‘but if you’re rather sweet on Selly – well, you might want to put yourself in her good books – oh! I say – that’s deuced clever, what? Good Book –’
I interrupted him to say that I was nothing of the sort when it came to Miss Hathersage and bid him goodbye.
Walked home feeling both somewhat relieved and, at the same time, thoroughly bamboozled. I looked up Red Lion Square in the old street atlas which Papa keeps in the drawing-room; it is not far from Holborn Bars and Lincoln’s Inn Fields.