The lamplighter, p.1
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       The Lamplighter, p.1
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           Charles Dickens
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The Lamplighter

  Transcribed from the 1905 Chapman & Hall edition (_The Works of CharlesDickens_, volume 28) by David Price, email

  [Picture: Book cover]


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  ‘IF you talk of Murphy and Francis Moore, gentlemen,’ said thelamplighter who was in the chair, ‘I mean to say that neither of ’em everhad any more to do with the stars than Tom Grig had.’

  ‘And what had _he_ to do with ’em?’ asked the lamplighter who officiatedas vice.

  ‘Nothing at all,’ replied the other; ‘just exactly nothing at all.’

  ‘Do you mean to say you don’t believe in Murphy, then?’ demanded thelamplighter who had opened the discussion.

  ‘I mean to say I believe in Tom Grig,’ replied the chairman. ‘Whether Ibelieve in Murphy, or not, is a matter between me and my conscience; andwhether Murphy believes in himself, or not, is a matter between him andhis conscience. Gentlemen, I drink your healths.’

  The lamplighter who did the company this honour, was seated in thechimney-corner of a certain tavern, which has been, time out of mind, theLamplighters’ House of Call. He sat in the midst of a circle oflamplighters, and was the cacique, or chief of the tribe.

  If any of our readers have had the good fortune to behold a lamplighter’sfuneral, they will not be surprised to learn that lamplighters are astrange and primitive people; that they rigidly adhere to old ceremoniesand customs which have been handed down among them from father to sonsince the first public lamp was lighted out of doors; that theyintermarry, and betroth their children in infancy; that they enter intono plots or conspiracies (for who ever heard of a traitorouslamplighter?); that they commit no crimes against the laws of theircountry (there being no instance of a murderous or burglariouslamplighter); that they are, in short, notwithstanding their apparentlyvolatile and restless character, a highly moral and reflective people:having among themselves as many traditional observances as the Jews, andbeing, as a body, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as thestreets. It is an article of their creed that the first faint glimmeringof true civilisation shone in the first street-light maintained at thepublic expense. They trace their existence and high position in thepublic esteem, in a direct line to the heathen mythology; and hold thatthe history of Prometheus himself is but a pleasant fable, whereof thetrue hero is a lamplighter.

  ‘Gentlemen,’ said the lamplighter in the chair, ‘I drink your healths.’

  ‘And perhaps, Sir,’ said the vice, holding up his glass, and rising alittle way off his seat and sitting down again, in token that herecognised and returned the compliment, ‘perhaps you will add to thatcondescension by telling us who Tom Grig was, and how he came to beconnected in your mind with Francis Moore, Physician.’

  ‘Hear, hear, hear!’ cried the lamplighters generally.

  ‘Tom Grig, gentlemen,’ said the chairman, ‘was one of us; and it happenedto him, as it don’t often happen to a public character in our line, thathe had his what-you-may-call-it cast.’

  ‘His head?’ said the vice.

  ‘No,’ replied the chairman, ‘not his head.’

  ‘His face, perhaps?’ said the vice. ‘No, not his face.’ ‘His legs?’‘No, not his legs.’ Nor yet his arms, nor his hands, nor his feet, norhis chest, all of which were severally suggested.

  ‘His nativity, perhaps?’

  ‘That’s it,’ said the chairman, awakening from his thoughtful attitude atthe suggestion. ‘His nativity. That’s what Tom had cast, gentlemen.’

  ‘In plaster?’ asked the vice.

  ‘I don’t rightly know how it’s done,’ returned the chairman. ‘But Isuppose it was.’

  And there he stopped as if that were all he had to say; whereupon therearose a murmur among the company, which at length resolved itself into arequest, conveyed through the vice, that he would go on. This beingexactly what the chairman wanted, he mused for a little time, performedthat agreeable ceremony which is popularly termed wetting one’s whistle,and went on thus:

  ‘Tom Grig, gentlemen, was, as I have said, one of us; and I may gofurther, and say he was an ornament to us, and such a one as only thegood old times of oil and cotton could have produced. Tom’s family,gentlemen, were all lamplighters.’

  ‘Not the ladies, I hope?’ asked the vice.

  ‘They had talent enough for it, Sir,’ rejoined the chairman, ‘and wouldhave been, but for the prejudices of society. Let women have theirrights, Sir, and the females of Tom’s family would have been every one of’em in office. But that emancipation hasn’t come yet, and hadn’t then,and consequently they confined themselves to the bosoms of theirfamilies, cooked the dinners, mended the clothes, minded the children,comforted their husbands, and attended to the house-keeping generally.It’s a hard thing upon the women, gentlemen, that they are limited tosuch a sphere of action as this; very hard.

  ‘I happen to know all about Tom, gentlemen, from the circumstance of hisuncle by his mother’s side, having been my particular friend. His(that’s Tom’s uncle’s) fate was a melancholy one. Gas was the death ofhim. When it was first talked of, he laughed. He wasn’t angry; helaughed at the credulity of human nature. “They might as well talk,” hesays, “of laying on an everlasting succession of glow-worms;” and then helaughed again, partly at his joke, and partly at poor humanity.

  ‘In course of time, however, the thing got ground, the experiment wasmade, and they lighted up Pall Mall. Tom’s uncle went to see it. I’veheard that he fell off his ladder fourteen times that night, fromweakness, and that he would certainly have gone on falling till he killedhimself, if his last tumble hadn’t been into a wheelbarrow which wasgoing his way, and humanely took him home. “I foresee in this,” saysTom’s uncle faintly, and taking to his bed as he spoke—“I foresee inthis,” he says, “the breaking up of our profession. There’s no moregoing the rounds to trim by daylight, no more dribbling down of the oilon the hats and bonnets of ladies and gentlemen when one feels inspirits. Any low fellow can light a gas-lamp. And it’s all up.” Inthis state of mind, he petitioned the government for—I want a word again,gentlemen—what do you call that which they give to people when it’s foundout, at last, that they’ve never been of any use, and have been paid toomuch for doing nothing?’

  ‘Compensation?’ suggested the vice.

  ‘That’s it,’ said the chairman. ‘Compensation. They didn’t give it him,though, and then he got very fond of his country all at once, and wentabout saying that gas was a death-blow to his native land, and that itwas a plot of the radicals to ruin the country and destroy the oil andcotton trade for ever, and that the whales would go and kill themselvesprivately, out of sheer spite and vexation at not being caught. At lasthe got right-down cracked; called his tobacco-pipe a gas-pipe; thoughthis tears were lamp-oil; and went on with all manner of nonsense of thatsort, till one night he hung himself on a lamp-iron in Saint Martin’sLane, and there was an end of _him_.

  ‘Tom loved him, gentlemen, but he survived it. He shed a tear over hisgrave, got very drunk, spoke a funeral oration that night in thewatch-house, and was fined five shillings for it, in the morning. Somemen are none the worse for this sort of thing. Tom was one of ’em. Hewent that very afternoon on a new beat: as clear in his head, and as freefrom fever as Father Mathew himself.

  ‘Tom’s new beat, gen
tlemen, was—I can’t exactly say where, for that he’dnever tell; but I know it was in a quiet part of town, where there weresome queer old houses. I have always had it in my head that it must havebeen somewhere near Canonbury Tower in Islington, but that’s a matter ofopinion. Wherever it was, he went upon it, with a bran-new ladder, awhite hat, a brown holland jacket and trousers, a blue neck-kerchief, anda sprig of full-blown double wall-flower in his button-hole. Tom wasalways genteel in his appearance, and I have heard from the best judges,that if he had left his ladder at home that afternoon, you might havetook him for a lord.

  ‘He was always merry, was Tom, and such a singer, that if there was anyencouragement for native talent, he’d have been at the opera. He was onhis ladder, lighting his first lamp, and singing to himself in a mannermore easily to be conceived than described, when he hears the clockstrike five, and suddenly sees an old gentleman with a telescope in hishand, throw up a window and look at him very hard.

  ‘Tom didn’t know what could be passing in this old gentleman’s mind. Hethought it likely enough that he might be saying within himself, “Here’sa new
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