Our mutual friend, p.26
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       Our Mutual Friend, p.26

           Charles Dickens

  Chapter 9


  The Secretary, working in the Dismal Swamp betimes next morning, wasinformed that a youth waited in the hall who gave the name of Sloppy.The footman who communicated this intelligence made a decent pausebefore uttering the name, to express that it was forced on hisreluctance by the youth in question, and that if the youth had hadthe good sense and good taste to inherit some other name it would havespared the feelings of him the bearer.

  'Mrs Boffin will be very well pleased,' said the Secretary in aperfectly composed way. 'Show him in.'

  Mr Sloppy being introduced, remained close to the door: revealingin various parts of his form many surprising, confounding, andincomprehensible buttons.

  'I am glad to see you,' said John Rokesmith, in a cheerful tone ofwelcome. 'I have been expecting you.'

  Sloppy explained that he had meant to come before, but that the Orphan(of whom he made mention as Our Johnny) had been ailing, and he hadwaited to report him well.

  'Then he is well now?' said the Secretary.

  'No he ain't,' said Sloppy.

  Mr Sloppy having shaken his head to a considerable extent, proceededto remark that he thought Johnny 'must have took 'em from the Minders.'Being asked what he meant, he answered, them that come out upon him andpartickler his chest. Being requested to explain himself, he stated thatthere was some of 'em wot you couldn't kiver with a sixpence. Pressed tofall back upon a nominative case, he opined that they wos about asred as ever red could be. 'But as long as they strikes out'ards, sir,'continued Sloppy, 'they ain't so much. It's their striking in'ardsthat's to be kep off.'

  John Rokesmith hoped the child had had medical attendance? Oh yes, saidSloppy, he had been took to the doctor's shop once. And what did thedoctor call it? Rokesmith asked him. After some perplexed reflection,Sloppy answered, brightening, 'He called it something as wos werylong for spots.' Rokesmith suggested measles. 'No,' said Sloppy withconfidence, 'ever so much longer than THEM, sir!' (Mr Sloppy waselevated by this fact, and seemed to consider that it reflected crediton the poor little patient.)

  'Mrs Boffin will be sorry to hear this,' said Rokesmith.

  'Mrs Higden said so, sir, when she kep it from her, hoping as Our Johnnywould work round.'

  'But I hope he will?' said Rokesmith, with a quick turn upon themessenger.

  'I hope so,' answered Sloppy. 'It all depends on their strikingin'ards.' He then went on to say that whether Johnny had 'took 'em'from the Minders, or whether the Minders had 'took em from Johnny,the Minders had been sent home and had 'got em. Furthermore, that MrsHigden's days and nights being devoted to Our Johnny, who was never outof her lap, the whole of the mangling arrangements had devolved uponhimself, and he had had 'rayther a tight time'. The ungainly piece ofhonesty beamed and blushed as he said it, quite enraptured with theremembrance of having been serviceable.

  'Last night,' said Sloppy, 'when I was a-turning at the wheel prettylate, the mangle seemed to go like Our Johnny's breathing. It begunbeautiful, then as it went out it shook a little and got unsteady, thenas it took the turn to come home it had a rattle-like and lumbered abit, then it come smooth, and so it went on till I scarce know'd whichwas mangle and which was Our Johnny. Nor Our Johnny, he scarce know'deither, for sometimes when the mangle lumbers he says, "Me choking,Granny!" and Mrs Higden holds him up in her lap and says to me "Bide abit, Sloppy," and we all stops together. And when Our Johnny gets hisbreathing again, I turns again, and we all goes on together.'

  Sloppy had gradually expanded with his description into a stare and avacant grin. He now contracted, being silent, into a half-repressed gushof tears, and, under pretence of being heated, drew the under part ofhis sleeve across his eyes with a singularly awkward, laborious, androundabout smear.

  'This is unfortunate,' said Rokesmith. 'I must go and break it to MrsBoffin. Stay you here, Sloppy.'

  Sloppy stayed there, staring at the pattern of the paper on the wall,until the Secretary and Mrs Boffin came back together. And with MrsBoffin was a young lady (Miss Bella Wilfer by name) who was better worthstaring at, it occurred to Sloppy, than the best of wall-papering.

  'Ah, my poor dear pretty little John Harmon!' exclaimed Mrs Boffin.

  'Yes mum,' said the sympathetic Sloppy.

  'You don't think he is in a very, very bad way, do you?' asked thepleasant creature with her wholesome cordiality.

  Put upon his good faith, and finding it in collision with hisinclinations, Sloppy threw back his head and uttered a mellifluous howl,rounded off with a sniff.

  'So bad as that!' cried Mrs Boffin. 'And Betty Higden not to tell me ofit sooner!'

  'I think she might have been mistrustful, mum,' answered Sloppy,hesitating.

  'Of what, for Heaven's sake?'

  'I think she might have been mistrustful, mum,' returned Sloppy withsubmission, 'of standing in Our Johnny's light. There's so much troublein illness, and so much expense, and she's seen such a lot of its beingobjected to.'

  'But she never can have thought,' said Mrs Boffin, 'that I would grudgethe dear child anything?'

  'No mum, but she might have thought (as a habit-like) of its standingin Johnny's light, and might have tried to bring him through itunbeknownst.'

  Sloppy knew his ground well. To conceal herself in sickness, like alower animal; to creep out of sight and coil herself away and die; hadbecome this woman's instinct. To catch up in her arms the sick child whowas dear to her, and hide it as if it were a criminal, and keep off allministration but such as her own ignorant tenderness and patience couldsupply, had become this woman's idea of maternal love, fidelity, andduty. The shameful accounts we read, every week in the Christian year,my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, the infamous records ofsmall official inhumanity, do not pass by the people as they pass byus. And hence these irrational, blind, and obstinate prejudices, soastonishing to our magnificence, and having no more reason in them--Godsave the Queen and Confound their politics--no, than smoke has in comingfrom fire!

  'It's not a right place for the poor child to stay in,' said Mrs Boffin.'Tell us, dear Mr Rokesmith, what to do for the best.'

  He had already thought what to do, and the consultation was very short.He could pave the way, he said, in half an hour, and then they would godown to Brentford. 'Pray take me,' said Bella. Therefore a carriage wasordered, of capacity to take them all, and in the meantime Sloppywas regaled, feasting alone in the Secretary's room, with a completerealization of that fairy vision--meat, beer, vegetables, and pudding.In consequence of which his buttons became more importunate of publicnotice than before, with the exception of two or three about the regionof the waistband, which modestly withdrew into a creasy retirement.

  Punctual to the time, appeared the carriage and the Secretary. He saton the box, and Mr Sloppy graced the rumble. So, to the Three Magpies asbefore: where Mrs Boffin and Miss Bella were handed out, and whence theyall went on foot to Mrs Betty Higden's.

  But, on the way down, they had stopped at a toy-shop, and had boughtthat noble charger, a description of whose points and trappings had onthe last occasion conciliated the then worldly-minded orphan, and also aNoah's ark, and also a yellow bird with an artificial voice in him,and also a military doll so well dressed that if he had only been oflife-size his brother-officers in the Guards might never have found himout. Bearing these gifts, they raised the latch of Betty Higden's door,and saw her sitting in the dimmest and furthest corner with poor Johnnyin her lap.

  'And how's my boy, Betty?' asked Mrs Boffin, sitting down beside her.

  'He's bad! He's bad!' said Betty. 'I begin to be afeerd he'll not beyours any more than mine. All others belonging to him have gone tothe Power and the Glory, and I have a mind that they're drawing him tothem--leading him away.'

  'No, no, no,' said Mrs Boffin.

  'I don't know why else he clenches his little hand as if it had hold ofa finger that I can't see. Look at it,' said Betty, opening the wrappersin which the flushed child
lay, and showing his small right hand lyingclosed upon his breast. 'It's always so. It don't mind me.'

  'Is he asleep?'

  'No, I think not. You're not asleep, my Johnny?'

  'No,' said Johnny, with a quiet air of pity for himself; and withoutopening his eyes.

  'Here's the lady, Johnny. And the horse.'

  Johnny could bear the lady, with complete indifference, but not thehorse. Opening his heavy eyes, he slowly broke into a smile on beholdingthat splendid phenomenon, and wanted to take it in his arms. As it wasmuch too big, it was put upon a chair where he could hold it by the maneand contemplate it. Which he soon forgot to do.

  But, Johnny murmuring something with his eyes closed, and Mrs Boffinnot knowing what, old Betty bent her ear to listen and took pains tounderstand. Being asked by her to repeat what he had said, he did so twoor three times, and then it came out that he must have seen more thanthey supposed when he looked up to see the horse, for the murmur was,'Who is the boofer lady?' Now, the boofer, or beautiful, lady was Bella;and whereas this notice from the poor baby would have touched her ofitself; it was rendered more pathetic by the late melting of her heartto her poor little father, and their joke about the lovely woman. So,Bella's behaviour was very tender and very natural when she kneeled onthe brick floor to clasp the child, and when the child, with a child'sadmiration of what is young and pretty, fondled the boofer lady.

  'Now, my good dear Betty,' said Mrs Boffin, hoping that she saw heropportunity, and laying her hand persuasively on her arm; 'we have cometo remove Johnny from this cottage to where he can be taken better careof.'

  Instantly, and before another word could be spoken, the old womanstarted up with blazing eyes, and rushed at the door with the sickchild.

  'Stand away from me every one of ye!' she cried out wildly. 'I see whatye mean now. Let me go my way, all of ye. I'd sooner kill the Pretty,and kill myself!'

  'Stay, stay!' said Rokesmith, soothing her. 'You don't understand.'

  'I understand too well. I know too much about it, sir. I've run fromit too many a year. No! Never for me, nor for the child, while there'swater enough in England to cover us!'

  The terror, the shame, the passion of horror and repugnance, firing theworn face and perfectly maddening it, would have been a quite terriblesight, if embodied in one old fellow-creature alone. Yet it 'cropsup'--as our slang goes--my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, inother fellow-creatures, rather frequently!

  'It's been chasing me all my life, but it shall never take me nor minealive!' cried old Betty. 'I've done with ye. I'd have fastened door andwindow and starved out, afore I'd ever have let ye in, if I had knownwhat ye came for!'

  But, catching sight of Mrs Boffin's wholesome face, she relented, andcrouching down by the door and bending over her burden to hush it, saidhumbly: 'Maybe my fears has put me wrong. If they have so, tell me, andthe good Lord forgive me! I'm quick to take this fright, I know, and myhead is summ'at light with wearying and watching.'

  'There, there, there!' returned Mrs Boffin. 'Come, come! Say no more ofit, Betty. It was a mistake, a mistake. Any one of us might have made itin your place, and felt just as you do.'

  'The Lord bless ye!' said the old woman, stretching out her hand.

  'Now, see, Betty,' pursued the sweet compassionate soul, holding thehand kindly, 'what I really did mean, and what I should have begun bysaying out, if I had only been a little wiser and handier. We want tomove Johnny to a place where there are none but children; a place setup on purpose for sick children; where the good doctors and nurses passtheir lives with children, talk to none but children, touch none butchildren, comfort and cure none but children.'

  'Is there really such a place?' asked the old woman, with a gaze ofwonder.

  'Yes, Betty, on my word, and you shall see it. If my home was a betterplace for the dear boy, I'd take him to it; but indeed indeed it's not.'

  'You shall take him,' returned Betty, fervently kissing the comfortinghand, 'where you will, my deary. I am not so hard, but that I believeyour face and voice, and I will, as long as I can see and hear.'

  This victory gained, Rokesmith made haste to profit by it, for he sawhow woefully time had been lost. He despatched Sloppy to bring thecarriage to the door; caused the child to be carefully wrapped up; badeold Betty get her bonnet on; collected the toys, enabling the littlefellow to comprehend that his treasures were to be transported withhim; and had all things prepared so easily that they were ready forthe carriage as soon as it appeared, and in a minute afterwards wereon their way. Sloppy they left behind, relieving his overcharged breastwith a paroxysm of mangling.

  At the Children's Hospital, the gallant steed, the Noah's ark, yellowbird, and the officer in the Guards, were made as welcome as theirchild-owner. But the doctor said aside to Rokesmith, 'This should havebeen days ago. Too late!'

  However, they were all carried up into a fresh airy room, and thereJohnny came to himself, out of a sleep or a swoon or whatever it was,to find himself lying in a little quiet bed, with a little platform overhis breast, on which were already arranged, to give him heart and urgehim to cheer up, the Noah's ark, the noble steed, and the yellow bird;with the officer in the Guards doing duty over the whole, quite as muchto the satisfaction of his country as if he had been upon Parade. And atthe bed's head was a coloured picture beautiful to see, representing asit were another Johnny seated on the knee of some Angel surely who lovedlittle children. And, marvellous fact, to lie and stare at: Johnny hadbecome one of a little family, all in little quiet beds (except twoplaying dominoes in little arm-chairs at a little table on the hearth):and on all the little beds were little platforms whereon were to beseen dolls' houses, woolly dogs with mechanical barks in them not verydissimilar from the artificial voice pervading the bowels of the yellowbird, tin armies, Moorish tumblers, wooden tea things, and the riches ofthe earth.

  As Johnny murmured something in his placid admiration, the ministeringwomen at his bed's head asked him what he said. It seemed that he wantedto know whether all these were brothers and sisters of his? So they toldhim yes. It seemed then, that he wanted to know whether God had broughtthem all together there? So they told him yes again. They made out then,that he wanted to know whether they would all get out of pain? So theyanswered yes to that question likewise, and made him understand that thereply included himself.

  Johnny's powers of sustaining conversation were as yet so veryimperfectly developed, even in a state of health, that in sickness theywere little more than monosyllabic. But, he had to be washed and tended,and remedies were applied, and though those offices were far, far moreskilfully and lightly done than ever anything had been done for him inhis little life, so rough and short, they would have hurt and tired himbut for an amazing circumstance which laid hold of his attention. Thiswas no less than the appearance on his own little platform in pairs,of All Creation, on its way into his own particular ark: the elephantleading, and the fly, with a diffident sense of his size, politelybringing up the rear. A very little brother lying in the next bed with abroken leg, was so enchanted by this spectacle that his delight exaltedits enthralling interest; and so came rest and sleep.

  'I see you are not afraid to leave the dear child here, Betty,'whispered Mrs Boffin.

  'No, ma'am. Most willingly, most thankfully, with all my heart andsoul.'

  So, they kissed him, and left him there, and old Betty was to come backearly in the morning, and nobody but Rokesmith knew for certain how thatthe doctor had said, 'This should have been days ago. Too late!'

  But, Rokesmith knowing it, and knowing that his bearing it in mind wouldbe acceptable thereafter to that good woman who had been the only lightin the childhood of desolate John Harmon dead and gone, resolved thatlate at night he would go back to the bedside of John Harmon's namesake,and see how it fared with him.

  The family whom God had brought together were not all asleep, but wereall quiet. From bed to bed, a light womanly tread and a pleasant freshface passed in the silence of the
night. A little head would lift itselfup into the softened light here and there, to be kissed as the face wentby--for these little patients are very loving--and would then submititself to be composed to rest again. The mite with the broken leg wasrestless, and moaned; but after a while turned his face towards Johnny'sbed, to fortify himself with a view of the ark, and fell asleep. Overmost of the beds, the toys were yet grouped as the children had leftthem when they last laid themselves down, and, in their innocentgrotesqueness and incongruity, they might have stood for the children'sdreams.

  The doctor came in too, to see how it fared with Johnny. And he andRokesmith stood together, looking down with compassion on him.

  'What is it, Johnny?' Rokesmith was the questioner, and put an arm roundthe poor baby as he made a struggle.

  'Him!' said the little fellow. 'Those!'

  The doctor was quick to understand children, and, taking the horse,the ark, the yellow bird, and the man in the Guards, from Johnny's bed,softly placed them on that of his next neighbour, the mite with thebroken leg.

  With a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if hestretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body onthe sustaining arm, and seeking Rokesmith's face with his lips, said:

  'A kiss for the boofer lady.'

  Having now bequeathed all he had to dispose of, and arranged his affairsin this world, Johnny, thus speaking, left it.

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