’Aha!’ said the old man, a brief description of whose manner and appearance concluded the last chapter, ‘aha! who was talking about the inns?’
‘I was, Sir,’ replied Mr. Pickwick—‘I was observing what singular old places they are.’
‘You!’ said the old man contemptuously. ‘What do you know of the time when young men shut themselves up in those lonely rooms, and read and read, hour after hour, and night after night, till their reason wandered beneath their midnight studies; till their mental powers were exhausted; till morning’s light brought no freshness or health to them; and they sank beneath the unnatural devotion of their youthful energies to their dry old books? Coming down to a later time, and a very different day, what do you know of the gradual sinking beneath consumption, or the quick wasting of fever—the grand results of “life” and dissipation—which men have undergone in these same rooms? How many vain pleaders for mercy, do you think, have turned away heart-sick from the lawyer’s office, to find a resting-place in the Thames, or a refuge in the jail? They are no ordinary houses, those. There is not a panel in the old wainscotting, but what, if it were endowed with the powers of speech and memory, could start from the wall, and tell its tale of horror—the romance of life, Sir, the romance of life! Common-place as they may seem now, I tell you they are strange old places, and I would rather hear many a legend with a terrific-sounding name, than the true history of one old set of chambers.’
There was something so odd in the old man’s sudden energy, and the subject which had called it forth, that Mr. Pickwick was prepared with no observation in reply; and the old man checking his impetuosity, and resuming the leer, which had disappeared during his previous excitement, said—
‘Look at them in another light—their most common-place and least romantic. What fine places of slow torture they are! Think of the needy man who has spent his all, beggared himself, and pinched his friends, to enter the profession, which is destined never to yield him a morsel of bread. The waiting—the hope—the disappointment—the fear—the misery—the poverty—the blight on his hopes, and end to his career—the suicide perhaps, or the shabby, slipshod drunkard. Am I not right about them?’ And the old man rubbed his hands, and leered as if in delight at having found another point of view in which to place his favourite subject.
Mr. Pickwick eyed the old man with great curiosity, and the remainder of the company smiled, and looked on in silence.
‘Talk of your German universities,’ said the little old man. ‘Pooh, pooh! there’s romance enough at home without going half a mile for it; only people never think of it.’
‘I never thought of the romance of this particular subject before, certainly,’ said Mr. Pickwick, laughing.
‘To be sure you didn’t,’ said the little old man; ‘of course not. As a friend of mine used to say to me, “What is there in chambers in particular?” “Queer old places,” said I. “Not at all,” said he. “Lonely,” said I. “Not a bit of it,” said he. He died one morning of apoplexy, as he was going to open his outer door. Fell with his head in his own letter-box, and there he lay for eighteen months. Everybody thought he’d gone out of town.’
‘And how was he found out at last?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.
‘The benchers determined to have his door broken open, as he hadn’t paid any rent for two years. So they did. Forced the lock; and a very dusty skeleton in a blue coat, black knee-shorts, and silks, fell forward in the arms of the porter who opened the door. Queer, that. Rather, perhaps; rather, eh?’ The little old man put his head more on one side, and rubbed his hands with unspeakable glee.
‘I know another case,’ said the little old man, when his chuckles had in some degree subsided. ‘It occurred in Clifford’s Inn. Tenant of a top set—bad character—shut himself up in his bedroom closet, and took a dose of arsenic. The steward thought he had run away: opened the door, and put a bill up. Another man came, took the chambers, furnished them, and went to live there. Somehow or other he couldn’t sleep—always restless and uncomfortable. “Odd,” says he. “I’ll make the other room my bedchamber, and this my sitting-room.” He made the change, and slept very well at night, but suddenly found that, somehow, he couldn’t read in the evening: he got nervous and uncomfortable, and used to be always snuffing his candles and staring about him. “I can’t make this out,” said he, when he came home from the play one night, and was drinking a glass of cold grog, with his back to the wall, in order that he mightn’t be able to fancy there was any one behind him—“I can’t make it out,” said he; and just then his eyes rested on the little closet that had been always locked up, and a shudder ran through his whole frame from top to toe. “I have felt this strange feeling before,” said he, “I cannot help thinking there’s something wrong about that closet.” He made a strong effort, plucked up his courage, shivered the lock with a blow or two of the poker, opened the door, and there, sure enough, standing bolt upright in the corner, was the last tenant, with a little bottle clasped firmly in his hand, and his face—well!’ As the little old man concluded, he looked round on the attentive faces of his wondering auditory with a smile of grim delight.
‘What strange things these are you tell us of, Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, minutely scanning the old man’s countenance, by the aid of his glasses.
‘Strange!’ said the little old man. ‘Nonsense; you think them strange, because you know nothing about it. They are funny, but not uncommon.’
‘Funny!’ exclaimed Mr. Pickwick involuntarily.
‘Yes, funny, are they not?’ replied the little old man, with a diabolical leer; and then, without pausing for an answer, he continued—
‘I knew another man—let me see—forty years ago now—who took an old, damp, rotten set of chambers, in one of the most ancient inns, that had been shut up and empty for years and years before. There were lots of old women’s stories about the place, and it certainly was very far from being a cheerful one; but he was poor, and the rooms were cheap, and that would have been quite a sufficient reason for him, if they had been ten times worse than they really were. He was obliged to take some mouldering fixtures that were on the place, and, among the rest, was a great lumbering wooden press for papers, with large glass doors, and a green curtain inside; a pretty useless thing for him, for he had no papers to put in it; and as to his clothes, he carried them about with him, and that wasn’t very hard work, either. Well, he had moved in all his furniture—it wasn’t quite a truck-full—and had sprinkled it about the room, so as to make the four chairs look as much like a dozen as possible, and was sitting down before the fire at night, drinking the first glass of two gallons of whisky he had ordered on credit, wondering whether it would ever be paid for, and if so, in how many years’ time, when his eyes encountered the glass doors of the wooden press. “Ah,” says he, “if I hadn’t been obliged to take that ugly article at the old broker’s valuation, I might have got something comfortable for the money. I’ll tell you what it is, old fellow,” he said, speaking aloud to the press, having nothing else to speak to, “if it wouldn’t cost more to break up your old carcass, than it would ever be worth afterward, I’d have a fire out of you in less than no time.” He had hardly spoken the words, when a sound resembling a faint groan, appeared to issue from the interior of the case. It startled him at first, but thinking, on a moment’s reflection, that it must be some young fellow in the next chamber, who had been dining out, he put his feet on the fender, and raised the poker to stir the fire. At that moment, the sound was repeated; and one of the glass doors slowly opening, disclosed a pale and emaciated figure in soiled and worn apparel, standing erect in the press. The figure was tall and thin, and the countenance expressive of care and anxiety; but there was something in the hue of the skin, and gaunt and unearthly appearance of the whole form, which no being of this world was ever seen to wear. “Who are you?” said the new tenant, turning very pale; poising the poker in his hand, however, and taking a very decent aim at the countenance of the figure. “Who are you?” “Don’t throw that poker at me,” replied the form; “if you hurled it with ever so sure an aim, it would pass through me, without resistance, and expend its force on the wood behind. I am a spirit.” “And pray, what do you want here?” faltered the tenant. “In this room,” replied the apparition, “my worldly ruin was worked, and I and my children beggared. In this press, the papers in a long, long suit, which accumulated for years, were deposited. In this room, when I had died of grief, and long-deferred hope, two wily harpies divided the wealth for which I had contested during a wretched existence, and of which, at last, not one farthing was left for my unhappy descendants. I terrified them from the spot, and since that day have prowled by night—the only period at which I can revisit the earth—about the scenes of my long-protracted misery. This apartment is mine: leave it to me.” “If you insist upon making your appearance here,” said the tenant, who had had time to collect his presence of mind during this prosy statement of the ghost’s, “I shall give up possession with the greatest pleasure; but I should like to ask you one question, if you will allow me.” “Say on,” said the apparition sternly. “Well,” said the tenant, “I don’t apply the observation personally to you, because it is equally applicable to most of the ghosts I ever heard of; but it does appear to me somewhat inconsistent, that when you have an opportunity of visiting the fairest spots of earth—for I suppose space is nothing to you—you should always return exactly to the very places where you have been most miserable.” “Egad, that’s very true; I never thought of that before,” said the ghost. “You see, Sir,” pursued the tenant, “this is a very uncomfortable room. From the appearance of that press, I should be disposed to say that it is not wholly free from bugs; and I really think you might find much more comfortable quarters: to say nothing of the climate of London, which is extremely disagreeable.” “You are very right, Sir,” said the ghost politely, “it never struck me till now; I’ll try change of air directly”—and, in fact, he began to vanish as he spoke; his legs, indeed, had quite disappeared. “And if, Sir,” said the tenant, calling after him, “if you would have the goodness to suggest to the other ladies and gentlemen who are now engaged in haunting old empty houses, that they might be much more comfortable elsewhere, you will confer a very great benefit on society.” “I will,” replied the ghost; “we must be dull fellows—very dull fellows, indeed; I can’t imagine how we can have been so stupid.” With these words, the spirit disappeared; and what is rather remarkable,’ added the old man, with a shrewd look round the table, ‘he never came back again.’
Taken from Charles Dickens ,The Pickwick Papers. Chapman & Hall, March 1836-November 1837, chap. 21. 1868 edition of the full text from HATHITRUST.
Image: "White Lion Inn, Ponder's End, Middlesex" by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), 1822. Yale University Library, Auchincloss Rowlandson v. 14.