This installment was written by Nina. Marian has signed on for part 5 (Marian, please confirm this), and I'm taking part 6.
When one is faint, one engages in the most absurd contemplations. This is why Mr. Dickens wondered vaguely, as he was towed along the street by the two Bleak House gentlemen, why Mr. Guppy had such a very hard time holding up the author’s right side, and kept dropping him, to Richard’s worried exclamations. Of course, it must be admitted they were all rather shaken by their circumstances -- as Mr. Dickens was too weary to explain, the newcomers had been informed of their odd existence by Jenny, who always kept her wits about her as though she packed them in a little reticule. Ada and Richard understood her, as astonished as they were, but it had taken near a quarter-hour before Mr. Guppy could be made to comprehend. He had kept on saying things like “under law” and “habeas corpus” until he almost felt Jenny’s wrath a la Steerforth. Finally he nodded and said “So THAT explains the curious and erroneous terminology hitherto employed in the conversation,” but still no one was sure he entirely fathomed what was going on.
At length, Mr. Guppy cleared his throat and began making diverse preparations for, Mr. Dickens deduced, a speech. The author decided then and there that never would he write such a talkative person again.
“I am really privileged to be in the presence of such a…” Mr. Guppy paused a moment, groping for the right word -- “loquacious author as yourself.” His confidential expression, Mr. Dickens observed, seemed to be awaiting some response, so the author thanked him dryly.
“Yes, well, now that we understand one another,” Mr. Guppy pursued, casually, “I was wondering if I could make a suggestion regarding one of your -- ah -- published accounts?” He took Mr. Dickens’ silence for encouragement. “See, since you said you was responsible for the things that occurred in all our brief journeys entitled ‘Life’ -- and I’m sure we’re all very grateful for that,” he added, appealing to the rest of the party with a nod, “I wondered if you, as a sort of presiding officer, could make an…amendation (or even an appendix would do), to the way things turned out for myself, William Guppy of Pentonville Place, Pentonville? For instance, perhaps you could remove a few obstacles from my ascension to the top of the legal sphere? Or -- perhaps you already have written it this way, but if you were to change Miss Summerson’s mind regarding my offers of matrimony -- ”
“Just exactly like you boys!” Jenny finally interrupted with an exasperated snap, bringing all to a sharp stop. “Lord save you, but do you think only of yourself? All the time? That may be why this Miss Summerson, or Springrain, or Wintersnow ignores you! LORD!”
Mr. Guppy opened his mouth, closed it, and then there was no conversation for the rest of their walk, except when Mr. Guppy gained enough courage to mouth that at least Mr. Dickens needn’t vibrate the tender cords of emotion so much, as they vibrated enough of their own accord, thank you very much. But otherwise there was silence.
After continuing on in this manner, but making very little progress, Ada asked timidly, “Oughtn’t we to be there by now, Mr. Dickens? You said we were in the area, after all.”
Mr. Dickens pressed his hand to his head and winced as he remembered the gash, which was still trickling blood after being poorly stopped with Mr. Guppy’s monogrammed handkerchief (the G of which suggested Gore in a most appropriate manner). “We should be nearby. I believe so. In the novel, Pickwick’s house was just in this neighborhood -- I modeled it after an old house that had been shut up by the banks.”
“And the courts, I daresay,” Richard muttered irritably. “Oh Guppy, do hold up your end!” Mr. Dickens swayed as the clerk hoisted him up.
“Who is this Mr. Pickwick, again?” Mr. Guppy asked, loudly.
Now there are grand coincidences in life, and reader, here is one. For just as Mr. Guppy called out “Mr. Pickwick!” in his less-than-upper-class accent, a rotund, elderly gentleman in a dressing gown and pristine white spats turned the corner. “Why Sam, there you are!” he called with a sigh of relief, hastening toward them. “Oh lord, I’ve been looking all over for you to make the breakfast and prepare my clothes. You really ought to tell me when you step out for a chew of tobacco.”
“It’s Pickwick!” Dickens gasped in astonishment as that man’s glance fell on the author’s bloody head.
“Oh lord oh lord,” Mr. Pickwick gasped, blanching. “You’re incapacitated, to be sure! Sam!” he added in his most authoritative voice, “get this man inside. Sam, why don’t you reply?!” He shoved his face into Mr. Guppy’s. “It won’t do to be insolent, you know!”
“Insolent?” Mr. Guppy echoed, blankly. “What, sir, is that supposed to mean? And why do you call me Sam?”
It was Richard who flew to the rescue. “Why, Sam here,” he said, winking at Mr. Guppy, “came to our aid. He was just going to bring us to you, so Mr. Dickens here could have his head bandaged.”
“Oh, of course,” Mr. Pickwick nodded sympathetically, ushering them into the very house Mr. Dickens had earlier described. It was clear he had no idea that anything out of the ordinary had happened, unlike the other characters -- except that Sam had gone missing.
“We shall have to content ourselves with toast this morning, Samuel Weller,” he told Mr. Guppy rather icily, as he collected a series of ointments from a cupboard near the door, “seeing as how you were absent for breakfast-time.”
Mr. Guppy did not appreciate this display of loftiness. It struck him, wounded him deeply, and he didn’t particularly like to be lorded over by everyone -- he could take no more. “My name never has been, nor never will be,” Mr. Guppy declared loudly, in the height of his emotion, “Samuel Weller!”
Mr. Pickwick blinked once more, mildly. “Ah. Well. Whatever you say, my lad. I feel I’m a bit dotty today, at any rate -- I’m sure you are, too. Perhaps if you were to brush my coat and shine my shoes you would feel like yourself again,” and that great philanthropist dispatched Mr. Guppy, who towered in insupportable exasperation, immediately. “Now then,” turning to Mr. Dickens pleasantly, “What was it you were looking for?”
In order that you, reader, will not begin to think this story too outlandish, we must explain that the speed with which the villains developed their scheme is actually quite understandable. Perhaps it is due to the fact that their entire life from birth to the grave can be lived in a few hours of light reading. At any rate, Mr. Dickens’ less satisfactory creations -- and oh, how many there were! -- were drawn together as by a magnet upon their arrival in our world, and as Mr. Dickens spent his afternoon, night, and morning in turmoil, they had constructed a careful plan to seal his fate, from the depths of their combined selfishness, greed, cunning, contempt, and sorrow.
Presiding over these dignities were two worthies with whom our reader has already grown acquainted: one Mr. Seth Pecksniff and his associate Uriah Heep. What a study in contrasts the two were, as they sat side-by-side in the dusty old tavern which was their meeting place (and indeed, one of the party, an exotic foreigner of many names, who cheated many a lass up and down the coasts of Europe, sat idly sketching the two on a napkin). Here sits Mr. Pecksniff, great in girth (though greater still in piety), with a jawlike stand-up collar trying to swallow his head, which itself was covered in greasy hair; here sits Uriah Heep, long and mean, like the cobra raised from the magician’s basket, and with a red smear of hair on his white head, and a corkscrew turn to his frame, presenting the appearance of a broken marionette. How the two admired each other -- the one's piety and reverence, the other’s humility! How they both, within their hearts, seethed with a private contempt for the other, and waited until they could send their associate by the path they planned for their creator!
Now an hour or so before Mr. Dickens found succor at Mr. Pickwick’s house, Mr. Pecksniff and Uriah Heep had pleasantly been discussing, over tea and crackers, how they might bring Mr. Dickens to his doom by supper, without proving true the adage “Haste makes waste,” when a handsome young gentleman came bursting into the room. It was James Steerforth, with a great gaping wound on his face. “I told you I wished nothing to do with this!” he groaned, repulsing them both as they, startled, came to his aid, “and I say, he’s found us out. You --” he grimaced, pointing at Uriah Heep, “were seen by him, and though I tried, by Jove, to do away with him in the carriage we stole, he got away. I got his revolver at least. So now what is your plan, pray? And for God’s sake, give me some brandy -- I think I’ve lost a quart of blood already.”
Mr. Pecksniff and Uriah had proceeded to calm him with assurances of his superiority and good judgment, which worked all too easily, but as soon as they had a moment alone they were forced to reconstruct their plan. Steerforth had grumbled something of Mr. Dickens’ search for a certain character, which was of especial interest to the two ringleaders, and so they posted one of their own near the doorway of the tavern as watchman.
In the meantime, someone had come upon the tavern. It was a gentleman, one of Mr. Dickens’. He had stumbled about the streets, groggily, for half an hour after waking from a deep sleep on, of all places, the pavement, which was not where he recalled laying down his head the night before. Everyone surveyed him curiously as he passed, for though he was very handsome, his costume was nearly 100 years old! For his part, he wondered how much he actually had drunk last night. “Surely it was only four or five glasses,” he muttered to himself, doubtfully, when suddenly he spied a small boy loitering outside the tavern -- the stranger was drawn to the lad, who was dressed in his own manner, and hailed him with a shout. As the boy turned and eyed him over in a condescending manner, the stranger realized it was actually a tiny young man -- scarcely five feet tall! -- who approached him.
“If you would be so kind as to say what your name is?” the tiny man asked, with a complete lack of interest.
The stranger gave it.
“Ah! We’ve been waiting for you, after all. None of your high and mighty airs, now! Inside with you!” And Mr. Simon Tappertit, ’prentice, guided the stranger inside and disposed of him immediately into the welcome company of Mr. Pecksniff and Uriah Heep. Having done his duty, he clambered up onto a makeshift throne erected in his honor (or so Mr. Pecksniff told him), to survey the proceedings.
As he was being seated by a scholarly man with one eye, the stranger’s own eyes were immediately drawn to a beautiful girl in a green dress, who was conversing with the two in command, and he watched her indolently.
“I shall do as I please!” she retorted to whatever they had said to her, a remark specifically directed at an ugly redheaded man, the stranger observed. “I need no instruction from a coarse and common clerk.” This comment, issued with a sharp toss of the beauty’s head, provoked nothing but a sickly, simpering smile from Uriah’s pallid face.
“I do see how it may not be exactly….” Uriah considered for a moment.
“Palatable,” supplied Mr. Tappertit, from his perch.
“Oh yes! Yes!” Uriah exclaimed in raptures. “Exactly the word. Now was I saying…oh yes, Miss Estella, I do see how it ain’t quite palatable for a lady of your good breeding to take a suggestion from such a numble person as myself, but really, if you was to consider it…” he trailed off, hopefully.
“You insinuate there would be some kind of advantage in it for me?” Estella finished haughtily.
“Of course, as the holy texts say, we are to be contented with our lot,” Mr. Pecksniff put in, taking over the proceedings, “but really, we haven’t been given a fair chance at it.” He sidled closer to the girl in a purely fatherly, confidential manner. “Not cricket, you know, how he treated us. You see how you took umbrage at Mr. Heep’s suggestion -- and that’s entirely understandable, he is very low-bred!” to which Uriah nodded enthusiastically, “well! Imagine some poor street-boy who spent his pocket-money on a pen governing your entire life! Wreaking havoc, misfortunes, all manner of sorrows upon your pretty head, when he hadn’t the right to touch the hem of your garment! Now really -- it’s self-defense what we suggest, were you to think of it.”
Estella pressed her lovely mouth into a rigid line. “What would you have me to do?”
Mr. Pecksniff handed her an ugly, battered paper book with a spotted green-paper cover, and the words Our Mutual Friend scrawled across in cheap, vulgar illustration. It looked as if it had been dug from a trash heap. “And I suppose this is one of Mr. Dickens’ books?” Estella asked.
“Why it is indeed, my dear -- his most recent, to be exact. Our good friend and associate, the schoolmaster across the room, hails from this work. He met with a very bad ending, but he don’t know it yet. Alas, men were not made the fairer sex, though I wish we were, for then we’d have that gentle touch that Woman is blest with!”
“What do you give me this for?” demanded Estella sharply.
“Oh, yes. I should like you to break the news to Mr. Headstone. I think he should know,” Mr. Pecksniff said, in a sad voice. “He has a right to it -- perhaps he could…confront Mr. Dickens on the matter?”
Oh Estella, as you hold those pages in your white hands, turning the leaves as though you would read the future and had it in your grasp, pause, and think what danger you create. Think, Estella! Who truly controls you here; your distant author, or the man who stares at you greedily?
And perhaps she did think -- thought of the poor boy with the broken boots, writing as though she were a thing to be controlled and dealt with as all others pleased. And to Mr. Pecksniff’s utter triumph, Estella remarked, “It’s only a book, isn’t it? What harm could it do to read the young man a few pages?”
In the other corner of the room, the stranger introduced by Mr. Simon Tappertit sat silently, watching the girl as she approached a brooding young man, with limpid light hair and a pocketwatch, with the book. Our stranger sat still and silent, thinking, thinking, of many things, feeling perhaps that he was in another of his lazy stupors, or that life was but a dream, after all, when a ghost seemed to rise before his eyes. You and I know this apparition’s name -- HEEP! -- who stood for a moment, hovering with a dull green-glass decanter in one hand, and wiping the other stealthily against his jacket.
“Well?” asked the stranger, at last.
“I was wondering if I may sit down, you know?” Uriah begged. “I would ’ate to be an intrusion, but as you looked so solitary-like --”
“You may sit if you want. I don’t care.”
“Oh, I’m glad you see it that way!” Uriah gasped, with an ungainly twist of his figure, which, conveniently, twisted him right into the nearest chair. “Ahem -- I don’t wish to intrude, you know, but I ’ave with me here -- at least, would you like to partake in a bit of…refreshment?” And Uriah Heep cocked his head and offered the decanter.
“No thank you,” our stranger answered. Though why, in his oddly apparent uninterest, were his eyes so attentive on the bottle? Rest assured, this did not go unnoticed by Uriah, who apologetically poured himself a glass of the rich red wine and swirled it about in the glass. “It really is rude of me -- oh, ’ow my mother ’ould be beside herself at my liberties, but really, I don’t know as ’ow I could really take it all in, being read out of a book! I never was much of a one for reading, you know…oh, you would take a quarter glass? No? Oh, if only I ’ad your willpower!”
And so Mr. Heep drank off a bit (but not so much as to dull his senses), and swirled the glass again, and observed the rapt attention from the stranger’s eye.
Uriah sniffed. “You, sir, inspire me to a honest confession. You ’ave a honest face, and that’s what inspires me, truly. I am hard-pressed to say I dislike anyone as ’ad paid attention to umble me, but I hope you will forgive me when I say I don’t like Mr. Dickens. He, sir, is no friend of mine.”
The stranger looked at him steadily, and so Uriah continued. “Well. I don’t know as if you’ve ever been put to the sort of predicament as I ’ave -- I am not a ladies' man in general -- but Mr. Dickens has made things worse for me.”
“Oh?” replied the stranger, still with an air of indifference. “How so?”
“Oh indeed. For I am in love with a lovely lady -– an angel, as everyone says, which is true -- but alas! -- she don’t love me. Oh no. She don’t ’ardly look my way, though she’d have ’erself killed for the one she does love. And you know who done that?”
“This Mr. Dickens you speak of, I suppose.” Why had the stranger’s face flushed, and his hand begun to twitch, at these last words of Uriah’s? It was as if he was taking some interest, after all -- as if he even sympathized with the thing across the table.
And Uriah Heep knew it. He nodded, and mouthed “Mr. Dickens,” and poured some more wine. And when he passed a full glass to the young man, Sydney Carton -- for so it was, alas! -- took it, and drank it to the dregs.
“Now,” said Uriah with one of his sickly leers, as he refilled the glass, “let’s us discuss Mr. Dickens some more, shall we?”
Mr. Guppy had at last proceeded to black Mr. Pickwick’s coat, and brush his shoes -- or was it the other way round? Whichever it was, it may be said that he was the blackest of all articles involved, and presented a charred appearance upon his return to the parlor which, as his keen eye observed, had worked Wonders on the rest of the party, for Mr. Pickwick was chatting animatedly with Mr. Carstone and Miss Clare, while Miss Wren was savagely buttering toast and feeding it to Mr. Dickens.
“Well I’m glad to see we’ve all improved,” Mr. Guppy said from the doorway, in a voice of irony.
“Ah, Sam, you’ve finished,” Mr. Pickwick said blithely. “Now come, lad, and help yourself to some toast. There’s a good boy. Now then, Mr. Dickens,” he pursued, as Mr. Guppy grudgingly helped himself to the jam, “we must finalize your plans so you can get on your way.”
Mr. Dickens nodded. He and the rest had decided it would likely be best to cater to Mr. Pickwick’s delusions of reality, and so the author reminded the philanthropist that he had drawn out a map for him.
“Yes,” Mr. Pickwick agreed, “I sketched out a little map to the place I believe your lawyer friend might be located. There’s a lawyer in my Club, sir, and he is often found there.”
Mr. Dickens studied the slip of paper Pickwick handed him, and for once was glad to have made such a kindly, knowing character. From this point in the city, Mr. Pickwick, who knew this area better than even Mr. Dickens, had traced a route to a nearby tavern. “We’ll find nothing there but wastrels,” Jenny warned, scrutinizing the map over Dickens’ shoulder, but Mr. Dickens shook his head. “No, Jenny. If we find Sydney Carton there -– and my author’s intuition suggests we will -- he will help us. He may be careless and weary on the outside, but really, he has a great soul -- if only he knew it!”
“Oh,” said Jenny simply, with the private suspicion they were lapsing into sentimentality. They began making preparations to depart. Mr. Pickwick turned to Mr. Guppy.
“Sam,” he said, seriously, “I want you, as my especial agent, to accompany them so they don’t get lost.” He winked his venerable eye, and Mr. Guppy rolled his and heaved a sigh.
Ada had been struggling to get the door open as the others bid their farewells, and Richard astutely observed that 100-year-old doorknobs can be troublesome things, so he gave it a hard pull and the door sprang open, banging into the house. Imagine their surprise to find a young lady on the other side! (She had evidently been the obstacle holding the door from the outside.) Imagine their even greater surprise to find it was Esther -- Esther, in all her goodness but looking so unlike herself, her clothes rumpled and disarrayed, her hair tumbling down in thick brown locks, and her poor scarred face red and coursed over with tears!
Mr. Guppy stood there with his mouth wide open and the vague thought that he should be hugging her, or brutally flooring some attacker with his mighty strength, or something, but in the interval Esther instead buried her face in the arms of her beloved Ada and Richard and wept as though her heart had broken. Ada cradled her in her arms, whispering words of encouragement and tender comfort, and Rick had gone white. Mr. Pickwick, greatly concerned, ushered them into the room, while Mr. Dickens tried to make himself scarce, so as not to disturb her further.
“What has happened?” Jenny demanded, rapping at the floor with her stick. What children some people could be! “Out with it now, my dear, weeping and shaking won’t get things done, howsoever good it may feel. Now out with it!”
For a moment, Esther turned and contemplated the little girl with a mixture of wonder and compassion; then, comprehending her words, which seemed to come from someone who often took them quite seriously, she straightened up, dried her eyes with Ada’s handkerchief, and took in a shaky breath. In all honesty, everyone was truly breathing more raggedly than she, for no one had seen Esther so distraught in all their days, and it frightened them. Mr. Guppy was cracking his knuckles ferociously.
And Mr. Dickens began to have the terrible feeling that he was some sort of villain for bringing all this to life. “What happened, my dear?” he inquired, softly, in a voice tinged with guilt and apprehension.
After turning and staring at him in wonder, and faltering his name, Esther clasped her hands together and stared at the floor for a moment, to gather her thoughts and, it appeared, to shrink a bit -- Mr. Dickens realized that she was embarrassed -- and probably chiding herself -- for her outburst and all the attention she was receiving. “I apologize,” she began, softly, “for losing my wits as I did, for coming in like a madwoman. As this young lady --”
“-- Jenny Wren,” that worthy intercepted.
“Miss Wren,” Esther continued with a small smile, “said, never have tears solved anything. Earnestness -- a true desire and devotion to aid -- solves things -- how well I know it! -- and if it will help and not keep us unnecessarily delayed, I will tell you my story.”
“It will not keep us, but will assist us,” Mr. Pickwick assured her, and everyone nodded. “I love stories!” Mr. Guppy put in encouragingly, but, we must admit, rather inappropriately considering the circumstances.
“Very well, then,” Esther nodded shyly. “But I seem always to be telling my story!” And so, with a deep, shuddering breath, she began.