Between 1833 and 1836, the nineteenth-century writer Charles Dickens wrote a number of sketches which were originally published in various newspapers and other periodicals including The Morning Chronicle, The Evening Chronicle, The Monthly Magazine, The Carlton Chronicle and Bell’s Weekly Messenger. Many were published under the pen name of Boz, which Dickens adopted early on in his career as a writer and journalist. The popular sketches were reproduced in 1836 in a collected work (along with some new material), Sketches by Boz, which contained 56 sketches divided into four sections: Our Parish (7 sketches) Scenes (25 sketches), Characters (12 sketches) and Tales (12 sketches). The material in the first three sections consists of portraits of London life and the last section comprised fictional stories.
The following sketch, The Bloomsbury Christening, first appeared in The Monthly Magazine in April, 1834. The story revolves around the misanthropic bachelor Nicodemus Dumps, who disrupts a christening party for his nephew’s son.
Sketches by Boz. Tales, Chapter 11.
THE BLOOMSBURY CHRISTENING.
Mr. Nicodemus Dumps, or, as his acquaintance called him, ‘long Dumps,’ was a bachelor, six feet high, and fifty years old: cross, cadaverous, odd, and ill-natured. He was never happy but when he was miserable; and always miserable when he had the best reason to be happy. The only real comfort of his existence was to make everybody about him wretched—then he might be truly said to enjoy life. He was afflicted with a situation in the Bank worth five hundred a-year, and he rented a ‘first-floor furnished,’ at Pentonville, which he originally took because it commanded a dismal prospect of an adjacent churchyard. He was familiar with the face of every tombstone, and the burial service seemed to excite his strongest sympathy. His friends said he was surly—he insisted he was nervous; they thought him a lucky dog, but he protested that he was ‘the most unfortunate man in the world.’ Cold as he was, and wretched as he declared himself to be, he was not wholly unsusceptible of attachments. He revered the memory of Hoyle, as he was himself an admirable and imperturbable whist-player, and he chuckled with delight at a fretful and impatient adversary. He adored King Herod for his massacre of the innocents; and if he hated one thing more than another, it was a child. However, he could hardly be said to hate anything in particular, because he disliked everything in general; but perhaps his greatest antipathies were cabs, old women, doors that would not shut, musical amateurs, and omnibus cads. He subscribed to the ‘Society for the Suppression of Vice’ for the pleasure of putting a stop to any harmless amusements; and he contributed largely towards the support of two itinerant methodist parsons, in the amiable hope that if circumstances rendered any people happy in this world, they might perchance be rendered miserable by fears for the next.
Mr. Dumps had a nephew who had been married about a year, and who was somewhat of a favourite with his uncle, because he was an admirable subject to exercise his misery-creating powers upon. Mr. Charles Kitterbell was a small, sharp, spare man, with a very large head, and a broad, good-humoured countenance. He looked like a faded giant, with the head and face partially restored; and he had a cast in his eye which rendered it quite impossible for any one with whom he conversed to know where he was looking. His eyes appeared fixed on the wall, and he was staring you out of countenance; in short, there was no catching his eye, and perhaps it is a merciful dispensation of Providence that such eyes are not catching. In addition to these characteristics, it may be added that Mr. Charles Kitterbell was one of the most credulous and matter-of-fact little personages that ever took to himself a wife, and for himself a house in Great Russell-street, Bedford-square. (Uncle Dumps always dropped the ‘Bedford-square,’ and inserted in lieu thereof the dreadful words ‘Tottenham-court-road.’)
‘No, but, uncle, ’pon my life you must—you must promise to be godfather,’ said Mr. Kitterbell, as he sat in conversation with his respected relative one morning.
‘I cannot, indeed I cannot,’ returned Dumps.
‘Well, but why not? Jemima will think it very unkind. It’s very little trouble.’
‘As to the trouble,’ rejoined the most unhappy man in existence, ‘I don’t mind that; but my nerves are in that state—I cannot go through the ceremony. You know I don’t like going out.—For God’s sake, Charles, don’t fidget with that stool so; you’ll drive me mad.’ Mr. Kitterbell, quite regardless of his uncle’s nerves, had occupied himself for some ten minutes in describing a circle on the floor with one leg of the office-stool on which he was seated, keeping the other three up in the air, and holding fast on by the desk.
‘I beg your pardon, uncle,’ said Kitterbell, quite abashed, suddenly releasing his hold of the desk, and bringing the three wandering legs back to the floor, with a force sufficient to drive them through it.
‘But come, don’t refuse. If it’s a boy, you know, we must have two godfathers.’
‘If it’s a boy!’ said Dumps; ‘why can’t you say at once whether it is a boy or not?’
‘I should be very happy to tell you, but it’s impossible I can undertake to say whether it’s a girl or a boy, if the child isn’t born yet.’
‘Not born yet!’ echoed Dumps, with a gleam of hope lighting up his lugubrious visage. ‘Oh, well, it may be a girl, and then you won’t want me; or if it is a boy, it may die before it is christened.’
‘I hope not,’ said the father that expected to be, looking very grave.
‘I hope not,’ acquiesced Dumps, evidently pleased with the subject. He was beginning to get happy. ‘I hope not, but distressing cases frequently occur during the first two or three days of a child’s life; fits, I am told, are exceedingly common, and alarming convulsions are almost matters of course.’
‘Lord, uncle!’ ejaculated little Kitterbell, gasping for breath.
‘Yes; my landlady was confined—let me see—last Tuesday: an uncommonly fine boy. On the Thursday night the nurse was sitting with him upon her knee before the fire, and he was as well as possible. Suddenly he became black in the face, and alarmingly spasmodic. The medical man was instantly sent for, and every remedy was tried, but—’
‘How frightful!’ interrupted the horror-stricken Kitterbell.
‘The child died, of course. However, your child may not die; and if it should be a boy, and should live to be christened, why I suppose I must be one of the sponsors.’ Dumps was evidently good-natured on the faith of his anticipations.
‘Thank you, uncle,’ said his agitated nephew, grasping his hand as warmly as if he had done him some essential service. ‘Perhaps I had better not tell Mrs. K. what you have mentioned.’
‘Why, if she’s low-spirited, perhaps you had better not mention the melancholy case to her,’ returned Dumps, who of course had invented the whole story; ‘though perhaps it would be but doing your duty as a husband to prepare her for the worst.’
A day or two afterwards, as Dumps was perusing a morning paper at the chop-house which he regularly frequented, the following-paragraph met his eyes:—
‘Births.—On Saturday, the 18th inst., in Great Russell-street, the lady of Charles Kitterbell, Esq., of a son.’
‘It is a boy!’ he exclaimed, dashing down the paper, to the astonishment of the waiters. ‘It is a boy!’ But he speedily regained his composure as his eye rested on a paragraph quoting the number of infant deaths from the bills of mortality.
Six weeks passed away, and as no communication had been received from the Kitterbells, Dumps was beginning to flatter himself that the child was dead, when the following note painfully resolved his doubts:—
‘Dear Uncle,—You will be delighted to hear that my dear Jemima has left her room, and that your future godson is getting on capitally. He was very thin at first, but he is getting much larger, and nurse says he is filling out every day. He cries a good deal, and is a very singular colour, which made Jemima and me rather uncomfortable; but as nurse says it’s natural, and as of course we know nothing about these things yet, we are quite satisfied with what nurse says. We think he will be a sharp child; and nurse says she’s sure he will, because he never goes to sleep. You will readily believe that we are all very happy, only we’re a little worn out for want of rest, as he keeps us awake all night; but this we must expect, nurse says, for the first six or eight months. He has been vaccinated, but in consequence of the operation being rather awkwardly performed, some small particles of glass were introduced into the arm with the matter. Perhaps this may in some degree account for his being rather fractious; at least, so nurse says. We propose to have him christened at twelve o’clock on Friday, at Saint George’s church, in Hart-street, by the name of Frederick Charles William. Pray don’t be later than a quarter before twelve. We shall have a very few friends in the evening, when of course we shall see you. I am sorry to say that the dear boy appears rather restless and uneasy to-day: the cause, I fear, is fever.
‘Believe me, dear Uncle,
‘P.S.—I open this note to say that we have just discovered the cause of little Frederick’s restlessness. It is not fever, as I apprehended, but a small pin, which nurse accidentally stuck in his leg yesterday evening. We have taken it out, and he appears more composed, though he still sobs a good deal.’
It is almost unnecessary to say that the perusal of the above interesting statement was no great relief to the mind of the hypochondriacal Dumps. It was impossible to recede, however, and so he put the best face—that is to say, an uncommonly miserable one—upon the matter; and purchased a handsome silver mug for the infant Kitterbell, upon which he ordered the initials ‘F. C. W. K.,’ with the customary untrained grape-vine-looking flourishes, and a large full stop, to be engraved forthwith.
Monday was a fine day, Tuesday was delightful, Wednesday was equal to either, and Thursday was finer than ever; four successive fine days in London! Hackney-coachmen became revolutionary, and crossing-sweepers began to doubt the existence of a First Cause. The Morning Herald informed its readers that an old woman in Camden Town had been heard to say that the fineness of the season was ‘unprecedented in the memory of the oldest inhabitant;’ and Islington clerks, with large families and small salaries, left off their black gaiters, disdained to carry their once green cotton umbrellas, and walked to town in the conscious pride of white stockings and cleanly brushed Bluchers. Dumps beheld all this with an eye of supreme contempt—his triumph was at hand. He knew that if it had been fine for four weeks instead of four days, it would rain when he went out; he was lugubriously happy in the conviction that Friday would be a wretched day—and so it was. ‘I knew how it would be,’ said Dumps, as he turned round opposite the Mansion-house at half-past eleven o’clock on the Friday morning. ‘I knew how it would be. I am concerned, and that’s enough;’—and certainly the appearance of the day was sufficient to depress the spirits of a much more buoyant-hearted individual than himself. It had rained, without a moment’s cessation, since eight o’clock; everybody that passed up Cheapside, and down Cheapside, looked wet, cold, and dirty. All sorts of forgotten and long-concealed umbrellas had been put into requisition. Cabs whisked about, with the ‘fare’ as carefully boxed up behind two glazed calico curtains as any mysterious picture in any one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s castles; omnibus horses smoked like steam-engines; nobody thought of ‘standing up’ under doorways or arches; they were painfully convinced it was a hopeless case; and so everybody went hastily along, jumbling and jostling, and swearing and perspiring, and slipping about, like amateur skaters behind wooden chairs on the Serpentine on a frosty Sunday.
Dumps paused; he could not think of walking, being rather smart for the christening. If he took a cab he was sure to be spilt, and a hackney-coach was too expensive for his economical ideas. An omnibus was waiting at the opposite corner—it was a desperate case—he had never heard of an omnibus upsetting or running away, and if the cad did knock him down, he could ‘pull him up’ in return.
‘Now, sir!’ cried the young gentleman who officiated as ‘cad’ to the ‘Lads of the Village,’ which was the name of the machine just noticed. Dumps crossed.
‘This vay, sir!’ shouted the driver of the ‘Hark-away,’ pulling up his vehicle immediately across the door of the opposition—‘This vay, sir—he’s full.’ Dumps hesitated, whereupon the ‘Lads of the Village’ commenced pouring out a torrent of abuse against the ‘Hark-away;’ but the conductor of the ‘Admiral Napier’ settled the contest in a most satisfactory manner, for all parties, by seizing Dumps round the waist, and thrusting him into the middle of his vehicle which had just come up and only wanted the sixteenth inside.
‘All right,’ said the ‘Admiral,’ and off the thing thundered, like a fire-engine at full gallop, with the kidnapped customer inside, standing in the position of a half doubled-up bootjack, and falling about with every jerk of the machine, first on the one side, and then on the other, like a ‘Jack-in-the-green,’ on May-day, setting to the lady with a brass ladle.
‘For Heaven’s sake, where am I to sit?’ inquired the miserable man of an old gentleman, into whose stomach he had just fallen for the fourth time.
‘Anywhere but on my chest, sir,’ replied the old gentleman in a surly tone.
‘Perhaps the box would suit the gentleman better,’ suggested a very damp lawyer’s clerk, in a pink shirt, and a smirking countenance.
After a great deal of struggling and falling about, Dumps at last managed to squeeze himself into a seat, which, in addition to the slight disadvantage of being between a window that would not shut, and a door that must be open, placed him in close contact with a passenger, who had been walking about all the morning without an umbrella, and who looked as if he had spent the day in a full water-butt—only wetter.
‘Don’t bang the door so,’ said Dumps to the conductor, as he shut it after letting out four of the passengers; I am very nervous—it destroys me.’
‘Did any gen’lm’n say anythink?’ replied the cad, thrusting in his head, and trying to look as if he didn’t understand the request.
‘I told you not to bang the door so!’ repeated Dumps, with an expression of countenance like the knave of clubs, in convulsions.
‘Oh! vy, it’s rather a sing’ler circumstance about this here door, sir, that it von’t shut without banging,’ replied the conductor; and he opened the door very wide, and shut it again with a terrific bang, in proof of the assertion.
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said a little prim, wheezing old gentleman, sitting opposite Dumps, ‘I beg your pardon; but have you ever observed, when you have been in an omnibus on a wet day, that four people out of five always come in with large cotton umbrellas, without a handle at the top, or the brass spike at the bottom?’
‘Why, sir,’ returned Dumps, as he heard the clock strike twelve, ‘it never struck me before; but now you mention it, I—Hollo! hollo!’ shouted the persecuted individual, as the omnibus dashed past Drury-lane, where he had directed to be set down.—‘Where is the cad?’
‘I think he’s on the box, sir,’ said the young gentleman before noticed in the pink shirt, which looked like a white one ruled with red ink.
‘I want to be set down!’ said Dumps in a faint voice, overcome by his previous efforts.
‘I think these cads want to be set down,’ returned the attorney’s clerk, chuckling at his sally.
‘Hollo!’ cried Dumps again.
‘Hollo!’ echoed the passengers. The omnibus passed St. Giles’s church.
‘Hold hard!’ said the conductor; ‘I’m blowed if we ha’n’t forgot the gen’lm’n as vas to be set down at Doory-lane.—Now, sir, make haste, if you please,’ he added, opening the door, and assisting Dumps out with as much coolness as if it was ‘all right.’ Dumps’s indignation was for once getting the better of his cynical equanimity. ‘Drury-lane!’ he gasped, with the voice of a boy in a cold bath for the first time.
‘Doory-lane, sir?—yes, sir,—third turning on the right-hand side, sir.’
Dumps’s passion was paramount: he clutched his umbrella, and was striding off with the firm determination of not paying the fare. The cad, by a remarkable coincidence, happened to entertain a directly contrary opinion, and Heaven knows how far the altercation would have proceeded, if it had not been most ably and satisfactorily brought to a close by the driver.
‘Hollo!’ said that respectable person, standing up on the box, and leaning with one hand on the roof of the omnibus. ‘Hollo, Tom! tell the gentleman if so be as he feels aggrieved, we will take him up to the Edge-er (Edgeware) Road for nothing, and set him down at Doory-lane when we comes back. He can’t reject that, anyhow.’
The argument was irresistible: Dumps paid the disputed sixpence, and in a quarter of an hour was on the staircase of No. 14, Great Russell-street.
Everything indicated that preparations were making for the reception of ‘a few friends’ in the evening. Two dozen extra tumblers, and four ditto wine-glasses—looking anything but transparent, with little bits of straw in them on the slab in the passage, just arrived. There was a great smell of nutmeg, port wine, and almonds, on the staircase; the covers were taken off the stair-carpet, and the figure of Venus on the first landing looked as if she were ashamed of the composition-candle in her right hand, which contrasted beautifully with the lamp-blacked drapery of the goddess of love. The female servant (who looked very warm and bustling) ushered Dumps into a front drawing-room, very prettily furnished, with a plentiful sprinkling of little baskets, paper table-mats, china watchmen, pink and gold albums, and rainbow-bound little books on the different tables.
‘Ah, uncle!’ said Mr. Kitterbell, ‘how d’ye do? Allow me—Jemima, my dear—my uncle. I think you’ve seen Jemima before, sir?’
‘Have had the pleasure,’ returned big Dumps, his tone and look making it doubtful whether in his life he had ever experienced the sensation.
‘I’m sure,’ said Mrs. Kitterbell, with a languid smile, and a slight cough. ‘I’m sure—hem—any friend—of Charles’s—hem—much less a relation, is—’
‘I knew you’d say so, my love,’ said little Kitterbell, who, while he appeared to be gazing on the opposite houses, was looking at his wife with a most affectionate air: ‘Bless you!’ The last two words were accompanied with a simper, and a squeeze of the hand, which stirred up all Uncle Dumps’s bile.
‘Jane, tell nurse to bring down baby,’ said Mrs. Kitterbell, addressing the servant. Mrs. Kitterbell was a tall, thin young lady, with very light hair, and a particularly white face—one of those young women who almost invariably, though one hardly knows why, recall to one’s mind the idea of a cold fillet of veal. Out went the servant, and in came the nurse, with a remarkably small parcel in her arms, packed up in a blue mantle trimmed with white fur.—This was the baby.
‘Now, uncle,’ said Mr. Kitterbell, lifting up that part of the mantle which covered the infant’s face, with an air of great triumph, ‘Who do you think he’s like?’
‘He! he! Yes, who?’ said Mrs. K., putting her arm through her husband’s, and looking up into Dumps’s face with an expression of as much interest as she was capable of displaying.
‘Good God, how small he is!’ cried the amiable uncle, starting back with well-feigned surprise; ‘remarkably small indeed.’
‘Do you think so?’ inquired poor little Kitterbell, rather alarmed. ‘He’s a monster to what he was—ain’t he, nurse?’
‘He’s a dear,’ said the nurse, squeezing the child, and evading the question—not because she scrupled to disguise the fact, but because she couldn’t afford to throw away the chance of Dumps’s half-crown.
‘Well, but who is he like?’ inquired little Kitterbell.
Dumps looked at the little pink heap before him, and only thought at the moment of the best mode of mortifying the youthful parents.
‘I really don’t know who he’s like,’ he answered, very well knowing the reply expected of him.
‘Don’t you think he’s like me?’ inquired his nephew with a knowing air.
‘Oh, decidedly not!’ returned Dumps, with an emphasis not to be misunderstood. ‘Decidedly not like you.—Oh, certainly not.’
‘Like Jemima?’ asked Kitterbell, faintly.
‘Oh, dear no; not in the least. I’m no judge, of course, in such cases; but I really think he’s more like one of those little carved representations that one sometimes sees blowing a trumpet on a tombstone!’ The nurse stooped down over the child, and with great difficulty prevented an explosion of mirth. Pa and ma looked almost as miserable as their amiable uncle.
‘Well!’ said the disappointed little father, ‘you’ll be better able to tell what he’s like by-and-by. You shall see him this evening with his mantle off.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dumps, feeling particularly grateful.
‘Now, my love,’ said Kitterbell to his wife, ‘it’s time we were off. We’re to meet the other godfather and the godmother at the church, uncle,—Mr. and Mrs. Wilson from over the way—uncommonly nice people. My love, are you well wrapped up?’
‘Are you sure you won’t have another shawl?’ inquired the anxious husband.
‘No, sweet,’ returned the charming mother, accepting Dumps’s proffered arm; and the little party entered the hackney-coach that was to take them to the church; Dumps amusing Mrs. Kitterbell by expatiating largely on the danger of measles, thrush, teeth-cutting, and other interesting diseases to which children are subject.
The ceremony (which occupied about five minutes) passed off without anything particular occurring. The clergyman had to dine some distance from town, and had two churchings, three christenings, and a funeral to perform in something less than an hour. The godfathers and godmother, therefore, promised to renounce the devil and all his works—‘and all that sort of thing’—as little Kitterbell said—‘in less than no time;’ and with the exception of Dumps nearly letting the child fall into the font when he handed it to the clergyman, the whole affair went off in the usual business-like and matter-of-course manner, and Dumps re-entered the Bank-gates at two o’clock with a heavy heart, and the painful conviction that he was regularly booked for an evening party.
Evening came—and so did Dumps’s pumps, black silk stockings, and white cravat which he had ordered to be forwarded, per boy, from Pentonville. The depressed godfather dressed himself at a friend’s counting-house, from whence, with his spirits fifty degrees below proof, he sallied forth—as the weather had cleared up, and the evening was tolerably fine—to walk to Great Russell-street. Slowly he paced up Cheapside, Newgate-street, down Snow-hill, and up Holborn ditto, looking as grim as the figure-head of a man-of-war, and finding out fresh causes of misery at every step. As he was crossing the corner of Hatton-garden, a man apparently intoxicated, rushed against him, and would have knocked him down, had he not been providentially caught by a very genteel young man, who happened to be close to him at the time. The shock so disarranged Dumps’s nerves, as well as his dress, that he could hardly stand. The gentleman took his arm, and in the kindest manner walked with him as far as Furnival’s Inn. Dumps, for about the first time in his life, felt grateful and polite; and he and the gentlemanly-looking young man parted with mutual expressions of good will.
‘There are at least some well-disposed men in the world,’ ruminated the misanthropical Dumps, as he proceeded towards his destination.
Rat—tat—ta-ra-ra-ra-ra-rat—knocked a hackney-coachman at Kitterbell’s door, in imitation of a gentleman’s servant, just as Dumps reached it; and out came an old lady in a large toque, and an old gentleman in a blue coat, and three female copies of the old lady in pink dresses, and shoes to match.
‘It’s a large party,’ sighed the unhappy godfather, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, and leaning against the area-railings. It was some time before the miserable man could muster up courage to knock at the door, and when he did, the smart appearance of a neighbouring greengrocer (who had been hired to wait for seven and sixpence, and whose calves alone were worth double the money), the lamp in the passage, and the Venus on the landing, added to the hum of many voices, and the sound of a harp and two violins, painfully convinced him that his surmises were but too well founded.
‘How are you?’ said little Kitterbell, in a greater bustle than ever, bolting out of the little back parlour with a cork-screw in his hand, and various particles of sawdust, looking like so many inverted commas, on his inexpressibles.
‘Good God!’ said Dumps, turning into the aforesaid parlour to put his shoes on, which he had brought in his coat-pocket, and still more appalled by the sight of seven fresh-drawn corks, and a corresponding number of decanters. ‘How many people are there up-stairs?’
‘Oh, not above thirty-five. We’ve had the carpet taken up in the back drawing-room, and the piano and the card-tables are in the front. Jemima thought we’d better have a regular sit-down supper in the front parlour, because of the speechifying, and all that. But, Lord! uncle, what’s the matter?’ continued the excited little man, as Dumps stood with one shoe on, rummaging his pockets with the most frightful distortion of visage. ‘What have you lost? Your pocket-book?’
‘No,’ returned Dumps, diving first into one pocket and then into the other, and speaking in a voice like Desdemona with the pillow over her mouth.
‘Your card-case? snuff-box? the key of your lodgings?’ continued Kitterbell, pouring question on question with the rapidity of lightning.
‘No! no!’ ejaculated Dumps, still diving eagerly into his empty pockets.
‘Not—not—the mug you spoke of this morning?’
‘Yes, the mug!’ replied Dumps, sinking into a chair.
‘How could you have done it?’ inquired Kitterbell. ‘Are you sure you brought it out?’
‘Yes! yes! I see it all!’ said Dumps, starting up as the idea flashed across his mind; ‘miserable dog that I am—I was born to suffer. I see it all: it was the gentlemanly-looking young man!’
‘Mr. Dumps!’ shouted the greengrocer in a stentorian voice, as he ushered the somewhat recovered godfather into the drawing-room half an hour after the above declaration. ‘Mr. Dumps!’—everybody looked at the door, and in came Dumps, feeling about as much out of place as a salmon might be supposed to be on a gravel-walk.
‘Happy to see you again,’ said Mrs. Kitterbell, quite unconscious of the unfortunate man’s confusion and misery; ‘you must allow me to introduce you to a few of our friends:—my mamma, Mr. Dumps—my papa and sisters.’ Dumps seized the hand of the mother as warmly as if she was his own parent, bowed to the young ladies, and against a gentleman behind him, and took no notice whatever of the father, who had been bowing incessantly for three minutes and a quarter.
‘Uncle,’ said little Kitterbell, after Dumps had been introduced to a select dozen or two, ‘you must let me lead you to the other end of the room, to introduce you to my friend Danton. Such a splendid fellow!—I’m sure you’ll like him—this way,’—Dumps followed as tractably as a tame bear.
Mr. Danton was a young man of about five-and-twenty, with a considerable stock of impudence, and a very small share of ideas: he was a great favourite, especially with young ladies of from sixteen to twenty-six years of age, both inclusive. He could imitate the French-horn to admiration, sang comic songs most inimitably, and had the most insinuating way of saying impertinent nothings to his doting female admirers. He had acquired, somehow or other, the reputation of being a great wit, and, accordingly, whenever he opened his mouth, everybody who knew him laughed very heartily.
The introduction took place in due form. Mr. Danton bowed, and twirled a lady’s handkerchief, which he held in his hand, in a most comic way. Everybody smiled.
‘Very warm,’ said Dumps, feeling it necessary to say something.
‘Yes. It was warmer yesterday,’ returned the brilliant Mr. Danton.—A general laugh.
‘I have great pleasure in congratulating you on your first appearance in the character of a father, sir,’ he continued, addressing Dumps—‘godfather, I mean.’—The young ladies were convulsed, and the gentlemen in ecstasies.
A general hum of admiration interrupted the conversation, and announced the entrance of nurse with the baby. An universal rush of the young ladies immediately took place. (Girls are always so fond of babies in company.)
‘Oh, you dear!’ said one.
‘How sweet!’ cried another, in a low tone of the most enthusiastic admiration.
‘Heavenly!’ added a third.
‘Oh! what dear little arms!’ said a fourth, holding up an arm and fist about the size and shape of the leg of a fowl cleanly picked.
‘Did you ever!’—said a little coquette with a large bustle, who looked like a French lithograph, appealing to a gentleman in three waistcoats—‘Did you ever!’
‘Never, in my life,’ returned her admirer, pulling up his collar.
‘Oh! do let me take it, nurse,’ cried another young lady. ‘The love!’
‘Can it open its eyes, nurse?’ inquired another, affecting the utmost innocence.—Suffice it to say, that the single ladies unanimously voted him an angel, and that the married ones, nem. con., agreed that he was decidedly the finest baby they had ever beheld—except their own.
The quadrilles were resumed with great spirit. Mr. Danton was universally admitted to be beyond himself; several young ladies enchanted the company and gained admirers by singing ‘We met’—‘I saw her at the Fancy Fair’—and other equally sentimental and interesting ballads. ‘The young men,’ as Mrs. Kitterbell said, ‘made themselves very agreeable;’ the girls did not lose their opportunity; and the evening promised to go off excellently. Dumps didn’t mind it: he had devised a plan for himself—a little bit of fun in his own way—and he was almost happy! He played a rubber and lost every point Mr. Danton said he could not have lost every point, because he made a point of losing: everybody laughed tremendously. Dumps retorted with a better joke, and nobody smiled, with the exception of the host, who seemed to consider it his duty to laugh till he was black in the face, at everything. There was only one drawback—the musicians did not play with quite as much spirit as could have been wished. The cause, however, was satisfactorily explained; for it appeared, on the testimony of a gentleman who had come up from Gravesend in the afternoon, that they had been engaged on board a steamer all day, and had played almost without cessation all the way to Gravesend, and all the way back again.
The ‘sit-down supper’ was excellent; there were four barley-sugar temples on the table, which would have looked beautiful if they had not melted away when the supper began; and a water-mill, whose only fault was that instead of going round, it ran over the table-cloth. Then there were fowls, and tongue, and trifle, and sweets, and lobster salad, and potted beef—and everything. And little Kitterbell kept calling out for clean plates, and the clean plates did not come: and then the gentlemen who wanted the plates said they didn’t mind, they’d take a lady’s; and then Mrs. Kitterbell applauded their gallantry, and the greengrocer ran about till he thought his seven and sixpence was very hardly earned; and the young ladies didn’t eat much for fear it shouldn’t look romantic, and the married ladies eat as much as possible, for fear they shouldn’t have enough; and a great deal of wine was drunk, and everybody talked and laughed considerably.
‘Hush! hush!’ said Mr. Kitterbell, rising and looking very important. ‘My love (this was addressed to his wife at the other end of the table), take care of Mrs. Maxwell, and your mamma, and the rest of the married ladies; the gentlemen will persuade the young ladies to fill their glasses, I am sure.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said long Dumps, in a very sepulchral voice and rueful accent, rising from his chair like the ghost in Don Juan, ‘will you have the kindness to charge your glasses? I am desirous of proposing a toast.’
A dead silence ensued, and the glasses were filled—everybody looked serious.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ slowly continued the ominous Dumps, ‘I’—(here Mr. Danton imitated two notes from the French-horn, in a very loud key, which electrified the nervous toast-proposer, and convulsed his audience).
‘Order! order!’ said little Kitterbell, endeavouring to suppress his laughter.
‘Order!’ said the gentlemen.
‘Danton, be quiet,’ said a particular friend on the opposite side of the table.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ resumed Dumps, somewhat recovered, and not much disconcerted, for he was always a pretty good hand at a speech—‘In accordance with what is, I believe, the established usage on these occasions, I, as one of the godfathers of Master Frederick Charles William Kitterbell—(here the speaker’s voice faltered, for he remembered the mug)—venture to rise to propose a toast. I need hardly say that it is the health and prosperity of that young gentleman, the particular event of whose early life we are here met to celebrate—(applause). Ladies and gentlemen, it is impossible to suppose that our friends here, whose sincere well-wishers we all are, can pass through life without some trials, considerable suffering, severe affliction, and heavy losses!’—Here the arch-traitor paused, and slowly drew forth a long, white pocket-handkerchief—his example was followed by several ladies. ‘That these trials may be long spared them is my most earnest prayer, my most fervent wish (a distinct sob from the grandmother). I hope and trust, ladies and gentlemen, that the infant whose christening we have this evening met to celebrate, may not be removed from the arms of his parents by premature decay (several cambrics were in requisition): that his young and now apparently healthy form, may not be wasted by lingering disease. (Here Dumps cast a sardonic glance around, for a great sensation was manifest among the married ladies.) You, I am sure, will concur with me in wishing that he may live to be a comfort and a blessing to his parents. (“Hear, hear!” and an audible sob from Mr. Kitterbell.) But should he not be what we could wish—should he forget in after times the duty which he owes to them—should they unhappily experience that distracting truth, “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”’—Here Mrs. Kitterbell, with her handkerchief to her eyes, and accompanied by several ladies, rushed from the room, and went into violent hysterics in the passage, leaving her better half in almost as bad a condition, and a general impression in Dumps’s favour; for people like sentiment, after all.
It need hardly be added, that this occurrence quite put a stop to the harmony of the evening. Vinegar, hartshorn, and cold water, were now as much in request as negus, rout-cakes, and bon-bons had been a short time before. Mrs. Kitterbell was immediately conveyed to her apartment, the musicians were silenced, flirting ceased, and the company slowly departed. Dumps left the house at the commencement of the bustle, and walked home with a light step, and (for him) a cheerful heart. His landlady, who slept in the next room, has offered to make oath that she heard him laugh, in his peculiar manner, after he had locked his door. The assertion, however, is so improbable, and bears on the face of it such strong evidence of untruth, that it has never obtained credence to this hour.
The family of Mr. Kitterbell has considerably increased since the period to which we have referred; he has now two sons and a daughter; and as he expects, at no distant period, to have another addition to his blooming progeny, he is anxious to secure an eligible godfather for the occasion. He is determined, however, to impose upon him two conditions. He must bind himself, by a solemn obligation, not to make any speech after supper; and it is indispensable that he should be in no way connected with ‘the most miserable man in the world.’
Discover more Sketches by Boz.