The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home
A Christmas story by Charles Dickens — Part 4
The Cricket on the Hearth is a tale of small family and their guardian angel, a cricket. It is the third of Dickens’s five Christmas books — a series which includes brilliant works like A Christmas Carol and The Chimes.
We will publish The Cricket and the Hearth in six parts, so tune into our newsletter so that you don’t miss any of the story!
Before continuing below, give these a read:
The following was written by Charles Dickens and originally published in 1845.
Chirp the Second: Chapter 2, Part 2
Tackleton had brought his leg of mutton, and, wonderful to relate, a tart besides — but we don’t mind a little dissipation when our brides are in the case; we don’t get married every day — and in addition to these dainties, there were the Veal and Ham-Pie, and ‘things,’ as Mrs. Peerybingle called them; which were chiefly nuts and oranges, and cakes, and such small deer. When the repast was set forth on the board, flanked by Caleb’s contribution, which was a great wooden bowl of smoking potatoes (he was prohibited, by solemn compact, from producing any other viands), Tackleton led his intended mother-in-law to the post of honour. For the better gracing of this place at the high festival, the majestic old soul had adorned herself with a cap, calculated to inspire the thoughtless with sentiments of awe. She also wore her gloves. But let us be genteel, or die!
Caleb sat next his daughter; Dot and her old schoolfellow were side by side; the good Carrier took care of the bottom of the table. Miss Slowboy was isolated, for the time being, from every article of furniture but the chair she sat on, that she might have nothing else to knock the Baby’s head against.
As Tilly stared about her at the dolls and toys, they stared at her and at the company. The venerable old gentlemen at the street doors (who were all in full action) showed especial interest in the party, pausing occasionally before leaping, as if they were listening to the conversation, and then plunging wildly over and over, a great many times, without halting for breath — as in a frantic state of delight with the whole proceedings.
Certainly, if these old gentlemen were inclined to have a fiendish joy in the contemplation of Tackleton’s discomfiture, they had good reason to be satisfied. Tackleton couldn’t get on at all; and the more cheerful his intended bride became in Dot’s society, the less he liked it, though he had brought them together for that purpose. For he was a regular dog in the manger, was Tackleton; and when they laughed and he couldn’t, he took it into his head, immediately, that they must be laughing at him.
‘Ah, May!’ said Dot. ‘Dear dear, what changes! To talk of those merry school-days makes one young again.’
‘Why, you an’t particularly old, at any time; are you?’ said Tackleton.
‘Look at my sober plodding husband there,’ returned Dot. ‘He adds twenty years to my age at least. Don’t you, John?’
‘Forty,’ John replied.
‘How many you’ll add to May’s, I am sure I don’t know,’ said Dot, laughing. ‘But she can’t be much less than a hundred years of age on her next birthday.’
‘Ha ha!’ laughed Tackleton. Hollow as a drum, that laugh though. And he looked as if he could have twisted Dot’s neck, comfortably.
‘Dear dear!’ said Dot. ‘Only to remember how we used to talk, at school, about the husbands we would choose. I don’t know how young, and how handsome, and how gay, and how lively, mine was not to be! And as to May’s! — Ah dear! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, when I think what silly girls we were.’
May seemed to know which to do; for the colour flushed into her face, and tears stood in her eyes.
‘Even the very persons themselves — real live young men — were fixed on sometimes,’ said Dot. ‘We little thought how things would come about. I never fixed on John I’m sure; I never so much as thought of him. And if I had told you, you were ever to be married to Mr. Tackleton, why you’d have slapped me. Wouldn’t you, May?’
Though May didn’t say yes, she certainly didn’t say no, or express no, by any means.
Tackleton laughed — quite shouted, he laughed so loud. John Peerybingle laughed too, in his ordinary good-natured and contented manner; but his was a mere whisper of a laugh, to Tackleton’s.
‘You couldn’t help yourselves, for all that. You couldn’t resist us, you see,’ said Tackleton. ‘Here we are! Here we are!’
‘Where are your gay young bridegrooms now!’
‘Some of them are dead,’ said Dot; ‘and some of them forgotten. Some of them, if they could stand among us at this moment, would not believe we were the same creatures; would not believe that what they saw and heard was real, and we could forget them so. No! they would not believe one word of it!’
‘Why, Dot!’ exclaimed the Carrier. ‘Little woman!’
She had spoken with such earnestness and fire, that she stood in need of some recalling to herself, without doubt. Her husband’s check was very gentle, for he merely interfered, as he supposed, to shield old Tackleton; but it proved effectual, for she stopped, and said no more. There was an uncommon agitation, even in her silence, which the wary Tackleton, who had brought his half-shut eye to bear upon her, noted closely, and remembered to some purpose too.
May uttered no word, good or bad, but sat quite still, with her eyes cast down, and made no sign of interest in what had passed. The good lady her mother now interposed, observing, in the first instance, that girls were girls, and byegones byegones, and that so long as young people were young and thoughtless, they would probably conduct themselves like young and thoughtless persons: with two or three other positions of a no less sound and incontrovertible character. She then remarked, in a devout spirit, that she thanked Heaven she had always found in her daughter May, a dutiful and obedient child; for which she took no credit to herself, though she had every reason to believe it was entirely owing to herself. With regard to Mr. Tackleton she said, That he was in a moral point of view an undeniable individual, and That he was in an eligible point of view a son-in-law to be desired, no one in their senses could doubt. (She was very emphatic here.) With regard to the family into which he was so soon about, after some solicitation, to be admitted, she believed Mr. Tackleton knew that, although reduced in purse, it had some pretensions to gentility; and if certain circumstances, not wholly unconnected, she would go so far as to say, with the Indigo Trade, but to which she would not more particularly refer, had happened differently, it might perhaps have been in possession of wealth. She then remarked that she would not allude to the past, and would not mention that her daughter had for some time rejected the suit of Mr. Tackleton; and that she would not say a great many other things which she did say, at great length. Finally, she delivered it as the general result of her observation and experience, that those marriages in which there was least of what was romantically and sillily called love, were always the happiest; and that she anticipated the greatest possible amount of bliss — not rapturous bliss; but the solid, steady-going article — from the approaching nuptials. She concluded by informing the company that to-morrow was the day she had lived for, expressly; and that when it was over, she would desire nothing better than to be packed up and disposed of, in any genteel place of burial.
As these remarks were quite unanswerable — which is the happy property of all remarks that are sufficiently wide of the purpose — they changed the current of the conversation, and diverted the general attention to the Veal and Ham-Pie, the cold mutton, the potatoes, and the tart. In order that the bottled beer might not be slighted, John Peerybingle proposed To-morrow: the Wedding-Day; and called upon them to drink a bumper to it, before he proceeded on his journey.
For you ought to know that he only rested there, and gave the old horse a bait. He had to go some four or five miles farther on; and when he returned in the evening, he called for Dot, and took another rest on his way home. This was the order of the day on all the Pic-Nic occasions, had been, ever since their institution.
There were two persons present, besides the bride and bridegroom elect, who did but indifferent honour to the toast. One of these was Dot, too flushed and discomposed to adapt herself to any small occurrence of the moment; the other, Bertha, who rose up hurriedly, before the rest, and left the table.
‘Good bye!’ said stout John Peerybingle, pulling on his dreadnought coat. ‘I shall be back at the old time. Good bye all!’
‘Good bye, John,’ returned Caleb.
He seemed to say it by rote, and to wave his hand in the same unconscious manner; for he stood observing Bertha with an anxious wondering face, that never altered its expression.
‘Good bye, young shaver!’ said the jolly Carrier, bending down to kiss the child; which Tilly Slowboy, now intent upon her knife and fork, had deposited asleep (and strange to say, without damage) in a little cot of Bertha’s furnishing; ‘good bye! Time will come, I suppose, when you’ll turn out into the cold, my little friend, and leave your old father to enjoy his pipe and his rheumatics in the chimney-corner; eh? Where’s Dot?’
‘I’m here, John!’ she said, starting.
‘Come, come!’ returned the Carrier, clapping his sounding hands. ‘Where’s the pipe?’
‘I quite forgot the pipe, John.’
Forgot the pipe! Was such a wonder ever heard of! She! Forgot the pipe!
‘I’ll — I’ll fill it directly. It’s soon done.’
But it was not so soon done, either. It lay in the usual place — the Carrier’s dreadnought pocket — with the little pouch, her own work, from which she was used to fill it, but her hand shook so, that she entangled it (and yet her hand was small enough to have come out easily, I am sure), and bungled terribly. The filling of the pipe and lighting it, those little offices in which I have commended her discretion, were vilely done, from first to last. During the whole process, Tackleton stood looking on maliciously with the half-closed eye; which, whenever it met hers — or caught it, for it can hardly be said to have ever met another eye: rather being a kind of trap to snatch it up — augmented her confusion in a most remarkable degree.
‘Why, what a clumsy Dot you are, this afternoon!’ said John. ‘I could have done it better myself, I verily believe!’
With these good-natured words, he strode away, and presently was heard, in company with Boxer, and the old horse, and the cart, making lively music down the road. What time the dreamy Caleb still stood, watching his blind daughter, with the same expression on his face.
‘Bertha!’ said Caleb, softly. ‘What has happened? How changed you are, my darling, in a few hours — since this morning. You silent and dull all day! What is it? Tell me!’
‘Oh father, father!’ cried the Blind Girl, bursting into tears. ‘Oh my hard, hard fate!’
Caleb drew his hand across his eyes before he answered her.
‘But think how cheerful and how happy you have been, Bertha! How good, and how much loved, by many people.’
‘That strikes me to the heart, dear father! Always so mindful of me! Always so kind to me!’
Caleb was very much perplexed to understand her.
‘To be — to be blind, Bertha, my poor dear,’ he faltered, ‘is a great affliction; but — ’
‘I have never felt it!’ cried the Blind Girl. ‘I have never felt it, in its fulness. Never! I have sometimes wished that I could see you, or could see him — only once, dear father, only for one little minute — that I might know what it is I treasure up,’ she laid her hands upon her breast, ‘and hold here! That I might be sure and have it right! And sometimes (but then I was a child) I have wept in my prayers at night, to think that when your images ascended from my heart to Heaven, they might not be the true resemblance of yourselves. But I have never had these feelings long. They have passed away and left me tranquil and contented.’
‘And they will again,’ said Caleb.
‘But, father! Oh my good, gentle father, bear with me, if I am wicked!’ said the Blind Girl. ‘This is not the sorrow that so weighs me down!’
Her father could not choose but let his moist eyes overflow; she was so earnest and pathetic, but he did not understand her, yet.
‘Bring her to me,’ said Bertha. ‘I cannot hold it closed and shut within myself. Bring her to me, father!’
She knew he hesitated, and said, ‘May. Bring May!’
May heard the mention of her name, and coming quietly towards her, touched her on the arm. The Blind Girl turned immediately, and held her by both hands.
‘Look into my face, Dear heart, Sweet heart!’ said Bertha. ‘Read it with your beautiful eyes, and tell me if the truth is written on it.’
‘Dear Bertha, Yes!’
The Blind Girl still, upturning the blank sightless face, down which the tears were coursing fast, addressed her in these words:
‘There is not, in my soul, a wish or thought that is not for your good, bright May! There is not, in my soul, a grateful recollection stronger than the deep remembrance which is stored there, of the many many times when, in the full pride of sight and beauty, you have had consideration for Blind Bertha, even when we two were children, or when Bertha was as much a child as ever blindness can be! Every blessing on your head! Light upon your happy course! Not the less, my dear May;’ and she drew towards her, in a closer grasp; ‘not the less, my bird, because, to-day, the knowledge that you are to be His wife has wrung my heart almost to breaking! Father, May, Mary! oh forgive me that it is so, for the sake of all he has done to relieve the weariness of my dark life: and for the sake of the belief you have in me, when I call Heaven to witness that I could not wish him married to a wife more worthy of his goodness!’
While speaking, she had released May Fielding’s hands, and clasped her garments in an attitude of mingled supplication and love. Sinking lower and lower down, as she proceeded in her strange confession, she dropped at last at the feet of her friend, and hid her blind face in the folds of her dress.
‘Great Power!’ exclaimed her father, smitten at one blow with the truth, ‘have I deceived her from her cradle, but to break her heart at last!’
It was well for all of them that Dot, that beaming, useful, busy little Dot — for such she was, whatever faults she had, and however you may learn to hate her, in good time — it was well for all of them, I say, that she was there: or where this would have ended, it were hard to tell. But Dot, recovering her self-possession, interposed, before May could reply, or Caleb say another word.
‘Come, come, dear Bertha! come away with me! Give her your arm, May. So! How composed she is, you see, already; and how good it is of her to mind us,’ said the cheery little woman, kissing her upon the forehead. ‘Come away, dear Bertha. Come! and here’s her good father will come with her; won’t you, Caleb? To — be — sure!’
Well, well! she was a noble little Dot in such things, and it must have been an obdurate nature that could have withstood her influence. When she had got poor Caleb and his Bertha away, that they might comfort and console each other, as she knew they only could, she presently came bouncing back, — the saying is, as fresh as any daisy; I say fresher — to mount guard over that bridling little piece of consequence in the cap and gloves, and prevent the dear old creature from making discoveries.
‘So bring me the precious Baby, Tilly,’ said she, drawing a chair to the fire; ‘and while I have it in my lap, here’s Mrs. Fielding, Tilly, will tell me all about the management of Babies, and put me right in twenty points where I’m as wrong as can be. Won’t you, Mrs. Fielding?’
Not even the Welsh Giant, who, according to the popular expression, was so ‘slow’ as to perform a fatal surgical operation upon himself, in emulation of a juggling-trick achieved by his arch-enemy at breakfast-time; not even he fell half so readily into the snare prepared for him, as the old lady did into this artful pitfall. The fact of Tackleton having walked out; and furthermore, of two or three people having been talking together at a distance, for two minutes, leaving her to her own resources; was quite enough to have put her on her dignity, and the bewailment of that mysterious convulsion in the Indigo trade, for four-and-twenty hours. But this becoming deference to her experience, on the part of the young mother, was so irresistible, that after a short affectation of humility, she began to enlighten her with the best grace in the world; and sitting bolt upright before the wicked Dot, she did, in half an hour, deliver more infallible domestic recipes and precepts, than would (if acted on) have utterly destroyed and done up that Young Peerybingle, though he had been an Infant Samson.
To change the theme, Dot did a little needlework — she carried the contents of a whole workbox in her pocket; however she contrived it, I don’t know — then did a little nursing; then a little more needlework; then had a little whispering chat with May, while the old lady dozed; and so in little bits of bustle, which was quite her manner always, found it a very short afternoon. Then, as it grew dark, and as it was a solemn part of this Institution of the Pic-Nic that she should perform all Bertha’s household tasks, she trimmed the fire, and swept the hearth, and set the tea-board out, and drew the curtain, and lighted a candle. Then she played an air or two on a rude kind of harp, which Caleb had contrived for Bertha, and played them very well; for Nature had made her delicate little ear as choice a one for music as it would have been for jewels, if she had had any to wear. By this time it was the established hour for having tea; and Tackleton came back again, to share the meal, and spend the evening.
Caleb and Bertha had returned some time before, and Caleb had sat down to his afternoon’s work. But he couldn’t settle to it, poor fellow, being anxious and remorseful for his daughter. It was touching to see him sitting idle on his working-stool, regarding her so wistfully, and always saying in his face, ‘Have I deceived her from her cradle, but to break her heart!’
When it was night, and tea was done, and Dot had nothing more to do in washing up the cups and saucers; in a word — for I must come to it, and there is no use in putting it off — when the time drew nigh for expecting the Carrier’s return in every sound of distant wheels, her manner changed again, her colour came and went, and she was very restless. Not as good wives are, when listening for their husbands. No, no, no. It was another sort of restlessness from that.
Wheels heard. A horse’s feet. The barking of a dog. The gradual approach of all the sounds. The scratching paw of Boxer at the door!
‘Whose step is that!’ cried Bertha, starting up.
‘Whose step?’ returned the Carrier, standing in the portal, with his brown face ruddy as a winter berry from the keen night air. ‘Why, mine.’
‘The other step,’ said Bertha. ‘The man’s tread behind you!’
‘She is not to be deceived,’ observed the Carrier, laughing. ‘Come along, sir. You’ll be welcome, never fear!’
He spoke in a loud tone; and as he spoke, the deaf old gentleman entered.
‘He’s not so much a stranger, that you haven’t seen him once, Caleb,’ said the Carrier. ‘You’ll give him house-room till we go?’
‘Oh surely, John, and take it as an honour.’
‘He’s the best company on earth, to talk secrets in,’ said John. ‘I have reasonable good lungs, but he tries ’em, I can tell you. Sit down, sir. All friends here, and glad to see you!’
When he had imparted this assurance, in a voice that amply corroborated what he had said about his lungs, he added in his natural tone, ‘A chair in the chimney-corner, and leave to sit quite silent and look pleasantly about him, is all he cares for. He’s easily pleased.’
Bertha had been listening intently. She called Caleb to her side, when he had set the chair, and asked him, in a low voice, to describe their visitor. When he had done so (truly now; with scrupulous fidelity), she moved, for the first time since he had come in, and sighed, and seemed to have no further interest concerning him.
The Carrier was in high spirits, good fellow that he was, and fonder of his little wife than ever.
‘A clumsy Dot she was, this afternoon!’ he said, encircling her with his rough arm, as she stood, removed from the rest; ‘and yet I like her somehow. See yonder, Dot!’
He pointed to the old man. She looked down. I think she trembled.
‘He’s — ha ha ha! — he’s full of admiration for you!’ said the Carrier. ‘Talked of nothing else, the whole way here. Why, he’s a brave old boy. I like him for it!’
‘I wish he had had a better subject, John,’ she said, with an uneasy glance about the room. At Tackleton especially.
‘A better subject!’ cried the jovial John. ‘There’s no such thing. Come, off with the great-coat, off with the thick shawl, off with the heavy wrappers! and a cosy half-hour by the fire! My humble service, Mistress. A game at cribbage, you and I? That’s hearty. The cards and board, Dot. And a glass of beer here, if there’s any left, small wife!’
His challenge was addressed to the old lady, who accepting it with gracious readiness, they were soon engaged upon the game. At first, the Carrier looked about him sometimes, with a smile, or now and then called Dot to peep over his shoulder at his hand, and advise him on some knotty point. But his adversary being a rigid disciplinarian, and subject to an occasional weakness in respect of pegging more than she was entitled to, required such vigilance on his part, as left him neither eyes nor ears to spare. Thus, his whole attention gradually became absorbed upon the cards; and he thought of nothing else, until a hand upon his shoulder restored him to a consciousness of Tackleton.
‘I am sorry to disturb you — but a word, directly.’
‘I’m going to deal,’ returned the Carrier. ‘It’s a crisis.’
‘It is,’ said Tackleton. ‘Come here, man!’
There was that in his pale face which made the other rise immediately, and ask him, in a hurry, what the matter was.
‘Hush! John Peerybingle,’ said Tackleton. ‘I am sorry for this. I am indeed. I have been afraid of it. I have suspected it from the first.’
‘What is it?’ asked the Carrier, with a frightened aspect.
‘Hush! I’ll show you, if you’ll come with me.’
The Carrier accompanied him, without another word. They went across a yard, where the stars were shining, and by a little side-door, into Tackleton’s own counting-house, where there was a glass window, commanding the ware-room, which was closed for the night. There was no light in the counting-house itself, but there were lamps in the long narrow ware-room; and consequently the window was bright.
‘A moment!’ said Tackleton. ‘Can you bear to look through that window, do you think?’
‘Why not?’ returned the Carrier.
‘A moment more,’ said Tackleton. ‘Don’t commit any violence. It’s of no use. It’s dangerous too. You’re a strong-made man; and you might do murder before you know it.’
The Carrier looked him in the face, and recoiled a step as if he had been struck. In one stride he was at the window, and he saw —
Oh Shadow on the Hearth! Oh truthful Cricket! Oh perfidious Wife!
He saw her, with the old man — old no longer, but erect and gallant — bearing in his hand the false white hair that had won his way into their desolate and miserable home. He saw her listening to him, as he bent his head to whisper in her ear; and suffering him to clasp her round the waist, as they moved slowly down the dim wooden gallery towards the door by which they had entered it. He saw them stop, and saw her turn — to have the face, the face he loved so, so presented to his view! — and saw her, with her own hands, adjust the lie upon his head, laughing, as she did it, at his unsuspicious nature!
He clenched his strong right hand at first, as if it would have beaten down a lion. But opening it immediately again, he spread it out before the eyes of Tackleton (for he was tender of her, even then), and so, as they passed out, fell down upon a desk, and was as weak as any infant.
He was wrapped up to the chin, and busy with his horse and parcels, when she came into the room, prepared for going home.
‘Now, John, dear! Good night, May! Good night, Bertha!’
Could she kiss them? Could she be blithe and cheerful in her parting? Could she venture to reveal her face to them without a blush? Yes. Tackleton observed her closely, and she did all this.
Tilly was hushing the Baby, and she crossed and re-crossed Tackleton, a dozen times, repeating drowsily:
‘Did the knowledge that it was to be its wifes, then, wring its hearts almost to breaking; and did its fathers deceive it from its cradles but to break its hearts at last!’
‘Now, Tilly, give me the Baby! Good night, Mr. Tackleton. Where’s John, for goodness’ sake?’
‘He’s going to walk beside the horse’s head,’ said Tackleton; who helped her to her seat.
‘My dear John. Walk? To-night?’
The muffled figure of her husband made a hasty sign in the affirmative; and the false stranger and the little nurse being in their places, the old horse moved off. Boxer, the unconscious Boxer, running on before, running back, running round and round the cart, and barking as triumphantly and merrily as ever.
When Tackleton had gone off likewise, escorting May and her mother home, poor Caleb sat down by the fire beside his daughter; anxious and remorseful at the core; and still saying in his wistful contemplation of her, ‘Have I deceived her from her cradle, but to break her heart at last!’
The toys that had been set in motion for the Baby, had all stopped, and run down, long ago. In the faint light and silence, the imperturbably calm dolls, the agitated rocking-horses with distended eyes and nostrils, the old gentlemen at the street-doors, standing half doubled up upon their failing knees and ankles, the wry-faced nut-crackers, the very Beasts upon their way into the Ark, in twos, like a Boarding School out walking, might have been imagined to be stricken motionless with fantastic wonder, at Dot being false, or Tackleton beloved, under any combination of circumstances.