"Drop of something to drink," interposed the stranger. "I am agreeable." by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Chambers," chapter 14 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

With a candle in his hand, Mr. Testator went to the door, and found there, a very pale and very tall man; a man who stooped; a man with very high shoulders, a very narrow chest, and a very red nose; a shabby-genteel man. He was wrapped in a long thread-bare black coat, fastened up the front with more pins than buttons, and under his arm he squeezed an umbrella without a handle, as if he were playing bagpipes. He said, 'I ask your pardon, but can you tell me —" and stopped; his eyes resting on some object within the chambers.

"Can I tell you what?" asked Mr. Testator, noting his stoppage with quick alarm.

"I ask your pardon," said the stranger, 'but — this is not the inquiry I was going to make — do I see in there, any small article of property belonging to me?"

Mr. Testator was beginning to stammer that he was not aware — when the visitor slipped past him, into the chambers. There, in a goblin way which froze Mr. Testator to the marrow, he examined, first, the writing-table, and said, "Mine;" then, the easy-chair, and said, 'Mine;' then, the bookcase, and said, "Mine;" then, turned up a corner of the carpet, and said, "Mine!" in a word, inspected every item of furniture from the cellar, in succession, and said, "Mine!" Towards the end of this investigation, Mr. Testator perceived that he was sodden with liquor, and that the liquor was gin. He was not unsteady with gin, either in his speech or carriage; but he was stiff with gin in both particulars.

Mr. Testator was in a dreadful state, for (according to his making out of the story) the possible consequences of what he had done in recklessness and hardihood, flashed upon him in their fulness for the first time. When they had stood gazing at one another for a little while, he tremulously began:

"Sir, I am conscious that the fullest explanation, compensation, and restitution, are your due. They shall be yours. Allow me to entreat that, without temper, without even natural irritation on your part, we may have a little —"

"Drop of something to drink," interposed the stranger. "I am agreeable."

Mr. Testator has intended to say, "a little quiet conversation," but with great relief of mind adopted the amendment. [71]

Commentary

Published on 18 August 1860 in All the Year Round, the amusing anecdote about "Mr. Testator" and the borrowed furniture is just part of a reflection on the attorneys' chambers of London's various Inns of Court. Dickens's intimate knowledge of the subject goes back as far as December 1834, when he occupied 13 and subsequently 15, Furnival's Inn, which he eventually gave up in March 1837 after marriage. As the article makes clear, the chambers occupied by attorneys in Dickens's day were to found in the four medieval Inns of Court: the and Middle Temple, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn, well as the "lesser " inns of the court of Chancery (Furnival's, Lyon's, Clement's, Barnard's, the New, and , which Dickens derides as "the shabby crew" towards the close of the essay). Although Dickens as a young husband had had to give up his chambers and move to the roomier quarters of the row house at 48 Doughty Street, he maintained a lifelong connection with such bachelor quarters through his agent and ultimately his biographer, John Forster, who had chambers at Lincoln's Inn, Dickens having registered as a law student at the Middle Temple in 1839.

In "Chambers," having described life at Gray's Inn, Dickens sets the scene of Mr. Testator's confrontation with the supposed owner of the borrowed furniture at Lyon's Inn. After some two or three years of using the furniture, Mr. Testator has come to regard these salvaged pieces as his own — until late one evening a mysterious stranger arrives at his door to claim them. In both Reinhart's and Dalziel's realization, Mr. Testator has opened the door, candle in hand, and the stranger, umbrella in hand, has claimed his property. Mr. Testator is startled and embarrassed, but offers both an explanation (doubtless related to his desperate need for a writing desk, the first piece of furniture he borrowed from the vaults below), and a suitable restitution. In this proposition, however, he is cut off in mid-sentiment as his visitor, smelling of gin already, suggests a drink.

In what Poe might humorously have dubbed "The Strange Case of the Purloined Furniture," Dickens's narrator asserts that he has personal knowledge of the "Testator," who is at the time of the telling of this urban myth already dead. According to the narrative, the protagonist was "not more than thirty" at the time, and was perhaps thirty-two or thirty-three on the night of the confrontation. Thus, one might reasonably expect the two men to be wearing Regency rather than Victorian dress. "Mr. Testator" is likely a scrivener, and therefore ought to be garbed as a professional. In these respects, neither Reinhart's nor Dalziel's version is absolutely faithful to the text, for neither "Mr. Testator" is young. However, in both we note the obvious presence of furniture. Reinhart more so than Dalziel captures the genial if peculiar nature of the visitor effectively as the putative furniture-owner stretches out his sodden umbrella in order to dry it. In contrast, Dalziel's visitor does not make himself at home by removing his hat and outer garment, and does not divest himself of the umbrella: he is torpid and utterly expressionless in "'I ask your pardon,' said the stranger, 'But do I see in there any small article of property belonging to me?'" (p. 64).

Dalziel provides a physical set worthy of Ionesco's "The New Tenant." Whereas C. S. Reinhart has included merely part of a couch (right) and a chest-of-drawers (left), Dalziel has pursued a more expansive notion and detailed notion of furnishing, and he has significantly included a table full of spirit bottles. Indeed, Dalziel's room is so crammed with furniture that the two figures are forced into the vacant and narrow foreground. A large, folding screen; a massive wardrobe, two substantial chairs (the larger, left, occupied by an open book), and a small table laden with bottles, a single wine-glass, and a reading lamp askew all suggest that the bachelor has substituted things for people, like the tenant in Ionesco's Absurdist drama. In short, having had no furnishings whatsoever in the sitting-room previously, the tenant has compensated for his lonely life-style with bric-a-brac and furniture enough for a whole family. Dalziel's plate, despite the candle and the desk-lamp, is dark, full of menacing shadows as one looks into areas of the picture not illuminated by the central lamp. Thus, Dalziel creates an ominous atmosphere not entirely consonant with the amusing nature of the anecdote, and hardly reflective of the humourous manner of the telling.

Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller, Hard Times, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Il. Charles Stanley Reinhart and Luke Fildes. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1972.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.


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