by Charles Dickens
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
'Our Mutual Friend' was the last long complete novel Dickens wrote, and, like all his books, it first appeared in monthly parts. It was so published in 1864-65. After three numbers had appeared, the author wrote: "I have grown hard to satisfy, and write very slowly. Although I have not been wanting in industry, I have been wanting in imagination." In his "Postscript in Lieu of Preface," the author points out - in answer to those who had disputed the probability of Harmon's will - "that there are hundreds of will cases far more remarkable than that fancied in this book." In this same postscript Dickens also renewed his attack on Poor Law administration, begun in 'Oliver Twist'.
For more works by Dickens, see The Index
I. - The Man from Somewhere
It was at a dinner-party that Mortimer Lightwood, solicitor, at the request of Lady Tippins, told the story of the Man from Somewhere.
"Upon my life," says Mortimer languidly, "I can't fix him with a local habitation; but he comes from the place, the name of which escapes me, where they make the wine.
"The man," Mortimer goes on, "whose name is Harmon, was the only son of a tremendous old rascal, who made his money by dust, as a dust contractor. This venerable parent, displeased with his son, turns him out of doors. The boy takes flight, gets aboard ship, turns up on dry land among the Cape wine; small proprietor, farmer, grower - whatever you like to call it. Venerable parent dies. His will is found. It leaves the lowest of a range of dust mountains, with a dwelling-house, to an old servant, who is sole executor. And that's all, except that the son's inheritance is made conditional on his marrying a girl, at the date of the will a child four or five years old, who is now a marriageable young woman. Advertisement and inquiry discovered the son in the Man from Somewhere, and he is now on his way home, after fourteen years' absence, to succeed to a very large fortune, and to take a wife."
Mortimer, being asked what would become of the fortune in the event of the marriage condition not being fulfilled, replies that by a clause in the will it would then go to the old servant above-mentioned, passing over and excluding the son; also, that if the son had not been living, the same old servant would have been sole residuary legatee.
It is just when the ladies are retiring that Mortimer receives a note from the butler.
"This really arrives in an extraordinarily opportune manner," says Mortimer, after reading the paper presented to him. "This is the conclusion of the story of the identical man. Man's drowned!"
The dinner being over, Mortimer Lightwood and his friend Eugene Wrayburn interviewed the boy who had brought the note, and then set out in a cab to the riverside quarter of Wapping.
The cab dismissed, a little winding through some muddy alleys brings then to the bright lamp of a police-station, where they find the night-inspector. He takes a bull's-eye, and Mortimer and Eugene follow him to a cool grot at the end of the yard. They quickly come out again.
"No clue, gentlemen," says the inspector, "as to how the body came into river. Very often no clue. Steward of ship, in which gentleman came home passenger, had been round to view, and could swear to identity. Likewise could swear to clothes. Inquest to-morrow, and no doubt open verdict."
A stranger who had entered the station with Lightwood and Wrayburn attracts Mr. Inspector's attention.
"Turned you faint, sir? You expected to identify?"
"It's a horrible sight," says the stranger. "No, I can't identify."
"You missed a friend, you know; or you missed a foe, or you wouldn't have come here, you know. Well, then, ain't it reasonable to ask, who was it?" Thus Mr. Inspector. "At least, you won't object to write down your name and address?"
The stranger took the pen and wrote down, "Mr. Julius Handford, Exchequer Coffee House, Palace Yard, Westminster."
At the coroner's inquest next day, Mr. Mortimer Lightwood watched the proceedings on behalf of the representatives of the deceased; and Mr. Julius Handford having given his right address, had no summons to appear.
Upon the evidence before them, the jury found that Mr. John Harmon had come by his death under suspicious circumstances, though by whose act there was no evidence to show. Within eight-and-forty hours a reward of one hundred pounds was proclaimed by the Home Office, and for a time public interest in the Harmon Murder, as it came to be called, ran high.
II. - The Golden Dustman
Mr. Boffin, a broad, round-shouldered, one-sided old fellow in mourning, dressed in a pea overcoat, and wearing thick leather gaiters, and gloves like a hedger's, came ambling towards the street corner where Silas Wegg sat at his stall. A few small lots of fruits and sweets, and a choice collection of halfpenny ballads, comprised Mr. Wegg's stock, and assuredly it was the hardest little stall of all the sterile little stalls in London.
"Morning, morning!" said the old fellow.
"Good-morning to you, sir!" said Mr. Wegg.
The old fellow paused, and then startled Mr. Wegg with the question, "How did you get your wooden leg?"
"In an accident."
"Do you like it?"
"Well, I haven't got to keep it warm," Mr. Wegg answered desperately.
"Did you ever hear of the name of Boffin? And do you like it?"
"Why, no," said Mr. Wegg, growing restive; "I can't say that I do."
"My name's Boffin," said the old fellow, smiling. "But there's another chance for you. Do you like the name of Nicodemus? Think it over. Nick or Noddy. Noddy Boffin, that's my name."
"It is not, sir," said Mr. Wegg, in a tone of resignation, "a name as I could wish anyone to call me by, but there may be persons that would not view it with the same objections. Silas Wegg is my name. I don't know why Silas, and I don't know why Wegg."
"Now, Wegg," said Mr. Boffin, "I came by here one morning and heard you reading through your ballads to a butcher-boy. I thought to myself, 'Here's a literary man with a wooden leg, and all print is open to him! And here am I without a wooden leg, and all print is shut to me.'"
"I believe you couldn't show me the piece of English print that I wouldn't be equal to collaring and throwing," Mr. Wegg admitted modestly.
"Now I want some reading, and I must pay a man so much an hour to come and do it for me. Say two hours a night at twopence-halfpenny. Half-acrown a week. What do you think of the terms, Wegg?"
"Mr. Boffin, I never did 'aggle, and I never will 'aggle. I meet you at once, free and fair, with - - Done, for double the money!"
From that night Silas Wegg came to read at Boffin's Bower - or Harmony Jail, as the house was formerly called - and he soon learnt that his employer was no other than the inheritor of old Harmon's property, and that he was known as the Golden Dustman.
It was not long after Silas Wegg's appointment that Mr. Boffin was accosted by a strange gentleman, who gave his name as John Rokesmith, and proposed his services as private secretary. Mr. Rokesmith mentioned that he lodged at one Mr. Wilfer's, in Holloway. Mr. Boffin stared.
"Father of Miss Bella Wilfer?"
"My landlord has a daughter named Bella."
"Well, to tell you the truth, I don't know what to say," said Mr. Boffin; "but call at the Bower, though I don't know that I shall ever be in want of a secretary."
So to the Bower came Mr. John Rokesmith, but not before the Boffins had called at the Wilfers' and seen the young lady destined by old Harmon for his son's bride.
"Noddy," said Mrs. Boffin, "I have been thinking early and late of that girl, Bella Wilfer, who was so cruelly disappointed both of her husband and his riches. Don't you think we might do something for her? Have her to live with us? And, Noddy, I tell you what I want - I want society. We have come into a great fortune, and we must act up to it. It's never been acted up to, and consequently no good has come of it."
It was agreed that they should move into a good house in a good neighbourhood, and that a visit should be paid to Mr. Wilfer at once. Mrs. Wilfer received them with a tragic air.
"Mrs. Boffin and me, ma'am," said Mr. Boffin, "are plain people, and we make this call to say we shall be glad to have the honour and pleasure of your daughter's acquaintance, and that we shall be rejoiced if your daughter will come to consider our house in the light of her home equally with this."
"I am much obliged to you - I am sure," said Miss Bella, coldly shaking her curls, "but I doubt if I have the inclination to go out at all."
"Bella," Mrs. Wilfer admonished her solemnly, "you must conquer this!"
"Yes, do what your ma says, and conquer it, my dear," urged Mrs. Boffin, "because we shall be so glad to have you, and because you are much too pretty to keep yourself shut up."
With that Mrs. Boffin gave her a kiss, which Bella frankly returned; and it was settled that Bella should be sent for as soon as they were ready to receive her.
"By the bye, ma'am," said Mr. Boffin, as he was leaving, "you have a lodger?"
"A gentleman," Mrs. Wilfer answered, "undoubtedly occupies our first floor."
"I may call him our mutual friend," said Mr. Boffin. "What sort of fellow is our mutual friend, now? Do you like him?"
"Mr. Rokesmith is very punctual, very quiet - a very eligible inmate."
The Boffins drove away, and Mr. Rokesmith, coming to the Bower, extricated Mr. Boffin from a mass of disordered papers, and gave such satisfaction that his services were accepted, and he took up the secretaryship.
II. - The Golden Dustman Deteriorates
Miss Bella Wilfer was conscious that she was growing mercenary. She admitted as much to her father. There were several other secrets she had to impart beyond her own lack of improvement.
"Mr. Rokesmith has made an offer to me, pa, and I told him I thought it a betrayal of trust on his part, and an affront to me. Mrs. Boffin has herself told me, with her own kind lips, that they wish to see me well married; and that when I marry, with their consent, they will portion me most handsomely. That is another secret. And now there is only one more, and it is very hard to tell it. But Mr. Boffin is being spoilt by prosperity, and is changing for the worse every day. Not to me - he is always the same to me - but to others about him. He grows suspicious, hard, and unjust. If ever a good man were ruined by good fortune, it is my benefactor."
Bella parted from her father, and returned to the Boffins, to find fresh proofs of the deterioration of the Golden Dustman.
"Now, Rokesmith," Mr. Boffin was saying, "it's time to settle about your wages. A man of property like me is bound to consider the market price. If I pay for a sheep, I buy it out and out. Similarly, if I pay for a secretary, I buy him out and out. It's convenient to have you at all times ready on the premises."
The secretary bowed and withdrew. Bella's eyes followed him to the door. She felt that Mrs. Boffin was uncomfortable.
"Noddy," said Mrs. Boffin thoughtfully, "haven't you been a little strict with Mr. Rokesmith to-night? Haven't you been just a little not quite like your own old self?"
"Why, old woman, I hope so," said Mr. Boffin cheerfully. "Our old selves wouldn't do here, old lady. Our old selves would be fit for nothing but to be imposed upon. Our old selves weren't people of fortune. Our new selves are. It's a great difference."
Very uncomfortable was Bella that night, and very uneasy was she as the days went by, for Mr. Boffin made a point of hunting up old books that gave the lives of misers, and the more enjoyment he seemed to get out of this literature, the harder he became to the secretary. Somehow, the worse Mr. Boffin treated his secretary, the more Bella felt drawn to the man whose offer of marriage she had refused. The crisis came one morning when the Golden Dustman's bearing towards Rokesmith was even more arrogant and offensive than it had been before. Mrs. Boffin was seated on a sofa, and Mr. Boffin had Bella on his arm.
"Don't be alarmed, my dear," he said gently. "I'm going to see you righted."
Then he turned to his secretary.
"Now, sir, look at this young lady. How dare you come out of your station to pester this young lady with your impudent addresses? This young lady, who was far above you. This young lady was looking about for money, and you had no money."
Bella hung her head, and Mrs. Boffin broke out crying.
"This Rokesmith is a needy young man," Mr. Boffin went on unmoved. "He gets acquainted with my affairs and gets to know that I mean to settle a sum of money upon this young lady."
"I indignantly deny it!" said the secretary quietly. "But our connection being at an end, it matters little what I say."
"I discharge you," Mr. Boffin retorted. "There's your money."
"Mrs. Boffin," said Rokesmith, "for your unvarying kindness I thank you with the warmest gratitude. Miss Wilfer, good-bye."
"Oh, Mr. Rokesmith," said Bella in her tears, "hear one word from me before you go. I am deeply sorry for the reproaches you have borne on my account. Out of the depths of my heart I beg your pardon."
She gave him her hand, and he put it to his lips and said, "God bless you!"
"There was a time when I deserved to be 'righted,' as Mr. Boffin has done," Bella went on, "but I hope that I shall never deserve it again."
Once more John Rokesmith put her hand to his lips, and then relinquished it, and left the room.
Bella threw her arms round Mrs. Boffin's neck. "He has been most shamefully abused and driven away, and I am the cause of it. I must go home; I am very grateful for all you have done for me, but I can't stay here."
"Now, Bella," said Mr. Boffin, "look before you leap. Go away, and you can never come back. And you mustn't expect that I'm a-going to settle money on you if you leave me like this, because I'm not. Not one brass farthing."
"No power on earth could make me take it now," said Bella haughtily.
Then she broke into sobs over saying good-bye to Mrs. Boffin, said a last word to Mr. Boffin, and ran upstairs. A few minutes later she went out of the house.
"That was well done," said Bella when she was in the street, "and now I'll go and see my dear, darling pa in the city."
IV. - The Runaway Marriage
Bella found her way to her father's office in the city. It was after hours, and the little man was alone, having tea on a small cottage loaf and a pennyworth of milk, for R. Wilfer was but a clerk on a small income. He immediately fetched another loaf and another pennyworth of milk, and then, before she could tell him she had left the Boffins, who should come along but John Rokesmith. And John Rokesmith not only came in, but he caught Bella in his arms, and she was content to leave her head on his breast as if that were her head's chosen and lasting resting place.
"I knew you would come to him, and I followed you," said Rokesmith. "You are mine."
"Yes, I am yours if you think me worth taking," Bella responded.
Then Bella's father had to hear what had happened, and said his daughter had done well.
"To think," said Wilfer, looking round the office, "that anything of a tender nature should come off here is what tickles me."
A few weeks later and Bella and her father went out early one morning and took the steamer to Greenwich. And at Greenwich there was John Rokesmith, and presently in a church John and Bella were joined together in wedlock.
They had been married a year, and lived in a little house at Blackheath. John Rokesmith went up to the city every day, and explained that he was "in a China house." From time to time he would ask her, "Would you like to be rich now, my darling?" and got for answer, "Dear John, am I not rich?"
But for all that a change came in their affairs. For Mortimer Lightwood, who had met Bella at the Boffins', seeing her walking with her husband, recognised him as Julius Handford; and as Mr. Inspector had never discovered what became of Mr. Julius Handford, he must needs pay Mr. Rokesmith a visit. And then it turned out that John Rokesmith was not only Julius Handford, but John Harmon himself, much to Mr. Inspector's astonishment.
More surprises were to follow, for when John came home next day he told Bella that he had left the China house, and was better off.
"We must have our headquarters in London now, my dear, and there's a house ready for us."
And the house which John and Bella visited next day was none other than the Boffins', and when they arrived, there were Mr. and Mrs. Boffin beaming at them. Mrs. Boffin told Bella that John Rokesmith was John Harmon, and how, remembering him as a small boy, she had guessed it quite early. Then Mrs. Boffin admitted that John, despairing of winning Bella's heart, and determined that there should be no question of money in the marriage, he was for going away, and that Noddy said he would prove that she loved him. "We was all of us in it, my beauty," Mrs. Boffin concluded, "and when you was married there was we hid up in the church organ by this husband of yours, for he wouldn't let us out with it then, as was first meant. But it was Noddy who said that he would prove you had a true heart of gold. 'If she was to stand up for you when you was slighted,' he said to John, 'and if she was to do that against her own interest, how would that do?' 'Do?' says John, 'it would raise me to the skies.' 'Then,' says my Noddy, 'get ready for the ascent, John, for up you go. Look out for being slighted and oppressed.' And then he began. And how he did begin, didn't he?"
"It looks as if old Harmon's spirit had found rest at last, and as if his money had turned bright again after a long rust in the dark," said Mrs. Boffin to her husband that night.
"Yes, old lady."
The mystery of the Harmon murder is yet to be explained. John Harmon, going on shore with a fellow passenger, who greatly resembled him, was drugged and robbed of his money in a house near the river by this man. But the robber, who had taken Harmon's clothes, was himself robbed and thrown into the water, and Harmon recovered consciousness and made his escape just at the time when the body of his assailant was recovered. In this state of strange excitement he turned up at the police station, and, unwilling to reveal his identity at the moment, passed himself off as Julius Handford.
* * * * *
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