The Lamplighter
by Charles Dickens

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Part One

’If you talk of Murphy and Francis Moore, gentlemen,’ said the lamplighter who was in the chair, ’I mean to say that neither of ’em ever had any more to do with the stars than Tom Grig had.’

’And what had he to do with ’em?’ asked the lamplighter who officiated as vice.

’Nothing at all,’ replied the other; ’just exactly nothing at all.’

’Do you mean to say you don’t believe in Murphy, then?’ demanded the lamplighter who had opened the discussion.

’I mean to say I believe in Tom Grig,’ replied the chairman. ’Whether I believe in Murphy, or not, is a matter between me and my conscience; and whether Murphy believes in himself, or not, is a matter between him and his conscience. Gentlemen, I drink your healths.’

The lamplighter who did the company this honour, was seated in the chimney-corner of a certain tavern, which has been, time out of mind, the Lamplighters’ House of Call. He sat in the midst of a circle of lamplighters, and was the cacique, or chief of the tribe.

If any of our readers have had the good fortune to behold a lamplighter’s funeral, they will not be surprised to learn that lamplighters are a strange and primitive people; that they rigidly adhere to old ceremonies and customs which have been handed down among them from father to son since the first public lamp was lighted out of doors; that they intermarry, and betroth their children in infancy; that they enter into no plots or conspiracies (for who ever heard of a traitorous lamplighter?); that they commit no crimes against the laws of their country (there being no instance of a murderous or burglarious lamplighter); that they are, in short, notwithstanding their apparently volatile and restless character, a highly moral and reflective people: having among themselves as many traditional observances as the Jews, and being, as a body, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as the streets. It is an article of their creed that the first faint glimmering of true civilisation shone in the first street-light maintained at the public expense. They trace their existence and high position in the public esteem, in a direct line to the heathen mythology; and hold that the history of Prometheus himself is but a pleasant fable, whereof the true hero is a lamplighter.

’Gentlemen,’ said the lamplighter in the chair, ’I drink your healths.’

’And perhaps, Sir,’ said the vice, holding up his glass, and rising a little way off his seat and sitting down again, in token that he recognised and returned the compliment, ’perhaps you will add to that condescension by telling us who Tom Grig was, and how he came to be connected in your mind with Francis Moore, Physician.’

’Hear, hear, hear!’ cried the lamplighters generally.

’Tom Grig, gentlemen,’ said the chairman, ’was one of us; and it happened to him, as it don’t often happen to a public character in our line, that he had his what-you-may-call-it cast.’

’His head?’ said the vice.

’No,’ replied the chairman, ’not his head.’

’His face, perhaps?’ said the vice. ’No, not his face.’ ’His legs?’ ’No, not his legs.’ Nor yet his arms, nor his hands, nor his feet, nor his chest, all of which were severally suggested.

’His nativity, perhaps?’

’That’s it,’ said the chairman, awakening from his thoughtful attitude at the suggestion. ’His nativity. That’s what Tom had cast, gentlemen.’

’In plaster?’ asked the vice.

’I don’t rightly know how it’s done,’ returned the chairman. ’But I suppose it was.’

And there he stopped as if that were all he had to say; whereupon there arose a murmur among the company, which at length resolved itself into a request, conveyed through the vice, that he would go on. This being exactly what the chairman wanted, he mused for a little time, performed that agreeable ceremony which is popularly termed wetting one’s whistle, and went on thus:

’Tom Grig, gentlemen, was, as I have said, one of us; and I may go further, and say he was an ornament to us, and such a one as only the good old times of oil and cotton could have produced. Tom’s family, gentlemen, were all lamplighters.’

’Not the ladies, I hope?’ asked the vice.

’They had talent enough for it, Sir,’ rejoined the chairman, ’and would have been, but for the prejudices of society. Let women have their rights, Sir, and the females of Tom’s family would have been every one of ’em in office. But that emancipation hasn’t come yet, and hadn’t then, and consequently they confined themselves to the bosoms of their families, cooked the dinners, mended the clothes, minded the children, comforted their husbands, and attended to the house-keeping generally. It’s a hard thing upon the women, gentlemen, that they are limited to such a sphere of action as this; very hard.

’I happen to know all about Tom, gentlemen, from the circumstance of his uncle by his mother’s side, having been my particular friend. His (that’s Tom’s uncle’s) fate was a melancholy one. Gas was the death of him. When it was first talked of, he laughed. He wasn’t angry; he laughed at the credulity of human nature. “They might as well talk,” he says, “of laying on an everlasting succession of glow-worms;” and then he laughed again, partly at his joke, and partly at poor humanity.

’In course of time, however, the thing got ground, the experiment was made, and they lighted up Pall Mall. Tom’s uncle went to see it. I’ve heard that he fell off his ladder fourteen times that night, from weakness, and that he would certainly have gone on falling till he killed himself, if his last tumble hadn’t been into a wheelbarrow which was going his way, and humanely took him home. “I foresee in this,” says Tom’s uncle faintly, and taking to his bed as he spoke - “I foresee in this,” he says, “the breaking up of our profession. There’s no more going the rounds to trim by daylight, no more dribbling down of the oil on the hats and bonnets of ladies and gentlemen when one feels in spirits. Any low fellow can light a gas-lamp. And it’s all up.” In this state of mind, he petitioned the government for - I want a word again, gentlemen - what do you call that which they give to people when it’s found out, at last, that they’ve never been of any use, and have been paid too much for doing nothing?’

’Compensation?’ suggested the vice.

’That’s it,’ said the chairman. ’Compensation. They didn’t give it him, though, and then he got very fond of his country all at once, and went about saying that gas was a death-blow to his native land, and that it was a plot of the radicals to ruin the country and destroy the oil and cotton trade for ever, and that the whales would go and kill themselves privately, out of sheer spite and vexation at not being caught. At last he got right-down cracked; called his tobacco-pipe a gas-pipe; thought his tears were lamp- oil; and went on with all manner of nonsense of that sort, till one night he hung himself on a lamp-iron in Saint Martin’s Lane, and there was an end of him.

’Tom loved him, gentlemen, but he survived it. He shed a tear over his grave, got very drunk, spoke a funeral oration that night in the watch-house, and was fined five shillings for it, in the morning. Some men are none the worse for this sort of thing. Tom was one of ’em. He went that very afternoon on a new beat: as clear in his head, and as free from fever as Father Mathew himself.

’Tom’s new beat, gentlemen, was - I can’t exactly say where, for that he’d never tell; but I know it was in a quiet part of town, where there were some queer old houses. I have always had it in my head that it must have been somewhere near Canonbury Tower in Islington, but that’s a matter of opinion. Wherever it was, he went upon it, with a bran-new ladder, a white hat, a brown holland jacket and trousers, a blue neck-kerchief, and a sprig of full- blown double wall-flower in his button-hole. Tom was always genteel in his appearance, and I have heard from the best judges, that if he had left his ladder at home that afternoon, you might have took him for a lord.

’He was always merry, was Tom, and such a singer, that if there was any encouragement for native talent, he’d have been at the opera. He was on his ladder, lighting his first lamp, and singing to himself in a manner more easily to be conceived than described, when he hears the clock strike five, and suddenly sees an old gentleman with a telescope in his hand, throw up a window and look at him very hard.

’Tom didn’t know what could be passing in this old gentleman’s mind. He thought it likely enough that he might be saying within himself, “Here’s a new lamplighter - a good-looking young fellow - shall I stand something to drink?” Thinking this possible, he keeps quite still, pretending to be very particular about the wick, and looks at the old gentleman sideways, seeming to take no notice of him.

’Gentlemen, he was one of the strangest and most mysterious-looking files that ever Tom clapped his eyes on. He was dressed all slovenly and untidy, in a great gown of a kind of bed-furniture pattern, with a cap of the same on his head; and a long old flapped waistcoat; with no braces, no strings, very few buttons - in short, with hardly any of those artificial contrivances that hold society together. Tom knew by these signs, and by his not being shaved, and by his not being over-clean, and by a sort of wisdom not quite awake, in his face, that he was a scientific old gentleman. He often told me that if he could have conceived the possibility of the whole Royal Society being boiled down into one man, he should have said the old gentleman’s body was that Body.

’The old gentleman claps the telescope to his eye, looks all round, sees nobody else in sight, stares at Tom again, and cries out very loud:


’"Halloa, Sir,” says Tom from the ladder; “and halloa again, if you come to that.”

’"Here’s an extraordinary fulfilment,” says the old gentleman, “of a prediction of the planets.”

’"Is there?” says Tom. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

’"Young man,” says the old gentleman, “you don’t know me.”

’"Sir,” says Tom, “I have not that honour; but I shall be happy to drink your health, notwithstanding.”

’"I read,” cries the old gentleman, without taking any notice of this politeness on Tom’s part - “I read what’s going to happen, in the stars.”

’Tom thanked him for the information, and begged to know if anything particular was going to happen in the stars, in the course of a week or so; but the old gentleman, correcting him, explained that he read in the stars what was going to happen on dry land, and that he was acquainted with all the celestial bodies.

’"I hope they’re all well, Sir,” says Tom, - “everybody.”

’"Hush!” cries the old gentleman. “I have consulted the book of Fate with rare and wonderful success. I am versed in the great sciences of astrology and astronomy. In my house here, I have every description of apparatus for observing the course and motion of the planets. Six months ago, I derived from this source, the knowledge that precisely as the clock struck five this afternoon a stranger would present himself - the destined husband of my young and lovely niece - in reality of illustrious and high descent, but whose birth would be enveloped in uncertainty and mystery. Don’t tell me yours isn’t,” says the old gentleman, who was in such a hurry to speak that he couldn’t get the words out fast enough, “for I know better.”

’Gentlemen, Tom was so astonished when he heard him say this, that he could hardly keep his footing on the ladder, and found it necessary to hold on by the lamp-post. There was a mystery about his birth. His mother had always admitted it. Tom had never known who was his father, and some people had gone so far as to say that even SHE was in doubt.

’While he was in this state of amazement, the old gentleman leaves the window, bursts out of the house-door, shakes the ladder, and Tom, like a ripe pumpkin, comes sliding down into his arms.

’"Let me embrace you,” he says, folding his arms about him, and nearly lighting up his old bed-furniture gown at Tom’s link. “You’re a man of noble aspect. Everything combines to prove the accuracy of my observations. You have had mysterious promptings within you,” he says; “I know you have had whisperings of greatness, eh?” he says.

’"I think I have,” says Tom - Tom was one of those who can persuade themselves to anything they like - “I’ve often thought I wasn’t the small beer I was taken for.”

’"You were right,” cries the old gentleman, hugging him again. “Come in. My niece awaits us.”

’"Is the young lady tolerable good-looking, Sir?” says Tom, hanging fire rather, as he thought of her playing the piano, and knowing French, and being up to all manner of accomplishments.

’"She’s beautiful!” cries the old gentleman, who was in such a terrible bustle that he was all in a perspiration. “She has a graceful carriage, an exquisite shape, a sweet voice, a countenance beaming with animation and expression; and the eye,” he says, rubbing his hands, “of a startled fawn.”

’Tom supposed this might mean, what was called among his circle of acquaintance, “a game eye;” and, with a view to this defect, inquired whether the young lady had any cash.

’"She has five thousand pounds,” cries the old gentleman. “But what of that? what of that? A word in your ear. I’m in search of the philosopher’s stone. I have very nearly found it - not quite. It turns everything to gold; that’s its property.”

’Tom naturally thought it must have a deal of property; and said that when the old gentleman did get it, he hoped he’d be careful to keep it in the family.

’"Certainly,” he says, “of course. Five thousand pounds! What’s five thousand pounds to us? What’s five million?” he says. “What’s five thousand million? Money will be nothing to us. We shall never be able to spend it fast enough.”

’"We’ll try what we can do, Sir,” says Tom.

’"We will,” says the old gentleman. “Your name?”

’"Grig,” says Tom.

’The old gentleman embraced him again, very tight; and without speaking another word, dragged him into the house in such an excited manner, that it was as much as Tom could do to take his link and ladder with him, and put them down in the passage.

’Gentlemen, if Tom hadn’t been always remarkable for his love of truth, I think you would still have believed him when he said that all this was like a dream. There is no better way for a man to find out whether he is really asleep or awake, than calling for something to eat. If he’s in a dream, gentlemen, he’ll find something wanting in flavour, depend upon it.

’Tom explained his doubts to the old gentleman, and said that if there was any cold meat in the house, it would ease his mind very much to test himself at once. The old gentleman ordered up a venison pie, a small ham, and a bottle of very old Madeira. At the first mouthful of pie and the first glass of wine, Tom smacks his lips and cries out, “I’m awake - wide awake;” and to prove that he was so, gentlemen, he made an end of ’em both.

’When Tom had finished his meal (which he never spoke of afterwards without tears in his eyes), the old gentleman hugs him again, and says, “Noble stranger! let us visit my young and lovely niece." Tom, who was a little elevated with the wine, replies, “The noble stranger is agreeable!” At which words the old gentleman took him by the hand, and led him to the parlour; crying as he opened the door, “Here is Mr. Grig, the favourite of the planets!”

’I will not attempt a description of female beauty, gentlemen, for every one of us has a model of his own that suits his own taste best. In this parlour that I’m speaking of, there were two young ladies; and if every gentleman present, will imagine two models of his own in their places, and will be kind enough to polish ’em up to the very highest pitch of perfection, he will then have a faint conception of their uncommon radiance.

’Besides these two young ladies, there was their waiting-woman, that under any other circumstances Tom would have looked upon as a Venus; and besides her, there was a tall, thin, dismal-faced young gentleman, half man and half boy, dressed in a childish suit of clothes very much too short in the legs and arms; and looking, according to Tom’s comparison, like one of the wax juveniles from a tailor’s door, grown up and run to seed. Now, this youngster stamped his foot upon the ground and looked very fierce at Tom, and Tom looked fierce at him - for to tell the truth, gentlemen, Tom more than half suspected that when they entered the room he was kissing one of the young ladies; and for anything Tom knew, you observe, it might be HIS young lady - which was not pleasant.

’"Sir,” says Tom, “before we proceed any further, will you have the goodness to inform me who this young Salamander” - Tom called him that for aggravation, you perceive, gentlemen - “who this young Salamander may be?”

’"That, Mr. Grig,” says the old gentleman, “is my little boy. He was christened Galileo Isaac Newton Flamstead. Don’t mind him. He’s a mere child.”

’"And a very fine child too,” says Tom - still aggravating, you’ll observe - “of his age, and as good as fine, I have no doubt. How do you do, my man?” with which kind and patronising expressions, Tom reached up to pat him on the head, and quoted two lines about little boys, from Doctor Watts’s Hymns, which he had learnt at a Sunday School.

’It was very easy to see, gentlemen, by this youngster’s frowning and by the waiting-maid’s tossing her head and turning up her nose, and by the young ladies turning their backs and talking together at the other end of the room, that nobody but the old gentleman took very kindly to the noble stranger. Indeed, Tom plainly heard the waiting-woman say of her master, that so far from being able to read the stars as he pretended, she didn’t believe he knew his letters in ’em, or at best that he had got further than words in one syllable; but Tom, not minding this (for he was in spirits after the Madeira), looks with an agreeable air towards the young ladies, and, kissing his hand to both, says to the old gentleman, “Which is which?”

’"This,” says the old gentleman, leading out the handsomest, if one of ’em could possibly be said to be handsomer than the other - “this is my niece, Miss Fanny Barker.”

’"If you’ll permit me, Miss,” says Tom, “being a noble stranger and a favourite of the planets, I will conduct myself as such.” With these words, he kisses the young lady in a very affable way, turns to the old gentleman, slaps him on the back, and says, “When’s it to come off, my buck?”

’The young lady coloured so deep, and her lip trembled so much, gentlemen, that Tom really thought she was going to cry. But she kept her feelings down, and turning to the old gentleman, says, “Dear uncle, though you have the absolute disposal of my hand and fortune, and though you mean well in disposing of ’em thus, I ask you whether you don’t think this is a mistake? Don’t you think, dear uncle,” she says, “that the stars must be in error? Is it not possible that the comet may have put ’em out?”

’"The stars,” says the old gentleman, “couldn’t make a mistake if they tried. Emma,” he says to the other young lady.

’"Yes, papa,” says she.

’"The same day that makes your cousin Mrs. Grig will unite you to the gifted Mooney. No remonstrance - no tears. Now, Mr. Grig, let me conduct you to that hallowed ground, that philosophical retreat, where my friend and partner, the gifted Mooney of whom I have just now spoken, is even now pursuing those discoveries which shall enrich us with the precious metal, and make us masters of the world. Come, Mr. Grig,” he says.

’"With all my heart, Sir,” replies Tom; “and luck to the gifted Mooney, say I - not so much on his account as for our worthy selves!” With this sentiment, Tom kissed his hand to the ladies again, and followed him out; having the gratification to perceive, as he looked back, that they were all hanging on by the arms and legs of Galileo Isaac Newton Flamstead, to prevent him from following the noble stranger, and tearing him to pieces.

’Gentlemen, Tom’s father-in-law that was to be, took him by the hand, and having lighted a little lamp, led him across a paved court-yard at the back of the house, into a very large, dark, gloomy room: filled with all manner of bottles, globes, books, telescopes, crocodiles, alligators, and other scientific instruments of every kind. In the centre of this room was a stove or furnace, with what Tom called a pot, but which in my opinion was a crucible, in full boil. In one corner was a sort of ladder leading through the roof; and up this ladder the old gentleman pointed, as he said in a whisper:

’"The observatory. Mr. Mooney is even now watching for the precise time at which we are to come into all the riches of the earth. It will be necessary for he and I, alone in that silent place, to cast your nativity before the hour arrives. Put the day and minute of your birth on this piece of paper, and leave the rest to me.”

’"You don’t mean to say,” says Tom, doing as he was told and giving him back the paper, “that I’m to wait here long, do you? It’s a precious dismal place.”

’"Hush!” says the old gentleman. “It’s hallowed ground. Farewell!”

’"Stop a minute,” says Tom. “What a hurry you’re in! What’s in that large bottle yonder?”

’"It’s a child with three heads,” says the old gentleman; “and everything else in proportion.”

’"Why don’t you throw him away?” says Tom. “What do you keep such unpleasant things here for?”

’"Throw him away!” cries the old gentleman. “We use him constantly in astrology. He’s a charm.”

’"I shouldn’t have thought it,” says Tom, “from his appearance. MUST you go, I say?”

’The old gentleman makes him no answer, but climbs up the ladder in a greater bustle than ever. Tom looked after his legs till there was nothing of him left, and then sat down to wait; feeling (so he used to say) as comfortable as if he was going to be made a freemason, and they were heating the pokers.


Part One  •  Part Two