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   Chapter 9 CHRISTMAS EVE AT WATTS'S.

Faces and Places By Sir Henry W. Lucy Characters: 21432

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Wandering out of the High Street, Rochester, on the afternoon before

Christmas Day, by a narrow passage to the left I came upon the old

Cathedral. The doors were open, and as they were the only doors in

Rochester open to me, except, perhaps, those of the tramp house at the

Union, I entered, and sat down as near as befitted my condition. The

afternoon service was going on, and even to tired limbs and an empty

stomach it was restful and soothing to hear the sweet voices of the

surpliced choristers, and the grand deep tones of the organ, echoing

through the fretted roof, and rolling round the long pillared aisles.

There were not ten people there besides myself, the clergy and the choir

forming the bulk of the assembly. As soon as the service had been gone

through, the clergy and the choir filed out, and the lay people one by

one departed.

I should have liked to sit where I was all night. It was at least warm

and sheltered, and I have slept on worse beds than may be made of half

a dozen Cathedral chairs. But presently the verger came round, and

perceiving at a glance that I was not a person likely to possess a

superfluous sixpence, asked me if I was going to sit there all night.

I said I was if he didn't mind; but he did, and there was nothing for

it but to clear out.

"Haven't you got nowhere to go to?" asked the man, as I moved slowly

off.

"Nowhere in particular," I answered.

"That's a bad look-out for Christmas-eve. Why don't you go over to

Watts's?"

"What's Watts's?"

"It's a house in High Street, where you'll get a good supper, a bed,

and a fourpenny-bit in the morning if you can show you'em an honest man,

and not a regular tramp. There's old Watts's muniment down by the side

of the choir. A reglar brick he was, who not only wrote beautiful hymns,

but gave away his money for the relief of the pore."

My heart warmed to the good old Doctor whose hymns I had learnt in

my youth, little thinking that the day would come when I should be

thankful to him for more substantial nourishment. I had intended to

go in the ordinary way to get a night's lodging in the casual ward;

but Watts's was evidently a better game, and getting from the verger

minute directions how to proceed in order to gain admittance to

Watts's, I left the Cathedral.

The verger was not a bad-hearted fellow, I am sure, though he did speak

roughly to me at first. He seemed struck with the fact that a man not

too well clad, who had nowhere particular to sleep on the eve of

Christmas Day, could scarcely be expected to be "merry." All the time

he was talking about Watts's he was fumbling in his waistcoat pocket,

and I know he was feeling if he had there a threepenny-bit. But if he

had, it didn't come immediately handy, and before he got hold of it

the thought of the sufficient provision which awaited me at Watts's

afforded vicarious satisfaction to his charitable feelings, and he

was content with bidding me a kindly good-night, as he pointed my road

down the lane to the police-office, where, it seemed, Dr. Watts's guests

had to put in a preliminary appearance.

Crossing High Street, passing through a sort of courtyard, and down some

steps, I reached a snug-looking house, which I had some difficulty in

believing was a police-office. But it was, and the first thing I saw was

seven men lounging about the yard. They didn't seem like regular tramps,

but they had a look as if they had walked far, and each man carried a

little bundle and a stick. The verger had told me that only six men per

night were admitted to Watts's, and there were seven already.

"Are you for Watts's?" one of them, a little, sharp-looking fellow, with

short light hair pasted down over his forehead, asked me, seeing me

hesitate.

"Yes."

"Well, it ain't no go to-night. There's seven here, and fust come,

fust served."

"Don't believe him, young 'un," said an elderly man, "it's all one what

time you come, so as it's afore half-past five you'll take your chance

with the rest of us."

It was not yet five, so I loafed about with the rest of them, being

scowled upon by all except the elderly man till the arrival of two other

travellers removed to them the weight of the odium I had lightly borne.

At a quarter to six a police-sergeant appeared at the door of the office

and said:

"Now then."

This was generally interpreted as a signal to advance, and we stood

forward in an irregular line. The sergeant looked around us sternly

till his eye lighted upon the elderly man.

"So you're trying it on again, are you?"

"I've not been here for two months, if I may never sleep in a bed

again," whimpered the elderly man.

"You was here last Monday week that I know of, and may be since. Off you

go!" and the elderly gentleman went off with an alacrity that rather

reduced the wonderment I had felt at his disinterested intervention to

prevent my losing a chance, suggesting, as it did, that he felt the

probability of gaining admission was exceedingly remote.

I was the next upon whom the eye of the police-sergeant loweringly fell.

"What do you want?"

"A night's lodging at Watts's."

"Watts's is for decent workmen on the tramp. You ain't a labourer. Show

me your hands." I held out my hands, and the police-sergeant examined

the palms critically.

"What are you?"

"A paper stainer."

"Where have you been to?"

"I came from Canterbury last."

"Where do you work?"

"In London when I can find work."

"Where are you going now?"

"To London."

"How much money have you got?"

"Three-halfpence."

"Humph!"

I don't know whether a murder had recently been committed in Kent, and

whether I in some degree answered to the description of the supposed

murderer. If it were so, the unfortunate circumstance will explain why

the sergeant should have run me through and through with his eyes whilst

propounding these queries, and why he should have made them in such a

gruff voice. However, he seemed to have finally arrived at the

conclusion that I was not the person wanted for the murder, and after a

brief pause he said, "Go inside."

I went inside, into one of the snuggest little police-offices I have

seen in the course of some tramping, and took the liberty of warming

myself by the cosy fire, whilst the remaining applicants for admission

to Watts's were being put through a sort of minor catechism such as that

I had survived. Presently the sergeant came in with the selected five of

my yard companions, and, taking us one by one, entered in a book, under

the date "24th December," our several names, ages, birthplaces and

occupations, also the names of the last place we had come from, and the

next whither we were going. Then, taking up a scrap of blue paper with

some printed words on it, and filling in figures, a date, and a

signature, he bade us follow him.

Out of the snug police-office--which put utterly in the shade the

comforts of the cathedral regarded as a sleeping place--across the

courtyard, which somebody said faced the Sessions House, down High

Street to the left till we stopped before an old-fashioned white house

with a projecting lamp lit above the doorway, shining full on an

inscription graven in stone. I read it then and copied it when I left

the house next morning. It ran thus:--

RICHARD WATTS, Esqr.

by his will dated 22 Aug., 1579,

founded this charity

for six poor travellers,

who not being Rogues, or Proctors,

may receive gratis, for one Night,

Lodging, Entertainment,

and four pence each.

In testimony of his Munificence,

in honour of his Memory,

and inducement to his Example,

Nathl. Hood, Esq., the present Mayor,

has caused this stone,

gratefully to be renewed,

and inscribed,

A.D. 1771.

It was not Dr. Watts, then, as the verger had given me to understand. I

was sorry, for it had seemed like going to the house of an old friend,

and I had meant after supper to recite "How doth the little Busy Bee"

for the edification of my fellow-guests, and to tell them what I had

learnt long ago of the good writer's life and labours.

"Here we are again, Mrs. Kercham," said our conductor, stepping into the

low hall of the white house.

"Yes, here you are again," replied an old lady, dressed in black, and

wearing a widow's cap. "Have you got 'em all to-night?"

"Yes, six--all tidy men. Can you write, Mr. Paper Stainer?"

I could write, and did, setting forth, in a book which lay on a table in

a room labelled "Office," my name, age, occupation, and the town whence

I had last come. Three of the other guests followed my example. Two

could not write; and the sergeant, paying me a compliment on my

beautiful clerkly handwriting, asked me to fill in the particulars for

them. This ceremony over, we were shown into our bedrooms, and told to

give ourselves "a good wash." My room was on the ground-floor, out in

the yard: and I hope I may never be shown into a worse. It was not

large, being about eight feet square, nor was it very high. The walls

were whitewashed, and the floor clean. A single small window, deep set

in the thick stone-built walls, looked out on to the yard, and by it

stood the solitary piece of furniture, a somewhat rickety Windsor chair.

I except the bed, which was supposed to stand in a corner, but actually

covered nearly the whole of the floor. The bedstead was of iron, and, I

should imagine, was one of the earliest constructions of the sort ever

sold in this country.

"I put on three blankets, being Christmas-time, though the weather is

not according; so you can take one off if you like."

"Thank you, ma'am; I'll leave it till I go to bed, if you please." Much

reason had I subsequently to be thankful for my caution.

After having washed, I came out, and was told to go into a room, facing

my bedroom, on the other side of the yard. Here I found three of my

fellow-guests sitting by a fire, and in a few minutes the other two

arrived, all looking very clean and (speaking for myself particularly)

feeling ravenously hungry. The chamber, which had "Travellers' Room"

painted over the doorway, was about twelve or thirteen feet long and

eight wide, and, like our bedrooms, was not remarkable for variety of

furniture. A plain deal table stood at one end, and then there were

two benches, and that's all. Over the mantelpiece a large card hung

with the f

ollowing inscription:--

"Persons accepting this charity are each supplied with a supper,

consisting of half a pound of meat, one pound of bread, and half a pint

of porter at seven o'clock in the evening, and fourpence on leaving the

house in the morning. The additional comfort of a good fire is given

during the winter months, from October 18th till March 10th, for the

purpose of drying their clothes and supplying hot water for their use.

They go to bed at eight o'clock."

This was satisfactory, except inasmuch as it appeared that supper was

not to be forthcoming till seven o'clock, and it was now only twenty

minutes past six. This forty minutes promised to be harder to bear

than the hunger of the long day; but the pain was averted by the

appearance at half-past six of a pleasant-looking young woman,

carrying a plate of cold roast beef in each hand. These she put down

on the table, supplementing them in course of time with four similar

plates, six small loaves, and as many mugs of porter.

It does not become guests to dictate arrangements, but if the worshipful

trustees of Watts's knew how tantalising it is to a hungry man to see

cold roast beef brought in in a slow and deliberate manner, they would

buy a large tray for the use of the pleasant young person, and let the

feast burst at once upon the vision of the guests.

Sharp on the stroke of seven we drew the benches up to the table, and

Mrs. Kercham, standing at one end and leaning over, said grace.

Impatiently hungry as I was, I could not help noticing the precise

terms in which the good matron implored a blessing. I suppose she had

had her tea in the parlour. At any rate, she was not going to favour

us with her company, and so, bending over our plates of cold beef, she

lifted up her voice and said with emphasis,--

"For what you are about to receive out of His bountiful goodness may

the Lord make you truly thankful."

I write the personal pronoun with a capital letter, not being quite

certain from Mrs. Kercham's rapid enunciation whether the bountiful

goodness was Mr. Watts's or the Lord's.

Six emphatic "Amens!" followed, and before the sound had died away

six able-bodied men had fallen-to upon the beef and the bread in a

manner that would have done kind Master Watts's heart good had he

beheld them.

I think I had done first, for I remember when I looked round the table

my fellow-guests were still eating and washing their suppers down with

economical draughts from the half-pint mugs of porter. They--I think I

may say we--did credit to the selection of the police sergeant, and, so

far as appearances went, fulfilled one of the requirements of Master

Watts, there being nothing of the rogue in our faces, if I except a

slight hint in the physiognomy of the little man with the fair hair

plastered down over his forehead, and perhaps I am prejudiced against

him.

It was a little after seven when the plates were all polished, the mugs

drained, and nothing but a few crumbs left to tell where a loaf had

stood. The pleasant young person coming in to clear the table, we drew

up round the fire, and for the first time in our more than two hours'

companionship began to exchange remarks.

They were of the briefest and most commonplace character, and attempts

made to get up a general conversation signally failed. "What do you

do?" "Where do you come from?" "Things hard down there?" were staple

questions, with an occasional "Did you hear tell of Joe Mackin on the

road?" or "Was Bill O'Brien there at the time?" From the replies to these

inquiries I learnt that my companions were respectively a fitter, a

painter, a waiter, and two indefinitely self-described as "labourers."

They had walked since morning from Faversham, from Sittingbourne, from

Gravesend, and from Greenwich, and, sitting close around the fire,

soon began to testify to their weariness by nodding, and even snoring.

"Well, lads, I'm off, goodnight," said the painter, yawning and

stretching himself out of the room.

One by one the remaining four quickly followed, and before what I had

on entering regarded as the absurdly early hour of eight o'clock had

struck, five of Watts's guests had gone to bed, and the sixth was

sitting looking drowsily in the fire, and thinking what a jolly

Christmas he was having.

I was awakened by a familiar voice inquiring whether I was "going to

sit up all night," and opening my eyes beheld the matron standing by me

with a shovelful of coal in one hand and a small jug in the other. Her

voice was sharp, but her look was kind, and I was not a bit surprised

when she threw the coal on the fire, and, putting down the jug, which

evidently contained porter, said she would bring a glass in a minute.

"I'm not going to bed myself for a bit, and if you like to sit by the

fire and smoke a pipe and drink a glass whilst I mend a stocking or

two, you'll be company."

So we sat together by Master Watts's fire, and whilst I drank his

porter and smoked my own tobacco, the matron mended her stockings, and

told me a good deal about the trials she had gone through in a life

that would never again see its sixtieth year. Forty years she had

spent under the roof of Watts's, and knew all about the old man's

will, and how he ordered that after the re-marriage or the death of

his wife, his principal dwelling-house, called Satis, on Boley Hill,

with the house adjoining, the closes, orchards, and appurtenances,

his plate and his furniture, should be sold, and the proceeds be

placed out at usury by the Mayor and citizens of Rochester for the

perpetual support of an alms-house then erected and standing near

the Market Cross; and how he further ordained that there should be

added thereto six rooms, "with a chimney in each," and with

convenient places for six good mattresses or flock beds, and other

good and sufficient furniture for the lodgment of poor wayfarers

for a single night.

Had she many people come to see the quaint old place beside those

whom the police-sergeant brought every night?

Not many. The visitors' book had been twenty years in the house,

and it was not nearly full of names.

I took up the book, and carelessly turning back the leaves came upon

the signature "Charles Dickens," with "Mark Lemon" written underneath.

I know Dickens pretty well--his books, I mean, of course--and said,

with a gratified start, "Ha! has Dickens been here?"

"Yes, he has," said the matron, in her sharpest tones, "and a pretty

pack of lies he told about it. Stop a bit."

I stopped accordingly whilst the old lady flew out of the room, and

flying back again with a well-worn pamphlet in her hand, shoved it at

me, saying, "Read that." I opened it, and found it to be the Christmas

number of Household Words for 1854. It was entitled "The Seven Poor

Travellers," and the opening chapter, in Mr Dickens's well-known style,

described by name, and in detail, the very house in which I had taken

my supper.

It was a charming narrative, I, poor waif and stray, felt a strong

personal regard for the great novelist as I read the cheery story in

which he sets forth how, calling at the house on the afternoon before

Christmas-day, he obtained permission to give a Christmas feast to the

six Poor Travellers; how he ordered the materials for the feast to be

sent in from his own inn; how, when the feast was set upon the table,

"finer beef, a finer turkey, a greater prodigality of sauce and gravy,"

he never saw; and how "it made my heart rejoice to see the wonderful

justice my travellers did to everything set before them." All this and

much more, including "a jug of wassail" and the "hot plum-pudding and

mince pies," which "a wall-eyed young man connected with the fly

department at the hotel was, at a given signal, to dash into the

kitchen, seize, and speed with to Dr. Watts's Charity," was painted

with a warmth and colour that made my mouth water, even after the plate

of cold beef, the small loaf, and the unaccustomed allowance of porter.

"How like Dickens!" I exclaimed, with wet eyes, as I finished the

recital; "and he even waited in Rochester all night to give his poor

Travellers 'hot coffee and piles of bread and butter in the morning!'"

"Get along with you! he didn't do nothing of the sort."

"What! didn't he come here, as he says, and give the poor Travellers a

Christmas treat?"

Not a bit of it; as the matron, with indignation that seemed to have

lost nothing by lapse of years, forthwith demonstrated. There had been

no supper, no wassail, no hot coffee in the morning, and, in truth, no

meeting between Charles Dickens and the Travellers, at Christmas or at

any other time.

Indeed, the visitors' book testified that the visit had been paid on

May 11th, 1854, and not at Christmastide at all.

It was time to go to bed after that, and I left the matron to cool down

from the boiling-point to which she had been suddenly lifted at sight

of the ghost of 1854. My little room looked cheerless enough in the

candlelight, but I had brought sleep with me as a companion, and knew

that I should soon be as happy as if my bed were of down, and the

roof-tree that of Buckingham Palace.

And so in sooth I would have been but for the chimney. Why did the

otherwise unexceptional Master Watts insist upon the chimney? Such a

chimney it was, too, yawning across the full length of one side of the

room, and open straight up to the cold sky. There was--what I forgot

to mention in the inventory--a sort of tall clothes-horse standing

before the enormous aperture, and after trying various devices to keep

the wind out, I at last bethought me of the supernumerary blanket, and,

throwing it over the clothes-horse, I leaned it against the chimney

board. This served admirably as long as it kept its feet, and when it

blew down, as it did occasionally during the night, it only meant

putting up and refixing it, and the exercise prevented heavy sleeping.

At seven in the morning we were called up, and after another "good

wash," went our ways, each with fourpence sterling in his hand, the

parting gift of hospitable Master Watts.

"Good-bye, paper-stainer," said the matron, as, after looking up and

down High Street, I strode off towards the bridge, Londonwards. "Come

and see us again if you are passing this way."

"Thank you,--I will," I said.

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