Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
First Appearance of Mrs. Gamp
By Charles Dickens (18121870)
From Martin Chuzzlewit
MR. PECKSNIFF was in a hackney cabriolet, for Jonas Chuzzlewit had said Spare no expense. Mankind is evil in its thoughts and in its base constructions, and Jonas was resolved it should not have an inch to stretch into an ell against him. It never should be charged upon his fathers son that he had grudged the money for his fathers funeral. Hence, until the obsequies should be concluded, Jonas had taken for his motto Spend, and spare not!
Mr. Pecksniff had been to the undertaker, and was now upon his way to another officer in the train of mourninga female functionary, a nurse, and watcher, and performer of nameless offices about the persons of the deadwhom he had recommended. Her name, as Mr. Pecksniff gathered from a scrap of writing in his hand, was Gamp; her residence in Kingsgate Street, High Holborn. So Mr. Pecksniff, in a hackney cab, was rattling over Holborn stones, in quest of Mrs. Gamp.
This lady lodged at a bird-fanciers; next door but one to the celebrated mutton-pie shop, and directly opposite to the original cats-meat warehouse; the renown of which establishments was duly heralded on their respective fronts. It was a little house, and this was the more convenient; for Mrs. Gamp being, in her highest walk of art, a monthly nurse, or, as her sign-board boldly had it, Midwife, and lodging in the first-floor front, was easily assailable at night by pebbles, walking-sticks, and fragments of tobacco-pipe: all much more efficacious than the street-door knocker, which was so constructed as to wake the street with ease, and even spread alarms of fire in Holborn, without making the smallest impression on the premises to which it was addressed.
It chanced on this particular occasion that Mrs. Gamp had been up all the previous night, in attendance upon a ceremony to which the usage of gossips has given that name which expresses, in two syllables, the curse pronounced on Adam. It chanced that Mrs. Gamp had not been regularly engaged, but had been called in at a crisis, in consequence of her great repute, to assist another professional lady with her advice; and thus it happened that, all points of interest in the case being over, Mrs. Gamp had come home again to the bird-fanciers, and gone to bed. So when Mr. Pecksniff drove up in the hackney cab, Mrs. Gamps curtains were drawn close, and Mrs. Gamp was fast asleep behind them.
If the bird-fancier had been at home as he ought to have been, there would have been no great harm in this; but he was out, and his shop was closed. The shutters were down certainly; and in every pane of glass there was at least one tiny bird in a tiny bird-cage, twittering and hopping his little ballet of despair, and knocking his head against the roof; while one unhappy goldfinch who lived outside a red villa with his name on the door, drew the water for his own drinking, and mutely appealed to some good man to drop a farthings worth of poison in it. Still, the door was shut. Mr. Pecksniff tried the latch, and shook it, causing a cracked bell inside to ring most mournfully; but no one came. The bird-fancier was an easy shaver also, and a fashionable hairdresser also; and perhaps he had been sent for, express, from the court end of the town, to trim a lord, or cut and curl a lady; but however that might be, there, upon his own ground, he was not; nor was there any more distinct trace of him to assist the imagination of an inquirer, than a professional print or emblem of his calling (much favoured in the trade), representing a hairdresser of easy manners curling a lady of distinguished fashion, in the presence of a patent upright grand piano.
Noting these circumstances, Mr. Pecksniff, in the innocence of his heart, applied himself to the knocker; but at the very first double knock, every window in the street became alive with female heads; and before he could repeat the performance, whole troops of married ladies (some about to trouble Mrs. Gamp themselves, very shortly) came flocking round the steps; all crying out with one accord, and with uncommon interest, Knock at the winder, sir, knock at the winder. Lord bless you, dont lose no more time than you can helpknock at the winder!
Acting upon this suggestion, and borrowing the drivers whip for the purpose, Mr. Pecksniff soon made a commotion among the first-floor flower-pots, and roused Mrs. Gamp, whose voiceto the great satisfaction of the matronswas heard to say, Im coming.
It gave Mr. Pecksniff much uneasiness to find from these remarks that he was supposed to have come to Mrs. Gamp upon an errand touchingnot the close of life, but the other end. Mrs. Gamp herself was under the same impression, for throwing open the window, she cried behind the curtains, as she hastily attired herself:
It isnt Mr. Whilks, said Pecksniff. I dont know the man. Nothing of the kind. A gentleman is dead; and some person being wanted in the house, you have been recommended by Mr. Mould, the undertaker.
As she was by this time in a condition to appear, Mrs. Gamp, who had a face for all occasions, looked out of the window with her mourning countenance, and said she would be down directly. But the matrons took it very ill, that Mr. Pecksniffs mission was of so unimportant a kind; and the lady with her arms folded rated him in good round terms, signifying that she would be glad to know what he meant by terrifying delicate females with his corpses; and giving it as her opinion that he was quite ugly enough to know better. The other ladies were not at all behind-hand in expressing similar sentiments; and the children, of whom some scores had now collected, hooted and defied Mr. Pecksniff quite savagely. So when Mrs. Gamp appeared, the unoffending gentleman was glad to hustle her with very little ceremony into the cabriolet, and drive off overwhelmed with popular execration.
Mrs. Gamp had a large bundle with her, a pair of pattens, and a species of gig umbrella; the latter article in colour like a faded leaf, except where a circular patch of a lively blue had been dexterously let in at the top. She was much flurried by the haste she had made, and laboured under the most erroneous views of cabriolets, which she appeared to confound with mail-coaches or stage-waggons, inasmuch as she was constantly endeavouring for the first half mile to force her luggage through the little front window, and clamouring to the driver to put it in the boot. When she was disabused of this idea, her whole being resolved itself into an absorbing anxiety about her pattens, with which she played innumerable games at quoits on Mr. Pecksniffs legs. It was not until they were close upon the house of mourning that she had enough composure to observe:
And so the gentlemans dead, sir! Ah! The mores the pityshe didnt even know his name. But its what we must all come to. Its as certain as being born, except that we cant make our calculations as exact. Ah! Poor dear!
She was a fat old woman, this Mrs. Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the white of. Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. She wore a very rusty black gown, rather the worse for snuff, and a shawl and bonnet to correspond. In these dilapidated articles of dress she had, on principle, arrayed herself, time out of mind, on such occasions as the present; for this at once expressed a decent amount of veneration for the deceased, and invited the next of kin to present her with a fresher suit of weeds: an appeal so frequently successful, that the very fetch and ghost of Mrs. Gamp, bonnet and all, might be seen hanging up, any hour in the day, in at least a dozen of the second-hand clothes shops about Holborn. The face of Mrs. Gampthe nose in particularwas somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits. Like most persons who have attained to great eminence in their profession, she took to hers very kindly; insomuch, that setting aside her natural predilections as a woman, she went to a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish.
Ah! repeated Mrs. Gamp; for it was always a safe sentiment in cases of mourning. Ah dear! When Gamp was summoned to his long home, and I see him a lying in Guys Hospital with a penny-piece on each eye, and his wooden leg under his left arm, I thought I should have fainted away. But I bore up.
If certain whispers current in the Kingsgate Street circles had any truth in them, she had indeed borne up surprisingly; and had exerted such uncommon fortitude, as to dispose of Mr. Gamps remains for the benefit of science. But it should be added, in fairness, that this had happened twenty years ago; and that Mr. and Mrs. Gamp had long been separated, on the ground of incompatibility of temper in their drink.
You may well say second nater, sir, returned that lady. Ones first ways is to find sich things a trial to the feelings; and so is ones lasting custom. If it wasnt for the nerve a little sip of liquor gives me (I never was able to do more than taste it), I never could go through with what I sometimes have to do. Mrs. Harris, I says, at the very last case as ever I acted in, which it was but a young person; Mrs. Harris, I says, leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and dont ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what Im engaged to do, according to the best of my ability. Mrs. Gamp, she says, in answer, if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteenpence a day for working people, and three and six for gentlefolksnight watching, said Mrs. Gamp, with emphasis, being a extra chargeyou are that inwalable person. Mrs. Harris, I says to her, dont name the charge, for if I could afford to lay all my feller creeturs out for nothink, I would gladly do it; sich is the love I bear em. But what I always says to them as has the management of matters, Mrs. Harrishere she kept her eye on Mr. Pecksniffbe they gents or be they ladiesis, dont ask me whether I wont take none, or whether I will, but leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged.