The Holly-Tree by Charles Dickens


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Page 1

How well I remember the forlorn aspect of Fleet Street when I came out of
the Temple! The street-lamps flickering in the gusty north-east wind, as
if the very gas were contorted with cold; the white-topped houses; the
bleak, star-lighted sky; the market people and other early stragglers,
trotting to circulate their almost frozen blood; the hospitable light and
warmth of the few coffee-shops and public-houses that were open for such
customers; the hard, dry, frosty rime with which the air was charged (the
wind had already beaten it into every crevice), and which lashed my face
like a steel whip.

It wanted nine days to the end of the month, and end of the year. The
Post-office packet for the United States was to depart from Liverpool,
weather permitting, on the first of the ensuing month, and I had the
intervening time on my hands. I had taken this into consideration, and
had resolved to make a visit to a certain spot (which I need not name) on
the farther borders of Yorkshire. It was endeared to me by my having
first seen Angela at a farmhouse in that place, and my melancholy was
gratified by the idea of taking a wintry leave of it before my
expatriation. I ought to explain, that, to avoid being sought out before
my resolution should have been rendered irrevocable by being carried into
full effect, I had written to Angela overnight, in my usual manner,
lamenting that urgent business, of which she should know all particulars
by-and-by--took me unexpectedly away from her for a week or ten days.

There was no Northern Railway at that time, and in its place there were
stage-coaches; which I occasionally find myself, in common with some
other people, affecting to lament now, but which everybody dreaded as a
very serious penance then. I had secured the box-seat on the fastest of
these, and my business in Fleet Street was to get into a cab with my
portmanteau, so to make the best of my way to the Peacock at Islington,
where I was to join this coach. But when one of our Temple watchmen, who
carried my portmanteau into Fleet Street for me, told me about the huge
blocks of ice that had for some days past been floating in the river,
having closed up in the night, and made a walk from the Temple Gardens
over to the Surrey shore, I began to ask myself the question, whether the
box-seat would not be likely to put a sudden and a frosty end to my
unhappiness. I was heart-broken, it is true, and yet I was not quite so
far gone as to wish to be frozen to death.

When I got up to the Peacock,--where I found everybody drinking hot purl,
in self-preservation,--I asked if there were an inside seat to spare. I
then discovered that, inside or out, I was the only passenger. This gave
me a still livelier idea of the great inclemency of the weather, since
that coach always loaded particularly well. However, I took a little
purl (which I found uncommonly good), and got into the coach. When I was
seated, they built me up with straw to the waist, and, conscious of
making a rather ridiculous appearance, I began my journey.

It was still dark when we left the Peacock. For a little while, pale,
uncertain ghosts of houses and trees appeared and vanished, and then it
was hard, black, frozen day. People were lighting their fires; smoke was
mounting straight up high into the rarified air; and we were rattling for
Highgate Archway over the hardest ground I have ever heard the ring of
iron shoes on. As we got into the country, everything seemed to have
grown old and gray. The roads, the trees, thatched roofs of cottages and
homesteads, the ricks in farmers' yards. Out-door work was abandoned,
horse-troughs at roadside inns were frozen hard, no stragglers lounged
about, doors were close shut, little turnpike houses had blazing fires
inside, and children (even turnpike people have children, and seem to
like them) rubbed the frost from the little panes of glass with their
chubby arms, that their bright eyes might catch a glimpse of the solitary
coach going by. I don't know when the snow begin to set in; but I know
that we were changing horses somewhere when I heard the guard remark,
"That the old lady up in the sky was picking her geese pretty hard to-
day." Then, indeed, I found the white down falling fast and thick.

The lonely day wore on, and I dozed it out, as a lonely traveller does. I
was warm and valiant after eating and drinking,--particularly after
dinner; cold and depressed at all other times. I was always bewildered
as to time and place, and always more or less out of my senses. The
coach and horses seemed to execute in chorus Auld Lang Syne, without a
moment's intermission. They kept the time and tune with the greatest
regularity, and rose into the swell at the beginning of the Refrain, with
a precision that worried me to death. While we changed horses, the guard
and coachman went stumping up and down the road, printing off their shoes
in the snow, and poured so much liquid consolation into themselves
without being any the worse for it, that I began to confound them, as it
darkened again, with two great white casks standing on end. Our horses
tumbled down in solitary places, and we got them up,--which was the
pleasantest variety _I_ had,

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 23rd Jul 2024, 3:14