Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Ch. 45

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Chapter XLV

Turning from the Temple gate as soon as I had read the warning, I made the best of my way to Fleet Street, and there got a late hackney chariot and drove to the Hummumsh in Covent Garden. In those times a bed was always to be got there at any hour of the night, and the chamberlain,w letting me in at his ready wicket, lighted the candle next in order on his shelf, and showed me straight into the bedroom next in order on his list. It was a sort of vault on the ground floor at the back, with a despotic monster of a four-post bedstead in it, straddling over the whole place, putting one of his arbitrary legs into the fireplace and another into the doorway, and squeezing the wretched little washing-stand in quite a Divinely Righteoush manner.

As I had asked for a night-light, the chamberlain had brought me in, before he left me, the good old constitutional rushlightw of those virtuous days.—an object like the ghost of a walking-cane,d which instantly broke its back if it were touched, which nothing could ever be lighted at, and which was placed in solitary confinement at the bottom of a high tin tower, perforated with round holes that made a staringly wide-awake pattern on the walls. When I had got into bed, and lay there footsore, weary, and wretched, I found that I could no more close my own eyes than I could close the eyes of this foolish Argus.h And thus, in the gloom and death of the night, we stared at one another.

What a doleful night! How anxious, how dismal, how long! There was an inhospitable smell in the room, of cold soot and hot dust; and, as I looked up into the corners of the testerw over my head, I thought what a number of blue-bottle flies from the butchers', and earwigs from the market, and grubs from the country,w must be holding on up there, lying by for next summer. This led me to speculate whether any of them ever tumbled down, and then I fancied that I felt light falls on my face,—a disagreeable turn of thought, suggesting other and more objectionable approaches up my back. When I had lain awake a little while, those extraordinary voices with which silence teems began to make themselves audible. The closet whispered, the fireplace sighed, the little washing-stand ticked, and one guitar-string played occasionally in the chest of drawers.d At about the same time, the eyes on the wall acquired a new expression, and in every one of those staring rounds I saw written, DON'T GO HOME.

Whatever night-fancies and night-noises crowded on me, they never warded off this DON'T GO HOME. It plaited itself into whatever I thought of, as a bodily pain would have done. Not long before, I had read in the newspapers, how a gentleman unknown had come to the Hummums in the night, and had gone to bed, and had destroyed himself, and had been found in the morning weltering in blood. It came into my head that he must have occupied this very vault of mine, and I got out of bed to assure myself that there were no red marks about; then opened the door to look out into the passages, and cheer myself with the companionship of a distant light, near which I knew the chamberlain to be dozing. But all this time, why I was not to go home, and what had happened at home, and when I should go home, and whether Provis was safe at home, were questions occupying my mind so busily, that one might have supposed there could be no more room in it for any other theme. Even when I thought of Estella, and how we had parted that day forever, and when I recalled all the circumstances of our parting, and all her looks and tones, and the action of her fingers while she knitted,—even then I was pursuing, here and there and everywhere, the caution, Don't go home. When at last I dozed, in sheer exhaustion of mind and body, it became a vast shadowy verb which I had to conjugate. Imperative mood, present tense: Do not thou go home, let him not go home, let us not go home, do not ye or you go home, let not them go home. Then potentially: I may not and I cannot go home; and I might not, could not, would not, and should not go home; until I felt that I was going distracted, and rolled over on the pillow, and looked at the staring rounds upon the wall again.

I had left directions that I was to be called at seven; for it was plain that I must see Wemmick before seeing any one else, and equally plain that this was a case in which his Walworth sentiments only could be taken. It was a relief to get out of the room where the night had been so miserable, and I needed no second knocking at the door to startle me from my uneasy bed.

The Castle battlements arose upon my view at eight o'clock. The little servant happening to be entering the fortress with two hot rolls, I passed through the postern and crossed the drawbridge in her company, and so came without announcement into the presence of Wemmick as he was making tea for himself and the Aged. An open door afforded a perspective view of the Aged in bed.

X [h] Hummums


The Arabic (hammam) for baths. The Hummums, originating in the 17th c., was a bagnio or Turkish bath that also served food and provided some lodging. The original building burned in 1821 and was rebuilt as a hotel. Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson asks Johnson to tell the story of his cousin Parson Cornelius Ford, who died in his room at Hummums and was reputed to haunt the place thereafter. William Hogarth, the great 18…

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X [w] chamberlain,

A word that originally denotes someone responsible for a royal or noble residence but now a person responsible for the bedrooms at an inn or hotel. "Chamberlain's" older meaning leads to the "despotic monster of a four-post bed." 

X [h] Divinely Righteous

Refers to the principle of the divine right of kings, in part the cause and battleground of England's Glorious Revolution, which resolved the matter in favor of the people and their representatives. (Search Grand Remonstrance.) Divine right claimed that the sovereign's authority derives directly from God and not from any human institution or will. The monarch was the supreme earthl…

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X [w] constitutional rushlight


The cheapest form of lighting. Rush can be any of a number of common waterside or marsh plants from which a candle could be made by soaking the pith in tallow—animal fat or grease. From the Middle Ages through the 19th century rushlights lighted especially the dwellings and hovels of the poor. 

The "constitutional" refers to the light's antiquity, which associates it with the English constitution and Magna Carta as opposed to the divine right of kings.

X [d] an object like the ghost of a walking-cane,


The reference to ghost picks up on the legend of that room at Hummums and prepares for the nightmarish sleep that follows.

Dickens had a predictably complex relation to the occult. He was superstitious, insisting that his bed face north-south (this based on a theory about the earth's magnetic fields), would touch certain objects three times, and maintained that Friday was his lucky day (see the opening of …

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X [h] Argus.

Argus Panoptes (all-eyes or all-seeing), from Greek mythology, a giant who had somewhere between four and 100 eyes, depending on the account, but slept with only one or two of them closed. 

X [w] tester


The canopy over his bed.

X [w] blue-bottle flies from the butchers', and ear…

The fly has a large, bluish body and is also known as a meat fly; an earwig is a small insect that people believed crawled into the brain through the ear canal; grubs are either larvae of an insect such as the beetle or maggot or a worm.

X [d] The closet whispered, the fireplace sighed, t…

The account could have inspired Gilbert and Sullivan's Nightmare Song from Iolanthe (1882), a bit of the patter being:

You're a regular wreck 
With a crick in your neck, 
And no wonder you snore 
for your head's on the floor 
And you've needles and pins 
From your soles to your shins, 
And your flesh is acreep 
For your left leg's asleep, 
And you've cramp in your toes 
And a fly on your nose, 
And some fluff in your lung 
And a feverish tongue, 
And a thirst that's intense 
And a general sense…

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