Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Tragedy of the Till
By Douglas William Jerrold (1803–1857)
The Hermit’s Story

“IT is a strange tale, but it hath the recommendation of brevity. Some folks may see nothing in it but the tricksiness of an extravagant spirit; and some perchance may pluck a heart of meaning out of it. However, be it as it may, you shall hear it, sir.  1
  “There was a man called Isaac Pugwash, a dweller in a miserable slough of London, a squalid denizen of one of the foul nooks of that city of Plutus. He kept a shop; which, though small as a cabin, was visited as granary and storehouse by half the neighborhood. All the creature comforts of the poor—from bread to that questionable superfluity, small beer—were sold by Isaac. Strange it was that with such a trade Pugwash grew not rich. He had many bad debts, and of all shopkeepers was most unfortunate in false coin. Certain it is, he had neither eye nor ear for bad money. Counterfeit semblances of majesty beguiled him out of bread and butter, and cheese, and red herring, just as readily as legitimate royalty struck at the mint. Malice might impute something of this to the political principles of Pugwash; who, as he had avowed himself again and again, was no lover of a monarchy. Nevertheless, I cannot think Pugwash had so little regard for the countenance of majesty as to welcome it as readily when silvered copper as when sterling silver. No: a wild, foolish enthusiast was Pugwash; but in the household matter of good and bad money he had very wholesome prejudices. He had a reasonable wish to grow rich, yet was entirely ignorant of the byways and short cuts to wealth. He would have sauntered through life with his hands in his pockets and a daisy in his mouth; and dying with just enough in his house to pay the undertaker, would have thought himself a fortunate fellow,—he was, in the words of Mrs. Pugwash, such a careless, foolish, dreaming creature. He was cheated every hour by a customer of some kind; and yet to deny credit to anybody—he would as soon have denied the wife of his bosom. His customers knew the weakness, and failed not to exercise it. To be sure, now and then, fresh from conjugal counsel, he would refuse to add a single herring to a debtor’s score: no, he would not be sent to the workhouse by anybody. A quarter of an hour after, the denied herring, with an added small loaf, was given to the little girl sent to the shop by the rejected mother: ‘he couldn’t bear to see poor children wanting anything.’  2
  “Pugwash had another unprofitable weakness. He was fond of what he called Nature, though in his dim close shop he could give her but a stifling welcome. Nevertheless he had the earliest primroses on his counter,—‘they threw,’ he said, ‘such a nice light about the place.’ A sly, knavish customer presented Isaac with a pot of polyanthuses; and won by the flowery gift, Pugwash gave the donor ruinous credit. The man with wall-flowers regularly stopped at Isaac’s shop, and for only sixpence Pugwash would tell his wife he had made the place a Paradise. ‘If we can’t go to Nature, Sally, isn’t it a pleasant thing to be able to bring Nature to us?’ Whereupon Mrs. Pugwash would declare that a man with at least three children to provide for had no need to talk of Nature. Nevertheless, the flower-man made his weekly call. Though at many a house the penny could not every week be spared to buy a hint, a look of Nature for the darkened dwellers, Isaac, despite of Mrs. Pugwash, always purchased. It is a common thing, an old familiar cry,” said the Hermit, “to see the poor man’s florist, to hear his loud-voiced invitation to take his nosegays, his penny roots; and yet is it a call, a conjuration of the heart of man overlabored and desponding—walled in by the gloom of a town—divorced from the fields and their sweet healthful influences—almost shut out from the sky that reeks in vapor over him;—it is a call that tells him there are things of the earth besides food and covering to live for; and that God in his great bounty hath made them for all men. Is it not so?” asked the Hermit.  3
  “Most certainly,” we answered: “it would be the very sinfulness of avarice to think otherwise.”  4
  “Why, sir,” said the Hermit benevolently smiling, “thus considered, the loud-lunged city bawler of roots and flowers becomes a high benevolence, a peripatetic priest of Nature. Adown dark lanes and miry alleys he takes sweet remembrances—touching records of the loveliness of earth, that with their bright looks and balmy odors cheer and uplift the dumpish heart of man; that make his soul stir within him; and acknowledge the beautiful. The penny, the ill-spared penny—for it would buy a wheaten roll—the poor housewife pays for a root of primrose, is her offering to the hopeful loveliness of Nature; is her testimony of the soul struggling with the blighting, crushing circumstance of sordid earth, and sometimes yearning towards earth’s sweetest aspects. Amidst the violence, the coarseness, and the suffering that may surround and defile the wretched, there must be moments when the heart escapes, craving for the innocent and lovely; when the soul makes for itself even of a flower a comfort and a refuge.”  5
  The Hermit paused a moment, and then in blither voice resumed. “But I have strayed a little from the history of our small tradesman Pugwash. Well, sir, Isaac for some three or four years kept on his old way, his wife still prophesying in loud and louder voice the inevitable workhouse. He would so think and talk of Nature when he should mind his shop; he would so often snatch a holiday to lose it in the fields, when he should take stock and balance his books. What was worse, he every week lost more and more by bad money. With no more sense than a buzzard, as Mrs. Pugwash said, for a good shilling, he was the victim of those laborious folks who make their money, with a fine independence of the State, out of their own materials. It seemed the common compact of a host of coiners to put off their base-born offspring upon Isaac Pugwash; who, it must be confessed, bore the loss and the indignity like a Christian martyr. At last, however, the spirit of the man was stung. A guinea—as Pugwash believed, of statute gold—was found to be of little less value than a brass button. Mrs. Pugwash clamored and screamed as though a besieging foe was in her house; and Pugwash himself felt that further patience would be pusillanimity. Whereupon, sir, what think you Isaac did? Why, he suffered himself to be driven by the voice and vehemence of his wife to a conjurer, who in a neighboring attic was a sidereal go-between to the neighborhood—a vender of intelligence from the stars to all who sought and duly fee’d him. This magician would declare to Pugwash the whereabouts of the felon coiner, and—the thought was anodyne to the hurt mind of Isaac’s wife—the knave would be law-throttled.  6
  “With sad indignant spirit did Isaac Pugwash seek Father Lotus; for so, sir, was the conjurer called. He was none of your common wizards. Oh no! he left it to the mere quack-salvers and mountebanks of his craft to take upon them a haggard solemnity of look, and to drop monosyllables heavy as bullets upon the ear of the questioner. The mighty and magnificent hocus-pocus of twelvepenny magicians was scorned by Lotus. There was nothing in his look or manner that showed him the worse for keeping company with spirits; on the contrary, perhaps the privileges he enjoyed of them served to make him only the more blithe and jocund. He might have passed for a gentleman at once easy and cunning in the law; his sole knowledge, that of labyrinthine sentences made expressly to wind poor commonsense on parchment. He had an eye like a snake, a constant smile upon his lip, a cheek colored like an apple, and an activity of movement wide away from the solemnity of the conjurer. He was a small, eel-figured man of about sixty, dressed in glossy black, with silver buckles and flowing periwig. It was impossible not to have a better opinion of sprites and demons, seeing that so nice, so polished a gentleman was their especial pet. And then, his attic had no mystic circle, no curtain of black, no death’s-head, no mummy of apocryphal dragon,—the vulgar catchpennies of fortune-telling trader. There was not even a pack of cards to elevate the soul of man into the regions of the mystic world. No, the room was plainly yet comfortably set out. Father Lotus reposed in an easy-chair, nursing a snow-white cat upon his knee; now tenderly patting the creature with one hand, and now turning over a little Hebrew volume with the other. If a man wished to have dealings with sorry demons, could he desire a nicer little gentleman than Father Lotus to make the acquaintance for him? In few words Isaac Pugwash told his story to the smiling magician. He had, amongst much other bad money, taken a counterfeit guinea: could Father Lotus discover the evil-doer?  7
  “‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Lotus, smiling, ‘of course—to be sure; but that will do but little: in your present state— But let me look at your tongue.’ Pugwash obediently thrust the organ forth. ‘Yes, yes, as I thought. ’Twill do you no good to hang the rogue; none at all. What we must do is this,—we must cure you of the disease.’  8
  “‘Disease!’ cried Pugwash. ‘Bating the loss of my money, I was never better in all my days.’  9
  “‘Ha! my poor man,’ said Lotus, ‘it is the benevolence of nature, that she often goes on quietly breaking us up, ourselves knowing no more of the mischief than a girl’s doll when the girl rips up its seams. Your malady is of the perceptive organs. Leave you alone and you’ll sink to the condition of a baboon.’  10
  “‘God bless me!’ cried Pugwash.  11
  “‘A jackass with sense to choose a thistle from a toadstool will be a reasoning creature to you! for consider, my poor soul,’ said Lotus in a compassionate voice,—‘in this world of tribulation we inhabit, consider what a benighted nincompoop is man, if he cannot elect a good shilling from a bad one.’  12
  “‘I have not a sharp eye for money,’ said Pugwash modestly. ‘It’s a gift, sir; I’m assured it’s a gift.’  13
  “‘A sharp eye! an eye of horn,’ said Lotus. ‘Never mind, I can remedy all that; I can restore you to the world and to yourself. The greatest physicians, the wisest philosophers, have in the profundity of their wisdom made money the test of wit. A man is believed mad; he is a very rich man, and his heir has very good reason to believe him lunatic: whereupon the heir, the madman’s careful friend, calls about the sufferer a company of wizards to sit in judgment on the suspected brain, and report a verdict thereupon. Well, ninety-nine times out of the hundred, what is the first question put as test of reason? Why, a question of money. The physician, laying certain pieces of current coin in his palm, asks of the patient their several value. If he answer truly, why truly there is hope; but if he stammer or falter at the coin, the verdict runs, and wisely runs, mad—incapably mad.’  14
  “‘I’m not so bad as that,’ said Pugwash, a little alarmed.  15
  “‘Don’t say how you are—it’s presumption in any man,’ cried Lotus. ‘Nevertheless, be as you may, I’ll cure you if you’ll give attention to my remedy.’  16
  “‘I’ll give my whole soul to it,’ exclaimed Pugwash.  17
  “‘Very good, very good; I like your earnestness: but I don’t want all your soul,’ said Father Lotus smiling,—‘I want only part of it; that, if you confide in me, I can take from you with no danger,—ay, with less peril than the pricking of a whitlow. Now then, for examination. Now to have a good stare at this soul of yours.’ Here Father Lotus gently removed the white cat from his knee,—for he had been patting her all the time he talked,—and turned full round upon Pugwash. ‘Turn out your breeches pockets,’ said Lotus; and the tractable Pugwash immediately displayed the linings. ‘So!’ cried Lotus, looking narrowly at the brown holland whereof they were made, ‘very bad indeed; very bad: never knew a soul in a worse state in all my life.’  18
  “Pugwash looked at his pockets, and then at the conjurer; he was about to speak, but the fixed, earnest look of Father Lotus held him in respectful silence.  19
  “‘Yes, yes,’ said the wizard, still eying the brown holland, ‘I can see it all: a vagabond soul; a soul wandering here and there, like a pauper without a settlement; a ragamuffin soul.’  20
  “Pugwash found confidence and breath. ‘Was there ever such a joke?’ he cried: ‘know a man’s soul by the linings of his breeches pockets!’ and Pugwash laughed, albeit uncomfortably.  21
  “Father Lotus looked at the man with philosophic compassion. ‘Ha, my good friend!’ he said, ‘that all comes of your ignorance of moral anatomy.’  22
  “‘Well, but, Father Lotus—’  23
  “‘Peace!’ said the wizard, ‘and answer me. You’d have this soul of yours cured?’  24
  “‘If there’s anything the matter with it,’ answered Pugwash. ‘Though not of any conceit I speak it, yet I think it as sweet and as healthy a soul as the souls of my neighbors. I never did wrong to anybody.’  25
  “‘Pooh!’ cried Father Louis.  26
  “‘I never denied credit to the hungry,’ continued Pugwash.  27
  “‘Fiddle-de-dee!’ said the wizard very nervously.  28
  “‘I never laid out a penny in law upon a customer; I never refused small beer to—’  29
  “‘Silence!’ cried Father Lotus: ‘don’t offend philosophy by thus bragging of your follies. You are in a perilous condition; still you may be saved. At this very moment, I much fear it, gangrene has touched your soul; nevertheless, I can separate the sound from the mortified parts, and start you new again as though your lips were first wet with mother’s milk.’  30
  “Pugwash merely said,—for the wizard began to awe him,—‘I’m very much obliged to you.’  31
  “‘Now,’ said Lotus, ‘answer a few questions, and then I’ll proceed to the cure. What do you think of money?’  32
  “‘A very nice thing,’ said Pugwash, ‘though I can do with as little of it as most folks.’  33
  “Father Lotus shook his head. ‘Well, and the world about you?’  34
  “‘A beautiful world,’ said Pugwash; ‘only the worst of it is, I can’t leave the shop as often as I would, to enjoy it. I’m shut in all day long, I may say, a prisoner to brick-dust, herrings, and bacon. Sometimes when the sun shines and the cobbler’s lark over the way sings as if he’d split his pipe, why then, do you know, I do so long to get into the fields; I do hunger for a bit of grass like any cow.’  35
  “The wizard looked almost hopelessly on Pugwash. ‘And that’s your religion and business? Infidel of the counter! Saracen of the till! However—patience,’ said Lotus, ‘and let us conclude.—And the men and women of the world, what do you think of them?’  36
  “‘God bless ’em, poor souls!’ said Pugwash. ‘It’s a sad scramble some of ’em have, isn’t it?’  37
  “‘Well,’ said the conjurer, ‘for a tradesman, your soul is in a wretched condition. However, it is not so hopelessly bad that I may not yet make it profitable to you. I must cure it of its vagabond desires, and above all make it respectful of money. You will take this book.’ Here Lotus took a little volume from a cupboard, and placed it in the hand of Pugwash. ‘Lay it under your pillow every night for a week, and on the eighth morning let me see you.’  38
  “‘Come, there’s nothing easier than that,’ said Pugwash with a smile; and reverently putting the volume in his pocket (the book was closed by metal clasps, curiously chased), he descended the garret stairs of the conjurer.  39
  “On the morning of the eighth day Pugwash again stood before Lotus.  40
  “‘How do you feel now?’ asked the conjurer with a knowing look.  41
  “‘I haven’t opened the book—’tis just as I took it,’ said Pugwash, making no further answer.  42
  “‘I know that,’ said Lotus: ‘the clasps be thanked for your ignorance.’ Pugwash slightly colored; for to say the truth, both he and his wife had vainly pulled and tugged, and fingered and coaxed the clasps, that they might look upon the necromantic page. “Well, the book has worked,’ said the conjurer; ‘I have it.’  43
  “‘Have it! what?’ asked Pugwash.  44
  “‘Your soul,’ answered the sorcerer. ‘In all my practice,’ he added gravely, ‘I never had a soul come into my hands in worse condition.’  45
  “‘Impossible!’ cried Pugwash. ‘If my soul is as you say, in your own hands, how is it that I’m alive? How is it that I can eat, drink, sleep, walk, talk, do everything, just like anybody else?’  46
  “‘Ha!’ said Lotus, ‘that’s a common mistake. Thousands and thousands would swear, ay, as they’d swear to their own noses, that they have their souls in their own possession: bless you,’ and the conjurer laughed maliciously, ‘it’s a popular error. Their souls are altogether out of ’em.’  47
  “‘Well,’ said Pugwash, ‘if it’s true that you have indeed my soul, I should like to have a look at it.’  48
  ‘“In good time,’ said the conjurer, ‘I’ll bring it to your house and put it in its proper lodging. In another week I’ll bring it to you: ’twill then be strong enough to bear removal.’  49
  “‘And what am I to do all the time without it?’ asked Pugwash in a tone of banter. ‘Come,’ said he, still jesting, ‘if you really have my soul, what’s it like? What’s its color?—if indeed souls have colors.’  50
  “‘Green—green as a grasshopper, when it first came into my hands,’ said the wizard; ‘but ’tis changing daily. More: it was a skipping, chirping, giddy soul; ’tis every hour mending. In a week’s time, I tell you, it will be fit for the business of the world.’  51
  “‘And pray, good father,—for the matter has till now escaped me,—what am I to pay you for this pain and trouble; for this precious care of my miserable soul?’  52
  “‘Nothing,’ answered Lotus, ‘nothing whatever. The work is too nice and precious to be paid for; I have a reward you dream not of for my labor. Think you that men’s immortal souls are to be mended like iron pots, at tinker’s price? Oh no! they who meddle with souls go for higher wages.’  53
  “After further talk Pugwash departed, the conjurer promising to bring him home his soul at midnight that night week. It seemed strange to Pugwash, as the time passed on, that he never seemed to miss his soul; that in very truth he went through the labors of the day with even better gravity than when his soul possessed him. And more: he began to feel himself more at home in his shop; the cobbler’s lark over the way continued to sing, but awoke in Isaac’s heart no thought of the fields; and then for flowers and plants, why, Isaac began to think such matters fitter the thoughts of children and foolish girls than the attention of grown men, with the world before them. Even Mrs. Pugwash saw an alteration in her husband; and though to him she said nothing, she returned thanks to her own sagacity that made him seek the conjurer.  54
  “At length the night arrived when Lotus had promised to bring home the soul of Pugwash. He sent his wife to bed, and sat with his eyes upon the Dutch clock, anxiously awaiting the conjurer. Twelve o’clock struck, and at the same moment Father Lotus smote the door-post of Isaac Pugwash.  55
  “‘Have you brought it?’ asked Pugwash.  56
  “‘Or wherefore should I come?’ said Lotus. ‘Quick: show a light to the till, that your soul may find itself at home.’  57
  “‘The till!’ cried Pugwash; ‘what the devil should my soul do in the till?’  58
  “‘Speak not irreverently,’ said the conjurer, ‘but show a light.’  59
  “‘May I live forever in darkness if I do!’ cried Pugwash.  60
  “‘It is no matter,’ said the conjurer; and then he cried, ‘Soul, to your earthly dwelling-place! Seek it—you know it.’ Then turning to Pugwash, Lotus said, ‘It is all right. Your soul’s in the till.’  61
  “‘How did it get there?’ cried Pugwash in amazement.  62
  “‘Through the slit in the counter,’ said the conjurer; and ere Pugwash could speak again, the conjurer had quitted the shop.  63
  “For some minutes Pugwash felt himself afraid to stir. For the first time in his life he felt himself ill at ease, left as he was with no other company save his own soul. He at length took heart, and went behind the counter that he might see if his soul was really in the till. With trembling hand he drew the coffer, and there, to his amazement, squatted like a tailor upon a crown piece, did Pugwash behold his own soul, which cried out to him in notes no louder than a cricket’s, ‘How are you? I am comfortable.’  64
  “It was a strange yet pleasing sight to Pugwash, to behold what he felt to be his own soul embodied in a figure no bigger than the top joint of his thumb. There it was, a stark-naked thing with the precise features of Pugwash; albeit the complexion was of a yellower hue. ‘The conjurer said it was green,’ cried Pugwash: ‘as I live, if that be my soul—and I begin to feel a strange, odd love for it—it is yellow as a guinea. Ha! ha! Pretty, precious, darling soul!’ cried Pugwash, as the creature took up every piece of coin in the till, and rang it with such a look of rascally cunning, that sure I am Pugwash would in past times have hated the creature for the trick. But every day Pugwash became fonder and fonder of the creature in the till: it was to him such a counselor and such a blessing. Whenever the old flower-man came to the door, the soul of Pugwash from the till would bid him pack with his rubbish; if a poor woman—an old customer it might be—begged for the credit of a loaf, the Spirit of the Till, calling through the slit in the counter, would command Pugwash to deny her. More: Pugwash never again took a bad shilling. No sooner did he throw the pocket-piece down upon the counter than the voice from the till would denounce its worthlessness. And the soul of Pugwash never quitted the till. There it lived, feeding upon the color of money, and capering and rubbing its small scoundrel hands in glee as the coin dropped—dropped in. In time the soul of Pugwash grew too big for so small a habitation, and then Pugwash moved his soul into an iron box; and some time after he sent his soul to his banker’s,—the thing had waxed so big and strong on gold and silver.”  65
  “And so,” said we, “the man flourished, and the conjurer took no wages for all he did to the soul of Pugwash?”  66
  “Hear the end,” said the Hermit. “For some time it was a growing pleasure to Pugwash to look at his soul, busy as it always was with the world-buying metals. At length he grew old, very old; and every day his soul grew uglier. Then he hated to look upon it; and then his soul would come to him, and grin its deformity at him. Pugwash died, almost rich as an Indian king; but he died shrieking in his madness to be saved from the terrors of his own soul.”  67
  “And such the end,” we said; “such the Tragedy of the Till? A strange romance.”  68
  “Romance!” said the Sage of Bellyfule: “sir, ’tis a story true as life. For at this very moment how many thousands, blind and deaf to the sweet looks and voice of nature, live and die with their souls in a Till!”  69

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