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Charles Dickens > Our Mutual Friend > Book 1 - 7

Our Mutual Friend

Book 1 - 7


Silas Wegg, being on his road to the Roman Empire, approaches it
by way of Clerkenwell. The time is early in the evening; the
weather moist and raw. Mr Wegg finds leisure to make a little
circuit, by reason that he folds his screen early, now that he
combines another source of income with it, and also that he feels it
due to himself to be anxiously expected at the Bower. 'Boffin will
get all the eagerer for waiting a bit,' says Silas, screwing up, as he
stumps along, first his right eye, and then his left. Which is
something superfluous in him, for Nature has already screwed both
pretty tight.

'If I get on with him as I expect to get on,' Silas pursues, stumping
and meditating, 'it wouldn't become me to leave it here. It wouldn't
he respectable.' Animated by this reflection, he stumps faster, and
looks a long way before him, as a man with an ambitious project in
abeyance often will do.

Aware of a working-jeweller population taking sanctuary about the
church in Clerkenwell, Mr Wegg is conscious of an interest in, and
a respect for, the neighbourhood. But, his sensations in this regard
halt as to their strict morality, as he halts in his gait; for, they
suggest the delights of a coat of invisibility in which to walk off
safely with the precious stones and watch-cases, but stop short of
any compunction for the people who would lose the same.

Not, however, towards the 'shops' where cunning artificers work in
pearls and diamonds and gold and silver, making their hands so
rich, that the enriched water in which they wash them is bought for
the refiners;--not towards these does Mr Wegg stump, but towards
the poorer shops of small retail traders in commodities to eat and
drink and keep folks warm, and of Italian frame-makers, and of
barbers, and of brokers, and of dealers in dogs and singing-birds.
From these, in a narrow and a dirty street devoted to such callings,
Mr Wegg selects one dark shop-window with a tallow candle
dimly burning in it, surrounded by a muddle of objects vaguely
resembling pieces of leather and dry stick, but among which
nothing is resolvable into anything distinct, save the candle itself in
its old tin candlestick, and two preserved frogs fighting a small-
sword duel. Stumping with fresh vigour, he goes in at the dark
greasy entry, pushes a little greasy dark reluctant side-door, and
follows the door into the little dark greasy shop. It is so dark that
nothing can be made out in it, over a little counter, but another
tallow candle in another old tin candlestick, close to the face of a
man stooping low in a chair.

Mr Wegg nods to the face, 'Good evening.'

The face looking up is a sallow face with weak eyes, surmounted
by a tangle of reddish-dusty hair. The owner of the face has no
cravat on, and has opened his tumbled shirt-collar to work with the
more ease. For the same reason he has no coat on: only a loose
waistcoat over his yellow linen. His eyes are like the over-tried
eyes of an engraver, but he is not that; his expression and stoop are
like those of a shoemaker, but he is not that.

'Good evening, Mr Venus. Don't you remember?'

With slowly dawning remembrance, Mr Venus rises, and holds his
candle over the little counter, and holds it down towards the legs,
natural and artificial, of Mr Wegg.

'To be SURE!' he says, then. 'How do you do?'

'Wegg, you know,' that gentleman explains.

'Yes, yes,' says the other. 'Hospital amputation?'

'Just so,' says Mr Wegg.

'Yes, yes,' quoth Venus. 'How do you do? Sit down by the fire,
and warm your--your other one.'

'The little counter being so short a counter that it leaves the
fireplace, which would have been behind it if it had been longer,
accessible, Mr Wegg sits down on a box in front of the fire, and
inhales a warm and comfortable smell which is not the smell of the
shop. 'For that,' Mr Wegg inwardly decides, as he takes a
corrective sniff or two, 'is musty, leathery, feathery, cellary, gluey,
gummy, and,' with another sniff, 'as it might be, strong of old pairs
of bellows.'

'My tea is drawing, and my muffin is on the hob, Mr Wegg; will
you partake?'

It being one of Mr Wegg's guiding rules in life always to partake,
he says he will. But, the little shop is so excessively dark, is stuck
so full of black shelves and brackets and nooks and corners, that he
sees Mr Venus's cup and saucer only because it is close under the
candle, and does not see from what mysterious recess Mr Venus
produces another for himself until it is under his nose.
Concurrently, Wegg perceives a pretty little dead bird lying on the
counter, with its head drooping on one side against the rim of Mr
Venus's saucer, and a long stiff wire piercing its breast. As if it
were Cock Robin, the hero of the ballad, and Mr Venus were the
sparrow with his bow and arrow, and Mr Wegg were the fly with
his little eye.

Mr Venus dives, and produces another muffin, yet untoasted;
taking the arrow out of the breast of Cock Robin, he proceeds to
toast it on the end of that cruel instrument. When it is brown, he
dives again and produces butter, with which he completes his

Mr Wegg, as an artful man who is sure of his supper by-and-bye,
presses muffin on his host to soothe him into a compliant state of
mind, or, as one might say, to grease his works. As the muffins
disappear, little by little, the black shelves and nooks and corners
begin to appear, and Mr Wegg gradually acquires an imperfect
notion that over against him on the chimney-piece is a Hindoo
baby in a bottle, curved up with his big head tucked under him, as
he would instantly throw a summersault if the bottle were large

When he deems Mr Venus's wheels sufficiently lubricated, Mr
Wegg approaches his object by asking, as he lightly taps his hands
together, to express an undesigning frame of mind:

'And how have I been going on, this long time, Mr Venus?'

'Very bad,' says Mr Venus, uncompromisingly.

'What? Am I still at home?' asks Wegg, with an air of surprise.

'Always at home.'

This would seem to be secretly agreeable to Wegg, but he veils his
feelings, and observes, 'Strange. To what do you attribute it?'

'I don't know,' replies Venus, who is a haggard melancholy man,
speaking in a weak voice of querulous complaint, 'to what to
attribute it, Mr Wegg. I can't work you into a miscellaneous one,
no how. Do what I will, you can't be got to fit. Anybody with a
passable knowledge would pick you out at a look, and say,--"No
go! Don't match!"'

'Well, but hang it, Mr Venus,' Wegg expostulates with some little
irritation, 'that can't be personal and peculiar in ME. It must often
happen with miscellaneous ones.'

'With ribs (I grant you) always. But not else. When I prepare a
miscellaneous one, I know beforehand that I can't keep to nature,
and be miscellaneous with ribs, because every man has his own
ribs, and no other man's will go with them; but elseways I can be
miscellaneous. I have just sent home a Beauty--a perfect Beauty--
to a school of art. One leg Belgian, one leg English, and the
pickings of eight other people in it. Talk of not being qualified to
be miscellaneous! By rights you OUGHT to be, Mr Wegg.'

Silas looks as hard at his one leg as he can in the dim light, and
after a pause sulkily opines 'that it must be the fault of the other
people. Or how do you mean to say it comes about?' he demands

'I don't know how it comes about. Stand up a minute. Hold the
light.' Mr Venus takes from a corner by his chair, the bones of a
leg and foot, beautifully pure, and put together with exquisite
neatness. These he compares with Mr Wegg's leg; that gentleman
looking on, as if he were being measured for a riding-boot. 'No, I
don't know how it is, but so it is. You have got a twist in that
bone, to the best of my belief. I never saw the likes of you.'

Mr Wegg having looked distrustfully at his own limb, and
suspiciously at the pattern with which it has been compared,
makes the point:

'I'll bet a pound that ain't an English one!'

'An easy wager, when we run so much into foreign! No, it belongs
to that French gentleman.'

As he nods towards a point of darkness behind Mr Wegg, the
latter, with a slight start, looks round for 'that French gentleman,'
whom he at length descries to be represented (in a very
workmanlike manner) by his ribs only, standing on a shelf in
another corner, like a piece of armour or a pair of stays.

'Oh!' says Mr Wegg, with a sort of sense of being introduced; 'I
dare say you were all right enough in your own country, but I hope
no objections will be taken to my saying that the Frenchman was
never yet born as I should wish to match.'

At this moment the greasy door is violently pushed inward, and a
boy follows it, who says, after having let it slam:

'Come for the stuffed canary.'

'It's three and ninepence,' returns Venus; 'have you got the money?'

The boy produces four shillings. Mr Venus, always in exceedingly
low spirits and making whimpering sounds, peers about for the
stuffed canary. On his taking the candle to assist his search, Mr
Wegg observes that he has a convenient little shelf near his knees,
exclusively appropriated to skeleton hands, which have very much
the appearance of wanting to lay hold of him. From these Mr
Venus rescues the canary in a glass case, and shows it to the boy.

'There!' he whimpers. 'There's animation! On a twig, making up
his mind to hop! Take care of him; he's a lovely specimen.--And
three is four.'

The boy gathers up his change and has pulled the door open by a
leather strap nailed to it for the purpose, when Venus cries out:

'Stop him! Come back, you young villain! You've got a tooth
among them halfpence.'

'How was I to know I'd got it? You giv it me. I don't want none of
your teeth; I've got enough of my own.' So the boy pipes, as he
selects it from his change, and throws it on the counter.

'Don't sauce ME, in the wicious pride of your youth,' Mr Venus
retorts pathetically.' Don't hit ME because you see I'm down. I'm
low enough without that. It dropped into the till, I suppose. They
drop into everything. There was two in the coffee-pot at breakfast
time. Molars.'

'Very well, then,' argues the boy, 'what do you call names for?'

To which Mr Venus only replies, shaking his shock of dusty hair,
and winking his weak eyes, 'Don't sauce ME, in the wicious pride
of your youth; don't hit ME, because you see I'm down. You've no
idea how small you'd come out, if I had the articulating of you.'

This consideration seems to have its effect on the boy, for he goes
out grumbling.

'Oh dear me, dear me!' sighs Mr Venus, heavily, snuffing the
candle, 'the world that appeared so flowery has ceased to blow!
You're casting your eye round the shop, Mr Wegg. Let me show
you a light. My working bench. My young man's bench. A Wice.
Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby.
African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within
reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top.
What's in those hampers over them again, I don't quite remember.
Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs.
Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle,
warious. Oh, dear me! That's the general panoramic view.'

Having so held and waved the candle as that all these
heterogeneous objects seemed to come forward obediently when
they were named, and then retire again, Mr Venus despondently
repeats, 'Oh dear me, dear me!' resumes his seat, and with
drooping despondency upon him, falls to pouring himself out more

'Where am I?' asks Mr Wegg.

'You're somewhere in the back shop across the yard, sir; and
speaking quite candidly, I wish I'd never bought you of the
Hospital Porter.'

'Now, look here, what did you give for me?'

'Well,' replies Venus, blowing his tea: his head and face peering
out of the darkness, over the smoke of it, as if he were modernizing
the old original rise in his family: 'you were one of a warious lot,
and I don't know.'

Silas puts his point in the improved form of 'What will you take
for me?'

'Well,' replies Venus, still blowing his tea, 'I'm not prepared, at a
moment's notice, to tell you, Mr Wegg.'

'Come! According to your own account I'm not worth much,'
Wegg reasons persuasively.

'Not for miscellaneous working in, I grant you, Mr Wegg; but you
might turn out valuable yet, as a--' here Mr Venus takes a gulp of
tea, so hot that it makes him choke, and sets his weak eyes
watering; 'as a Monstrosity, if you'll excuse me.'

Repressing an indignant look, indicative of anything but a
disposition to excuse him, Silas pursues his point.

'I think you know me, Mr Venus, and I think you know I never

Mr Venus takes gulps of hot tea, shutting his eyes at every gulp,
and opening them again in a spasmodic manner; but does not
commit himself to assent.

'I have a prospect of getting on in life and elevating myself by my
own independent exertions,' says Wegg, feelingly, 'and I shouldn't
like--I tell you openly I should NOT like--under such
circumstances, to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here,
and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a
genteel person.'

'It's a prospect at present, is it, Mr Wegg? Then you haven't got the
money for a deal about you? Then I'll tell you what I'll do with
you; I'll hold you over. I am a man of my word, and you needn't be
afraid of my disposing of you. I'll hold you over. That's a promise.
Oh dear me, dear me!'

Fain to accept his promise, and wishing to propitiate him, Mr
Wegg looks on as he sighs and pours himself out more tea, and
then says, trying to get a sympathetic tone into his voice:

'You seem very low, Mr Venus. Is business bad?'

'Never was so good.'

'Is your hand out at all?'

'Never was so well in. Mr Wegg, I'm not only first in the trade, but
I'm THE trade. You may go and buy a skeleton at the West End if
you like, and pay the West End price, but it'll be my putting
together. I've as much to do as I can possibly do, with the
assistance of my young man, and I take a pride and a pleasure in

Mr Venus thus delivers hmself, his right hand extended, his
smoking saucer in his left hand, protesting as though he were
going to burst into a flood of tears.

'That ain't a state of things to make you low, Mr Venus.'

'Mr Wegg, I know it ain't. Mr Wegg, not to name myself as a
workman without an equal, I've gone on improving myself in my
knowledge of Anatomy, till both by sight and by name I'm perfect.
Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated,
I'd name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest,
as fast as I could pick 'em out, and I'd sort 'em all, and sort your
wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you.'

'Well,' remarks Silas (though not quite so readily as last time),
'THAT ain't a state of things to be low about.--Not for YOU to be
low about, leastways.'

'Mr Wegg, I know it ain't; Mr Wegg, I know it ain't. But it's the
heart that lowers me, it is the heart! Be so good as take and read
that card out loud.'

Silas receives one from his hand, which Venus takes from a
wonderful litter in a drawer, and putting on his spectacles, reads:

'"Mr Venus,'

'Yes. Go on.'

'"Preserver of Animals and Birds,"'

'Yes. Go on.'

'"Articulator of human bones."'

'That's it,' with a groan. 'That's it! Mr Wegg, I'm thirty-two, and a
bachelor. Mr Wegg, I love her. Mr Wegg, she is worthy of being
loved by a Potentate!' Here Silas is rather alarmed by Mr Venus's
springing to his feet in the hurry of his spirits, and haggardly
confronting him with his hand on his coat collar; but Mr Venus,
begging pardon, sits down again, saying, with the calmness of
despair, 'She objects to the business.'

'Does she know the profits of it?'

'She knows the profits of it, but she don't appreciate the art of it,
and she objects to it. "I do not wish," she writes in her own
handwriting, "to regard myself, nor yet to be regarded, in that
boney light".'

Mr Venus pours himself out more tea, with a look and in an
attitude of the deepest desolation.

'And so a man climbs to the top of the tree, Mr Wegg, only to see
that there's no look-out when he's up there! I sit here of a night
surrounded by the lovely trophies of my art, and what have they
done for me? Ruined me. Brought me to the pass of being
informed that "she does not wish to regard herself, nor yet to be
regarded, in that boney light"!' Having repeated the fatal
expressions, Mr Venus drinks more tea by gulps, and offers an
explanation of his doing so.

'It lowers me. When I'm equally lowered all over, lethargy sets in.
By sticking to it till one or two in the morning, I get oblivion.
Don't let me detain you, Mr Wegg. I'm not company for any one.'

'It is not on that account,' says Silas, rising, 'but because I've got an
appointment. It's time I was at Harmon's.'

'Eh?' said Mr Venus. 'Harmon's, up Battle Bridge way?'

Mr Wegg admits that he is bound for that port.

'You ought to be in a good thing, if you've worked yourself in
there. There's lots of money going, there.'

'To think,' says Silas, 'that you should catch it up so quick, and
know about it. Wonderful!'

'Not at all, Mr Wegg. The old gentleman wanted to know the
nature and worth of everything that was found in the dust; and
many's the bone, and feather, and what not, that he's brought to

'Really, now!'

'Yes. (Oh dear me, dear me!) And he's buried quite in this
neighbourhood, you know. Over yonder.'

Mr Wegg does not know, but he makes as if he did, by
responsively nodding his head. He also follows with his eyes, the
toss of Venus's head: as if to seek a direction to over yonder.

'I took an interest in that discovery in the river,' says Venus. (She
hadn't written her cutting refusal at that time.) I've got up there--
never mind, though.'

He had raised the candle at arm's length towards one of the dark
shelves, and Mr Wegg had turned to look, when he broke off.

'The old gentleman was well known all round here. There used to
be stories about his having hidden all kinds of property in those
dust mounds. I suppose there was nothing in 'em. Probably you
know, Mr Wegg?'

'Nothing in 'em,' says Wegg, who has never heard a word of this

'Don't let me detain you. Good night!'

The unfortunate Mr Venus gives him a shake of the hand with a
shake of his own head, and drooping down in his chair, proceeds
to pour himself out more tea. Mr Wegg, looking back over his
shoulder as he pulls the door open by the strap, notices that the
movement so shakes the crazy shop, and so shakes a momentary
flare out of the candle, as that the babies--Hindoo, African, and
British--the 'human warious', the French gentleman, the green
glass-eyed cats, the dogs, the ducks, and all the rest of the
collection, show for an instant as if paralytically animated; while
even poor little Cock Robin at Mr Venus's elbow turns over on his
innocent side. Next moment, Mr Wegg is stumping under the
gaslights and through the mud.

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