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Charles Dickens > The Poor Relation's Story > Story

The Poor Relation's Story


He was very reluctant to take precedence of so many respected
members of the family, by beginning the round of stories they were
to relate as they sat in a goodly circle by the Christmas fire; and
he modestly suggested that it would be more correct if "John our
esteemed host" (whose health he begged to drink) would have the
kindness to begin. For as to himself, he said, he was so little
used to lead the way that really-- But as they all cried out here,
that he must begin, and agreed with one voice that he might, could,
would, and should begin, he left off rubbing his hands, and took his
legs out from under his armchair, and did begin.

I have no doubt (said the poor relation) that I shall surprise the
assembled members of our family, and particularly John our esteemed
host to whom we are so much indebted for the great hospitality with
which he has this day entertained us, by the confession I am going
to make. But, if you do me the honour to be surprised at anything
that falls from a person so unimportant in the family as I am, I can
only say that I shall be scrupulously accurate in all I relate.

I am not what I am supposed to be. I am quite another thing.
Perhaps before I go further, I had better glance at what I AM
supposed to be.

It is supposed, unless I mistake--the assembled members of our
family will correct me if I do, which is very likely (here the poor
relation looked mildly about him for contradiction); that I am
nobody's enemy but my own. That I never met with any particular
success in anything. That I failed in business because I was
unbusiness-like and credulous--in not being prepared for the
interested designs of my partner. That I failed in love, because I
was ridiculously trustful--in thinking it impossible that Christiana
could deceive me. That I failed in my expectations from my uncle
Chill, on account of not being as sharp as he could have wished in
worldly matters. That, through life, I have been rather put upon
and disappointed in a general way. That I am at present a bachelor
of between fifty-nine and sixty years of age, living on a limited
income in the form of a quarterly allowance, to which I see that
John our esteemed host wishes me to make no further allusion.

The supposition as to my present pursuits and habits is to the
following effect.

I live in a lodging in the Clapham Road--a very clean back room, in
a very respectable house--where I am expected not to be at home in
the day-time, unless poorly; and which I usually leave in the
morning at nine o'clock, on pretence of going to business. I take
my breakfast--my roll and butter, and my half-pint of coffee--at the
old-established coffee-shop near Westminster Bridge; and then I go
into the City--I don't know why--and sit in Garraway's Coffee House,
and on 'Change, and walk about, and look into a few offices and
counting-houses where some of my relations or acquaintance are so
good as to tolerate me, and where I stand by the fire if the weather
happens to be cold. I get through the day in this way until five
o'clock, and then I dine: at a cost, on the average, of one and
threepence. Having still a little money to spend on my evening's
entertainment, I look into the old-established coffee-shop as I go
home, and take my cup of tea, and perhaps my bit of toast. So, as
the large hand of the clock makes its way round to the morning hour
again, I make my way round to the Clapham Road again, and go to bed
when I get to my lodging--fire being expensive, and being objected
to by the family on account of its giving trouble and making a dirt.

Sometimes, one of my relations or acquaintances is so obliging as to
ask me to dinner. Those are holiday occasions, and then I generally
walk in the Park. I am a solitary man, and seldom walk with
anybody. Not that I am avoided because I am shabby; for I am not at
all shabby, having always a very good suit of black on (or rather
Oxford mixture, which has the appearance of black and wears much
better); but I have got into a habit of speaking low, and being
rather silent, and my spirits are not high, and I am sensible that I
am not an attractive companion.

The only exception to this general rule is the child of my first
cousin, Little Frank. I have a particular affection for that child,
and he takes very kindly to me. He is a diffident boy by nature;
and in a crowd he is soon run over, as I may say, and forgotten. He
and I, however, get on exceedingly well. I have a fancy that the
poor child will in time succeed to my peculiar position in the
family. We talk but little; still, we understand each other. We
walk about, hand in hand; and without much speaking he knows what I
mean, and I know what he means. When he was very little indeed, I
used to take him to the windows of the toy-shops, and show him the
toys inside. It is surprising how soon he found out that I would
have made him a great many presents if I had been in circumstances
to do it.

Little Frank and I go and look at the outside of the Monument--he is
very fond of the Monument--and at the Bridges, and at all the sights
that are free. On two of my birthdays, we have dined on e-la-mode
beef, and gone at half-price to the play, and been deeply
interested. I was once walking with him in Lombard Street, which we
often visit on account of my having mentioned to him that there are
great riches there--he is very fond of Lombard Street--when a
gentleman said to me as he passed by, "Sir, your little son has
dropped his glove." I assure you, if you will excuse my remarking
on so trivial a circumstance, this accidental mention of the child
as mine, quite touched my heart and brought the foolish tears into
my eyes.

When Little Frank is sent to school in the country, I shall be very
much at a loss what to do with myself, but I have the intention of
walking down there once a month and seeing him on a half holiday. I
am told he will then be at play upon the Heath; and if my visits
should be objected to, as unsettling the child, I can see him from a
distance without his seeing me, and walk back again. His mother
comes of a highly genteel family, and rather disapproves, I am
aware, of our being too much together. I know that I am not
calculated to improve his retiring disposition; but I think he would
miss me beyond the feeling of the moment if we were wholly

When I die in the Clapham Road, I shall not leave much more in this
world than I shall take out of it; but, I happen to have a miniature
of a bright-faced boy, with a curling head, and an open shirt-frill
waving down his bosom (my mother had it taken for me, but I can't
believe that it was ever like), which will be worth nothing to sell,
and which I shall beg may he given to Frank. I have written my dear
boy a little letter with it, in which I have told him that I felt
very sorry to part from him, though bound to confess that I knew no
reason why I should remain here. I have given him some short
advice, the best in my power, to take warning of the consequences of
being nobody's enemy but his own; and I have endeavoured to comfort
him for what I fear he will consider a bereavement, by pointing out
to him, that I was only a superfluous something to every one but
him; and that having by some means failed to find a place in this
great assembly, I am better out of it.

Such (said the poor relation, clearing his throat and beginning to
speak a little louder) is the general impression about me. Now, it
is a remarkable circumstance which forms the aim and purpose of my
story, that this is all wrong. This is not my life, and these are
not my habits. I do not even live in the Clapham Road.
Comparatively speaking, I am very seldom there. I reside, mostly,
in a--I am almost ashamed to say the word, it sounds so full of
pretension--in a Castle. I do not mean that it is an old baronial
habitation, but still it is a building always known to every one by
the name of a Castle. In it, I preserve the particulars of my
history; they run thus:

It was when I first took John Spatter (who had been my clerk) into
partnership, and when I was still a young man of not more than five-
and-twenty, residing in the house of my uncle Chill, from whom I had
considerable expectations, that I ventured to propose to Christiana.
I had loved Christiana a long time. She was very beautiful, and
very winning in all respects. I rather mistrusted her widowed
mother, who I feared was of a plotting and mercenary turn of mind;
but, I thought as well of her as I could, for Christiana's sake. I
never had loved any one but Christiana, and she had been all the
world, and O far more than all the world, to me, from our childhood!

Christiana accepted me with her mother's consent, and I was rendered
very happy indeed. My life at my uncle Chill's was of a spare dull
kind, and my garret chamber was as dull, and bare, and cold, as an
upper prison room in some stern northern fortress. But, having
Christiana's love, I wanted nothing upon earth. I would not have
changed my lot with any human being.

Avarice was, unhappily, my uncle Chill's master-vice. Though he was
rich, he pinched, and scraped, and clutched, and lived miserably.
As Christiana had no fortune, I was for some time a little fearful
of confessing our engagement to him; but, at length I wrote him a
letter, saying how it all truly was. I put it into his hand one
night, on going to bed.

As I came down-stairs next morning, shivering in the cold December
air; colder in my uncle's unwarmed house than in the street, where
the winter sun did sometimes shine, and which was at all events
enlivened by cheerful faces and voices passing along; I carried a
heavy heart towards the long, low breakfast-room in which my uncle
sat. It was a large room with a small fire, and there was a great
bay window in it which the rain had marked in the night as if with
the tears of houseless people. It stared upon a raw yard, with a
cracked stone pavement, and some rusted iron railings half uprooted,
whence an ugly out-building that had once been a dissecting-room (in
the time of the great surgeon who had mortgaged the house to my
uncle), stared at it.

We rose so early always, that at that time of the year we
breakfasted by candle-light. When I went into the room, my uncle
was so contracted by the cold, and so huddled together in his chair
behind the one dim candle, that I did not see him until I was close
to the table.

As I held out my hand to him, he caught up his stick (being infirm,
he always walked about the house with a stick), and made a blow at
me, and said, "You fool!"

"Uncle," I returned, "I didn't expect you to be so angry as this."
Nor had I expected it, though he was a hard and angry old man.

"You didn't expect!" said he; "when did you ever expect? When did
you ever calculate, or look forward, you contemptible dog?"

"These are hard words, uncle!"

"Hard words? Feathers, to pelt such an idiot as you with," said he.
"Here! Betsy Snap! Look at him!"

Betsy Snap was a withered, hard-favoured, yellow old woman--our only
domestic--always employed, at this time of the morning, in rubbing
my uncle's legs. As my uncle adjured her to look at me, he put his
lean grip on the crown of her head, she kneeling beside him, and
turned her face towards me. An involuntary thought connecting them
both with the Dissecting Room, as it must often have been in the
surgeon's time, passed across my mind in the midst of my anxiety.

"Look at the snivelling milksop!" said my uncle. "Look at the baby!
This is the gentleman who, people say, is nobody's enemy but his
own. This is the gentleman who can't say no. This is the gentleman
who was making such large profits in his business that he must needs
take a partner, t'other day. This is the gentleman who is going to
marry a wife without a penny, and who falls into the hands of
Jezabels who are speculating on my death!"

I knew, now, how great my uncle's rage was; for nothing short of his
being almost beside himself would have induced him to utter that
concluding word, which he held in such repugnance that it was never
spoken or hinted at before him on any account.

"On my death," he repeated, as if he were defying me by defying his
own abhorrence of the word. "On my death--death--Death! But I'll
spoil the speculation. Eat your last under this roof, you feeble
wretch, and may it choke you!"

You may suppose that I had not much appetite for the breakfast to
which I was bidden in these terms; but, I took my accustomed seat.
I saw that I was repudiated henceforth by my uncle; still I could
bear that very well, possessing Christiana's heart.

He emptied his basin of bread and milk as usual, only that he took
it on his knees with his chair turned away from the table where I
sat. When he had done, he carefully snuffed out the candle; and the
cold, slate-coloured, miserable day looked in upon us.

"Now, Mr. Michael," said he, "before we part, I should like to have
a word with these ladies in your presence."

"As you will, sir," I returned; "but you deceive yourself, and wrong
us, cruelly, if you suppose that there is any feeling at stake in
this contract but pure, disinterested, faithful love."

To this, he only replied, "You lie!" and not one other word.

We went, through half-thawed snow and half-frozen rain, to the house
where Christiana and her mother lived. My uncle knew them very
well. They were sitting at their breakfast, and were surprised to
see us at that hour.

"Your servant, ma'am," said my uncle to the mother. "You divine the
purpose of my visit, I dare say, ma'am. I understand there is a
world of pure, disinterested, faithful love cooped up here. I am
happy to bring it all it wants, to make it complete. I bring you
your son-in-law, ma'am--and you, your husband, miss. The gentleman
is a perfect stranger to me, but I wish him joy of his wise

He snarled at me as he went out, and I never saw him again.

It is altogether a mistake (continued the poor relation) to suppose
that my dear Christiana, over-persuaded and influenced by her
mother, married a rich man, the dirt from whose carriage wheels is
often, in these changed times, thrown upon me as she rides by. No,
no. She married me.

The way we came to be married rather sooner than we intended, was
this. I took a frugal lodging and was saving and planning for her
sake, when, one day, she spoke to me with great earnestness, and

"My dear Michael, I have given you my heart. I have said that I
loved you, and I have pledged myself to be your wife. I am as much
yours through all changes of good and evil as if we had been married
on the day when such words passed between us. I know you well, and
know that if we should be separated and our union broken off, your
whole life would be shadowed, and all that might, even now, be
stronger in your character for the conflict with the world would
then be weakened to the shadow of what it is!"

"God help me, Christiana!" said I. "You speak the truth."

"Michael!" said she, putting her hand in mine, in all maidenly
devotion, "let us keep apart no longer. It is but for me to say
that I can live contented upon such means as you have, and I well
know you are happy. I say so from my heart. Strive no more alone;
let us strive together. My dear Michael, it is not right that I
should keep secret from you what you do not suspect, but what
distresses my whole life. My mother: without considering that what
you have lost, you have lost for me, and on the assurance of my
faith: sets her heart on riches, and urges another suit upon me, to
my misery. I cannot bear this, for to bear it is to be untrue to
you. I would rather share your struggles than look on. I want no
better home than you can give me. I know that you will aspire and
labour with a higher courage if I am wholly yours, and let it be so
when you will!"

I was blest indeed, that day, and a new world opened to me. We were
married in a very little while, and I took my wife to our happy
home. That was the beginning of the residence I have spoken of; the
Castle we have ever since inhabited together, dates from that time.
All our children have been born in it. Our first child--now
married--was a little girl, whom we called Christiana. Her son is
so like Little Frank, that I hardly know which is which.

The current impression as to my partner's dealings with me is also
quite erroneous. He did not begin to treat me coldly, as a poor
simpleton, when my uncle and I so fatally quarrelled; nor did he
afterwards gradually possess himself of our business and edge me
out. On the contrary, he behaved to me with the utmost good faith
and honour.

Matters between us took this turn:- On the day of my separation from
my uncle, and even before the arrival at our counting-house of my
trunks (which he sent after me, NOT carriage paid), I went down to
our room of business, on our little wharf, overlooking the river;
and there I told John Spatter what had happened. John did not say,
in reply, that rich old relatives were palpable facts, and that love
and sentiment were moonshine and fiction. He addressed me thus:

"Michael," said John, "we were at school together, and I generally
had the knack of getting on better than you, and making a higher

"You had, John," I returned.

"Although" said John, "I borrowed your books and lost them; borrowed
your pocket-money, and never repaid it; got you to buy my damaged
knives at a higher price than I had given for them new; and to own
to the windows that I had broken."

"All not worth mentioning, John Spatter," said I, "but certainly

"When you were first established in this infant business, which
promises to thrive so well," pursued John, "I came to you, in my
search for almost any employment, and you made me your clerk."

"Still not worth mentioning, my dear John Spatter," said I; "still,
equally true."

"And finding that I had a good head for business, and that I was
really useful TO the business, you did not like to retain me in that
capacity, and thought it an act of justice soon to make me your

"Still less worth mentioning than any of those other little
circumstances you have recalled, John Spatter," said I; "for I was,
and am, sensible of your merits and my deficiencies."

"Now, my good friend," said John, drawing my arm through his, as he
had had a habit of doing at school; while two vessels outside the
windows of our counting-house--which were shaped like the stern
windows of a ship--went lightly down the river with the tide, as
John and I might then be sailing away in company, and in trust and
confidence, on our voyage of life; "let there, under these friendly
circumstances, be a right understanding between us. You are too
easy, Michael. You are nobody's enemy but your own. If I were to
give you that damaging character among our connexion, with a shrug,
and a shake of the head, and a sigh; and if I were further to abuse
the trust you place in me--"

"But you never will abuse it at all, John," I observed.

"Never!" said he; "but I am putting a case--I say, and if I were
further to abuse that trust by keeping this piece of our common
affairs in the dark, and this other piece in the light, and again
this other piece in the twilight, and so on, I should strengthen my
strength, and weaken your weakness, day by day, until at last I
found myself on the high road to fortune, and you left behind on
some bare common, a hopeless number of miles out of the way."

"Exactly so," said I.

"To prevent this, Michael," said John Spatter, "or the remotest
chance of this, there must be perfect openness between us. Nothing
must be concealed, and we must have but one interest."

"My dear John Spatter," I assured him, "that is precisely what I

"And when you are too easy," pursued John, his face glowing with
friendship, "you must allow me to prevent that imperfection in your
nature from being taken advantage of, by any one; you must not
expect me to humour it--"

"My dear John Spatter," I interrupted, "I DON'T expect you to humour
it. I want to correct it."

"And I, too," said John.

"Exactly so!" cried I. "We both have the same end in view; and,
honourably seeking it, and fully trusting one another, and having
but one interest, ours will be a prosperous and happy partnership."

"I am sure of it!" returned John Spatter. And we shook hands most

I took John home to my Castle, and we had a very happy day. Our
partnership throve well. My friend and partner supplied what I
wanted, as I had foreseen that he would, and by improving both the
business and myself, amply acknowledged any little rise in life to
which I had helped him.

I am not (said the poor relation, looking at the fire as he slowly
rubbed his hands) very rich, for I never cared to be that; but I
have enough, and am above all moderate wants and anxieties. My
Castle is not a splendid place, but it is very comfortable, and it
has a warm and cheerful air, and is quite a picture of Home.

Our eldest girl, who is very like her mother, married John Spatter's
eldest son. Our two families are closely united in other ties of
attachment. It is very pleasant of an evening, when we are all
assembled together--which frequently happens--and when John and I
talk over old times, and the one interest there has always been
between us.

I really do not know, in my Castle, what loneliness is. Some of our
children or grandchildren are always about it, and the young voices
of my descendants are delightful--O, how delightful!--to me to hear.
My dearest and most devoted wife, ever faithful, ever loving, ever
helpful and sustaining and consoling, is the priceless blessing of
my house; from whom all its other blessings spring. We are rather a
musical family, and when Christiana sees me, at any time, a little
weary or depressed, she steals to the piano and sings a gentle air
she used to sing when we were first betrothed. So weak a man am I,
that I cannot bear to hear it from any other source. They played it
once, at the Theatre, when I was there with Little Frank; and the
child said wondering, "Cousin Michael, whose hot tears are these
that have fallen on my hand!"

Such is my Castle, and such are the real particulars of my life
therein preserved. I often take Little Frank home there. He is
very welcome to my grandchildren, and they play together. At this
time of the year--the Christmas and New Year time--I am seldom out
of my Castle. For, the associations of the season seem to hold me
there, and the precepts of the season seem to teach me that it is
well to be there.

"And the Castle is--" observed a grave, kind voice among the

"Yes. My Castle," said the poor relation, shaking his head as he
still looked at the fire, "is in the Air. John our esteemed host
suggests its situation accurately. My Castle is in the Air! I have
done. Will you be so good as to pass the story?"

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