Howard G. Pfrommer: Mr. Dickens is "Recalled to Life"

First published in "The Dickensian", 1944

O

NE af­ter­noon — if there are af­ter­noons "up there" — Charles Dick­ens and John Forster sat chat­ting over their tea — or what­ev­er they call tea. I am quite sure it was noth­ing stronger, for that would be in­con­sis­tent with the gen­er­al idea of the place. At any rate, there they sat — and now and then a wisp of cloud passed about their heads.

Mr. Dick­ens: Forster, what on earth do you sup­pose those enor­mous bird-like ob­jects are down there? They can't be birds, ei­ther, be­cause they seem to have a per­pet­u­al roar, and yet they do seem to lay, or rather drop, tremen­dous eggs. And there is an awful thud every time those eggs hit earth — there, did you hear that one?

Mr. Forster: Yes, I heard it. I re­al­ly don't know what to say, "Inim­itable." I have been watch­ing those crea­tures, or what­ev­er they are, and the peace which I en­joyed when I first ar­rived here is mys­te­ri­ous­ly dis­turbed. I had thought of ask­ing leave to re­turn and look into things, but I re­al­ly do not have the re­por­to­ri­al mind and abil­i­ty to bring back a good story. Say! there's a thought now — you, "Inim­itable" would be just the one to go and look things over. With that pho­to­graph­ic pen of yours, you could give us something re­al­ly de­scrip­tive and de­tailed. But, I sup­pose you wouldn't want to do any­thing like that be­cause (Forster smile know­ing­ly) it couldn't be copy­right­ed, you know — and there could be no Bead­ing Tours under our pre­sent cir­cum­stances!

Mr. Dick­ens: Well, Forster, you never favoured my tak­ing long jour­neys into other hemi­spheres — you re­call the fuss you made when I went to Amer­i­ca! But, since you seem to have changed your at­ti­tude, do you sup­pose you could ar­range with St. Peter for me to re­turn to earth for a few days?

Mr. Forster: No soon­er said than done, my dear fel­low. I have been on my good be­haviour and only the other day St. Peter re­marked that some lit­tle re­ward might be com­ing my way. You know I just got in here by the so-called "skin of my teeth." I have been very thank­ful.

Mr. Dick­ens: Well, do ar­range for me to re­vis­it the earth. I do so want to go. I am afraid, though, that I do not stand so well with Peter. You know there was a very care­ful in­ves­ti­ga­tion of me when I ap­plied for en­trance here be­cause of the dress­ing-down I gave some of those cler­gy­men; but after Peter met Stig­gins he came round to my view of things!

And in a space — there seem to be no clocks or sec­onds, min­utes, hours, there — Forster re­turned with the per­mis­sion, the nec­es­sary per­son­al adorn­ments, money, and hotel reser­va­tions — and what seemed most im­por­tant, a kind of vest, which, when worn, had the magic power of mak­ing those whom Dick­ens met not wish to ask too in­ti­mate ques­tions. Dick­ens looked the things over.

Mr. Dick­ens: Well, the styles have cer­tain­ly toned down since our day — how I should have liked one of those bright waist­coats I used to af­fect. But, Forster, what name is this on these vis­it­ing cards and on this hotel reser­va­tion! D-E-L-L-A-C-E-R O'T-E-F-I-L. "Del­lac­er O'Tefll." In my wildest fancy I never con­coct­ed one like that!

Mr. Forster: Why, Inim­itable, Peter says it's sim­ply a re-ar­range­ment of the let­ters of the very first words from one of your nov­els—but for the life of me, I don't re­call it, do you?

Mr. Dick­ens: We'll talk about it later, Forster. If I am to start be­fore the sun sets on things down there, I had best get going. What con­veyance do I use?

Mr. Forster: Peter has kept that a se­cret. He sug­gest­ed that you take a bit of a nap now . . .

The scene now changes to the lobby of a Bath hotel. Mr. Dick­ens is dis­cov­ered nod­ding in one of the easy chairs. He awak­ens abrupt­ly as he feels the broom of one of the porters strike his foot.

The Porter: Well, now you know, sir, beg­ging your par­don, sir, but the clerk says it isn't the thing to sleep here all the evening; you've been here since four you know, and if you are to stop the night and want a bite of sup­per, you had best sign the reg­is­ter and get into the cof­fee-room be­fore it clos­es.

How did he get here? Mr. Dick­ens did not know. And no­body seemed to think his pres­ence un­usu­al. Where was he? Mr. Dick­ens did not know that ei­ther. But, Mr. Dick­ens was never one to fail to adapt him­self to un­to­ward cir­cum­stances; and so he stretched, sti­fled a yawn, and strode to the desk and asked for a room with a bit of fire and " would they send up his din­ner?" Mr. Dick­ens was writ­ing his as­sumed name as he asked this and he noted from the reg­is­ter that he was in Bath.

The Clerk: The name is Delac­cer O'Tefil. Oh, yes, we have been ex­pect­ing you. A reser­va­tion came in just after noon. You must have had a tire­some jour­ney, sir. Here, boy (the boy was about 52), take Mr. O'Tefil up im­me­di­ate­ly. What's that you said? (turn­ing to Dick­ens) din­ner in your room? A roast fowl with the usual trim­mings, a pie and in­ci­den­tals? You will have your Dick­en­sian joke, won't you? A news­pa­per re­porter, I sup­pose!

Mr. Dick­ens: I beg your par­don. I have done some­thing in the re­port­ing way, yes — but I don't al­to­geth­er rel­ish your fa­mil­iar­i­ty.

The Clerk: Oh, I say — no of­fence, my dear sir. I do think there is some­thing left from din­ner. Have you your ra­tion book?

Mr. Dick­ens: Ra­tion book! What do you mean, sir?

The Clerk: (Under his breath) Dear me, this man is a lit­tle bit off, I am afraid — or is he try­ing to pull my leg. (Aloud) We were very for­tu­nate to-day; we got a dozen eggs and very like­ly there is one left — you know you are en­ti­tled to one every two weeks — I hope you haven't used your coupons; we shall re­quire them as you are stay­ing more than five nights.

And now Mr. Dick­ens mused, "Of a cer­tain­ty, I am in a mad­house. Coupons — one egg every two weeks — what can the fel­low mean and where does he get such ideas?"

II

Well, Dick­ens must have some sup­per. True, meals were very light "up there," but then ac­tiv­i­ties were light also, and they did not re­quire much to keep them going — but Dick­ens found that down here ap­petite was a vil­lain­ous thing and must be sat­is­fied.

He en­tered the cof­fee-room and sat down. The wait­er (an­oth­er ju­ve­nile of about six­ty-two) came over some­what im­pa­tient­ly as much as to say "He would wait until five min­utes to clos­ing-time." Up to this point, Dick­ens had been only ex­treme­ly con­fused. But, from this point on, the ad­verb to in­ten­si­fy his con­fu­sion is not to be found. An­oth­er mad­man — only much more mad than any — in­sane­ly mad, grow­ing vi­o­lent­ly and pro­gres­sive­ly mad­der all the time; and the con­ver­sa­tion went round and round in a dizzy whirl all about coupons for this, coupons for that, coupons for the other — end­ing with a blast' from the three-score young­ster when there was no ra­tion book in any of Dick­ens's pock­ets — and a threat from Dick­ens, fear­ful to hear and not prop­er to re­peat, but end­ing with "the man­age­ment shall hear of this, my fine fel­low." Just the way Dick­ens fin­ished off that word "fel­low" would have made any­one but a hard­ened wait­er trem­ble.

Poor Dick­ens, he was now quite knocked-up; he was ter­ri­bly hun­gry; and yet rather than do any­thing to cause more trou­ble he thought he would re­tire — maybe this was to be ex­pect­ed — maybe it was a sort of tran­si­to­ry state — and maybe in the morn­ing mat­ters would be clear­er.

Dick­ens slept. At least, his eyes were shut. But, his ap­petite did not sleep. He dreamed of those din­ners he used to have with Forster and the oth­ers to cel­e­brate the com­ple­tion of one or other of the nov­els; he dreamed that he was a char­ac­ter in one of those nov­els, a sort of un­ex­pect­ed guest at War­dle's Christ­mas party and every time he was about to put a choice morsel into his mouth the Fat Boy woke up and snatched it away! In des­per­a­tion Dick­ens found him­self look­ing for the pota­toes in Mrs. Jelly­by's coal-scut­tle; and he got quite a chill be­cause in his sleep he pulled down the sheets and looked for the roast fowl that Pip once put in bed, pre­lim­i­nary to serv­ing. But he could not even lo­cate the spots of con­gealed gravy! Poor Dick­ens just tossed and tossed . . .

He was awak­ened at that dark­est pe­ri­od be­fore morn­ing. He had been pushed. That's what it seemed like; just an enor­mous push; only this push did not come from one di­rec­tion; it was an all-round push; it came from all di­rec­tions at once, and then there was an enor­mous BANG! It wasn't a bag, ei­ther; that is much too mild a word. It was so loud you could taste, hear, feel, yes, al­most smell it. For once the great mas­ter of words was at a loss to de­scribe a phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion. He could only refer to the ex­pe­ri­ence as "It."

"What is it," he shout­ed as he ap­peared in the lobby just about half-dressed — that is, the lower part of him was dressed, the upper part was quite naked — he had even for­got­ten his mir­a­cle vest. Oh, yes, he did have his hat! All in all, he looked some­what like one of his own ec­centrics.

But there was no up­roar. The staff went about their busi­ness as usual. The clerk was scratch­ing with his pen; the half-cen­tu­ry boy was, like an­oth­er more fa­mous boy, sit­ting there, eyes wide open but sound asleep; the porter was wip­ing the sills; the three-score wait­er was stand­ing just in­side the door of the cof­fee-room; they all (ex­cept the half-cen­tu­ry boy) seemed rather tense, but there was no out­ward ex­cite­ment. It was very, very quiet — un­nat­u­ral­ly quiet — ex­cept for a con­tin­u­al whine out­doors, and when that ceased the clerk re­marked ca­su­al­ly, " Well, they've gone again. I'll go and see what hap­pened."

Dick­ens re­turned to his room, ar­ranged his clothes, donned the magic vest, and then made his way to the street. It was get­ting light. He hap­pened to glance over­head and there was one of those enor­mous me­chan­i­cal birds just over the Royal Cres­cent — and sev­er­al more in the near dis­tance.

"What are they?" asked Dick­ens of a by­stander.

"Can't you see — they're ours," was the growled reply.

Dick­ens at once re­alised that he had asked the ob­vi­ous. He ar­rived at the Cres­cent and — but let us hear him tell it as he told it to Forster.

III

Mr. Forster: Wake up there! So you've come back. Tell me all about it.

Mr. Dick­ens (not sure where he is): Oh, dear me, I'm so hun­gry; I do wish I had one of those coupon things. Why didn't Peter send one of them with me? Oh! it's you, Forster! Did you bring the coupons? What? I'm back? Well, I didn't get about to see any of the things I re­al­ly want­ed to see. Why did Peter bring me back so soon?

Mr. Forster: Well, Inim­itable, Peter re­alised just after he trans- port­ed you (if I may use that term) that he had for­got­ten your ra­tion book con­tain­ing the coupons you need to get food down here in these times — and so when you set­tled down for a rest after your walk about town, he brought you back. You know, you might have be­come very "mor­tal" if your hunger con­tin­ued! It's all right for you as a nov­el­ist to have ghosts walk­ing all over the place; but it is strict­ly against Peter's scheme of things; and it would have been em­bar­rass­ing for him to have a real ghost dis­cov­ered! Be­sides, Peter did not want to give Sir Oliv­er Lodge a chance to prove his the­o­ry. Tell me, Dick­ens, what did you see!

Mr. Dick­ens: Oh, Forster, those birds! Do you know what they re­al­ly are? They used to talk about such things in our time. Ten­nyson wrote a poem pre­dict­ing it, you re­call. They are sky bat­tle­ships! They trav­el under their own power, with a reg­u­lar crew just like a ship; with guns and am­mu­ni­tion, and, worst of all, with enor­mous bombs which they drop. It's all a part of the war now going on. The Ger­mans send their birds over our cities and try to blast the pop­u­la­tion into ter­ror, and we send our birds over their cities. Hor­ri­ble! Think of it, Forster, in front of No. 17 Royal Cres­cent — your re­mem­ber the Royal Cres­cent? — Win­kle ran a race there once when he was locked out in his night-shirt — well, Forster, in front of No. 17 — that's the house where Pit­man lived; he pub­lished his sys­tem of short­hand the same year that I pub­lished Pick­wick.

Mr. Forster (im­pa­tient­ly): Come, come, Dick­ens, tell me what was in front of No. 17.

Mr. Dick­ens: Just this, Forster. One of those enor­mous bombs dropped there and you can get no idea of its power and dev­as­ta­tion. It left a crater so large that well, well you could eas­i­ly tuck away most of that great thun­der­head over there. Had the bomb land­ed on the Cres­cent it­self there would be no Cres­cent. Of the As­sem­bly Rooms only the outer wall re­mains — just a black­ened shell. I was told an­oth­er bomb was dropped in the row which con­tains the house where Sam Weller at­tend­ed the foot­men's "Swar­ry." Forster, I could never have be­lieved it. I talked with by­standers and read some news­pa­pers and they said that in one night a part of Lon­don was com­plete­ly blown away. It re­al­ly is true, isn't it? I re­al­ly did go, didn't I? Or are you fool­ing me? Maybe I sim­ply dreamed it!

Mr. Forster: You re­al­ly did go, Inim­itable; but I cer­tain­ly didn't ex­pect this sort of re­port from you. It seems to me that your imag­i­na­tion has re­al­ly lost its per­spec­tive. I am afraid Peter won't ap­pre­ci­ate your ex­ag­ger­a­tions. Your pow­ers of in­ven­tion are cer­tain­ly not wan­ing. What sto­ries you could still write! What a great story Drood could have been. Why did you ever leave that story half-fin­ished for well-in­ten­tioned, but nev­er­the­less pre­sump­tu­ous am­a­teurs to pick about and try to fin­ish? Tell me, Dick­ens, how was that story to end?

Mr. Dick­ens: I re­al­ly don't know, Forster. I never did know the end of my sto­ries until I got there my­self. True, I had out­lines, but I didn't fol­low them close­ly; the char­ac­ters took hold of things and kept the end­ing a se­cret. My peo­ple al­ways told me what they want­ed to do, and ap­par­ent­ly the folks in Drood weren't quite ready to let me know their plans.

Mr. Forster: I al­ways sus­pect­ed as much.

Mr. Dick­ens: Tell me, Forster, where did Peter get that name for me?

Mr. Forster: He said he would tell us, let's call on him. But here he comes now.

St. Peter: Oh, there you are! I was hop­ing to meet you on my way.

Mr. Forster: Yes, the Inim­itable is re­turned, St. Peter. He wants to know where you got that name; yes, Mr. Dick­ens has a re­port for you, al­though I do not think you are going to like it — his imag­i­na­tion is en­tire­ly out of bounds; but first, we are both con­sumed with cu­rios­i­ty, where did you get that name?

St. Peter: You'll find it at the head of the first chap­ter of one of your books. I just re­versed the spelling of the words. And now, Mr. Dick­ens, tell me about your being "Re­called to Life."

Mr. Dick­ens: I am too shocked. You wouldn't be­lieve my story,

St. Peter: Forster doesn't be­lieve it. I saw and heard very lit­tle on earth, but even that lit­tle is far, far too much. I am so dis­cour­aged — men seem to have grown worse in­stead of bet­ter. Part of the beau­ti­ful city of Bath is a sham­bles. I heard that much of Lon­don is oblit­er­at­ed. So many of the old places all over the coun­try that I saw and wrote about are gone. The Church with the clock that told David Cop­per­field the time is now a mere shell. Dr. John­son's house is a pile of rub­bish. Gog and Magog of the Guild­hall were in­cin­er­at­ed; Thavies' Inn is no more. And Dover — think of it, the Dover of Bet­sey Trot­wood is sub­ject­ed day after day to the bom­bard­ment of long dis­tance can­non from across the chan­nel. There are more than don­keys to churn up the flow­er beds in Bet­sey's front gar­den these days. I was sick­ened by the lit­tle I saw and heard. I do not think I could stand more. It seems as though all Eng­land is doomed.

St. Peter: Do not lose heart, Mr. Dick­ens. I knew all this be­fore I gave per­mis­sion for you to go. I am rather sorry now that I ar­ranged it and am glad you are back. But, Mr. Dick­ens, there is one thing that will never be. No mat­ter how much of Eng­land is wiped away in this awful con­flict, there will al­ways be an Eng­land; it will al­ways live in your books! The world is more than ever in­debt­ed to you for those nov­els which you left as a her­itage to all En­glish-speak­ing peo­ple for all time to come!

St. Peter slow­ly walks on. He has dis­ci­pline to ad­min­is­ter. It seems that Sam Weller has been be­hav­ing in a man­ner most undig­ni­fied, and en­tire­ly in­con­sis­tent with the ce­les­tial code.