It is the long vacation in the regions of Chancery Lane. The good ships Law and Equity, those teak-built, copper-bottomed, iron- fastened, brazen-faced, and not by any means fast-sailing clippers are laid up in ordinary. The Flying Dutchman, with a crew of ghostly clients imploring all whom they may encounter to peruse their papers, has drifted, for the time being, heaven knows where. The courts are all shut up; the public offices lie in a hot sleep. Westminster Hall itself is a shady solitude where nightingales might sing, and a tenderer class of suitors than is usually found there, walk.
The Temple, Chancery Lane, Serjeants' Inn, and Lincoln's Inn even unto the Fields are like tidal harbours at low water, where stranded proceedings, offices at anchor, idle clerks lounging on lop-sided stools that will not recover their perpendicular until the current of Term sets in, lie high and dry upon the ooze of the long vacation. Outer doors of chambers are shut up by the score, messages and parcels are to be left at the Porter's Lodge by the bushel. A crop of grass would grow in the chinks of the stone pavement outside Lincoln's Inn Hall, but that the ticket-porters, who have nothing to do beyond sitting in the shade there, with their white aprons over their heads to keep the flies off, grub it up and eat it thoughtfully.
There is only one judge in town. Even he only comes twice a week to sit in chambers. If the country folks of those assize towns on his circuit could see him now! No full-bottomed wig, no red petticoats, no fur, no javelin-men, no white wands. Merely a close-shaved gentleman in white trousers and a white hat, with sea- bronze on the judicial countenance, and a strip of bark peeled by the solar rays from the judicial nose, who calls in at the shell- fish shop as he comes along and drinks iced ginger-beer!
The bar of England is scattered over the face of the earth. How England can get on through four long summer months without its bar — which is its acknowledged refuge in adversity and its only legitimate triumph in prosperity — is beside the question; assuredly that shield and buckler of Britannia are not in present wear. The learned gentleman who is always so tremendously indignant at the unprecedented outrage committed on the feelings of his client by the opposite party that he never seems likely to recover it is doing infinitely better than might be expected in Switzerland. The learned gentleman who does the withering business and who blights all opponents with his gloomy sarcasm is as merry as a grig at a French watering-place. The learned gentleman who weeps by the pint on the smallest provocation has not shed a tear these six weeks. The very learned gentleman who has cooled the natural heat of his gingery complexion in pools and fountains of law until he has become great in knotty arguments for term-time, when he poses the drowsy bench with legal "chaff," inexplicable to the uninitiated and to most of the initiated too, is roaming, with a characteristic delight in aridity and dust, about Constantinople. Other dispersed fragments of the same great palladium are to be found on the canals of Venice, at the second cataract of the Nile, in the baths of Germany, and sprinkled on the sea-sand all over the English coast. Scarcely one is to be encountered in the deserted region of Chancery Lane. If such a lonely member of the bar do flit across the waste and come upon a prowling suitor who is unable to leave off haunting the scenes of his anxiety, they frighten one another and retreat into opposite shades.
It is the hottest long vacation known for many years. All the young clerks are madly in love, and according to their various degrees, pine for bliss with the beloved object, at Margate, Ramsgate, or Gravesend. All the middle-aged clerks think their families too large. All the unowned dogs who stray into the Inns of Court and pant about staircases and other dry places seeking water give short howls of aggravation. All the blind men's dogs in the streets draw their masters against pumps or trip them over buckets. A shop with a sun-blind, and a watered pavement, and a bowl of gold and silver fish in the window, is a sanctuary. Temple Bar gets so hot that it is, to the adjacent Strand and Fleet Street, what a heater is in an urn, and keeps them simmering all night.
There are offices about the Inns of Court in which a man might be cool, if any coolness were worth purchasing at such a price in dullness; but the little thoroughfares immediately outside those retirements seem to blaze. In Mr. Krook's court, it is so hot that the people turn their houses inside out and sit in chairs upon the pavement — Mr. Krook included, who there pursues his studies, with his cat (who never is too hot) by his side. The Sol's Arms has discontinued the Harmonic Meetings for the season, and Little Swills is engaged at the Pastoral Gardens down the river, where he comes out in quite an innocent manner and sings comic ditties of a juvenile complexion calculated (as the bill says) not to wound the feelings of the most fastidious mind.
Over all the legal neighbourhood there hangs, like some great veil of rust or gigantic cobweb, the idleness and pensiveness of the long vacation. Mr. Snagsby, law-stationer of Cook's Court, Cursitor Street, is sensible of the influence not only in his mind as a sympathetic and contemplative man, but also in his business as a law-stationer aforesaid. He has more leisure for musing in Staple Inn and in the Rolls Yard during the long vacation than at other seasons, and he says to the two 'prentices, what a thing it is in such hot weather to think that you live in an island with the sea a-rolling and a-bowling right round you.
Guster is busy in the little drawing-room on this present afternoon in the long vacation, when Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby have it in contemplation to receive company. The expected guests are rather select than numerous, being Mr. and Mrs. Chadband and no more. From Mr. Chadband's being much given to describe himself, both verbally and in writing, as a vessel, he is occasionally mistaken by strangers for a gentleman connected with navigation, but he is, as he expresses it, "in the ministry." Mr. Chadband is attached to no particular denomination and is considered by his persecutors to have nothing so very remarkable to say on the greatest of subjects as to render his volunteering, on his own account, at all incumbent on his conscience; but he has his followers, and Mrs. Snagsby is of the number. Mrs. Snagsby has but recently taken a passage upward by the vessel, Chadband; and her attention was attracted to that Bark A 1, when she was something flushed by the hot weather.
"My little woman," says Mr. Snagsby to the sparrows in Staple Inn, "likes to have her religion rather sharp, you see!"
So Guster, much impressed by regarding herself for the time as the handmaid of Chadband, whom she knows to be endowed with the gift of holding forth for four hours at a stretch, prepares the little drawing-room for tea. All the furniture is shaken and dusted, the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby are touched up with a wet cloth, the best tea-service is set forth, and there is excellent provision made of dainty new bread, crusty twists, cool fresh butter, thin slices of ham, tongue, and German sausage, and delicate little rows of anchovies nestling in parsley, not to mention new-laid eggs, to be brought up warm in a napkin, and hot buttered toast. For Chadband is rather a consuming vessel — the persecutors say a gorging vessel — and can wield such weapons of the flesh as a knife and fork remarkably well.
Mr. Snagsby in his best coat, looking at all the preparations when they are completed and coughing his cough of deference behind his hand, says to Mrs. Snagsby, "At what time did you expect Mr. and Mrs. Chadband, my love?"
"At six," says Mrs. Snagsby.
Mr. Snagsby observes in a mild and casual way that "it's gone that."
"Perhaps you'd like to begin without them," is Mrs. Snagsby's reproachful remark.
Mr. Snagsby does look as if he would like it very much, but he says, with his cough of mildness, "No, my dear, no. I merely named the time."
"What's time," says Mrs. Snagsby, "to eternity?"
"Very true, my dear," says Mr. Snagsby. "Only when a person lays in victuals for tea, a person does it with a view — perhaps — more to time. And when a time is named for having tea, it's better to come up to it."