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Part 21. The Light in the Window

Boswell hurries along the street and, out of breath, stops outside Johnson’s house.

BOSWELL  Ah, I am not as young as I once was.  Reynolds and Burke have written to me.  They said he was very ill.  I have come from Edinburgh as quickly as I could.  Now, wait a moment.  I have come along Fleet Street, turned off to the left, and here it is. (He looks up at Johnson’s house.)  He has always lived within a stone’s throw of Fleet Street.  

No, things may not be so bad.  He has always got better before.

(Enter Sir Joshua Reynolds coming from Johnson’s house. He is walking slowly, head down, and passes Boswell without noticing him.  Boswell turns and calls out.)

BOSWELL  Sir Joshua!

REYNOLDS          Boswell?  Is it you?

BOSWELL  I am going to Johnson’s.

REYNOLDS          Take your time then, Boswell.  There is no need to hurry any more.  Bad news, Boswell. Bad news. 

(Boswell sits down on the pavement and looks up at Reynolds.)

BOSWELL  He’s gone?

REYNOLDS Yes. Johnson has gone.

(Boswell stares at him.)

What, James Boswell at a loss for words!  Yes, death is a strange thing. Even when you are expecting it, it is still just as much of a shock, isn’t it!     We can never be really prepared.  We never lose hope but then one day, it comes, and we are never prepared.  I’ll go back to the house with you.  Get up, Sir!  We’ll go back together.

BOSWELL  No.  Just give me a moment.  I’ll just walk up and down the street a little.  Yes, yes, go back to the house, Sir Joshua, and I will be with you soon.  I will be with you soon.

REYNOLDS          I’ll leave you then.   

(Reynolds leaves.  Boswell looks up at Johnson’s window.)

BOSWELL That is his window.  The light is still burning.  His light.  It is still his light, but now his work is done.

‘Time, which puts an end to all human pleasures and sorrows, has likewise concluded the labour of Samuel Johnson.’

His work is done and how well has he done it!  In spite of all the odds!  That’s the point. That’s the whole point! He did it in spite of the odds against him!  He managed to make a living from literature, and literature is the meanest and most tight-fisted employer in London.  He was ill and asthmatic, but he carried on.  His mind played tricks on him but he carried on. When you cannot trust the logic of your own mind, where are you?  I don’t think his religion helped him either.  Too often it was conscience not cheerfulness. It drove him more than it encouraged him.  ‘You must do this! You must do that!’  But he did not give up.  I should have given up.  I should probably have thrown myself into the Thames.

(He looks at the light in Johnson’s room.)

It is hard to assimilate, hard to take in. It’s like that with some people, you know.  He was so vital, so full of life, that it’s impossible to believe that he is not still there, shuffling round the dining room, arguing with us all and correcting us and drinking tea. Such people are so necessary that we feel we are the losers by our staying here.  With him gone it is almost better to be there than here. 

Well, he wouldn’t be thinking like this.  ‘Bozzy, don’t be morbid,’ he would say.  ‘Get on, man.  You have got the rest of the day to fill with activity.  Get up and be creative.’ 

But London will not be the same.  Not by a long chalk.

(Burke comes in and Reynolds returns.)

BURKE       Boswell!  I thought you were in Scotland!

BOSWELL  The news you all sent me was so bad!  I came back early.  Ha! Not early enough!

(Bennet Langton arrives hurriedly.)

LANGTON Yes, yes, I’ve heard.  I’ve heard.  It’s amazing how quickly some people like to give you bad news.  That’s his light?  I remember coming here with Beauclerk very late.  It was one o’clock in the morning.  We shouted up at that window, just where the light is, and he appeared, a nightcap on his head and a poker in his hand.  ‘What is it you, you dogs!’ he shouted.  We spent the rest of the night waking up half of London. But that’s passed.

BOSWELL  Who can we look to, now that Johnson’s gone?  Go to the next man.  There is none.  No one can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.

BURKE       Well, there’s no point in catching cold here.  Come on, Sir Joshua.  Let’s all go to the Mitre.  Come on, Langton.  A December evening is not the best time to be standing around in the street.  And there is a bitter wind at this corner.  December 13th.  Boswell, come on.

BOSWELL  No, I think I’ll take a turn in the streets a while. And then I have a book to write.  There is no excuse now for not getting on with it.  There is nothing else to wait for now, nothing else to add.  I will see you all tomorrow.  I have work to do.

(Burke, Reynolds and Langton all leave and slowly set off towards the Mitre.)

Yes, I have a book to write.  I’ll work at it every day, just as you did on the Dictionary.  I think I will do justice to you, Sir.  I’ll do my best.  I will do justice to you.

(In the upstairs window the light is still burning. Boswell looks at it.)

Keep burning there!  Keep burning!  Now, to work.

(He slowly walks away.)