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´╗┐The Old Curiosity Shop
By Charles Dickens
CHAPTER 1
Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave
home early in the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or
even escape for days or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I
seldom go out until after dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its
light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any
creature living.
I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my
infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating
on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets. The
glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like
mine; a glimpse of passing faces caught by the light of a street-lamp
or a shop window is often better for my purpose than their full
revelation in the daylight; and, if I must add the truth, night is
kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys an air-built
castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremony or
remorse.
That constant pacing to and fro, that never-ending restlessness, that
incessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy--is
it not a wonder how the dwellers in narrows ways can bear to hear it!
Think of a sick man in such a place as Saint Martin's Court, listening
to the footsteps, and in the midst of pain and weariness obliged,
despite himself (as though it were a task he must perform) to detect
the child's step from the man's, the slipshod beggar from the booted
exquisite, the lounging from the busy, the dull heel of the sauntering
outcast from the quick tread of an expectant pleasure-seeker--think of
the hum and noise always being present to his sense, and of the stream
of life that will not stop, pouring on, on, on, through all his
restless dreams, as if he were condemned to lie, dead but conscious, in
a noisy churchyard, and had no hope of rest for centuries to come.
Then, the crowds for ever passing and repassing on the bridges (on
those which are free of toll at last), where many stop on fine evenings
looking listlessly down upon the water with some vague idea that by and
by it runs between green banks which grow wider and wider until at last
it joins the broad vast sea--where some halt to rest from heavy loads
and think as they look over the parapet that to smoke and lounge away
one's life, and lie sleeping in the sun upon a hot tarpaulin, in a
dull, slow, sluggish barge, must be happiness unalloyed--and where
some, and a very different class, pause with heavier loads than they,
remembering to have heard or read in old time that drowning was not a
hard death, but of all means of suicide the easiest and best.
Covent Garden Market at sunrise too, in the spring or summer, when the
fragrance of sweet flowers is in the air, over-powering even the
unwholesome streams of last night's debauchery, and driving the dusky
thrush, whose cage has hung outside a garret window all night long,
half mad with joy! Poor bird! the only neighbouring thing at all akin
to the other little captives, some of whom, shrinking from the hot
hands of drunken purchasers, lie drooping on the path already, while
others, soddened by close contact, await the time when they shall be
watered and freshened up to please more sober company, and make old
clerks who pass them on their road to business, wonder what has filled
their breasts with visions of the country.
But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story I
am about to relate, and to which I shall recur at intervals, arose out
of one of these rambles; and thus I have been led to speak of them by
way of preface.
One night I had roamed into the City, and was walking slowly on in my
usual way, musing upon a great many things, when I was arrested by an
inquiry, the purport of which did not reach me, but which seemed to be
addressed to myself, and was preferred in a soft sweet voice that
struck me very pleasantly. I turned hastily round and found at my elbow
a pretty little girl, who begged to be directed to a certain street at
a considerable distance, and indeed in quite another quarter of the
town.
'It is a very long way from here,' said I, 'my child.'
'I know that, sir,' she replied timidly. 'I am afraid it is a very long
way, for I came from there to-night.'
'Alone?' said I, in some surprise.
'Oh, yes, I don't mind that, but I am a little frightened now, for I
had lost my road.'
'And what made you ask it of me? Suppose I should tell you wrong?'
'I am sure you will not do that,' said the little creature,' you are
such a very old gentleman, and walk so slow yourself.'
I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the
energy with which it was made, which brought a tear into the child's
clear eye, and made her slight figure tremble as she looked up into my
face.
'Come,' said I, 'I'll take you there.'
She put her hand in mine as confidingly as if she had known me from her
cradle, and we trudged away together; the little creature accommodating
her pace to mine, and rather seeming to lead and take care of me than I
to be protecting her. I observed that every now and then she stole a
curious look at my face, as if to make quite sure that I was not
deceiving her, and that these glances (very sharp and keen they were
too) seemed to increase her confidence at every repetition.
For my part, my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the
child's, for child she certainly was, although I thought it probably
from what I could make out, that her very small and delicate frame
imparted a peculiar youthfulness to her appearance. Though more
scantily attired than she might have been she was dressed with perfect
neatness, and betrayed no marks of poverty or neglect.
'Who has sent you so far by yourself?' said I.
'Someone who is very kind to me, sir.'
'And what have you been doing?'
'That, I must not tell,' said the child firmly.
There was something in the manner of this reply which caused me to look
at the little creature with an involuntary expression of surprise; for
I wondered what kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to be
prepared for questioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts, for
as it met mine she added that there was no harm in what she had been
doing, but it was a great secret--a secret which she did not even know
herself.
This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit, but with an
unsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on as
before, growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and talking
cheerfully by the way, but she said no more about her home, beyond
remarking that we were going quite a new road and asking if it were a
short one.
While we were thus engaged, I revolved in my mind a hundred different
explanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I really felt
ashamed to take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful feeling of
the child for the purpose of gratifying my curiosity. I love these
little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh
from God, love us. As I had felt pleased at first by her confidence I
determined to deserve it, and to do credit to the nature which had
prompted her to repose it in me.
There was no reason, however, why I should refrain from seeing the
person who had inconsiderately sent her to so great a distance by night
and alone, and as it was not improbable that if she found herself near
home she might take farewell of me and deprive me of the opportunity, I
avoided the most frequented ways and took the most intricate, and thus
it was not until we arrived in the street itself that she knew where we
were. Clapping her hands with pleasure and running on before me for a
short distance, my little acquaintance stopped at a door and remaining
on the step till I came up knocked at it when I joined her.
A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter, which I
did not observe at first, for all was very dark and silent within, and
I was anxious (as indeed the child was also) for an answer to our
summons. When she had knocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if
some person were moving inside, and at length a faint light appeared
through the glass which, as it approached very slowly, the bearer
having to make his way through a great many scattered articles, enabled
me to see both what kind of person it was who advanced and what kind of
place it was through which he came.
It was an old man with long grey hair, whose face and figure as he held
the light above his head and looked before him as he approached, I
could plainly see. Though much altered by age, I fancied I could
recognize in his spare and slender form something of that delicate
mould which I had noticed in the child. Their bright blue eyes were
certainly alike, but his face was so deeply furrowed and so very full
of care, that here all resemblance ceased.
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those
receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd
corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public
eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like
ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from
monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in
china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that
might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little
old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among
old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils
with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was
in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or more worn than he.
As he turned the key in the lock, he surveyed me with some astonishment
which was not diminished when he looked from me to my companion. The
door being opened, the child addressed him as grandfather, and told him
the little story of our companionship.
'Why, bless thee, child,' said the old man, patting her on the head,
'how couldst thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee, Nell!'
'I would have found my way back to YOU, grandfather,' said the child
boldly; 'never fear.'
The old man kissed her, then turning to me and begging me to walk in, I
did so. The door was closed and locked. Preceding me with the light, he
led me through the place I had already seen from without, into a small
sitting-room behind, in which was another door opening into a kind of
closet, where I saw a little bed that a fairy might have slept in, it
looked so very small and was so prettily arranged. The child took a
candle and tripped into this little room, leaving the old man and me
together.
'You must be tired, sir,' said he as he placed a chair near the fire,
'how can I thank you?'
'By taking more care of your grandchild another time, my good friend,'
I replied.
'More care!' said the old man in a shrill voice, 'more care of Nelly!
Why, who ever loved a child as I love Nell?'
He said this with such evident surprise that I was perplexed what
answer to make, and the more so because coupled with something feeble
and wandering in his manner, there were in his face marks of deep and
anxious thought which convinced me that he could not be, as I had been
at first inclined to suppose, in a state of dotage or imbecility.
'I don't think you consider--' I began.
'I don't consider!' cried the old man interrupting me, 'I don't
consider her! Ah, how little you know of the truth! Little Nelly,
little Nelly!'
It would be impossible for any man, I care not what his form of speech
might be, to express more affection than the dealer in curiosities did,
in these four words. I waited for him to speak again, but he rested his
chin upon his hand and shaking his head twice or thrice fixed his eyes
upon the fire.
While we were sitting thus in silence, the door of the closet opened,
and the child returned, her light brown hair hanging loose about her
neck, and her face flushed with the haste she had made to rejoin us.
She busied herself immediately in preparing supper, and while she was
thus engaged I remarked that the old man took an opportunity of
observing me more closely than he had done yet. I was surprised to see
that all this time everything was done by the child, and that there
appeared to be no other persons but ourselves in the house. I took
advantage of a moment when she was absent to venture a hint on this
point, to which the old man replied that there were few grown persons
as trustworthy or as careful as she.
'It always grieves me,' I observed, roused by what I took to be his
selfishness, 'it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of
children into the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than
infants. It checks their confidence and simplicity--two of the best
qualities that Heaven gives them--and demands that they share our
sorrows before they are capable of entering into our enjoyments.'
'It will never check hers,' said the old man looking steadily at me,
'the springs are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but
few pleasures. Even the cheap delights of childhood must be bought and
paid for.'
'But--forgive me for saying this--you are surely not so very
poor'--said I.
'She is not my child, sir,' returned the old man. 'Her mother was, and
she was poor. I save nothing--not a penny--though I live as you see,
but'--he laid his hand upon my arm and leant forward to whisper--'she
shall be rich one of these days, and a fine lady. Don't you think ill
of me because I use her help. She gives it cheerfully as you see, and
it would break her heart if she knew that I suffered anybody else to do
for me what her little hands could undertake. I don't consider!'--he
cried with sudden querulousness, 'why, God knows that this one child is
the thought and object of my life, and yet he never prospers me--no,
never!'
At this juncture, the subject of our conversation again returned, and
the old man motioning to me to approach the table, broke off, and said
no more.
We had scarcely begun our repast when there was a knock at the door by
which I had entered, and Nell bursting into a hearty laugh, which I was
rejoiced to hear, for it was childlike and full of hilarity, said it
was no doubt dear old Kit coming back at last.
'Foolish Nell!' said the old man fondling with her hair. 'She always
laughs at poor Kit.'
The child laughed again more heartily than before, and I could not help
smiling from pure sympathy. The little old man took up a candle and
went to open the door. When he came back, Kit was at his heels.
Kit was a shock-headed, shambling, awkward lad with an uncommonly wide
mouth, very red cheeks, a turned-up nose, and certainly the most
comical expression of face I ever saw. He stopped short at the door on
seeing a stranger, twirled in his hand a perfectly round old hat
without any vestige of a brim, and resting himself now on one leg and
now on the other and changing them constantly, stood in the doorway,
looking into the parlour with the most extraordinary leer I ever
beheld. I entertained a grateful feeling towards the boy from that
minute, for I felt that he was the comedy of the child's life.
'A long way, wasn't it, Kit?' said the little old man.
'Why, then, it was a goodish stretch, master,' returned Kit.
'Of course you have come back hungry?'
'Why, then, I do consider myself rather so, master,' was the answer.
The lad had a remarkable manner of standing sideways as he spoke, and
thrusting his head forward over his shoulder, as if he could not get at
his voice without that accompanying action. I think he would have
amused one anywhere, but the child's exquisite enjoyment of his oddity,
and the relief it was to find that there was something she associated
with merriment in a place that appeared so unsuited to her, were quite
irresistible. It was a great point too that Kit himself was flattered
by the sensation he created, and after several efforts to preserve his
gravity, burst into a loud roar, and so stood with his mouth wide open
and his eyes nearly shut, laughing violently.
The old man had again relapsed into his former abstraction and took no
notice of what passed, but I remarked that when her laugh was over, the
child's bright eyes were dimmed with tears, called forth by the
fullness of heart with which she welcomed her uncouth favourite after
the little anxiety of the night. As for Kit himself (whose laugh had
been all the time one of that sort which very little would change into
a cry) he carried a large slice of bread and meat and a mug of beer
into a corner, and applied himself to disposing of them with great
voracity.
'Ah!' said the old man turning to me with a sigh, as if I had spoken to
him but that moment, 'you don't know what you say when you tell me that
I don't consider her.'
'You must not attach too great weight to a remark founded on first
appearances, my friend,' said I.
'No,' returned the old man thoughtfully, 'no. Come hither, Nell.'
The little girl hastened from her seat, and put her arm about his neck.
'Do I love thee, Nell?' said he. 'Say--do I love thee, Nell, or no?'
The child only answered by her caresses, and laid her head upon his
breast.
'Why dost thou sob?' said the grandfather, pressing her closer to him
and glancing towards me. 'Is it because thou know'st I love thee, and
dost not like that I should seem to doubt it by my question? Well,
well--then let us say I love thee dearly.'
'Indeed, indeed you do,' replied the child with great earnestness, 'Kit
knows you do.'
Kit, who in despatching his bread and meat had been swallowing
two-thirds of his knife at every mouthful with the coolness of a
juggler, stopped short in his operations on being thus appealed to, and
bawled 'Nobody isn't such a fool as to say he doosn't,' after which he
incapacitated himself for further conversation by taking a most
prodigious sandwich at one bite.
'She is poor now'--said the old man, patting the child's cheek, 'but I
say again that the time is coming when she shall be rich. It has been a
long time coming, but it must come at last; a very long time, but it
surely must come. It has come to other men who do nothing but waste and
riot. When WILL it come to me!'
'I am very happy as I am, grandfather,' said the child.
'Tush, tush!' returned the old man, 'thou dost not know--how should'st
thou!' then he muttered again between his teeth, 'The time must come, I
am very sure it must. It will be all the better for coming late'; and
then he sighed and fell into his former musing state, and still holding
the child between his knees appeared to be insensible to everything
around him. By this time it wanted but a few minutes of midnight and I
rose to go, which recalled him to himself.
'One moment, sir,' he said, 'Now, Kit--near midnight, boy, and you
still here! Get home, get home, and be true to your time in the
morning, for there's work to do. Good night! There, bid him good night,
Nell, and let him be gone!'
'Good night, Kit,' said the child, her eyes lighting up with merriment
and kindness.
'Good night, Miss Nell,' returned the boy.
'And thank this gentleman,' interposed the old man, 'but for whose care
I might have lost my little girl to-night.'
'No, no, master,' said Kit, 'that won't do, that won't.'
'What do you mean?' cried the old man.
'I'd have found her, master,' said Kit, 'I'd have found her. I'll bet
that I'd find her if she was above ground, I would, as quick as
anybody, master. Ha, ha, ha!'
Once more opening his mouth and shutting his eyes, and laughing like a
stentor, Kit gradually backed to the door, and roared himself out.
Free of the room, the boy was not slow in taking his departure; when he
had gone, and the child was occupied in clearing the table, the old man
said:
'I haven't seemed to thank you, sir, for what you have done to-night,
but I do thank you humbly and heartily, and so does she, and her thanks
are better worth than mine. I should be sorry that you went away, and
thought I was unmindful of your goodness, or careless of her--I am not
indeed.'
I was sure of that, I said, from what I had seen. 'But,' I added, 'may
I ask you a question?'
'Ay, sir,' replied the old man, 'What is it?'
'This delicate child,' said I, 'with so much beauty and
intelligence--has she nobody to care for her but you? Has she no other
companion or advisor?'
'No,' he returned, looking anxiously in my face, 'no, and she wants no
other.'
'But are you not fearful,' said I, 'that you may misunderstand a charge
so tender? I am sure you mean well, but are you quite certain that you
know how to execute such a trust as this? I am an old man, like you,
and I am actuated by an old man's concern in all that is young and
promising. Do you not think that what I have seen of you and this
little creature to-night must have an interest not wholly free from
pain?'
'Sir,' rejoined the old man after a moment's silence. 'I have no right
to feel hurt at what you say. It is true that in many respects I am the
child, and she the grown person--that you have seen already. But waking
or sleeping, by night or day, in sickness or health, she is the one
object of my care, and if you knew of how much care, you would look on
me with different eyes, you would indeed. Ah! It's a weary life for an
old man--a weary, weary life--but there is a great end to gain and that
I keep before me.'
Seeing that he was in a state of excitement and impatience, I turned to
put on an outer coat which I had thrown off on entering the room,
purposing to say no more. I was surprised to see the child standing
patiently by with a cloak upon her arm, and in her hand a hat, and
stick.
'Those are not mine, my dear,' said I.
'No,' returned the child, 'they are grandfather's.'
'But he is not going out to-night.'
'Oh, yes, he is,' said the child, with a smile.
'And what becomes of you, my pretty one?'
'Me! I stay here of course. I always do.'
I looked in astonishment towards the old man, but he was, or feigned to
be, busied in the arrangement of his dress. From him I looked back to
the slight gentle figure of the child. Alone! In that gloomy place all
the long, dreary night.
She evinced no consciousness of my surprise, but cheerfully helped the
old man with his cloak, and when he was ready took a candle to light us
out. Finding that we did not follow as she expected, she looked back
with a smile and waited for us. The old man showed by his face that he
plainly understood the cause of my hesitation, but he merely signed to
me with an inclination of the head to pass out of the room before him,
and remained silent. I had no resource but to comply.
When we reached the door, the child setting down the candle, turned to
say good night and raised her face to kiss me. Then she ran to the old
man, who folded her in his arms and bade God bless her.
'Sleep soundly, Nell,' he said in a low voice, 'and angels guard thy
bed! Do not forget thy prayers, my sweet.'
'No, indeed,' answered the child fervently, 'they make me feel so
happy!'
'That's well; I know they do; they should,' said the old man. 'Bless
thee a hundred times! Early in the morning I shall be home.'
'You'll not ring twice,' returned the child. 'The bell wakes me, even
in the middle of a dream.'
With this, they separated. The child opened the door (now guarded by a
shutter which I had heard the boy put up before he left the house) and
with another farewell whose clear and tender note I have recalled a
thousand times, held it until we had passed out. The old man paused a
moment while it was gently closed and fastened on the inside, and
satisfied that this was done, walked on at a slow pace. At the
street-corner he stopped, and regarding me with a troubled countenance
said that our ways were widely different and that he must take his
leave. I would have spoken, but summoning up more alacrity than might
have been expected in one of his appearance, he hurried away. I could
see that twice or thrice he looked back as if to ascertain if I were
still watching him, or perhaps to assure himself that I was not
following at a distance. The obscurity of the night favoured his
disappearance, and his figure was soon beyond my sight.
I remained standing on the spot where he had left me, unwilling to
depart, and yet unknowing why I should loiter there. I looked wistfully
into the street we had lately quitted, and after a time directed my
steps that way. I passed and repassed the house, and stopped and
listened at the door; all was dark, and silent as the grave.
Yet I lingered about, and could not tear myself away, thinking of all
possible harm that might happen to the child--of fires and robberies
and even murder--and feeling as if some evil must ensue if I turned my
back upon the place. The closing of a door or window in the street
brought me before the curiosity-dealer's once more; I crossed the road
and looked up at the house to assure myself that the noise had not come
from there. No, it was black, cold, and lifeless as before.
There were few passengers astir; the street was sad and dismal, and
pretty well my own. A few stragglers from the theatres hurried by, and
now and then I turned aside to avoid some noisy drunkard as he reeled
homewards, but these interruptions were not frequent and soon ceased.
The clocks struck one. Still I paced up and down, promising myself that
every time should be the last, and breaking faith with myself on some
new plea as often as I did so.
The more I thought of what the old man had said, and of his looks and
bearing, the less I could account for what I had seen and heard. I had
a strong misgiving that his nightly absence was for no good purpose. I
had only come to know the fact through the innocence of the child, and
though the old man was by at the time, and saw my undisguised surprise,
he had preserved a strange mystery upon the subject and offered no word
of explanation. These reflections naturally recalled again more
strongly than before his haggard face, his wandering manner, his
restless anxious looks. His affection for the child might not be
inconsistent with villany of the worst kind; even that very affection
was in itself an extraordinary contradiction, or how could he leave her
thus? Disposed as I was to think badly of him, I never doubted that his
love for her was real. I could not admit the thought, remembering what
had passed between us, and the tone of voice in which he had called her
by her name.
'Stay here of course,' the child had said in answer to my question, 'I
always do!' What could take him from home by night, and every night! I
called up all the strange tales I had ever heard of dark and secret
deeds committed in great towns and escaping detection for a long series
of years; wild as many of these stories were, I could not find one
adapted to this mystery, which only became the more impenetrable, in
proportion as I sought to solve it.
Occupied with such thoughts as these, and a crowd of others all tending
to the same point, I continued to pace the street for two long hours;
at length the rain began to descend heavily, and then over-powered by
fatigue though no less interested than I had been at first, I engaged
the nearest coach and so got home. A cheerful fire was blazing on the
hearth, the lamp burnt brightly, my clock received me with its old
familiar welcome; everything was quiet, warm and cheering, and in happy
contrast to the gloom and darkness I had quitted.
But all that night, waking or in my sleep, the same thoughts recurred
and the same images retained possession of my brain. I had ever before
me the old dark murky rooms--the gaunt suits of mail with their ghostly
silent air--the faces all awry, grinning from wood and stone--the dust
and rust and worm that lives in wood--and alone in the midst of all
this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle
slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams.
CHAPTER 2
After combating, for nearly a week, the feeling which impelled me to
revisit the place I had quitted under the circumstances already
detailed, I yielded to it at length; and determining that this time I
would present myself by the light of day, bent my steps thither early
in the morning.
I walked past the house, and took several turns in the street, with
that kind of hesitation which is natural to a man who is conscious that
the visit he is about to pay is unexpected, and may not be very
acceptable. However, as the door of the shop was shut, and it did not
appear likely that I should be recognized by those within, if I
continued merely to pass up and down before it, I soon conquered this
irresolution, and found myself in the Curiosity Dealer's warehouse.
The old man and another person were together in the back part, and
there seemed to have been high words between them, for their voices
which were raised to a very high pitch suddenly stopped on my entering,
and the old man advancing hastily towards me, said in a tremulous tone
that he was very glad I had come.
'You interrupted us at a critical moment,' said he, pointing to the man
whom I had found in company with him; 'this fellow will murder me one
of these days. He would have done so, long ago, if he had dared.'
'Bah! You would swear away my life if you could,' returned the other,
after bestowing a stare and a frown on me; 'we all know that!'
'I almost think I could,' cried the old man, turning feebly upon him.
'If oaths, or prayers, or words, could rid me of you, they should. I
would be quit of you, and would be relieved if you were dead.'
'I know it,' returned the other. 'I said so, didn't I? But neither
oaths, or prayers, nor words, WILL kill me, and therefore I live, and
mean to live.'
'And his mother died!' cried the old man, passionately clasping his
hands and looking upward; 'and this is Heaven's justice!'
The other stood lounging with his foot upon a chair, and regarded him
with a contemptuous sneer. He was a young man of one-and-twenty or
thereabouts; well made, and certainly handsome, though the expression
of his face was far from prepossessing, having in common with his
manner and even his dress, a dissipated, insolent air which repelled
one.
'Justice or no justice,' said the young fellow, 'here I am and here I
shall stop till such time as I think fit to go, unless you send for
assistance to put me out--which you won't do, I know. I tell you again
that I want to see my sister.'
'YOUR sister!' said the old man bitterly.
'Ah! You can't change the relationship,' returned the other. 'If you
could, you'd have done it long ago. I want to see my sister, that you
keep cooped up here, poisoning her mind with your sly secrets and
pretending an affection for her that you may work her to death, and add
a few scraped shillings every week to the money you can hardly count. I
want to see her; and I will.'
'Here's a moralist to talk of poisoned minds! Here's a generous spirit
to scorn scraped-up shillings!' cried the old man, turning from him to
me. 'A profligate, sir, who has forfeited every claim not only upon
those who have the misfortune to be of his blood, but upon society
which knows nothing of him but his misdeeds. A liar too,' he added, in
a lower voice as he drew closer to me, 'who knows how dear she is to
me, and seeks to wound me even there, because there is a stranger
nearby.'
'Strangers are nothing to me, grandfather,' said the young fellow
catching at the word, 'nor I to them, I hope. The best they can do, is
to keep an eye to their business and leave me to mine. There's a friend
of mine waiting outside, and as it seems that I may have to wait some
time, I'll call him in, with your leave.'
Saying this, he stepped to the door, and looking down the street
beckoned several times to some unseen person, who, to judge from the
air of impatience with which these signals were accompanied, required a
great quantity of persuasion to induce him to advance. At length there
sauntered up, on the opposite side of the way--with a bad pretense of
passing by accident--a figure conspicuous for its dirty smartness,
which after a great many frowns and jerks of the head, in resistance of
the invitation, ultimately crossed the road and was brought into the
shop.
'There. It's Dick Swiveller,' said the young fellow, pushing him in.
'Sit down, Swiveller.'
'But is the old min agreeable?' said Mr Swiveller in an undertone.
Mr Swiveller complied, and looking about him with a propitiatory smile,
observed that last week was a fine week for the ducks, and this week
was a fine week for the dust; he also observed that whilst standing by
the post at the street-corner, he had observed a pig with a straw in
his mouth issuing out of the tobacco-shop, from which appearance he
augured that another fine week for the ducks was approaching, and that
rain would certainly ensue. He furthermore took occasion to apologize
for any negligence that might be perceptible in his dress, on the
ground that last night he had had 'the sun very strong in his eyes'; by
which expression he was understood to convey to his hearers in the most
delicate manner possible, the information that he had been extremely
drunk.
'But what,' said Mr Swiveller with a sigh, 'what is the odds so long as
the fire of soul is kindled at the taper of conwiviality, and the wing
of friendship never moults a feather! What is the odds so long as the
spirit is expanded by means of rosy wine, and the present moment is the
least happiest of our existence!'
'You needn't act the chairman here,' said his friend, half aside.
'Fred!' cried Mr Swiveller, tapping his nose, 'a word to the wise is
sufficient for them--we may be good and happy without riches, Fred.
Say not another syllable. I know my cue; smart is the word. Only one
little whisper, Fred--is the old min friendly?'
'Never you mind,' replied his friend.
'Right again, quite right,' said Mr Swiveller, 'caution is the word,
and caution is the act.' with that, he winked as if in preservation of
some deep secret, and folding his arms and leaning back in his chair,
looked up at the ceiling with profound gravity.
It was perhaps not very unreasonable to suspect from what had already
passed, that Mr Swiveller was not quite recovered from the effects of
the powerful sunlight to which he had made allusion; but if no such
suspicion had been awakened by his speech, his wiry hair, dull eyes,
and sallow face would still have been strong witnesses against him. His
attire was not, as he had himself hinted, remarkable for the nicest
arrangement, but was in a state of disorder which strongly induced the
idea that he had gone to bed in it. It consisted of a brown body-coat
with a great many brass buttons up the front and only one behind, a
bright check neckerchief, a plaid waistcoat, soiled white trousers, and
a very limp hat, worn with the wrong side foremost, to hide a hole in
the brim. The breast of his coat was ornamented with an outside pocket
from which there peeped forth the cleanest end of a very large and very
ill-favoured handkerchief; his dirty wristbands were pulled on as far
as possible and ostentatiously folded back over his cuffs; he displayed
no gloves, and carried a yellow cane having at the top a bone hand with
the semblance of a ring on its little finger and a black ball in its
grasp. With all these personal advantages (to which may be added a
strong savour of tobacco-smoke, and a prevailing greasiness of
appearance) Mr Swiveller leant back in his chair with his eyes fixed on
the ceiling, and occasionally pitching his voice to the needful key,
obliged the company with a few bars of an intensely dismal air, and
then, in the middle of a note, relapsed into his former silence.
The old man sat himself down in a chair, and with folded hands, looked
sometimes at his grandson and sometimes at his strange companion, as if
he were utterly powerless and had no resource but to leave them to do
as they pleased. The young man reclined against a table at no great
distance from his friend, in apparent indifference to everything that
had passed; and I--who felt the difficulty of any interference,
notwithstanding that the old man had appealed to me, both by words and
looks--made the best feint I could of being occupied in examining some
of the goods that were disposed for sale, and paying very little
attention to a person before me.
The silence was not of long duration, for Mr Swiveller, after favouring
us with several melodious assurances that his heart was in the
Highlands, and that he wanted but his Arab steed as a preliminary to
the achievement of great feats of valour and loyalty, removed his eyes
from the ceiling and subsided into prose again.
'Fred,' said Mr Swiveller stopping short, as if the idea had suddenly
occurred to him, and speaking in the same audible whisper as before,
'is the old min friendly?'
'What does it matter?' returned his friend peevishly.
'No, but IS he?' said Dick.
'Yes, of course. What do I care whether he is or not?'
Emboldened as it seemed by this reply to enter into a more general
conversation, Mr Swiveller plainly laid himself out to captivate our
attention.
He began by remarking that soda-water, though a good thing in the
abstract, was apt to lie cold upon the stomach unless qualified with
ginger, or a small infusion of brandy, which latter article he held to
be preferable in all cases, saving for the one consideration of
expense. Nobody venturing to dispute these positions, he proceeded to
observe that the human hair was a great retainer of tobacco-smoke, and
that the young gentlemen of Westminster and Eton, after eating vast
quantities of apples to conceal any scent of cigars from their anxious
friends, were usually detected in consequence of their heads possessing
this remarkable property; when he concluded that if the Royal Society
would turn their attention to the circumstance, and endeavour to find
in the resources of science a means of preventing such untoward
revelations, they might indeed be looked upon as benefactors to
mankind. These opinions being equally incontrovertible with those he
had already pronounced, he went on to inform us that Jamaica rum,
though unquestionably an agreeable spirit of great richness and
flavour, had the drawback of remaining constantly present to the taste
next day; and nobody being venturous enough to argue this point either,
he increased in confidence and became yet more companionable and
communicative.
'It's a devil of a thing, gentlemen,' said Mr Swiveller, 'when
relations fall out and disagree. If the wing of friendship should never
moult a feather, the wing of relationship should never be clipped, but
be always expanded and serene. Why should a grandson and grandfather
peg away at each other with mutual wiolence when all might be bliss and
concord. Why not jine hands and forgit it?'
'Hold your tongue,' said his friend.
'Sir,' replied Mr Swiveller, 'don't you interrupt the chair.
Gentlemen, how does the case stand, upon the present occasion? Here is
a jolly old grandfather--I say it with the utmost respect--and here is
a wild, young grandson. The jolly old grandfather says to the wild
young grandson, "I have brought you up and educated you, Fred; I have
put you in the way of getting on in life; you have bolted a little out
of course, as young fellows often do; and you shall never have another
chance, nor the ghost of half a one." The wild young grandson makes
answer to this and says, "You're as rich as rich can be; you have been
at no uncommon expense on my account, you're saving up piles of money
for my little sister that lives with you in a secret, stealthy,
hugger-muggering kind of way and with no manner of enjoyment--why can't
you stand a trifle for your grown-up relation?" The jolly old
grandfather unto this, retorts, not only that he declines to fork out
with that cheerful readiness which is always so agreeable and pleasant
in a gentleman of his time of life, but that he will bow up, and call
names, and make reflections whenever they meet. Then the plain question
is, an't it a pity that this state of things should continue, and how
much better would it be for the gentleman to hand over a reasonable
amount of tin, and make it all right and comfortable?'
Having delivered this oration with a great many waves and flourishes of
the hand, Mr Swiveller abruptly thrust the head of his cane into his
mouth as if to prevent himself from impairing the effect of his speech
by adding one other word.
'Why do you hunt and persecute me, God help me!' said the old man
turning to his grandson. 'Why do you bring your prolifigate companions
here? How often am I to tell you that my life is one of care and
self-denial, and that I am poor?'
'How often am I to tell you,' returned the other, looking coldly at
him, 'that I know better?'
'You have chosen your own path,' said the old man. 'Follow it. Leave
Nell and me to toil and work.'
'Nell will be a woman soon,' returned the other, 'and, bred in your
faith, she'll forget her brother unless he shows himself sometimes.'
'Take care,' said the old man with sparkling eyes, 'that she does not
forget you when you would have her memory keenest. Take care that the
day don't come when you walk barefoot in the streets, and she rides by
in a gay carriage of her own.'
'You mean when she has your money?' retorted the other. 'How like a
poor man he talks!'
'And yet,' said the old man dropping his voice and speaking like one
who thinks aloud, 'how poor we are, and what a life it is! The cause is
a young child's guiltless of all harm or wrong, but nothing goes well
with it! Hope and patience, hope and patience!'
These words were uttered in too low a tone to reach the ears of the
young men. Mr Swiveller appeared to think that they implied some mental
struggle consequent upon the powerful effect of his address, for he
poked his friend with his cane and whispered his conviction that he had
administered 'a clincher,' and that he expected a commission on the
profits. Discovering his mistake after a while, he appeared to grow
rather sleepy and discontented, and had more than once suggested the
propriety of an immediate departure, when the door opened, and the
child herself appeared.
CHAPTER 3
The child was closely followed by an elderly man of remarkably hard
features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a
dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a
giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and
chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his
complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome.
But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face was a
ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to
have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly
revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his
mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog. His dress consisted of
a large high-crowned hat, a worn dark suit, a pair of capacious shoes,
and a dirty white neckerchief sufficiently limp and crumpled to
disclose the greater portion of his wiry throat. Such hair as he had
was of a grizzled black, cut short and straight upon his temples, and
hanging in a frowzy fringe about his ears. His hands, which were of a
rough, coarse grain, were very dirty; his fingernails were crooked,
long, and yellow.
There was ample time to note these particulars, for besides that they
were sufficiently obvious without very close observation, some moments
elapsed before any one broke silence. The child advanced timidly
towards her brother and put her hand in his, the dwarf (if we may call
him so) glanced keenly at all present, and the curiosity-dealer, who
plainly had not expected his uncouth visitor, seemed disconcerted and
embarrassed.
'Ah!' said the dwarf, who with his hand stretched out above his eyes
had been surveying the young man attentively, 'that should be your
grandson, neighbour!'
'Say rather that he should not be,' replied the old man. 'But he is.'
'And that?' said the dwarf, pointing to Dick Swiveller.
'Some friend of his, as welcome here as he,' said the old man.
'And that?' inquired the dwarf, wheeling round and pointing straight at
me.
'A gentleman who was so good as to bring Nell home the other night when
she lost her way, coming from your house.'
The little man turned to the child as if to chide her or express his
wonder, but as she was talking to the young man, held his peace, and
bent his head to listen.
'Well, Nelly,' said the young fellow aloud. 'Do they teach you to hate
me, eh?'
'No, no. For shame. Oh, no!' cried the child.
'To love me, perhaps?' pursued her brother with a sneer.
'To do neither,' she returned. 'They never speak to me about you.
Indeed they never do.'
'I dare be bound for that,' he said, darting a bitter look at the
grandfather. 'I dare be bound for that Nell. Oh! I believe you there!'
'But I love you dearly, Fred,' said the child.
'No doubt!'
'I do indeed, and always will,' the child repeated with great emotion,
'but oh! If you would leave off vexing him and making him unhappy, then
I could love you more.'
'I see!' said the young man, as he stooped carelessly over the child,
and having kissed her, pushed her from him: 'There--get you away now
you have said your lesson. You needn't whimper. We part good friends
enough, if that's the matter.'
He remained silent, following her with his eyes, until she had gained
her little room and closed the door; and then turning to the dwarf,
said abruptly,
'Harkee, Mr--'
'Meaning me?' returned the dwarf. 'Quilp is my name. You might
remember. It's not a long one--Daniel Quilp.'
'Harkee, Mr Quilp, then,' pursued the other, 'You have some influence
with my grandfather there.'
'Some,' said Mr Quilp emphatically.
'And are in a few of his mysteries and secrets.'
'A few,' replied Quilp, with equal dryness.
'Then let me tell him once for all, through you, that I will come into
and go out of this place as often as I like, so long as he keeps Nell
here; and that if he wants to be quit of me, he must first be quit of
her. What have I done to be made a bugbear of, and to be shunned and
dreaded as if I brought the plague? He'll tell you that I have no
natural affection; and that I care no more for Nell, for her own sake,
than I do for him. Let him say so. I care for the whim, then, of coming
to and fro and reminding her of my existence. I WILL see her when I
please. That's my point. I came here to-day to maintain it, and I'll
come here again fifty times with the same object and always with the
same success. I said I would stop till I had gained it. I have done
so, and now my visit's ended. Come Dick.'
'Stop!' cried Mr Swiveller, as his companion turned toward the door.
'Sir!'
'Sir, I am your humble servant,' said Mr Quilp, to whom the
monosyllable was addressed.
'Before I leave the gay and festive scene, and halls of dazzling light,
sir,' said Mr Swiveller, 'I will with your permission, attempt a slight
remark. I came here, sir, this day, under the impression that the old
min was friendly.'
'Proceed, sir,' said Daniel Quilp; for the orator had made a sudden
stop.
'Inspired by this idea and the sentiments it awakened, sir, and feeling
as a mutual friend that badgering, baiting, and bullying, was not the
sort of thing calculated to expand the souls and promote the social
harmony of the contending parties, I took upon myself to suggest a
course which is THE course to be adopted to the present occasion. Will
you allow me to whisper half a syllable, sir?'
Without waiting for the permission he sought, Mr Swiveller stepped up
to the dwarf, and leaning on his shoulder and stooping down to get at
his ear, said in a voice which was perfectly audible to all present,
'The watch-word to the old min is--fork.'
'Is what?' demanded Quilp.
'Is fork, sir, fork,' replied Mr Swiveller slapping his pocket. 'You
are awake, sir?'
The dwarf nodded. Mr Swiveller drew back and nodded likewise, then drew
a little further back and nodded again, and so on. By these means he in
time reached the door, where he gave a great cough to attract the
dwarf's attention and gain an opportunity of expressing in dumb show,
the closest confidence and most inviolable secrecy. Having performed
the serious pantomime that was necessary for the due conveyance of
these idea, he cast himself upon his friend's track, and vanished.
'Humph!' said the dwarf with a sour look and a shrug of his shoulders,
'so much for dear relations. Thank God I acknowledge none! Nor need you
either,' he added, turning to the old man, 'if you were not as weak as
a reed, and nearly as senseless.'
'What would you have me do?' he retorted in a kind of helpless
desperation. 'It is easy to talk and sneer. What would you have me do?'
'What would I do if I was in your case?' said the dwarf.
'Something violent, no doubt.'
'You're right there,' returned the little man, highly gratified by the
compliment, for such he evidently considered it; and grinning like a
devil as he rubbed his dirty hands together. 'Ask Mrs Quilp, pretty Mrs
Quilp, obedient, timid, loving Mrs Quilp. But that reminds me--I have
left her all alone, and she will be anxious and know not a moment's
peace till I return. I know she's always in that condition when I'm
away, thought she doesn't dare to say so, unless I lead her on and tell
her she may speak freely and I won't be angry with her. Oh!
well-trained Mrs Quilp.'
The creature appeared quite horrible with his monstrous head and little
body, as he rubbed his hands slowly round, and round, and round
again--with something fantastic even in his manner of performing this
slight action--and, dropping his shaggy brows and cocking his chin in
the air, glanced upward with a stealthy look of exultation that an imp
might have copied and appropriated to himself.
'Here,' he said, putting his hand into his breast and sidling up to the
old man as he spoke; 'I brought it myself for fear of accidents, as,
being in gold, it was something large and heavy for Nell to carry in
her bag. She need be accustomed to such loads betimes though,
neighbor, for she will carry weight when you are dead.'
'Heaven send she may! I hope so,' said the old man with something like
a groan.
'Hope so!' echoed the dwarf, approaching close to his ear; 'neighbour,
I would I knew in what good investment all these supplies are sunk. But
you are a deep man, and keep your secret close.'
'My secret!' said the other with a haggard look. 'Yes, you're
right--I--I--keep it close--very close.'
He said no more, but taking the money turned away with a slow,
uncertain step, and pressed his hand upon his head like a weary and
dejected man. The dwarf watched him sharply, while he passed into the
little sitting-room and locked it in an iron safe above the
chimney-piece; and after musing for a short space, prepared to take his
leave, observing that unless he made good haste, Mrs Quilp would
certainly be in fits on his return.
'And so, neighbour,' he added, 'I'll turn my face homewards, leaving my
love for Nelly and hoping she may never lose her way again, though her
doing so HAS procured me an honour I didn't expect.' With that he bowed
and leered at me, and with a keen glance around which seemed to
comprehend every object within his range of vision, however, small or
trivial, went his way.
I had several times essayed to go myself, but the old man had always
opposed it and entreated me to remain. As he renewed his entreaties on
our being left along, and adverted with many thanks to the former
occasion of our being together, I willingly yielded to his persuasions,
and sat down, pretending to examine some curious miniatures and a few
old medals which he placed before me. It needed no great pressing to
induce me to stay, for if my curiosity has been excited on the occasion
of my first visit, it certainly was not diminished now.
Nell joined us before long, and bringing some needle-work to the table,
sat by the old man's side. It was pleasant to observe the fresh flowers
in the room, the pet bird with a green bough shading his little cage,
the breath of freshness and youth which seemed to rustle through the
old dull house and hover round the child. It was curious, but not so
pleasant, to turn from the beauty and grace of the girl, to the
stooping figure, care-worn face, and jaded aspect of the old man. As
he grew weaker and more feeble, what would become of this lonely little
creature; poor protector as he was, say that he died--what would be her
fate, then?
The old man almost answered my thoughts, as he laid his hand on hers,
and spoke aloud.
'I'll be of better cheer, Nell,' he said; 'there must be good fortune
in store for thee--I do not ask it for myself, but thee. Such miseries
must fall on thy innocent head without it, that I cannot believe but
that, being tempted, it will come at last!'
She looked cheerfully into his face, but made no answer.
'When I think,' said he, 'of the many years--many in thy short
life--that thou has lived with me; of my monotonous existence, knowing
no companions of thy own age nor any childish pleasures; of the
solitude in which thou has grown to be what thou art, and in which thou
hast lived apart from nearly all thy kind but one old man; I sometimes
fear I have dealt hardly by thee, Nell.'
'Grandfather!' cried the child in unfeigned surprise.
'Not in intention--no no,' said he. 'I have ever looked forward to the
time that should enable thee to mix among the gayest and prettiest, and
take thy station with the best. But I still look forward, Nell, I still
look forward, and if I should be forced to leave thee, meanwhile, how
have I fitted thee for struggles with the world? The poor bird yonder
is as well qualified to encounter it, and be turned adrift upon its
mercies--Hark! I hear Kit outside. Go to him, Nell, go to him.'
She rose, and hurrying away, stopped, turned back, and put her arms
about the old man's neck, then left him and hurried away again--but
faster this time, to hide her falling tears.
'A word in your ear, sir,' said the old man in a hurried whisper. 'I
have been rendered uneasy by what you said the other night, and can
only plead that I have done all for the best--that it is too late to
retract, if I could (though I cannot)--and that I hope to triumph yet.
All is for her sake. I have borne great poverty myself, and would spare
her the sufferings that poverty carries with it. I would spare her the
miseries that brought her mother, my own dear child, to an early grave.
I would leave her--not with resources which could be easily spent or
squandered away, but with what would place her beyond the reach of want
for ever. You mark me sir? She shall have no pittance, but a
fortune--Hush! I can say no more than that, now or at any other time,
and she is here again!'
The eagerness with which all this was poured into my ear, the trembling
of the hand with which he clasped my arm, the strained and starting
eyes he fixed upon me, the wild vehemence and agitation of his manner,
filled me with amazement. All that I had heard and seen, and a great
part of what he had said himself, led me to suppose that he was a
wealthy man. I could form no comprehension of his character, unless he
were one of those miserable wretches who, having made gain the sole end
and object of their lives and having succeeded in amassing great
riches, are constantly tortured by the dread of poverty, and beset by
fears of loss and ruin. Many things he had said which I had been at a
loss to understand, were quite reconcilable with the idea thus
presented to me, and at length I concluded that beyond all doubt he was
one of this unhappy race.
The opinion was not the result of hasty consideration, for which indeed
there was no opportunity at that time, as the child came directly, and
soon occupied herself in preparations for giving Kit a writing lesson,
of which it seemed he had a couple every week, and one regularly on
that evening, to the great mirth and enjoyment both of himself and his
instructress. To relate how it was a long time before his modesty could
be so far prevailed upon as it admit of his sitting down in the
parlour, in the presence of an unknown gentleman--how, when he did set
down, he tucked up his sleeves and squared his elbows and put his face
close to the copy-book and squinted horribly at the lines--how, from
the very first moment of having the pen in his hand, he began to wallow
in blots, and to daub himself with ink up to the very roots of his
hair--how, if he did by accident form a letter properly, he immediately
smeared it out again with his arm in his preparations to make
another--how, at every fresh mistake, there was a fresh burst of
merriment from the child and louder and not less hearty laugh from poor
Kit himself--and how there was all the way through, notwithstanding, a
gentle wish on her part to teach, and an anxious desire on his to
learn--to relate all these particulars would no doubt occupy more space
and time than they deserve. It will be sufficient to say that the
lesson was given--that evening passed and night came on--that the old
man again grew restless and impatient--that he quitted the house
secretly at the same hour as before--and that the child was once more
left alone within its gloomy walls.
And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and
introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience
of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those
who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for
themselves.
CHAPTER 4
Mr and Mrs Quilp resided on Tower Hill; and in her bower on Tower Hill
Mrs Quilp was left to pine the absence of her lord, when he quitted her
on the business which he had already seen to transact.
Mr Quilp could scarcely be said to be of any particular trade or
calling, though his pursuits were diversified and his occupations
numerous. He collected the rents of whole colonies of filthy streets
and alleys by the waterside, advanced money to the seamen and petty
officers of merchant vessels, had a share in the ventures of divers
mates of East Indiamen, smoked his smuggled cigars under the very nose
of the Custom House, and made appointments on 'Change with men in
glazed hats and round jackets pretty well every day. On the Surrey side
of the river was a small rat-infested dreary yard called 'Quilp's
Wharf,' in which were a little wooden counting-house burrowing all awry
in the dust as if it had fallen from the clouds and ploughed into the
ground; a few fragments of rusty anchors; several large iron rings;
some piles of rotten wood; and two or three heaps of old sheet copper,
crumpled, cracked, and battered. On Quilp's Wharf, Daniel Quilp was a
ship-breaker, yet to judge from these appearances he must either have
been a ship-breaker on a very small scale, or have broken his ships up
very small indeed. Neither did the place present any extraordinary
aspect of life or activity, as its only human occupant was an
amphibious boy in a canvas suit, whose sole change of occupation was
from sitting on the head of a pile and throwing stones into the mud
when the tide was out, to standing with his hands in his pockets gazing
listlessly on the motion and on the bustle of the river at high-water.
The dwarf's lodging on Tower hill comprised, besides the needful
accommodation for himself and Mrs Quilp, a small sleeping-closet for
that lady's mother, who resided with the couple and waged perpetual war
with Daniel; of whom, notwithstanding, she stood in no slight dread.
Indeed, the ugly creature contrived by some means or other--whether by
his ugliness or his ferocity or his natural cunning is no great
matter--to impress with a wholesome fear of his anger, most of those
with whom he was brought into daily contact and communication. Over
nobody had he such complete ascendance as Mrs Quilp herself--a pretty
little, mild-spoken, blue-eyed woman, who having allied herself in
wedlock to the dwarf in one of those strange infatuations of which
examples are by no means scarce, performed a sound practical penance
for her folly, every day of her life.
It has been said that Mrs Quilp was pining in her bower. In her bower
she was, but not alone, for besides the old lady her mother of whom
mention has recently been made, there were present some half-dozen
ladies of the neighborhood who had happened by a strange accident (and
also by a little understanding among themselves) to drop in one after
another, just about tea-time. This being a season favourable to
conversation, and the room being a cool, shady, lazy kind of place,
with some plants at the open window shutting out the dust, and
interposing pleasantly enough between the tea table within and the old
Tower without, it is no wonder that the ladies felt an inclination to
talk and linger, especially when there are taken into account the
additional inducements of fresh butter, new bread, shrimps, and
watercresses.
Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was
extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of
mankind to tyrannize over the weaker sex, and the duty that developed
upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and
dignity. It was natural for four reasons: firstly, because Mrs Quilp
being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband
ought to be excited to rebel; secondly, because Mrs Quilp's parent was
known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist
male authority; thirdly, because each visitor wished to show for
herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her
sex; and fourthly, because the company being accustomed to scandalise
each other in pairs, were deprived of their usual subject of
conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and
had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.
Moved by these considerations, a stout lady opened the proceedings by
inquiring, with an air of great concern and sympathy, how Mr Quilp was;
whereunto Mr Quilp's wife's mother replied sharply, 'Oh! He was well
enough--nothing much was every the matter with him--and ill weeds were
sure to thrive.' All the ladies then sighed in concert, shook their
heads gravely, and looked at Mrs Quilp as a martyr.
'Ah!' said the spokeswoman, 'I wish you'd give her a little of your
advice, Mrs Jiniwin'--Mrs Quilp had been a Miss Jiniwin it should be
observed--'nobody knows better than you, ma'am, what us women owe to
ourselves.'
'Owe indeed, ma'am!' replied Mrs Jiniwin. 'When my poor husband, her
dear father, was alive, if he had ever ventured a cross word to me, I'd
have--' The good old lady did not finish the sentence, but she twisted
off the head of a shrimp with a vindictiveness which seemed to imply
that the action was in some degree a substitute for words. In this
light it was clearly understood by the other party, who immediately
replied with great approbation, 'You quite enter into my feelings,
ma'am, and it's jist what I'd do myself.'
'But you have no call to do it,' said Mrs Jiniwin. 'Luckily for you,
you have no more occasion to do it than I had.'
'No woman need have, if she was true to herself,' rejoined the stout
lady.
'Do you hear that, Betsy?' said Mrs Jiniwin, in a warning voice. 'How
often have I said the same words to you, and almost gone down my knees
when I spoke 'em!'
Poor Mrs Quilp, who had looked in a state of helplessness from one face
of condolence to another, coloured, smiled, and shook her head
doubtfully. This was the signal for a general clamour, which beginning
in a low murmur gradually swelled into a great noise in which everybody
spoke at once, and all said that she being a young woman had no right
to set up her opinions against the experiences of those who knew so
much better; that it was very wrong of her not to take the advice of
people who had nothing at heart but her good; that it was next door to
being downright ungrateful to conduct herself in that manner; that if
she had no respect for herself she ought to have some for other women,
all of whom she compromised by her meekness; and that if she had no
respect for other women, the time would come when other women would
have no respect for her; and she would be very sorry for that, they
could tell her. Having dealt out these admonitions, the ladies fell to
a more powerful assault than they had yet made upon the mixed tea, new
bread, fresh butter, shrimps, and watercresses, and said that their
vexation was so great to see her going on like that, that they could
hardly bring themselves to eat a single morsel.
It's all very fine to talk,' said Mrs Quilp with much simplicity, 'but
I know that if I was to die to-morrow, Quilp could marry anybody he
pleased--now that he could, I know!'
There was quite a scream of indignation at this idea. Marry whom he
pleased! They would like to see him dare to think of marrying any of
them; they would like to see the faintest approach to such a thing.
One lady (a widow) was quite certain she should stab him if he hinted
at it.
'Very well,' said Mrs Quilp, nodding her head, 'as I said just now,
it's very easy to talk, but I say again that I know--that I'm
sure--Quilp has such a way with him when he likes, that the best
looking woman here couldn't refuse him if I was dead, and she was free,
and he chose to make love to her. Come!'
Everybody bridled up at this remark, as much as to say, 'I know you
mean me. Let him try--that's all.' and yet for some hidden reason they
were all angry with the widow, and each lady whispered in her
neighbour's ear that it was very plain that said widow thought herself
the person referred to, and what a puss she was!
'Mother knows,' said Mrs Quilp, 'that what I say is quite correct, for
she often said so before we were married. Didn't you say so, mother?'
This inquiry involved the respected lady in rather a delicate position,
for she certainly had been an active party in making her daughter Mrs
Quilp, and, besides, it was not supporting the family credit to
encourage the idea that she had married a man whom nobody else would
have. On the other hand, to exaggerate the captivating qualities of her
son-in-law would be to weaken the cause of revolt, in which all her
energies were deeply engaged. Beset by these opposing considerations,
Mrs Jiniwin admitted the powers of insinuation, but denied the right to
govern, and with a timely compliment to the stout lady brought back the
discussion to the point from which it had strayed.
'Oh! It's a sensible and proper thing indeed, what Mrs George has
said!' exclaimed the old lady. 'If women are only true to
themselves!--But Betsy isn't, and more's the shame and pity.'
'Before I'd let a man order me about as Quilp orders her,' said Mrs
George, 'before I'd consent to stand in awe of a man as she does of
him, I'd--I'd kill myself, and write a letter first to say he did it!'
This remark being loudly commended and approved of, another lady (from
the Minories) put in her word:
'Mr Quilp may be a very nice man,' said this lady, 'and I supposed
there's no doubt he is, because Mrs Quilp says he is, and Mrs Jiniwin
says he is, and they ought to know, or nobody does. But still he is not
quite a--what one calls a handsome man, nor quite a young man neither,
which might be a little excuse for him if anything could be; whereas
his wife is young, and is good-looking, and is a woman--which is the
greatest thing after all.'
This last clause being delivered with extraordinary pathos, elicited a
corresponding murmer from the hearers, stimulated by which the lady
went on to remark that if such a husband was cross and unreasonable
with such a wife, then--
'If he is!' interposed the mother, putting down her tea-cup and
brushing the crumbs out of her lap, preparatory to making a solemn
declaration. 'If he is! He is the greatest tyrant that every lived, she
daren't call her soul her own, he makes her tremble with a word and
even with a look, he frightens her to death, and she hasn't the spirit
to give him a word back, no, not a single word.'
Notwithstanding that the fact had been notorious beforehand to all the
tea-drinkers, and had been discussed and expatiated on at every
tea-drinking in the neighbourhood for the last twelve months, this
official communication was no sooner made than they all began to talk
at once and to vie with each other in vehemence and volubility. Mrs
George remarked that people would talk, that people had often said this
to her before, that Mrs Simmons then and there present had told her so
twenty times, that she had always said, 'No, Henrietta Simmons, unless
I see it with my own eyes and hear it with my own ears, I never will
believe it.' Mrs Simmons corroborated this testimony and added strong
evidence of her own. The lady from the Minories recounted a successful
course of treatment under which she had placed her own husband, who,
from manifesting one month after marriage unequivocal symptoms of the
tiger, had by this means become subdued into a perfect lamb. Another
lady recounted her own personal struggle and final triumph, in the
course whereof she had found it necessary to call in her mother and two
aunts, and to weep incessantly night and day for six weeks. A third,
who in the general confusion could secure no other listener, fastened
herself upon a young woman still unmarried who happened to be amongst
them, and conjured her, as she valued her own peace of mind and
happiness to profit by this solemn occasion, to take example from the
weakness of Mrs Quilp, and from that time forth to direct her whole
thoughts to taming and subduing the rebellious spirit of man. The noise
was at its height, and half the company had elevated their voices into
a perfect shriek in order to drown the voices of the other half, when
Mrs Jiniwin was seen to change colour and shake her forefinger
stealthily, as if exhorting them to silence. Then, and not until then,
Daniel Quilp himself, the cause and occasion of all this clamour, was
observed to be in the room, looking on and listening with profound
attention.
'Go on, ladies, go on,' said Daniel. 'Mrs Quilp, pray ask the ladies to
stop to supper, and have a couple of lobsters and something light and
palatable.'
'I--I--didn't ask them to tea, Quilp,' stammered his wife. 'It's quite
an accident.'
'So much the better, Mrs Quilp; these accidental parties are always the
pleasantest,' said the dwarf, rubbing his hands so hard that he seemed
to be engaged in manufacturing, of the dirt with which they were
encrusted, little charges for popguns. 'What! Not going, ladies, you
are not going, surely!'
His fair enemies tossed their heads slightly as they sought their
respective bonnets and shawls, but left all verbal contention to Mrs
Jiniwin, who finding herself in the position of champion, made a faint
struggle to sustain the character.
'And why not stop to supper, Quilp,' said the old lady, 'if my daughter
had a mind?'
'To be sure,' rejoined Daniel. 'Why not?'
'There's nothing dishonest or wrong in a supper, I hope?' said Mrs
Jiniwin.
'Surely not,' returned the dwarf. 'Why should there be? Nor anything
unwholesome, either, unless there's lobster-salad or prawns, which I'm
told are not good for digestion.'
'And you wouldn't like your wife to be attacked with that, or anything
else that would make her uneasy would you?' said Mrs Jiniwin.
'Not for a score of worlds,' replied the dwarf with a grin. 'Not even
to have a score of mothers-in-law at the same time--and what a blessing
that would be!'
'My daughter's your wife, Mr Quilp, certainly,' said the old lady with
a giggle, meant for satirical and to imply that he needed to be
reminded of the fact; 'your wedded wife.'
'So she is, certainly. So she is,' observed the dwarf.
'And she has a right to do as she likes, I hope, Quilp,' said the
old lady trembling, partly with anger and partly with a secret fear of
her impish son-in-law.
'Hope she has!' he replied. 'Oh! Don't you know she has? Don't you know
she has, Mrs Jiniwin?
'I know she ought to have, Quilp, and would have, if she was of my way
of thinking.'
'Why an't you of your mother's way of thinking, my dear?' said the
dwarf, turing round and addressing his wife, 'why don't you always
imitate your mother, my dear? She's the ornament of her sex--your
father said so every day of his life. I am sure he did.'
'Her father was a blessed creetur, Quilp, and worthy twenty thousand of
some people,' said Mrs Jiniwin; 'twenty hundred million thousand.'
'I should like to have known him,' remarked the dwarf. 'I dare say he
was a blessed creature then; but I'm sure he is now. It was a happy
release. I believe he had suffered a long time?'
The old lady gave a gasp, but nothing came of it; Quilp resumed, with
the same malice in his eye and the same sarcastic politeness on his
tongue.
'You look ill, Mrs Jiniwin; I know you have been exciting yourself too
much--talking perhaps, for it is your weakness. Go to bed. Do go to
bed.'
'I shall go when I please, Quilp, and not before.'
'But please to do now. Do please to go now,' said the dwarf.
The old woman looked angrily at him, but retreated as he advanced, and
falling back before him, suffered him to shut the door upon her and
bolt her out among the guests, who were by this time crowding
downstairs. Being left along with his wife, who sat trembling in a
corner with her eyes fixed upon the ground, the little man planted
himself before her, and folding his arms looked steadily at her for a
long time without speaking.
'Mrs Quilp,' he said at last.
'Yes, Quilp,' she replead meekly.
Instead of pursuing the theme he had in his mind, Quilp folded his arms
again, and looked at her more sternly than before, while she averted
her eyes and kept them on the ground.
'Mrs Quilp.'
'Yes, Quilp.'
'If ever you listen to these beldames again, I'll bite you.'
With this laconic threat, which he accompanied with a snarl that gave
him the appearance of being particularly in earnest, Mr Quilp bade her
clear the teaboard away, and bring the rum. The spirit being set before
him in a huge case-bottle, which had originally come out of some ship's
locker, he settled himself in an arm-chair with his large head and face
squeezed up against the back, and his little legs planted on the table.
'Now, Mrs Quilp,' he said; 'I feel in a smoking humour, and shall
probably blaze away all night. But sit where you are, if you please, in
case I want you.'
His wife returned no other reply than the necessary 'Yes, Quilp,' and
the small lord of the creation took his first cigar and mixed his first
glass of grog. The sun went down and the stars peeped out, the Tower
turned from its own proper colours to grey and from grey to black, the
room became perfectly dark and the end of the cigar a deep fiery red,
but still Mr Quilp went on smoking and drinking in the same position,
and staring listlessly out of window with the doglike smile always on
his face, save when Mrs Quilp made some involuntary movement of
restlessness or fatigue; and then it expanded into a grin of delight.
CHAPTER 5
Whether Mr Quilp took any sleep by snatches of a few winks at a time,
or whether he sat with his eyes wide open all night long, certain it is
that he kept his cigar alight, and kindled every fresh one from the
ashes of that which was nearly consumed, without requiring the
assistance of a candle. Nor did the striking of the clocks, hour after
hour, appear to inspire him with any sense of drowsiness or any natural
desire to go to rest, but rather to increase his wakefulness, which he
showed, at every such indication of the progress of the night, by a
suppressed cackling in his throat, and a motion of his shoulders, like
one who laughs heartily but the same time slyly and by stealth.
At length the day broke, and poor Mrs Quilp, shivering with cold of
early morning and harassed by fatigue and want of sleep, was discovered
sitting patiently on her chair, raising her eyes at intervals in mute
appeal to the compassion and clemency of her lord, and gently reminding
him by an occasion cough that she was still unpardoned and that her
penance had been of long duration. But her dwarfish spouse still smoked
his cigar and drank his rum without heeding her; and it was not until
the sun had some time risen, and the activity and noise of city day
were rife in the street, that he deigned to recognize her presence by
any word or sign. He might not have done so even then, but for certain
impatient tapping at the door he seemed to denote that some pretty hard
knuckles were actively engaged upon the other side.
'Why dear me!' he said looking round with a malicious grin, 'it's day.
Open the door, sweet Mrs Quilp!'
His obedient wife withdrew the bolt, and her lady mother entered.
Now, Mrs Jiniwin bounced into the room with great impetuosity; for,
supposing her son-in-law to be still a-bed, she had come to relieve her
feelings by pronouncing a strong opinion upon his general conduct and
character. Seeing that he was up and dressed, and that the room
appeared to have been occupied ever since she quitted it on the
previous evening, she stopped short, in some embarrassment.
Nothing escaped the hawk's eye of the ugly little man, who, perfectly
understanding what passed in the old lady's mind, turned uglier still
in the fulness of his satisfaction, and bade her good morning, with a
leer or triumph.
'Why, Betsy,' said the old woman, 'you haven't been--you don't mean to
say you've been a--'
'Sitting up all night?' said Quilp, supplying the conclusion of the
sentence. 'Yes she has!'
'All night?' cried Mrs Jiniwin.
'Ay, all night. Is the dear old lady deaf?' said Quilp, with a smile of
which a frown was part. 'Who says man and wife are bad company? Ha ha!
The time has flown.'
'You're a brute!' exclaimed Mrs Jiniwin.
'Come come,' said Quilp, wilfully misunderstanding her, of course, 'you
mustn't call her names. She's married now, you know. And though she did
beguile the time and keep me from my bed, you must not be so tenderly
careful of me as to be out of humour with her. Bless you for a dear
old lady. Here's to your health!'
'I am much obliged to you,' returned the old woman, testifying by a
certain restlessness in her hands a vehement desire to shake her
matronly fist at her son-in-law. 'Oh! I'm very much obliged to you!'
'Grateful soul!' cried the dwarf. 'Mrs Quilp.'
'Yes, Quilp,' said the timid sufferer.
'Help your mother to get breakfast, Mrs Quilp. I am going to the wharf
this morning--the earlier the better, so be quick.'
Mrs Jiniwin made a faint demonstration of rebellion by sitting down in
a chair near the door and folding her arms as if in a resolute
determination to do nothing. But a few whispered words from her
daughter, and a kind inquiry from her son-in-law whether she felt
faint, with a hint that there was abundance of cold water in the next
apartment, routed these symptoms effectually, and she applied herself
to the prescribed preparations with sullen diligence.
While they were in progress, Mr Quilp withdrew to the adjoining room,
and, turning back his coat-collar, proceeded to smear his countenance
with a damp towel of very unwholesome appearance, which made his
complexion rather more cloudy than it was before. But, while he was
thus engaged, his caution and inquisitiveness did not forsake him, for
with a face as sharp and cunning as ever, he often stopped, even in
this short process, and stood listening for any conversation in the
next room, of which he might be the theme.
'Ah!' he said after a short effort of attention, 'it was not the towel
over my ears, I thought it wasn't. I'm a little hunchy villain and a
monster, am I, Mrs Jiniwin? Oh!'
The pleasure of this discovery called up the old doglike smile in full
force. When he had quite done with it, he shook himself in a very
doglike manner, and rejoined the ladies.
Mr Quilp now walked up to front of a looking-glass, and was standing
there putting on his neckerchief, when Mrs Jiniwin happening to be
behind him, could not resist the inclination she felt to shake her fist
at her tyrant son-in-law. It was the gesture of an instant, but as she
did so and accompanied the action with a menacing look, she met his eye
in the glass, catching her in the very act. The same glance at the
mirror conveyed to her the reflection of a horribly grotesque and
distorted face with the tongue lolling out; and the next instant the
dwarf, turning about with a perfectly bland and placid look, inquired
in a tone of great affection.
'How are you now, my dear old darling?'
Slight and ridiculous as the incident was, it made him appear such a
little fiend, and withal such a keen and knowing one, that the old
woman felt too much afraid of him to utter a single word, and suffered
herself to be led with extraordinary politeness to the breakfast-table.
Here he by no means diminished the impression he had just produced, for
he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the
heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time
and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking,
bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so
many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened
out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human
creature. At last, having gone through these proceedings and many
others which were equally a part of his system, Mr Quilp left them,
reduced to a very obedient and humbled state, and betook himself to the
river-side, where he took boat for the wharf on which he had bestowed
his name.
It was flood tide when Daniel Quilp sat himself down in the ferry to
cross to the opposite shore. A fleet of barges were coming lazily on,
some sideways, some head first, some stern first; all in a
wrong-headed, dogged, obstinate way, bumping up against the larger
craft, running under the bows of steamboats, getting into every kind of
nook and corner where they had no business, and being crunched on all
sides like so many walnut-shells; while each with its pair of long
sweeps struggling and splashing in the water looked like some lumbering
fish in pain. In some of the vessels at anchor all hands were busily
engaged in coiling ropes, spreading out sails to dry, taking in or
discharging their cargoes; in others no life was visible but two or
three tarry boys, and perhaps a barking dog running to and fro upon the
deck or scrambling up to look over the side and bark the louder for the
view. Coming slowly on through the forests of masts was a great
steamship, beating the water in short impatient strokes with her heavy
paddles as though she wanted room to breathe, and advancing in her huge
bulk like a sea monster among the minnows of the Thames. On either hand
were long black tiers of colliers; between them vessels slowly working
out of harbour with sails glistening in the sun, and creaking noise on
board, re-echoed from a hundred quarters. The water and all upon it was
in active motion, dancing and buoyant and bubbling up; while the old
grey Tower and piles of building on the shore, with many a church-spire
shooting up between, looked coldly on, and seemed to disdain their
chafing, restless neighbour.
Daniel Quilp, who was not much affected by a bright morning save in so
far as it spared him the trouble of carrying an umbrella, caused
himself to be put ashore hard by the wharf, and proceeded thither
through a narrow lane which, partaking of the amphibious character of
its frequenters, had as much water as mud in its composition, and a
very liberal supply of both. Arrived at his destination, the first
object that presented itself to his view was a pair of very imperfectly
shod feet elevated in the air with the soles upwards, which remarkable
appearance was referable to the boy, who being of an eccentric spirit
and having a natural taste for tumbling, was now standing on his head
and contemplating the aspect of the river under these uncommon
circumstances. He was speedily brought on his heels by the sound of his
master's voice, and as soon as his head was in its right position, Mr
Quilp, to speak expressively in the absence of a better verb, 'punched
it' for him.
'Come, you let me alone,' said the boy, parrying Quilp's hand with both
his elbows alternatively. 'You'll get something you won't like if you
don't and so I tell you.'
'You dog,' snarled Quilp, 'I'll beat you with an iron rod, I'll scratch
you with a rusty nail, I'll pinch your eyes, if you talk to me--I will.'
With these threats he clenched his hand again, and dexterously diving
in between the elbows and catching the boy's head as it dodged from
side to side, gave it three or four good hard knocks. Having now
carried his point and insisted on it, he left off.
'You won't do it agin,' said the boy, nodding his head and drawing
back, with the elbows ready in case of the worst; 'now--'
'Stand still, you dog,' said Quilp. 'I won't do it again, because I've
done it as often as I want. Here. Take the key.'
'Why don't you hit one of your size?' said the boy approaching very
slowly.
'Where is there one of my size, you dog?' returned Quilp. 'Take the
key, or I'll brain you with it'--indeed he gave him a smart tap with
the handle as he spoke. 'Now, open the counting-house.'
The boy sulkily complied, muttering at first, but desisting when he
looked round and saw that Quilp was following him with a steady look.
And here it may be remarked, that between this boy and the dwarf there
existed a strange kind of mutual liking. How born or bred, and or
nourished upon blows and threats on one side, and retorts and defiances
on the other, is not to the purpose. Quilp would certainly suffer
nobody to contract him but the boy, and the boy would assuredly not
have submitted to be so knocked about by anybody but Quilp, when he had
the power to run away at any time he chose.
'Now,' said Quilp, passing into the wooden counting-house, 'you mind
the wharf. Stand upon your head agin, and I'll cut one of your feet
off.'
The boy made no answer, but directly Quilp had shut himself in, stood
on his head before the door, then walked on his hands to the back and
stood on his head there, and then to the opposite side and repeated the
performance. There were indeed four sides to the counting-house, but he
avoided that one where the window was, deeming it probable that Quilp
would be looking out of it. This was prudent, for in point of fact, the
dwarf, knowing his disposition, was lying in wait at a little distance
from the sash armed with a large piece of wood, which, being rough and
jagged and studded in many parts with broken nails, might possibly have
hurt him.
It was a dirty little box, this counting-house, with nothing in it but
an old ricketty desk and two stools, a hat-peg, an ancient almanack, an
inkstand with no ink, and the stump of one pen, and an eight-day clock
which hadn't gone for eighteen years at least, and of which the
minute-hand had been twisted off for a tooth-pick. Daniel Quilp pulled
his hat over his brows, climbed on to the desk (which had a flat top)
and stretching his short length upon it went to sleep with ease of an
old practitioner; intending, no doubt, to compensate himself for the
deprivation of last night's rest, by a long and sound nap.
Sound it might have been, but long it was not, for he had not been
asleep a quarter of an hour when the boy opened the door and thrust in
his head, which was like a bundle of badly-picked oakum. Quilp was a
light sleeper and started up directly.
'Here's somebody for you,' said the boy.
'Who?'
'I don't know.'
'Ask!' said Quilp, seizing the trifle of wood before mentioned and
throwing it at him with such dexterity that it was well the boy
disappeared before it reached the spot on which he had stood. 'Ask, you
dog.'
Not caring to venture within range of such missles again, the boy
discreetly sent in his stead the first cause of the interruption, who
now presented herself at the door.
'What, Nelly!' cried Quilp.
'Yes,' said the child, hesitating whether to enter or retreat, for the
dwarf just roused, with his dishevelled hair hanging all about him and
a yellow handkerchief over his head, was something fearful to behold;
it's only me, sir.'
'Come in,' said Quilp, without getting off the desk. 'Come in. Stay.
Just look out into the yard, and see whether there's a boy standing on
his head.'
'No, sir,' replied Nell. 'He's on his feet.'
'You're sure he is?' said Quilp. 'Well. Now, come in and shut the door.
What's your message, Nelly?'
The child handed him a letter. Mr Quilp, without changing his position
further than to turn over a little more on his side and rest his chin
on his hand, proceeded to make himself acquainted with its contents.
CHAPTER 6
Little Nell stood timidly by, with her eyes raised to the countenance
of Mr Quilp as he read the letter, plainly showing by her looks that
while she entertained some fear and distrust of the little man, she was
much inclined to laugh at his uncouth appearance and grotesque
attitude. And yet there was visible on the part of the child a painful
anxiety for his reply, and consciousness of his power to render it
disagreeable or distressing, which was strongly at variance with this
impulse and restrained it more effectually than she could possibly have
done by any efforts of her own.
That Mr Quilp was himself perplexed, and that in no small degree, by
the contents of the letter, was sufficiently obvious. Before he had got
through the first two or three lines he began to open his eyes very
wide and to frown most horribly, the next two or three caused him to
scratch his head in an uncommonly vicious manner, and when he came to
the conclusion he gave a long dismal whistle indicative of surprise and
dismay. After folding and laying it down beside him, he bit the nails
of all of his ten fingers with extreme voracity; and taking it up
sharply, read it again. The second perusal was to all appearance as
unsatisfactory as the first, and plunged him into a profound reverie
from which he awakened to another assault upon his nails and a long
stare at the child, who with her eyes turned towards the ground awaited
his further pleasure.
'Halloa here!' he said at length, in a voice, and with a suddenness,
which made the child start as though a gun had been fired off at her
ear. 'Nelly!'
'Yes, sir.'
'Do you know what's inside this letter, Nell?'
'No, sir!'
'Are you sure, quite sure, quite certain, upon your soul?'
'Quite sure, sir.'
'Do you wish you may die if you do know, hey?' said the dwarf.
'Indeed I don't know,' returned the child.
'Well!' muttered Quilp as he marked her earnest look. 'I believe you.
Humph! Gone already? Gone in four-and-twenty hours! What the devil has
he done with it, that's the mystery!'
This reflection set him scratching his head and biting his nails once
more. While he was thus employed his features gradually relaxed into
what was with him a cheerful smile, but which in any other man would
have been a ghastly grin of pain, and when the child looked up again
she found that he was regarding her with extraordinary favour and
complacency.
'You look very pretty to-day, Nelly, charmingly pretty. Are you tired,
Nelly?'
'No, sir. I'm in a hurry to get back, for he will be anxious while I am
away.'
'There's no hurry, little Nell, no hurry at all,' said Quilp. 'How
should you like to be my number two, Nelly?'
'To be what, sir?'
'My number two, Nelly, my second, my Mrs Quilp,' said the dwarf.
The child looked frightened, but seemed not to understand him, which Mr
Quilp observing, hastened to make his meaning more distinctly.
'To be Mrs Quilp the second, when Mrs Quilp the first is dead, sweet
Nell,' said Quilp, wrinkling up his eyes and luring her towards him
with his bent forefinger, 'to be my wife, my little cherry-cheeked,
red-lipped wife. Say that Mrs Quilp lives five year, or only four,
you'll be just the proper age for me. Ha ha! Be a good girl, Nelly, a
very good girl, and see if one of these days you don't come to be Mrs
Quilp of Tower Hill.'
So far from being sustained and stimulated by this delightful prospect,
the child shrank from him in great agitation, and trembled violently.
Mr Quilp, either because frightening anybody afforded him a
constitutional delight, or because it was pleasant to contemplate the
death of Mrs Quilp number one, and the elevation of Mrs Quilp number
two to her post and title, or because he was determined from purposes
of his own to be agreeable and good-humoured at that particular time,
only laughed and feigned to take no heed of her alarm.
'You shall come with me to Tower Hill and see Mrs Quilp that is,
directly,' said the dwarf. 'She's very fond of you, Nell, though not so
fond as I am. You shall come home with me.'
'I must go back indeed,' said the child. 'He told me to return directly
I had the answer.'
'But you haven't it, Nelly,' retorted the dwarf, 'and won't have it,
and can't have it, until I have been home, so you see that to do your
errand, you must go with me. Reach me yonder hat, my dear, and we'll go
directly.' With that, Mr Quilp suffered himself to roll gradually off
the desk until his short legs touched the ground, when he got upon them
and led the way from the counting-house to the wharf outside, when the
first objects that presented themselves were the boy who had stood on
his head and another young gentleman of about his own stature, rolling
in the mud together, locked in a tight embrace, and cuffing each other
with mutual heartiness.
'It's Kit!' cried Nelly, clasping her hand, 'poor Kit who came with me!
Oh, pray stop them, Mr Quilp!'
'I'll stop 'em,' cried Quilp, diving into the little counting-house and
returning with a thick stick, 'I'll stop 'em. Now, my boys, fight away.
I'll fight you both. I'll take both of you, both together, both
together!'
With which defiances the dwarf flourished his cudgel, and dancing round
the combatants and treading upon them and skipping over them, in a kind
of frenzy, laid about him, now on one and now on the other, in a most
desperate manner, always aiming at their heads and dealing such blows
as none but the veriest little savage would have inflicted. This being
warmer work than they had calculated upon, speedily cooled the courage
of the belligerents, who scrambled to their feet and called for quarter.
'I'll beat you to a pulp, you dogs,' said Quilp, vainly endeavoring to
get near either of them for a parting blow. 'I'll bruise you until
you're copper-coloured, I'll break your faces till you haven't a
profile between you, I will.'
'Come, you drop that stick or it'll be worse for you,' said his boy,
dodging round him and watching an opportunity to rush in; 'you drop
that stick.'
'Come a little nearer, and I'll drop it on your skull, you dog,' said
Quilp, with gleaming eyes; 'a little nearer--nearer yet.'
But the boy declined the invitation until his master was apparently a
little off his guard, when he darted in and seizing the weapon tried to
wrest it from his grasp. Quilp, who was as strong as a lion, easily
kept his hold until the boy was tugging at it with his utmost power,
when he suddenly let it go and sent him reeling backwards, so that he
fell violently upon his head. The success of this manoeuvre tickled Mr
Quilp beyond description, and he laughed and stamped upon the ground as
at a most irresistible jest.
'Never mind,' said the boy, nodding his head and rubbing it at the same
time; 'you see if ever I offer to strike anybody again because they say
you're an uglier dwarf than can be seen anywheres for a penny, that's
all.'
'Do you mean to say, I'm not, you dog?' returned Quilp.
'No!' retorted the boy.
'Then what do you fight on my wharf for, you villain?' said Quilp.
'Because he said so,' replied to boy, pointing to Kit, 'not because you
an't.'
'Then why did he say,' bawled Kit, 'that Miss Nelly was ugly, and that
she and my master was obliged to do whatever his master liked? Why did
he say that?'
'He said what he did because he's a fool, and you said what you did
because you're very wise and clever--almost too clever to live, unless
you're very careful of yourself, Kit.' said Quilp, with great suavity
in his manner, but still more of quiet malice about his eyes and mouth.
'Here's sixpence for you, Kit. Always speak the truth. At all times,
Kit, speak the truth. Lock the counting-house, you dog, and bring me
the key.'
The other boy, to whom this order was addressed, did as he was told,
and was rewarded for his partizanship in behalf of his master, by a
dexterous rap on the nose with the key, which brought the water into
his eyes. Then Mr Quilp departed with the child and Kit in a boat, and
the boy revenged himself by dancing on his head at intervals on the
extreme verge of the wharf, during the whole time they crossed the
river.
There was only Mrs Quilp at home, and she, little expecting the return
of her lord, was just composing herself for a refreshing slumber when
the sound of his footsteps roused her. She had barely time to seem to
be occupied in some needle-work, when he entered, accompanied by the
child; having left Kit downstairs.
'Here's Nelly Trent, dear Mrs Quilp,' said her husband. 'A glass of
wine, my dear, and a biscuit, for she has had a long walk. She'll sit
with you, my soul, while I write a letter.'
Mrs Quilp looked tremblingly in her spouse's face to know what this
unusual courtesy might portend, and obedient to the summons she saw in
his gesture, followed him into the next room.
'Mind what I say to you,' whispered Quilp. 'See if you can get out of
her anything about her grandfather, or what they do, or how they live,
or what he tells her. I've my reasons for knowing, if I can. You women
talk more freely to one another than you do to us, and you have a soft,
mild way with you that'll win upon her. Do you hear?'
'Yes, Quilp.'
'Go then. What's the matter now?'
'Dear Quilp,' faltered his wife. 'I love the child--if you could do
without making me deceive her--'
The dwarf muttering a terrible oath looked round as if for some weapon
with which to inflict condign punishment upon his disobedient wife. The
submissive little woman hurriedly entreated him not to be angry, and
promised to do as he bade her.
'Do you hear me,' whispered Quilp, nipping and pinching her arm; 'worm
yourself into her secrets; I know you can. I'm listening, recollect. If
you're not sharp enough, I'll creak the door, and woe betide you if I
have to creak it much. Go!'
Mrs Quilp departed according to order, and her amiable husband,
ensconcing himself behind the partly opened door, and applying his ear
close to it, began to listen with a face of great craftiness and
attention.
Poor Mrs Quilp was thinking, however, in what manner to begin or what
kind of inquiries she could make; and it was not until the door,
creaking in a very urgent manner, warned her to proceed without further
consideration, that the sound of her voice was heard.
'How very often you have come backwards and forwards lately to Mr
Quilp, my dear.'
'I have said so to grandfather, a hundred times,' returned Nell
innocently.
'And what has he said to that?'
'Only sighed, and dropped his head, and seemed so sad and wretched that
if you could have seen him I am sure you must have cried; you could not
have helped it more than I, I know. How that door creaks!'
'It often does.' returned Mrs Quilp, with an uneasy glance towards it.
'But your grandfather--he used not to be so wretched?'
'Oh, no!' said the child eagerly, 'so different! We were once so happy
and he so cheerful and contented! You cannot think what a sad change
has fallen on us since.'
'I am very, very sorry, to hear you speak like this, my dear!' said Mrs
Quilp. And she spoke the truth.
'Thank you,' returned the child, kissing her cheek, 'you are always
kind to me, and it is a pleasure to talk to you. I can speak to no one
else about him, but poor Kit. I am very happy still, I ought to feel
happier perhaps than I do, but you cannot think how it grieves me
sometimes to see him alter so.'
'He'll alter again, Nelly,' said Mrs Quilp, 'and be what he was before.'
'Oh, if God would only let that come about!' said the child with
streaming eyes; 'but it is a long time now, since he first began to--I
thought I saw that door moving!'
'It's the wind,' said Mrs Quilp, faintly. 'Began to--'
'To be so thoughtful and dejected, and to forget our old way of
spending the time in the long evenings,' said the child. 'I used to
read to him by the fireside, and he sat listening, and when I stopped
and we began to talk, he told me about my mother, and how she once
looked and spoke just like me when she was a little child. Then he used
to take me on his knee, and try to make me understand that she was not
lying in her grave, but had flown to a beautiful country beyond the sky
where nothing died or ever grew old--we were very happy once!'
'Nelly, Nelly!' said the poor woman, 'I can't bear to see one as young
as you so sorrowful. Pray don't cry.'
'I do so very seldom,' said Nell, 'but I have kept this to myself a
long time, and I am not quite well, I think, for the tears come into my
eyes and I cannot keep them back. I don't mind telling you my grief,
for I know you will not tell it to any one again.'
Mrs Quilp turned away her head and made no answer.
'Then,' said the child, 'we often walked in the fields and among the
green trees, and when we came home at night, we liked it better for
being tired, and said what a happy place it was. And if it was dark and
rather dull, we used to say, what did it matter to us, for it only made
us remember our last walk with greater pleasure, and look forward to
our next one. But now we never have these walks, and though it is the
same house it is darker and much more gloomy than it used to be,
indeed!'
She paused here, but though the door creaked more than once, Mrs Quilp
said nothing.
'Mind you don't suppose,' said the child earnestly, 'that grandfather
is less kind to me than he was. I think he loves me better every day,
and is kinder and more affectionate than he was the day before. You do
not know how fond he is of me!'
'I am sure he loves you dearly,' said Mrs Quilp.
'Indeed, indeed he does!' cried Nell, 'as dearly as I love him. But I
have not told you the greatest change of all, and this you must never
breathe again to any one. He has no sleep or rest, but that which he
takes by day in his easy chair; for every night and nearly all night
long he is away from home.'
'Nelly!'
'Hush!' said the child, laying her finger on her lip and looking round.
'When he comes home in the morning, which is generally just before day,
I let him in. Last night he was very late, and it was quite light. I
saw that his face was deadly pale, that his eyes were bloodshot, and
that his legs trembled as he walked. When I had gone to bed again, I
heard him groan. I got up and ran back to him, and heard him say,
before he knew that I was there, that he could not bear his life much
longer, and if it was not for the child, would wish to die. What shall
I do! Oh! What shall I do!'
The fountains of her heart were opened; the child, overpowered by the
weight of her sorrows and anxieties, by the first confidence she had
ever shown, and the sympathy with which her little tale had been
received, hid her face in the arms of her helpless friend, and burst
into a passion of tears.
In a few minutes Mr Quilp returned, and expressed the utmost surprise
to find her in this condition, which he did very naturally and with
admirable effect, for that kind of acting had been rendered familiar to
him by long practice, and he was quite at home in it.
'She's tired you see, Mrs Quilp,' said the dwarf, squinting in a
hideous manner to imply that his wife was to follow his lead. 'It's a
long way from her home to the wharf, and then she was alarmed to see a
couple of young scoundrels fighting, and was timorous on the water
besides. All this together has been too much for her. Poor Nell!'
Mr Quilp unintentionally adopted the very best means he could have
devised for the recovery of his young visitor, by patting her on the
head. Such an application from any other hand might not have produced a
remarkable effect, but the child shrank so quickly from his touch and
felt such an instinctive desire to get out of his reach, that she rose
directly and declared herself ready to return.
'But you'd better wait, and dine with Mrs Quilp and me.' said the dwarf.
'I have been away too long, sir, already,' returned Nell, drying her
eyes.
'Well,' said Mr Quilp, 'if you will go, you will, Nelly. Here's the
note. It's only to say that I shall see him to-morrow or maybe next
day, and that I couldn't do that little business for him this morning.
Good-bye, Nelly. Here, you sir; take care of her, d'ye hear?'
Kit, who appeared at the summons, deigned to make no reply to so
needless an injunction, and after staring at Quilp in a threatening
manner, as if he doubted whether he might not have been the cause of
Nelly shedding tears, and felt more than half disposed to revenge the
fact upon him on the mere suspicion, turned about and followed his
young mistress, who had by this time taken her leave of Mrs Quilp and
departed.
'You're a keen questioner, an't you, Mrs Quilp?' said the dwarf,
turning upon her as soon as they were left alone.
'What more could I do?' returned his wife mildly?
'What more could you do!' sneered Quilp, 'couldn't you have done
something less? Couldn't you have done what you had to do, without
appearing in your favourite part of the crocodile, you minx?'
'I am very sorry for the child, Quilp,' said his wife. 'Surely I've
done enough. I've led her on to tell her secret she supposed we were
alone; and you were by, God forgive me.'
'You led her on! You did a great deal truly!' said Quilp. 'What did I
tell you about making me creak the door? It's lucky for you that from
what she let fall, I've got the clue I want, for if I hadn't, I'd have
visited the failure upon you, I can tell you.'
Mrs Quilp being fully persuaded of this, made no reply. Her husband
added with some exultation,
'But you may thank your fortunate stars--the same stars that made you
Mrs Quilp--you may thank them that I'm upon the old gentleman's track,
and have got a new light. So let me hear no more about this matter now
or at any other time, and don't get anything too nice for dinner, for I
shan't be home to it.'
So saying, Mr Quilp put his hat on and took himself off, and Mrs Quilp,
who was afflicted beyond measure by the recollection of the part she
had just acted, shut herself up in her chamber, and smothering her head
in the bed-clothes bemoaned her fault more bitterly than many less
tender-hearted persons would have mourned a much greater offence; for,
in the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and very flexible
article, which will bear a deal of stretching and adapt itself to a
great variety of circumstances. Some people by prudent management and
leaving it off piece by piece like a flannel waistcoat in warm weather,
even contrive, in time, to dispense with it altogether; but there be
others who can assume the garment and throw it off at pleasure; and
this, being the greatest and most convenient improvement, is the one
most in vogue.
CHAPTER 7
'Fred,' said Mr Swiveller, 'remember the once popular melody of Begone
dull care; fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of
friendship; and pass the rosy wine.'
Mr Richard Swiveller's apartments were in the neighbourhood of Drury
Lane, and in addition to this convenience of situation had the
advantage of being over a tobacconist's shop, so that he was enabled to
procure a refreshing sneeze at any time by merely stepping out upon the
staircase, and was saved the trouble and expense of maintaining a
snuff-box. It was in these apartments that Mr Swiveller made use of the
expressions above recorded for the consolation and encouragement of his
desponding friend; and it may not be uninteresting or improper to
remark that even these brief observations partook in a double sense of
the figurative and poetical character of Mr Swiveller's mind, as the
rosy wine was in fact represented by one glass of cold gin-and-water,
which was replenished as occasion required from a bottle and jug upon
the table, and was passed from one to another, in a scarcity of
tumblers which, as Mr Swiveller's was a bachelor's establishment, may
be acknowledged without a blush. By a like pleasant fiction his single
chamber was always mentioned in a plural number. In its disengaged
times, the tobacconist had announced it in his window as 'apartments'
for a single gentleman, and Mr Swiveller, following up the hint, never
failed to speak of it as his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers,
conveying to his hearers a notion of indefinite space, and leaving
their imaginations to wander through long suites of lofty halls, at
pleasure.
In this flight of fancy, Mr Swiveller was assisted by a deceptive piece
of furniture, in reality a bedstead, but in semblance a bookcase, which
occupied a prominent situation in his chamber and seemed to defy
suspicion and challenge inquiry. There is no doubt that by day Mr
Swiveller firmly believed this secret convenience to be a bookcase and
nothing more; that he closed his eyes to the bed, resolutely denied the
existence of the blankets, and spurned the bolster from his thoughts.
No word of its real use, no hint of its nightly service, no allusion to
its peculiar properties, had ever passed between him and his most
intimate friends. Implicit faith in the deception was the first article
of his creed. To be the friend of Swiveller you must reject all
circumstantial evidence, all reason, observation, and experience, and
repose a blind belief in the bookcase. It was his pet weakness, and he
cherished it.
'Fred!' said Mr Swiveller, finding that his former adjuration had been
productive of no effect. 'Pass the rosy.'
Young Trent with an impatient gesture pushed the glass towards him, and
fell again in the moody attitude from which he had been unwillingly
roused.
'I'll give you, Fred,' said his friend, stirring the mixture, 'a little
sentiment appropriate to the occasion. Here's May the--'
'Pshaw!' interposed the other. 'You worry me to death with your
chattering. You can be merry under any circumstances.'
'Why, Mr Trent,' returned Dick, 'there is a proverb which talks about
being merry and wise. There are some people who can be merry and can't
be wise, and some who can be wise (or think they can) and can't be
merry. I'm one of the first sort. If the proverb's a good 'un, I
suppose it's better to keep to half of it than none; at all events, I'd
rather be merry and not wise, than like you, neither one nor t'other.'
'Bah!' muttered his friend, peevishly.
'With all my heart,' said Mr Swiveller. 'In the polite circles I
believe this sort of thing isn't usually said to a gentleman in his own
apartments, but never mind that. Make yourself at home,' adding to this
retort an observation to the effect that his friend appeared to be
rather 'cranky' in point of temper, Richard Swiveller finished the
rosy and applied himself to the composition of another glassful, in
which, after tasting it with great relish, he proposed a toast to an
imaginary company.
'Gentlemen, I'll give you, if you please, Success to the ancient family
of the Swivellers, and good luck to Mr Richard in particular--Mr
Richard, gentlemen,' said Dick with great emphasis, 'who spends all his
money on his friends and is Bah!'d for his pains. Hear, hear!'
'Dick!' said the other, returning to his seat after having paced the
room twice or thrice, 'will you talk seriously for two minutes, if I
show you a way to make your fortune with very little trouble?'
'You've shown me so many,' returned Dick; 'and nothing has come of any
one of 'em but empty pockets--'
'You'll tell a different story of this one, before a very long time is
over,' said his companion, drawing his chair to the table. 'You saw my
sister Nell?'
'What about her?' returned Dick.
'She has a pretty face, has she not?'
'Why, certainly,' replied Dick. 'I must say for her that there's not
any very strong family likeness between her and you.'
'Has she a pretty face,' repeated his friend impatiently.
'Yes,' said Dick, 'she has a pretty face, a very pretty face. What of
that?'
'I'll tell you,' returned his friend. 'It's very plain that the old man
and I will remain at daggers drawn to the end of our lives, and that I
have nothing to expect from him. You see that, I suppose?'
'A bat might see that, with the sun shining,' said Dick.
'It's equally plain that the money which the old flint--rot him--first
taught me to expect that I should share with her at his death, will all
be hers, is it not?'
'I should said it was,' replied Dick; 'unless the way in which I put
the case to him, made an impression. It may have done so. It was
powerful, Fred. 'Here is a jolly old grandfather'--that was strong, I
thought--very friendly and natural. Did it strike you in that way?'
'It didn't strike him,' returned the other, 'so we needn't discuss it.
Now look here. Nell is nearly fourteen.'
'Fine girl of her age, but small,' observed Richard Swiveller
parenthetically.
'If I am to go on, be quiet for one minute,' returned Trent, fretting
at the slight interest the other appeared to take in the conversation.
'Now I'm coming to the point.'
'That's right,' said Dick.
'The girl has strong affections, and brought up as she has been, may,
at her age, be easily influenced and persuaded. If I take her in hand,
I will be bound by a very little coaxing and threatening to bend her to
my will. Not to beat about the bush (for the advantages of the scheme
would take a week to tell) what's to prevent your marrying her?'
Richard Swiveller, who had been looking over the rim of the tumbler
while his companion addressed the foregoing remarks to him with great
energy and earnestness of manner, no sooner heard these words than he
evinced the utmost consternation, and with difficulty ejaculated the
monosyllable:
'What!'
'I say, what's to prevent,' repeated the other with a steadiness of
manner, of the effect of which upon his companion he was well assured
by long experience, 'what's to prevent your marrying her?'
'And she "nearly fourteen"!' cried Dick.
'I don't mean marrying her now'--returned the brother angrily; 'say in
two year's time, in three, in four. Does the old man look like a
long-liver?'
'He don't look like it,' said Dick shaking his head, 'but these old
people--there's no trusting them, Fred. There's an aunt of mine down in
Dorsetshire that was going to die when I was eight years old, and
hasn't kept her word yet. They're so aggravating, so unprincipled, so
spiteful--unless there's apoplexy in the family, Fred, you can't
calculate upon 'em, and even then they deceive you just as often as
not.'
'Look at the worst side of the question then,' said Trent as steadily
as before, and keeping his eyes upon his friend. 'Suppose he lives.'
'To be sure,' said Dick. 'There's the rub.'
'I say,' resumed his friend, 'suppose he lives, and I persuaded, or if
the word sounds more feasible, forced Nell to a secret marriage with
you. What do you think would come of that?'
'A family and an annual income of nothing, to keep 'em on,' said
Richard Swiveller after some reflection.
'I tell you,' returned the other with an increased earnestness, which,
whether it were real or assumed, had the same effect on his companion,
'that he lives for her, that his whole energies and thoughts are bound
up in her, that he would no more disinherit her for an act of
disobedience than he would take me into his favour again for any act of
obedience or virtue that I could possibly be guilty of. He could not do
it. You or any other man with eyes in his head may see that, if he
chooses.'
'It seems improbable certainly,' said Dick, musing.
'It seems improbable because it is improbable,' his friend returned.
'If you would furnish him with an additional inducement to forgive you,
let there be an irreconcilable breach, a most deadly quarrel, between
you and me--let there be a pretense of such a thing, I mean, of
course--and he'll do fast enough. As to Nell, constant dropping will
wear away a stone; you know you may trust to me as far as she is
concerned. So, whether he lives or dies, what does it come to? That
you become the sole inheritor of the wealth of this rich old hunks,
that you and I spend it together, and that you get into the bargain a
beautiful young wife.'
'I suppose there's no doubt about his being rich'--said Dick.
'Doubt! Did you hear what he left fall the other day when we were
there? Doubt! What will you doubt next, Dick?'
It would be tedious to pursue the conversation through all its artful
windings, or to develope the gradual approaches by which the heart of
Richard Swiveller was gained. It is sufficient to know that vanity,
interest, poverty, and every spendthrift consideration urged him to
look upon the proposal with favour, and that where all other
inducements were wanting, the habitual carelessness of his disposition
stepped in and still weighed down the scale on the same side. To these
impulses must be added the complete ascendancy which his friend had
long been accustomed to exercise over him--an ascendancy exerted in the
beginning sorely at the expense of his friend's vices, and was in nine
cases out of ten looked upon as his designing tempter when he was
indeed nothing but his thoughtless, light-headed tool.
The motives on the other side were something deeper than any which
Richard Swiveller entertained or understood, but these being left to
their own development, require no present elucidation. The negotiation
was concluded very pleasantly, and Mr Swiveller was in the act of
stating in flowery terms that he had no insurmountable objection to
marrying anybody plentifully endowed with money or moveables, who could
be induced to take him, when he was interrupted in his observations by
a knock at the door, and the consequent necessity of crying 'Come in.'
The door was opened, but nothing came in except a soapy arm and a
strong gush of tobacco. The gush of tobacco came from the shop
downstairs, and the soapy arm proceeded from the body of a
servant-girl, who being then and there engaged in cleaning the stairs
had just drawn it out of a warm pail to take in a letter, which letter
she now held in her hand, proclaiming aloud with that quick perception
of surnames peculiar to her class that it was for Mister Snivelling.
Dick looked rather pale and foolish when he glanced at the direction,
and still more so when he came to look at the inside, observing that it
was one of the inconveniences of being a lady's man, and that it was
very easy to talk as they had been talking, but he had quite forgotten
her.
'Her. Who?' demanded Trent.
'Sophy Wackles,' said Dick.
'Who's she?'
'She's all my fancy painted her, sir, that's what she is,' said Mr
Swiveller, taking a long pull at 'the rosy' and looking gravely at his
friend. 'She's lovely, she's divine. You know her.'
'I remember,' said his companion carelessly. 'What of her?'
'Why, sir,' returned Dick, 'between Miss Sophia Wackles and the humble
individual who has now the honor to address you, warm and tender
sentiments have been engendered, sentiments of the most honourable and
inspiring kind. The Goddess Diana, sir, that calls aloud for the chase,
is not more particular in her behavior than Sophia Wackles; I can tell
you that.'
'Am I to believe there's anything real in what you say?' demanded his
friend; 'you don't mean to say that any love-making has been going on?'
'Love-making, yes. Promising, no,' said Dick. 'There can be no action
for breach, that's one comfort. I've never committed myself in writing,
Fred.'
'And what's in the letter, pray?'
'A reminder, Fred, for to-night--a small party of twenty, making two
hundred light fantastic toes in all, supposing every lady and gentleman
to have the proper complement. I must go, if it's only to begin
breaking off the affair--I'll do it, don't you be afraid. I should like
to know whether she left this herself. If she did, unconscious of any
bar to her happiness, it's affecting, Fred.'
To solve this question, Mr Swiveller summoned the handmaid and
ascertained that Miss Sophy Wackles had indeed left the letter with her
own hands; and that she had come accompanied, for decorum's sake no
doubt, by a younger Miss Wackles; and that on learning that Mr
Swiveller was at home and being requested to walk upstairs, she was
extremely shocked and professed that she would rather die. Mr Swiveller
heard this account with a degree of admiration not altogether
consistent with the project in which he had just concurred, but his
friend attached very little importance to his behavior in this respect,
probably because he knew that he had influence sufficient to control
Richard Swiveller's proceedings in this or any other matter, whenever
he deemed it necessary, for the advancement of his own purposes, to
exert it.
CHAPTER 8
Business disposed of, Mr Swiveller was inwardly reminded of its being
nigh dinner-time, and to the intent that his health might not be
endangered by longer abstinence, dispatched a message to the nearest
eating-house requiring an immediate supply of boiled beef and greens
for two. With this demand, however, the eating-house (having experience
of its customer) declined to comply, churlishly sending back for answer
that if Mr Swiveller stood in need of beef perhaps he would be so
obliging as to come there and eat it, bringing with him, as grace
before meat, the amount of a certain small account which had long been
outstanding. Not at all intimidated by this rebuff, but rather
sharpened in wits and appetite, Mr Swiveller forwarded the same message
to another and more distant eating-house, adding to it by way of rider
that the gentleman was induced to send so far, not only by the great
fame and popularity its beef had acquired, but in consequence of the
extreme toughness of the beef retailed at the obdurant cook's shop,
which rendered it quite unfit not merely for gentlemanly food, but for
any human consumption. The good effect of this politic course was
demonstrated by the speedy arrival of a small pewter pyramid, curiously
constructed of platters and covers, whereof the boiled-beef-plates
formed the base, and a foaming quart-pot the apex; the structure being
resolved into its component parts afforded all things requisite and
necessary for a hearty meal, to which Mr Swiveller and his friend
applied themselves with great keenness and enjoyment.
'May the present moment,' said Dick, sticking his fork into a large
carbuncular potato, 'be the worst of our lives! I like the plan of
sending 'em with the peel on; there's a charm in drawing a potato from
its native element (if I may so express it) to which the rich and
powerful are strangers. Ah! "Man wants but little here below, nor wants
that little long!" How true that is!--after dinner.'
'I hope the eating-house keeper will want but little and that he may
not want that little long,' returned his companion; but I suspect
you've no means of paying for this!'
'I shall be passing present, and I'll call,' said Dick, winking his eye
significantly. 'The waiter's quite helpless. The goods are gone, Fred,
and there's an end of it.'
In point of fact, it would seem that the waiter felt this wholesome
truth, for when he returned for the empty plates and dishes and was
informed by Mr Swiveller with dignified carelessness that he would call
and settle when he should be passing presently, he displayed some
perturbation of spirit and muttered a few remarks about 'payment on
delivery' and 'no trust,' and other unpleasant subjects, but was fain
to content himself with inquiring at what hour it was likely that the
gentleman would call, in order that being presently responsible for the
beef, greens, and sundries, he might take to be in the way at the time.
Mr Swiveller, after mentally calculating his engagements to a nicety,
replied that he should look in at from two minutes before six and seven
minutes past; and the man disappearing with this feeble consolation,
Richard Swiveller took a greasy memorandum-book from his pocket and
made an entry therein.
'Is that a reminder, in case you should forget to call?' said Trent
with a sneer.
'Not exactly, Fred,' replied the imperturbable Richard, continuing to
write with a businesslike air. 'I enter in this little book the names
of the streets that I can't go down while the shops are open. This
dinner today closes Long Acre. I bought a pair of boots in Great Queen
Street last week, and made that no throughfare too. There's only one
avenue to the Strand left often now, and I shall have to stop up that
to-night with a pair of gloves. The roads are closing so fast in every
direction, that in a month's time, unless my aunt sends me a
remittance, I shall have to go three or four miles out of town to get
over the way.'
'There's no fear of failing, in the end?' said Trent.
'Why, I hope not,' returned Mr Swiveller, 'but the average number of
letters it take to soften her is six, and this time we have got as far
as eight without any effect at all. I'll write another to-morrow
morning. I mean to blot it a good deal and shake some water over it out
of the pepper-castor to make it look penitent. "I'm in such a state of
mind that I hardly know what I write"--blot--"if you could see me at
this minute shedding tears for my past misconduct"--pepper-castor--"my
hand trembles when I think"--blot again--if that don't produce the
effect, it's all over.'
By this time, Mr Swiveller had finished his entry, and he now replaced
his pencil in its little sheath and closed the book, in a perfectly
grave and serious frame of mind. His friend discovered that it was time
for him to fulfil some other engagement, and Richard Swiveller was
accordingly left alone, in company with the rosy wine and his own
meditations touching Miss Sophy Wackles.
'It's rather sudden,' said Dick shaking his head with a look of
infinite wisdom, and running on (as he was accustomed to do) with
scraps of verse as if they were only prose in a hurry; 'when the heart
of a man is depressed with fears, the mist is dispelled when Miss
Wackles appears; she's a very nice girl. She's like the red red rose
that's newly sprung in June--there's no denying that--she's also like a
melody that's sweetly played in tune. It's really very sudden. Not that
there's any need, on account of Fred's little sister, to turn cool
directly, but its better not to go too far. If I begin to cool at all I
must begin at once, I see that. There's the chance of an action for
breach, that's another. There's the chance of--no, there's no chance of
that, but it's as well to be on the safe side.'
This undeveloped was the possibility, which Richard Swiveller sought to
conceal even from himself, of his not being proof against the charms of
Miss Wackles, and in some unguarded moment, by linking his fortunes to
hers forever, of putting it out of his own power to further their
notable scheme to which he had so readily become a party. For all these
reasons, he decided to pick a quarrel with Miss Wackles without delay,
and casting about for a pretext determined in favour of groundless
jealousy. Having made up his mind on this important point, he
circulated the glass (from his right hand to left, and back again)
pretty freely, to enable him to act his part with the greater
discretion, and then, after making some slight improvements in his
toilet, bent his steps towards the spot hallowed by the fair object of
his meditations.
The spot was at Chelsea, for there Miss Sophia Wackles resided with her
widowed mother and two sisters, in conjunction with whom she maintained
a very small day-school for young ladies of proportionate dimensions; a
circumstance which was made known to the neighbourhood by an oval board
over the front first-floor windows, whereupon appeared in circumambient
flourishes the words 'Ladies' Seminary'; and which was further
published and proclaimed at intervals between the hours of half-past
nine and ten in the morning, by a straggling and solitary young lady of
tender years standing on the scraper on the tips of her toes and making
futile attempts to reach the knocker with a spelling-book. The several
duties of instruction in this establishment were thus discharged.
English grammar, composition, geography, and the use of the dumb-bells,
by Miss Melissa Wackles; writing, arithmetic, dancing, music, and
general fascination, by Miss Sophia Wackles; the art of needle-work,
marking, and samplery, by Miss Jane Wackles; corporal punishment,
fasting, and other tortures and terrors, by Mrs Wackles. Miss Melissa
Wackles was the eldest daughter, Miss Sophy the next, and Miss Jane the
youngest. Miss Melissa might have seen five-and-thirty summers or
thereabouts, and verged on the autumnal; Miss Sophy was a fresh, good
humoured, buxom girl of twenty; and Miss Jane numbered scarcely sixteen
years. Mrs Wackles was an excellent but rather venomous old lady of
three-score.
To this Ladies' Seminary, then, Richard Swiveller hied, with designs
obnoxious to the peace of the fair Sophia, who, arrayed in virgin
white, embellished by no ornament but one blushing rose, received him
on his arrival, in the midst of very elegant not to say brilliant
preparations; such as the embellishment of the room with the little
flower-pots which always stood on the window-sill outside, save in
windy weather when they blew into the area; the choice attire of the
day-scholars who were allowed to grace the festival; the unwonted curls
of Miss Jane Wackles who had kept her head during the whole of the
preceding day screwed up tight in a yellow play-bill; and the solemn
gentility and stately bearing of the old lady and her eldest daughter,
which struck Mr Swiveller as being uncommon but made no further
impression upon him.
The truth is--and, as there is no accounting for tastes, even a taste
so strange as this may be recorded without being looked upon as a
wilful and malicious invention--the truth is that neither Mrs Wackles
nor her eldest daughter had at any time greatly favoured the
pretensions of Mr Swiveller, being accustomed to make slight mention of
him as 'a gay young man' and to sigh and shake their heads ominously
whenever his name was mentioned. Mr Swiveller's conduct in respect to
Miss Sophy having been of that vague and dilatory kind which is usually
looked upon as betokening no fixed matrimonial intentions, the young
lady herself began in course of time to deem it highly desirable, that
it should be brought to an issue one way or other. Hence she had at
last consented to play off against Richard Swiveller a stricken
market-gardner known to be ready with his offer on the smallest
encouragement, and hence--as this occasion had been specially assigned
for the purpose--that great anxiety on her part for Richard Swiveller's
presence which had occasioned her to leave the note he has been seen to
receive. 'If he has any expectations at all or any means of keeping a
wife well,' said Mrs Wackles to her eldest daughter, 'he'll state 'em
to us now or never.'--'If he really cares about me,' thought Miss
Sophy, 'he must tell me so, to-night.'
But all these sayings and doings and thinkings being unknown to Mr
Swiveller, affected him not in the least; he was debating in his mind
how he could best turn jealous, and wishing that Sophy were for that
occasion only far less pretty than she was, or that she were her own
sister, which would have served his turn as well, when the company
came, and among them the market-gardener, whose name was Cheggs. But Mr
Cheggs came not alone or unsupported, for he prudently brought along
with him his sister, Miss Cheggs, who making straight to Miss Sophy and
taking her by both hands, and kissing her on both cheeks, hoped in an
audible whisper that they had not come too early.
'Too early, no!' replied Miss Sophy.
'Oh, my dear,' rejoined Miss Cheggs in the same whisper as before,
'I've been so tormented, so worried, that it's a mercy we were not here
at four o'clock in the afternoon. Alick has been in such a state of
impatience to come! You'd hardly believe that he was dressed before
dinner-time and has been looking at the clock and teasing me ever
since. It's all your fault, you naughty thing.'
Hereupon Miss Sophy blushed, and Mr Cheggs (who was bashful before
ladies) blushed too, and Miss Sophy's mother and sisters, to prevent Mr
Cheggs from blushing more, lavished civilities and attentions upon him,
and left Richard Swiveller to take care of himself. Here was the very
thing he wanted, here was good cause reason and foundation for
pretending to be angry; but having this cause reason and foundation
which he had come expressly to seek, not expecting to find, Richard
Swiveller was angry in sound earnest, and wondered what the devil
Cheggs meant by his impudence.
However, Mr Swiveller had Miss Sophy's hand for the first quadrille
(country-dances being low, were utterly proscribed) and so gained an
advantage over his rival, who sat despondingly in a corner and
contemplated the glorious figure of the young lady as she moved through
the mazy dance. Nor was this the only start Mr Swiveller had of the
market-gardener, for determining to show the family what quality of man
they trifled with, and influenced perhaps by his late libations, he
performed such feats of agility and such spins and twirls as filled the
company with astonishment, and in particular caused a very long
gentleman who was dancing with a very short scholar, to stand quite
transfixed by wonder and admiration. Even Mrs Wackles forgot for the
moment to snub three small young ladies who were inclined to be happy,
and could not repress a rising thought that to have such a dancer as
that in the family would be a pride indeed.
At this momentous crisis, Miss Cheggs proved herself a vigourous and
useful ally, for not confining herself to expressing by scornful smiles
a contempt for Mr Swiveller's accomplishments, she took every
opportunity of whispering into Miss Sophy's ear expressions of
condolence and sympathy on her being worried by such a ridiculous
creature, declaring that she was frightened to death lest Alick should
fall upon, and beat him, in the fulness of his wrath, and entreating
Miss Sophy to observe how the eyes of the said Alick gleamed with love
and fury; passions, it may be observed, which being too much for his
eyes rushed into his nose also, and suffused it with a crimson glow.
'You must dance with Miss Cheggs,' said Miss Sophy to Dick Swiviller,
after she had herself danced twice with Mr Cheggs and made great show
of encouraging his advances. 'She's a nice girl--and her brother's
quite delightful.'
'Quite delightful, is he?' muttered Dick. 'Quite delighted too, I
should say, from the manner in which he's looking this way.'
Here Miss Jane (previously instructed for the purpose) interposed her
many curls and whispered her sister to observe how jealous Mr Cheggs
was.
'Jealous! Like his impudence!' said Richard Swiviller.
'His impudence, Mr Swiviller!' said Miss Jane, tossing her head. 'Take
care he don't hear you, sir, or you may be sorry for it.'
'Oh, pray, Jane--' said Miss Sophy.
'Nonsense!' replied her sister. 'Why shouldn't Mr Cheggs be jealous if
he likes? I like that, certainly. Mr Cheggs has a good a right to be
jealous as anyone else has, and perhaps he may have a better right soon
if he hasn't already. You know best about that, Sophy!'
Though this was a concerted plot between Miss Sophy and her sister,
originating in humane intentions and having for its object the inducing
Mr Swiviller to declare himself in time, it failed in its effect; for
Miss Jane being one of those young ladies who are prematurely shrill
and shrewish, gave such undue importance to her part that Mr Swiviller
retired in dudgeon, resigning his mistress to Mr Cheggs and conveying a
defiance into his looks which that gentleman indignantly returned.
'Did you speak to me, sir?' said Mr Cheggs, following him into a
corner. 'Have the kindness to smile, sir, in order that we may not be
suspected. Did you speak to me, sir'?
Mr Swiviller looked with a supercilious smile at Mr Chegg's toes, then
raised his eyes from them to his ankles, from that to his shin, from
that to his knee, and so on very gradually, keeping up his right leg,
until he reached his waistcoat, when he raised his eyes from button to
button until he reached his chin, and travelling straight up the middle
of his nose came at last to his eyes, when he said abruptly,
'No, sir, I didn't.'
`'Hem!' said Mr Cheggs, glancing over his shoulder, 'have the goodness
to smile again, sir. Perhaps you wished to speak to me, sir.'
'No, sir, I didn't do that, either.'
'Perhaps you may have nothing to say to me now, sir,' said Mr Cheggs
fiercely.
At these words Richard Swiviller withdrew his eyes from Mr Chegg's
face, and travelling down the middle of his nose and down his waistcoat
and down his right leg, reached his toes again, and carefully surveyed
him; this done, he crossed over, and coming up the other leg, and
thence approaching by the waistcoat as before, said when had got to his
eyes, 'No sir, I haven't.'
'Oh, indeed, sir!' said Mr Cheggs. 'I'm glad to hear it. You know where
I'm to be found, I suppose, sir, in case you should have anything to
say to me?'
'I can easily inquire, sir, when I want to know.'
'There's nothing more we need say, I believe, sir?'
'Nothing more, sir'--With that they closed the tremendous dialog by
frowning mutually. Mr Cheggs hastened to tender his hand to Miss Sophy,
and Mr Swiviller sat himself down in a corner in a very moody state.
Hard by this corner, Mrs Wackles and Miss Wackles were seated, looking
on at the dance; and unto Mrs and Miss Wackles, Miss Cheggs
occasionally darted when her partner was occupied with his share of the
figure, and made some remark or other which was gall and wormwood to
Richard Swiviller's soul. Looking into the eyes of Mrs and Miss Wackles
for encouragement, and sitting very upright and uncomfortable on a
couple of hard stools, were two of the day-scholars; and when Miss
Wackles smiled, and Mrs Wackles smiled, the two little girls on the
stools sought to curry favour by smiling likewise, in gracious
acknowledgement of which attention the old lady frowned them down
instantly, and said that if they dared to be guilty of such an
impertinence again, they should be sent under convoy to their
respective homes. This threat caused one of the young ladies, she being
of a weak and trembling temperament, to shed tears, and for this
offense they were both filed off immediately, with a dreadful
promptitude that struck terror into the souls of all the pupils.
'I've got such news for you,' said Miss Cheggs approaching once more,
'Alick has been saying such things to Sophy. Upon my word, you know,
it's quite serious and in earnest, that's clear.'
'What's he been saying, my dear?' demanded Mrs Wackles.
'All manner of things,' replied Miss Cheggs, 'you can't think how out
he has been speaking!'
Richard Swiviller considered it advisable to hear no more, but taking
advantage of a pause in the dancing, and the approach of Mr Cheggs to
pay his court to the old lady, swaggered with an extremely careful
assumption of extreme carelessness toward the door, passing on the way
Miss Jane Wackles, who in all the glory of her curls was holding a
flirtation, (as good practice when no better was to be had) with a
feeble old gentleman who lodged in the parlour. Near the door sat Miss
Sophy, still fluttered and confused by the attentions of Mr Cheggs, and
by her side Richard Swiveller lingered for a moment to exchange a few
parting words.
'My boat is on the shore and my bark is on the sea, but before I pass
this door I will say farewell to thee,' murmured Dick, looking gloomily
upon her.
'Are you going?' said Miss Sophy, whose heart sank within her at the
result of her stratagem, but who affected a light indifference
notwithstanding.
'Am I going!' echoed Dick bitterly. 'Yes, I am. What then?'
'Nothing, except that it's very early,' said Miss Sophy; 'but you are
your own master, of course.'
'I would that I had been my own mistress too,' said Dick, 'before I had
ever entertained a thought of you. Miss Wackles, I believed you true,
and I was blest in so believing, but now I mourn that e'er I knew, a
girl so fair yet so deceiving.'
Miss Sophy bit her lip and affected to look with great interest after
Mr Cheggs, who was quaffing lemonade in the distance.
'I came here,' said Dick, rather oblivious of the purpose with which he
had really come, 'with my bosom expanded, my heart dilated, and my
sentiments of a corresponding description. I go away with feelings that
may be conceived but cannot be described, feeling within myself that
desolating truth that my best affections have experienced this night a
stifler!'
'I am sure I don't know what you mean, Mr Swiviller,' said Miss Sophy
with downcast eyes. 'I'm very sorry if--'
'Sorry, Ma'am!' said Dick, 'sorry in the possession of a Cheggs! But I
wish you a very good night, concluding with this slight remark, that
there is a young lady growing up at this present moment for me, who has
not only great personal attractions but great wealth, and who has
requested her next of kin to propose for my hand, which, having a
regard for some members of her family, I have consented to promise.
It's a gratifying circumstance which you'll be glad to hear, that a
young and lovely girl is growing into a woman expressly on my account,
and is now saving up for me. I thought I'd mention it. I have now
merely to apologize for trespassing so long upon your attention. Good
night.'
'There's one good thing springs out of all this,' said Richard
Swiviller to himself when he had reached home and was hanging over the
candle with the extinguisher in his hand, 'which is, that I now go
heart and soul, neck and heels, with Fred in all his scheme about
little Nelly, and right glad he'll be to find me so strong upon it. He
shall know all about that to-morrow, and in the meantime, as it's
rather late, I'll try and get a wink of the balmy.'
'The balmy' came almost as soon as it was courted. In a very few
minutes Mr Swiviller was fast asleep, dreaming that he had married
Nelly Trent and come into the property, and that his first act of power
was to lay waste the market-garden of Mr Cheggs and turn it into a
brick-field.
CHAPTER 9
The child, in her confidence with Mrs Quilp, had but feebly described
the sadness and sorrow of her thoughts, or the heaviness of the cloud
which overhung her home, and cast dark shadows on its hearth. Besides
that it was very difficult to impart to any person not intimately
acquainted with the life she led, an adequate sense of its gloom and
loneliness, a constant fear of in some way committing or injuring the
old man to whom she was so tenderly attached, had restrained her, even
in the midst of her heart's overflowing, and made her timid of allusion
to the main cause of her anxiety and distress.
For, it was not the monotonous days unchequered by variety and
uncheered by pleasant companionship, it was not the dark dreary
evenings or the long solitary nights, it was not the absence of every
slight and easy pleasure for which young hearts beat high, or the
knowing nothing of childhood but its weakness and its easily wounded
spirit, that had wrung such tears from Nell. To see the old man struck
down beneath the pressure of some hidden grief, to mark his wavering
and unsettled state, to be agitated at times with a dreadful fear that
his mind was wandering, and to trace in his words and looks the dawning
of despondent madness; to watch and wait and listen for confirmation of
these things day after day, and to feel and know that, come what might,
they were alone in the world with no one to help or advise or care
about them--these were causes of depression and anxiety that might have
sat heavily on an older breast with many influences at work to cheer
and gladden it, but how heavily on the mind of a young child to whom
they were ever present, and who was constantly surrounded by all that
could keep such thoughts in restless action!
And yet, to the old man's vision, Nell was still the same. When he
could, for a moment, disengage his mind from the phantom that haunted
and brooded on it always, there was his young companion with the same
smile for him, the same earnest words, the same merry laugh, the same
love and care that, sinking deep into his soul, seemed to have been
present to him through his whole life. And so he went on, content to
read the book of her heart from the page first presented to him, little
dreaming of the story that lay hidden in its other leaves, and
murmuring within himself that at least the child was happy.
She had been once. She had gone singing through the dim rooms, and
moving with gay and lightsome step among their dusty treasures, making
them older by her young life, and sterner and more grim by her gay and
cheerful presence. But, now, the chambers were cold and gloomy, and
when she left her own little room to while away the tedious hours, and
sat in one of them, she was still and motionless as their inanimate
occupants, and had no heart to startle the echoes--hoarse from their
long silence--with her voice.
In one of these rooms, was a window looking into the street, where the
child sat, many and many a long evening, and often far into the night,
alone and thoughtful. None are so anxious as those who watch and wait;
at these times, mournful fancies came flocking on her mind, in crowds.
She would take her station here, at dusk, and watch the people as they
passed up and down the street, or appeared at the windows of the
opposite houses; wondering whether those rooms were as lonesome as that
in which she sat, and whether those people felt it company to see her
sitting there, as she did only to see them look out and draw in their
heads again. There was a crooked stack of chimneys on one of the
roofs, in which, by often looking at them, she had fancied ugly faces
that were frowning over at her and trying to peer into the room; and
she felt glad when it grew too dark to make them out, though she was
sorry too, when the man came to light the lamps in the street--for it
made it late, and very dull inside. Then, she would draw in her head
to look round the room and see that everything was in its place and
hadn't moved; and looking out into the street again, would perhaps see
a man passing with a coffin on his back, and two or three others
silently following him to a house where somebody lay dead; which made
her shudder and think of such things until they suggested afresh the
old man's altered face and manner, and a new train of fears and
speculations. If he were to die--if sudden illness had happened to
him, and he were never to come home again, alive--if, one night, he
should come home, and kiss and bless her as usual, and after she had
gone to bed and had fallen asleep and was perhaps dreaming pleasantly,
and smiling in her sleep, he should kill himself and his blood come
creeping, creeping, on the ground to her own bed-room door! These
thoughts were too terrible to dwell upon, and again she would have
recourse to the street, now trodden by fewer feet, and darker and more
silent than before. The shops were closing fast, and lights began to
shine from the upper windows, as the neighbours went to bed. By
degrees, these dwindled away and disappeared or were replaced, here and
there, by a feeble rush-candle which was to burn all night. Still,
there was one late shop at no great distance which sent forth a ruddy
glare upon the pavement even yet, and looked bright and companionable.
But, in a little time, this closed, the light was extinguished, and all
was gloomy and quiet, except when some stray footsteps sounded on the
pavement, or a neighbour, out later than his wont, knocked lustily at
his house-door to rouse the sleeping inmates.
When the night had worn away thus far (and seldom now until it had) the
child would close the window, and steal softly down stairs, thinking as
she went that if one of those hideous faces below, which often mingled
with her dreams, were to meet her by the way, rendering itself visible
by some strange light of its own, how terrified she would be. But
these fears vanished before a well-trimmed lamp and the familiar aspect
of her own room. After praying fervently, and with many bursting
tears, for the old man, and the restoration of his peace of mind and
the happiness they had once enjoyed, she would lay her head upon the
pillow and sob herself to sleep: often starting up again, before the
day-light came, to listen for the bell and respond to the imaginary
summons which had roused her from her slumber.
One night, the third after Nelly's interview with Mrs Quilp, the old
man, who had been weak and ill all day, said he should not leave home.
The child's eyes sparkled at the intelligence, but her joy subsided
when they reverted to his worn and sickly face.
'Two days,' he said, 'two whole, clear, days have passed, and there is
no reply. What did he tell thee, Nell?'
'Exactly what I told you, dear grandfather, indeed.'
'True,' said the old man, faintly. 'Yes. But tell me again, Nell. My
head fails me. What was it that he told thee? Nothing more than that
he would see me to-morrow or next day? That was in the note.'
'Nothing more,' said the child. 'Shall I go to him again to-morrow,
dear grandfather? Very early? I will be there and back, before
breakfast.'
The old man shook his head, and sighing mournfully, drew her towards
him.
''Twould be of no use, my dear, no earthly use. But if he deserts me,
Nell, at this moment--if he deserts me now, when I should, with his
assistance, be recompensed for all the time and money I have lost, and
all the agony of mind I have undergone, which makes me what you see, I
am ruined, and--worse, far worse than that--have ruined thee, for whom
I ventured all. If we are beggars--!'
'What if we are?' said the child boldly. 'Let us be beggars, and be
happy.'
'Beggars--and happy!' said the old man. 'Poor child!'
'Dear grandfather,' cried the girl with an energy which shone in her
flushed face, trembling voice, and impassioned gesture, 'I am not a
child in that I think, but even if I am, oh hear me pray that we may
beg, or work in open roads or fields, to earn a scanty living, rather
than live as we do now.'
'Nelly!' said the old man.
'Yes, yes, rather than live as we do now,' the child repeated, more
earnestly than before. 'If you are sorrowful, let me know why and be
sorrowful too; if you waste away and are paler and weaker every day,
let me be your nurse and try to comfort you. If you are poor, let us
be poor together; but let me be with you, do let me be with you; do not
let me see such change and not know why, or I shall break my heart and
die. Dear grandfather, let us leave this sad place to-morrow, and beg
our way from door to door.'
The old man covered his face with his hands, and hid it in the pillow
of the couch on which he lay.
'Let us be beggars,' said the child passing an arm round his neck, 'I
have no fear but we shall have enough, I am sure we shall. Let us walk
through country places, and sleep in fields and under trees, and never
think of money again, or anything that can make you sad, but rest at
nights, and have the sun and wind upon our faces in the day, and thank
God together! Let us never set foot in dark rooms or melancholy
houses, any more, but wander up and down wherever we like to go; and
when you are tired, you shall stop to rest in the pleasantest place
that we can find, and I will go and beg for both.'
The child's voice was lost in sobs as she dropped upon the old man's
neck; nor did she weep alone.
These were not words for other ears, nor was it a scene for other eyes.
And yet other ears and eyes were there and greedily taking in all that
passed, and moreover they were the ears and eyes of no less a person
than Mr Daniel Quilp, who, having entered unseen when the child first
placed herself at the old man's side, refrained--actuated, no doubt, by
motives of the purest delicacy--from interrupting the conversation, and
stood looking on with his accustomed grin. Standing, however, being a
tiresome attitude to a gentleman already fatigued with walking, and the
dwarf being one of that kind of persons who usually make themselves at
home, he soon cast his eyes upon a chair, into which he skipped with
uncommon agility, and perching himself on the back with his feet upon
the seat, was thus enabled to look on and listen with greater comfort
to himself, besides gratifying at the same time that taste for doing
something fantastic and monkey-like, which on all occasions had strong
possession of him. Here, then, he sat, one leg cocked carelessly over
the other, his chin resting on the palm of his hand, his head turned a
little on one side, and his ugly features twisted into a complacent
grimace. And in this position the old man, happening in course of time
to look that way, at length chanced to see him: to his unbounded
astonishment.
The child uttered a suppressed shriek on beholding this agreeable
figure; in their first surprise both she and the old man, not knowing
what to say, and half doubting its reality, looked shrinkingly at it.
Not at all disconcerted by this reception, Daniel Quilp preserved the
same attitude, merely nodding twice or thrice with great condescension.
At length, the old man pronounced his name, and inquired how he came
there.
'Through the door,' said Quilp pointing over his shoulder with his
thumb. 'I'm not quite small enough to get through key-holes. I wish I
was. I want to have some talk with you, particularly, and in private.
With nobody present, neighbour. Good-bye, little Nelly.'
Nell looked at the old man, who nodded to her to retire, and kissed her
cheek.
'Ah!' said the dwarf, smacking his lips, 'what a nice kiss that
was--just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!'
Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked
after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell
to complimenting the old man upon her charms.
'Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,' said Quilp,
nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; 'such a
chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!'
The old man answered by a forced smile, and was plainly struggling with
a feeling of the keenest and most exquisite impatience. It was not
lost upon Quilp, who delighted in torturing him, or indeed anybody
else, when he could.
'She's so,' said Quilp, speaking very slowly, and feigning to be quite
absorbed in the subject, 'so small, so compact, so beautifully
modelled, so fair, with such blue veins and such a transparent skin,
and such little feet, and such winning ways--but bless me, you're
nervous! Why neighbour, what's the matter? I swear to you,' continued
the dwarf dismounting from the chair and sitting down in it, with a
careful slowness of gesture very different from the rapidity with which
he had sprung up unheard, 'I swear to you that I had no idea old blood
ran so fast or kept so warm. I thought it was sluggish in its course,
and cool, quite cool. I am pretty sure it ought to be. Yours must be
out of order, neighbour.'
'I believe it is,' groaned the old man, clasping his head with both
hands. 'There's burning fever here, and something now and then to
which I fear to give a name.'
The dwarf said never a word, but watched his companion as he paced
restlessly up and down the room, and presently returned to his seat.
Here he remained, with his head bowed upon his breast for some time,
and then suddenly raising it, said,
'Once, and once for all, have you brought me any money?'
'No!' returned Quilp.
'Then,' said the old man, clenching his hands desperately, and looking
upwards, 'the child and I are lost!'
'Neighbour,' said Quilp glancing sternly at him, and beating his hand
twice or thrice upon the table to attract his wandering attention, 'let
me be plain with you, and play a fairer game than when you held all the
cards, and I saw but the backs and nothing more. You have no secret
from me now.'
The old man looked up, trembling.
'You are surprised,' said Quilp. 'Well, perhaps that's natural. You
have no secret from me now, I say; no, not one. For now, I know, that
all those sums of money, that all those loans, advances, and supplies
that you have had from me, have found their way to--shall I say the
word?'
'Aye!' replied the old man, 'say it, if you will.'
'To the gaming-table,' rejoined Quilp, 'your nightly haunt. This was
the precious scheme to make your fortune, was it; this was the secret
certain source of wealth in which I was to have sunk my money (if I had
been the fool you took me for); this was your inexhaustible mine of
gold, your El Dorado, eh?'
'Yes,' cried the old man, turning upon him with gleaming eyes, 'it was.
It is. It will be, till I die.'
'That I should have been blinded,' said Quilp looking contemptuously at
him, 'by a mere shallow gambler!'
'I am no gambler,' cried the old man fiercely. 'I call Heaven to
witness that I never played for gain of mine, or love of play; that at
every piece I staked, I whispered to myself that orphan's name and
called on Heaven to bless the venture;--which it never did. Whom did
it prosper? Who were those with whom I played? Men who lived by
plunder, profligacy, and riot; squandering their gold in doing ill, and
propagating vice and evil. My winnings would have been from them, my
winnings would have been bestowed to the last farthing on a young
sinless child whose life they would have sweetened and made happy.
What would they have contracted? The means of corruption,
wretchedness, and misery. Who would not have hoped in such a cause?
Tell me that! Who would not have hoped as I did?'
'When did you first begin this mad career?' asked Quilp, his taunting
inclination subdued, for a moment, by the old man's grief and wildness.
'When did I first begin?' he rejoined, passing his hand across his
brow. 'When was it, that I first began? When should it be, but when I
began to think how little I had saved, how long a time it took to save
at all, how short a time I might have at my age to live, and how she
would be left to the rough mercies of the world, with barely enough to
keep her from the sorrows that wait on poverty; then it was that I
began to think about it.'
'After you first came to me to get your precious grandson packed off to
sea?' said Quilp.
'Shortly after that,' replied the old man. 'I thought of it a long
time, and had it in my sleep for months. Then I began. I found no
pleasure in it, I expected none. What has it ever brought me but
anxious days and sleepless nights; but loss of health and peace of
mind, and gain of feebleness and sorrow!'
'You lost what money you had laid by, first, and then came to me.
While I thought you were making your fortune (as you said you were) you
were making yourself a beggar, eh? Dear me! And so it comes to pass
that I hold every security you could scrape together, and a bill of
sale upon the--upon the stock and property,' said Quilp standing up and
looking about him, as if to assure himself that none of it had been
taken away. 'But did you never win?'
'Never!' groaned the old man. 'Never won back my loss!'
'I thought,' sneered the dwarf, 'that if a man played long enough he
was sure to win at last, or, at the worst, not to come off a loser.'
'And so he is,' cried the old man, suddenly rousing himself from his
state of despondency, and lashed into the most violent excitement, 'so
he is; I have felt that from the first, I have always known it, I've
seen it, I never felt it half so strongly as I feel it now. Quilp, I
have dreamed, three nights, of winning the same large sum, I never
could dream that dream before, though I have often tried. Do not
desert me, now I have this chance. I have no resource but you, give me
some help, let me try this one last hope.'
The dwarf shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
'See, Quilp, good tender-hearted Quilp,' said the old man, drawing some
scraps of paper from his pocket with a trembling hand, and clasping the
dwarf's arm, 'only see here. Look at these figures, the result of long
calculation, and painful and hard experience. I MUST win. I only want
a little help once more, a few pounds, but two score pounds, dear
Quilp.'
'The last advance was seventy,' said the dwarf; 'and it went in one
night.'
'I know it did,' answered the old man, 'but that was the very worst
fortune of all, and the time had not come then. Quilp, consider,
consider,' the old man cried, trembling so much the while, that the
papers in his hand fluttered as if they were shaken by the wind, 'that
orphan child! If I were alone, I could die with gladness--perhaps even
anticipate that doom which is dealt out so unequally: coming, as it
does, on the proud and happy in their strength, and shunning the needy
and afflicted, and all who court it in their despair--but what I have
done, has been for her. Help me for her sake I implore you; not for
mine; for hers!'
'I'm sorry I've got an appointment in the city,' said Quilp, looking at
his watch with perfect self-possession, 'or I should have been very
glad to have spent half an hour with you while you composed yourself,
very glad.'
'Nay, Quilp, good Quilp,' gasped the old man, catching at his skirts,
'you and I have talked together, more than once, of her poor mother's
story. The fear of her coming to poverty has perhaps been bred in me
by that. Do not be hard upon me, but take that into account. You are
a great gainer by me. Oh spare me the money for this one last hope!'
'I couldn't do it really,' said Quilp with unusual politeness, 'though
I tell you what--and this is a circumstance worth bearing in mind as
showing how the sharpest among us may be taken in sometimes--I was so
deceived by the penurious way in which you lived, alone with Nelly--'
'All done to save money for tempting fortune, and to make her triumph
greater,' cried the old man.
'Yes, yes, I understand that now,' said Quilp; 'but I was going to say,
I was so deceived by that, your miserly way, the reputation you had
among those who knew you of being rich, and your repeated assurances
that you would make of my advances treble and quadruple the interest
you paid me, that I'd have advanced you, even now, what you want, on
your simple note of hand, if I hadn't unexpectedly become acquainted
with your secret way of life.'
'Who is it,' retorted the old man desperately, 'that, notwithstanding
all my caution, told you? Come. Let me know the name--the person.'
The crafty dwarf, bethinking himself that his giving up the child would
lead to the disclosure of the artifice he had employed, which, as
nothing was to be gained by it, it was well to conceal, stopped short
in his answer and said, 'Now, who do you think?'
'It was Kit, it must have been the boy; he played the spy, and you
tampered with him?' said the old man.
'How came you to think of him?' said the dwarf in a tone of great
commiseration. 'Yes, it was Kit. Poor Kit!'
So saying, he nodded in a friendly manner, and took his leave: stopping
when he had passed the outer door a little distance, and grinning with
extraordinary delight.
'Poor Kit!' muttered Quilp. 'I think it was Kit who said I was an
uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny, wasn't it. Ha ha
ha! Poor Kit!'
And with that he went his way, still chuckling as he went.
CHAPTER 10
Daniel Quilp neither entered nor left the old man's house, unobserved.
In the shadow of an archway nearly opposite, leading to one of the many
passages which diverged from the main street, there lingered one, who,
having taken up his position when the twilight first came on, still
maintained it with undiminished patience, and leaning against the wall
with the manner of a person who had a long time to wait, and being well
used to it was quite resigned, scarcely changed his attitude for the
hour together.
This patient lounger attracted little attention from any of those who
passed, and bestowed as little upon them. His eyes were constantly
directed towards one object; the window at which the child was
accustomed to sit. If he withdrew them for a moment, it was only to
glance at a clock in some neighbouring shop, and then to strain his
sight once more in the old quarter with increased earnestness and
attention.
It had been remarked that this personage evinced no weariness in his
place of concealment; nor did he, long as his waiting was. But as the
time went on, he manifested some anxiety and surprise, glancing at the
clock more frequently and at the window less hopefully than before. At
length, the clock was hidden from his sight by some envious shutters,
then the church steeples proclaimed eleven at night, then the quarter
past, and then the conviction seemed to obtrude itself on his mind that
it was no use tarrying there any longer.
That the conviction was an unwelcome one, and that he was by no means
willing to yield to it, was apparent from his reluctance to quit the
spot; from the tardy steps with which he often left it, still looking
over his shoulder at the same window; and from the precipitation with
which he as often returned, when a fancied noise or the changing and
imperfect light induced him to suppose it had been softly raised. At
length, he gave the matter up, as hopeless for that night, and suddenly
breaking into a run as though to force himself away, scampered off at
his utmost speed, nor once ventured to look behind him lest he should
be tempted back again.
Without relaxing his pace, or stopping to take breath, this mysterious
individual dashed on through a great many alleys and narrow ways until
he at length arrived in a square paved court, when he subsided into a
walk, and making for a small house from the window of which a light was
shining, lifted the latch of the door and passed in.
'Bless us!' cried a woman turning sharply round, 'who's that? Oh!
It's you, Kit!'
'Yes, mother, it's me.'
'Why, how tired you look, my dear!'
'Old master an't gone out to-night,' said Kit; 'and so she hasn't been
at the window at all.' With which words, he sat down by the fire and
looked very mournful and discontented.
The room in which Kit sat himself down, in this condition, was an
extremely poor and homely place, but with that air of comfort about it,
nevertheless, which--or the spot must be a wretched one
indeed--cleanliness and order can always impart in some degree. Late
as the Dutch clock showed it to be, the poor woman was still hard at
work at an ironing-table; a young child lay sleeping in a cradle near
the fire; and another, a sturdy boy of two or three years old, very
wide awake, with a very tight night-cap on his head, and a night-gown
very much too small for him on his body, was sitting bolt upright in a
clothes-basket, staring over the rim with his great round eyes, and
looking as if he had thoroughly made up his mind never to go to sleep
any more; which, as he had already declined to take his natural rest
and had been brought out of bed in consequence, opened a cheerful
prospect for his relations and friends. It was rather a queer-looking
family: Kit, his mother, and the children, being all strongly alike.
Kit was disposed to be out of temper, as the best of us are too
often--but he looked at the youngest child who was sleeping soundly,
and from him to his other brother in the clothes-basket, and from him
to their mother, who had been at work without complaint since morning,
and thought it would be a better and kinder thing to be good-humoured.
So he rocked the cradle with his foot; made a face at the rebel in the
clothes-basket, which put him in high good-humour directly; and stoutly
determined to be talkative and make himself agreeable.
'Ah, mother!' said Kit, taking out his clasp-knife, and falling upon a
great piece of bread and meat which she had had ready for him, hours
before, 'what a one you are! There an't many such as you, I know.'
'I hope there are many a great deal better, Kit,' said Mrs Nubbles;
'and that there are, or ought to be, accordin' to what the parson at
chapel says.'
'Much he knows about it,' returned Kit contemptuously. 'Wait till he's
a widder and works like you do, and gets as little, and does as much,
and keeps his spirit up the same, and then I'll ask him what's o'clock
and trust him for being right to half a second.'
'Well,' said Mrs Nubbles, evading the point, 'your beer's down there by
the fender, Kit.'
'I see,' replied her son, taking up the porter pot, 'my love to you,
mother. And the parson's health too if you like. I don't bear him any
malice, not I!'
'Did you tell me, just now, that your master hadn't gone out to-night?'
inquired Mrs Nubbles.
'Yes,' said Kit, 'worse luck!'
'You should say better luck, I think,' returned his mother, 'because
Miss Nelly won't have been left alone.'
'Ah!' said Kit, 'I forgot that. I said worse luck, because I've been
watching ever since eight o'clock, and seen nothing of her.'
'I wonder what she'd say,' cried his mother, stopping in her work and
looking round, 'if she knew that every night, when she--poor thing--is
sitting alone at that window, you are watching in the open street for
fear any harm should come to her, and that you never leave the place or
come home to your bed though you're ever so tired, till such time as
you think she's safe in hers.'
'Never mind what she'd say,' replied Kit, with something like a blush
on his uncouth face; 'she'll never know nothing, and consequently,
she'll never say nothing.'
Mrs Nubbles ironed away in silence for a minute or two, and coming to
the fireplace for another iron, glanced stealthily at Kit while she
rubbed it on a board and dusted it with a duster, but said nothing
until she had returned to her table again: when, holding the iron at an
alarmingly short distance from her cheek, to test its temperature, and
looking round with a smile, she observed:
'I know what some people would say, Kit--'
'Nonsense,' interposed Kit with a perfect apprehension of what was to
follow.
'No, but they would indeed. Some people would say that you'd fallen in
love with her, I know they would.'
To this, Kit only replied by bashfully bidding his mother 'get out,'
and forming sundry strange figures with his legs and arms, accompanied
by sympathetic contortions of his face. Not deriving from these means
the relief which he sought, he bit off an immense mouthful from the
bread and meat, and took a quick drink of the porter; by which
artificial aids he choked himself and effected a diversion of the
subject.
'Speaking seriously though, Kit,' said his mother, taking up the theme
afresh, after a time, 'for of course I was only in joke just now, it's
very good and thoughtful, and like you, to do this, and never let
anybody know it, though some day I hope she may come to know it, for
I'm sure she would be very grateful to you and feel it very much. It's
a cruel thing to keep the dear child shut up there. I don't wonder
that the old gentleman wants to keep it from you.'
'He don't think it's cruel, bless you,' said Kit, 'and don't mean it to
be so, or he wouldn't do it--I do consider, mother, that he wouldn't do
it for all the gold and silver in the world. No, no, that he wouldn't.
I know him better than that.'
'Then what does he do it for, and why does he keep it so close from
you?' said Mrs Nubbles.
'That I don't know,' returned her son. 'If he hadn't tried to keep it
so close though, I should never have found it out, for it was his
getting me away at night and sending me off so much earlier than he
used to, that first made me curious to know what was going on. Hark!
what's that?'
'It's only somebody outside.'
'It's somebody crossing over here,' said Kit, standing up to listen,
'and coming very fast too. He can't have gone out after I left, and
the house caught fire, mother!'
The boy stood, for a moment, really bereft, by the apprehension he had
conjured up, of the power to move. The footsteps drew nearer, the door
was opened with a hasty hand, and the child herself, pale and
breathless, and hastily wrapped in a few disordered garments, hurried
into the room.
'Miss Nelly! What is the matter!' cried mother and son together.
'I must not stay a moment,' she returned, 'grandfather has been taken
very ill. I found him in a fit upon the floor--'
'I'll run for a doctor'--said Kit, seizing his brimless hat. 'I'll be
there directly, I'll--'
'No, no,' cried Nell, 'there is one there, you're not wanted,
you--you--must never come near us any more!'
'What!' roared Kit.
'Never again,' said the child. 'Don't ask me why, for I don't know.
Pray don't ask me why, pray don't be sorry, pray don't be vexed with
me! I have nothing to do with it indeed!'
Kit looked at her with his eyes stretched wide; and opened and shut his
mouth a great many times; but couldn't get out one word.
'He complains and raves of you,' said the child, 'I don't know what you
have done, but I hope it's nothing very bad.'
'I done!' roared Kit.
'He cried that you're the cause of all his misery,' returned the child
with tearful eyes; 'he screamed and called for you; they say you must
not come near him or he will die. You must not return to us any more.
I came to tell you. I thought it would be better that I should come
than somebody quite strange. Oh, Kit, what have you done? You, in
whom I trusted so much, and who were almost the only friend I had!'
The unfortunate Kit looked at his young mistress harder and harder, and
with eyes growing wider and wider, but was perfectly motionless and
silent.
'I have brought his money for the week,' said the child, looking to the
woman and laying it on the table--'and--and--a little more, for he was
always good and kind to me. I hope he will be sorry and do well
somewhere else and not take this to heart too much. It grieves me very
much to part with him like this, but there is no help. It must be
done. Good night!'
With the tears streaming down her face, and her slight figure trembling
with the agitation of the scene she had left, the shock she had
received, the errand she had just discharged, and a thousand painful
and affectionate feelings, the child hastened to the door, and
disappeared as rapidly as she had come.
The poor woman, who had no cause to doubt her son, but every reason for
relying on his honesty and truth, was staggered, notwithstanding, by
his not having advanced one word in his defence. Visions of gallantry,
knavery, robbery; and of the nightly absences from home for which he
had accounted so strangely, having been occasioned by some unlawful
pursuit; flocked into her brain and rendered her afraid to question
him. She rocked herself upon a chair, wringing her hands and weeping
bitterly, but Kit made no attempt to comfort her and remained quite
bewildered. The baby in the cradle woke up and cried; the boy in the
clothes-basket fell over on his back with the basket upon him, and was
seen no more; the mother wept louder yet and rocked faster; but Kit,
insensible to all the din and tumult, remained in a state of utter
stupefaction.
CHAPTER 11
Quiet and solitude were destined to hold uninterrupted rule no longer,
beneath the roof that sheltered the child. Next morning, the old man
was in a raging fever accompanied with delirium; and sinking under the
influence of this disorder he lay for many weeks in imminent peril of
his life. There was watching enough, now, but it was the watching of
strangers who made a greedy trade of it, and who, in the intervals in
their attendance upon the sick man huddled together with a ghastly
good-fellowship, and ate and drank and made merry; for disease and
death were their ordinary household gods.
Yet, in all the hurry and crowding of such a time, the child was more
alone than she had ever been before; alone in spirit, alone in her
devotion to him who was wasting away upon his burning bed; alone in her
unfeigned sorrow, and her unpurchased sympathy. Day after day, and
night after night, found her still by the pillow of the unconscious
sufferer, still anticipating his every want, still listening to those
repetitions of her name and those anxieties and cares for her, which
were ever uppermost among his feverish wanderings.
The house was no longer theirs. Even the sick chamber seemed to be
retained, on the uncertain tenure of Mr Quilp's favour. The old man's
illness had not lasted many days when he took formal possession of the
premises and all upon them, in virtue of certain legal powers to that
effect, which few understood and none presumed to call in question.
This important step secured, with the assistance of a man of law whom
he brought with him for the purpose, the dwarf proceeded to establish
himself and his coadjutor in the house, as an assertion of his claim
against all comers; and then set about making his quarters comfortable,
after his own fashion.
To this end, Mr Quilp encamped in the back parlour, having first put an
effectual stop to any further business by shutting up the shop. Having
looked out, from among the old furniture, the handsomest and most
commodious chair he could possibly find (which he reserved for his own
use) and an especially hideous and uncomfortable one (which he
considerately appropriated to the accommodation of his friend) he
caused them to be carried into this room, and took up his position in
great state. The apartment was very far removed from the old man's
chamber, but Mr Quilp deemed it prudent, as a precaution against
infection from fever, and a means of wholesome fumigation, not only to
smoke, himself, without cessation, but to insist upon it that his legal
friend did the like. Moreover, he sent an express to the wharf for the
tumbling boy, who arriving with all despatch was enjoined to sit
himself down in another chair just inside the door, continually to
smoke a great pipe which the dwarf had provided for the purpose, and to
take it from his lips under any pretence whatever, were it only for one
minute at a time, if he dared. These arrangements completed, Mr Quilp
looked round him with chuckling satisfaction, and remarked that he
called that comfort.
The legal gentleman, whose melodious name was Brass, might have called
it comfort also but for two drawbacks: one was, that he could by no
exertion sit easy in his chair, the seat of which was very hard,
angular, slippery, and sloping; the other, that tobacco-smoke always
caused him great internal discomposure and annoyance. But as he was
quite a creature of Mr Quilp's and had a thousand reasons for
conciliating his good opinion, he tried to smile, and nodded his
acquiescence with the best grace he could assume.
This Brass was an attorney of no very good repute, from Bevis Marks in
the city of London; he was a tall, meagre man, with a nose like a wen,
a protruding forehead, retreating eyes, and hair of a deep red. He
wore a long black surtout reaching nearly to his ankles, short black
trousers, high shoes, and cotton stockings of a bluish grey. He had a
cringing manner, but a very harsh voice; and his blandest smiles were
so extremely forbidding, that to have had his company under the least
repulsive circumstances, one would have wished him to be out of temper
that he might only scowl.
Quilp looked at his legal adviser, and seeing that he was winking very
much in the anguish of his pipe, that he sometimes shuddered when he
happened to inhale its full flavour, and that he constantly fanned the
smoke from him, was quite overjoyed and rubbed his hands with glee.
'Smoke away, you dog,' said Quilp, turning to the boy; 'fill your pipe
again and smoke it fast, down to the last whiff, or I'll put the
sealing-waxed end of it in the fire and rub it red hot upon your
tongue.'
Luckily the boy was case-hardened, and would have smoked a small
lime-kiln if anybody had treated him with it. Wherefore, he only
muttered a brief defiance of his master, and did as he was ordered.
'Is it good, Brass, is it nice, is it fragrant, do you feel like the
Grand Turk?' said Quilp.
Mr Brass thought that if he did, the Grand Turk's feelings were by no
means to be envied, but he said it was famous, and he had no doubt he
felt very like that Potentate.
'This is the way to keep off fever,' said Quilp, 'this is the way to
keep off every calamity of life! We'll never leave off, all the time
we stop here--smoke away, you dog, or you shall swallow the pipe!'
'Shall we stop here long, Mr Quilp?' inquired his legal friend, when
the dwarf had given his boy this gentle admonition.
'We must stop, I suppose, till the old gentleman up stairs is dead,'
returned Quilp.
'He he he!' laughed Mr Brass, 'oh! very good!'
'Smoke away!' cried Quilp. 'Never stop! You can talk as you smoke.
Don't lose time.'
'He he he!' cried Brass faintly, as he again applied himself to the
odious pipe. 'But if he should get better, Mr Quilp?'
'Then we shall stop till he does, and no longer,' returned the dwarf.
'How kind it is of you, Sir, to wait till then!' said Brass. 'Some
people, Sir, would have sold or removed the goods--oh dear, the very
instant the law allowed 'em. Some people, Sir, would have been all
flintiness and granite. Some people, sir, would have--'
'Some people would have spared themselves the jabbering of such a
parrot as you,' interposed the dwarf.
'He he he!' cried Brass. 'You have such spirits!'
The smoking sentinel at the door interposed in this place, and without
taking his pipe from his lips, growled,
'Here's the gal a comin' down.'
'The what, you dog?' said Quilp.
'The gal,' returned the boy. 'Are you deaf?'
'Oh!' said Quilp, drawing in his breath with great relish as if he were
taking soup, 'you and I will have such a settling presently; there's
such a scratching and bruising in store for you, my dear young friend!
Aha! Nelly! How is he now, my duck of diamonds?'
'He's very bad,' replied the weeping child.
'What a pretty little Nell!' cried Quilp.
'Oh beautiful, sir, beautiful indeed,' said Brass. 'Quite charming.'
'Has she come to sit upon Quilp's knee,' said the dwarf, in what he
meant to be a soothing tone, 'or is she going to bed in her own little
room inside here? Which is poor Nelly going to do?'
'What a remarkable pleasant way he has with children!' muttered Brass,
as if in confidence between himself and the ceiling; 'upon my word it's
quite a treat to hear him.'
'I'm not going to stay at all,' faltered Nell. 'I want a few things
out of that room, and then I--I--won't come down here any more.'
'And a very nice little room it is!' said the dwarf looking into it as
the child entered. 'Quite a bower! You're sure you're not going to
use it; you're sure you're not coming back, Nelly?'
'No,' replied the child, hurrying away, with the few articles of dress
she had come to remove; 'never again! Never again.'
'She's very sensitive,' said Quilp, looking after her. 'Very
sensitive; that's a pity. The bedstead is much about my size. I think
I shall make it MY little room.'
Mr Brass encouraging this idea, as he would have encouraged any other
emanating from the same source, the dwarf walked in to try the effect.
This he did, by throwing himself on his back upon the bed with his pipe
in his mouth, and then kicking up his legs and smoking violently. Mr
Brass applauding this picture very much, and the bed being soft and
comfortable, Mr Quilp determined to use it, both as a sleeping place by
night and as a kind of Divan by day; and in order that it might be
converted to the latter purpose at once, remained where he was, and
smoked his pipe out. The legal gentleman being by this time rather
giddy and perplexed in his ideas (for this was one of the operations of
the tobacco on his nervous system), took the opportunity of slinking
away into the open air, where, in course of time, he recovered
sufficiently to return with a countenance of tolerable composure. He
was soon led on by the malicious dwarf to smoke himself into a relapse,
and in that state stumbled upon a settee where he slept till morning.
Such were Mr Quilp's first proceedings on entering upon his new
property. He was, for some days, restrained by business from
performing any particular pranks, as his time was pretty well occupied
between taking, with the assistance of Mr Brass, a minute inventory of
all the goods in the place, and going abroad upon his other concerns
which happily engaged him for several hours at a time. His avarice and
caution being, now, thoroughly awakened, however, he was never absent
from the house one night; and his eagerness for some termination, good
or bad, to the old man's disorder, increasing rapidly, as the time
passed by, soon began to vent itself in open murmurs and exclamations
of impatience.
Nell shrank timidly from all the dwarf's advances towards conversation,
and fled from the very sound of his voice; nor were the lawyer's smiles
less terrible to her than Quilp's grimaces. She lived in such
continual dread and apprehension of meeting one or other of them on the
stairs or in the passages if she stirred from her grandfather's
chamber, that she seldom left it, for a moment, until late at night,
when the silence encouraged her to venture forth and breathe the purer
air of some empty room.
One night, she had stolen to her usual window, and was sitting there
very sorrowfully--for the old man had been worse that day--when she
thought she heard her name pronounced by a voice in the street.
Looking down, she recognised Kit, whose endeavours to attract her
attention had roused her from her sad reflections.
'Miss Nell!' said the boy in a low voice.
'Yes,' replied the child, doubtful whether she ought to hold any
communication with the supposed culprit, but inclining to her old
favourite still; 'what do you want?'
'I have wanted to say a word to you, for a long time,' the boy replied,
'but the people below have driven me away and wouldn't let me see you.
You don't believe--I hope you don't really believe--that I deserve to
be cast off as I have been; do you, miss?'
'I must believe it,' returned the child. 'Or why would grandfather
have been so angry with you?'
'I don't know,' replied Kit. 'I'm sure I never deserved it from him,
no, nor from you. I can say that, with a true and honest heart, any
way. And then to be driven from the door, when I only came to ask how
old master was--!'
'They never told me that,' said the child. 'I didn't know it indeed.
I wouldn't have had them do it for the world.'
'Thank'ee, miss,' returned Kit, 'it's comfortable to hear you say that.
I said I never would believe that it was your doing.'
'That was right!' said the child eagerly.
'Miss Nell,' cried the boy coming under the window, and speaking in a
lower tone, 'there are new masters down stairs. It's a change for you.'
'It is indeed,' replied the child.
'And so it will be for him when he gets better,' said the boy, pointing
towards the sick room.
'--If he ever does,' added the child, unable to restrain her tears.
'Oh, he'll do that, he'll do that,' said Kit. 'I'm sure he will. You
mustn't be cast down, Miss Nell. Now don't be, pray!'
These words of encouragement and consolation were few and roughly said,
but they affected the child and made her, for the moment, weep the more.
'He'll be sure to get better now,' said the boy anxiously, 'if you
don't give way to low spirits and turn ill yourself, which would make
him worse and throw him back, just as he was recovering. When he does,
say a good word--say a kind word for me, Miss Nell!'
'They tell me I must not even mention your name to him for a long, long
time,' rejoined the child, 'I dare not; and even if I might, what good
would a kind word do you, Kit? We shall be very poor. We shall
scarcely have bread to eat.'
'It's not that I may be taken back,' said the boy, 'that I ask the
favour of you. It isn't for the sake of food and wages that I've been
waiting about so long in hopes to see you. Don't think that I'd come
in a time of trouble to talk of such things as them.'
The child looked gratefully and kindly at him, but waited that he might
speak again.
'No, it's not that,' said Kit hesitating, 'it's something very
different from that. I haven't got much sense, I know, but if he could
be brought to believe that I'd been a faithful servant to him, doing
the best I could, and never meaning harm, perhaps he mightn't--'
Here Kit faltered so long that the child entreated him to speak out,
and quickly, for it was very late, and time to shut the window.
'Perhaps he mightn't think it over venturesome of me to say--well then,
to say this,' cried Kit with sudden boldness. 'This home is gone from
you and him. Mother and I have got a poor one, but that's better than
this with all these people here; and why not come there, till he's had
time to look about, and find a better!'
The child did not speak. Kit, in the relief of having made his
proposition, found his tongue loosened, and spoke out in its favour
with his utmost eloquence.
'You think,' said the boy, 'that it's very small and inconvenient. So
it is, but it's very clean. Perhaps you think it would be noisy, but
there's not a quieter court than ours in all the town. Don't be afraid
of the children; the baby hardly ever cries, and the other one is very
good--besides, I'd mind 'em. They wouldn't vex you much, I'm sure. Do
try, Miss Nell, do try. The little front room up stairs is very
pleasant. You can see a piece of the church-clock, through the
chimneys, and almost tell the time; mother says it would be just the
thing for you, and so it would, and you'd have her to wait upon you
both, and me to run of errands. We don't mean money, bless you; you're
not to think of that! Will you try him, Miss Nell? Only say you'll
try him. Do try to make old master come, and ask him first what I have
done. Will you only promise that, Miss Nell?'
Before the child could reply to this earnest solicitation, the
street-door opened, and Mr Brass thrusting out his night-capped head
called in a surly voice, 'Who's there!' Kit immediately glided away,
and Nell, closing the window softly, drew back into the room.
Before Mr Brass had repeated his inquiry many times, Mr Quilp, also
embellished with a night-cap, emerged from the same door and looked
carefully up and down the street, and up at all the windows of the
house, from the opposite side. Finding that there was nobody in sight,
he presently returned into the house with his legal friend, protesting
(as the child heard from the staircase), that there was a league and
plot against him; that he was in danger of being robbed and plundered
by a band of conspirators who prowled about the house at all seasons;
and that he would delay no longer but take immediate steps for
disposing of the property and returning to his own peaceful roof.
Having growled forth these, and a great many other threats of the same
nature, he coiled himself once more in the child's little bed, and Nell
crept softly up the stairs.
It was natural enough that her short and unfinished dialogue with Kit
should leave a strong impression on her mind, and influence her dreams
that night and her recollections for a long, long time. Surrounded by
unfeeling creditors, and mercenary attendants upon the sick, and
meeting in the height of her anxiety and sorrow with little regard or
sympathy even from the women about her, it is not surprising that the
affectionate heart of the child should have been touched to the quick
by one kind and generous spirit, however uncouth the temple in which it
dwelt. Thank Heaven that the temples of such spirits are not made with
hands, and that they may be even more worthily hung with poor
patch-work than with purple and fine linen!
CHAPTER 12
At length, the crisis of the old man's disorder was past, and he began
to mend. By very slow and feeble degrees his consciousness came back;
but the mind was weakened and its functions were impaired. He was
patient, and quiet; often sat brooding, but not despondently, for a
long space; was easily amused, even by a sun-beam on the wall or
ceiling; made no complaint that the days were long, or the nights
tedious; and appeared indeed to have lost all count of time, and every
sense of care or weariness. He would sit, for hours together, with
Nell's small hand in his, playing with the fingers and stopping
sometimes to smooth her hair or kiss her brow; and, when he saw that
tears were glistening in her eyes, would look, amazed, about him for
the cause, and forget his wonder even while he looked.
The child and he rode out; the old man propped up with pillows, and the
child beside him. They were hand in hand as usual. The noise and
motion in the streets fatigued his brain at first, but he was not
surprised, or curious, or pleased, or irritated. He was asked if he
remembered this, or that. 'O yes,' he said, 'quite well--why not?'
Sometimes he turned his head, and looked, with earnest gaze and
outstretched neck, after some stranger in the crowd, until he
disappeared from sight; but, to the question why he did this, he
answered not a word.
He was sitting in his easy chair one day, and Nell upon a stool beside
him, when a man outside the door inquired if he might enter. 'Yes,' he
said without emotion, 'it was Quilp, he knew. Quilp was master there.
Of course he might come in.' And so he did.
'I'm glad to see you well again at last, neighbour,' said the dwarf,
sitting down opposite him. 'You're quite strong now?'
'Yes,' said the old man feebly, 'yes.'
'I don't want to hurry you, you know, neighbour,' said the dwarf,
raising his voice, for the old man's senses were duller than they had
been; 'but, as soon as you can arrange your future proceedings, the
better.'
'Surely,' said the old man. 'The better for all parties.'
'You see,' pursued Quilp after a short pause, 'the goods being once
removed, this house would be uncomfortable; uninhabitable in fact.'
'You say true,' returned the old man. 'Poor Nell too, what would she
do?'
'Exactly,' bawled the dwarf nodding his head; 'that's very well
observed. Then will you consider about it, neighbour?'
'I will, certainly,' replied the old man. 'We shall not stop here.'
'So I supposed,' said the dwarf. 'I have sold the things. They have
not yielded quite as much as they might have done, but pretty
well--pretty well. To-day's Tuesday. When shall they be moved?
There's no hurry--shall we say this afternoon?'
'Say Friday morning,' returned the old man.
'Very good,' said the dwarf. 'So be it--with the understanding that I
can't go beyond that day, neighbour, on any account.'
'Good,' returned the old man. 'I shall remember it.'
Mr Quilp seemed rather puzzled by the strange, even spiritless way in
which all this was said; but as the old man nodded his head and
repeated 'on Friday morning. I shall remember it,' he had no excuse
for dwelling on the subject any further, and so took a friendly leave
with many expressions of good-will and many compliments to his friend
on his looking so remarkably well; and went below stairs to report
progress to Mr Brass.
All that day, and all the next, the old man remained in this state. He
wandered up and down the house and into and out of the various rooms,
as if with some vague intent of bidding them adieu, but he referred
neither by direct allusions nor in any other manner to the interview of
the morning or the necessity of finding some other shelter. An
indistinct idea he had, that the child was desolate and in want of
help; for he often drew her to his bosom and bade her be of good cheer,
saying that they would not desert each other; but he seemed unable to
contemplate their real position more distinctly, and was still the
listless, passionless creature that suffering of mind and body had left
him.
We call this a state of childishness, but it is the same poor hollow
mockery of it, that death is of sleep. Where, in the dull eyes of
doating men, are the laughing light and life of childhood, the gaiety
that has known no check, the frankness that has felt no chill, the hope
that has never withered, the joys that fade in blossoming? Where, in
the sharp lineaments of rigid and unsightly death, is the calm beauty
of slumber, telling of rest for the waking hours that are past, and
gentle hopes and loves for those which are to come? Lay death and
sleep down, side by side, and say who shall find the two akin. Send
forth the child and childish man together, and blush for the pride that
libels our own old happy state, and gives its title to an ugly and
distorted image.
Thursday arrived, and there was no alteration in the old man. But a
change came upon him that evening as he and the child sat silently
together.
In a small dull yard below his window, there was a tree--green and
flourishing enough, for such a place--and as the air stirred among its
leaves, it threw a rippling shadow on the white wall. The old man sat
watching the shadows as they trembled in this patch of light, until the
sun went down; and when it was night, and the moon was slowly rising,
he still sat in the same spot.
To one who had been tossing on a restless bed so long, even these few
green leaves and this tranquil light, although it languished among
chimneys and house-tops, were pleasant things. They suggested quiet
places afar off, and rest, and peace. The child thought, more than
once that he was moved: and had forborne to speak. But now he shed
tears--tears that it lightened her aching heart to see--and making as
though he would fall upon his knees, besought her to forgive him.
'Forgive you--what?' said Nell, interposing to prevent his purpose.
'Oh grandfather, what should I forgive?'
'All that is past, all that has come upon thee, Nell, all that was done
in that uneasy dream,' returned the old man.
'Do not talk so,' said the child. 'Pray do not. Let us speak of
something else.'
'Yes, yes, we will,' he rejoined. 'And it shall be of what we talked
of long ago--many months--months is it, or weeks, or days? which is it
Nell?'
'I do not understand you,' said the child.
'It has come back upon me to-day, it has all come back since we have
been sitting here. I bless thee for it, Nell!'
'For what, dear grandfather?'
'For what you said when we were first made beggars, Nell. Let us speak
softly. Hush! for if they knew our purpose down stairs, they would
cry that I was mad and take thee from me. We will not stop here
another day. We will go far away from here.'
'Yes, let us go,' said the child earnestly. 'Let us begone from this
place, and never turn back or think of it again. Let us wander
barefoot through the world, rather than linger here.'
'We will,' answered the old man, 'we will travel afoot through the
fields and woods, and by the side of rivers, and trust ourselves to God
in the places where He dwells. It is far better to lie down at night
beneath an open sky like that yonder--see how bright it is--than to
rest in close rooms which are always full of care and weary dreams.
Thou and I together, Nell, may be cheerful and happy yet, and learn to
forget this time, as if it had never been.'
'We will be happy,' cried the child. 'We never can be here.'
'No, we never can again--never again--that's truly said,' rejoined the
old man. 'Let us steal away to-morrow morning--early and softly, that
we may not be seen or heard--and leave no trace or track for them to
follow by. Poor Nell! Thy cheek is pale, and thy eyes are heavy with
watching and weeping for me--I know--for me; but thou wilt be well
again, and merry too, when we are far away. To-morrow morning, dear,
we'll turn our faces from this scene of sorrow, and be as free and
happy as the birds.'
And then the old man clasped his hands above her head, and said, in a
few broken words, that from that time forth they would wander up and
down together, and never part more until Death took one or other of the
twain.