{tocify}

Our Mutual Friend

Chapter

Book

first_page
play_arrow
last_page
00:00
00:00
volume_down_alt volume_up


Chapter 6. 
THE GOLDEN DUSTMAN FALLS INTO WORSE COMPANY

It had come to pass that Mr Silas Wegg now rarely attended the minion of fortune and the worm of the hour, at his (the worm’s and minion’s) own house, but lay under general instructions to await him within a certain margin of hours at the Bower. Mr Wegg took this arrangement in great dudgeon, because the appointed hours were evening hours, and those he considered precious to the progress of the friendly move. But it was quite in character, he bitterly remarked to Mr Venus, that the upstart who had trampled on those eminent creatures, Miss Elizabeth, Master George, Aunt Jane, and Uncle Parker, should oppress his literary man.

The Roman Empire having worked out its destruction, Mr Boffin next appeared in a cab with Rollin’s Ancient History, which valuable work being found to possess lethargic properties, broke down, at about the period when the whole of the army of Alexander the Macedonian (at that time about forty thousand strong) burst into tears simultaneously, on his being taken with a shivering fit after bathing. The Wars of the Jews, likewise languishing under Mr Wegg’s generalship, Mr Boffin arrived in another cab with Plutarch: whose Lives he found in the sequel extremely entertaining, though he hoped Plutarch might not expect him to believe them all. What to believe, in the course of his reading, was Mr Boffin’s chief literary difficulty indeed; for some time he was divided in his mind between half, all, or none; at length, when he decided, as a moderate man, to compound with half, the question still remained, which half? And that stumbling-block he never got over.

One evening, when Silas Wegg had grown accustomed to the arrival of his patron in a cab, accompanied by some profane historian charged with unutterable names of incomprehensible peoples, of impossible descent, waging wars any number of years and syllables long, and carrying illimitable hosts and riches about, with the greatest ease, beyond the confines of geography—one evening the usual time passed by, and no patron appeared. After half an hour’s grace, Mr Wegg proceeded to the outer gate, and there executed a whistle, conveying to Mr Venus, if perchance within hearing, the tidings of his being at home and disengaged. Forth from the shelter of a neighbouring wall, Mr Venus then emerged.

‘Brother in arms,’ said Mr Wegg, in excellent spirits, ‘welcome!’

In return, Mr Venus gave him a rather dry good evening.

‘Walk in, brother,’ said Silas, clapping him on the shoulder, ‘and take your seat in my chimley corner; for what says the ballad?

     “No malice to dread, sir,
     And no falsehood to fear,
     But truth to delight me, Mr Venus,
     And I forgot what to cheer.
     Li toddle de om dee.
     And something to guide,
     My ain fireside, sir,
     My ain fireside.”’

With this quotation (depending for its neatness rather on the spirit than the words), Mr Wegg conducted his guest to his hearth.

‘And you come, brother,’ said Mr Wegg, in a hospitable glow, ‘you come like I don’t know what—exactly like it—I shouldn’t know you from it—shedding a halo all around you.’

‘What kind of halo?’ asked Mr Venus.

‘’Ope sir,’ replied Silas. ‘That’s your halo.’

Mr Venus appeared doubtful on the point, and looked rather discontentedly at the fire.

‘We’ll devote the evening, brother,’ exclaimed Wegg, ‘to prosecute our friendly move. And arterwards, crushing a flowing wine-cup—which I allude to brewing rum and water—we’ll pledge one another. For what says the Poet?

     “And you needn’t Mr Venus be your black bottle,
     For surely I’ll be mine,
     And we’ll take a glass with a slice of lemon in it to which
     you’re partial,
     For auld lang syne.”’

This flow of quotation and hospitality in Wegg indicated his observation of some little querulousness on the part of Venus.

‘Why, as to the friendly move,’ observed the last-named gentleman, rubbing his knees peevishly, ‘one of my objections to it is, that it don’t move.’

‘Rome, brother,’ returned Wegg: ‘a city which (it may not be generally known) originated in twins and a wolf; and ended in Imperial marble: wasn’t built in a day.’

‘Did I say it was?’ asked Venus.

‘No, you did not, brother. Well-inquired.’

‘But I do say,’ proceeded Venus, ‘that I am taken from among my trophies of anatomy, am called upon to exchange my human warious for mere coal-ashes warious, and nothing comes of it. I think I must give up.’

‘No, sir!’ remonstrated Wegg, enthusiastically. ‘No, Sir!

     “Charge, Chester, charge,
     On, Mr Venus, on!”
 
Never say die, sir! A man of your mark!’

‘It’s not so much saying it that I object to,’ returned Mr Venus, ‘as doing it. And having got to do it whether or no, I can’t afford to waste my time on groping for nothing in cinders.’

‘But think how little time you have given to the move, sir, after all,’ urged Wegg. ‘Add the evenings so occupied together, and what do they come to? And you, sir, harmonizer with myself in opinions, views, and feelings, you with the patience to fit together on wires the whole framework of society—I allude to the human skelinton—you to give in so soon!’

‘I don’t like it,’ returned Mr Venus moodily, as he put his head between his knees and stuck up his dusty hair. ‘And there’s no encouragement to go on.’

‘Not them Mounds without,’ said Mr Wegg, extending his right hand with an air of solemn reasoning, ‘encouragement? Not them Mounds now looking down upon us?’

‘They’re too big,’ grumbled Venus. ‘What’s a scratch here and a scrape there, a poke in this place and a dig in the other, to them. Besides; what have we found?’

‘What have we found?’ cried Wegg, delighted to be able to acquiesce. ‘Ah! There I grant you, comrade. Nothing. But on the contrary, comrade, what may we find? There you’ll grant me. Anything.’

‘I don’t like it,’ pettishly returned Venus as before. ‘I came into it without enough consideration. And besides again. Isn’t your own Mr Boffin well acquainted with the Mounds? And wasn’t he well acquainted with the deceased and his ways? And has he ever showed any expectation of finding anything?’

At that moment wheels were heard.

‘Now, I should be loth,’ said Mr Wegg, with an air of patient injury, ‘to think so ill of him as to suppose him capable of coming at this time of night. And yet it sounds like him.’

A ring at the yard bell.

‘It is him,’ said Mr Wegg, ‘and he is capable of it. I am sorry, because I could have wished to keep up a little lingering fragment of respect for him.’

Here Mr Boffin was heard lustily calling at the yard gate, ‘Halloa! Wegg! Halloa!’

‘Keep your seat, Mr Venus,’ said Wegg. ‘He may not stop.’ And then called out, ‘Halloa, sir! Halloa! I’m with you directly, sir! Half a minute, Mr Boffin. Coming, sir, as fast as my leg will bring me!’ And so with a show of much cheerful alacrity stumped out to the gate with a light, and there, through the window of a cab, descried Mr Boffin inside, blocked up with books.

‘Here! lend a hand, Wegg,’ said Mr Boffin excitedly, ‘I can’t get out till the way is cleared for me. This is the Annual Register, Wegg, in a cab-full of wollumes. Do you know him?’

‘Know the Animal Register, sir?’ returned the Impostor, who had caught the name imperfectly. ‘For a trifling wager, I think I could find any Animal in him, blindfold, Mr Boffin.’

‘And here’s Kirby’s Wonderful Museum,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘and Caulfield’s Characters, and Wilson’s. Such Characters, Wegg, such Characters! I must have one or two of the best of ‘em to-night. It’s amazing what places they used to put the guineas in, wrapped up in rags. Catch hold of that pile of wollumes, Wegg, or it’ll bulge out and burst into the mud. Is there anyone about, to help?’

‘There’s a friend of mine, sir, that had the intention of spending the evening with me when I gave you up—much against my will—for the night.’

‘Call him out,’ cried Mr Boffin in a bustle; ‘get him to bear a hand. Don’t drop that one under your arm. It’s Dancer. Him and his sister made pies of a dead sheep they found when they were out a walking. Where’s your friend? Oh, here’s your friend. Would you be so good as help Wegg and myself with these books? But don’t take Jemmy Taylor of Southwark, nor yet Jemmy Wood of Gloucester. These are the two Jemmys. I’ll carry them myself.’

Not ceasing to talk and bustle, in a state of great excitement, Mr Boffin directed the removal and arrangement of the books, appearing to be in some sort beside himself until they were all deposited on the floor, and the cab was dismissed.

‘There!’ said Mr Boffin, gloating over them. ‘There they are, like the four-and-twenty fiddlers—all of a row. Get on your spectacles, Wegg; I know where to find the best of ‘em, and we’ll have a taste at once of what we have got before us. What’s your friend’s name?’

Mr Wegg presented his friend as Mr Venus.

‘Eh?’ cried Mr Boffin, catching at the name. ‘Of Clerkenwell?’

‘Of Clerkenwell, sir,’ said Mr Venus.

‘Why, I’ve heard of you,’ cried Mr Boffin, ‘I heard of you in the old man’s time. You knew him. Did you ever buy anything of him?’ With piercing eagerness.

‘No, sir,’ returned Venus.

‘But he showed you things; didn’t he?’

Mr Venus, with a glance at his friend, replied in the affirmative.

‘What did he show you?’ asked Mr Boffin, putting his hands behind him, and eagerly advancing his head. ‘Did he show you boxes, little cabinets, pocket-books, parcels, anything locked or sealed, anything tied up?’

Mr Venus shook his head.

‘Are you a judge of china?’

Mr Venus again shook his head.

‘Because if he had ever showed you a teapot, I should be glad to know of it,’ said Mr Boffin. And then, with his right hand at his lips, repeated thoughtfully, ‘a Teapot, a Teapot’, and glanced over the books on the floor, as if he knew there was something interesting connected with a teapot, somewhere among them.

Mr Wegg and Mr Venus looked at one another wonderingly: and Mr Wegg, in fitting on his spectacles, opened his eyes wide, over their rims, and tapped the side of his nose: as an admonition to Venus to keep himself generally wide awake.

‘A Teapot,’ repeated Mr Boffin, continuing to muse and survey the books; ‘a Teapot, a Teapot. Are you ready, Wegg?’

‘I am at your service, sir,’ replied that gentleman, taking his usual seat on the usual settle, and poking his wooden leg under the table before it. ‘Mr Venus, would you make yourself useful, and take a seat beside me, sir, for the conveniency of snuffing the candles?’

Venus complying with the invitation while it was yet being given, Silas pegged at him with his wooden leg, to call his particular attention to Mr Boffin standing musing before the fire, in the space between the two settles.

‘Hem! Ahem!’ coughed Mr Wegg to attract his employer’s attention. ‘Would you wish to commence with an Animal, sir—from the Register?’

‘No,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘no, Wegg.’ With that, producing a little book from his breast-pocket, he handed it with great care to the literary gentlemen, and inquired, ‘What do you call that, Wegg?’

‘This, sir,’ replied Silas, adjusting his spectacles, and referring to the title-page, ‘is Merryweather’s Lives and Anecdotes of Misers. Mr Venus, would you make yourself useful and draw the candles a little nearer, sir?’ This to have a special opportunity of bestowing a stare upon his comrade.

‘Which of ‘em have you got in that lot?’ asked Mr Boffin. ‘Can you find out pretty easy?’

‘Well, sir,’ replied Silas, turning to the table of contents and slowly fluttering the leaves of the book, ‘I should say they must be pretty well all here, sir; here’s a large assortment, sir; my eye catches John Overs, sir, John Little, sir, Dick Jarrel, John Elwes, the Reverend Mr Jones of Blewbury, Vulture Hopkins, Daniel Dancer—’

‘Give us Dancer, Wegg,’ said Mr Boffin.

With another stare at his comrade, Silas sought and found the place.

‘Page a hundred and nine, Mr Boffin. Chapter eight. Contents of chapter, “His birth and estate. His garments and outward appearance. Miss Dancer and her feminine graces. The Miser’s Mansion. The finding of a treasure. The Story of the Mutton Pies. A Miser’s Idea of Death. Bob, the Miser’s cur. Griffiths and his Master. How to turn a penny. A substitute for a Fire. The Advantages of keeping a Snuff-box. The Miser dies without a Shirt. The Treasures of a Dunghill—“’

‘Eh? What’s that?’ demanded Mr Boffin.

‘“The Treasures,” sir,’ repeated Silas, reading very distinctly, ‘“of a Dunghill.” Mr Venus, sir, would you obleege with the snuffers?’ This, to secure attention to his adding with his lips only, ‘Mounds!’

Mr Boffin drew an arm-chair into the space where he stood, and said, seating himself and slyly rubbing his hands:

‘Give us Dancer.’

Mr Wegg pursued the biography of that eminent man through its various phases of avarice and dirt, through Miss Dancer’s death on a sick regimen of cold dumpling, and through Mr Dancer’s keeping his rags together with a hayband, and warming his dinner by sitting upon it, down to the consolatory incident of his dying naked in a sack. After which he read on as follows:

‘“The house, or rather the heap of ruins, in which Mr Dancer lived, and which at his death devolved to the right of Captain Holmes, was a most miserable, decayed building, for it had not been repaired for more than half a century.”’

(Here Mr Wegg eyes his comrade and the room in which they sat: which had not been repaired for a long time.)

‘“But though poor in external structure, the ruinous fabric was very rich in the interior. It took many weeks to explore its whole contents; and Captain Holmes found it a very agreeable task to dive into the miser’s secret hoards.”’

(Here Mr Wegg repeated ‘secret hoards’, and pegged his comrade again.)

‘“One of Mr Dancer’s richest escretoires was found to be a dungheap in the cowhouse; a sum but little short of two thousand five hundred pounds was contained in this rich piece of manure; and in an old jacket, carefully tied, and strongly nailed down to the manger, in bank notes and gold were found five hundred pounds more.”’

(Here Mr Wegg’s wooden leg started forward under the table, and slowly elevated itself as he read on.)

‘“Several bowls were discovered filled with guineas and half-guineas; and at different times on searching the corners of the house they found various parcels of bank notes. Some were crammed into the crevices of the wall”’;

(Here Mr Venus looked at the wall.)

‘“Bundles were hid under the cushions and covers of the chairs”’;

(Here Mr Venus looked under himself on the settle.)

‘“Some were reposing snugly at the back of the drawers; and notes amounting to six hundred pounds were found neatly doubled up in the inside of an old teapot. In the stable the Captain found jugs full of old dollars and shillings. The chimney was not left unsearched, and paid very well for the trouble; for in nineteen different holes, all filled with soot, were found various sums of money, amounting together to more than two hundred pounds.”’

On the way to this crisis Mr Wegg’s wooden leg had gradually elevated itself more and more, and he had nudged Mr Venus with his opposite elbow deeper and deeper, until at length the preservation of his balance became incompatible with the two actions, and he now dropped over sideways upon that gentleman, squeezing him against the settle’s edge. Nor did either of the two, for some few seconds, make any effort to recover himself; both remaining in a kind of pecuniary swoon.

But the sight of Mr Boffin sitting in the arm-chair hugging himself, with his eyes upon the fire, acted as a restorative. Counterfeiting a sneeze to cover their movements, Mr Wegg, with a spasmodic ‘Tish-ho!’ pulled himself and Mr Venus up in a masterly manner.

‘Let’s have some more,’ said Mr Boffin, hungrily.

‘John Elwes is the next, sir. Is it your pleasure to take John Elwes?’

‘Ah!’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Let’s hear what John did.’

He did not appear to have hidden anything, so went off rather flatly. But an exemplary lady named Wilcocks, who had stowed away gold and silver in a pickle-pot in a clock-case, a canister-full of treasure in a hole under her stairs, and a quantity of money in an old rat-trap, revived the interest. To her succeeded another lady, claiming to be a pauper, whose wealth was found wrapped up in little scraps of paper and old rag. To her, another lady, apple-woman by trade, who had saved a fortune of ten thousand pounds and hidden it ‘here and there, in cracks and corners, behind bricks and under the flooring.’ To her, a French gentleman, who had crammed up his chimney, rather to the detriment of its drawing powers, ‘a leather valise, containing twenty thousand francs, gold coins, and a large quantity of precious stones,’ as discovered by a chimneysweep after his death. By these steps Mr Wegg arrived at a concluding instance of the human Magpie:

‘Many years ago, there lived at Cambridge a miserly old couple of the name of Jardine: they had two sons: the father was a perfect miser, and at his death one thousand guineas were discovered secreted in his bed. The two sons grew up as parsimonious as their sire. When about twenty years of age, they commenced business at Cambridge as drapers, and they continued there until their death. The establishment of the Messrs Jardine was the most dirty of all the shops in Cambridge. Customers seldom went in to purchase, except perhaps out of curiosity. The brothers were most disreputable-looking beings; for, although surrounded with gay apparel as their staple in trade, they wore the most filthy rags themselves. It is said that they had no bed, and, to save the expense of one, always slept on a bundle of packing-cloths under the counter. In their housekeeping they were penurious in the extreme. A joint of meat did not grace their board for twenty years. Yet when the first of the brothers died, the other, much to his surprise, found large sums of money which had been secreted even from him.’

‘There!’ cried Mr Boffin. ‘Even from him, you see! There was only two of ‘em, and yet one of ‘em hid from the other.’

Mr Venus, who since his introduction to the French gentleman, had been stooping to peer up the chimney, had his attention recalled by the last sentence, and took the liberty of repeating it.

‘Do you like it?’ asked Mr Boffin, turning suddenly.

‘I beg your pardon, sir?’

‘Do you like what Wegg’s been a-reading?’

Mr Venus answered that he found it extremely interesting.

‘Then come again,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘and hear some more. Come when you like; come the day after to-morrow, half an hour sooner. There’s plenty more; there’s no end to it.’

Mr Venus expressed his acknowledgments and accepted the invitation.

‘It’s wonderful what’s been hid, at one time and another,’ said Mr Boffin, ruminating; ‘truly wonderful.’

‘Meaning sir,’ observed Wegg, with a propitiatory face to draw him out, and with another peg at his friend and brother, ‘in the way of money?’

‘Money,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Ah! And papers.’

Mr Wegg, in a languid transport, again dropped over on Mr Venus, and again recovering himself, masked his emotions with a sneeze.

‘Tish-ho! Did you say papers too, sir? Been hidden, sir?’

‘Hidden and forgot,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Why the bookseller that sold me the Wonderful Museum—where’s the Wonderful Museum?’ He was on his knees on the floor in a moment, groping eagerly among the books.

‘Can I assist you, sir?’ asked Wegg.

‘No, I have got it; here it is,’ said Mr Boffin, dusting it with the sleeve of his coat. ‘Wollume four. I know it was the fourth wollume, that the bookseller read it to me out of. Look for it, Wegg.’

Silas took the book and turned the leaves.

‘Remarkable petrefaction, sir?’

‘No, that’s not it,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘It can’t have been a petrefaction.’

‘Memoirs of General John Reid, commonly called The Walking Rushlight, sir? With portrait?’

‘No, nor yet him,’ said Mr Boffin.

‘Remarkable case of a person who swallowed a crown-piece, sir?’

‘To hide it?’ asked Mr Boffin.

‘Why, no, sir,’ replied Wegg, consulting the text, ‘it appears to have been done by accident. Oh! This next must be it. “Singular discovery of a will, lost twenty-one years.”’

‘That’s it!’ cried Mr Boffin. ‘Read that.’

‘“A most extraordinary case,”’ read Silas Wegg aloud, ‘“was tried at the last Maryborough assizes in Ireland. It was briefly this. Robert Baldwin, in March 1782, made his will, in which he devised the lands now in question, to the children of his youngest son; soon after which his faculties failed him, and he became altogether childish and died, above eighty years old. The defendant, the eldest son, immediately afterwards gave out that his father had destroyed the will; and no will being found, he entered into possession of the lands in question, and so matters remained for twenty-one years, the whole family during all that time believing that the father had died without a will. But after twenty-one years the defendant’s wife died, and he very soon afterwards, at the age of seventy-eight, married a very young woman: which caused some anxiety to his two sons, whose poignant expressions of this feeling so exasperated their father, that he in his resentment executed a will to disinherit his eldest son, and in his fit of anger showed it to his second son, who instantly determined to get at it, and destroy it, in order to preserve the property to his brother. With this view, he broke open his father’s desk, where he found—not his father’s will which he sought after, but the will of his grandfather, which was then altogether forgotten in the family.”’

‘There!’ said Mr Boffin. ‘See what men put away and forget, or mean to destroy, and don’t!’ He then added in a slow tone, ‘As—ton—ish—ing!’ And as he rolled his eyes all round the room, Wegg and Venus likewise rolled their eyes all round the room. And then Wegg, singly, fixed his eyes on Mr Boffin looking at the fire again; as if he had a mind to spring upon him and demand his thoughts or his life.

‘However, time’s up for to-night,’ said Mr Boffin, waving his hand after a silence. ‘More, the day after to-morrow. Range the books upon the shelves, Wegg. I dare say Mr Venus will be so kind as help you.’

While speaking, he thrust his hand into the breast of his outer coat, and struggled with some object there that was too large to be got out easily. What was the stupefaction of the friendly movers when this object at last emerging, proved to be a much-dilapidated dark lantern!

Without at all noticing the effect produced by this little instrument, Mr Boffin stood it on his knee, and, producing a box of matches, deliberately lighted the candle in the lantern, blew out the kindled match, and cast the end into the fire. ‘I’m going, Wegg,’ he then announced, ‘to take a turn about the place and round the yard. I don’t want you. Me and this same lantern have taken hundreds—thousands—of such turns in our time together.’

‘But I couldn’t think, sir—not on any account, I couldn’t,’—Wegg was politely beginning, when Mr Boffin, who had risen and was going towards the door, stopped:

‘I have told you that I don’t want you, Wegg.’

Wegg looked intelligently thoughtful, as if that had not occurred to his mind until he now brought it to bear on the circumstance. He had nothing for it but to let Mr Boffin go out and shut the door behind him. But, the instant he was on the other side of it, Wegg clutched Venus with both hands, and said in a choking whisper, as if he were being strangled:

‘Mr Venus, he must be followed, he must be watched, he mustn’t be lost sight of for a moment.’

‘Why mustn’t he?’ asked Venus, also strangling.

‘Comrade, you might have noticed I was a little elewated in spirits when you come in to-night. I’ve found something.’

‘What have you found?’ asked Venus, clutching him with both hands, so that they stood interlocked like a couple of preposterous gladiators.

‘There’s no time to tell you now. I think he must have gone to look for it. We must have an eye upon him instantly.’

Releasing each other, they crept to the door, opened it softly, and peeped out. It was a cloudy night, and the black shadow of the Mounds made the dark yard darker. ‘If not a double swindler,’ whispered Wegg, ‘why a dark lantern? We could have seen what he was about, if he had carried a light one. Softly, this way.’

Cautiously along the path that was bordered by fragments of crockery set in ashes, the two stole after him. They could hear him at his peculiar trot, crushing the loose cinders as he went. ‘He knows the place by heart,’ muttered Silas, ‘and don’t need to turn his lantern on, confound him!’ But he did turn it on, almost in that same instant, and flashed its light upon the first of the Mounds.

‘Is that the spot?’ asked Venus in a whisper.

‘He’s warm,’ said Silas in the same tone. ‘He’s precious warm. He’s close. I think he must be going to look for it. What’s that he’s got in his hand?’

‘A shovel,’ answered Venus. ‘And he knows how to use it, remember, fifty times as well as either of us.’

‘If he looks for it and misses it, partner,’ suggested Wegg, ‘what shall we do?’

‘First of all, wait till he does,’ said Venus.

Discreet advice too, for he darkened his lantern again, and the mound turned black. After a few seconds, he turned the light on once more, and was seen standing at the foot of the second mound, slowly raising the lantern little by little until he held it up at arm’s length, as if he were examining the condition of the whole surface.

‘That can’t be the spot too?’ said Venus.

‘No,’ said Wegg, ‘he’s getting cold.’

‘It strikes me,’ whispered Venus, ‘that he wants to find out whether any one has been groping about there.’

‘Hush!’ returned Wegg, ‘he’s getting colder and colder.—Now he’s freezing!’

This exclamation was elicited by his having turned the lantern off again, and on again, and being visible at the foot of the third mound.

‘Why, he’s going up it!’ said Venus.

‘Shovel and all!’ said Wegg.

At a nimbler trot, as if the shovel over his shoulder stimulated him by reviving old associations, Mr Boffin ascended the ‘serpentining walk’, up the Mound which he had described to Silas Wegg on the occasion of their beginning to decline and fall. On striking into it he turned his lantern off. The two followed him, stooping low, so that their figures might make no mark in relief against the sky when he should turn his lantern on again. Mr Venus took the lead, towing Mr Wegg, in order that his refractory leg might be promptly extricated from any pitfalls it should dig for itself. They could just make out that the Golden Dustman stopped to breathe. Of course they stopped too, instantly.

‘This is his own Mound,’ whispered Wegg, as he recovered his wind, ‘this one.’

‘Why all three are his own,’ returned Venus.

‘So he thinks; but he’s used to call this his own, because it’s the one first left to him; the one that was his legacy when it was all he took under the will.’

‘When he shows his light,’ said Venus, keeping watch upon his dusky figure all the time, ‘drop lower and keep closer.’

He went on again, and they followed again. Gaining the top of the Mound, he turned on his light—but only partially—and stood it on the ground. A bare lopsided weatherbeaten pole was planted in the ashes there, and had been there many a year. Hard by this pole, his lantern stood: lighting a few feet of the lower part of it and a little of the ashy surface around, and then casting off a purposeless little clear trail of light into the air.

‘He can never be going to dig up the pole!’ whispered Venus as they dropped low and kept close.

‘Perhaps it’s holler and full of something,’ whispered Wegg.

He was going to dig, with whatsoever object, for he tucked up his cuffs and spat on his hands, and then went at it like an old digger as he was. He had no design upon the pole, except that he measured a shovel’s length from it before beginning, nor was it his purpose to dig deep. Some dozen or so of expert strokes sufficed. Then, he stopped, looked down into the cavity, bent over it, and took out what appeared to be an ordinary case-bottle: one of those squat, high-shouldered, short-necked glass bottles which the Dutchman is said to keep his Courage in. As soon as he had done this, he turned off his lantern, and they could hear that he was filling up the hole in the dark. The ashes being easily moved by a skilful hand, the spies took this as a hint to make off in good time. Accordingly, Mr Venus slipped past Mr Wegg and towed him down. But Mr Wegg’s descent was not accomplished without some personal inconvenience, for his self-willed leg sticking into the ashes about half way down, and time pressing, Mr Venus took the liberty of hauling him from his tether by the collar: which occasioned him to make the rest of the journey on his back, with his head enveloped in the skirts of his coat, and his wooden leg coming last, like a drag. So flustered was Mr Wegg by this mode of travelling, that when he was set on the level ground with his intellectual developments uppermost, he was quite unconscious of his bearings, and had not the least idea where his place of residence was to be found, until Mr Venus shoved him into it. Even then he staggered round and round, weakly staring about him, until Mr Venus with a hard brush brushed his senses into him and the dust out of him.

Mr Boffin came down leisurely, for this brushing process had been well accomplished, and Mr Venus had had time to take his breath, before he reappeared. That he had the bottle somewhere about him could not be doubted; where, was not so clear. He wore a large rough coat, buttoned over, and it might be in any one of half a dozen pockets.

‘What’s the matter, Wegg?’ said Mr Boffin. ‘You are as pale as a candle.’

Mr Wegg replied, with literal exactness, that he felt as if he had had a turn.

‘Bile,’ said Mr Boffin, blowing out the light in the lantern, shutting it up, and stowing it away in the breast of his coat as before. ‘Are you subject to bile, Wegg?’

Mr Wegg again replied, with strict adherence to truth, that he didn’t think he had ever had a similar sensation in his head, to anything like the same extent.

‘Physic yourself to-morrow, Wegg,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘to be in order for next night. By-the-by, this neighbourhood is going to have a loss, Wegg.’

‘A loss, sir?’

‘Going to lose the Mounds.’

The friendly movers made such an obvious effort not to look at one another, that they might as well have stared at one another with all their might.

‘Have you parted with them, Mr Boffin?’ asked Silas.

‘Yes; they’re going. Mine’s as good as gone already.’

‘You mean the little one of the three, with the pole atop, sir.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr Boffin, rubbing his ear in his old way, with that new touch of craftiness added to it. ‘It has fetched a penny. It’ll begin to be carted off to-morrow.’

‘Have you been out to take leave of your old friend, sir?’ asked Silas, jocosely.

‘No,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘What the devil put that in your head?’

He was so sudden and rough, that Wegg, who had been hovering closer and closer to his skirts, despatching the back of his hand on exploring expeditions in search of the bottle’s surface, retired two or three paces.

‘No offence, sir,’ said Wegg, humbly. ‘No offence.’

Mr Boffin eyed him as a dog might eye another dog who wanted his bone; and actually retorted with a low growl, as the dog might have retorted.

‘Good-night,’ he said, after having sunk into a moody silence, with his hands clasped behind him, and his eyes suspiciously wandering about Wegg.—‘No! stop there. I know the way out, and I want no light.’

Avarice, and the evening’s legends of avarice, and the inflammatory effect of what he had seen, and perhaps the rush of his ill-conditioned blood to his brain in his descent, wrought Silas Wegg to such a pitch of insatiable appetite, that when the door closed he made a swoop at it and drew Venus along with him.

‘He mustn’t go,’ he cried. ‘We mustn’t let him go? He has got that bottle about him. We must have that bottle.’

‘Why, you wouldn’t take it by force?’ said Venus, restraining him.

‘Wouldn’t I? Yes I would. I’d take it by any force, I’d have it at any price! Are you so afraid of one old man as to let him go, you coward?’

‘I am so afraid of you, as not to let you go,’ muttered Venus, sturdily, clasping him in his arms.

‘Did you hear him?’ retorted Wegg. ‘Did you hear him say that he was resolved to disappoint us? Did you hear him say, you cur, that he was going to have the Mounds cleared off, when no doubt the whole place will be rummaged? If you haven’t the spirit of a mouse to defend your rights, I have. Let me go after him.’

As in his wildness he was making a strong struggle for it, Mr Venus deemed it expedient to lift him, throw him, and fall with him; well knowing that, once down, he would not be up again easily with his wooden leg. So they both rolled on the floor, and, as they did so, Mr Boffin shut the gate.






Chapter 7. 
THE FRIENDLY MOVE TAKES UP A STRONG POSITION

The friendly movers sat upright on the floor, panting and eyeing one another, after Mr Boffin had slammed the gate and gone away. In the weak eyes of Venus, and in every reddish dust-coloured hair in his shock of hair, there was a marked distrust of Wegg and an alertness to fly at him on perceiving the smallest occasion. In the hard-grained face of Wegg, and in his stiff knotty figure (he looked like a German wooden toy), there was expressed a politic conciliation, which had no spontaneity in it. Both were flushed, flustered, and rumpled, by the late scuffle; and Wegg, in coming to the ground, had received a humming knock on the back of his devoted head, which caused him still to rub it with an air of having been highly—but disagreeably—astonished. Each was silent for some time, leaving it to the other to begin.

‘Brother,’ said Wegg, at length breaking the silence, ‘you were right, and I was wrong. I forgot myself.’

Mr Venus knowingly cocked his shock of hair, as rather thinking Mr Wegg had remembered himself, in respect of appearing without any disguise.

‘But comrade,’ pursued Wegg, ‘it was never your lot to know Miss Elizabeth, Master George, Aunt Jane, nor Uncle Parker.’

Mr Venus admitted that he had never known those distinguished persons, and added, in effect, that he had never so much as desired the honour of their acquaintance.

‘Don’t say that, comrade!’ retorted Wegg: ‘No, don’t say that! Because, without having known them, you never can fully know what it is to be stimilated to frenzy by the sight of the Usurper.’

Offering these excusatory words as if they reflected great credit on himself, Mr Wegg impelled himself with his hands towards a chair in a corner of the room, and there, after a variety of awkward gambols, attained a perpendicular position. Mr Venus also rose.

‘Comrade,’ said Wegg, ‘take a seat. Comrade, what a speaking countenance is yours!’

Mr Venus involuntarily smoothed his countenance, and looked at his hand, as if to see whether any of its speaking properties came off.

‘For clearly do I know, mark you,’ pursued Wegg, pointing his words with his forefinger, ‘clearly do I know what question your expressive features puts to me.’

‘What question?’ said Venus.

‘The question,’ returned Wegg, with a sort of joyful affability, ‘why I didn’t mention sooner, that I had found something. Says your speaking countenance to me: “Why didn’t you communicate that, when I first come in this evening? Why did you keep it back till you thought Mr Boffin had come to look for the article?” Your speaking countenance,’ said Wegg, ‘puts it plainer than language. Now, you can’t read in my face what answer I give?’

‘No, I can’t,’ said Venus.

‘I knew it! And why not?’ returned Wegg, with the same joyful candour. ‘Because I lay no claims to a speaking countenance. Because I am well aware of my deficiencies. All men are not gifted alike. But I can answer in words. And in what words? These. I wanted to give you a delightful sap—pur—ize!’

Having thus elongated and emphasized the word Surprise, Mr Wegg shook his friend and brother by both hands, and then clapped him on both knees, like an affectionate patron who entreated him not to mention so small a service as that which it had been his happy privilege to render.

‘Your speaking countenance,’ said Wegg, ‘being answered to its satisfaction, only asks then, “What have you found?” Why, I hear it say the words!’

‘Well?’ retorted Venus snappishly, after waiting in vain. ‘If you hear it say the words, why don’t you answer it?’

‘Hear me out!’ said Wegg. ‘I’m a-going to. Hear me out! Man and brother, partner in feelings equally with undertakings and actions, I have found a cash-box.’

‘Where?’

‘—Hear me out!’ said Wegg. (He tried to reserve whatever he could, and, whenever disclosure was forced upon him, broke into a radiant gush of Hear me out.) ‘On a certain day, sir—’

‘When?’ said Venus bluntly.

‘N—no,’ returned Wegg, shaking his head at once observantly, thoughtfully, and playfully. ‘No, sir! That’s not your expressive countenance which asks that question. That’s your voice; merely your voice. To proceed. On a certain day, sir, I happened to be walking in the yard—taking my lonely round—for in the words of a friend of my own family, the author of All’s Well arranged as a duett:

     “Deserted, as you will remember Mr Venus, by the waning
     moon,
     When stars, it will occur to you before I mention it, proclaim
     night’s cheerless noon,
     On tower, fort, or tented ground,
     The sentry walks his lonely round,
     The sentry walks:”
 
—under those circumstances, sir, I happened to be walking in the yard early one afternoon, and happened to have an iron rod in my hand, with which I have been sometimes accustomed to beguile the monotony of a literary life, when I struck it against an object not necessary to trouble you by naming—’

‘It is necessary. What object?’ demanded Venus, in a wrathful tone.

‘—Hear me out!’ said Wegg. ‘The Pump.—When I struck it against the Pump, and found, not only that the top was loose and opened with a lid, but that something in it rattled. That something, comrade, I discovered to be a small flat oblong cash-box. Shall I say it was disappointingly light?’

‘There were papers in it,’ said Venus.

‘There your expressive countenance speaks indeed!’ cried Wegg. ‘A paper. The box was locked, tied up, and sealed, and on the outside was a parchment label, with the writing, “My Will, John Harmon, Temporarily Deposited Here.”’

‘We must know its contents,’ said Venus.

‘—Hear me out!’ cried Wegg. ‘I said so, and I broke the box open.’

‘Without coming to me!’ exclaimed Venus.

‘Exactly so, sir!’ returned Wegg, blandly and buoyantly. ‘I see I take you with me! Hear, hear, hear! Resolved, as your discriminating good sense perceives, that if you was to have a sap—pur—ize, it should be a complete one! Well, sir. And so, as you have honoured me by anticipating, I examined the document. Regularly executed, regularly witnessed, very short. Inasmuch as he has never made friends, and has ever had a rebellious family, he, John Harmon, gives to Nicodemus Boffin the Little Mound, which is quite enough for him, and gives the whole rest and residue of his property to the Crown.’

‘The date of the will that has been proved, must be looked to,’ remarked Venus. ‘It may be later than this one.’

‘—Hear me out!’ cried Wegg. ‘I said so. I paid a shilling (never mind your sixpence of it) to look up that will. Brother, that will is dated months before this will. And now, as a fellow-man, and as a partner in a friendly move,’ added Wegg, benignantly taking him by both hands again, and clapping him on both knees again, ‘say have I completed my labour of love to your perfect satisfaction, and are you sap—pur—ized?’

Mr Venus contemplated his fellow-man and partner with doubting eyes, and then rejoined stiffly:

‘This is great news indeed, Mr Wegg. There’s no denying it. But I could have wished you had told it me before you got your fright to-night, and I could have wished you had ever asked me as your partner what we were to do, before you thought you were dividing a responsibility.’

‘—Hear me out!’ cried Wegg. ‘I knew you was a-going to say so. But alone I bore the anxiety, and alone I’ll bear the blame!’ This with an air of great magnanimity.

‘No,’ said Venus. ‘Let’s see this will and this box.’

‘Do I understand, brother,’ returned Wegg with considerable reluctance, ‘that it is your wish to see this will and this—?’

Mr Venus smote the table with his hand.

‘—Hear me out!’ said Wegg. ‘Hear me out! I’ll go and fetch ‘em.’

After being some time absent, as if in his covetousness he could hardly make up his mind to produce the treasure to his partner, he returned with an old leathern hat-box, into which he had put the other box, for the better preservation of commonplace appearances, and for the disarming of suspicion. ‘But I don’t half like opening it here,’ said Silas in a low voice, looking around: ‘he might come back, he may not be gone; we don’t know what he may be up to, after what we’ve seen.’

‘There’s something in that,’ assented Venus. ‘Come to my place.’

Jealous of the custody of the box, and yet fearful of opening it under the existing circumstances, Wegg hesitated. ‘Come, I tell you,’ repeated Venus, chafing, ‘to my place.’ Not very well seeing his way to a refusal, Mr Wegg then rejoined in a gush, ‘—Hear me out!—Certainly.’ So he locked up the Bower and they set forth: Mr Venus taking his arm, and keeping it with remarkable tenacity.

They found the usual dim light burning in the window of Mr Venus’s establishment, imperfectly disclosing to the public the usual pair of preserved frogs, sword in hand, with their point of honour still unsettled. Mr Venus had closed his shop door on coming out, and now opened it with the key and shut it again as soon as they were within; but not before he had put up and barred the shutters of the shop window. ‘No one can get in without being let in,’ said he then, ‘and we couldn’t be more snug than here.’ So he raked together the yet warm cinders in the rusty grate, and made a fire, and trimmed the candle on the little counter. As the fire cast its flickering gleams here and there upon the dark greasy walls; the Hindoo baby, the African baby, the articulated English baby, the assortment of skulls, and the rest of the collection, came starting to their various stations as if they had all been out, like their master and were punctual in a general rendezvous to assist at the secret. The French gentleman had grown considerably since Mr Wegg last saw him, being now accommodated with a pair of legs and a head, though his arms were yet in abeyance. To whomsoever the head had originally belonged, Silas Wegg would have regarded it as a personal favour if he had not cut quite so many teeth.

Silas took his seat in silence on the wooden box before the fire, and Venus dropping into his low chair produced from among his skeleton hands, his tea-tray and tea-cups, and put the kettle on. Silas inwardly approved of these preparations, trusting they might end in Mr Venus’s diluting his intellect.

‘Now, sir,’ said Venus, ‘all is safe and quiet. Let us see this discovery.’

With still reluctant hands, and not without several glances towards the skeleton hands, as if he mistrusted that a couple of them might spring forth and clutch the document, Wegg opened the hat-box and revealed the cash-box, opened the cash-box and revealed the will. He held a corner of it tight, while Venus, taking hold of another corner, searchingly and attentively read it.

‘Was I correct in my account of it, partner?’ said Mr Wegg at length.

‘Partner, you were,’ said Mr Venus.

Mr Wegg thereupon made an easy, graceful movement, as though he would fold it up; but Mr Venus held on by his corner.

‘No, sir,’ said Mr Venus, winking his weak eyes and shaking his head. ‘No, partner. The question is now brought up, who is going to take care of this. Do you know who is going to take care of this, partner?’

‘I am,’ said Wegg.

‘Oh dear no, partner,’ retorted Venus. ‘That’s a mistake. I am. Now look here, Mr Wegg. I don’t want to have any words with you, and still less do I want to have any anatomical pursuits with you.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Wegg, quickly.

‘I mean, partner,’ replied Venus, slowly, ‘that it’s hardly possible for a man to feel in a more amiable state towards another man than I do towards you at this present moment. But I am on my own ground, I am surrounded by the trophies of my art, and my tools is very handy.’

‘What do you mean, Mr Venus?’ asked Wegg again.

‘I am surrounded, as I have observed,’ said Mr Venus, placidly, ‘by the trophies of my art. They are numerous, my stock of human warious is large, the shop is pretty well crammed, and I don’t just now want any more trophies of my art. But I like my art, and I know how to exercise my art.’

‘No man better,’ assented Mr Wegg, with a somewhat staggered air.

‘There’s the Miscellanies of several human specimens,’ said Venus, ‘(though you mightn’t think it) in the box on which you’re sitting. There’s the Miscellanies of several human specimens, in the lovely compo-one behind the door’; with a nod towards the French gentleman. ‘It still wants a pair of arms. I don’t say that I’m in any hurry for ‘em.’

‘You must be wandering in your mind, partner,’ Silas remonstrated.

‘You’ll excuse me if I wander,’ returned Venus; ‘I am sometimes rather subject to it. I like my art, and I know how to exercise my art, and I mean to have the keeping of this document.’

‘But what has that got to do with your art, partner?’ asked Wegg, in an insinuating tone.

Mr Venus winked his chronically-fatigued eyes both at once, and adjusting the kettle on the fire, remarked to himself, in a hollow voice, ‘She’ll bile in a couple of minutes.’

Silas Wegg glanced at the kettle, glanced at the shelves, glanced at the French gentleman behind the door, and shrank a little as he glanced at Mr Venus winking his red eyes, and feeling in his waistcoat pocket—as for a lancet, say—with his unoccupied hand. He and Venus were necessarily seated close together, as each held a corner of the document, which was but a common sheet of paper.

‘Partner,’ said Wegg, even more insinuatingly than before, ‘I propose that we cut it in half, and each keep a half.’

Venus shook his shock of hair, as he replied, ‘It wouldn’t do to mutilate it, partner. It might seem to be cancelled.’

‘Partner,’ said Wegg, after a silence, during which they had contemplated one another, ‘don’t your speaking countenance say that you’re a-going to suggest a middle course?’

Venus shook his shock of hair as he replied, ‘Partner, you have kept this paper from me once. You shall never keep it from me again. I offer you the box and the label to take care of, but I’ll take care of the paper.’

Silas hesitated a little longer, and then suddenly releasing his corner, and resuming his buoyant and benignant tone, exclaimed, ‘What’s life without trustfulness! What’s a fellow-man without honour! You’re welcome to it, partner, in a spirit of trust and confidence.’

Continuing to wink his red eyes both together—but in a self-communing way, and without any show of triumph—Mr Venus folded the paper now left in his hand, and locked it in a drawer behind him, and pocketed the key. He then proposed ‘A cup of tea, partner?’ To which Mr Wegg returned, ‘Thank’ee, partner,’ and the tea was made and poured out.

‘Next,’ said Venus, blowing at his tea in his saucer, and looking over it at his confidential friend, ‘comes the question, What’s the course to be pursued?’

On this head, Silas Wegg had much to say. Silas had to say That, he would beg to remind his comrade, brother, and partner, of the impressive passages they had read that evening; of the evident parallel in Mr Boffin’s mind between them and the late owner of the Bower, and the present circumstances of the Bower; of the bottle; and of the box. That, the fortunes of his brother and comrade, and of himself were evidently made, inasmuch as they had but to put their price upon this document, and get that price from the minion of fortune and the worm of the hour: who now appeared to be less of a minion and more of a worm than had been previously supposed. That, he considered it plain that such price was stateable in a single expressive word, and that the word was, ‘Halves!’ That, the question then arose when ‘Halves!’ should be called. That, here he had a plan of action to recommend, with a conditional clause. That, the plan of action was that they should lie by with patience; that, they should allow the Mounds to be gradually levelled and cleared away, while retaining to themselves their present opportunity of watching the process—which would be, he conceived, to put the trouble and cost of daily digging and delving upon somebody else, while they might nightly turn such complete disturbance of the dust to the account of their own private investigations—and that, when the Mounds were gone, and they had worked those chances for their own joint benefit solely, they should then, and not before, explode on the minion and worm. But here came the conditional clause, and to this he entreated the special attention of his comrade, brother, and partner. It was not to be borne that the minion and worm should carry off any of that property which was now to be regarded as their own property. When he, Mr Wegg, had seen the minion surreptitiously making off with that bottle, and its precious contents unknown, he had looked upon him in the light of a mere robber, and, as such, would have despoiled him of his ill-gotten gain, but for the judicious interference of his comrade, brother, and partner. Therefore, the conditional clause he proposed was, that, if the minion should return in his late sneaking manner, and if, being closely watched, he should be found to possess himself of anything, no matter what, the sharp sword impending over his head should be instantly shown him, he should be strictly examined as to what he knew or suspected, should be severely handled by them his masters, and should be kept in a state of abject moral bondage and slavery until the time when they should see fit to permit him to purchase his freedom at the price of half his possessions. If, said Mr Wegg by way of peroration, he had erred in saying only ‘Halves!’ he trusted to his comrade, brother, and partner not to hesitate to set him right, and to reprove his weakness. It might be more according to the rights of things, to say Two-thirds; it might be more according to the rights of things, to say Three-fourths. On those points he was ever open to correction.

Mr Venus, having wafted his attention to this discourse over three successive saucers of tea, signified his concurrence in the views advanced. Inspirited hereby, Mr Wegg extended his right hand, and declared it to be a hand which never yet. Without entering into more minute particulars. Mr Venus, sticking to his tea, briefly professed his belief as polite forms required of him, that it was a hand which never yet. But contented himself with looking at it, and did not take it to his bosom.

‘Brother,’ said Wegg, when this happy understanding was established, ‘I should like to ask you something. You remember the night when I first looked in here, and found you floating your powerful mind in tea?’

Still swilling tea, Mr Venus nodded assent.

‘And there you sit, sir,’ pursued Wegg with an air of thoughtful admiration, ‘as if you had never left off! There you sit, sir, as if you had an unlimited capacity of assimilating the flagrant article! There you sit, sir, in the midst of your works, looking as if you’d been called upon for Home, Sweet Home, and was obleeging the company!

     “A exile from home splendour dazzles in vain,
     O give you your lowly Preparations again,
     The birds stuffed so sweetly that can’t be expected to come at
     your call,
     Give you these with the peace of mind dearer than all.
     Home, Home, Home, sweet Home!”
 
—Be it ever,’ added Mr Wegg in prose as he glanced about the shop, ‘ever so ghastly, all things considered there’s no place like it.’

‘You said you’d like to ask something; but you haven’t asked it,’ remarked Venus, very unsympathetic in manner.

‘Your peace of mind,’ said Wegg, offering condolence, ‘your peace of mind was in a poor way that night. How’s it going on? is it looking up at all?’

‘She does not wish,’ replied Mr Venus with a comical mixture of indignant obstinacy and tender melancholy, ‘to regard herself, nor yet to be regarded, in that particular light. There’s no more to be said.’

‘Ah, dear me, dear me!’ exclaimed Wegg with a sigh, but eyeing him while pretending to keep him company in eyeing the fire, ‘such is Woman! And I remember you said that night, sitting there as I sat here—said that night when your peace of mind was first laid low, that you had taken an interest in these very affairs. Such is coincidence!’

‘Her father,’ rejoined Venus, and then stopped to swallow more tea, ‘her father was mixed up in them.’

‘You didn’t mention her name, sir, I think?’ observed Wegg, pensively. ‘No, you didn’t mention her name that night.’

‘Pleasant Riderhood.’

‘In—deed!’ cried Wegg. ‘Pleasant Riderhood. There’s something moving in the name. Pleasant. Dear me! Seems to express what she might have been, if she hadn’t made that unpleasant remark—and what she ain’t, in consequence of having made it. Would it at all pour balm into your wounds, Mr Venus, to inquire how you came acquainted with her?’

‘I was down at the water-side,’ said Venus, taking another gulp of tea and mournfully winking at the fire—‘looking for parrots’—taking another gulp and stopping.

Mr Wegg hinted, to jog his attention: ‘You could hardly have been out parrot-shooting, in the British climate, sir?’

‘No, no, no,’ said Venus fretfully. ‘I was down at the water-side, looking for parrots brought home by sailors, to buy for stuffing.’

‘Ay, ay, ay, sir!’

‘—And looking for a nice pair of rattlesnakes, to articulate for a Museum—when I was doomed to fall in with her and deal with her. It was just at the time of that discovery in the river. Her father had seen the discovery being towed in the river. I made the popularity of the subject a reason for going back to improve the acquaintance, and I have never since been the man I was. My very bones is rendered flabby by brooding over it. If they could be brought to me loose, to sort, I should hardly have the face to claim ‘em as mine. To such an extent have I fallen off under it.’

Mr Wegg, less interested than he had been, glanced at one particular shelf in the dark.

‘Why I remember, Mr Venus,’ he said in a tone of friendly commiseration ‘(for I remember every word that falls from you, sir), I remember that you said that night, you had got up there—and then your words was, “Never mind.”’

‘—The parrot that I bought of her,’ said Venus, with a despondent rise and fall of his eyes. ‘Yes; there it lies on its side, dried up; except for its plumage, very like myself. I’ve never had the heart to prepare it, and I never shall have now.’

With a disappointed face, Silas mentally consigned this parrot to regions more than tropical, and, seeming for the time to have lost his power of assuming an interest in the woes of Mr Venus, fell to tightening his wooden leg as a preparation for departure: its gymnastic performances of that evening having severely tried its constitution.

After Silas had left the shop, hat-box in hand, and had left Mr Venus to lower himself to oblivion-point with the requisite weight of tea, it greatly preyed on his ingenuous mind that he had taken this artist into partnership at all. He bitterly felt that he had overreached himself in the beginning, by grasping at Mr Venus’s mere straws of hints, now shown to be worthless for his purpose. Casting about for ways and means of dissolving the connexion without loss of money, reproaching himself for having been betrayed into an avowal of his secret, and complimenting himself beyond measure on his purely accidental good luck, he beguiled the distance between Clerkenwell and the mansion of the Golden Dustman.

For, Silas Wegg felt it to be quite out of the question that he could lay his head upon his pillow in peace, without first hovering over Mr Boffin’s house in the superior character of its Evil Genius. Power (unless it be the power of intellect or virtue) has ever the greatest attraction for the lowest natures; and the mere defiance of the unconscious house-front, with his power to strip the roof off the inhabiting family like the roof of a house of cards, was a treat which had a charm for Silas Wegg.

As he hovered on the opposite side of the street, exulting, the carriage drove up.

‘There’ll shortly be an end of you,’ said Wegg, threatening it with the hat-box. ‘Your varnish is fading.’

Mrs Boffin descended and went in.

‘Look out for a fall, my Lady Dustwoman,’ said Wegg.

Bella lightly descended, and ran in after her.

‘How brisk we are!’ said Wegg. ‘You won’t run so gaily to your old shabby home, my girl. You’ll have to go there, though.’

A little while, and the Secretary came out.

‘I was passed over for you,’ said Wegg. ‘But you had better provide yourself with another situation, young man.’

Mr Boffin’s shadow passed upon the blinds of three large windows as he trotted down the room, and passed again as he went back.

‘Yoop!’ cried Wegg. ‘You’re there, are you? Where’s the bottle? You would give your bottle for my box, Dustman!’

Having now composed his mind for slumber, he turned homeward. Such was the greed of the fellow, that his mind had shot beyond halves, two-thirds, three-fourths, and gone straight to spoliation of the whole. ‘Though that wouldn’t quite do,’ he considered, growing cooler as he got away. ‘That’s what would happen to him if he didn’t buy us up. We should get nothing by that.’

We so judge others by ourselves, that it had never come into his head before, that he might not buy us up, and might prove honest, and prefer to be poor. It caused him a slight tremor as it passed; but a very slight one, for the idle thought was gone directly.

‘He’s grown too fond of money for that,’ said Wegg; ‘he’s grown too fond of money.’ The burden fell into a strain or tune as he stumped along the pavements. All the way home he stumped it out of the rattling streets, piano with his own foot, and forte with his wooden leg, ‘He’s grown too fond of money for that, he’s grown too fond of money.’

Even next day Silas soothed himself with this melodious strain, when he was called out of bed at daybreak, to set open the yard-gate and admit the train of carts and horses that came to carry off the little Mound. And all day long, as he kept unwinking watch on the slow process which promised to protract itself through many days and weeks, whenever (to save himself from being choked with dust) he patrolled a little cinderous beat he established for the purpose, without taking his eyes from the diggers, he still stumped to the tune: He’s grown too fond of money for that, he’s grown too fond of money.’






Chapter 8. 
THE END OF A LONG JOURNEY

The train of carts and horses came and went all day from dawn to nightfall, making little or no daily impression on the heap of ashes, though, as the days passed on, the heap was seen to be slowly melting. My lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, when you in the course of your dust-shovelling and cinder-raking have piled up a mountain of pretentious failure, you must off with your honourable coats for the removal of it, and fall to the work with the power of all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men, or it will come rushing down and bury us alive.

Yes, verily, my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, adapting your Catechism to the occasion, and by God’s help so you must. For when we have got things to the pass that with an enormous treasure at disposal to relieve the poor, the best of the poor detest our mercies, hide their heads from us, and shame us by starving to death in the midst of us, it is a pass impossible of prosperity, impossible of continuance. It may not be so written in the Gospel according to Podsnappery; you may not ‘find these words’ for the text of a sermon, in the Returns of the Board of Trade; but they have been the truth since the foundations of the universe were laid, and they will be the truth until the foundations of the universe are shaken by the Builder. This boastful handiwork of ours, which fails in its terrors for the professional pauper, the sturdy breaker of windows and the rampant tearer of clothes, strikes with a cruel and a wicked stab at the stricken sufferer, and is a horror to the deserving and unfortunate. We must mend it, lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, or in its own evil hour it will mar every one of us.

Old Betty Higden fared upon her pilgrimage as many ruggedly honest creatures, women and men, fare on their toiling way along the roads of life. Patiently to earn a spare bare living, and quietly to die, untouched by workhouse hands—this was her highest sublunary hope.

Nothing had been heard of her at Mr Boffin’s house since she trudged off. The weather had been hard and the roads had been bad, and her spirit was up. A less stanch spirit might have been subdued by such adverse influences; but the loan for her little outfit was in no part repaid, and it had gone worse with her than she had foreseen, and she was put upon proving her case and maintaining her independence.

Faithful soul! When she had spoken to the Secretary of that ‘deadness that steals over me at times’, her fortitude had made too little of it. Oftener and ever oftener, it came stealing over her; darker and ever darker, like the shadow of advancing Death. That the shadow should be deep as it came on, like the shadow of an actual presence, was in accordance with the laws of the physical world, for all the Light that shone on Betty Higden lay beyond Death.

The poor old creature had taken the upward course of the river Thames as her general track; it was the track in which her last home lay, and of which she had last had local love and knowledge. She had hovered for a little while in the near neighbourhood of her abandoned dwelling, and had sold, and knitted and sold, and gone on. In the pleasant towns of Chertsey, Walton, Kingston, and Staines, her figure came to be quite well known for some short weeks, and then again passed on.

She would take her stand in market-places, where there were such things, on market days; at other times, in the busiest (that was seldom very busy) portion of the little quiet High Street; at still other times she would explore the outlying roads for great houses, and would ask leave at the Lodge to pass in with her basket, and would not often get it. But ladies in carriages would frequently make purchases from her trifling stock, and were usually pleased with her bright eyes and her hopeful speech. In these and her clean dress originated a fable that she was well to do in the world: one might say, for her station, rich. As making a comfortable provision for its subject which costs nobody anything, this class of fable has long been popular.

In those pleasant little towns on Thames, you may hear the fall of the water over the weirs, or even, in still weather, the rustle of the rushes; and from the bridge you may see the young river, dimpled like a young child, playfully gliding away among the trees, unpolluted by the defilements that lie in wait for it on its course, and as yet out of hearing of the deep summons of the sea. It were too much to pretend that Betty Higden made out such thoughts; no; but she heard the tender river whispering to many like herself, ‘Come to me, come to me! When the cruel shame and terror you have so long fled from, most beset you, come to me! I am the Relieving Officer appointed by eternal ordinance to do my work; I am not held in estimation according as I shirk it. My breast is softer than the pauper-nurse’s; death in my arms is peacefuller than among the pauper-wards. Come to me!’

There was abundant place for gentler fancies too, in her untutored mind. Those gentlefolks and their children inside those fine houses, could they think, as they looked out at her, what it was to be really hungry, really cold? Did they feel any of the wonder about her, that she felt about them? Bless the dear laughing children! If they could have seen sick Johnny in her arms, would they have cried for pity? If they could have seen dead Johnny on that little bed, would they have understood it? Bless the dear children for his sake, anyhow! So with the humbler houses in the little street, the inner firelight shining on the panes as the outer twilight darkened. When the families gathered in-doors there, for the night, it was only a foolish fancy to feel as if it were a little hard in them to close the shutter and blacken the flame. So with the lighted shops, and speculations whether their masters and mistresses taking tea in a perspective of back-parlour—not so far within but that the flavour of tea and toast came out, mingled with the glow of light, into the street—ate or drank or wore what they sold, with the greater relish because they dealt in it. So with the churchyard on a branch of the solitary way to the night’s sleeping-place. ‘Ah me! The dead and I seem to have it pretty much to ourselves in the dark and in this weather! But so much the better for all who are warmly housed at home.’ The poor soul envied no one in bitterness, and grudged no one anything.

But, the old abhorrence grew stronger on her as she grew weaker, and it found more sustaining food than she did in her wanderings. Now, she would light upon the shameful spectacle of some desolate creature—or some wretched ragged groups of either sex, or of both sexes, with children among them, huddled together like the smaller vermin for a little warmth—lingering and lingering on a doorstep, while the appointed evader of the public trust did his dirty office of trying to weary them out and so get rid of them. Now, she would light upon some poor decent person, like herself, going afoot on a pilgrimage of many weary miles to see some worn-out relative or friend who had been charitably clutched off to a great blank barren Union House, as far from old home as the County Jail (the remoteness of which is always its worst punishment for small rural offenders), and in its dietary, and in its lodging, and in its tending of the sick, a much more penal establishment. Sometimes she would hear a newspaper read out, and would learn how the Registrar General cast up the units that had within the last week died of want and of exposure to the weather: for which that Recording Angel seemed to have a regular fixed place in his sum, as if they were its halfpence. All such things she would hear discussed, as we, my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, in our unapproachable magnificence never hear them, and from all such things she would fly with the wings of raging Despair.

This is not to be received as a figure of speech. Old Betty Higden however tired, however footsore, would start up and be driven away by her awakened horror of falling into the hands of Charity. It is a remarkable Christian improvement, to have made a pursuing Fury of the Good Samaritan; but it was so in this case, and it is a type of many, many, many.

Two incidents united to intensify the old unreasoning abhorrence—granted in a previous place to be unreasoning, because the people always are unreasoning, and invariably make a point of producing all their smoke without fire.

One day she was sitting in a market-place on a bench outside an inn, with her little wares for sale, when the deadness that she strove against came over her so heavily that the scene departed from before her eyes; when it returned, she found herself on the ground, her head supported by some good-natured market-women, and a little crowd about her.

‘Are you better now, mother?’ asked one of the women. ‘Do you think you can do nicely now?’

‘Have I been ill then?’ asked old Betty.

‘You have had a faint like,’ was the answer, ‘or a fit. It ain’t that you’ve been a-struggling, mother, but you’ve been stiff and numbed.’

‘Ah!’ said Betty, recovering her memory. ‘It’s the numbness. Yes. It comes over me at times.’

Was it gone? the women asked her.

‘It’s gone now,’ said Betty. ‘I shall be stronger than I was afore. Many thanks to ye, my dears, and when you come to be as old as I am, may others do as much for you!’

They assisted her to rise, but she could not stand yet, and they supported her when she sat down again upon the bench.

‘My head’s a bit light, and my feet are a bit heavy,’ said old Betty, leaning her face drowsily on the breast of the woman who had spoken before. ‘They’ll both come nat’ral in a minute. There’s nothing more the matter.’

‘Ask her,’ said some farmers standing by, who had come out from their market-dinner, ‘who belongs to her.’

‘Are there any folks belonging to you, mother?’ said the woman.

‘Yes sure,’ answered Betty. ‘I heerd the gentleman say it, but I couldn’t answer quick enough. There’s plenty belonging to me. Don’t ye fear for me, my dear.’

‘But are any of ‘em near here?’ said the men’s voices; the women’s voices chiming in when it was said, and prolonging the strain.

‘Quite near enough,’ said Betty, rousing herself. ‘Don’t ye be afeard for me, neighbours.’

‘But you are not fit to travel. Where are you going?’ was the next compassionate chorus she heard.

‘I’m a going to London when I’ve sold out all,’ said Betty, rising with difficulty. ‘I’ve right good friends in London. I want for nothing. I shall come to no harm. Thankye. Don’t ye be afeard for me.’

A well-meaning bystander, yellow-legginged and purple-faced, said hoarsely over his red comforter, as she rose to her feet, that she ‘oughtn’t to be let to go’.

‘For the Lord’s love don’t meddle with me!’ cried old Betty, all her fears crowding on her. ‘I am quite well now, and I must go this minute.’

She caught up her basket as she spoke and was making an unsteady rush away from them, when the same bystander checked her with his hand on her sleeve, and urged her to come with him and see the parish-doctor. Strengthening herself by the utmost exercise of her resolution, the poor trembling creature shook him off, almost fiercely, and took to flight. Nor did she feel safe until she had set a mile or two of by-road between herself and the marketplace, and had crept into a copse, like a hunted animal, to hide and recover breath. Not until then for the first time did she venture to recall how she had looked over her shoulder before turning out of the town, and had seen the sign of the White Lion hanging across the road, and the fluttering market booths, and the old grey church, and the little crowd gazing after her but not attempting to follow her.

The second frightening incident was this. She had been again as bad, and had been for some days better, and was travelling along by a part of the road where it touched the river, and in wet seasons was so often overflowed by it that there were tall white posts set up to mark the way. A barge was being towed towards her, and she sat down on the bank to rest and watch it. As the tow-rope was slackened by a turn of the stream and dipped into the water, such a confusion stole into her mind that she thought she saw the forms of her dead children and dead grandchildren peopling the barge, and waving their hands to her in solemn measure; then, as the rope tightened and came up, dropping diamonds, it seemed to vibrate into two parallel ropes and strike her, with a twang, though it was far off. When she looked again, there was no barge, no river, no daylight, and a man whom she had never before seen held a candle close to her face.

‘Now, Missis,’ said he; ‘where did you come from and where are you going to?’

The poor soul confusedly asked the counter-question where she was?

‘I am the Lock,’ said the man.

‘The Lock?’

‘I am the Deputy Lock, on job, and this is the Lock-house. (Lock or Deputy Lock, it’s all one, while the t’other man’s in the hospital.) What’s your Parish?’

‘Parish!’ She was up from the truckle-bed directly, wildly feeling about her for her basket, and gazing at him in affright.

‘You’ll be asked the question down town,’ said the man. ‘They won’t let you be more than a Casual there. They’ll pass you on to your settlement, Missis, with all speed. You’re not in a state to be let come upon strange parishes ‘ceptin as a Casual.’

‘’Twas the deadness again!’ murmured Betty Higden, with her hand to her head.

‘It was the deadness, there’s not a doubt about it,’ returned the man. ‘I should have thought the deadness was a mild word for it, if it had been named to me when we brought you in. Have you got any friends, Missis?’

‘The best of friends, Master.’

‘I should recommend your looking ‘em up if you consider ‘em game to do anything for you,’ said the Deputy Lock. ‘Have you got any money?’

‘Just a morsel of money, sir.’

‘Do you want to keep it?’

‘Sure I do!’

‘Well, you know,’ said the Deputy Lock, shrugging his shoulders with his hands in his pockets, and shaking his head in a sulkily ominous manner, ‘the parish authorities down town will have it out of you, if you go on, you may take your Alfred David.’

‘Then I’ll not go on.’

‘They’ll make you pay, as fur as your money will go,’ pursued the Deputy, ‘for your relief as a Casual and for your being passed to your Parish.’

‘Thank ye kindly, Master, for your warning, thank ye for your shelter, and good night.’

‘Stop a bit,’ said the Deputy, striking in between her and the door. ‘Why are you all of a shake, and what’s your hurry, Missis?’

‘Oh, Master, Master,’ returned Betty Higden, ‘I’ve fought against the Parish and fled from it, all my life, and I want to die free of it!’

‘I don’t know,’ said the Deputy, with deliberation, ‘as I ought to let you go. I’m a honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow, and I may fall into trouble by letting you go. I’ve fell into trouble afore now, by George, and I know what it is, and it’s made me careful. You might be took with your deadness again, half a mile off—or half of half a quarter, for the matter of that—and then it would be asked, Why did that there honest Deputy Lock, let her go, instead of putting her safe with the Parish? That’s what a man of his character ought to have done, it would be argueyfied,’ said the Deputy Lock, cunningly harping on the strong string of her terror; ‘he ought to have handed her over safe to the Parish. That was to be expected of a man of his merits.’

As he stood in the doorway, the poor old careworn wayworn woman burst into tears, and clasped her hands, as if in a very agony she prayed to him.

‘As I’ve told you, Master, I’ve the best of friends. This letter will show how true I spoke, and they will be thankful for me.’

The Deputy Lock opened the letter with a grave face, which underwent no change as he eyed its contents. But it might have done, if he could have read them.

‘What amount of small change, Missis,’ he said, with an abstracted air, after a little meditation, ‘might you call a morsel of money?’

Hurriedly emptying her pocket, old Betty laid down on the table, a shilling, and two sixpenny pieces, and a few pence.

‘If I was to let you go instead of handing you over safe to the Parish,’ said the Deputy, counting the money with his eyes, ‘might it be your own free wish to leave that there behind you?’

‘Take it, Master, take it, and welcome and thankful!’

‘I’m a man,’ said the Deputy, giving her back the letter, and pocketing the coins, one by one, ‘as earns his living by the sweat of his brow;’ here he drew his sleeve across his forehead, as if this particular portion of his humble gains were the result of sheer hard labour and virtuous industry; ‘and I won’t stand in your way. Go where you like.’

She was gone out of the Lock-house as soon as he gave her this permission, and her tottering steps were on the road again. But, afraid to go back and afraid to go forward; seeing what she fled from, in the sky-glare of the lights of the little town before her, and leaving a confused horror of it everywhere behind her, as if she had escaped it in every stone of every market-place; she struck off by side ways, among which she got bewildered and lost. That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if—worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians—the Samaritan had in the lonely night, ‘passed by on the other side’, she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

The morning found her afoot again, but fast declining as to the clearness of her thoughts, though not as to the steadiness of her purpose. Comprehending that her strength was quitting her, and that the struggle of her life was almost ended, she could neither reason out the means of getting back to her protectors, nor even form the idea. The overmastering dread, and the proud stubborn resolution it engendered in her to die undegraded, were the two distinct impressions left in her failing mind. Supported only by a sense that she was bent on conquering in her life-long fight, she went on.

The time was come, now, when the wants of this little life were passing away from her. She could not have swallowed food, though a table had been spread for her in the next field. The day was cold and wet, but she scarcely knew it. She crept on, poor soul, like a criminal afraid of being taken, and felt little beyond the terror of falling down while it was yet daylight, and being found alive. She had no fear that she would live through another night.

Sewn in the breast of her gown, the money to pay for her burial was still intact. If she could wear through the day, and then lie down to die under cover of the darkness, she would die independent. If she were captured previously, the money would be taken from her as a pauper who had no right to it, and she would be carried to the accursed workhouse. Gaining her end, the letter would be found in her breast, along with the money, and the gentlefolks would say when it was given back to them, ‘She prized it, did old Betty Higden; she was true to it; and while she lived, she would never let it be disgraced by falling into the hands of those that she held in horror.’ Most illogical, inconsequential, and light-headed, this; but travellers in the valley of the shadow of death are apt to be light-headed; and worn-out old people of low estate have a trick of reasoning as indifferently as they live, and doubtless would appreciate our Poor Law more philosophically on an income of ten thousand a year.

So, keeping to byways, and shunning human approach, this troublesome old woman hid herself, and fared on all through the dreary day. Yet so unlike was she to vagrant hiders in general, that sometimes, as the day advanced, there was a bright fire in her eyes, and a quicker beating at her feeble heart, as though she said exultingly, ‘The Lord will see me through it!’

By what visionary hands she was led along upon that journey of escape from the Samaritan; by what voices, hushed in the grave, she seemed to be addressed; how she fancied the dead child in her arms again, and times innumerable adjusted her shawl to keep it warm; what infinite variety of forms of tower and roof and steeple the trees took; how many furious horsemen rode at her, crying, ‘There she goes! Stop! Stop, Betty Higden!’ and melted away as they came close; be these things left untold. Faring on and hiding, hiding and faring on, the poor harmless creature, as though she were a Murderess and the whole country were up after her, wore out the day, and gained the night.

‘Water-meadows, or such like,’ she had sometimes murmured, on the day’s pilgrimage, when she had raised her head and taken any note of the real objects about her. There now arose in the darkness, a great building, full of lighted windows. Smoke was issuing from a high chimney in the rear of it, and there was the sound of a water-wheel at the side. Between her and the building, lay a piece of water, in which the lighted windows were reflected, and on its nearest margin was a plantation of trees. ‘I humbly thank the Power and the Glory,’ said Betty Higden, holding up her withered hands, ‘that I have come to my journey’s end!’

She crept among the trees to the trunk of a tree whence she could see, beyond some intervening trees and branches, the lighted windows, both in their reality and their reflection in the water. She placed her orderly little basket at her side, and sank upon the ground, supporting herself against the tree. It brought to her mind the foot of the Cross, and she committed herself to Him who died upon it. Her strength held out to enable her to arrange the letter in her breast, so as that it could be seen that she had a paper there. It had held out for this, and it departed when this was done.

‘I am safe here,’ was her last benumbed thought. ‘When I am found dead at the foot of the Cross, it will be by some of my own sort; some of the working people who work among the lights yonder. I cannot see the lighted windows now, but they are there. I am thankful for all!’

The darkness gone, and a face bending down.

‘It cannot be the boofer lady?’

‘I don’t understand what you say. Let me wet your lips again with this brandy. I have been away to fetch it. Did you think that I was long gone?’

It is as the face of a woman, shaded by a quantity of rich dark hair. It is the earnest face of a woman who is young and handsome. But all is over with me on earth, and this must be an Angel.

‘Have I been long dead?’

‘I don’t understand what you say. Let me wet your lips again. I hurried all I could, and brought no one back with me, lest you should die of the shock of strangers.’

‘Am I not dead?’

‘I cannot understand what you say. Your voice is so low and broken that I cannot hear you. Do you hear me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you mean Yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘I was coming from my work just now, along the path outside (I was up with the night-hands last night), and I heard a groan, and found you lying here.’

‘What work, deary?’

‘Did you ask what work? At the paper-mill.’

‘Where is it?’

‘Your face is turned up to the sky, and you can’t see it. It is close by. You can see my face, here, between you and the sky?’

‘Yes.’

‘Dare I lift you?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Not even lift your head to get it on my arm? I will do it by very gentle degrees. You shall hardly feel it.’

‘Not yet. Paper. Letter.’

‘This paper in your breast?’

‘Bless ye!’

‘Let me wet your lips again. Am I to open it? To read it?’

‘Bless ye!’

She reads it with surprise, and looks down with a new expression and an added interest on the motionless face she kneels beside.

‘I know these names. I have heard them often.’

‘Will you send it, my dear?’

‘I cannot understand you. Let me wet your lips again, and your forehead. There. O poor thing, poor thing!’ These words through her fast-dropping tears. ‘What was it that you asked me? Wait till I bring my ear quite close.’

‘Will you send it, my dear?’

‘Will I send it to the writers? Is that your wish? Yes, certainly.’

‘You’ll not give it up to any one but them?’

‘No.’

‘As you must grow old in time, and come to your dying hour, my dear, you’ll not give it up to any one but them?’

‘No. Most solemnly.’

‘Never to the Parish!’ with a convulsed struggle.

‘No. Most solemnly.’

‘Nor let the Parish touch me, not yet so much as look at me!’ with another struggle.

‘No. Faithfully.’

A look of thankfulness and triumph lights the worn old face.

The eyes, which have been darkly fixed upon the sky, turn with meaning in them towards the compassionate face from which the tears are dropping, and a smile is on the aged lips as they ask:

‘What is your name, my dear?’

‘My name is Lizzie Hexam.’

‘I must be sore disfigured. Are you afraid to kiss me?’

The answer is, the ready pressure of her lips upon the cold but smiling mouth.

‘Bless ye! Now lift me, my love.’

Lizzie Hexam very softly raised the weather-stained grey head, and lifted her as high as Heaven.






Chapter 9. 
SOMEBODY BECOMES THE SUBJECT OF A PREDICTION

‘“We give thee hearty thanks for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our sister out of the miseries of this sinful world.”’ So read the Reverend Frank Milvey in a not untroubled voice, for his heart misgave him that all was not quite right between us and our sister—or say our sister in Law—Poor Law—and that we sometimes read these words in an awful manner, over our Sister and our Brother too.

And Sloppy—on whom the brave deceased had never turned her back until she ran away from him, knowing that otherwise he would not be separated from her—Sloppy could not in his conscience as yet find the hearty thanks required of it. Selfish in Sloppy, and yet excusable, it may be humbly hoped, because our sister had been more than his mother.

The words were read above the ashes of Betty Higden, in a corner of a churchyard near the river; in a churchyard so obscure that there was nothing in it but grass-mounds, not so much as one single tombstone. It might not be to do an unreasonably great deal for the diggers and hewers, in a registering age, if we ticketed their graves at the common charge; so that a new generation might know which was which: so that the soldier, sailor, emigrant, coming home, should be able to identify the resting-place of father, mother, playmate, or betrothed. For, we turn up our eyes and say that we are all alike in death, and we might turn them down and work the saying out in this world, so far. It would be sentimental, perhaps? But how say ye, my lords and gentleman and honourable boards, shall we not find good standing-room left for a little sentiment, if we look into our crowds?

Near unto the Reverend Frank Milvey as he read, stood his little wife, John Rokesmith the Secretary, and Bella Wilfer. These, over and above Sloppy, were the mourners at the lowly grave. Not a penny had been added to the money sewn in her dress: what her honest spirit had so long projected, was fulfilled.

‘I’ve took it in my head,’ said Sloppy, laying it, inconsolable, against the church door, when all was done: ‘I’ve took it in my wretched head that I might have sometimes turned a little harder for her, and it cuts me deep to think so now.’

The Reverend Frank Milvey, comforting Sloppy, expounded to him how the best of us were more or less remiss in our turnings at our respective Mangles—some of us very much so—and how we were all a halting, failing, feeble, and inconstant crew.

‘She warn’t, sir,’ said Sloppy, taking this ghostly counsel rather ill, in behalf of his late benefactress. ‘Let us speak for ourselves, sir. She went through with whatever duty she had to do. She went through with me, she went through with the Minders, she went through with herself, she went through with everythink. O Mrs Higden, Mrs Higden, you was a woman and a mother and a mangler in a million million!’

With those heartfelt words, Sloppy removed his dejected head from the church door, and took it back to the grave in the corner, and laid it down there, and wept alone. ‘Not a very poor grave,’ said the Reverend Frank Milvey, brushing his hand across his eyes, ‘when it has that homely figure on it. Richer, I think, than it could be made by most of the sculpture in Westminster Abbey!’

They left him undisturbed, and passed out at the wicket-gate. The water-wheel of the paper-mill was audible there, and seemed to have a softening influence on the bright wintry scene. They had arrived but a little while before, and Lizzie Hexam now told them the little she could add to the letter in which she had enclosed Mr Rokesmith’s letter and had asked for their instructions. This was merely how she had heard the groan, and what had afterwards passed, and how she had obtained leave for the remains to be placed in that sweet, fresh, empty store-room of the mill from which they had just accompanied them to the churchyard, and how the last requests had been religiously observed.

‘I could not have done it all, or nearly all, of myself,’ said Lizzie. ‘I should not have wanted the will; but I should not have had the power, without our managing partner.’

‘Surely not the Jew who received us?’ said Mrs Milvey.

(‘My dear,’ observed her husband in parenthesis, ‘why not?’)

‘The gentleman certainly is a Jew,’ said Lizzie, ‘and the lady, his wife, is a Jewess, and I was first brought to their notice by a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world.’

‘But suppose they try to convert you!’ suggested Mrs Milvey, bristling in her good little way, as a clergyman’s wife.

‘To do what, ma’am?’ asked Lizzie, with a modest smile.

‘To make you change your religion,’ said Mrs Milvey.

Lizzie shook her head, still smiling. ‘They have never asked me what my religion is. They asked me what my story was, and I told them. They asked me to be industrious and faithful, and I promised to be so. They most willingly and cheerfully do their duty to all of us who are employed here, and we try to do ours to them. Indeed they do much more than their duty to us, for they are wonderfully mindful of us in many ways.’

‘It is easy to see you’re a favourite, my dear,’ said little Mrs Milvey, not quite pleased.

‘It would be very ungrateful in me to say I am not,’ returned Lizzie, ‘for I have been already raised to a place of confidence here. But that makes no difference in their following their own religion and leaving all of us to ours. They never talk of theirs to us, and they never talk of ours to us. If I was the last in the mill, it would be just the same. They never asked me what religion that poor thing had followed.’

‘My dear,’ said Mrs Milvey, aside to the Reverend Frank, ‘I wish you would talk to her.’

‘My dear,’ said the Reverend Frank aside to his good little wife, ‘I think I will leave it to somebody else. The circumstances are hardly favourable. There are plenty of talkers going about, my love, and she will soon find one.’

While this discourse was interchanging, both Bella and the Secretary observed Lizzie Hexam with great attention. Brought face to face for the first time with the daughter of his supposed murderer, it was natural that John Harmon should have his own secret reasons for a careful scrutiny of her countenance and manner. Bella knew that Lizzie’s father had been falsely accused of the crime which had had so great an influence on her own life and fortunes; and her interest, though it had no secret springs, like that of the Secretary, was equally natural. Both had expected to see something very different from the real Lizzie Hexam, and thus it fell out that she became the unconscious means of bringing them together.

For, when they had walked on with her to the little house in the clean village by the paper-mill, where Lizzie had a lodging with an elderly couple employed in the establishment, and when Mrs Milvey and Bella had been up to see her room and had come down, the mill bell rang. This called Lizzie away for the time, and left the Secretary and Bella standing rather awkwardly in the small street; Mrs Milvey being engaged in pursuing the village children, and her investigations whether they were in danger of becoming children of Israel; and the Reverend Frank being engaged—to say the truth—in evading that branch of his spiritual functions, and getting out of sight surreptitiously.

Bella at length said:

‘Hadn’t we better talk about the commission we have undertaken, Mr Rokesmith?’

‘By all means,’ said the Secretary.

‘I suppose,’ faltered Bella, ‘that we are both commissioned, or we shouldn’t both be here?’

‘I suppose so,’ was the Secretary’s answer.

‘When I proposed to come with Mr and Mrs Milvey,’ said Bella, ‘Mrs Boffin urged me to do so, in order that I might give her my small report—it’s not worth anything, Mr Rokesmith, except for it’s being a woman’s—which indeed with you may be a fresh reason for it’s being worth nothing—of Lizzie Hexam.’

‘Mr Boffin,’ said the Secretary, ‘directed me to come for the same purpose.’

As they spoke they were leaving the little street and emerging on the wooded landscape by the river.

‘You think well of her, Mr Rokesmith?’ pursued Bella, conscious of making all the advances.

‘I think highly of her.’

‘I am so glad of that! Something quite refined in her beauty, is there not?’

‘Her appearance is very striking.’

‘There is a shade of sadness upon her that is quite touching. At least I—I am not setting up my own poor opinion, you know, Mr Rokesmith,’ said Bella, excusing and explaining herself in a pretty shy way; ‘I am consulting you.’

‘I noticed that sadness. I hope it may not,’ said the Secretary in a lower voice, ‘be the result of the false accusation which has been retracted.’

When they had passed on a little further without speaking, Bella, after stealing a glance or two at the Secretary, suddenly said:

‘Oh, Mr Rokesmith, don’t be hard with me, don’t be stern with me; be magnanimous! I want to talk with you on equal terms.’

The Secretary as suddenly brightened, and returned: ‘Upon my honour I had no thought but for you. I forced myself to be constrained, lest you might misinterpret my being more natural. There. It’s gone.’

‘Thank you,’ said Bella, holding out her little hand. ‘Forgive me.’

‘No!’ cried the Secretary, eagerly. ‘Forgive me!’ For there were tears in her eyes, and they were prettier in his sight (though they smote him on the heart rather reproachfully too) than any other glitter in the world.

When they had walked a little further:

‘You were going to speak to me,’ said the Secretary, with the shadow so long on him quite thrown off and cast away, ‘about Lizzie Hexam. So was I going to speak to you, if I could have begun.’

‘Now that you can begin, sir,’ returned Bella, with a look as if she italicized the word by putting one of her dimples under it, ‘what were you going to say?’

‘You remember, of course, that in her short letter to Mrs Boffin—short, but containing everything to the purpose—she stipulated that either her name, or else her place of residence, must be kept strictly a secret among us.’

Bella nodded Yes.

‘It is my duty to find out why she made that stipulation. I have it in charge from Mr Boffin to discover, and I am very desirous for myself to discover, whether that retracted accusation still leaves any stain upon her. I mean whether it places her at any disadvantage towards any one, even towards herself.’

‘Yes,’ said Bella, nodding thoughtfully; ‘I understand. That seems wise, and considerate.’

‘You may not have noticed, Miss Wilfer, that she has the same kind of interest in you, that you have in her. Just as you are attracted by her beaut—by her appearance and manner, she is attracted by yours.’

‘I certainly have not noticed it,’ returned Bella, again italicizing with the dimple, ‘and I should have given her credit for—’

The Secretary with a smile held up his hand, so plainly interposing ‘not for better taste’, that Bella’s colour deepened over the little piece of coquetry she was checked in.

‘And so,’ resumed the Secretary, ‘if you would speak with her alone before we go away from here, I feel quite sure that a natural and easy confidence would arise between you. Of course you would not be asked to betray it; and of course you would not, if you were. But if you do not object to put this question to her—to ascertain for us her own feeling in this one matter—you can do so at a far greater advantage than I or any else could. Mr Boffin is anxious on the subject. And I am,’ added the Secretary after a moment, ‘for a special reason, very anxious.’

‘I shall be happy, Mr Rokesmith,’ returned Bella, ‘to be of the least use; for I feel, after the serious scene of to-day, that I am useless enough in this world.’

‘Don’t say that,’ urged the Secretary.

‘Oh, but I mean that,’ said Bella, raising her eyebrows.

‘No one is useless in this world,’ retorted the Secretary, ‘who lightens the burden of it for any one else.’

‘But I assure you I don’t, Mr Rokesmith,’ said Bella, half-crying.

‘Not for your father?’

‘Dear, loving, self-forgetting, easily-satisfied Pa! Oh, yes! He thinks so.’

‘It is enough if he only thinks so,’ said the Secretary. ‘Excuse the interruption: I don’t like to hear you depreciate yourself.’

‘But you once depreciated me, sir,’ thought Bella, pouting, ‘and I hope you may be satisfied with the consequences you brought upon your head!’ However, she said nothing to that purpose; she even said something to a different purpose.

‘Mr Rokesmith, it seems so long since we spoke together naturally, that I am embarrassed in approaching another subject. Mr Boffin. You know I am very grateful to him; don’t you? You know I feel a true respect for him, and am bound to him by the strong ties of his own generosity; now don’t you?’

‘Unquestionably. And also that you are his favourite companion.’

‘That makes it,’ said Bella, ‘so very difficult to speak of him. But—. Does he treat you well?’

‘You see how he treats me,’ the Secretary answered, with a patient and yet proud air.

‘Yes, and I see it with pain,’ said Bella, very energetically.

The Secretary gave her such a radiant look, that if he had thanked her a hundred times, he could not have said as much as the look said.

‘I see it with pain,’ repeated Bella, ‘and it often makes me miserable. Miserable, because I cannot bear to be supposed to approve of it, or have any indirect share in it. Miserable, because I cannot bear to be forced to admit to myself that Fortune is spoiling Mr Boffin.’

‘Miss Wilfer,’ said the Secretary, with a beaming face, ‘if you could know with what delight I make the discovery that Fortune isn’t spoiling you, you would know that it more than compensates me for any slight at any other hands.’

‘Oh, don’t speak of me,’ said Bella, giving herself an impatient little slap with her glove. ‘You don’t know me as well as—’

‘As you know yourself?’ suggested the Secretary, finding that she stopped. ‘Do you know yourself?’

‘I know quite enough of myself,’ said Bella, with a charming air of being inclined to give herself up as a bad job, ‘and I don’t improve upon acquaintance. But Mr Boffin.’

‘That Mr Boffin’s manner to me, or consideration for me, is not what it used to be,’ observed the Secretary, ‘must be admitted. It is too plain to be denied.’

‘Are you disposed to deny it, Mr Rokesmith?’ asked Bella, with a look of wonder.

‘Ought I not to be glad to do so, if I could: though it were only for my own sake?’

‘Truly,’ returned Bella, ‘it must try you very much, and—you must please promise me that you won’t take ill what I am going to add, Mr Rokesmith?’

‘I promise it with all my heart.’

‘—And it must sometimes, I should think,’ said Bella, hesitating, ‘a little lower you in your own estimation?’

Assenting with a movement of his head, though not at all looking as if it did, the Secretary replied:

‘I have very strong reasons, Miss Wilfer, for bearing with the drawbacks of my position in the house we both inhabit. Believe that they are not all mercenary, although I have, through a series of strange fatalities, faded out of my place in life. If what you see with such a gracious and good sympathy is calculated to rouse my pride, there are other considerations (and those you do not see) urging me to quiet endurance. The latter are by far the stronger.’

‘I think I have noticed, Mr Rokesmith,’ said Bella, looking at him with curiosity, as not quite making him out, ‘that you repress yourself, and force yourself, to act a passive part.’

‘You are right. I repress myself and force myself to act a part. It is not in tameness of spirit that I submit. I have a settled purpose.’

‘And a good one, I hope,’ said Bella.

‘And a good one, I hope,’ he answered, looking steadily at her.

‘Sometimes I have fancied, sir,’ said Bella, turning away her eyes, ‘that your great regard for Mrs Boffin is a very powerful motive with you.’

‘You are right again; it is. I would do anything for her, bear anything for her. There are no words to express how I esteem that good, good woman.’

‘As I do too! May I ask you one thing more, Mr Rokesmith?’

‘Anything more.’

‘Of course you see that she really suffers, when Mr Boffin shows how he is changing?’

‘I see it, every day, as you see it, and am grieved to give her pain.’

‘To give her pain?’ said Bella, repeating the phrase quickly, with her eyebrows raised.

‘I am generally the unfortunate cause of it.’

‘Perhaps she says to you, as she often says to me, that he is the best of men, in spite of all.’

‘I often overhear her, in her honest and beautiful devotion to him, saying so to you,’ returned the Secretary, with the same steady look, ‘but I cannot assert that she ever says so to me.’

Bella met the steady look for a moment with a wistful, musing little look of her own, and then, nodding her pretty head several times, like a dimpled philosopher (of the very best school) who was moralizing on Life, heaved a little sigh, and gave up things in general for a bad job, as she had previously been inclined to give up herself.

But, for all that, they had a very pleasant walk. The trees were bare of leaves, and the river was bare of water-lilies; but the sky was not bare of its beautiful blue, and the water reflected it, and a delicious wind ran with the stream, touching the surface crisply. Perhaps the old mirror was never yet made by human hands, which, if all the images it has in its time reflected could pass across its surface again, would fail to reveal some scene of horror or distress. But the great serene mirror of the river seemed as if it might have reproduced all it had ever reflected between those placid banks, and brought nothing to the light save what was peaceful, pastoral, and blooming.

So, they walked, speaking of the newly filled-up grave, and of Johnny, and of many things. So, on their return, they met brisk Mrs Milvey coming to seek them, with the agreeable intelligence that there was no fear for the village children, there being a Christian school in the village, and no worse Judaical interference with it than to plant its garden. So, they got back to the village as Lizzie Hexam was coming from the paper-mill, and Bella detached herself to speak with her in her own home.

‘I am afraid it is a poor room for you,’ said Lizzie, with a smile of welcome, as she offered the post of honour by the fireside.

‘Not so poor as you think, my dear,’ returned Bella, ‘if you knew all.’ Indeed, though attained by some wonderful winding narrow stairs, which seemed to have been erected in a pure white chimney, and though very low in the ceiling, and very rugged in the floor, and rather blinking as to the proportions of its lattice window, it was a pleasanter room than that despised chamber once at home, in which Bella had first bemoaned the miseries of taking lodgers.

The day was closing as the two girls looked at one another by the fireside. The dusky room was lighted by the fire. The grate might have been the old brazier, and the glow might have been the old hollow down by the flare.

‘It’s quite new to me,’ said Lizzie, ‘to be visited by a lady so nearly of my own age, and so pretty, as you. It’s a pleasure to me to look at you.’

‘I have nothing left to begin with,’ returned Bella, blushing, ‘because I was going to say that it was a pleasure to me to look at you, Lizzie. But we can begin without a beginning, can’t we?’

Lizzie took the pretty little hand that was held out in as pretty a little frankness.

‘Now, dear,’ said Bella, drawing her chair a little nearer, and taking Lizzie’s arm as if they were going out for a walk, ‘I am commissioned with something to say, and I dare say I shall say it wrong, but I won’t if I can help it. It is in reference to your letter to Mr and Mrs Boffin, and this is what it is. Let me see. Oh yes! This is what it is.’

With this exordium, Bella set forth that request of Lizzie’s touching secrecy, and delicately spoke of that false accusation and its retraction, and asked might she beg to be informed whether it had any bearing, near or remote, on such request. ‘I feel, my dear,’ said Bella, quite amazing herself by the business-like manner in which she was getting on, ‘that the subject must be a painful one to you, but I am mixed up in it also; for—I don’t know whether you may know it or suspect it—I am the willed-away girl who was to have been married to the unfortunate gentleman, if he had been pleased to approve of me. So I was dragged into the subject without my consent, and you were dragged into it without your consent, and there is very little to choose between us.’

‘I had no doubt,’ said Lizzie, ‘that you were the Miss Wilfer I have often heard named. Can you tell me who my unknown friend is?’

‘Unknown friend, my dear?’ said Bella.

‘Who caused the charge against poor father to be contradicted, and sent me the written paper.’

Bella had never heard of him. Had no notion who he was.

‘I should have been glad to thank him,’ returned Lizzie. ‘He has done a great deal for me. I must hope that he will let me thank him some day. You asked me has it anything to do—’

‘It or the accusation itself,’ Bella put in.

‘Yes. Has either anything to do with my wishing to live quite secret and retired here? No.’

As Lizzie Hexam shook her head in giving this reply and as her glance sought the fire, there was a quiet resolution in her folded hands, not lost on Bella’s bright eyes.

‘Have you lived much alone?’ asked Bella.

‘Yes. It’s nothing new to me. I used to be always alone many hours together, in the day and in the night, when poor father was alive.’

‘You have a brother, I have been told?’

‘I have a brother, but he is not friendly with me. He is a very good boy though, and has raised himself by his industry. I don’t complain of him.’

As she said it, with her eyes upon the fire-glow, there was an instantaneous escape of distress into her face. Bella seized the moment to touch her hand.

‘Lizzie, I wish you would tell me whether you have any friend of your own sex and age.’

‘I have lived that lonely kind of life, that I have never had one,’ was the answer.

‘Nor I neither,’ said Bella. ‘Not that my life has been lonely, for I could have sometimes wished it lonelier, instead of having Ma going on like the Tragic Muse with a face-ache in majestic corners, and Lavvy being spiteful—though of course I am very fond of them both. I wish you could make a friend of me, Lizzie. Do you think you could? I have no more of what they call character, my dear, than a canary-bird, but I know I am trustworthy.’

The wayward, playful, affectionate nature, giddy for want of the weight of some sustaining purpose, and capricious because it was always fluttering among little things, was yet a captivating one. To Lizzie it was so new, so pretty, at once so womanly and so childish, that it won her completely. And when Bella said again, ‘Do you think you could, Lizzie?’ with her eyebrows raised, her head inquiringly on one side, and an odd doubt about it in her own bosom, Lizzie showed beyond all question that she thought she could.

‘Tell me, my dear,’ said Bella, ‘what is the matter, and why you live like this.’

Lizzie presently began, by way of prelude, ‘You must have many lovers—’ when Bella checked her with a little scream of astonishment.

‘My dear, I haven’t one!’

‘Not one?’

‘Well! Perhaps one,’ said Bella. ‘I am sure I don’t know. I had one, but what he may think about it at the present time I can’t say. Perhaps I have half a one (of course I don’t count that Idiot, George Sampson). However, never mind me. I want to hear about you.’

‘There is a certain man,’ said Lizzie, ‘a passionate and angry man, who says he loves me, and who I must believe does love me. He is the friend of my brother. I shrank from him within myself when my brother first brought him to me; but the last time I saw him he terrified me more than I can say.’ There she stopped.

‘Did you come here to escape from him, Lizzie?’

‘I came here immediately after he so alarmed me.’

‘Are you afraid of him here?’

‘I am not timid generally, but I am always afraid of him. I am afraid to see a newspaper, or to hear a word spoken of what is done in London, lest he should have done some violence.’

‘Then you are not afraid of him for yourself, dear?’ said Bella, after pondering on the words.

‘I should be even that, if I met him about here. I look round for him always, as I pass to and fro at night.’

‘Are you afraid of anything he may do to himself in London, my dear?’

‘No. He might be fierce enough even to do some violence to himself, but I don’t think of that.’

‘Then it would almost seem, dear,’ said Bella quaintly, ‘as if there must be somebody else?’

Lizzie put her hands before her face for a moment before replying: ‘The words are always in my ears, and the blow he struck upon a stone wall as he said them is always before my eyes. I have tried hard to think it not worth remembering, but I cannot make so little of it. His hand was trickling down with blood as he said to me, “Then I hope that I may never kill him!’

Rather startled, Bella made and clasped a girdle of her arms round Lizzie’s waist, and then asked quietly, in a soft voice, as they both looked at the fire:

‘Kill him! Is this man so jealous, then?’

‘Of a gentleman,’ said Lizzie. ‘—I hardly know how to tell you—of a gentleman far above me and my way of life, who broke father’s death to me, and has shown an interest in me since.’

‘Does he love you?’

Lizzie shook her head.

‘Does he admire you?’

Lizzie ceased to shake her head, and pressed her hand upon her living girdle.

‘Is it through his influence that you came here?’

‘O no! And of all the world I wouldn’t have him know that I am here, or get the least clue where to find me.’

‘Lizzie, dear! Why?’ asked Bella, in amazement at this burst. But then quickly added, reading Lizzie’s face: ‘No. Don’t say why. That was a foolish question of mine. I see, I see.’

There was silence between them. Lizzie, with a drooping head, glanced down at the glow in the fire where her first fancies had been nursed, and her first escape made from the grim life out of which she had plucked her brother, foreseeing her reward.

‘You know all now,’ she said, raising her eyes to Bella’s. ‘There is nothing left out. This is my reason for living secret here, with the aid of a good old man who is my true friend. For a short part of my life at home with father, I knew of things—don’t ask me what—that I set my face against, and tried to better. I don’t think I could have done more, then, without letting my hold on father go; but they sometimes lie heavy on my mind. By doing all for the best, I hope I may wear them out.’

‘And wear out too,’ said Bella soothingly, ‘this weakness, Lizzie, in favour of one who is not worthy of it.’

‘No. I don’t want to wear that out,’ was the flushed reply, ‘nor do I want to believe, nor do I believe, that he is not worthy of it. What should I gain by that, and how much should I lose!’

Bella’s expressive little eyebrows remonstrated with the fire for some short time before she rejoined:

‘Don’t think that I press you, Lizzie; but wouldn’t you gain in peace, and hope, and even in freedom? Wouldn’t it be better not to live a secret life in hiding, and not to be shut out from your natural and wholesome prospects? Forgive my asking you, would that be no gain?’

‘Does a woman’s heart that—that has that weakness in it which you have spoken of,’ returned Lizzie, ‘seek to gain anything?’

The question was so directly at variance with Bella’s views in life, as set forth to her father, that she said internally, ‘There, you little mercenary wretch! Do you hear that? Ain’t you ashamed of your self?’ and unclasped the girdle of her arms, expressly to give herself a penitential poke in the side.

‘But you said, Lizzie,’ observed Bella, returning to her subject when she had administered this chastisement, ‘that you would lose, besides. Would you mind telling me what you would lose, Lizzie?’

‘I should lose some of the best recollections, best encouragements, and best objects, that I carry through my daily life. I should lose my belief that if I had been his equal, and he had loved me, I should have tried with all my might to make him better and happier, as he would have made me. I should lose almost all the value that I put upon the little learning I have, which is all owing to him, and which I conquered the difficulties of, that he might not think it thrown away upon me. I should lose a kind of picture of him—or of what he might have been, if I had been a lady, and he had loved me—which is always with me, and which I somehow feel that I could not do a mean or a wrong thing before. I should leave off prizing the remembrance that he has done me nothing but good since I have known him, and that he has made a change within me, like—like the change in the grain of these hands, which were coarse, and cracked, and hard, and brown when I rowed on the river with father, and are softened and made supple by this new work as you see them now.’

They trembled, but with no weakness, as she showed them.

‘Understand me, my dear;’ thus she went on. ‘I have never dreamed of the possibility of his being anything to me on this earth but the kind picture that I know I could not make you understand, if the understanding was not in your own breast already. I have no more dreamed of the possibility of my being his wife, than he ever has—and words could not be stronger than that. And yet I love him. I love him so much, and so dearly, that when I sometimes think my life may be but a weary one, I am proud of it and glad of it. I am proud and glad to suffer something for him, even though it is of no service to him, and he will never know of it or care for it.’

Bella sat enchained by the deep, unselfish passion of this girl or woman of her own age, courageously revealing itself in the confidence of her sympathetic perception of its truth. And yet she had never experienced anything like it, or thought of the existence of anything like it.

‘It was late upon a wretched night,’ said Lizzie, ‘when his eyes first looked at me in my old river-side home, very different from this. His eyes may never look at me again. I would rather that they never did; I hope that they never may. But I would not have the light of them taken out of my life, for anything my life can give me. I have told you everything now, my dear. If it comes a little strange to me to have parted with it, I am not sorry. I had no thought of ever parting with a single word of it, a moment before you came in; but you came in, and my mind changed.’

Bella kissed her on the cheek, and thanked her warmly for her confidence. ‘I only wish,’ said Bella, ‘I was more deserving of it.’

‘More deserving of it?’ repeated Lizzie, with an incredulous smile.

‘I don’t mean in respect of keeping it,’ said Bella, ‘because any one should tear me to bits before getting at a syllable of it—though there’s no merit in that, for I am naturally as obstinate as a Pig. What I mean is, Lizzie, that I am a mere impertinent piece of conceit, and you shame me.’

Lizzie put up the pretty brown hair that came tumbling down, owing to the energy with which Bella shook her head; and she remonstrated while thus engaged, ‘My dear!’

‘Oh, it’s all very well to call me your dear,’ said Bella, with a pettish whimper, ‘and I am glad to be called so, though I have slight enough claim to be. But I am such a nasty little thing!’

‘My dear!’ urged Lizzie again.

‘Such a shallow, cold, worldly, Limited little brute!’ said Bella, bringing out her last adjective with culminating force.

‘Do you think,’ inquired Lizzie with her quiet smile, the hair being now secured, ‘that I don’t know better?’

‘Do you know better though?’ said Bella. ‘Do you really believe you know better? Oh, I should be so glad if you did know better, but I am so very much afraid that I must know best!’

Lizzie asked her, laughing outright, whether she ever saw her own face or heard her own voice?

‘I suppose so,’ returned Bella; ‘I look in the glass often enough, and I chatter like a Magpie.’

‘I have seen your face, and heard your voice, at any rate,’ said Lizzie, ‘and they have tempted me to say to you—with a certainty of not going wrong—what I thought I should never say to any one. Does that look ill?’

‘No, I hope it doesn’t,’ pouted Bella, stopping herself in something between a humoured laugh and a humoured sob.

‘I used once to see pictures in the fire,’ said Lizzie playfully, ‘to please my brother. Shall I tell you what I see down there where the fire is glowing?’

They had risen, and were standing on the hearth, the time being come for separating; each had drawn an arm around the other to take leave.

‘Shall I tell you,’ asked Lizzie, ‘what I see down there?’

‘Limited little b?’ suggested Bella with her eyebrows raised.

‘A heart well worth winning, and well won. A heart that, once won, goes through fire and water for the winner, and never changes, and is never daunted.’

‘Girl’s heart?’ asked Bella, with accompanying eyebrows.

Lizzie nodded. ‘And the figure to which it belongs—’

‘Is yours,’ suggested Bella.

‘No. Most clearly and distinctly yours.’

So the interview terminated with pleasant words on both sides, and with many reminders on the part of Bella that they were friends, and pledges that she would soon come down into that part of the country again. There with Lizzie returned to her occupation, and Bella ran over to the little inn to rejoin her company.

‘You look rather serious, Miss Wilfer,’ was the Secretary’s first remark.

‘I feel rather serious,’ returned Miss Wilfer.

She had nothing else to tell him but that Lizzie Hexam’s secret had no reference whatever to the cruel charge, or its withdrawal. Oh yes though! said Bella; she might as well mention one other thing; Lizzie was very desirous to thank her unknown friend who had sent her the written retractation. Was she, indeed? observed the Secretary. Ah! Bella asked him, had he any notion who that unknown friend might be? He had no notion whatever.

They were on the borders of Oxfordshire, so far had poor old Betty Higden strayed. They were to return by the train presently, and, the station being near at hand, the Reverend Frank and Mrs Frank, and Sloppy and Bella and the Secretary, set out to walk to it. Few rustic paths are wide enough for five, and Bella and the Secretary dropped behind.

‘Can you believe, Mr Rokesmith,’ said Bella, ‘that I feel as if whole years had passed since I went into Lizzie Hexam’s cottage?’

‘We have crowded a good deal into the day,’ he returned, ‘and you were much affected in the churchyard. You are over-tired.’

‘No, I am not at all tired. I have not quite expressed what I mean. I don’t mean that I feel as if a great space of time had gone by, but that I feel as if much had happened—to myself, you know.’

‘For good, I hope?’

‘I hope so,’ said Bella.

‘You are cold; I felt you tremble. Pray let me put this wrapper of mine about you. May I fold it over this shoulder without injuring your dress? Now, it will be too heavy and too long. Let me carry this end over my arm, as you have no arm to give me.’

Yes she had though. How she got it out, in her muffled state, Heaven knows; but she got it out somehow—there it was—and slipped it through the Secretary’s.

‘I have had a long and interesting talk with Lizzie, Mr Rokesmith, and she gave me her full confidence.’

‘She could not withhold it,’ said the Secretary.

‘I wonder how you come,’ said Bella, stopping short as she glanced at him, ‘to say to me just what she said about it!’

‘I infer that it must be because I feel just as she felt about it.’

‘And how was that, do you mean to say, sir?’ asked Bella, moving again.

‘That if you were inclined to win her confidence—anybody’s confidence—you were sure to do it.’

The railway, at this point, knowingly shutting a green eye and opening a red one, they had to run for it. As Bella could not run easily so wrapped up, the Secretary had to help her. When she took her opposite place in the carriage corner, the brightness in her face was so charming to behold, that on her exclaiming, ‘What beautiful stars and what a glorious night!’ the Secretary said ‘Yes,’ but seemed to prefer to see the night and the stars in the light of her lovely little countenance, to looking out of window.

O boofer lady, fascinating boofer lady! If I were but legally executor of Johnny’s will! If I had but the right to pay your legacy and to take your receipt!—Something to this purpose surely mingled with the blast of the train as it cleared the stations, all knowingly shutting up their green eyes and opening their red ones when they prepared to let the boofer lady pass.






Chapter 10. 
SCOUTS OUT

‘And so, Miss Wren,’ said Mr Eugene Wrayburn, ‘I cannot persuade you to dress me a doll?’

‘No,’ replied Miss Wren snappishly; ‘if you want one, go and buy one at the shop.’

‘And my charming young goddaughter,’ said Mr Wrayburn plaintively, ‘down in Hertfordshire—’

(‘Humbugshire you mean, I think,’ interposed Miss Wren.)

‘—is to be put upon the cold footing of the general public, and is to derive no advantage from my private acquaintance with the Court Dressmaker?’

‘If it’s any advantage to your charming godchild—and oh, a precious godfather she has got!’—replied Miss Wren, pricking at him in the air with her needle, ‘to be informed that the Court Dressmaker knows your tricks and your manners, you may tell her so by post, with my compliments.’

Miss Wren was busy at her work by candle-light, and Mr Wrayburn, half amused and half vexed, and all idle and shiftless, stood by her bench looking on. Miss Wren’s troublesome child was in the corner in deep disgrace, and exhibiting great wretchedness in the shivering stage of prostration from drink.

‘Ugh, you disgraceful boy!’ exclaimed Miss Wren, attracted by the sound of his chattering teeth, ‘I wish they’d all drop down your throat and play at dice in your stomach! Boh, wicked child! Bee-baa, black sheep!’

On her accompanying each of these reproaches with a threatening stamp of the foot, the wretched creature protested with a whine.

‘Pay five shillings for you indeed!’ Miss Wren proceeded; ‘how many hours do you suppose it costs me to earn five shillings, you infamous boy?—Don’t cry like that, or I’ll throw a doll at you. Pay five shillings fine for you indeed. Fine in more ways than one, I think! I’d give the dustman five shillings, to carry you off in the dust cart.’

‘No, no,’ pleaded the absurd creature. ‘Please!’

‘He’s enough to break his mother’s heart, is this boy,’ said Miss Wren, half appealing to Eugene. ‘I wish I had never brought him up. He’d be sharper than a serpent’s tooth, if he wasn’t as dull as ditch water. Look at him. There’s a pretty object for a parent’s eyes!’

Assuredly, in his worse than swinish state (for swine at least fatten on their guzzling, and make themselves good to eat), he was a pretty object for any eyes.

‘A muddling and a swipey old child,’ said Miss Wren, rating him with great severity, ‘fit for nothing but to be preserved in the liquor that destroys him, and put in a great glass bottle as a sight for other swipey children of his own pattern,—if he has no consideration for his liver, has he none for his mother?’

‘Yes. Deration, oh don’t!’ cried the subject of these angry remarks.

‘Oh don’t and oh don’t,’ pursued Miss Wren. ‘It’s oh do and oh do. And why do you?’

‘Won’t do so any more. Won’t indeed. Pray!’

‘There!’ said Miss Wren, covering her eyes with her hand. ‘I can’t bear to look at you. Go up stairs and get me my bonnet and shawl. Make yourself useful in some way, bad boy, and let me have your room instead of your company, for one half minute.’

Obeying her, he shambled out, and Eugene Wrayburn saw the tears exude from between the little creature’s fingers as she kept her hand before her eyes. He was sorry, but his sympathy did not move his carelessness to do anything but feel sorry.

‘I’m going to the Italian Opera to try on,’ said Miss Wren, taking away her hand after a little while, and laughing satirically to hide that she had been crying; ‘I must see your back before I go, Mr Wrayburn. Let me first tell you, once for all, that it’s of no use your paying visits to me. You wouldn’t get what you want, of me, no, not if you brought pincers with you to tear it out.’

‘Are you so obstinate on the subject of a doll’s dress for my godchild?’

‘Ah!’ returned Miss Wren with a hitch of her chin, ‘I am so obstinate. And of course it’s on the subject of a doll’s dress—or address—whichever you like. Get along and give it up!’

Her degraded charge had come back, and was standing behind her with the bonnet and shawl.

‘Give ‘em to me and get back into your corner, you naughty old thing!’ said Miss Wren, as she turned and espied him. ‘No, no, I won’t have your help. Go into your corner, this minute!’

The miserable man, feebly rubbing the back of his faltering hands downward from the wrists, shuffled on to his post of disgrace; but not without a curious glance at Eugene in passing him, accompanied with what seemed as if it might have been an action of his elbow, if any action of any limb or joint he had, would have answered truly to his will. Taking no more particular notice of him than instinctively falling away from the disagreeable contact, Eugene, with a lazy compliment or so to Miss Wren, begged leave to light his cigar, and departed.

‘Now you prodigal old son,’ said Jenny, shaking her head and her emphatic little forefinger at her burden, ‘you sit there till I come back. You dare to move out of your corner for a single instant while I’m gone, and I’ll know the reason why.’

With this admonition, she blew her work candles out, leaving him to the light of the fire, and, taking her big door-key in her pocket and her crutch-stick in her hand, marched off.

Eugene lounged slowly towards the Temple, smoking his cigar, but saw no more of the dolls’ dressmaker, through the accident of their taking opposite sides of the street. He lounged along moodily, and stopped at Charing Cross to look about him, with as little interest in the crowd as any man might take, and was lounging on again, when a most unexpected object caught his eyes. No less an object than Jenny Wren’s bad boy trying to make up his mind to cross the road.

A more ridiculous and feeble spectacle than this tottering wretch making unsteady sallies into the roadway, and as often staggering back again, oppressed by terrors of vehicles that were a long way off or were nowhere, the streets could not have shown. Over and over again, when the course was perfectly clear, he set out, got half way, described a loop, turned, and went back again; when he might have crossed and re-crossed half a dozen times. Then, he would stand shivering on the edge of the pavement, looking up the street and looking down, while scores of people jostled him, and crossed, and went on. Stimulated in course of time by the sight of so many successes, he would make another sally, make another loop, would all but have his foot on the opposite pavement, would see or imagine something coming, and would stagger back again. There, he would stand making spasmodic preparations as if for a great leap, and at last would decide on a start at precisely the wrong moment, and would be roared at by drivers, and would shrink back once more, and stand in the old spot shivering, with the whole of the proceedings to go through again.

‘It strikes me,’ remarked Eugene coolly, after watching him for some minutes, ‘that my friend is likely to be rather behind time if he has any appointment on hand.’ With which remark he strolled on, and took no further thought of him.

Lightwood was at home when he got to the Chambers, and had dined alone there. Eugene drew a chair to the fire by which he was having his wine and reading the evening paper, and brought a glass, and filled it for good fellowship’s sake.

‘My dear Mortimer, you are the express picture of contented industry, reposing (on credit) after the virtuous labours of the day.’

‘My dear Eugene, you are the express picture of discontented idleness not reposing at all. Where have you been?’

‘I have been,’ replied Wrayburn, ‘—about town. I have turned up at the present juncture, with the intention of consulting my highly intelligent and respected solicitor on the position of my affairs.’

‘Your highly intelligent and respect solicitor is of opinion that your affairs are in a bad way, Eugene.’

‘Though whether,’ said Eugene thoughtfully, ‘that can be intelligently said, now, of the affairs of a client who has nothing to lose and who cannot possibly be made to pay, may be open to question.’

‘You have fallen into the hands of the Jews, Eugene.’

‘My dear boy,’ returned the debtor, very composedly taking up his glass, ‘having previously fallen into the hands of some of the Christians, I can bear it with philosophy.’

‘I have had an interview to-day, Eugene, with a Jew, who seems determined to press us hard. Quite a Shylock, and quite a Patriarch. A picturesque grey-headed and grey-bearded old Jew, in a shovel-hat and gaberdine.’

‘Not,’ said Eugene, pausing in setting down his glass, ‘surely not my worthy friend Mr Aaron?’

‘He calls himself Mr Riah.’

‘By-the-by,’ said Eugene, ‘it comes into my mind that—no doubt with an instinctive desire to receive him into the bosom of our Church—I gave him the name of Aaron!’

‘Eugene, Eugene,’ returned Lightwood, ‘you are more ridiculous than usual. Say what you mean.’

‘Merely, my dear fellow, that I have the honour and pleasure of a speaking acquaintance with such a Patriarch as you describe, and that I address him as Mr Aaron, because it appears to me Hebraic, expressive, appropriate, and complimentary. Notwithstanding which strong reasons for its being his name, it may not be his name.’

‘I believe you are the absurdest man on the face of the earth,’ said Lightwood, laughing.

‘Not at all, I assure you. Did he mention that he knew me?’

‘He did not. He only said of you that he expected to be paid by you.’

‘Which looks,’ remarked Eugene with much gravity, ‘like not knowing me. I hope it may not be my worthy friend Mr Aaron, for, to tell you the truth, Mortimer, I doubt he may have a prepossession against me. I strongly suspect him of having had a hand in spiriting away Lizzie.’

‘Everything,’ returned Lightwood impatiently, ‘seems, by a fatality, to bring us round to Lizzie. “About town” meant about Lizzie, just now, Eugene.’

‘My solicitor, do you know,’ observed Eugene, turning round to the furniture, ‘is a man of infinite discernment!’

‘Did it not, Eugene?’

‘Yes it did, Mortimer.’

‘And yet, Eugene, you know you do not really care for her.’

Eugene Wrayburn rose, and put his hands in his pockets, and stood with a foot on the fender, indolently rocking his body and looking at the fire. After a prolonged pause, he replied: ‘I don’t know that. I must ask you not to say that, as if we took it for granted.’

‘But if you do care for her, so much the more should you leave her to herself.’

Having again paused as before, Eugene said: ‘I don’t know that, either. But tell me. Did you ever see me take so much trouble about anything, as about this disappearance of hers? I ask, for information.’

‘My dear Eugene, I wish I ever had!’

‘Then you have not? Just so. You confirm my own impression. Does that look as if I cared for her? I ask, for information.’

‘I asked you for information, Eugene,’ said Mortimer reproachfully.

‘Dear boy, I know it, but I can’t give it. I thirst for information. What do I mean? If my taking so much trouble to recover her does not mean that I care for her, what does it mean? “If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, where’s the peck,” &c.?’

Though he said this gaily, he said it with a perplexed and inquisitive face, as if he actually did not know what to make of himself. ‘Look on to the end—’ Lightwood was beginning to remonstrate, when he caught at the words:

‘Ah! See now! That’s exactly what I am incapable of doing. How very acute you are, Mortimer, in finding my weak place! When we were at school together, I got up my lessons at the last moment, day by day and bit by bit; now we are out in life together, I get up my lessons in the same way. In the present task I have not got beyond this:—I am bent on finding Lizzie, and I mean to find her, and I will take any means of finding her that offer themselves. Fair means or foul means, are all alike to me. I ask you—for information—what does that mean? When I have found her I may ask you—also for information—what do I mean now? But it would be premature in this stage, and it’s not the character of my mind.’

Lightwood was shaking his head over the air with which his friend held forth thus—an air so whimsically open and argumentative as almost to deprive what he said of the appearance of evasion—when a shuffling was heard at the outer door, and then an undecided knock, as though some hand were groping for the knocker. ‘The frolicsome youth of the neighbourhood,’ said Eugene, ‘whom I should be delighted to pitch from this elevation into the churchyard below, without any intermediate ceremonies, have probably turned the lamp out. I am on duty to-night, and will see to the door.’

His friend had barely had time to recall the unprecedented gleam of determination with which he had spoken of finding this girl, and which had faded out of him with the breath of the spoken words, when Eugene came back, ushering in a most disgraceful shadow of a man, shaking from head to foot, and clothed in shabby grease and smear.

‘This interesting gentleman,’ said Eugene, ‘is the son—the occasionally rather trying son, for he has his failings—of a lady of my acquaintance. My dear Mortimer—Mr Dolls.’ Eugene had no idea what his name was, knowing the little dressmaker’s to be assumed, but presented him with easy confidence under the first appellation that his associations suggested.

‘I gather, my dear Mortimer,’ pursued Eugene, as Lightwood stared at the obscene visitor, ‘from the manner of Mr Dolls—which is occasionally complicated—that he desires to make some communication to me. I have mentioned to Mr Dolls that you and I are on terms of confidence, and have requested Mr Dolls to develop his views here.’

The wretched object being much embarrassed by holding what remained of his hat, Eugene airily tossed it to the door, and put him down in a chair.

‘It will be necessary, I think,’ he observed, ‘to wind up Mr Dolls, before anything to any mortal purpose can be got out of him. Brandy, Mr Dolls, or—?’

‘Threepenn’orth Rum,’ said Mr Dolls.

A judiciously small quantity of the spirit was given him in a wine-glass, and he began to convey it to his mouth, with all kinds of falterings and gyrations on the road.

‘The nerves of Mr Dolls,’ remarked Eugene to Lightwood, ‘are considerably unstrung. And I deem it on the whole expedient to fumigate Mr Dolls.’

He took the shovel from the grate, sprinkled a few live ashes on it, and from a box on the chimney-piece took a few pastiles, which he set upon them; then, with great composure began placidly waving the shovel in front of Mr Dolls, to cut him off from his company.

‘Lord bless my soul, Eugene!’ cried Lightwood, laughing again, ‘what a mad fellow you are! Why does this creature come to see you?’

‘We shall hear,’ said Wrayburn, very observant of his face withal. ‘Now then. Speak out. Don’t be afraid. State your business, Dolls.’

‘Mist Wrayburn!’ said the visitor, thickly and huskily. ‘—‘tis Mist Wrayburn, ain’t?’ With a stupid stare.

‘Of course it is. Look at me. What do you want?’

Mr Dolls collapsed in his chair, and faintly said ‘Threepenn’orth Rum.’

‘Will you do me the favour, my dear Mortimer, to wind up Mr Dolls again?’ said Eugene. ‘I am occupied with the fumigation.’

A similar quantity was poured into his glass, and he got it to his lips by similar circuitous ways. Having drunk it, Mr Dolls, with an evident fear of running down again unless he made haste, proceeded to business.

‘Mist Wrayburn. Tried to nudge you, but you wouldn’t. You want that drection. You want t’know where she lives. do you Mist Wrayburn?’

With a glance at his friend, Eugene replied to the question sternly, ‘I do.’

‘I am er man,’ said Mr Dolls, trying to smite himself on the breast, but bringing his hand to bear upon the vicinity of his eye, ‘er do it. I am er man er do it.’

‘What are you the man to do?’ demanded Eugene, still sternly.

‘Er give up that drection.’

‘Have you got it?’

With a most laborious attempt at pride and dignity, Mr Dolls rolled his head for some time, awakening the highest expectations, and then answered, as if it were the happiest point that could possibly be expected of him: ‘No.’

‘What do you mean then?’

Mr Dolls, collapsing in the drowsiest manner after his late intellectual triumph, replied: ‘Threepenn’orth Rum.’

‘Wind him up again, my dear Mortimer,’ said Wrayburn; ‘wind him up again.’

‘Eugene, Eugene,’ urged Lightwood in a low voice, as he complied, ‘can you stoop to the use of such an instrument as this?’

‘I said,’ was the reply, made with that former gleam of determination, ‘that I would find her out by any means, fair or foul. These are foul, and I’ll take them—if I am not first tempted to break the head of Mr Dolls with the fumigator. Can you get the direction? Do you mean that? Speak! If that’s what you have come for, say how much you want.’

‘Ten shillings—Threepenn’orths Rum,’ said Mr Dolls.

‘You shall have it.’

‘Fifteen shillings—Threepenn’orths Rum,’ said Mr Dolls, making an attempt to stiffen himself.

‘You shall have it. Stop at that. How will you get the direction you talk of?’

‘I am er man,’ said Mr Dolls, with majesty, ‘er get it, sir.’

‘How will you get it, I ask you?’

‘I am ill-used vidual,’ said Mr Dolls. ‘Blown up morning t’night. Called names. She makes Mint money, sir, and never stands Threepenn’orth Rum.’

‘Get on,’ rejoined Eugene, tapping his palsied head with the fire-shovel, as it sank on his breast. ‘What comes next?’

Making a dignified attempt to gather himself together, but, as it were, dropping half a dozen pieces of himself while he tried in vain to pick up one, Mr Dolls, swaying his head from side to side, regarded his questioner with what he supposed to be a haughty smile and a scornful glance.

‘She looks upon me as mere child, sir. I am not mere child, sir. Man. Man talent. Lerrers pass betwixt ‘em. Postman lerrers. Easy for man talent er get drection, as get his own drection.’

‘Get it then,’ said Eugene; adding very heartily under his breath, ‘—You Brute! Get it, and bring it here to me, and earn the money for sixty threepenn’orths of rum, and drink them all, one a top of another, and drink yourself dead with all possible expedition.’ The latter clauses of these special instructions he addressed to the fire, as he gave it back the ashes he had taken from it, and replaced the shovel.

Mr Dolls now struck out the highly unexpected discovery that he had been insulted by Lightwood, and stated his desire to ‘have it out with him’ on the spot, and defied him to come on, upon the liberal terms of a sovereign to a halfpenny. Mr Dolls then fell a crying, and then exhibited a tendency to fall asleep. This last manifestation as by far the most alarming, by reason of its threatening his prolonged stay on the premises, necessitated vigorous measures. Eugene picked up his worn-out hat with the tongs, clapped it on his head, and, taking him by the collar—all this at arm’s length—conducted him down stairs and out of the precincts into Fleet Street. There, he turned his face westward, and left him.

When he got back, Lightwood was standing over the fire, brooding in a sufficiently low-spirited manner.

‘I’ll wash my hands of Mr Dolls physically—’ said Eugene, ‘and be with you again directly, Mortimer.’

‘I would much prefer,’ retorted Mortimer, ‘your washing your hands of Mr Dolls, morally, Eugene.’

‘So would I,’ said Eugene; ‘but you see, dear boy, I can’t do without him.’

In a minute or two he resumed his chair, as perfectly unconcerned as usual, and rallied his friend on having so narrowly escaped the prowess of their muscular visitor.

‘I can’t be amused on this theme,’ said Mortimer, restlessly. ‘You can make almost any theme amusing to me, Eugene, but not this.’

‘Well!’ cried Eugene, ‘I am a little ashamed of it myself, and therefore let us change the subject.’

‘It is so deplorably underhanded,’ said Mortimer. ‘It is so unworthy of you, this setting on of such a shameful scout.’

‘We have changed the subject!’ exclaimed Eugene, airily. ‘We have found a new one in that word, scout. Don’t be like Patience on a mantelpiece frowning at Dolls, but sit down, and I’ll tell you something that you really will find amusing. Take a cigar. Look at this of mine. I light it—draw one puff—breathe the smoke out—there it goes—it’s Dolls!—it’s gone—and being gone you are a man again.’

‘Your subject,’ said Mortimer, after lighting a cigar, and comforting himself with a whiff or two, ‘was scouts, Eugene.’

‘Exactly. Isn’t it droll that I never go out after dark, but I find myself attended, always by one scout, and often by two?’

Lightwood took his cigar from his lips in surprise, and looked at his friend, as if with a latent suspicion that there must be a jest or hidden meaning in his words.

‘On my honour, no,’ said Wrayburn, answering the look and smiling carelessly; ‘I don’t wonder at your supposing so, but on my honour, no. I say what I mean. I never go out after dark, but I find myself in the ludicrous situation of being followed and observed at a distance, always by one scout, and often by two.’

‘Are you sure, Eugene?’

‘Sure? My dear boy, they are always the same.’

‘But there’s no process out against you. The Jews only threaten. They have done nothing. Besides, they know where to find you, and I represent you. Why take the trouble?’

‘Observe the legal mind!’ remarked Eugene, turning round to the furniture again, with an air of indolent rapture. ‘Observe the dyer’s hand, assimilating itself to what it works in,—or would work in, if anybody would give it anything to do. Respected solicitor, it’s not that. The schoolmaster’s abroad.’

‘The schoolmaster?’

‘Ay! Sometimes the schoolmaster and the pupil are both abroad. Why, how soon you rust in my absence! You don’t understand yet? Those fellows who were here one night. They are the scouts I speak of, as doing me the honour to attend me after dark.’

‘How long has this been going on?’ asked Lightwood, opposing a serious face to the laugh of his friend.

‘I apprehend it has been going on, ever since a certain person went off. Probably, it had been going on some little time before I noticed it: which would bring it to about that time.’

‘Do you think they suppose you to have inveigled her away?’

‘My dear Mortimer, you know the absorbing nature of my professional occupations; I really have not had leisure to think about it.’

‘Have you asked them what they want? Have you objected?’

‘Why should I ask them what they want, dear fellow, when I am indifferent what they want? Why should I express objection, when I don’t object?’

‘You are in your most reckless mood. But you called the situation just now, a ludicrous one; and most men object to that, even those who are utterly indifferent to everything else.’

‘You charm me, Mortimer, with your reading of my weaknesses. (By-the-by, that very word, Reading, in its critical use, always charms me. An actress’s Reading of a chambermaid, a dancer’s Reading of a hornpipe, a singer’s Reading of a song, a marine painter’s Reading of the sea, the kettle-drum’s Reading of an instrumental passage, are phrases ever youthful and delightful.) I was mentioning your perception of my weaknesses. I own to the weakness of objecting to occupy a ludicrous position, and therefore I transfer the position to the scouts.’

‘I wish, Eugene, you would speak a little more soberly and plainly, if it were only out of consideration for my feeling less at ease than you do.’

‘Then soberly and plainly, Mortimer, I goad the schoolmaster to madness. I make the schoolmaster so ridiculous, and so aware of being made ridiculous, that I see him chafe and fret at every pore when we cross one another. The amiable occupation has been the solace of my life, since I was baulked in the manner unnecessary to recall. I have derived inexpressible comfort from it. I do it thus: I stroll out after dark, stroll a little way, look in at a window and furtively look out for the schoolmaster. Sooner or later, I perceive the schoolmaster on the watch; sometimes accompanied by his hopeful pupil; oftener, pupil-less. Having made sure of his watching me, I tempt him on, all over London. One night I go east, another night north, in a few nights I go all round the compass. Sometimes, I walk; sometimes, I proceed in cabs, draining the pocket of the schoolmaster who then follows in cabs. I study and get up abstruse No Thoroughfares in the course of the day. With Venetian mystery I seek those No Thoroughfares at night, glide into them by means of dark courts, tempt the schoolmaster to follow, turn suddenly, and catch him before he can retreat. Then we face one another, and I pass him as unaware of his existence, and he undergoes grinding torments. Similarly, I walk at a great pace down a short street, rapidly turn the corner, and, getting out of his view, as rapidly turn back. I catch him coming on post, again pass him as unaware of his existence, and again he undergoes grinding torments. Night after night his disappointment is acute, but hope springs eternal in the scholastic breast, and he follows me again to-morrow. Thus I enjoy the pleasures of the chase, and derive great benefit from the healthful exercise. When I do not enjoy the pleasures of the chase, for anything I know he watches at the Temple Gate all night.’

‘This is an extraordinary story,’ observed Lightwood, who had heard it out with serious attention. ‘I don’t like it.’

‘You are a little hipped, dear fellow,’ said Eugene; ‘you have been too sedentary. Come and enjoy the pleasures of the chase.’

‘Do you mean that you believe he is watching now?’

‘I have not the slightest doubt he is.’

‘Have you seen him to-night?’

‘I forgot to look for him when I was last out,’ returned Eugene with the calmest indifference; ‘but I dare say he was there. Come! Be a British sportsman and enjoy the pleasures of the chase. It will do you good.’

Lightwood hesitated; but, yielding to his curiosity, rose.

‘Bravo!’ cried Eugene, rising too. ‘Or, if Yoicks would be in better keeping, consider that I said Yoicks. Look to your feet, Mortimer, for we shall try your boots. When you are ready, I am—need I say with a Hey Ho Chivey, and likewise with a Hark Forward, Hark Forward, Tantivy?’

‘Will nothing make you serious?’ said Mortimer, laughing through his gravity.

‘I am always serious, but just now I am a little excited by the glorious fact that a southerly wind and a cloudy sky proclaim a hunting evening. Ready? So. We turn out the lamp and shut the door, and take the field.’

As the two friends passed out of the Temple into the public street, Eugene demanded with a show of courteous patronage in which direction Mortimer would you like the run to be? ‘There is a rather difficult country about Bethnal Green,’ said Eugene, ‘and we have not taken in that direction lately. What is your opinion of Bethnal Green?’ Mortimer assented to Bethnal Green, and they turned eastward. ‘Now, when we come to St Paul’s churchyard,’ pursued Eugene, ‘we’ll loiter artfully, and I’ll show you the schoolmaster.’ But, they both saw him, before they got there; alone, and stealing after them in the shadow of the houses, on the opposite side of the way.

‘Get your wind,’ said Eugene, ‘for I am off directly. Does it occur to you that the boys of Merry England will begin to deteriorate in an educational light, if this lasts long? The schoolmaster can’t attend to me and the boys too. Got your wind? I am off!’

At what a rate he went, to breathe the schoolmaster; and how he then lounged and loitered, to put his patience to another kind of wear; what preposterous ways he took, with no other object on earth than to disappoint and punish him; and how he wore him out by every piece of ingenuity that his eccentric humour could devise; all this Lightwood noted, with a feeling of astonishment that so careless a man could be so wary, and that so idle a man could take so much trouble. At last, far on in the third hour of the pleasures of the chase, when he had brought the poor dogging wretch round again into the City, he twisted Mortimer up a few dark entries, twisted him into a little square court, twisted him sharp round again, and they almost ran against Bradley Headstone.

‘And you see, as I was saying, Mortimer,’ remarked Eugene aloud with the utmost coolness, as though there were no one within hearing by themselves: ‘and you see, as I was saying—undergoing grinding torments.’

It was not too strong a phrase for the occasion. Looking like the hunted and not the hunter, baffled, worn, with the exhaustion of deferred hope and consuming hate and anger in his face, white-lipped, wild-eyed, draggle-haired, seamed with jealousy and anger, and torturing himself with the conviction that he showed it all and they exulted in it, he went by them in the dark, like a haggard head suspended in the air: so completely did the force of his expression cancel his figure.

Mortimer Lightwood was not an extraordinarily impressible man, but this face impressed him. He spoke of it more than once on the remainder of the way home, and more than once when they got home.

They had been abed in their respective rooms two or three hours, when Eugene was partly awakened by hearing a footstep going about, and was fully awakened by seeing Lightwood standing at his bedside.

‘Nothing wrong, Mortimer?’

‘No.’

‘What fancy takes you, then, for walking about in the night?’

‘I am horribly wakeful.’

‘How comes that about, I wonder!’

‘Eugene, I cannot lose sight of that fellow’s face.’

‘Odd!’ said Eugene with a light laugh, ‘I can.’ And turned over, and fell asleep again.