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The Old Curiosity Shop

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CHAPTER 46

It was the poor schoolmaster. No other than the poor schoolmaster. Scarcely less moved and surprised by the sight of the child than she had been on recognising him, he stood, for a moment, silent and confounded by this unexpected apparition, without even the presence of mind to raise her from the ground.

But, quickly recovering his self-possession, he threw down his stick and book, and dropping on one knee beside her, endeavoured, by such simple means as occurred to him, to restore her to herself; while her grandfather, standing idly by, wrung his hands, and implored her with many endearing expressions to speak to him, were it only a word.

‘She is quite exhausted,’ said the schoolmaster, glancing upward into his face. ‘You have taxed her powers too far, friend.’

‘She is perishing of want,’ rejoined the old man. ‘I never thought how weak and ill she was, till now.’

Casting a look upon him, half-reproachful and half-compassionate, the schoolmaster took the child in his arms, and, bidding the old man gather up her little basket and follow him directly, bore her away at his utmost speed.

There was a small inn within sight, to which, it would seem, he had been directing his steps when so unexpectedly overtaken. Towards this place he hurried with his unconscious burden, and rushing into the kitchen, and calling upon the company there assembled to make way for God’s sake, deposited it on a chair before the fire.

The company, who rose in confusion on the schoolmaster’s entrance, did as people usually do under such circumstances. Everybody called for his or her favourite remedy, which nobody brought; each cried for more air, at the same time carefully excluding what air there was, by closing round the object of sympathy; and all wondered why somebody else didn’t do what it never appeared to occur to them might be done by themselves.

The landlady, however, who possessed more readiness and activity than any of them, and who had withal a quicker perception of the merits of the case, soon came running in, with a little hot brandy and water, followed by her servant-girl, carrying vinegar, hartshorn, smelling-salts, and such other restoratives; which, being duly administered, recovered the child so far as to enable her to thank them in a faint voice, and to extend her hand to the poor schoolmaster, who stood, with an anxious face, hard by. Without suffering her to speak another word, or so much as to stir a finger any more, the women straightway carried her off to bed; and, having covered her up warm, bathed her cold feet, and wrapped them in flannel, they despatched a messenger for the doctor.

The doctor, who was a red-nosed gentleman with a great bunch of seals dangling below a waistcoat of ribbed black satin, arrived with all speed, and taking his seat by the bedside of poor Nell, drew out his watch, and felt her pulse. Then he looked at her tongue, then he felt her pulse again, and while he did so, he eyed the half-emptied wine-glass as if in profound abstraction.

‘I should give her,’ said the doctor at length, ‘a tea-spoonful, every now and then, of hot brandy and water.’

‘Why, that’s exactly what we’ve done, sir!’ said the delighted landlady.

‘I should also,’ observed the doctor, who had passed the foot-bath on the stairs, ‘I should also,’ said the doctor, in the voice of an oracle, ‘put her feet in hot water, and wrap them up in flannel. I should likewise,’ said the doctor with increased solemnity, ‘give her something light for supper—the wing of a roasted fowl now—’

‘Why, goodness gracious me, sir, it’s cooking at the kitchen fire this instant!’ cried the landlady. And so indeed it was, for the schoolmaster had ordered it to be put down, and it was getting on so well that the doctor might have smelt it if he had tried; perhaps he did.

‘You may then,’ said the doctor, rising gravely, ‘give her a glass of hot mulled port wine, if she likes wine—’

‘And a toast, Sir?’ suggested the landlady.

'Ay,’ said the doctor, in the tone of a man who makes a dignified concession. ‘And a toast—of bread. But be very particular to make it of bread, if you please, ma’am.’

With which parting injunction, slowly and portentously delivered, the doctor departed, leaving the whole house in admiration of that wisdom which tallied so closely with their own. Everybody said he was a very shrewd doctor indeed, and knew perfectly what people’s constitutions were; which there appears some reason to suppose he did.

While her supper was preparing, the child fell into a refreshing sleep, from which they were obliged to rouse her when it was ready. As she evinced extraordinary uneasiness on learning that her grandfather was below stairs, and as she was greatly troubled at the thought of their being apart, he took his supper with her. Finding her still very restless on this head, they made him up a bed in an inner room, to which he presently retired. The key of this chamber happened by good fortune to be on that side of the door which was in Nell’s room; she turned it on him when the landlady had withdrawn, and crept to bed again with a thankful heart.

The schoolmaster sat for a long time smoking his pipe by the kitchen fire, which was now deserted, thinking, with a very happy face, on the fortunate chance which had brought him so opportunely to the child’s assistance, and parrying, as well as in his simple way he could, the inquisitive cross-examination of the landlady, who had a great curiosity to be made acquainted with every particular of Nell’s life and history. The poor schoolmaster was so open-hearted, and so little versed in the most ordinary cunning or deceit, that she could not have failed to succeed in the first five minutes, but that he happened to be unacquainted with what she wished to know; and so he told her. The landlady, by no means satisfied with this assurance, which she considered an ingenious evasion of the question, rejoined that he had his reasons of course. Heaven forbid that she should wish to pry into the affairs of her customers, which indeed were no business of hers, who had so many of her own. She had merely asked a civil question, and to be sure she knew it would meet with a civil answer. She was quite satisfied—quite. She had rather perhaps that he would have said at once that he didn’t choose to be communicative, because that would have been plain and intelligible. However, she had no right to be offended of course. He was the best judge, and had a perfect right to say what he pleased; nobody could dispute that for a moment. Oh dear, no!

‘I assure you, my good lady,’ said the mild schoolmaster, ‘that I have told you the plain truth. As I hope to be saved, I have told you the truth.’

‘Why then, I do believe you are in earnest,’ rejoined the landlady, with ready good-humour, ‘and I’m very sorry I have teazed you. But curiosity you know is the curse of our sex, and that’s the fact.’

The landlord scratched his head, as if he thought the curse sometimes involved the other sex likewise; but he was prevented from making any remark to that effect, if he had it in contemplation to do so, by the schoolmaster’s rejoinder.

‘You should question me for half-a-dozen hours at a sitting, and welcome, and I would answer you patiently for the kindness of heart you have shown to-night, if I could,’ he said. ‘As it is, please to take care of her in the morning, and let me know early how she is; and to understand that I am paymaster for the three.’

So, parting with them on most friendly terms (not the less cordial perhaps for this last direction), the schoolmaster went to his bed, and the host and hostess to theirs.

The report in the morning was, that the child was better, but was extremely weak, and would at least require a day’s rest, and careful nursing, before she could proceed upon her journey. The schoolmaster received this communication with perfect cheerfulness, observing that he had a day to spare—two days for that matter—and could very well afford to wait. As the patient was to sit up in the evening, he appointed to visit her in her room at a certain hour, and rambling out with his book, did not return until the hour arrived.

Nell could not help weeping when they were left alone; whereat, and at sight of her pale face and wasted figure, the simple schoolmaster shed a few tears himself, at the same time showing in very energetic language how foolish it was to do so, and how very easily it could be avoided, if one tried.

‘It makes me unhappy even in the midst of all this kindness’ said the child, ‘to think that we should be a burden upon you. How can I ever thank you? If I had not met you so far from home, I must have died, and he would have been left alone.’

‘We’ll not talk about dying,’ said the schoolmaster; ‘and as to burdens, I have made my fortune since you slept at my cottage.’

‘Indeed!’ cried the child joyfully.

‘Oh yes,’ returned her friend. ‘I have been appointed clerk and schoolmaster to a village a long way from here—and a long way from the old one as you may suppose—at five-and-thirty pounds a year. Five-and-thirty pounds!’

‘I am very glad,’ said the child, ‘so very, very glad.’

‘I am on my way there now,’ resumed the schoolmaster. ‘They allowed me the stage-coach-hire—outside stage-coach-hire all the way. Bless you, they grudge me nothing. But as the time at which I am expected there, left me ample leisure, I determined to walk instead. How glad I am, to think I did so!’

‘How glad should we be!’

‘Yes, yes,’ said the schoolmaster, moving restlessly in his chair, ‘certainly, that’s very true. But you—where are you going, where are you coming from, what have you been doing since you left me, what had you been doing before? Now, tell me—do tell me. I know very little of the world, and perhaps you are better fitted to advise me in its affairs than I am qualified to give advice to you; but I am very sincere, and I have a reason (you have not forgotten it) for loving you. I have felt since that time as if my love for him who died, had been transferred to you who stood beside his bed. If this,’ he added, looking upwards, ‘is the beautiful creation that springs from ashes, let its peace prosper with me, as I deal tenderly and compassionately by this young child!’

The plain, frank kindness of the honest schoolmaster, the affectionate earnestness of his speech and manner, the truth which was stamped upon his every word and look, gave the child a confidence in him, which the utmost arts of treachery and dissimulation could never have awakened in her breast. She told him all—that they had no friend or relative—that she had fled with the old man, to save him from a madhouse and all the miseries he dreaded—that she was flying now, to save him from himself—and that she sought an asylum in some remote and primitive place, where the temptation before which he fell would never enter, and her late sorrows and distresses could have no place.

The schoolmaster heard her with astonishment. ‘This child!’—he thought—‘Has this child heroically persevered under all doubts and dangers, struggled with poverty and suffering, upheld and sustained by strong affection and the consciousness of rectitude alone! And yet the world is full of such heroism. Have I yet to learn that the hardest and best-borne trials are those which are never chronicled in any earthly record, and are suffered every day! And should I be surprised to hear the story of this child!’

What more he thought or said, matters not. It was concluded that Nell and her grandfather should accompany him to the village whither he was bound, and that he should endeavour to find them some humble occupation by which they could subsist. ‘We shall be sure to succeed,’ said the schoolmaster, heartily. ‘The cause is too good a one to fail.’

They arranged to proceed upon their journey next evening, as a stage-waggon, which travelled for some distance on the same road as they must take, would stop at the inn to change horses, and the driver for a small gratuity would give Nell a place inside. A bargain was soon struck when the waggon came; and in due time it rolled away; with the child comfortably bestowed among the softer packages, her grandfather and the schoolmaster walking on beside the driver, and the landlady and all the good folks of the inn screaming out their good wishes and farewells.

What a soothing, luxurious, drowsy way of travelling, to lie inside that slowly-moving mountain, listening to the tinkling of the horses’ bells, the occasional smacking of the carter’s whip, the smooth rolling of the great broad wheels, the rattle of the harness, the cheery good-nights of passing travellers jogging past on little short-stepped horses—all made pleasantly indistinct by the thick awning, which seemed made for lazy listening under, till one fell asleep! The very going to sleep, still with an indistinct idea, as the head jogged to and fro upon the pillow, of moving onward with no trouble or fatigue, and hearing all these sounds like dreamy music, lulling to the senses—and the slow waking up, and finding one’s self staring out through the breezy curtain half-opened in the front, far up into the cold bright sky with its countless stars, and downward at the driver’s lantern dancing on like its namesake Jack of the swamps and marshes, and sideways at the dark grim trees, and forward at the long bare road rising up, up, up, until it stopped abruptly at a sharp high ridge as if there were no more road, and all beyond was sky—and the stopping at the inn to bait, and being helped out, and going into a room with fire and candles, and winking very much, and being agreeably reminded that the night was cold, and anxious for very comfort’s sake to think it colder than it was!—What a delicious journey was that journey in the waggon.

Then the going on again—so fresh at first, and shortly afterwards so sleepy. The waking from a sound nap as the mail came dashing past like a highway comet, with gleaming lamps and rattling hoofs, and visions of a guard behind, standing up to keep his feet warm, and of a gentleman in a fur cap opening his eyes and looking wild and stupefied—the stopping at the turnpike where the man was gone to bed, and knocking at the door until he answered with a smothered shout from under the bed-clothes in the little room above, where the faint light was burning, and presently came down, night-capped and shivering, to throw the gate wide open, and wish all waggons off the road except by day. The cold sharp interval between night and morning—the distant streak of light widening and spreading, and turning from grey to white, and from white to yellow, and from yellow to burning red—the presence of day, with all its cheerfulness and life—men and horses at the plough—birds in the trees and hedges, and boys in solitary fields, frightening them away with rattles. The coming to a town—people busy in the markets; light carts and chaises round the tavern yard; tradesmen standing at their doors; men running horses up and down the street for sale; pigs plunging and grunting in the dirty distance, getting off with long strings at their legs, running into clean chemists’ shops and being dislodged with brooms by ‘prentices; the night coach changing horses—the passengers cheerless, cold, ugly, and discontented, with three months’ growth of hair in one night—the coachman fresh as from a band-box, and exquisitely beautiful by contrast:—so much bustle, so many things in motion, such a variety of incidents—when was there a journey with so many delights as that journey in the waggon!

Sometimes walking for a mile or two while her grandfather rode inside, and sometimes even prevailing upon the schoolmaster to take her place and lie down to rest, Nell travelled on very happily until they came to a large town, where the waggon stopped, and where they spent a night. They passed a large church; and in the streets were a number of old houses, built of a kind of earth or plaster, crossed and re-crossed in a great many directions with black beams, which gave them a remarkable and very ancient look. The doors, too, were arched and low, some with oaken portals and quaint benches, where the former inhabitants had sat on summer evenings. The windows were latticed in little diamond panes, that seemed to wink and blink upon the passengers as if they were dim of sight. They had long since got clear of the smoke and furnaces, except in one or two solitary instances, where a factory planted among fields withered the space about it, like a burning mountain. When they had passed through this town, they entered again upon the country, and began to draw near their place of destination.

It was not so near, however, but that they spent another night upon the road; not that their doing so was quite an act of necessity, but that the schoolmaster, when they approached within a few miles of his village, had a fidgety sense of his dignity as the new clerk, and was unwilling to make his entry in dusty shoes, and travel-disordered dress. It was a fine, clear, autumn morning, when they came upon the scene of his promotion, and stopped to contemplate its beauties.

‘See—here’s the church!’ cried the delighted schoolmaster in a low voice; ‘and that old building close beside it, is the schoolhouse, I’ll be sworn. Five-and-thirty pounds a-year in this beautiful place!’

They admired everything—the old grey porch, the mullioned windows, the venerable gravestones dotting the green churchyard, the ancient tower, the very weathercock; the brown thatched roofs of cottage, barn, and homestead, peeping from among the trees; the stream that rippled by the distant water-mill; the blue Welsh mountains far away. It was for such a spot the child had wearied in the dense, dark, miserable haunts of labour. Upon her bed of ashes, and amidst the squalid horrors through which they had forced their way, visions of such scenes—beautiful indeed, but not more beautiful than this sweet reality—had been always present to her mind. They had seemed to melt into a dim and airy distance, as the prospect of ever beholding them again grew fainter; but, as they receded, she had loved and panted for them more.

‘I must leave you somewhere for a few minutes,’ said the schoolmaster, at length breaking the silence into which they had fallen in their gladness. ‘I have a letter to present, and inquiries to make, you know. Where shall I take you? To the little inn yonder?’

‘Let us wait here,’ rejoined Nell. ‘The gate is open. We will sit in the church porch till you come back.’

‘A good place too,’ said the schoolmaster, leading the way towards it, disencumbering himself of his portmanteau, and placing it on the stone seat. ‘Be sure that I come back with good news, and am not long gone!’

So, the happy schoolmaster put on a bran-new pair of gloves which he had carried in a little parcel in his pocket all the way, and hurried off, full of ardour and excitement.

The child watched him from the porch until the intervening foliage hid him from her view, and then stepped softly out into the old churchyard—so solemn and quiet that every rustle of her dress upon the fallen leaves, which strewed the path and made her footsteps noiseless, seemed an invasion of its silence. It was a very aged, ghostly place; the church had been built many hundreds of years ago, and had once had a convent or monastery attached; for arches in ruins, remains of oriel windows, and fragments of blackened walls, were yet standing; while other portions of the old building, which had crumbled away and fallen down, were mingled with the churchyard earth and overgrown with grass, as if they too claimed a burying-place and sought to mix their ashes with the dust of men. Hard by these gravestones of dead years, and forming a part of the ruin which some pains had been taken to render habitable in modern times, were two small dwellings with sunken windows and oaken doors, fast hastening to decay, empty and desolate.

Upon these tenements, the attention of the child became exclusively riveted. She knew not why. The church, the ruin, the antiquated graves, had equal claims at least upon a stranger’s thoughts, but from the moment when her eyes first rested on these two dwellings, she could turn to nothing else. Even when she had made the circuit of the enclosure, and, returning to the porch, sat pensively waiting for their friend, she took her station where she could still look upon them, and felt as if fascinated towards that spot.






CHAPTER 47

Kit’s mother and the single gentleman—upon whose track it is expedient to follow with hurried steps, lest this history should be chargeable with inconstancy, and the offence of leaving its characters in situations of uncertainty and doubt—Kit’s mother and the single gentleman, speeding onward in the post-chaise-and-four whose departure from the Notary’s door we have already witnessed, soon left the town behind them, and struck fire from the flints of the broad highway.

The good woman, being not a little embarrassed by the novelty of her situation, and certain material apprehensions that perhaps by this time little Jacob, or the baby, or both, had fallen into the fire, or tumbled down stairs, or had been squeezed behind doors, or had scalded their windpipes in endeavouring to allay their thirst at the spouts of tea-kettles, preserved an uneasy silence; and meeting from the window the eyes of turnpike-men, omnibus-drivers, and others, felt in the new dignity of her position like a mourner at a funeral, who, not being greatly afflicted by the loss of the departed, recognizes his every-day acquaintance from the window of the mourning coach, but is constrained to preserve a decent solemnity, and the appearance of being indifferent to all external objects.

To have been indifferent to the companionship of the single gentleman would have been tantamount to being gifted with nerves of steel. Never did chaise inclose, or horses draw, such a restless gentleman as he. He never sat in the same position for two minutes together, but was perpetually tossing his arms and legs about, pulling up the sashes and letting them violently down, or thrusting his head out of one window to draw it in again and thrust it out of another. He carried in his pocket, too, a fire-box of mysterious and unknown construction; and as sure as ever Kit’s mother closed her eyes, so surely—whisk, rattle, fizz—there was the single gentleman consulting his watch by a flame of fire, and letting the sparks fall down among the straw as if there were no such thing as a possibility of himself and Kit’s mother being roasted alive before the boys could stop their horses. Whenever they halted to change, there he was—out of the carriage without letting down the steps, bursting about the inn-yard like a lighted cracker, pulling out his watch by lamp-light and forgetting to look at it before he put it up again, and in short committing so many extravagances that Kit’s mother was quite afraid of him. Then, when the horses were to, in he came like a Harlequin, and before they had gone a mile, out came the watch and the fire-box together, and Kit’s mother as wide awake again, with no hope of a wink of sleep for that stage.

‘Are you comfortable?’ the single gentleman would say after one of these exploits, turning sharply round.

‘Quite, Sir, thank you.’

‘Are you sure? An’t you cold?’

‘It is a little chilly, Sir,’ Kit’s mother would reply.

‘I knew it!’ cried the single gentleman, letting down one of the front glasses. ‘She wants some brandy and water! Of course she does. How could I forget it? Hallo! Stop at the next inn, and call out for a glass of hot brandy and water.’

It was in vain for Kit’s mother to protest that she stood in need of nothing of the kind. The single gentleman was inexorable; and whenever he had exhausted all other modes and fashions of restlessness, it invariably occurred to him that Kit’s mother wanted brandy and water.

In this way they travelled on until near midnight, when they stopped to supper, for which meal the single gentleman ordered everything eatable that the house contained; and because Kit’s mother didn’t eat everything at once, and eat it all, he took it into his head that she must be ill.

‘You’re faint,’ said the single gentleman, who did nothing himself but walk about the room. ‘I see what’s the matter with you, ma’am. You’re faint.’

‘Thank you, sir, I’m not indeed.’

‘I know you are. I’m sure of it. I drag this poor woman from the bosom of her family at a minute’s notice, and she goes on getting fainter and fainter before my eyes. I’m a pretty fellow! How many children have you got, ma’am?’

‘Two, sir, besides Kit.’

‘Boys, ma’am?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Are they christened?’

‘Only half baptised as yet, sir.’

‘I’m godfather to both of ‘em. Remember that, if you please, ma’am. You had better have some mulled wine.’

‘I couldn’t touch a drop indeed, sir.’

‘You must,’ said the single gentleman. ‘I see you want it. I ought to have thought of it before.’

Immediately flying to the bell, and calling for mulled wine as impetuously as if it had been wanted for instant use in the recovery of some person apparently drowned, the single gentleman made Kit’s mother swallow a bumper of it at such a high temperature that the tears ran down her face, and then hustled her off to the chaise again, where—not impossibly from the effects of this agreeable sedative—she soon became insensible to his restlessness, and fell fast asleep. Nor were the happy effects of this prescription of a transitory nature, as, notwithstanding that the distance was greater, and the journey longer, than the single gentleman had anticipated, she did not awake until it was broad day, and they were clattering over the pavement of a town.

‘This is the place!’ cried her companion, letting down all the glasses. ‘Drive to the wax-work!’

The boy on the wheeler touched his hat, and setting spurs to his horse, to the end that they might go in brilliantly, all four broke into a smart canter, and dashed through the streets with a noise that brought the good folks wondering to their doors and windows, and drowned the sober voices of the town-clocks as they chimed out half-past eight. They drove up to a door round which a crowd of persons were collected, and there stopped.

‘What’s this?’ said the single gentleman thrusting out his head. ‘Is anything the matter here?’

‘A wedding Sir, a wedding!’ cried several voices. ‘Hurrah!’

The single gentleman, rather bewildered by finding himself the centre of this noisy throng, alighted with the assistance of one of the postilions, and handed out Kit’s mother, at sight of whom the populace cried out, ‘Here’s another wedding!’ and roared and leaped for joy.

‘The world has gone mad, I think,’ said the single gentleman, pressing through the concourse with his supposed bride. ‘Stand back here, will you, and let me knock.’

Anything that makes a noise is satisfactory to a crowd. A score of dirty hands were raised directly to knock for him, and seldom has a knocker of equal powers been made to produce more deafening sounds than this particular engine on the occasion in question. Having rendered these voluntary services, the throng modestly retired a little, preferring that the single gentleman should bear their consequences alone.

‘Now, sir, what do you want!’ said a man with a large white bow at his button-hole, opening the door, and confronting him with a very stoical aspect.

‘Who has been married here, my friend?’ said the single gentleman.

‘I have.’

‘You! and to whom in the devil’s name?’

‘What right have you to ask?’ returned the bridegroom, eyeing him from top to toe.

‘What right!’ cried the single gentleman, drawing the arm of Kit’s mother more tightly through his own, for that good woman evidently had it in contemplation to run away. ‘A right you little dream of. Mind, good people, if this fellow has been marrying a minor—tut, tut, that can’t be. Where is the child you have here, my good fellow. You call her Nell. Where is she?’

As he propounded this question, which Kit’s mother echoed, somebody in a room near at hand, uttered a great shriek, and a stout lady in a white dress came running to the door, and supported herself upon the bridegroom’s arm.

‘Where is she!’ cried this lady. ‘What news have you brought me? What has become of her?’

The single gentleman started back, and gazed upon the face of the late Mrs Jarley (that morning wedded to the philosophic George, to the eternal wrath and despair of Mr Slum the poet), with looks of conflicting apprehension, disappointment, and incredulity. At length he stammered out,

‘I ask you where she is? What do you mean?’

‘Oh sir!’ cried the bride, ‘If you have come here to do her any good, why weren’t you here a week ago?’

‘She is not—not dead?’ said the person to whom she addressed herself, turning very pale.

‘No, not so bad as that.’

‘I thank God!’ cried the single gentleman feebly. ‘Let me come in.’

They drew back to admit him, and when he had entered, closed the door.

‘You see in me, good people,’ he said, turning to the newly-married couple, ‘one to whom life itself is not dearer than the two persons whom I seek. They would not know me. My features are strange to them, but if they or either of them are here, take this good woman with you, and let them see her first, for her they both know. If you deny them from any mistaken regard or fear for them, judge of my intentions by their recognition of this person as their old humble friend.’

‘I always said it!’ cried the bride, ‘I knew she was not a common child! Alas, sir! we have no power to help you, for all that we could do, has been tried in vain.’

With that, they related to him, without disguise or concealment, all that they knew of Nell and her grandfather, from their first meeting with them, down to the time of their sudden disappearance; adding (which was quite true) that they had made every possible effort to trace them, but without success; having been at first in great alarm for their safety, as well as on account of the suspicions to which they themselves might one day be exposed in consequence of their abrupt departure. They dwelt upon the old man’s imbecility of mind, upon the uneasiness the child had always testified when he was absent, upon the company he had been supposed to keep, and upon the increased depression which had gradually crept over her and changed her both in health and spirits. Whether she had missed the old man in the night, and knowing or conjecturing whither he had bent his steps, had gone in pursuit, or whether they had left the house together, they had no means of determining. Certain they considered it, that there was but slender prospect left of hearing of them again, and that whether their flight originated with the old man, or with the child, there was now no hope of their return. To all this, the single gentleman listened with the air of a man quite borne down by grief and disappointment. He shed tears when they spoke of the grandfather, and appeared in deep affliction.

Not to protract this portion of our narrative, and to make short work of a long story, let it be briefly written that before the interview came to a close, the single gentleman deemed he had sufficient evidence of having been told the truth, and that he endeavoured to force upon the bride and bridegroom an acknowledgment of their kindness to the unfriended child, which, however, they steadily declined accepting. In the end, the happy couple jolted away in the caravan to spend their honeymoon in a country excursion; and the single gentleman and Kit’s mother stood ruefully before their carriage-door.

‘Where shall we drive you, sir?’ said the post-boy.

‘You may drive me,’ said the single gentleman, ‘to the—’ He was not going to add ‘inn,’ but he added it for the sake of Kit’s mother; and to the inn they went.

Rumours had already got abroad that the little girl who used to show the wax-work, was the child of great people who had been stolen from her parents in infancy, and had only just been traced. Opinion was divided whether she was the daughter of a prince, a duke, an earl, a viscount, or a baron, but all agreed upon the main fact, and that the single gentleman was her father; and all bent forward to catch a glimpse, though it were only of the tip of his noble nose, as he rode away, desponding, in his four-horse chaise.

What would he have given to know, and what sorrow would have been saved if he had only known, that at that moment both child and grandfather were seated in the old church porch, patiently awaiting the schoolmaster’s return!





CHAPTER 48

Popular rumour concerning the single gentleman and his errand, travelling from mouth to mouth, and waxing stronger in the marvellous as it was bandied about—for your popular rumour, unlike the rolling stone of the proverb, is one which gathers a deal of moss in its wanderings up and down—occasioned his dismounting at the inn-door to be looked upon as an exciting and attractive spectacle, which could scarcely be enough admired; and drew together a large concourse of idlers, who having recently been, as it were, thrown out of employment by the closing of the wax-work and the completion of the nuptial ceremonies, considered his arrival as little else than a special providence, and hailed it with demonstrations of the liveliest joy.

Not at all participating in the general sensation, but wearing the depressed and wearied look of one who sought to meditate on his disappointment in silence and privacy, the single gentleman alighted, and handed out Kit’s mother with a gloomy politeness which impressed the lookers-on extremely. That done, he gave her his arm and escorted her into the house, while several active waiters ran on before as a skirmishing party, to clear the way and to show the room which was ready for their reception.

‘Any room will do,’ said the single gentleman. ‘Let it be near at hand, that’s all.’

‘Close here, sir, if you please to walk this way.’

‘Would the gentleman like this room?’ said a voice, as a little out-of-the-way door at the foot of the well staircase flew briskly open and a head popped out. ‘He’s quite welcome to it. He’s as welcome as flowers in May, or coals at Christmas. Would you like this room, sir? Honour me by walking in. Do me the favour, pray.’

‘Goodness gracious me!’ cried Kit’s mother, falling back in extreme surprise, ‘only think of this!’

She had some reason to be astonished, for the person who proffered the gracious invitation was no other than Daniel Quilp. The little door out of which he had thrust his head was close to the inn larder; and there he stood, bowing with grotesque politeness; as much at his ease as if the door were that of his own house; blighting all the legs of mutton and cold roast fowls by his close companionship, and looking like the evil genius of the cellars come from underground upon some work of mischief.

‘Would you do me the honour?’ said Quilp.

‘I prefer being alone,’ replied the single gentleman.

‘Oh!’ said Quilp. And with that, he darted in again with one jerk and clapped the little door to, like a figure in a Dutch clock when the hour strikes.

‘Why it was only last night, sir,’ whispered Kit’s mother, ‘that I left him in Little Bethel.’

‘Indeed!’ said her fellow-passenger. ‘When did that person come here, waiter?’

‘Come down by the night-coach, this morning, sir.’

‘Humph! And when is he going?’

‘Can’t say, sir, really. When the chambermaid asked him just now if he should want a bed, sir, he first made faces at her, and then wanted to kiss her.’

‘Beg him to walk this way,’ said the single gentleman. ‘I should be glad to exchange a word with him, tell him. Beg him to come at once, do you hear?’

The man stared on receiving these instructions, for the single gentleman had not only displayed as much astonishment as Kit’s mother at sight of the dwarf, but, standing in no fear of him, had been at less pains to conceal his dislike and repugnance. He departed on his errand, however, and immediately returned, ushering in its object.

‘Your servant, sir,’ said the dwarf, ‘I encountered your messenger half-way. I thought you’d allow me to pay my compliments to you. I hope you’re well. I hope you’re very well.’

There was a short pause, while the dwarf, with half-shut eyes and puckered face, stood waiting for an answer. Receiving none, he turned towards his more familiar acquaintance.

‘Christopher’s mother!’ he cried. ‘Such a dear lady, such a worthy woman, so blest in her honest son! How is Christopher’s mother? Have change of air and scene improved her? Her little family too, and Christopher? Do they thrive? Do they flourish? Are they growing into worthy citizens, eh?’

Making his voice ascend in the scale with every succeeding question, Mr Quilp finished in a shrill squeak, and subsided into the panting look which was customary with him, and which, whether it were assumed or natural, had equally the effect of banishing all expression from his face, and rendering it, as far as it afforded any index to his mood or meaning, a perfect blank.

‘Mr Quilp,’ said the single gentleman.

The dwarf put his hand to his great flapped ear, and counterfeited the closest attention.

‘We two have met before—’

‘Surely,’ cried Quilp, nodding his head. ‘Oh surely, sir. Such an honour and pleasure—it’s both, Christopher’s mother, it’s both—is not to be forgotten so soon. By no means!’

‘You may remember that the day I arrived in London, and found the house to which I drove, empty and deserted, I was directed by some of the neighbours to you, and waited upon you without stopping for rest or refreshment?’

‘How precipitate that was, and yet what an earnest and vigorous measure!’ said Quilp, conferring with himself, in imitation of his friend Mr Sampson Brass.

‘I found,’ said the single gentleman, ‘you most unaccountably, in possession of everything that had so recently belonged to another man, and that other man, who up to the time of your entering upon his property had been looked upon as affluent, reduced to sudden beggary, and driven from house and home.’

‘We had warrant for what we did, my good sir,’ rejoined Quilp, ‘we had our warrant. Don’t say driven either. He went of his own accord—vanished in the night, sir.’

‘No matter,’ said the single gentleman angrily. ‘He was gone.’

‘Yes, he was gone,’ said Quilp, with the same exasperating composure. ‘No doubt he was gone. The only question was, where. And it’s a question still.’

‘Now, what am I to think,’ said the single gentleman, sternly regarding him, ‘of you, who, plainly indisposed to give me any information then—nay, obviously holding back, and sheltering yourself with all kinds of cunning, trickery, and evasion—are dogging my footsteps now?’

‘I dogging!’ cried Quilp.

‘Why, are you not?’ returned his questioner, fretted into a state of the utmost irritation. ‘Were you not a few hours since, sixty miles off, and in the chapel to which this good woman goes to say her prayers?’

‘She was there too, I think?’ said Quilp, still perfectly unmoved. ‘I might say, if I was inclined to be rude, how do I know but you are dogging my footsteps. Yes, I was at chapel. What then? I’ve read in books that pilgrims were used to go to chapel before they went on journeys, to put up petitions for their safe return. Wise men! journeys are very perilous—especially outside the coach. Wheels come off, horses take fright, coachmen drive too fast, coaches overturn. I always go to chapel before I start on journeys. It’s the last thing I do on such occasions, indeed.’

That Quilp lied most heartily in this speech, it needed no very great penetration to discover, although for anything that he suffered to appear in his face, voice, or manner, he might have been clinging to the truth with the quiet constancy of a martyr.

‘In the name of all that’s calculated to drive one crazy, man,’ said the unfortunate single gentleman, ‘have you not, for some reason of your own, taken upon yourself my errand? don’t you know with what object I have come here, and if you do know, can you throw no light upon it?’

‘You think I’m a conjuror, sir,’ replied Quilp, shrugging up his shoulders. ‘If I was, I should tell my own fortune—and make it.’

‘Ah! we have said all we need say, I see,’ returned the other, throwing himself impatiently upon a sofa. ‘Pray leave us, if you please.’

‘Willingly,’ returned Quilp. ‘Most willingly. Christopher’s mother, my good soul, farewell. A pleasant journey—back, sir. Ahem!’

With these parting words, and with a grin upon his features altogether indescribable, but which seemed to be compounded of every monstrous grimace of which men or monkeys are capable, the dwarf slowly retreated and closed the door behind him.

‘Oho!’ he said when he had regained his own room, and sat himself down in a chair with his arms akimbo. ‘Oho! Are you there, my friend? In-deed!’

Chuckling as though in very great glee, and recompensing himself for the restraint he had lately put upon his countenance by twisting it into all imaginable varieties of ugliness, Mr Quilp, rocking himself to and fro in his chair and nursing his left leg at the same time, fell into certain meditations, of which it may be necessary to relate the substance.

First, he reviewed the circumstances which had led to his repairing to that spot, which were briefly these. Dropping in at Mr Sampson Brass’s office on the previous evening, in the absence of that gentleman and his learned sister, he had lighted upon Mr Swiveller, who chanced at the moment to be sprinkling a glass of warm gin and water on the dust of the law, and to be moistening his clay, as the phrase goes, rather copiously. But as clay in the abstract, when too much moistened, becomes of a weak and uncertain consistency, breaking down in unexpected places, retaining impressions but faintly, and preserving no strength or steadiness of character, so Mr Swiveller’s clay, having imbibed a considerable quantity of moisture, was in a very loose and slippery state, insomuch that the various ideas impressed upon it were fast losing their distinctive character, and running into each other. It is not uncommon for human clay in this condition to value itself above all things upon its great prudence and sagacity; and Mr Swiveller, especially prizing himself upon these qualities, took occasion to remark that he had made strange discoveries in connection with the single gentleman who lodged above, which he had determined to keep within his own bosom, and which neither tortures nor cajolery should ever induce him to reveal. Of this determination Mr Quilp expressed his high approval, and setting himself in the same breath to goad Mr Swiveller on to further hints, soon made out that the single gentleman had been seen in communication with Kit, and that this was the secret which was never to be disclosed.

Possessed of this piece of information, Mr Quilp directly supposed that the single gentleman above stairs must be the same individual who had waited on him, and having assured himself by further inquiries that this surmise was correct, had no difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that the intent and object of his correspondence with Kit was the recovery of his old client and the child. Burning with curiosity to know what proceedings were afoot, he resolved to pounce upon Kit’s mother as the person least able to resist his arts, and consequently the most likely to be entrapped into such revelations as he sought; so taking an abrupt leave of Mr Swiveller, he hurried to her house. The good woman being from home, he made inquiries of a neighbour, as Kit himself did soon afterwards, and being directed to the chapel be took himself there, in order to waylay her, at the conclusion of the service.

He had not sat in the chapel more than a quarter of an hour, and with his eyes piously fixed upon the ceiling was chuckling inwardly over the joke of his being there at all, when Kit himself appeared. Watchful as a lynx, one glance showed the dwarf that he had come on business. Absorbed in appearance, as we have seen, and feigning a profound abstraction, he noted every circumstance of his behaviour, and when he withdrew with his family, shot out after him. In fine, he traced them to the notary’s house; learnt the destination of the carriage from one of the postilions; and knowing that a fast night-coach started for the same place, at the very hour which was on the point of striking, from a street hard by, darted round to the coach-office without more ado, and took his seat upon the roof. After passing and repassing the carriage on the road, and being passed and repassed by it sundry times in the course of the night, according as their stoppages were longer or shorter; or their rate of travelling varied, they reached the town almost together. Quilp kept the chaise in sight, mingled with the crowd, learnt the single gentleman’s errand, and its failure, and having possessed himself of all that it was material to know, hurried off, reached the inn before him, had the interview just now detailed, and shut himself up in the little room in which he hastily reviewed all these occurrences.

‘You are there, are you, my friend?’ he repeated, greedily biting his nails. ‘I am suspected and thrown aside, and Kit’s the confidential agent, is he? I shall have to dispose of him, I fear. If we had come up with them this morning,’ he continued, after a thoughtful pause, ‘I was ready to prove a pretty good claim. I could have made my profit. But for these canting hypocrites, the lad and his mother, I could get this fiery gentleman as comfortably into my net as our old friend—our mutual friend, ha! ha!—and chubby, rosy Nell. At the worst, it’s a golden opportunity, not to be lost. Let us find them first, and I’ll find means of draining you of some of your superfluous cash, sir, while there are prison bars, and bolts, and locks, to keep your friend or kinsman safely. I hate your virtuous people!’ said the dwarf, throwing off a bumper of brandy, and smacking his lips, ‘ah! I hate ‘em every one!’

This was not a mere empty vaunt, but a deliberate avowal of his real sentiments; for Mr Quilp, who loved nobody, had by little and little come to hate everybody nearly or remotely connected with his ruined client:—the old man himself, because he had been able to deceive him and elude his vigilance—the child, because she was the object of Mrs Quilp’s commiseration and constant self-reproach—the single gentleman, because of his unconcealed aversion to himself—Kit and his mother, most mortally, for the reasons shown. Above and beyond that general feeling of opposition to them, which would have been inseparable from his ravenous desire to enrich himself by these altered circumstances, Daniel Quilp hated them every one.

In this amiable mood, Mr Quilp enlivened himself and his hatreds with more brandy, and then, changing his quarters, withdrew to an obscure alehouse, under cover of which seclusion he instituted all possible inquiries that might lead to the discovery of the old man and his grandchild. But all was in vain. Not the slightest trace or clue could be obtained. They had left the town by night; no one had seen them go; no one had met them on the road; the driver of no coach, cart, or waggon, had seen any travellers answering their description; nobody had fallen in with them, or heard of them. Convinced at last that for the present all such attempts were hopeless, he appointed two or three scouts, with promises of large rewards in case of their forwarding him any intelligence, and returned to London by next day’s coach.

It was some gratification to Mr Quilp to find, as he took his place upon the roof, that Kit’s mother was alone inside; from which circumstance he derived in the course of the journey much cheerfulness of spirit, inasmuch as her solitary condition enabled him to terrify her with many extraordinary annoyances; such as hanging over the side of the coach at the risk of his life, and staring in with his great goggle eyes, which seemed in hers the more horrible from his face being upside down; dodging her in this way from one window to another; getting nimbly down whenever they changed horses and thrusting his head in at the window with a dismal squint: which ingenious tortures had such an effect upon Mrs Nubbles, that she was quite unable for the time to resist the belief that Mr Quilp did in his own person represent and embody that Evil Power, who was so vigorously attacked at Little Bethel, and who, by reason of her backslidings in respect of Astley’s and oysters, was now frolicsome and rampant.

Kit, having been apprised by letter of his mother’s intended return, was waiting for her at the coach-office; and great was his surprise when he saw, leering over the coachman’s shoulder like some familiar demon, invisible to all eyes but his, the well-known face of Quilp.

‘How are you, Christopher?’ croaked the dwarf from the coach-top. ‘All right, Christopher. Mother’s inside.’

‘Why, how did he come here, mother?’ whispered Kit.

‘I don’t know how he came or why, my dear,’ rejoined Mrs Nubbles, dismounting with her son’s assistance, ‘but he has been a terrifying of me out of my seven senses all this blessed day.’

‘He has?’ cried Kit.

‘You wouldn’t believe it, that you wouldn’t,’ replied his mother, ‘but don’t say a word to him, for I really don’t believe he’s human. Hush! Don’t turn round as if I was talking of him, but he’s a squinting at me now in the full blaze of the coach-lamp, quite awful!’

In spite of his mother’s injunction, Kit turned sharply round to look. Mr Quilp was serenely gazing at the stars, quite absorbed in celestial contemplation.

‘Oh, he’s the artfullest creetur!’ cried Mrs Nubbles. ‘But come away. Don’t speak to him for the world.’

‘Yes I will, mother. What nonsense. I say, sir—’

Mr Quilp affected to start, and looked smilingly round.

‘You let my mother alone, will you?’ said Kit. ‘How dare you tease a poor lone woman like her, making her miserable and melancholy as if she hadn’t got enough to make her so, without you. An’t you ashamed of yourself, you little monster?’

‘Monster!’ said Quilp inwardly, with a smile. ‘Ugliest dwarf that could be seen anywhere for a penny—monster—ah!’

‘You show her any of your impudence again,’ resumed Kit, shouldering the bandbox, ‘and I tell you what, Mr Quilp, I won’t bear with you any more. You have no right to do it; I’m sure we never interfered with you. This isn’t the first time; and if ever you worry or frighten her again, you’ll oblige me (though I should be very sorry to do it, on account of your size) to beat you.’

Quilp said not a word in reply, but walking so close to Kit as to bring his eyes within two or three inches of his face, looked fixedly at him, retreated a little distance without averting his gaze, approached again, again withdrew, and so on for half-a-dozen times, like a head in a phantasmagoria. Kit stood his ground as if in expectation of an immediate assault, but finding that nothing came of these gestures, snapped his fingers and walked away; his mother dragging him off as fast as she could, and, even in the midst of his news of little Jacob and the baby, looking anxiously over her shoulder to see if Quilp were following.





CHAPTER 49

Kit’s mother might have spared herself the trouble of looking back so often, for nothing was further from Mr Quilp’s thoughts than any intention of pursuing her and her son, or renewing the quarrel with which they had parted. He went his way, whistling from time to time some fragments of a tune; and with a face quite tranquil and composed, jogged pleasantly towards home; entertaining himself as he went with visions of the fears and terrors of Mrs Quilp, who, having received no intelligence of him for three whole days and two nights, and having had no previous notice of his absence, was doubtless by that time in a state of distraction, and constantly fainting away with anxiety and grief.

This facetious probability was so congenial to the dwarf’s humour, and so exquisitely amusing to him, that he laughed as he went along until the tears ran down his cheeks; and more than once, when he found himself in a bye-street, vented his delight in a shrill scream, which greatly terrifying any lonely passenger, who happened to be walking on before him expecting nothing so little, increased his mirth, and made him remarkably cheerful and light-hearted.

In this happy flow of spirits, Mr Quilp reached Tower Hill, when, gazing up at the window of his own sitting-room, he thought he descried more light than is usual in a house of mourning. Drawing nearer, and listening attentively, he could hear several voices in earnest conversation, among which he could distinguish, not only those of his wife and mother-in-law, but the tongues of men.

‘Ha!’ cried the jealous dwarf, ‘What’s this! Do they entertain visitors while I’m away!’

A smothered cough from above, was the reply. He felt in his pockets for his latch-key, but had forgotten it. There was no resource but to knock at the door.

‘A light in the passage,’ said Quilp, peeping through the keyhole. ‘A very soft knock; and, by your leave, my lady, I may yet steal upon you unawares. Soho!’

A very low and gentle rap received no answer from within. But after a second application to the knocker, no louder than the first, the door was softly opened by the boy from the wharf, whom Quilp instantly gagged with one hand, and dragged into the street with the other.

‘You’ll throttle me, master,’ whispered the boy. ‘Let go, will you.’

‘Who’s up stairs, you dog?’ retorted Quilp in the same tone. ‘Tell me. And don’t speak above your breath, or I’ll choke you in good earnest.’

The boy could only point to the window, and reply with a stifled giggle, expressive of such intense enjoyment, that Quilp clutched him by the throat and might have carried his threat into execution, or at least have made very good progress towards that end, but for the boy’s nimbly extricating himself from his grasp, and fortifying himself behind the nearest post, at which, after some fruitless attempts to catch him by the hair of the head, his master was obliged to come to a parley.

‘Will you answer me?’ said Quilp. ‘What’s going on, above?’

‘You won’t let one speak,’ replied the boy. ‘They—ha, ha, ha!—they think you’re—you’re dead. Ha ha ha!’

‘Dead!’ cried Quilp, relaxing into a grim laugh himself. ‘No. Do they? Do they really, you dog?’

‘They think you’re—you’re drowned,’ replied the boy, who in his malicious nature had a strong infusion of his master. ‘You was last seen on the brink of the wharf, and they think you tumbled over. Ha ha!’

The prospect of playing the spy under such delicious circumstances, and of disappointing them all by walking in alive, gave more delight to Quilp than the greatest stroke of good fortune could possibly have inspired him with. He was no less tickled than his hopeful assistant, and they both stood for some seconds, grinning and gasping and wagging their heads at each other, on either side of the post, like an unmatchable pair of Chinese idols.

‘Not a word,’ said Quilp, making towards the door on tiptoe. ‘Not a sound, not so much as a creaking board, or a stumble against a cobweb. Drowned, eh, Mrs Quilp! Drowned!’

So saying, he blew out the candle, kicked off his shoes, and groped his way up stairs; leaving his delighted young friend in an ecstasy of summersets on the pavement.

The bedroom-door on the staircase being unlocked, Mr Quilp slipped in, and planted himself behind the door of communication between that chamber and the sitting-room, which standing ajar to render both more airy, and having a very convenient chink (of which he had often availed himself for purposes of espial, and had indeed enlarged with his pocket-knife), enabled him not only to hear, but to see distinctly, what was passing.

Applying his eye to this convenient place, he descried Mr Brass seated at the table with pen, ink, and paper, and the case-bottle of rum—his own case-bottle, and his own particular Jamaica—convenient to his hand; with hot water, fragrant lemons, white lump sugar, and all things fitting; from which choice materials, Sampson, by no means insensible to their claims upon his attention, had compounded a mighty glass of punch reeking hot; which he was at that very moment stirring up with a teaspoon, and contemplating with looks in which a faint assumption of sentimental regret, struggled but weakly with a bland and comfortable joy. At the same table, with both her elbows upon it, was Mrs Jiniwin; no longer sipping other people’s punch feloniously with teaspoons, but taking deep draughts from a jorum of her own; while her daughter—not exactly with ashes on her head, or sackcloth on her back, but preserving a very decent and becoming appearance of sorrow nevertheless—was reclining in an easy chair, and soothing her grief with a smaller allowance of the same glib liquid. There were also present, a couple of water-side men, bearing between them certain machines called drags; even these fellows were accommodated with a stiff glass a-piece; and as they drank with a great relish, and were naturally of a red-nosed, pimple-faced, convivial look, their presence rather increased than detracted from that decided appearance of comfort, which was the great characteristic of the party.

‘If I could poison that dear old lady’s rum and water,’ murmured Quilp, ‘I’d die happy.’

‘Ah!’ said Mr Brass, breaking the silence, and raising his eyes to the ceiling with a sigh, ‘Who knows but he may be looking down upon us now! Who knows but he may be surveying of us from—from somewheres or another, and contemplating us with a watchful eye! Oh Lor!’

Here Mr Brass stopped to drink half his punch, and then resumed; looking at the other half, as he spoke, with a dejected smile.

‘I can almost fancy,’ said the lawyer shaking his head, ‘that I see his eye glistening down at the very bottom of my liquor. When shall we look upon his like again? Never, never!’ One minute we are here’—holding his tumbler before his eyes—‘the next we are there’—gulping down its contents, and striking himself emphatically a little below the chest—‘in the silent tomb. To think that I should be drinking his very rum! It seems like a dream.’

With the view, no doubt, of testing the reality of his position, Mr Brass pushed his tumbler as he spoke towards Mrs Jiniwin for the purpose of being replenished; and turned towards the attendant mariners.

‘The search has been quite unsuccessful then?’

‘Quite, master. But I should say that if he turns up anywhere, he’ll come ashore somewhere about Grinidge to-morrow, at ebb tide, eh, mate?’

The other gentleman assented, observing that he was expected at the Hospital, and that several pensioners would be ready to receive him whenever he arrived.

‘Then we have nothing for it but resignation,’ said Mr Brass; ‘nothing but resignation and expectation. It would be a comfort to have his body; it would be a dreary comfort.’

‘Oh, beyond a doubt,’ assented Mrs Jiniwin hastily; ‘if we once had that, we should be quite sure.’

‘With regard to the descriptive advertisement,’ said Sampson Brass, taking up his pen. ‘It is a melancholy pleasure to recall his traits. Respecting his legs now—?’

‘Crooked, certainly,’ said Mrs Jiniwin. ‘Do you think they were crooked?’ said Brass, in an insinuating tone. ‘I think I see them now coming up the street very wide apart, in nankeen’ pantaloons a little shrunk and without straps. Ah! what a vale of tears we live in. Do we say crooked?’

‘I think they were a little so,’ observed Mrs Quilp with a sob.

‘Legs crooked,’ said Brass, writing as he spoke. ‘Large head, short body, legs crooked—’

‘Very crooked,’ suggested Mrs Jiniwin.

‘We’ll not say very crooked, ma’am,’ said Brass piously. ‘Let us not bear hard upon the weaknesses of the deceased. He is gone, ma’am, to where his legs will never come in question.—We will content ourselves with crooked, Mrs Jiniwin.’

‘I thought you wanted the truth,’ said the old lady. ‘That’s all.’

‘Bless your eyes, how I love you,’ muttered Quilp. ‘There she goes again. Nothing but punch!’

‘This is an occupation,’ said the lawyer, laying down his pen and emptying his glass, ‘which seems to bring him before my eyes like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the very clothes that he wore on work-a-days. His coat, his waistcoat, his shoes and stockings, his trousers, his hat, his wit and humour, his pathos and his umbrella, all come before me like visions of my youth. His linen!’ said Mr Brass smiling fondly at the wall, ‘his linen which was always of a particular colour, for such was his whim and fancy—how plain I see his linen now!’

‘You had better go on, sir,’ said Mrs Jiniwin impatiently.

‘True, ma’am, true,’ cried Mr Brass. ‘Our faculties must not freeze with grief. I’ll trouble you for a little more of that, ma’am. A question now arises, with relation to his nose.’

‘Flat,’ said Mrs Jiniwin.

‘Aquiline!’ cried Quilp, thrusting in his head, and striking the feature with his fist. ‘Aquiline, you hag. Do you see it? Do you call this flat? Do you? Eh?’

‘Oh capital, capital!’ shouted Brass, from the mere force of habit. ‘Excellent! How very good he is! He’s a most remarkable man—so extremely whimsical! Such an amazing power of taking people by surprise!’

Quilp paid no regard whatever to these compliments, nor to the dubious and frightened look into which the lawyer gradually subsided, nor to the shrieks of his wife and mother-in-law, nor to the latter’s running from the room, nor to the former’s fainting away. Keeping his eye fixed on Sampson Brass, he walked up to the table, and beginning with his glass, drank off the contents, and went regularly round until he had emptied the other two, when he seized the case-bottle, and hugging it under his arm, surveyed him with a most extraordinary leer.

‘Not yet, Sampson,’ said Quilp. ‘Not just yet!’

‘Oh very good indeed!’ cried Brass, recovering his spirits a little. ‘Ha ha ha! Oh exceedingly good! There’s not another man alive who could carry it off like that. A most difficult position to carry off. But he has such a flow of good-humour, such an amazing flow!’

‘Good night,’ said the dwarf, nodding expressively.

‘Good night, sir, good night,’ cried the lawyer, retreating backwards towards the door. ‘This is a joyful occasion indeed, extremely joyful. Ha ha ha! oh very rich, very rich indeed, remarkably so!’

Waiting until Mr Brass’s ejaculations died away in the distance (for he continued to pour them out, all the way down stairs), Quilp advanced towards the two men, who yet lingered in a kind of stupid amazement.

‘Have you been dragging the river all day, gentlemen?’ said the dwarf, holding the door open with great politeness.

‘And yesterday too, master.’

‘Dear me, you’ve had a deal of trouble. Pray consider everything yours that you find upon the—upon the body. Good night!’

The men looked at each other, but had evidently no inclination to argue the point just then, and shuffled out of the room. The speedy clearance effected, Quilp locked the doors; and still embracing the case-bottle with shrugged-up shoulders and folded arms, stood looking at his insensible wife like a dismounted nightmare.





CHAPTER 50

Matrimonial differences are usually discussed by the parties concerned in the form of dialogue, in which the lady bears at least her full half share. Those of Mr and Mrs Quilp, however, were an exception to the general rule; the remarks which they occasioned being limited to a long soliloquy on the part of the gentleman, with perhaps a few deprecatory observations from the lady, not extending beyond a trembling monosyllable uttered at long intervals, and in a very submissive and humble tone. On the present occasion, Mrs Quilp did not for a long time venture even on this gentle defence, but when she had recovered from her fainting-fit, sat in a tearful silence, meekly listening to the reproaches of her lord and master.

Of these Mr Quilp delivered himself with the utmost animation and rapidity, and with so many distortions of limb and feature, that even his wife, although tolerably well accustomed to his proficiency in these respects, was well-nigh beside herself with alarm. But the Jamaica rum, and the joy of having occasioned a heavy disappointment, by degrees cooled Mr Quilp’s wrath; which from being at savage heat, dropped slowly to the bantering or chuckling point, at which it steadily remained.

‘So you thought I was dead and gone, did you?’ said Quilp. ‘You thought you were a widow, eh? Ha, ha, ha, you jade.’

‘Indeed, Quilp,’ returned his wife. ‘I’m very sorry—’

‘Who doubts it!’ cried the dwarf. ‘You very sorry! to be sure you are. Who doubts that you’re very sorry!’

‘I don’t mean sorry that you have come home again alive and well,’ said his wife, ‘but sorry that I should have been led into such a belief. I am glad to see you, Quilp; indeed I am.’

In truth Mrs Quilp did seem a great deal more glad to behold her lord than might have been expected, and did evince a degree of interest in his safety which, all things considered, was rather unaccountable. Upon Quilp, however, this circumstance made no impression, farther than as it moved him to snap his fingers close to his wife’s eyes, with divers grins of triumph and derision.

‘How could you go away so long, without saying a word to me or letting me hear of you or know anything about you?’ asked the poor little woman, sobbing. ‘How could you be so cruel, Quilp?’

‘How could I be so cruel! cruel!’ cried the dwarf. ‘Because I was in the humour. I’m in the humour now. I shall be cruel when I like. I’m going away again.’

‘Not again!’

‘Yes, again. I’m going away now. I’m off directly. I mean to go and live wherever the fancy seizes me—at the wharf—at the counting-house—and be a jolly bachelor. You were a widow in anticipation. Damme,’ screamed the dwarf, ‘I’ll be a bachelor in earnest.’

‘You can’t be serious, Quilp,’ sobbed his wife.

‘I tell you,’ said the dwarf, exulting in his project, ‘that I’ll be a bachelor, a devil-may-care bachelor; and I’ll have my bachelor’s hall at the counting-house, and at such times come near it if you dare. And mind too that I don’t pounce in upon you at unseasonable hours again, for I’ll be a spy upon you, and come and go like a mole or a weazel. Tom Scott—where’s Tom Scott?’

‘Here I am, master,’ cried the voice of the boy, as Quilp threw up the window.

‘Wait there, you dog,’ returned the dwarf, ‘to carry a bachelor’s portmanteau. Pack it up, Mrs Quilp. Knock up the dear old lady to help; knock her up. Halloa there! Halloa!’

With these exclamations, Mr Quilp caught up the poker, and hurrying to the door of the good lady’s sleeping-closet, beat upon it therewith until she awoke in inexpressible terror, thinking that her amiable son-in-law surely intended to murder her in justification of the legs she had slandered. Impressed with this idea, she was no sooner fairly awake than she screamed violently, and would have quickly precipitated herself out of the window and through a neighbouring skylight, if her daughter had not hastened in to undeceive her, and implore her assistance. Somewhat reassured by her account of the service she was required to render, Mrs Jiniwin made her appearance in a flannel dressing-gown; and both mother and daughter, trembling with terror and cold—for the night was now far advanced—obeyed Mr Quilp’s directions in submissive silence. Prolonging his preparations as much as possible, for their greater comfort, that eccentric gentleman superintended the packing of his wardrobe, and having added to it with his own hands, a plate, knife and fork, spoon, teacup and saucer, and other small household matters of that nature, strapped up the portmanteau, took it on his shoulders, and actually marched off without another word, and with the case-bottle (which he had never once put down) still tightly clasped under his arm. Consigning his heavier burden to the care of Tom Scott when he reached the street, taking a dram from the bottle for his own encouragement, and giving the boy a rap on the head with it as a small taste for himself, Quilp very deliberately led the way to the wharf, and reached it at between three and four o’clock in the morning.

‘Snug!’ said Quilp, when he had groped his way to the wooden counting-house, and opened the door with a key he carried about with him. ‘Beautifully snug! Call me at eight, you dog.’

With no more formal leave-taking or explanation, he clutched the portmanteau, shut the door on his attendant, and climbing on the desk, and rolling himself up as round as a hedgehog, in an old boat-cloak, fell fast asleep.

Being roused in the morning at the appointed time, and roused with difficulty, after his late fatigues, Quilp instructed Tom Scott to make a fire in the yard of sundry pieces of old timber, and to prepare some coffee for breakfast; for the better furnishing of which repast he entrusted him with certain small moneys, to be expended in the purchase of hot rolls, butter, sugar, Yarmouth bloaters, and other articles of housekeeping; so that in a few minutes a savoury meal was smoking on the board. With this substantial comfort, the dwarf regaled himself to his heart’s content; and being highly satisfied with this free and gipsy mode of life (which he had often meditated, as offering, whenever he chose to avail himself of it, an agreeable freedom from the restraints of matrimony, and a choice means of keeping Mrs Quilp and her mother in a state of incessant agitation and suspense), bestirred himself to improve his retreat, and render it more commodious and comfortable.

With this view, he issued forth to a place hard by, where sea-stores were sold, purchased a second-hand hammock, and had it slung in seamanlike fashion from the ceiling of the counting-house. He also caused to be erected, in the same mouldy cabin, an old ship’s stove with a rusty funnel to carry the smoke through the roof; and these arrangements completed, surveyed them with ineffable delight.

‘I’ve got a country-house like Robinson Crusoe,’ said the dwarf, ogling the accommodations; ‘a solitary, sequestered, desolate-island sort of spot, where I can be quite alone when I have business on hand, and be secure from all spies and listeners. Nobody near me here, but rats, and they are fine stealthy secret fellows. I shall be as merry as a grig among these gentry. I’ll look out for one like Christopher, and poison him—ha, ha, ha! Business though—business—we must be mindful of business in the midst of pleasure, and the time has flown this morning, I declare.’

Enjoining Tom Scott to await his return, and not to stand upon his head, or throw a summerset, or so much as walk upon his hands meanwhile, on pain of lingering torments, the dwarf threw himself into a boat, and crossing to the other side of the river, and then speeding away on foot, reached Mr Swiveller’s usual house of entertainment in Bevis Marks, just as that gentleman sat down alone to dinner in its dusky parlour.

‘Dick,’ said the dwarf, thrusting his head in at the door, ‘my pet, my pupil, the apple of my eye, hey, hey!’

‘Oh you’re there, are you?’ returned Mr Swiveller; ‘how are you?’

‘How’s Dick?’ retorted Quilp. ‘How’s the cream of clerkship, eh?’

‘Why, rather sour, sir,’ replied Mr Swiveller. ‘Beginning to border upon cheesiness, in fact.’

‘What’s the matter?’ said the dwarf, advancing. ‘Has Sally proved unkind. “Of all the girls that are so smart, there’s none like—” eh, Dick!’

‘Certainly not,’ replied Mr Swiveller, eating his dinner with great gravity, ‘none like her. She’s the sphynx of private life, is Sally B.’

‘You’re out of spirits,’ said Quilp, drawing up a chair. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘The law don’t agree with me,’ returned Dick. ‘It isn’t moist enough, and there’s too much confinement. I have been thinking of running away.’

‘Bah!’ said the dwarf. ‘Where would you run to, Dick?’

‘I don’t know’ returned Mr Swiveller. ‘Towards Highgate, I suppose. Perhaps the bells might strike up “Turn again Swiveller, Lord Mayor of London.” Whittington’s name was Dick. I wish cats were scarcer.’

Quilp looked at his companion with his eyes screwed up into a comical expression of curiosity, and patiently awaited his further explanation; upon which, however, Mr Swiveller appeared in no hurry to enter, as he ate a very long dinner in profound silence, finally pushed away his plate, threw himself back into his chair, folded his arms, and stared ruefully at the fire, in which some ends of cigars were smoking on their own account, and sending up a fragrant odour.

‘Perhaps you’d like a bit of cake’—said Dick, at last turning to the dwarf. ‘You’re quite welcome to it. You ought to be, for it’s of your making.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Quilp.

Mr Swiveller replied by taking from his pocket a small and very greasy parcel, slowly unfolding it, and displaying a little slab of plum-cake extremely indigestible in appearance, and bordered with a paste of white sugar an inch and a half deep.

‘What should you say this was?’ demanded Mr Swiveller.

‘It looks like bride-cake,’ replied the dwarf, grinning.

‘And whose should you say it was?’ inquired Mr Swiveller, rubbing the pastry against his nose with a dreadful calmness. ‘Whose?’

‘Not—’

‘Yes,’ said Dick, ‘the same. You needn’t mention her name. There’s no such name now. Her name is Cheggs now, Sophy Cheggs. Yet loved I as man never loved that hadn’t wooden legs, and my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Sophy Cheggs.’

With this extemporary adaptation of a popular ballad to the distressing circumstances of his own case, Mr Swiveller folded up the parcel again, beat it very flat between the palms of his hands, thrust it into his breast, buttoned his coat over it, and folded his arms upon the whole.

‘Now, I hope you’re satisfied, sir,’ said Dick; ‘and I hope Fred’s satisfied. You went partners in the mischief, and I hope you like it. This is the triumph I was to have, is it? It’s like the old country-dance of that name, where there are two gentlemen to one lady, and one has her, and the other hasn’t, but comes limping up behind to make out the figure. But it’s Destiny, and mine’s a crusher.’

Disguising his secret joy in Mr Swiveller’s defeat, Daniel Quilp adopted the surest means of soothing him, by ringing the bell, and ordering in a supply of rosy wine (that is to say, of its usual representative), which he put about with great alacrity, calling upon Mr Swiveller to pledge him in various toasts derisive of Cheggs, and eulogistic of the happiness of single men. Such was their impression on Mr Swiveller, coupled with the reflection that no man could oppose his destiny, that in a very short space of time his spirits rose surprisingly, and he was enabled to give the dwarf an account of the receipt of the cake, which, it appeared, had been brought to Bevis Marks by the two surviving Miss Wackleses in person, and delivered at the office door with much giggling and joyfulness.

‘Ha!’ said Quilp. ‘It will be our turn to giggle soon. And that reminds me—you spoke of young Trent—where is he?’

Mr Swiveller explained that his respectable friend had recently accepted a responsible situation in a locomotive gaming-house, and was at that time absent on a professional tour among the adventurous spirits of Great Britain.

‘That’s unfortunate,’ said the dwarf, ‘for I came, in fact, to ask you about him. A thought has occurred to me, Dick; your friend over the way—’

‘Which friend?’

‘In the first floor.’

‘Yes?’

‘Your friend in the first floor, Dick, may know him.’

‘No, he don’t,’ said Mr Swiveller, shaking his head.

‘Don’t! No, because he has never seen him,’ rejoined Quilp; ‘but if we were to bring them together, who knows, Dick, but Fred, properly introduced, would serve his turn almost as well as little Nell or her grandfather—who knows but it might make the young fellow’s fortune, and, through him, yours, eh?’

‘Why, the fact is, you see,’ said Mr Swiveller, ‘that they have been brought together.’

‘Have been!’ cried the dwarf, looking suspiciously at his companion. ‘Through whose means?’

'Through mine,’ said Dick, slightly confused. ‘Didn’t I mention it to you the last time you called over yonder?’

‘You know you didn’t,’ returned the dwarf.

‘I believe you’re right,’ said Dick. ‘No. I didn’t, I recollect. Oh yes, I brought ‘em together that very day. It was Fred’s suggestion.’

‘And what came of it?’

‘Why, instead of my friend’s bursting into tears when he knew who Fred was, embracing him kindly, and telling him that he was his grandfather, or his grandmother in disguise (which we fully expected), he flew into a tremendous passion; called him all manner of names; said it was in a great measure his fault that little Nell and the old gentleman had ever been brought to poverty; didn’t hint at our taking anything to drink; and—and in short rather turned us out of the room than otherwise.’

‘That’s strange,’ said the dwarf, musing.

‘So we remarked to each other at the time,’ returned Dick coolly, ‘but quite true.’

Quilp was plainly staggered by this intelligence, over which he brooded for some time in moody silence, often raising his eyes to Mr Swiveller’s face, and sharply scanning its expression. As he could read in it, however, no additional information or anything to lead him to believe he had spoken falsely; and as Mr Swiveller, left to his own meditations, sighed deeply, and was evidently growing maudlin on the subject of Mrs Cheggs; the dwarf soon broke up the conference and took his departure, leaving the bereaved one to his melancholy ruminations.

‘Have been brought together, eh?’ said the dwarf as he walked the streets alone. ‘My friend has stolen a march upon me. It led him to nothing, and therefore is no great matter, save in the intention. I’m glad he has lost his mistress. Ha ha! The blockhead mustn’t leave the law at present. I’m sure of him where he is, whenever I want him for my own purposes, and, besides, he’s a good unconscious spy on Brass, and tells, in his cups, all that he sees and hears. You’re useful to me, Dick, and cost nothing but a little treating now and then. I am not sure that it may not be worth while, before long, to take credit with the stranger, Dick, by discovering your designs upon the child; but for the present we’ll remain the best friends in the world, with your good leave.’

Pursuing these thoughts, and gasping as he went along, after his own peculiar fashion, Mr Quilp once more crossed the Thames, and shut himself up in his Bachelor’s Hall, which, by reason of its newly-erected chimney depositing the smoke inside the room and carrying none of it off, was not quite so agreeable as more fastidious people might have desired. Such inconveniences, however, instead of disgusting the dwarf with his new abode, rather suited his humour; so, after dining luxuriously from the public-house, he lighted his pipe, and smoked against the chimney until nothing of him was visible through the mist but a pair of red and highly inflamed eyes, with sometimes a dim vision of his head and face, as, in a violent fit of coughing, he slightly stirred the smoke and scattered the heavy wreaths by which they were obscured. In the midst of this atmosphere, which must infallibly have smothered any other man, Mr Quilp passed the evening with great cheerfulness; solacing himself all the time with the pipe and the case-bottle; and occasionally entertaining himself with a melodious howl, intended for a song, but bearing not the faintest resemblance to any scrap of any piece of music, vocal or instrumental, ever invented by man. Thus he amused himself until nearly midnight, when he turned into his hammock with the utmost satisfaction.

The first sound that met his ears in the morning—as he half opened his eyes, and, finding himself so unusually near the ceiling, entertained a drowsy idea that he must have been transformed into a fly or blue-bottle in the course of the night,—was that of a stifled sobbing and weeping in the room. Peeping cautiously over the side of his hammock, he descried Mrs Quilp, to whom, after contemplating her for some time in silence, he communicated a violent start by suddenly yelling out—‘Halloa!’

‘Oh, Quilp!’ cried his poor little wife, looking up. ‘How you frightened me!’

‘I meant to, you jade,’ returned the dwarf. ‘What do you want here? I’m dead, an’t I?’

‘Oh, please come home, do come home,’ said Mrs Quilp, sobbing; ‘we’ll never do so any more, Quilp, and after all it was only a mistake that grew out of our anxiety.’

‘Out of your anxiety,’ grinned the dwarf. ‘Yes, I know that—out of your anxiety for my death. I shall come home when I please, I tell you. I shall come home when I please, and go when I please. I’ll be a Will o’ the Wisp, now here, now there, dancing about you always, starting up when you least expect me, and keeping you in a constant state of restlessness and irritation. Will you begone?’

Mrs Quilp durst only make a gesture of entreaty.

‘I tell you no,’ cried the dwarf. ‘No. If you dare to come here again unless you’re sent for, I’ll keep watch-dogs in the yard that’ll growl and bite—I’ll have man-traps, cunningly altered and improved for catching women—I’ll have spring guns, that shall explode when you tread upon the wires, and blow you into little pieces. Will you begone?’

‘Do forgive me. Do come back,’ said his wife, earnestly.

‘No-o-o-o-o!’ roared Quilp. ‘Not till my own good time, and then I’ll return again as often as I choose, and be accountable to nobody for my goings or comings. You see the door there. Will you go?’

Mr Quilp delivered this last command in such a very energetic voice, and moreover accompanied it with such a sudden gesture, indicative of an intention to spring out of his hammock, and, night-capped as he was, bear his wife home again through the public streets, that she sped away like an arrow. Her worthy lord stretched his neck and eyes until she had crossed the yard, and then, not at all sorry to have had this opportunity of carrying his point, and asserting the sanctity of his castle, fell into an immoderate fit of laughter, and laid himself down to sleep again.