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The Old Curiosity Shop

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CHAPTER 6

Little Nell stood timidly by, with her eyes raised to the countenance of Mr Quilp as he read the letter, plainly showing by her looks that while she entertained some fear and distrust of the little man, she was much inclined to laugh at his uncouth appearance and grotesque attitude. And yet there was visible on the part of the child a painful anxiety for his reply, and consciousness of his power to render it disagreeable or distressing, which was strongly at variance with this impulse and restrained it more effectually than she could possibly have done by any efforts of her own.

That Mr Quilp was himself perplexed, and that in no small degree, by the contents of the letter, was sufficiently obvious. Before he had got through the first two or three lines he began to open his eyes very wide and to frown most horribly, the next two or three caused him to scratch his head in an uncommonly vicious manner, and when he came to the conclusion he gave a long dismal whistle indicative of surprise and dismay. After folding and laying it down beside him, he bit the nails of all of his ten fingers with extreme voracity; and taking it up sharply, read it again. The second perusal was to all appearance as unsatisfactory as the first, and plunged him into a profound reverie from which he awakened to another assault upon his nails and a long stare at the child, who with her eyes turned towards the ground awaited his further pleasure.

‘Halloa here!’ he said at length, in a voice, and with a suddenness, which made the child start as though a gun had been fired off at her ear. ‘Nelly!’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Do you know what’s inside this letter, Nell?’

‘No, sir!’

‘Are you sure, quite sure, quite certain, upon your soul?’

‘Quite sure, sir.’

‘Do you wish you may die if you do know, hey?’ said the dwarf.

‘Indeed I don’t know,’ returned the child.

‘Well!’ muttered Quilp as he marked her earnest look. ‘I believe you. Humph! Gone already? Gone in four-and-twenty hours! What the devil has he done with it, that’s the mystery!’

This reflection set him scratching his head and biting his nails once more. While he was thus employed his features gradually relaxed into what was with him a cheerful smile, but which in any other man would have been a ghastly grin of pain, and when the child looked up again she found that he was regarding her with extraordinary favour and complacency.

‘You look very pretty to-day, Nelly, charmingly pretty. Are you tired, Nelly?’

‘No, sir. I’m in a hurry to get back, for he will be anxious while I am away.’

‘There’s no hurry, little Nell, no hurry at all,’ said Quilp. ‘How should you like to be my number two, Nelly?’

‘To be what, sir?’

‘My number two, Nelly, my second, my Mrs Quilp,’ said the dwarf.

The child looked frightened, but seemed not to understand him, which Mr Quilp observing, hastened to make his meaning more distinctly.

‘To be Mrs Quilp the second, when Mrs Quilp the first is dead, sweet Nell,’ said Quilp, wrinkling up his eyes and luring her towards him with his bent forefinger, ‘to be my wife, my little cherry-cheeked, red-lipped wife. Say that Mrs Quilp lives five year, or only four, you’ll be just the proper age for me. Ha ha! Be a good girl, Nelly, a very good girl, and see if one of these days you don’t come to be Mrs Quilp of Tower Hill.’

So far from being sustained and stimulated by this delightful prospect, the child shrank from him in great agitation, and trembled violently. Mr Quilp, either because frightening anybody afforded him a constitutional delight, or because it was pleasant to contemplate the death of Mrs Quilp number one, and the elevation of Mrs Quilp number two to her post and title, or because he was determined from purposes of his own to be agreeable and good-humoured at that particular time, only laughed and feigned to take no heed of her alarm.

‘You shall come with me to Tower Hill and see Mrs Quilp that is, directly,’ said the dwarf. ‘She’s very fond of you, Nell, though not so fond as I am. You shall come home with me.’

‘I must go back indeed,’ said the child. ‘He told me to return directly I had the answer.’

‘But you haven’t it, Nelly,’ retorted the dwarf, ‘and won’t have it, and can’t have it, until I have been home, so you see that to do your errand, you must go with me. Reach me yonder hat, my dear, and we’ll go directly.’ With that, Mr Quilp suffered himself to roll gradually off the desk until his short legs touched the ground, when he got upon them and led the way from the counting-house to the wharf outside, when the first objects that presented themselves were the boy who had stood on his head and another young gentleman of about his own stature, rolling in the mud together, locked in a tight embrace, and cuffing each other with mutual heartiness.

‘It’s Kit!’ cried Nelly, clasping her hand, ‘poor Kit who came with me! Oh, pray stop them, Mr Quilp!’

‘I’ll stop ‘em,’ cried Quilp, diving into the little counting-house and returning with a thick stick, ‘I’ll stop ‘em. Now, my boys, fight away. I’ll fight you both. I’ll take both of you, both together, both together!’

With which defiances the dwarf flourished his cudgel, and dancing round the combatants and treading upon them and skipping over them, in a kind of frenzy, laid about him, now on one and now on the other, in a most desperate manner, always aiming at their heads and dealing such blows as none but the veriest little savage would have inflicted. This being warmer work than they had calculated upon, speedily cooled the courage of the belligerents, who scrambled to their feet and called for quarter.

‘I’ll beat you to a pulp, you dogs,’ said Quilp, vainly endeavoring to get near either of them for a parting blow. ‘I’ll bruise you until you’re copper-coloured, I’ll break your faces till you haven’t a profile between you, I will.’

‘Come, you drop that stick or it’ll be worse for you,’ said his boy, dodging round him and watching an opportunity to rush in; ‘you drop that stick.’

‘Come a little nearer, and I’ll drop it on your skull, you dog,’ said Quilp, with gleaming eyes; ‘a little nearer—nearer yet.’

But the boy declined the invitation until his master was apparently a little off his guard, when he darted in and seizing the weapon tried to wrest it from his grasp. Quilp, who was as strong as a lion, easily kept his hold until the boy was tugging at it with his utmost power, when he suddenly let it go and sent him reeling backwards, so that he fell violently upon his head. The success of this manoeuvre tickled Mr Quilp beyond description, and he laughed and stamped upon the ground as at a most irresistible jest.

‘Never mind,’ said the boy, nodding his head and rubbing it at the same time; ‘you see if ever I offer to strike anybody again because they say you’re an uglier dwarf than can be seen anywheres for a penny, that’s all.’

‘Do you mean to say, I’m not, you dog?’ returned Quilp.

‘No!’ retorted the boy.

‘Then what do you fight on my wharf for, you villain?’ said Quilp.

‘Because he said so,’ replied the boy, pointing to Kit, ‘not because you an’t.’

‘Then why did he say,’ bawled Kit, ‘that Miss Nelly was ugly, and that she and my master was obliged to do whatever his master liked? Why did he say that?’

‘He said what he did because he’s a fool, and you said what you did because you’re very wise and clever—almost too clever to live, unless you’re very careful of yourself, Kit.’ said Quilp, with great suavity in his manner, but still more of quiet malice about his eyes and mouth. ‘Here’s sixpence for you, Kit. Always speak the truth. At all times, Kit, speak the truth. Lock the counting-house, you dog, and bring me the key.’

The other boy, to whom this order was addressed, did as he was told, and was rewarded for his partizanship in behalf of his master, by a dexterous rap on the nose with the key, which brought the water into his eyes. Then Mr Quilp departed with the child and Kit in a boat, and the boy revenged himself by dancing on his head at intervals on the extreme verge of the wharf, during the whole time they crossed the river.

There was only Mrs Quilp at home, and she, little expecting the return of her lord, was just composing herself for a refreshing slumber when the sound of his footsteps roused her. She had barely time to seem to be occupied in some needle-work, when he entered, accompanied by the child; having left Kit downstairs.

‘Here’s Nelly Trent, dear Mrs Quilp,’ said her husband. ‘A glass of wine, my dear, and a biscuit, for she has had a long walk. She’ll sit with you, my soul, while I write a letter.’

Mrs Quilp looked tremblingly in her spouse’s face to know what this unusual courtesy might portend, and obedient to the summons she saw in his gesture, followed him into the next room.

‘Mind what I say to you,’ whispered Quilp. ‘See if you can get out of her anything about her grandfather, or what they do, or how they live, or what he tells her. I’ve my reasons for knowing, if I can. You women talk more freely to one another than you do to us, and you have a soft, mild way with you that’ll win upon her. Do you hear?’

‘Yes, Quilp.’

‘Go then. What’s the matter now?’

‘Dear Quilp,’ faltered his wife. ‘I love the child—if you could do without making me deceive her—’

The dwarf muttering a terrible oath looked round as if for some weapon with which to inflict condign punishment upon his disobedient wife. The submissive little woman hurriedly entreated him not to be angry, and promised to do as he bade her.

‘Do you hear me,’ whispered Quilp, nipping and pinching her arm; ‘worm yourself into her secrets; I know you can. I’m listening, recollect. If you’re not sharp enough, I’ll creak the door, and woe betide you if I have to creak it much. Go!’

Mrs Quilp departed according to order, and her amiable husband, ensconcing himself behind the partly opened door, and applying his ear close to it, began to listen with a face of great craftiness and attention.

Poor Mrs Quilp was thinking, however, in what manner to begin or what kind of inquiries she could make; and it was not until the door, creaking in a very urgent manner, warned her to proceed without further consideration, that the sound of her voice was heard.

‘How very often you have come backwards and forwards lately to Mr Quilp, my dear.’

‘I have said so to grandfather, a hundred times,’ returned Nell innocently.

‘And what has he said to that?’

‘Only sighed, and dropped his head, and seemed so sad and wretched that if you could have seen him I am sure you must have cried; you could not have helped it more than I, I know. How that door creaks!’

‘It often does.’ returned Mrs Quilp, with an uneasy glance towards it. ‘But your grandfather—he used not to be so wretched?’

‘Oh, no!’ said the child eagerly, ‘so different! We were once so happy and he so cheerful and contented! You cannot think what a sad change has fallen on us since.’

‘I am very, very sorry, to hear you speak like this, my dear!’ said Mrs Quilp. And she spoke the truth.

‘Thank you,’ returned the child, kissing her cheek, ‘you are always kind to me, and it is a pleasure to talk to you. I can speak to no one else about him, but poor Kit. I am very happy still, I ought to feel happier perhaps than I do, but you cannot think how it grieves me sometimes to see him alter so.’

‘He’ll alter again, Nelly,’ said Mrs Quilp, ‘and be what he was before.’

‘Oh, if God would only let that come about!’ said the child with streaming eyes; ‘but it is a long time now, since he first began to—I thought I saw that door moving!’

‘It’s the wind,’ said Mrs Quilp, faintly. ‘Began to—’

‘To be so thoughtful and dejected, and to forget our old way of spending the time in the long evenings,’ said the child. ‘I used to read to him by the fireside, and he sat listening, and when I stopped and we began to talk, he told me about my mother, and how she once looked and spoke just like me when she was a little child. Then he used to take me on his knee, and try to make me understand that she was not lying in her grave, but had flown to a beautiful country beyond the sky where nothing died or ever grew old—we were very happy once!’

‘Nelly, Nelly!’ said the poor woman, ‘I can’t bear to see one as young as you so sorrowful. Pray don’t cry.’

‘I do so very seldom,’ said Nell, ‘but I have kept this to myself a long time, and I am not quite well, I think, for the tears come into my eyes and I cannot keep them back. I don’t mind telling you my grief, for I know you will not tell it to any one again.’

Mrs Quilp turned away her head and made no answer.

‘Then,’ said the child, ‘we often walked in the fields and among the green trees, and when we came home at night, we liked it better for being tired, and said what a happy place it was. And if it was dark and rather dull, we used to say, what did it matter to us, for it only made us remember our last walk with greater pleasure, and look forward to our next one. But now we never have these walks, and though it is the same house it is darker and much more gloomy than it used to be, indeed!’

She paused here, but though the door creaked more than once, Mrs Quilp said nothing.

‘Mind you don’t suppose,’ said the child earnestly, ‘that grandfather is less kind to me than he was. I think he loves me better every day, and is kinder and more affectionate than he was the day before. You do not know how fond he is of me!’

‘I am sure he loves you dearly,’ said Mrs Quilp.

‘Indeed, indeed he does!’ cried Nell, ‘as dearly as I love him. But I have not told you the greatest change of all, and this you must never breathe again to any one. He has no sleep or rest, but that which he takes by day in his easy chair; for every night and nearly all night long he is away from home.’

‘Nelly!’

‘Hush!’ said the child, laying her finger on her lip and looking round. ‘When he comes home in the morning, which is generally just before day, I let him in. Last night he was very late, and it was quite light. I saw that his face was deadly pale, that his eyes were bloodshot, and that his legs trembled as he walked. When I had gone to bed again, I heard him groan. I got up and ran back to him, and heard him say, before he knew that I was there, that he could not bear his life much longer, and if it was not for the child, would wish to die. What shall I do! Oh! What shall I do!’

The fountains of her heart were opened; the child, overpowered by the weight of her sorrows and anxieties, by the first confidence she had ever shown, and the sympathy with which her little tale had been received, hid her face in the arms of her helpless friend, and burst into a passion of tears.

In a few minutes Mr Quilp returned, and expressed the utmost surprise to find her in this condition, which he did very naturally and with admirable effect, for that kind of acting had been rendered familiar to him by long practice, and he was quite at home in it.

‘She’s tired you see, Mrs Quilp,’ said the dwarf, squinting in a hideous manner to imply that his wife was to follow his lead. ‘It’s a long way from her home to the wharf, and then she was alarmed to see a couple of young scoundrels fighting, and was timorous on the water besides. All this together has been too much for her. Poor Nell!’

Mr Quilp unintentionally adopted the very best means he could have devised for the recovery of his young visitor, by patting her on the head. Such an application from any other hand might not have produced a remarkable effect, but the child shrank so quickly from his touch and felt such an instinctive desire to get out of his reach, that she rose directly and declared herself ready to return.

‘But you’d better wait, and dine with Mrs Quilp and me.’ said the dwarf.

‘I have been away too long, sir, already,’ returned Nell, drying her eyes.

‘Well,’ said Mr Quilp, ‘if you will go, you will, Nelly. Here’s the note. It’s only to say that I shall see him to-morrow or maybe next day, and that I couldn’t do that little business for him this morning. Good-bye, Nelly. Here, you sir; take care of her, d’ye hear?’

Kit, who appeared at the summons, deigned to make no reply to so needless an injunction, and after staring at Quilp in a threatening manner, as if he doubted whether he might not have been the cause of Nelly shedding tears, and felt more than half disposed to revenge the fact upon him on the mere suspicion, turned about and followed his young mistress, who had by this time taken her leave of Mrs Quilp and departed.

‘You’re a keen questioner, an’t you, Mrs Quilp?’ said the dwarf, turning upon her as soon as they were left alone.

‘What more could I do?’ returned his wife mildly.

‘What more could you do!’ sneered Quilp, ‘couldn’t you have done something less? Couldn’t you have done what you had to do, without appearing in your favourite part of the crocodile, you minx?’

‘I am very sorry for the child, Quilp,’ said his wife. ‘Surely I’ve done enough. I’ve led her on to tell her secret she supposed we were alone; and you were by, God forgive me.’

‘You led her on! You did a great deal truly!’ said Quilp. ‘What did I tell you about making me creak the door? It’s lucky for you that from what she let fall, I’ve got the clue I want, for if I hadn’t, I’d have visited the failure upon you, I can tell you.’

Mrs Quilp being fully persuaded of this, made no reply. Her husband added with some exultation,

‘But you may thank your fortunate stars—the same stars that made you Mrs Quilp—you may thank them that I’m upon the old gentleman’s track, and have got a new light. So let me hear no more about this matter now or at any other time, and don’t get anything too nice for dinner, for I shan’t be home to it.’

So saying, Mr Quilp put his hat on and took himself off, and Mrs Quilp, who was afflicted beyond measure by the recollection of the part she had just acted, shut herself up in her chamber, and smothering her head in the bed-clothes bemoaned her fault more bitterly than many less tender-hearted persons would have mourned a much greater offence; for, in the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and very flexible article, which will bear a deal of stretching and adapt itself to a great variety of circumstances. Some people by prudent management and leaving it off piece by piece like a flannel waistcoat in warm weather, even contrive, in time, to dispense with it altogether; but there be others who can assume the garment and throw it off at pleasure; and this, being the greatest and most convenient improvement, is the one most in vogue.





CHAPTER 7

Fred,’ said Mr Swiveller, ‘remember the once popular melody of Begone dull care; fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.’

Mr Richard Swiveller’s apartments were in the neighbourhood of Drury Lane, and in addition to this convenience of situation had the advantage of being over a tobacconist’s shop, so that he was enabled to procure a refreshing sneeze at any time by merely stepping out upon the staircase, and was saved the trouble and expense of maintaining a snuff-box. It was in these apartments that Mr Swiveller made use of the expressions above recorded for the consolation and encouragement of his desponding friend; and it may not be uninteresting or improper to remark that even these brief observations partook in a double sense of the figurative and poetical character of Mr Swiveller’s mind, as the rosy wine was in fact represented by one glass of cold gin-and-water, which was replenished as occasion required from a bottle and jug upon the table, and was passed from one to another, in a scarcity of tumblers which, as Mr Swiveller’s was a bachelor’s establishment, may be acknowledged without a blush. By a like pleasant fiction his single chamber was always mentioned in a plural number. In its disengaged times, the tobacconist had announced it in his window as ‘apartments’ for a single gentleman, and Mr Swiveller, following up the hint, never failed to speak of it as his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers, conveying to his hearers a notion of indefinite space, and leaving their imaginations to wander through long suites of lofty halls, at pleasure.

In this flight of fancy, Mr Swiveller was assisted by a deceptive piece of furniture, in reality a bedstead, but in semblance a bookcase, which occupied a prominent situation in his chamber and seemed to defy suspicion and challenge inquiry. There is no doubt that by day Mr Swiveller firmly believed this secret convenience to be a bookcase and nothing more; that he closed his eyes to the bed, resolutely denied the existence of the blankets, and spurned the bolster from his thoughts. No word of its real use, no hint of its nightly service, no allusion to its peculiar properties, had ever passed between him and his most intimate friends. Implicit faith in the deception was the first article of his creed. To be the friend of Swiveller you must reject all circumstantial evidence, all reason, observation, and experience, and repose a blind belief in the bookcase. It was his pet weakness, and he cherished it.

‘Fred!’ said Mr Swiveller, finding that his former adjuration had been productive of no effect. ‘Pass the rosy.’

Young Trent with an impatient gesture pushed the glass towards him, and fell again in the moody attitude from which he had been unwillingly roused.

‘I’ll give you, Fred,’ said his friend, stirring the mixture, ‘a little sentiment appropriate to the occasion. Here’s May the—’

‘Pshaw!’ interposed the other. ‘You worry me to death with your chattering. You can be merry under any circumstances.’

‘Why, Mr Trent,’ returned Dick, ‘there is a proverb which talks about being merry and wise. There are some people who can be merry and can’t be wise, and some who can be wise (or think they can) and can’t be merry. I’m one of the first sort. If the proverb’s a good ‘un, I suppose it’s better to keep to half of it than none; at all events, I’d rather be merry and not wise, than like you, neither one nor t’other.’

‘Bah!’ muttered his friend, peevishly.

‘With all my heart,’ said Mr Swiveller. ‘In the polite circles I believe this sort of thing isn’t usually said to a gentleman in his own apartments, but never mind that. Make yourself at home,’ adding to this retort an observation to the effect that his friend appeared to be rather ‘cranky’ in point of temper, Richard Swiveller finished the rosy and applied himself to the composition of another glassful, in which, after tasting it with great relish, he proposed a toast to an imaginary company.

‘Gentlemen, I’ll give you, if you please, Success to the ancient family of the Swivellers, and good luck to Mr Richard in particular—Mr Richard, gentlemen,’ said Dick with great emphasis, ‘who spends all his money on his friends and is Bah!’d for his pains. Hear, hear!’

‘Dick!’ said the other, returning to his seat after having paced the room twice or thrice, ‘will you talk seriously for two minutes, if I show you a way to make your fortune with very little trouble?’

‘You’ve shown me so many,’ returned Dick; ‘and nothing has come of any one of ‘em but empty pockets—’

‘You’ll tell a different story of this one, before a very long time is over,’ said his companion, drawing his chair to the table. ‘You saw my sister Nell?’

‘What about her?’ returned Dick.

‘She has a pretty face, has she not?’

‘Why, certainly,’ replied Dick. ‘I must say for her that there’s not any very strong family likeness between her and you.’

‘Has she a pretty face,’ repeated his friend impatiently.

‘Yes,’ said Dick, ‘she has a pretty face, a very pretty face. What of that?’

‘I’ll tell you,’ returned his friend. ‘It’s very plain that the old man and I will remain at daggers drawn to the end of our lives, and that I have nothing to expect from him. You see that, I suppose?’

‘A bat might see that, with the sun shining,’ said Dick.

‘It’s equally plain that the money which the old flint—rot him—first taught me to expect that I should share with her at his death, will all be hers, is it not?’

‘I should said it was,’ replied Dick; ‘unless the way in which I put the case to him, made an impression. It may have done so. It was powerful, Fred. ‘Here is a jolly old grandfather’—that was strong, I thought—very friendly and natural. Did it strike you in that way?’

‘It didn’t strike him,’ returned the other, ‘so we needn’t discuss it. Now look here. Nell is nearly fourteen.’

‘Fine girl of her age, but small,’ observed Richard Swiveller parenthetically.

‘If I am to go on, be quiet for one minute,’ returned Trent, fretting at the slight interest the other appeared to take in the conversation. ‘Now I’m coming to the point.’

‘That’s right,’ said Dick.

‘The girl has strong affections, and brought up as she has been, may, at her age, be easily influenced and persuaded. If I take her in hand, I will be bound by a very little coaxing and threatening to bend her to my will. Not to beat about the bush (for the advantages of the scheme would take a week to tell) what’s to prevent your marrying her?’

Richard Swiveller, who had been looking over the rim of the tumbler while his companion addressed the foregoing remarks to him with great energy and earnestness of manner, no sooner heard these words than he evinced the utmost consternation, and with difficulty ejaculated the monosyllable:

‘What!’

‘I say, what’s to prevent,’ repeated the other with a steadiness of manner, of the effect of which upon his companion he was well assured by long experience, ‘what’s to prevent your marrying her?’

‘And she “nearly fourteen”!’ cried Dick.

‘I don’t mean marrying her now’—returned the brother angrily; ‘say in two year’s time, in three, in four. Does the old man look like a long-liver?’

‘He don’t look like it,’ said Dick shaking his head, ‘but these old people—there’s no trusting them, Fred. There’s an aunt of mine down in Dorsetshire that was going to die when I was eight years old, and hasn’t kept her word yet. They’re so aggravating, so unprincipled, so spiteful—unless there’s apoplexy in the family, Fred, you can’t calculate upon ‘em, and even then they deceive you just as often as not.’

‘Look at the worst side of the question then,’ said Trent as steadily as before, and keeping his eyes upon his friend. ‘Suppose he lives.’

‘To be sure,’ said Dick. ‘There’s the rub.’

‘I say,’ resumed his friend, ‘suppose he lives, and I persuaded, or if the word sounds more feasible, forced Nell to a secret marriage with you. What do you think would come of that?’

‘A family and an annual income of nothing, to keep ‘em on,’ said Richard Swiveller after some reflection.

‘I tell you,’ returned the other with an increased earnestness, which, whether it were real or assumed, had the same effect on his companion, ‘that he lives for her, that his whole energies and thoughts are bound up in her, that he would no more disinherit her for an act of disobedience than he would take me into his favour again for any act of obedience or virtue that I could possibly be guilty of. He could not do it. You or any other man with eyes in his head may see that, if he chooses.’

‘It seems improbable certainly,’ said Dick, musing.

‘It seems improbable because it is improbable,’ his friend returned. ‘If you would furnish him with an additional inducement to forgive you, let there be an irreconcilable breach, a most deadly quarrel, between you and me—let there be a pretense of such a thing, I mean, of course—and he’ll do fast enough. As to Nell, constant dropping will wear away a stone; you know you may trust to me as far as she is concerned. So, whether he lives or dies, what does it come to? That you become the sole inheritor of the wealth of this rich old hunks, that you and I spend it together, and that you get into the bargain a beautiful young wife.’

‘I suppose there’s no doubt about his being rich’—said Dick.

‘Doubt! Did you hear what he let fall the other day when we were there? Doubt! What will you doubt next, Dick?’

It would be tedious to pursue the conversation through all its artful windings, or to develope the gradual approaches by which the heart of Richard Swiveller was gained. It is sufficient to know that vanity, interest, poverty, and every spendthrift consideration urged him to look upon the proposal with favour, and that where all other inducements were wanting, the habitual carelessness of his disposition stepped in and still weighed down the scale on the same side. To these impulses must be added the complete ascendancy which his friend had long been accustomed to exercise over him—an ascendancy exerted in the beginning sorely at the expense of his friend’s vices, and was in nine cases out of ten looked upon as his designing tempter when he was indeed nothing but his thoughtless, light-headed tool.

The motives on the other side were something deeper than any which Richard Swiveller entertained or understood, but these being left to their own development, require no present elucidation. The negotiation was concluded very pleasantly, and Mr Swiveller was in the act of stating in flowery terms that he had no insurmountable objection to marrying anybody plentifully endowed with money or moveables, who could be induced to take him, when he was interrupted in his observations by a knock at the door, and the consequent necessity of crying ‘Come in.’

The door was opened, but nothing came in except a soapy arm and a strong gush of tobacco. The gush of tobacco came from the shop downstairs, and the soapy arm proceeded from the body of a servant-girl, who being then and there engaged in cleaning the stairs had just drawn it out of a warm pail to take in a letter, which letter she now held in her hand, proclaiming aloud with that quick perception of surnames peculiar to her class that it was for Mister Snivelling.

Dick looked rather pale and foolish when he glanced at the direction, and still more so when he came to look at the inside, observing that it was one of the inconveniences of being a lady’s man, and that it was very easy to talk as they had been talking, but he had quite forgotten her.

‘Her. Who?’ demanded Trent.

‘Sophy Wackles,’ said Dick.

‘Who’s she?’

‘She’s all my fancy painted her, sir, that’s what she is,’ said Mr Swiveller, taking a long pull at ‘the rosy’ and looking gravely at his friend. ‘She’s lovely, she’s divine. You know her.’

‘I remember,’ said his companion carelessly. ‘What of her?’

‘Why, sir,’ returned Dick, ‘between Miss Sophia Wackles and the humble individual who has now the honor to address you, warm and tender sentiments have been engendered, sentiments of the most honourable and inspiring kind. The Goddess Diana, sir, that calls aloud for the chase, is not more particular in her behavior than Sophia Wackles; I can tell you that.’

‘Am I to believe there’s anything real in what you say?’ demanded his friend; ‘you don’t mean to say that any love-making has been going on?’

‘Love-making, yes. Promising, no,’ said Dick. ‘There can be no action for breach, that’s one comfort. I’ve never committed myself in writing, Fred.’

‘And what’s in the letter, pray?’

‘A reminder, Fred, for to-night—a small party of twenty, making two hundred light fantastic toes in all, supposing every lady and gentleman to have the proper complement. I must go, if it’s only to begin breaking off the affair—I’ll do it, don’t you be afraid. I should like to know whether she left this herself. If she did, unconscious of any bar to her happiness, it’s affecting, Fred.’

To solve this question, Mr Swiveller summoned the handmaid and ascertained that Miss Sophy Wackles had indeed left the letter with her own hands; and that she had come accompanied, for decorum’s sake no doubt, by a younger Miss Wackles; and that on learning that Mr Swiveller was at home and being requested to walk upstairs, she was extremely shocked and professed that she would rather die. Mr Swiveller heard this account with a degree of admiration not altogether consistent with the project in which he had just concurred, but his friend attached very little importance to his behavior in this respect, probably because he knew that he had influence sufficient to control Richard Swiveller’s proceedings in this or any other matter, whenever he deemed it necessary, for the advancement of his own purposes, to exert it.





CHAPTER 8

Business disposed of, Mr Swiveller was inwardly reminded of its being nigh dinner-time, and to the intent that his health might not be endangered by longer abstinence, dispatched a message to the nearest eating-house requiring an immediate supply of boiled beef and greens for two. With this demand, however, the eating-house (having experience of its customer) declined to comply, churlishly sending back for answer that if Mr Swiveller stood in need of beef perhaps he would be so obliging as to come there and eat it, bringing with him, as grace before meat, the amount of a certain small account which had long been outstanding. Not at all intimidated by this rebuff, but rather sharpened in wits and appetite, Mr Swiveller forwarded the same message to another and more distant eating-house, adding to it by way of rider that the gentleman was induced to send so far, not only by the great fame and popularity its beef had acquired, but in consequence of the extreme toughness of the beef retailed at the obdurant cook’s shop, which rendered it quite unfit not merely for gentlemanly food, but for any human consumption. The good effect of this politic course was demonstrated by the speedy arrival of a small pewter pyramid, curiously constructed of platters and covers, whereof the boiled-beef-plates formed the base, and a foaming quart-pot the apex; the structure being resolved into its component parts afforded all things requisite and necessary for a hearty meal, to which Mr Swiveller and his friend applied themselves with great keenness and enjoyment.

‘May the present moment,’ said Dick, sticking his fork into a large carbuncular potato, ‘be the worst of our lives! I like the plan of sending ‘em with the peel on; there’s a charm in drawing a potato from its native element (if I may so express it) to which the rich and powerful are strangers. Ah! “Man wants but little here below, nor wants that little long!” How true that is!—after dinner.’

‘I hope the eating-house keeper will want but little and that he may not want that little long,’ returned his companion; but I suspect you’ve no means of paying for this!’

‘I shall be passing present, and I’ll call,’ said Dick, winking his eye significantly. ‘The waiter’s quite helpless. The goods are gone, Fred, and there’s an end of it.’

In point of fact, it would seem that the waiter felt this wholesome truth, for when he returned for the empty plates and dishes and was informed by Mr Swiveller with dignified carelessness that he would call and settle when he should be passing presently, he displayed some perturbation of spirit and muttered a few remarks about ‘payment on delivery’ and ‘no trust,’ and other unpleasant subjects, but was fain to content himself with inquiring at what hour it was likely that the gentleman would call, in order that being presently responsible for the beef, greens, and sundries, he might take to be in the way at the time. Mr Swiveller, after mentally calculating his engagements to a nicety, replied that he should look in at from two minutes before six and seven minutes past; and the man disappearing with this feeble consolation, Richard Swiveller took a greasy memorandum-book from his pocket and made an entry therein.

‘Is that a reminder, in case you should forget to call?’ said Trent with a sneer.

‘Not exactly, Fred,’ replied the imperturbable Richard, continuing to write with a businesslike air. ‘I enter in this little book the names of the streets that I can’t go down while the shops are open. This dinner today closes Long Acre. I bought a pair of boots in Great Queen Street last week, and made that no throughfare too. There’s only one avenue to the Strand left often now, and I shall have to stop up that to-night with a pair of gloves. The roads are closing so fast in every direction, that in a month’s time, unless my aunt sends me a remittance, I shall have to go three or four miles out of town to get over the way.’

‘There’s no fear of failing, in the end?’ said Trent.

‘Why, I hope not,’ returned Mr Swiveller, ‘but the average number of letters it take to soften her is six, and this time we have got as far as eight without any effect at all. I’ll write another to-morrow morning. I mean to blot it a good deal and shake some water over it out of the pepper-castor to make it look penitent. “I’m in such a state of mind that I hardly know what I write”—blot—“if you could see me at this minute shedding tears for my past misconduct”—pepper-castor—“my hand trembles when I think”—blot again—if that don’t produce the effect, it’s all over.’

By this time, Mr Swiveller had finished his entry, and he now replaced his pencil in its little sheath and closed the book, in a perfectly grave and serious frame of mind. His friend discovered that it was time for him to fulfil some other engagement, and Richard Swiveller was accordingly left alone, in company with the rosy wine and his own meditations touching Miss Sophy Wackles.

‘It’s rather sudden,’ said Dick shaking his head with a look of infinite wisdom, and running on (as he was accustomed to do) with scraps of verse as if they were only prose in a hurry; ‘when the heart of a man is depressed with fears, the mist is dispelled when Miss Wackles appears; she’s a very nice girl. She’s like the red red rose that’s newly sprung in June—there’s no denying that—she’s also like a melody that’s sweetly played in tune. It’s really very sudden. Not that there’s any need, on account of Fred’s little sister, to turn cool directly, but its better not to go too far. If I begin to cool at all I must begin at once, I see that. There’s the chance of an action for breach, that’s another. There’s the chance of—no, there’s no chance of that, but it’s as well to be on the safe side.’

This undeveloped was the possibility, which Richard Swiveller sought to conceal even from himself, of his not being proof against the charms of Miss Wackles, and in some unguarded moment, by linking his fortunes to hers forever, of putting it out of his own power to further their notable scheme to which he had so readily become a party. For all these reasons, he decided to pick a quarrel with Miss Wackles without delay, and casting about for a pretext determined in favour of groundless jealousy. Having made up his mind on this important point, he circulated the glass (from his right hand to left, and back again) pretty freely, to enable him to act his part with the greater discretion, and then, after making some slight improvements in his toilet, bent his steps towards the spot hallowed by the fair object of his meditations.

The spot was at Chelsea, for there Miss Sophia Wackles resided with her widowed mother and two sisters, in conjunction with whom she maintained a very small day-school for young ladies of proportionate dimensions; a circumstance which was made known to the neighbourhood by an oval board over the front first-floor windows, whereupon appeared in circumambient flourishes the words ‘Ladies’ Seminary’; and which was further published and proclaimed at intervals between the hours of half-past nine and ten in the morning, by a straggling and solitary young lady of tender years standing on the scraper on the tips of her toes and making futile attempts to reach the knocker with a spelling-book. The several duties of instruction in this establishment were thus discharged. English grammar, composition, geography, and the use of the dumb-bells, by Miss Melissa Wackles; writing, arithmetic, dancing, music, and general fascination, by Miss Sophia Wackles; the art of needle-work, marking, and samplery, by Miss Jane Wackles; corporal punishment, fasting, and other tortures and terrors, by Mrs Wackles. Miss Melissa Wackles was the eldest daughter, Miss Sophy the next, and Miss Jane the youngest. Miss Melissa might have seen five-and-thirty summers or thereabouts, and verged on the autumnal; Miss Sophy was a fresh, good humoured, buxom girl of twenty; and Miss Jane numbered scarcely sixteen years. Mrs Wackles was an excellent but rather venomous old lady of three-score.

To this Ladies’ Seminary, then, Richard Swiveller hied, with designs obnoxious to the peace of the fair Sophia, who, arrayed in virgin white, embellished by no ornament but one blushing rose, received him on his arrival, in the midst of very elegant not to say brilliant preparations; such as the embellishment of the room with the little flower-pots which always stood on the window-sill outside, save in windy weather when they blew into the area; the choice attire of the day-scholars who were allowed to grace the festival; the unwonted curls of Miss Jane Wackles who had kept her head during the whole of the preceding day screwed up tight in a yellow play-bill; and the solemn gentility and stately bearing of the old lady and her eldest daughter, which struck Mr Swiveller as being uncommon but made no further impression upon him.

The truth is—and, as there is no accounting for tastes, even a taste so strange as this may be recorded without being looked upon as a wilful and malicious invention—the truth is that neither Mrs Wackles nor her eldest daughter had at any time greatly favoured the pretensions of Mr Swiveller, being accustomed to make slight mention of him as ‘a gay young man’ and to sigh and shake their heads ominously whenever his name was mentioned. Mr Swiveller’s conduct in respect to Miss Sophy having been of that vague and dilatory kind which is usually looked upon as betokening no fixed matrimonial intentions, the young lady herself began in course of time to deem it highly desirable, that it should be brought to an issue one way or other. Hence she had at last consented to play off against Richard Swiveller a stricken market-gardner known to be ready with his offer on the smallest encouragement, and hence—as this occasion had been specially assigned for the purpose—that great anxiety on her part for Richard Swiveller’s presence which had occasioned her to leave the note he has been seen to receive. ‘If he has any expectations at all or any means of keeping a wife well,’ said Mrs Wackles to her eldest daughter, ‘he’ll state ‘em to us now or never.’—‘If he really cares about me,’ thought Miss Sophy, ‘he must tell me so, to-night.’

But all these sayings and doings and thinkings being unknown to Mr Swiveller, affected him not in the least; he was debating in his mind how he could best turn jealous, and wishing that Sophy were for that occasion only far less pretty than she was, or that she were her own sister, which would have served his turn as well, when the company came, and among them the market-gardener, whose name was Cheggs. But Mr Cheggs came not alone or unsupported, for he prudently brought along with him his sister, Miss Cheggs, who making straight to Miss Sophy and taking her by both hands, and kissing her on both cheeks, hoped in an audible whisper that they had not come too early.

‘Too early, no!’ replied Miss Sophy.

‘Oh, my dear,’ rejoined Miss Cheggs in the same whisper as before, ‘I’ve been so tormented, so worried, that it’s a mercy we were not here at four o’clock in the afternoon. Alick has been in such a state of impatience to come! You’d hardly believe that he was dressed before dinner-time and has been looking at the clock and teasing me ever since. It’s all your fault, you naughty thing.’

Hereupon Miss Sophy blushed, and Mr Cheggs (who was bashful before ladies) blushed too, and Miss Sophy’s mother and sisters, to prevent Mr Cheggs from blushing more, lavished civilities and attentions upon him, and left Richard Swiveller to take care of himself. Here was the very thing he wanted, here was good cause reason and foundation for pretending to be angry; but having this cause reason and foundation which he had come expressly to seek, not expecting to find, Richard Swiveller was angry in sound earnest, and wondered what the devil Cheggs meant by his impudence.

However, Mr Swiveller had Miss Sophy’s hand for the first quadrille (country-dances being low, were utterly proscribed) and so gained an advantage over his rival, who sat despondingly in a corner and contemplated the glorious figure of the young lady as she moved through the mazy dance. Nor was this the only start Mr Swiveller had of the market-gardener, for determining to show the family what quality of man they trifled with, and influenced perhaps by his late libations, he performed such feats of agility and such spins and twirls as filled the company with astonishment, and in particular caused a very long gentleman who was dancing with a very short scholar, to stand quite transfixed by wonder and admiration. Even Mrs Wackles forgot for the moment to snub three small young ladies who were inclined to be happy, and could not repress a rising thought that to have such a dancer as that in the family would be a pride indeed.

At this momentous crisis, Miss Cheggs proved herself a vigourous and useful ally, for not confining herself to expressing by scornful smiles a contempt for Mr Swiveller’s accomplishments, she took every opportunity of whispering into Miss Sophy’s ear expressions of condolence and sympathy on her being worried by such a ridiculous creature, declaring that she was frightened to death lest Alick should fall upon, and beat him, in the fulness of his wrath, and entreating Miss Sophy to observe how the eyes of the said Alick gleamed with love and fury; passions, it may be observed, which being too much for his eyes rushed into his nose also, and suffused it with a crimson glow.

‘You must dance with Miss Cheggs,’ said Miss Sophy to Dick Swiviller, after she had herself danced twice with Mr Cheggs and made great show of encouraging his advances. ‘She’s a nice girl—and her brother’s quite delightful.’

‘Quite delightful, is he?’ muttered Dick. ‘Quite delighted too, I should say, from the manner in which he’s looking this way.’

Here Miss Jane (previously instructed for the purpose) interposed her many curls and whispered her sister to observe how jealous Mr Cheggs was.

‘Jealous! Like his impudence!’ said Richard Swiviller.

‘His impudence, Mr Swiviller!’ said Miss Jane, tossing her head. ‘Take care he don’t hear you, sir, or you may be sorry for it.’

‘Oh, pray, Jane—’ said Miss Sophy.

‘Nonsense!’ replied her sister. ‘Why shouldn’t Mr Cheggs be jealous if he likes? I like that, certainly. Mr Cheggs has a good a right to be jealous as anyone else has, and perhaps he may have a better right soon if he hasn’t already. You know best about that, Sophy!’

Though this was a concerted plot between Miss Sophy and her sister, originating in humane intentions and having for its object the inducing Mr Swiviller to declare himself in time, it failed in its effect; for Miss Jane being one of those young ladies who are prematurely shrill and shrewish, gave such undue importance to her part that Mr Swiviller retired in dudgeon, resigning his mistress to Mr Cheggs and conveying a defiance into his looks which that gentleman indignantly returned.

‘Did you speak to me, sir?’ said Mr Cheggs, following him into a corner. ‘Have the kindness to smile, sir, in order that we may not be suspected. Did you speak to me, sir’?

Mr Swiviller looked with a supercilious smile at Mr Chegg’s toes, then raised his eyes from them to his ankles, from that to his shin, from that to his knee, and so on very gradually, keeping up his right leg, until he reached his waistcoat, when he raised his eyes from button to button until he reached his chin, and travelling straight up the middle of his nose came at last to his eyes, when he said abruptly,

‘No, sir, I didn’t.’

‘’Hem!’ said Mr Cheggs, glancing over his shoulder, ‘have the goodness to smile again, sir. Perhaps you wished to speak to me, sir.’

‘No, sir, I didn’t do that, either.’

‘Perhaps you may have nothing to say to me now, sir,’ said Mr Cheggs fiercely.

At these words Richard Swiviller withdrew his eyes from Mr Chegg’s face, and travelling down the middle of his nose and down his waistcoat and down his right leg, reached his toes again, and carefully surveyed him; this done, he crossed over, and coming up the other leg, and thence approaching by the waistcoat as before, said when had got to his eyes, ‘No sir, I haven’t.’

‘Oh, indeed, sir!’ said Mr Cheggs. ‘I’m glad to hear it. You know where I’m to be found, I suppose, sir, in case you should have anything to say to me?’

‘I can easily inquire, sir, when I want to know.’

‘There’s nothing more we need say, I believe, sir?’

‘Nothing more, sir’—With that they closed the tremendous dialog by frowning mutually. Mr Cheggs hastened to tender his hand to Miss Sophy, and Mr Swiviller sat himself down in a corner in a very moody state.

Hard by this corner, Mrs Wackles and Miss Wackles were seated, looking on at the dance; and unto Mrs and Miss Wackles, Miss Cheggs occasionally darted when her partner was occupied with his share of the figure, and made some remark or other which was gall and wormwood to Richard Swiviller’s soul. Looking into the eyes of Mrs and Miss Wackles for encouragement, and sitting very upright and uncomfortable on a couple of hard stools, were two of the day-scholars; and when Miss Wackles smiled, and Mrs Wackles smiled, the two little girls on the stools sought to curry favour by smiling likewise, in gracious acknowledgement of which attention the old lady frowned them down instantly, and said that if they dared to be guilty of such an impertinence again, they should be sent under convoy to their respective homes. This threat caused one of the young ladies, she being of a weak and trembling temperament, to shed tears, and for this offense they were both filed off immediately, with a dreadful promptitude that struck terror into the souls of all the pupils.

‘I’ve got such news for you,’ said Miss Cheggs approaching once more, ‘Alick has been saying such things to Sophy. Upon my word, you know, it’s quite serious and in earnest, that’s clear.’

‘What’s he been saying, my dear?’ demanded Mrs Wackles.

‘All manner of things,’ replied Miss Cheggs, ‘you can’t think how out he has been speaking!’

Richard Swiviller considered it advisable to hear no more, but taking advantage of a pause in the dancing, and the approach of Mr Cheggs to pay his court to the old lady, swaggered with an extremely careful assumption of extreme carelessness toward the door, passing on the way Miss Jane Wackles, who in all the glory of her curls was holding a flirtation, (as good practice when no better was to be had) with a feeble old gentleman who lodged in the parlour. Near the door sat Miss Sophy, still fluttered and confused by the attentions of Mr Cheggs, and by her side Richard Swiveller lingered for a moment to exchange a few parting words.

‘My boat is on the shore and my bark is on the sea, but before I pass this door I will say farewell to thee,’ murmured Dick, looking gloomily upon her.

‘Are you going?’ said Miss Sophy, whose heart sank within her at the result of her stratagem, but who affected a light indifference notwithstanding.

‘Am I going!’ echoed Dick bitterly. ‘Yes, I am. What then?’

‘Nothing, except that it’s very early,’ said Miss Sophy; ‘but you are your own master, of course.’

‘I would that I had been my own mistress too,’ said Dick, ‘before I had ever entertained a thought of you. Miss Wackles, I believed you true, and I was blest in so believing, but now I mourn that e’er I knew, a girl so fair yet so deceiving.’

Miss Sophy bit her lip and affected to look with great interest after Mr Cheggs, who was quaffing lemonade in the distance.

‘I came here,’ said Dick, rather oblivious of the purpose with which he had really come, ‘with my bosom expanded, my heart dilated, and my sentiments of a corresponding description. I go away with feelings that may be conceived but cannot be described, feeling within myself that desolating truth that my best affections have experienced this night a stifler!’

‘I am sure I don’t know what you mean, Mr Swiviller,’ said Miss Sophy with downcast eyes. ‘I’m very sorry if—’

‘Sorry, Ma’am!’ said Dick, ‘sorry in the possession of a Cheggs! But I wish you a very good night, concluding with this slight remark, that there is a young lady growing up at this present moment for me, who has not only great personal attractions but great wealth, and who has requested her next of kin to propose for my hand, which, having a regard for some members of her family, I have consented to promise. It’s a gratifying circumstance which you’ll be glad to hear, that a young and lovely girl is growing into a woman expressly on my account, and is now saving up for me. I thought I’d mention it. I have now merely to apologize for trespassing so long upon your attention. Good night.’

‘There’s one good thing springs out of all this,’ said Richard Swiviller to himself when he had reached home and was hanging over the candle with the extinguisher in his hand, ‘which is, that I now go heart and soul, neck and heels, with Fred in all his scheme about little Nelly, and right glad he’ll be to find me so strong upon it. He shall know all about that to-morrow, and in the meantime, as it’s rather late, I’ll try and get a wink of the balmy.’

‘The balmy’ came almost as soon as it was courted. In a very few minutes Mr Swiviller was fast asleep, dreaming that he had married Nelly Trent and come into the property, and that his first act of power was to lay waste the market-garden of Mr Cheggs and turn it into a brick-field.





CHAPTER 9

The child, in her confidence with Mrs Quilp, had but feebly described the sadness and sorrow of her thoughts, or the heaviness of the cloud which overhung her home, and cast dark shadows on its hearth. Besides that it was very difficult to impart to any person not intimately acquainted with the life she led, an adequate sense of its gloom and loneliness, a constant fear of in some way committing or injuring the old man to whom she was so tenderly attached, had restrained her, even in the midst of her heart’s overflowing, and made her timid of allusion to the main cause of her anxiety and distress.

For, it was not the monotonous days unchequered by variety and uncheered by pleasant companionship, it was not the dark dreary evenings or the long solitary nights, it was not the absence of every slight and easy pleasure for which young hearts beat high, or the knowing nothing of childhood but its weakness and its easily wounded spirit, that had wrung such tears from Nell. To see the old man struck down beneath the pressure of some hidden grief, to mark his wavering and unsettled state, to be agitated at times with a dreadful fear that his mind was wandering, and to trace in his words and looks the dawning of despondent madness; to watch and wait and listen for confirmation of these things day after day, and to feel and know that, come what might, they were alone in the world with no one to help or advise or care about them—these were causes of depression and anxiety that might have sat heavily on an older breast with many influences at work to cheer and gladden it, but how heavily on the mind of a young child to whom they were ever present, and who was constantly surrounded by all that could keep such thoughts in restless action!

And yet, to the old man’s vision, Nell was still the same. When he could, for a moment, disengage his mind from the phantom that haunted and brooded on it always, there was his young companion with the same smile for him, the same earnest words, the same merry laugh, the same love and care that, sinking deep into his soul, seemed to have been present to him through his whole life. And so he went on, content to read the book of her heart from the page first presented to him, little dreaming of the story that lay hidden in its other leaves, and murmuring within himself that at least the child was happy.

She had been once. She had gone singing through the dim rooms, and moving with gay and lightsome step among their dusty treasures, making them older by her young life, and sterner and more grim by her gay and cheerful presence. But, now, the chambers were cold and gloomy, and when she left her own little room to while away the tedious hours, and sat in one of them, she was still and motionless as their inanimate occupants, and had no heart to startle the echoes—hoarse from their long silence—with her voice.

In one of these rooms, was a window looking into the street, where the child sat, many and many a long evening, and often far into the night, alone and thoughtful. None are so anxious as those who watch and wait; at these times, mournful fancies came flocking on her mind, in crowds.

She would take her station here, at dusk, and watch the people as they passed up and down the street, or appeared at the windows of the opposite houses; wondering whether those rooms were as lonesome as that in which she sat, and whether those people felt it company to see her sitting there, as she did only to see them look out and draw in their heads again. There was a crooked stack of chimneys on one of the roofs, in which, by often looking at them, she had fancied ugly faces that were frowning over at her and trying to peer into the room; and she felt glad when it grew too dark to make them out, though she was sorry too, when the man came to light the lamps in the street—for it made it late, and very dull inside. Then, she would draw in her head to look round the room and see that everything was in its place and hadn’t moved; and looking out into the street again, would perhaps see a man passing with a coffin on his back, and two or three others silently following him to a house where somebody lay dead; which made her shudder and think of such things until they suggested afresh the old man’s altered face and manner, and a new train of fears and speculations. If he were to die—if sudden illness had happened to him, and he were never to come home again, alive—if, one night, he should come home, and kiss and bless her as usual, and after she had gone to bed and had fallen asleep and was perhaps dreaming pleasantly, and smiling in her sleep, he should kill himself and his blood come creeping, creeping, on the ground to her own bed-room door! These thoughts were too terrible to dwell upon, and again she would have recourse to the street, now trodden by fewer feet, and darker and more silent than before. The shops were closing fast, and lights began to shine from the upper windows, as the neighbours went to bed. By degrees, these dwindled away and disappeared or were replaced, here and there, by a feeble rush-candle which was to burn all night. Still, there was one late shop at no great distance which sent forth a ruddy glare upon the pavement even yet, and looked bright and companionable. But, in a little time, this closed, the light was extinguished, and all was gloomy and quiet, except when some stray footsteps sounded on the pavement, or a neighbour, out later than his wont, knocked lustily at his house-door to rouse the sleeping inmates.

When the night had worn away thus far (and seldom now until it had) the child would close the window, and steal softly down stairs, thinking as she went that if one of those hideous faces below, which often mingled with her dreams, were to meet her by the way, rendering itself visible by some strange light of its own, how terrified she would be. But these fears vanished before a well-trimmed lamp and the familiar aspect of her own room. After praying fervently, and with many bursting tears, for the old man, and the restoration of his peace of mind and the happiness they had once enjoyed, she would lay her head upon the pillow and sob herself to sleep: often starting up again, before the day-light came, to listen for the bell and respond to the imaginary summons which had roused her from her slumber.

One night, the third after Nelly’s interview with Mrs Quilp, the old man, who had been weak and ill all day, said he should not leave home. The child’s eyes sparkled at the intelligence, but her joy subsided when they reverted to his worn and sickly face.

‘Two days,’ he said, ‘two whole, clear, days have passed, and there is no reply. What did he tell thee, Nell?’

‘Exactly what I told you, dear grandfather, indeed.’

‘True,’ said the old man, faintly. ‘Yes. But tell me again, Nell. My head fails me. What was it that he told thee? Nothing more than that he would see me to-morrow or next day? That was in the note.’

‘Nothing more,’ said the child. ‘Shall I go to him again to-morrow, dear grandfather? Very early? I will be there and back, before breakfast.’

The old man shook his head, and sighing mournfully, drew her towards him.

‘’Twould be of no use, my dear, no earthly use. But if he deserts me, Nell, at this moment—if he deserts me now, when I should, with his assistance, be recompensed for all the time and money I have lost, and all the agony of mind I have undergone, which makes me what you see, I am ruined, and—worse, far worse than that—have ruined thee, for whom I ventured all. If we are beggars—!’

‘What if we are?’ said the child boldly. ‘Let us be beggars, and be happy.’

‘Beggars—and happy!’ said the old man. ‘Poor child!’

‘Dear grandfather,’ cried the girl with an energy which shone in her flushed face, trembling voice, and impassioned gesture, ‘I am not a child in that I think, but even if I am, oh hear me pray that we may beg, or work in open roads or fields, to earn a scanty living, rather than live as we do now.’

‘Nelly!’ said the old man.

‘Yes, yes, rather than live as we do now,’ the child repeated, more earnestly than before. ‘If you are sorrowful, let me know why and be sorrowful too; if you waste away and are paler and weaker every day, let me be your nurse and try to comfort you. If you are poor, let us be poor together; but let me be with you, do let me be with you; do not let me see such change and not know why, or I shall break my heart and die. Dear grandfather, let us leave this sad place to-morrow, and beg our way from door to door.’

The old man covered his face with his hands, and hid it in the pillow of the couch on which he lay.

‘Let us be beggars,’ said the child passing an arm round his neck, ‘I have no fear but we shall have enough, I am sure we shall. Let us walk through country places, and sleep in fields and under trees, and never think of money again, or anything that can make you sad, but rest at nights, and have the sun and wind upon our faces in the day, and thank God together! Let us never set foot in dark rooms or melancholy houses, any more, but wander up and down wherever we like to go; and when you are tired, you shall stop to rest in the pleasantest place that we can find, and I will go and beg for both.’

The child’s voice was lost in sobs as she dropped upon the old man’s neck; nor did she weep alone.

These were not words for other ears, nor was it a scene for other eyes. And yet other ears and eyes were there and greedily taking in all that passed, and moreover they were the ears and eyes of no less a person than Mr Daniel Quilp, who, having entered unseen when the child first placed herself at the old man’s side, refrained—actuated, no doubt, by motives of the purest delicacy—from interrupting the conversation, and stood looking on with his accustomed grin. Standing, however, being a tiresome attitude to a gentleman already fatigued with walking, and the dwarf being one of that kind of persons who usually make themselves at home, he soon cast his eyes upon a chair, into which he skipped with uncommon agility, and perching himself on the back with his feet upon the seat, was thus enabled to look on and listen with greater comfort to himself, besides gratifying at the same time that taste for doing something fantastic and monkey-like, which on all occasions had strong possession of him. Here, then, he sat, one leg cocked carelessly over the other, his chin resting on the palm of his hand, his head turned a little on one side, and his ugly features twisted into a complacent grimace. And in this position the old man, happening in course of time to look that way, at length chanced to see him: to his unbounded astonishment.

The child uttered a suppressed shriek on beholding this agreeable figure; in their first surprise both she and the old man, not knowing what to say, and half doubting its reality, looked shrinkingly at it. Not at all disconcerted by this reception, Daniel Quilp preserved the same attitude, merely nodding twice or thrice with great condescension. At length, the old man pronounced his name, and inquired how he came there.

‘Through the door,’ said Quilp pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. ‘I’m not quite small enough to get through key-holes. I wish I was. I want to have some talk with you, particularly, and in private. With nobody present, neighbour. Good-bye, little Nelly.’

Nell looked at the old man, who nodded to her to retire, and kissed her cheek.

‘Ah!’ said the dwarf, smacking his lips, ‘what a nice kiss that was—just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!’

Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell to complimenting the old man upon her charms.

‘Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,’ said Quilp, nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; ‘such a chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!’

The old man answered by a forced smile, and was plainly struggling with a feeling of the keenest and most exquisite impatience. It was not lost upon Quilp, who delighted in torturing him, or indeed anybody else, when he could.

‘She’s so,’ said Quilp, speaking very slowly, and feigning to be quite absorbed in the subject, ‘so small, so compact, so beautifully modelled, so fair, with such blue veins and such a transparent skin, and such little feet, and such winning ways—but bless me, you’re nervous! Why neighbour, what’s the matter? I swear to you,’ continued the dwarf dismounting from the chair and sitting down in it, with a careful slowness of gesture very different from the rapidity with which he had sprung up unheard, ‘I swear to you that I had no idea old blood ran so fast or kept so warm. I thought it was sluggish in its course, and cool, quite cool. I am pretty sure it ought to be. Yours must be out of order, neighbour.’

‘I believe it is,’ groaned the old man, clasping his head with both hands. ‘There’s burning fever here, and something now and then to which I fear to give a name.’

The dwarf said never a word, but watched his companion as he paced restlessly up and down the room, and presently returned to his seat. Here he remained, with his head bowed upon his breast for some time, and then suddenly raising it, said,

‘Once, and once for all, have you brought me any money?’

‘No!’ returned Quilp.

‘Then,’ said the old man, clenching his hands desperately, and looking upwards, ‘the child and I are lost!’

‘Neighbour,’ said Quilp glancing sternly at him, and beating his hand twice or thrice upon the table to attract his wandering attention, ‘let me be plain with you, and play a fairer game than when you held all the cards, and I saw but the backs and nothing more. You have no secret from me now.’

The old man looked up, trembling.

‘You are surprised,’ said Quilp. ‘Well, perhaps that’s natural. You have no secret from me now, I say; no, not one. For now, I know, that all those sums of money, that all those loans, advances, and supplies that you have had from me, have found their way to—shall I say the word?’

‘Aye!’ replied the old man, ‘say it, if you will.’

‘To the gaming-table,’ rejoined Quilp, ‘your nightly haunt. This was the precious scheme to make your fortune, was it; this was the secret certain source of wealth in which I was to have sunk my money (if I had been the fool you took me for); this was your inexhaustible mine of gold, your El Dorado, eh?’

‘Yes,’ cried the old man, turning upon him with gleaming eyes, ‘it was. It is. It will be, till I die.’

‘That I should have been blinded,’ said Quilp looking contemptuously at him, ‘by a mere shallow gambler!’

‘I am no gambler,’ cried the old man fiercely. ‘I call Heaven to witness that I never played for gain of mine, or love of play; that at every piece I staked, I whispered to myself that orphan’s name and called on Heaven to bless the venture;—which it never did. Whom did it prosper? Who were those with whom I played? Men who lived by plunder, profligacy, and riot; squandering their gold in doing ill, and propagating vice and evil. My winnings would have been from them, my winnings would have been bestowed to the last farthing on a young sinless child whose life they would have sweetened and made happy. What would they have contracted? The means of corruption, wretchedness, and misery. Who would not have hoped in such a cause? Tell me that! Who would not have hoped as I did?’

‘When did you first begin this mad career?’ asked Quilp, his taunting inclination subdued, for a moment, by the old man’s grief and wildness.

‘When did I first begin?’ he rejoined, passing his hand across his brow. ‘When was it, that I first began? When should it be, but when I began to think how little I had saved, how long a time it took to save at all, how short a time I might have at my age to live, and how she would be left to the rough mercies of the world, with barely enough to keep her from the sorrows that wait on poverty; then it was that I began to think about it.’

‘After you first came to me to get your precious grandson packed off to sea?’ said Quilp.

‘Shortly after that,’ replied the old man. ‘I thought of it a long time, and had it in my sleep for months. Then I began. I found no pleasure in it, I expected none. What has it ever brought me but anxious days and sleepless nights; but loss of health and peace of mind, and gain of feebleness and sorrow!’

‘You lost what money you had laid by, first, and then came to me. While I thought you were making your fortune (as you said you were) you were making yourself a beggar, eh? Dear me! And so it comes to pass that I hold every security you could scrape together, and a bill of sale upon the—upon the stock and property,’ said Quilp standing up and looking about him, as if to assure himself that none of it had been taken away. ‘But did you never win?’

‘Never!’ groaned the old man. ‘Never won back my loss!’

‘I thought,’ sneered the dwarf, ‘that if a man played long enough he was sure to win at last, or, at the worst, not to come off a loser.’

‘And so he is,’ cried the old man, suddenly rousing himself from his state of despondency, and lashed into the most violent excitement, ‘so he is; I have felt that from the first, I have always known it, I’ve seen it, I never felt it half so strongly as I feel it now. Quilp, I have dreamed, three nights, of winning the same large sum, I never could dream that dream before, though I have often tried. Do not desert me, now I have this chance. I have no resource but you, give me some help, let me try this one last hope.’

The dwarf shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

‘See, Quilp, good tender-hearted Quilp,’ said the old man, drawing some scraps of paper from his pocket with a trembling hand, and clasping the dwarf’s arm, ‘only see here. Look at these figures, the result of long calculation, and painful and hard experience. I must win. I only want a little help once more, a few pounds, but two score pounds, dear Quilp.’

‘The last advance was seventy,’ said the dwarf; ‘and it went in one night.’

‘I know it did,’ answered the old man, ‘but that was the very worst fortune of all, and the time had not come then. Quilp, consider, consider,’ the old man cried, trembling so much the while, that the papers in his hand fluttered as if they were shaken by the wind, ‘that orphan child! If I were alone, I could die with gladness—perhaps even anticipate that doom which is dealt out so unequally: coming, as it does, on the proud and happy in their strength, and shunning the needy and afflicted, and all who court it in their despair—but what I have done, has been for her. Help me for her sake I implore you; not for mine; for hers!’

‘I’m sorry I’ve got an appointment in the city,’ said Quilp, looking at his watch with perfect self-possession, ‘or I should have been very glad to have spent half an hour with you while you composed yourself, very glad.’

‘Nay, Quilp, good Quilp,’ gasped the old man, catching at his skirts, ‘you and I have talked together, more than once, of her poor mother’s story. The fear of her coming to poverty has perhaps been bred in me by that. Do not be hard upon me, but take that into account. You are a great gainer by me. Oh spare me the money for this one last hope!’

‘I couldn’t do it really,’ said Quilp with unusual politeness, ‘though I tell you what—and this is a circumstance worth bearing in mind as showing how the sharpest among us may be taken in sometimes—I was so deceived by the penurious way in which you lived, alone with Nelly—’

‘All done to save money for tempting fortune, and to make her triumph greater,’ cried the old man.

‘Yes, yes, I understand that now,’ said Quilp; ‘but I was going to say, I was so deceived by that, your miserly way, the reputation you had among those who knew you of being rich, and your repeated assurances that you would make of my advances treble and quadruple the interest you paid me, that I’d have advanced you, even now, what you want, on your simple note of hand, if I hadn’t unexpectedly become acquainted with your secret way of life.’

‘Who is it,’ retorted the old man desperately, ‘that, notwithstanding all my caution, told you? Come. Let me know the name—the person.’

The crafty dwarf, bethinking himself that his giving up the child would lead to the disclosure of the artifice he had employed, which, as nothing was to be gained by it, it was well to conceal, stopped short in his answer and said, ‘Now, who do you think?’

‘It was Kit, it must have been the boy; he played the spy, and you tampered with him?’ said the old man.

‘How came you to think of him?’ said the dwarf in a tone of great commiseration. ‘Yes, it was Kit. Poor Kit!’

So saying, he nodded in a friendly manner, and took his leave: stopping when he had passed the outer door a little distance, and grinning with extraordinary delight.

‘Poor Kit!’ muttered Quilp. ‘I think it was Kit who said I was an uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny, wasn’t it. Ha ha ha! Poor Kit!’

And with that he went his way, still chuckling as he went.





CHAPTER 10

Daniel Quilp neither entered nor left the old man’s house, unobserved. In the shadow of an archway nearly opposite, leading to one of the many passages which diverged from the main street, there lingered one, who, having taken up his position when the twilight first came on, still maintained it with undiminished patience, and leaning against the wall with the manner of a person who had a long time to wait, and being well used to it was quite resigned, scarcely changed his attitude for the hour together.

This patient lounger attracted little attention from any of those who passed, and bestowed as little upon them. His eyes were constantly directed towards one object; the window at which the child was accustomed to sit. If he withdrew them for a moment, it was only to glance at a clock in some neighbouring shop, and then to strain his sight once more in the old quarter with increased earnestness and attention.

It had been remarked that this personage evinced no weariness in his place of concealment; nor did he, long as his waiting was. But as the time went on, he manifested some anxiety and surprise, glancing at the clock more frequently and at the window less hopefully than before. At length, the clock was hidden from his sight by some envious shutters, then the church steeples proclaimed eleven at night, then the quarter past, and then the conviction seemed to obtrude itself on his mind that it was no use tarrying there any longer.

That the conviction was an unwelcome one, and that he was by no means willing to yield to it, was apparent from his reluctance to quit the spot; from the tardy steps with which he often left it, still looking over his shoulder at the same window; and from the precipitation with which he as often returned, when a fancied noise or the changing and imperfect light induced him to suppose it had been softly raised. At length, he gave the matter up, as hopeless for that night, and suddenly breaking into a run as though to force himself away, scampered off at his utmost speed, nor once ventured to look behind him lest he should be tempted back again.

Without relaxing his pace, or stopping to take breath, this mysterious individual dashed on through a great many alleys and narrow ways until he at length arrived in a square paved court, when he subsided into a walk, and making for a small house from the window of which a light was shining, lifted the latch of the door and passed in.

‘Bless us!’ cried a woman turning sharply round, ‘who’s that? Oh! It’s you, Kit!’

‘Yes, mother, it’s me.’

‘Why, how tired you look, my dear!’

‘Old master an’t gone out to-night,’ said Kit; ‘and so she hasn’t been at the window at all.’ With which words, he sat down by the fire and looked very mournful and discontented.

The room in which Kit sat himself down, in this condition, was an extremely poor and homely place, but with that air of comfort about it, nevertheless, which—or the spot must be a wretched one indeed—cleanliness and order can always impart in some degree. Late as the Dutch clock showed it to be, the poor woman was still hard at work at an ironing-table; a young child lay sleeping in a cradle near the fire; and another, a sturdy boy of two or three years old, very wide awake, with a very tight night-cap on his head, and a night-gown very much too small for him on his body, was sitting bolt upright in a clothes-basket, staring over the rim with his great round eyes, and looking as if he had thoroughly made up his mind never to go to sleep any more; which, as he had already declined to take his natural rest and had been brought out of bed in consequence, opened a cheerful prospect for his relations and friends. It was rather a queer-looking family: Kit, his mother, and the children, being all strongly alike.

Kit was disposed to be out of temper, as the best of us are too often—but he looked at the youngest child who was sleeping soundly, and from him to his other brother in the clothes-basket, and from him to their mother, who had been at work without complaint since morning, and thought it would be a better and kinder thing to be good-humoured. So he rocked the cradle with his foot; made a face at the rebel in the clothes-basket, which put him in high good-humour directly; and stoutly determined to be talkative and make himself agreeable.

‘Ah, mother!’ said Kit, taking out his clasp-knife, and falling upon a great piece of bread and meat which she had had ready for him, hours before, ‘what a one you are! There an’t many such as you, I know.’

‘I hope there are many a great deal better, Kit,’ said Mrs Nubbles; ‘and that there are, or ought to be, accordin’ to what the parson at chapel says.’

‘Much he knows about it,’ returned Kit contemptuously. ‘Wait till he’s a widder and works like you do, and gets as little, and does as much, and keeps his spirit up the same, and then I’ll ask him what’s o’clock and trust him for being right to half a second.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs Nubbles, evading the point, ‘your beer’s down there by the fender, Kit.’

‘I see,’ replied her son, taking up the porter pot, ‘my love to you, mother. And the parson’s health too if you like. I don’t bear him any malice, not I!’

‘Did you tell me, just now, that your master hadn’t gone out to-night?’ inquired Mrs Nubbles.

‘Yes,’ said Kit, ‘worse luck!’

‘You should say better luck, I think,’ returned his mother, ‘because Miss Nelly won’t have been left alone.’

‘Ah!’ said Kit, ‘I forgot that. I said worse luck, because I’ve been watching ever since eight o’clock, and seen nothing of her.’

‘I wonder what she’d say,’ cried his mother, stopping in her work and looking round, ‘if she knew that every night, when she—poor thing—is sitting alone at that window, you are watching in the open street for fear any harm should come to her, and that you never leave the place or come home to your bed though you’re ever so tired, till such time as you think she’s safe in hers.’

‘Never mind what she’d say,’ replied Kit, with something like a blush on his uncouth face; ‘she’ll never know nothing, and consequently, she’ll never say nothing.’

Mrs Nubbles ironed away in silence for a minute or two, and coming to the fireplace for another iron, glanced stealthily at Kit while she rubbed it on a board and dusted it with a duster, but said nothing until she had returned to her table again: when, holding the iron at an alarmingly short distance from her cheek, to test its temperature, and looking round with a smile, she observed:

‘I know what some people would say, Kit—’

‘Nonsense,’ interposed Kit with a perfect apprehension of what was to follow.

‘No, but they would indeed. Some people would say that you’d fallen in love with her, I know they would.’

To this, Kit only replied by bashfully bidding his mother ‘get out,’ and forming sundry strange figures with his legs and arms, accompanied by sympathetic contortions of his face. Not deriving from these means the relief which he sought, he bit off an immense mouthful from the bread and meat, and took a quick drink of the porter; by which artificial aids he choked himself and effected a diversion of the subject.

‘Speaking seriously though, Kit,’ said his mother, taking up the theme afresh, after a time, ‘for of course I was only in joke just now, it’s very good and thoughtful, and like you, to do this, and never let anybody know it, though some day I hope she may come to know it, for I’m sure she would be very grateful to you and feel it very much. It’s a cruel thing to keep the dear child shut up there. I don’t wonder that the old gentleman wants to keep it from you.’

‘He don’t think it’s cruel, bless you,’ said Kit, ‘and don’t mean it to be so, or he wouldn’t do it—I do consider, mother, that he wouldn’t do it for all the gold and silver in the world. No, no, that he wouldn’t. I know him better than that.’

‘Then what does he do it for, and why does he keep it so close from you?’ said Mrs Nubbles.

‘That I don’t know,’ returned her son. ‘If he hadn’t tried to keep it so close though, I should never have found it out, for it was his getting me away at night and sending me off so much earlier than he used to, that first made me curious to know what was going on. Hark! what’s that?’

‘It’s only somebody outside.’

‘It’s somebody crossing over here,’ said Kit, standing up to listen, ‘and coming very fast too. He can’t have gone out after I left, and the house caught fire, mother!’

The boy stood, for a moment, really bereft, by the apprehension he had conjured up, of the power to move. The footsteps drew nearer, the door was opened with a hasty hand, and the child herself, pale and breathless, and hastily wrapped in a few disordered garments, hurried into the room.

‘Miss Nelly! What is the matter!’ cried mother and son together.

‘I must not stay a moment,’ she returned, ‘grandfather has been taken very ill. I found him in a fit upon the floor—’

‘I’ll run for a doctor’—said Kit, seizing his brimless hat. ‘I’ll be there directly, I’ll—’

‘No, no,’ cried Nell, ‘there is one there, you’re not wanted, you—you—must never come near us any more!’

‘What!’ roared Kit.

‘Never again,’ said the child. ‘Don’t ask me why, for I don’t know. Pray don’t ask me why, pray don’t be sorry, pray don’t be vexed with me! I have nothing to do with it indeed!’

Kit looked at her with his eyes stretched wide; and opened and shut his mouth a great many times; but couldn’t get out one word.

‘He complains and raves of you,’ said the child, ‘I don’t know what you have done, but I hope it’s nothing very bad.’

‘I done!’ roared Kit.

‘He cried that you’re the cause of all his misery,’ returned the child with tearful eyes; ‘he screamed and called for you; they say you must not come near him or he will die. You must not return to us any more. I came to tell you. I thought it would be better that I should come than somebody quite strange. Oh, Kit, what have you done? You, in whom I trusted so much, and who were almost the only friend I had!’

The unfortunate Kit looked at his young mistress harder and harder, and with eyes growing wider and wider, but was perfectly motionless and silent.

‘I have brought his money for the week,’ said the child, looking to the woman and laying it on the table—‘and—and—a little more, for he was always good and kind to me. I hope he will be sorry and do well somewhere else and not take this to heart too much. It grieves me very much to part with him like this, but there is no help. It must be done. Good night!’

With the tears streaming down her face, and her slight figure trembling with the agitation of the scene she had left, the shock she had received, the errand she had just discharged, and a thousand painful and affectionate feelings, the child hastened to the door, and disappeared as rapidly as she had come.

The poor woman, who had no cause to doubt her son, but every reason for relying on his honesty and truth, was staggered, notwithstanding, by his not having advanced one word in his defence. Visions of gallantry, knavery, robbery; and of the nightly absences from home for which he had accounted so strangely, having been occasioned by some unlawful pursuit; flocked into her brain and rendered her afraid to question him. She rocked herself upon a chair, wringing her hands and weeping bitterly, but Kit made no attempt to comfort her and remained quite bewildered. The baby in the cradle woke up and cried; the boy in the clothes-basket fell over on his back with the basket upon him, and was seen no more; the mother wept louder yet and rocked faster; but Kit, insensible to all the din and tumult, remained in a state of utter stupefaction.